It’s 4.30 in the morning as our car clatters into a square in downtown Beirut. My friend Raphael is driving. Five minutes earlier we stopped to pick up three older men. Dressed in camo gear, they are squashed across the back seat, like three Michelin men going to war.
The pre-dawn calm is a pleasant change. I’ve never seen Beirut like this before. In a few hours the tar-sealed arteries will clog to a standstill, but for now we have the place to ourselves … almost.
Two blocks ahead, a late-model sedan with the telltale roof lights glides across an intersection. Our passengers speak in hushed tones.
“What’s the problem?” I ask Raphael as casually as I can.
He shrugs. “A carload of men out this time of night … the police don’t like that.”
“Especially not with a boot full of shotguns,” says the younger of the back three.
The police don’t return, but the car we are waiting for does. The driver signals for us to follow up the hill and out of town. We have to be in the Bekaa Valley before sunrise.
A lot of blood has been shed in the Bekaa Valley over the years. It’s home to the Hizbollah and tribal gangs of Lebanese drug dealers, so the army maintains a presence there, but it’s only for show.
Armies have been coming to the Bekaa for centuries. The Romans built Baalbek there. One of the wonders of the Ancient World. This morning I’m heading to the valley to shed some more blood.
Near the top of the mountain range that separates Beirut from the Bekaa, the traffic slows to a crawl. In the distance we make out the lights of an army checkpoint. It is at this moment Raphael shares a piece of information that probably would have put me off the trip altogether. Shooting is illegal.
There’s little time to absorb this fact before we are waved to stop by a soldier. The atmosphere in the car becomes tense … or is it just me? The older man in the back seat winds down his window and does the talking in Arabic. In the front Raphael gives me a whispered translation.
“Where are you going?”
“You are going to shoot?”
The soldier eyes us up one at a time with that patented checkpoint look, then points up the road. “You’d better hurry. Cars have been coming through for hours.”
The road snakes down off the mountain into the valley. At the first village, we hit what seems like another traffic jam, but this is just parking, Lebanese-style. Sunrise is still a way off and the village is asleep, except for two shops. Handily located next door to each other, they are selling men’s essentials: food and ammo.
I help Raphael load slabs of shotgun shells into the boot of the car and the others return with stacks of manoush. Think thick, warm pita bread stuffed with cheese … an ideal pre-hunt snack.
In November, the Bekaa’s fields have been freshly ploughed. The wide-open spaces are perfect for shooting and created just in time to greet the matwak (ringed ouzel). Slightly bigger than a sparrow, the migrating matwak come out of Syria, and Lebanese men greet them the same way they have greeted the Syrian Army in the past – with guns.
This morning, the fields are obscured by thick fog as Raphael takes us from a badly tar-sealed road to a dirt road, then to dirt.
Men and manoush wrappers tumble out of the cars. As the first rays of sunlight illuminate the fog swirling around us, Raphael thrusts a double-barrel shotgun into my hands. The other men arm up and drift away. By the time Raphael has stuffed my pockets with shells, we are alone.
A patch of blue sky appears overhead and a flock of matwak darts into it. Raphael hoists his gun to his shoulder and adds two pops to the growing double-barrel symphony around us. “Go over there,” Raphael says, pointing to a patch of dirt 50m away, before moving off to collect his kill. School’s out. I’m on my own.
As the fog lifts, I can make out men dotting the field like soldier-themed scarecrows. I can’t tell which of them travelled with us. Not because all Lebanese men look the same, but because all men in camo jackets with shotguns look the same.
All morning, the valley rings to the sound of shotguns and I become a little more comfortable with the idea of being surrounded by heavily armed men. Then I get a first-hand look at one of the reasons the Government has tried to ban the sport.
The matwak’s flight path is erratic. Inspired by the drivers in Beirut perhaps. A more likely explanation for their swerving and diving is in response to the shotgun rain being directed at them. But occasionally they get their own back, and a hunter gets a taste of his own lead-pellet medicine as an itchy trigger finger follows a flock of evading matwak too close to the ground. The horizontal shotgun blast sounds like one directed skyward, but is followed with howls of anger from a man 100m away. The friendly fire incident ends with a stream of Arabic expletives and steely glares. For at least two other hunters in the valley that morning, it ended in death.
As the sun rises, the matwak make a strategic withdrawal from the valley. This has more to do with the increase in temperature than smart thinking on their part. A pungent aroma of cordite and ploughed mud fills the car as we leave the killing fields. Tales of the morning’s exploits are recounted. Shot of the day is unanimously awarded to Raphael for a stunning two birds with one shot … automatic entry into the Nassoura family shooting hall of fame.
It is not only the matwak feeling the heat now. Raphael stops outside another small concrete shell and I accompany one of the backseat boys inside. We grab half a dozen bottles of cola before I spy a row of tall cans on a lower shelf. My ability to identify the word “beer” in 12 languages is a skill that has stood me in good stead. The elephant logo on these golden beauties promises a little extra kick. I add some to our supplies on the counter, provoking a laugh from my hunting buddy. He shakes his head as he assembles some English.
“Beer? For breakfast? You, my friend, are crazy.”
No one in the car seemed to share my enthusiasm for the Elephant beer, so I drank them all.
Soon after that I fell asleep. A 4.00am start and 8%-strength beer on a hot day will do that to you. As I drifted off, I thought about the man’s comment. Mad, was I? Well, from what I had seen that morning, I was in good company.