The wretched of the earth high above turquoise blue seas; take a face mask with you before you clamber up the Jabal al-Zbeleh – the 'Mountain of Rubbish' – and just imagine the beauty of the beach that still exists six storeys of muck below you. These days, you might need the face mask when you observe Lebanon's politics, but the moment you see the middle-aged Palestinians of this place, filthy and gaunt, their shirts and trousers pasted with the detritus of Lebanon, you can only feel compassion. They work high atop this vile garbage heap, to ferret out old plastic and leather and metal and still-ripe tomatoes amid flies and rats and wild dogs and rotten food and used hospital syringes and torn-open sacks of household rubbish and methane gas.
To the south stretch some of Lebanon's finest beaches, white into the heat haze approaching the Israeli frontier. To the north are the public beaches of Sidon and Beirut, littered with plastic bags and tin cans and those dreadful syringes each time the southern wind blows and another part of the 'Mountain of Rubbish' slides into the Mediterranean to stain the beauty of Lebanon with its ordure. Way below the mountain, you can still see the costly stone water barriers which the good burgers of Sidon once placed above their beaches, the great white sands which are – were once – the pride of a city in which Christ supposedly walked. From the crown of this hill of offal and dirt, you can glimpse the Crusader Castle of the Sea, the Great Mosque of Sidon, the roof of the ancient Khan. There are Sidonese – if that's the right word for them – who say that at this rate, all these antiquities will be overwhelmed with the same garbage in three or four decades' time.
Well, anything is possible in Lebanon. Abdul Rahman al-Bizri, who was the city's mayor and a supporter of Hizballah, once blamed the pro-Western government of Saad Hariri – now itself in opposition – for punishing the people by allowing this almost 30-year-old mountain of filth to grow. In fact, Hariri's assassinated father, billionaire Rafiq Hariri, came from Sidon; so did Saad's last prime minister, Fouad Siniora; and Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal long ago offered $5 million to build a waste disposal plant in a nearby quarry. Local people objected. So the mountain went on growing. Deep within its base is the rubble of buildings destroyed by the Israelis when their forces swept through the city at the start of their 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Even the fishermen have been infuriated by this monstrous excrescence whose garbage sometimes drifts as far as Cyprus, Syria and Turkey. Haj Mohamed Bauji, 69-year-old vice president of the local fishermen's union, sipped his coffee opposite the old port, the Crusader castle shimmering in the heat haze, and counted his losses. "The rubbish doesn't just float – it moves through the sea at depth and we all get our nets caught on metal, and plastic bags rap themselves round our propellers and ruin the gear shafts," he says. "New nets cost $400 each and I can't afford a new engine or propeller when they get entangled four or five times a year. So I buy spare parts at $100 a time. We have good crabs here, and prawns, but we want to fish in clean seas."
Clean is a word you can never apply to the top of the mountain. There I meet Samir, his face lined beyond his 50 years, scavenging for metal since 1989, lying in the shade of a grubby cloth tent close to dozens of stinking cow hides. "As long as it stays here, I will work here," he says suspiciously – for Palestinians in this kind of work live in ambiguous employment, as potentially illegal as, I suppose, any job in the Third Circle of Hell. "I came from a family of peasant farmers in Safad in northern Palestine," Samir says. He was born in Lebanon. "Then my family were forced by the Israelis to leave in 1948. What a path, from Palestine to this place. What a catastrophe!"
Abu Ali is raking through piles of rotten tomatoes, 69 years old with rheumatism, digestive problems, blind in his right eye, working on the dump for almost half his life. "Journalists came here over the past 35 years – but they never made any difference," he says, and looks at me with the face of a man of 90. "I look for Pepsi tins, cans, and people come each day to buy them from me for $6 for the day."
Behind me, a dust storm precedes a municipal truck; the Sidon authorities have another load of garbage for their mountain. I have a suspicion where some of this comes from. So I drive to the first public beach north of the city where a 'green' community has provided family sands next to waters in which the ghost of the mountain moves slowly towards the shore. There are black plastic bags and boxes floating gently past child bathers. Parents watch from beneath parasols. And one of the men on the beach – Rabiah Hneihne, who is 33 – turns out to be a policeman, bronzing beside a
shoe-maker, a baker, a retired civil servant, all, as they put it, "children of the city of Sidon".
"I come here every afternoon," the cop tells me as we walk towards the Mediterranean waves. "This is a scandal, of course. Everyone knows it's a scandal. We go into the water and find bottles, rotting meat, soiled babies' nappies. But we try to keep it clean." And he picks from the water a sharp-edged empty tin of baking powder and places it reverently into a trash bin. And who, I ask, empties the trash bin? Why, the municipality, of course. And what does the municipality do with it, I ask. The cop smiles. All the men laugh. So do two families sitting next to us.
"They take it and dump it on top of the Mountain of Rubbish," the policeman replies. I get it. They build up the garbage until it collapses into the Mediterranean and then they wait till it comes to the beach – unless Samir or Abu Ali have taken it – and then they take it back to the mountain. I am mesmerised. The midday heat embraces Sidon, where once Phoenician and Roman galleys rowed home to haven in sunny Palestine, where knights of France awaited Salahadin.
And the garbage heap? Well I know what I'd do with it. Hire a brass band, stick it on top of the Mountain of Rubbish and order it to play the Lebanese national anthem. Its title? "Everyone for the Nation", of course.