“We just want to visit – go around, look at all sorts of historical sites, meet friends, have a grand old time, that sort of thing!” I reply. I’m putting on my best performance of nonchalance.
“Hmmmm…do you have friends in Syria, by any chance?” he asks. The drift is quite obvious.
“We’re not going to Syria at all. I mean we’d love to, but we don’t think it’s going to be feasible for us any time soon. Look, I’m opposed to all that extremist stuff, if that’s what you’re asking about…”
I’m starting to get a bit annoyed. And quite indignant. “Yaar it’s such a museebat travelling on a Pakistani passport!” I think to myself – not aloud, of course.
“So what do you hope to see in Lebanon, then?” he asks.
“Crusader castles! They have so many!” I blurt out excitedly, as if that would resolve everything here.
“Crusaders. Hmmm. Infidels, perhaps? We must drive them from the lands of Islam, eh?” he smiles.
Now this is really stupid, I’m thinking. And insulting! “Listen, that’s not my view of the current situation in Muslim countries. I’m into Crusader castles because I’m that kind of geek, see? I’m fascinated by various eras in history, and the Crusades are just one of those. I just want to check out how they built fortifications. I’m very interested in how they divided the land into fiefdoms, and how it all fitted into the chaotic patchwork of the 12th century eastern Mediterranean…” I begin to explain.
“If you don’t mind me asking, do you have a life?” the official sneers.
Now this is truly deplorable behaviour, I’m thinking. And it’s a blatant misuse of his power. I did nothing to deserve this. But I have to keep my calm if I planned to fly out that night – or any time soon. Or ever.
“Look, just last month I read a few books on this stuff. And I played Crusader Kings II for a bit. In fact, you know, you should try it some time. The expansion packs and DLCs that they release for that game are insane.” I’m trying desperately to keep it friendly.
“So you don’t have that much of a life! You do know that fits the profile of precisely the sort of young male who gets radicalised very fast?” he says.
“I’m not getting radicalised any time soon. I have a whole critique of violent readings of faith and religious scriptures. Also, I’ve read studies and stuff on how people join violent fundamentalist movements, and I’m not your guy, for Heaven’s sake, man…”
“Why else would they leave everything behind and move on?” asks one. “It was obviously an azaab!”
“I think we should do a final check of all our travel documents, tickets, dollars, that sort of thing! We’re running out of time, you know…”
I look up and see the woman who chose to take up a case such as me. She has practical logistical considerations on her mind.
I am forced to interrupt my argument with the airport security official. He and his imbecilic questions can wait.
After all, he is purely a figment of my imagination, conjured up by (what I would argue is justifiable) paranoia while travelling as a Pakistani male in his 20s – “military age”, as a European conservative once told me.
I muster all the responsibility that I’m capable of in that moment, and join my life’s travel-mate in making sure all our things are in order.
I can’t wait for this stuff to be over with, so I can go back to my idea of practical last-minute preparations for flying out to Beirut: making a list of Crusader castles in Lebanon using a cell-phone and 4G.
Then we board our plane, without anyone asking any questions of any kind at airports – in Lahore or in Beirut.
This time, it was just a figment of my imagination…
I’m sitting in my hotel room. It is late evening. The National Museum of Beirut had left me quite speechless. For two or three hours, I can say nothing. I came thinking I’d check out Crusader castles, and instead I went on a journey that starts somewhere in the Bronze Age – and it seems pretty much everyone of any consequence wanted in on this strip of coast. How could they not?
If I had an empire, I’d base it here. And that shawarma for which I keep making excuses to pass by Barbar restaurant in Hamra (which my friend tells me is 4 am post-clubbing food), I’d build monuments to honour the people who make that chicken how glorious it is.
“Wouldn’t it be so cool to go and dig up the remains of Harappa and find out more about how these people lived?” I asked excitedly after a school history class.
The general opinion seemed opposed to it. Despite what the teacher taught us about the Indus Valley Civilisation, the kids I was talking to in break were not impressed. They’d been taught all they needed to about Harappa’s ruins at home.
“These people did gunaah (sins). That’s why God buried them in the dust. You shouldn’t go there!” one says, contentedly.
“But surely that’s not why the people of Harrapa left that place behind and moved on? How do you know God punished them?” I’m not getting it, clearly.
“Why else would they leave everything behind and move on?” asks one. “It was obviously an azaab!”
The score so far:
Archaeology 0 – 2 Azaab
My partner is a far more efficient museum visitor. She looks at an exhibit, takes it in, reads what there is to be read and moves on. I’m utterly lost.
This happens to me in any good museum, but here I’m impossible. I just want to stand for as long as I can in front of any artifact of any consequence – like if I concentrate hard enough, my daydream will turn into a real time machine or something. Then I could finally talk to these people, ask how legitimate they thought their rulers were, get their recipes for meat, find out more about brewing stuff and aging it…
I was particularly difficult when I came to a stela showing Pharaoh Ramses II taking death and destruction to Egypt’s enemies. I simply couldn’t move.
