Tales from the Bunker

Christopher Hitchens

The Beirut Golf Club possesses many advantages for the overseas visitor seeking a vigorous nine, or even 18, holes. For one thing, its greens and fairways provide the only remaining enclosed parkland in a city where urban blight is an increasing problem. For another, its caddies are young and competitive and hire themselves out on a basis of keen but friendly rivalry. My own selection of Hassan, a lad of no more than twelve summers, proved especially fortunate. After judicious study of my game, he proffered advice on my swing which helped correct a lifelong tendency to slice. He also demonstrated resource and sagacity in dealing with the feral dogs which haunt the bunkers and, snarling and scrapping, constitute an unscheduled hazard on the longer drives and closer putts.

The modest green fee permits the foreign member access to the cool and well-appointed clubhouse. Here the emphasis is on sporting humour, with a lively series of captioned prints illustrating the rules and vicissitudes of the pastime; their combination of Scots authorship and French provenance – sponsorship of the series is by Perrier – affording an agreeable reminiscence, even at this Levantine remove, of ‘the Auld Alliance’. A handsome display of cups and trophies completes the picture. Copies of Al Sahraa, an excellently-produced magazine ‘exclusive for horse and camel events’, are kindly provided for the perusal of the weary and thirsty sportsman who has reached ‘the 19th hole’.

No course, however well-watered and tended, is without its unsightly divots. And I regret to say that this Edenic oasis is no exception. (An incautious nine-iron shot, for instance, may loft one’s ball into the abutting refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila; a mishap which the well-liked professional, Mr ‘Sami’ Ibrahim, counts as an extra stroke.) Other unwelcome reminders are not wanting. The honours boards tell their own distressing story. Recording as they do the outcome of past medal tournaments and friendly matches, they all too often carry the telltale words ‘not played’. The Ladies Captains Trophy, to select only one example, would seem to have been scratched every year between 1984 and 1990.

Another distraction, or so I found, was the odd tendency to read ‘Gulf’ every time I saw the word ‘Golf’. (I urge you not to surrender to this weakness, as George Bush is said to have done.) Reminders of the outcome of that unpleasantness are everywhere, most noticeably in the omnipresence of the Syrians who seized the chance occasioned by their participation in the all-annealing Desert Storm to legitimise then annexation of Lebanon. While it can be a relief to see the sturdy Damascene soldiery about their tasks at so many roadblocks and intersections, providing as they do a rugged answer to the pressing law-and-order shortage, there are undoubted qualifications to be added to this simple picture. I think of the beautiful Bekaa valley, now under uncontested Syrian stewardship, with the Party of God stalwarts at one end in the Baalbek ruins, and at the other the new votive statue of the Virgin Mary, beaming down at the happy peasants as they reap a bumper harvest of hashish.

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