MAASER AL-CHOUF, Lebanon: As civil strife and political crisis threaten to upend the country, 300 of Lebanon’s most elite soldiers carried out a uniquely peaceful mission early Sunday morning: lead several hundred intrepid hikers on a challenging four-hour, 15-kilometer hike through the pristine Chouf Cedar Reserve. The meshwar ma al-mughwar, or “a walk with the commandos,” was a special event organized this year for the first time as part of the Jabalna (Our mountain) Festival, an annual celebration put on by the reserve’s administration and the small mountain village of Maaser al-Chouf.
Despite waking up at 4 a.m., Tripoli native Ahmad Derbas was eager to start as the sun rose over the Chouf mountains several hours later.
“It’s worth it, especially because the event is with the commandos and the Army and we want to support them, especially because we rely on them during these difficult times,” Derbas said.
Moreover, he said, such excursions offer an opportunity for the public to get out into nature, which helps raise awareness about the importance of preserving the environment.
“When you go out with a big organized group like this, you start to pay more attention,” he said.
“I used to be one of those people who threw my trash on the ground, but now, if I think one of my friends is about to throw something, I get mad, I can’t stand this ... it’s nice to change and start taking responsibility.”
The free shuttle buses provided by the festival departed Beirut at 6 a.m. and dropped hikers near the start of the trail, were they passed through a mobile security checkpoint incongruously set against the stunning backdrop of dark, forested mountain and the golden valley. It was an unwelcome reminder of the situation that has set everyone’s nerves on edge.
Once we set off, however, the checkpoint and its implications seemed to dissolve into distant memory.
The physical exertion of the hike dispelled the morning chill as we made our way up rocky inclines to breathtaking views, passing through sun-dappled forest redolent with the scent of cedars, pine, wild thyme and rich earth.
Red-bereted commandos were stationed along the trail to lend a hand and offer encouragement. A few were even called on to physically help stragglers.
“Come on girls, we’re not even halfway there!” one solder cajoled a group of teenagers leaning on a rock.
Nearby, Marwan Saliha, 62, was barely sweating. “I walk for an hour and a half every day,” boasted Saliha, who came from the upper Metn to participate in the hike. “This is the first time I walk through the reserve. I’ve visited, but never hiked it.”
“It’s great,” he added. “I wish they would do this every week. We have very pretty areas in Lebanon that people don’t know about.”
Halfway through, word spread that President Michel Sleiman would be joining the hike for an hour, but most of the hikers only caught a glimpse of his helicopter and the snipers discreetly positioned along the ridges overlooking the trail.
Several hours later, we all but tumbled down the final descent and into the town square of Maaser al-Chouf.
Luckily, the main street was lined with vendors selling lemonade, saj, kibbeh, rice with chicken, lamb and maqloubeh, sweets, fatoush, sandwiches and shwarma to famished hikers.
Tables were stacked with jars of homemade preserves, cheeses, labneh, local honey, spice mixes and just about anything that could be pickled and stuffed. A patient mare was giving rides to children with painted faces. A Dabke troupe, resplendent in gold embroidery, stomped and twirled to the crowd’s delight.
The Jabalna Festival is organized by a committee of local residents and the Barouk Cedar Reserve and usually features a theme related to the ecosystem or a traditional product of the region. Last year’s theme was honey and beekeeping, while this year the festival featured a special exhibition and lectures about medicinal herbs native to the area.
Nizar al-Shami, from the Chouf town of Baaqlin, was on site to promote his non-governmental organization Green Orient, which works toward environmental awareness, development and preservation. He explained the importance of herbs to the heritage of the region.
“Here in the mountain region, you’ll see every household growing thyme, sage, oregano – our grandparents knew more about these plants than people do today,” he said.
“I learned from my father and he learned from his grandfather, for example, that this plant is good for wounds and this one for stomach aches, this one increases energy and that one memory. With this exhibition today, we are trying to increase interest in these things, to teach people about it.”
As the day wound down, Najat and Farrah, experienced hikers from Tripoli, said they were impressed with the festival and happy to forget for a while about the problems plaguing their hometown.
“It was a really nice atmosphere with people from all over,” she said. “I liked that everything at the festival was from the village.”
Farrah, who survived last month’s bombing of Tripoli’s Taqwa Mosque, said she found the lectures about native herbs particularly interesting.
“I’m still very bothered by what happened” the other week, she said. “This is why I came today.”