The god Ra-Hor-akhty stands watching the slaughter, a sun disk over his head, holding out a brutal blade, watching approvingly. The Pharaoh had taken on the Hittites at the Battle of Qadesh. In actual life, he may not have delivered as crippling a blow to his enemies in the Levant and beyond as he would have liked to claim. But in Egypt, he was supreme, and he could play up his exploits, real or imagined, to any degree that he desired. And that, I suppose, gave him immense power after his campaign in the Levant. I’m thinking they’d make #ThankYouRamses trend, in hieroglyphs, on 1270 BC Twitter – which was probably temple walls.
I’m transfixed. I stand in front of the stela for what may well have been a good half hour to 45 minutes. If you think that’s no big deal, try counting off 30-35 minutes on a wall-clock – I’m standing in one spot and looking at something: that’s what my partner was dealing with. There is nothing stopping me from touching it, except museum rules and sheer awe. So I just stand there, hands well clear of it, in the presence of the Pharaoh and his divine patron. I would have stood there an entire day, I suspect, had I not been physically forced to move on.
If you can visit just one museum in your life, (and that would be a sad life, you have my sympathy) let it be this one
But that stela was not all. It would be difficult and tedious if I were to gush about every single display. All I would say is, if you can visit just one museum in your life, (and that would be a sad life, you have my sympathy) let it be this one.
There is a marble sarcophagus from the 2nd century AD – exquisitely carved, of course, to decorate a Roman tomb – and it shows some of the most iconic scenes from the Trojan War. There is Achilles dragging the body of Hector along on his chariot, in a highly unsportsmanlike display. There is the Trojan king, Priam, Hector’s father: begging Achilles for the body of his son, kissing the terrible hands that killed him. Achilles is looking away, cruel reluctance is quite accurately carved into that marble there. “Maybe yes, maybe no – I’ll think about it. Will you please stop all that weeping, old man? You’re embarrassing yourself!” I think the Iliad did a far more eloquent job of expressing a bereaved old father’s distress than myself:
But Priam made entreaty, and spake to him, saying: “Remember thy father, O Achilles like to the gods, whose years are even as mine, on the grievous threshold of old age […] But I—I am utterly unblest, seeing I begat sons the best in the broad land of Troy, yet of them I avow that not one is left. Fifty I had […], and he that alone was left me, that by himself guarded the city and the men, him thou slewest but now as he fought for his country, even Hector. For his sake am I now come to the ships of the Achaeans to win him back from thee, and I bear with me ransom past counting. Nay, have thou awe of the gods, Achilles, and take pity on me, remembering thine own father. Lo, I am more piteous far than he, and have endured what no other mortal on the face of earth hath yet endured, to reach forth my hand to the face of him that hath slain my sons.”
If the only Homer in your life is Homer Simpson, and you also care about Hector’s body and Priam’s grief, well – Achilles did eventually take pity on the old king of Troy.
Needless to say, a person who starts Googling the text of the Iliad, Book 24, on his cellular phone, in a museum, has to be driven on like an errant goat, lest he spend the rest of his day there.
And then I came to those iconic figurines from ancient Byblos. And time stopped. One of them looks like he is waving up from the display, right at you, the viewer. That one is my friend. I am walking around in Phoenicia, ever since I landed here. These people ruled the Mediterranean three thousand years ago. They even introduced varieties of vines for wines (pardon my churlish use of language!) to Spain and France.
A member of the museum staff just wants to go home. “You have an hour left!” We’d spent all day here.
There is the whole newly-opened basement to explore. My partner gives me a “Hurrah for your time management skills!” glare.
I can’t even begin to imagine what marvels await me downstairs…
“Why would you want to go to Jordan?” asks an aunty jee.
It is a family gathering, a few weeks after we’re back from Lebanon. There are so many reasons, but I start with an obvious one:
“To check out the ruins at Petra, south Jordan!” I offer.
“Oh NO! Don’t go there. You know, those were evil people and God sent an azaab to chastise them. You shouldn’t go there!” says one aunty jee.
“I definitely wouldn’t!” declares another, with a mighty mix of piety and contentment.
Archaeology should give up the match against Azaab Theory in Pakistan, I think to myself. I remember the moment in the Beirut hotel where I was thinking “Here I am, a traveler from the lands of India and Central Asia, visiting Phoenicia, listening to an ancient Mesopotamian song on Youtube, reading about the Mediterranean trade routes of 1300 BC.”
My ability to speak had utterly disappeared after just one trip to the National Museum in Beirut. It doesn’t feel like any sort of Azaab to me.
Ziyad Faisal may be reached at email@example.com