Where are your goats?
‘The important thing is to have some peace and quiet,’ said my husband as we and another couple – a Lebanese wife and her American husband – set off hiking in one of the most remote regions in Lebanon. All of us desperately needed to get away from noisy Beirut. Our plan was to explore hills of the Jird – ‘empty land’ – that lead to the fertile Bekaa valley, find a camping site and just enjoy the breathtaking view around us. Most importantly, we wanted to hear the beautiful sound of silence. This, we thought, would be the perfect escape.
A few hours into our hike and it was all that we had imagined. In the evening, we set up camp among the hills. After many tries we got a small, cheerful campfire going.
‘Ah, peace,’ said my husband smiling. ‘This is just what we needed.’
We all sighed contentedly. The nearest human being was hours away.
Suddenly, we heard the unmistakable sound of ringing bells. Before we knew it, dozens of goats surrounded us. We had barely got over our surprise when a shepherd materialized.
We stared at each other for a few seconds.
‘Where are your goats?’ he asked.
‘We don’t have any,’ I answered.
‘Then why are you here?’ he asked.
‘We’re hiking and camping here for the night,’ I replied.
‘You mean you just come here to walk and sleep?’ he said. ‘What for?’
I began to explain our need to be in nature when I stopped short. This shepherd had probably lived his entire life roaming the mountains. Beirut was a far-off place, and the concept of city people hiking was completely alien to him.
Still he stayed looking on at us with amusement. After a few minutes of awkward silence he finally moved away.
We sighed with relief. The shepherd was probably just passing through on his way to the other side of the mountain. We turned our attention to figuring out how to barbecue chicken over an open fire. And then the smell of goat excrement reached us. We looked up to see that our shepherd had chosen to set up camp right opposite ours. In less than a minute, he had a campfire going and sat near it staring at us. Shooing away some goats, we decided to make the best of it.
‘It’s only one shepherd,’ said my ever positive husband.
Suddenly, another batch of ringing sounds reached us and we found ourselves surrounded by another herd of goats. Its shepherd immediately came forward.
‘Where are your goats?’ he asked. He was young and had a machine gun slung over his shoulder. Trying our best to ignore the gun, we denied having goats.
‘If you have no goats, than why are you here?’ he asked.
As I began to translate for my British husband, the shepherd looked surprised.
‘Why did you change your language?’ he asked.
‘It’s English. He’s from England,’ I replied politely as I kept a wary eye on the weapon.
Our shepherd looked confused. He had never heard of England. ‘But how do you come out with that language? Is he your man?’ We passed him a huge plateful of meat and chicken – hoping he’d take it as a sign of friendship. He didn’t eat but looked pleased at the offering.
‘What is that?’ he asked pointing to our small green tent. ‘How do you fit in there?’
He didn’t look convinced at our explanation and eyed us doubtfully.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘You’d better be careful. There are thieves about.’
Thieves? In the middle of nowhere?
‘If you’re not careful, they will steal your goats,’ said the shepherd, jumping up and running after his herd. Moments later, he set up camp across from ours. Soon, another shepherd showed up.
‘Where are your goats?’ he asked us before setting up camp next-door.
We decided to retire for the night and squeezed into our tiny tents.
By the sound of things outside, the area had turned into a regular highway. More shepherds appeared, bells didn’t stop ringing, and goats constantly nuzzled up to our tent. Every few minutes the shepherds yelled to each other and some began to sing traditional Bedouin songs. Suddenly, shots rang out. We sat up.
‘They’re firing up in the air,’ my husband said soothingly. ‘It’s to signal to each other.’
The next morning nothing remained of the shepherds or their goats. If it weren’t for the blackened ground of the campfires, we could have sworn that we had imagined the whole thing.
Further hiking plans were cancelled as we sleepily made our way back to our car.
We yearned for the peace of Beirut.