The woman in the above photo is Elxa Yaghlgy. Very nice girl. She was “assigned” to accompany us to the Roman ruins in Baalbek by the Lebanese Ministry for Tourism. Not because she is an expert on the Roman ruins or on the Bekaa Valley (she has never been here before) but because….
Actually, I have no idea why the Ministry of Tourism wanted her to come along. Perhaps to keep an eye on us? (Her job title, according to her business card, is “Advisory Unit.”) So, yes, she knows nothing about the Roman ruins or the Bekaa Valley but at lunch she was the first to ask our waiter to bring out the hookah pipe and she laughs at everything I say, so I like her. Even if she is a government spy. Which I do not think she is. Because she’s just too darn sweet and innocent.
Before we get to the Roman ruins, Elxa has a chat with our driver.
Elxa: “Isn’t there some famous rock around here?”
Driver: “A rock?”
Elxa: “Some stone…an old stone.”
Driver: “Hajar al-Hubla?”
I ask Elxa about this Hajar al-Hubla. It means Stone of the Pregnant Woman, she says. Women from all over Lebanon come here and rub the stone because they think it will help them get pregnant.
“No reason,” she says. “It is just a story.”
Our driver stops and asks an old woman sitting on a chair by the side of the road about the Stone of the Pregnant Woman and soon we are meandering up a windy dirt road to what used to be a Roman quarry. Here is a little hut with a sign that says “La Plus Grande Pierre Dans Le Monde”—The Largest Stone in the World.
The minute we get out of the car we are greeted by a very friendly and charming man with a salt-and-pepper mustache. His name is Abdul Nabi al-Afi. Abdul, a 53-year-old retired army sergeant, tells Elxa that he is the one who, back in 1993, discovered the 20-meter-long, 45-meter-wide, and 1,000 ton monolith which the Romans had destined to be the podium of the Jupiter Temple at the Baalbek Temple, just a few kilometers away. But the Temple was never completed and the monolith remained in the quarry, buried under mounds of trash until excavated by Abdul. Now Abdul makes a modest living selling souvenirs out the of the adjacent tourist shop.
What sort of souvenirs? I ask him.
He runs inside and comes back out carrying an Arab robe, a black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh (the traditional Arab headdress), and a long sword. He thrusts the clothing into our arms.
“He wants us to put it on,” Elxa tells me. “And then he will take our picture.”
I put on the robe. Abdul wraps the scarf around Elxa’s head. Holding the sword, I put an arm around Elxa and look fierce. Like I’m ready to cut somebody’s head off. Abdul says something in approval. Elxa laughs. “He thinks I am your wife,” she tells me.
Abdul grabs my camera and, after I show him how to operate it, steps back and, making sure to get the Stone of the Pregnant Woman in the background, takes our picture. He gives me back the camera and then, excitedly, chatters at Elxa while nodding towards the big stone.
“He wants to take me down to the Pregnant Stone,” she says. “So I can rub it. For good luck with our marriage.”
I smile at her. “Are you going to go?”
She shrugs. “Why not?” she says, my new wife, from the Advisory Unit of the Ministry of Tourism, happily heading off with Abdul.