By Marthe Downing Curry
In this section of the Journal of Maronite Studies (JMS), we bring you travel accounts of past or current travelers who have written about Lebanon and the Maronites. These accounts represent the views of their author(s).
Lebanon! The sacred land of Hiram's magnificent cedars, the wood from which Solomon's legendary temple was built! At last we were on our way after a three-year delay.
Our story, really my husband Peter's story, began more than a half-century ago when his father, Leon Khoury, left Saghbine in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon. He set out to join his sister in Venezuela where his wife Virginia Haddad Khoury and their small son, Anthony, would later join him. Eventually, the little trio migrated to Mexico and then to the United States --Texas, to be exact. It was there that Peter and his siblings were born.
Growing up as part of the Lebanese community in San Antonio, Texas, the children were of the Maronite tradition, and Peter attended the weekend language school where he learned to read and write Arabic. Papa Leon, a correspondent for the New York Lebanese journal "Al Hoda", encouraged the lessons. Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, and English were spoken at home preparing Peter and his brothers and sisters for the traveling that came to be part of their adult lives.
By the time I joined the family, Virginia and Leon Khoury (whose name had been anglicized to Curry) had died, but their nostalgic tales were being repeated to the fourth generation. We heard of the beautiful village in the mountains where apples were the size of cantaloupes and grapes were sweeter than any place on earth. The Jewel of the Middle East was painted with architectural wonders, treasures rivaling any on the European continent, and people of high intellect and learning. No wonder Peter's desire to seek out his roots grew with each passing year.
When our priest friend, Marwan Tabet, casually mentioned that he'd be making a trip to Beirut - Were we interested in going? - It took no persuasion on our part. Peter, a State judge in San Antonio, checked his court schedule, and we began making plans. As the reality of departure became imminent, I contacted the State Department for travel clearance.
"Mrs. Curry," I was told, "should you have any difficulty while you are in Lebanon, we cannot help you out."
"Well, is there a travel ban precluding our going to Lebanon?" I asked naively.
"Not exactly. However, should you come back into the country with 'Lebanon' stamped on your passport, you will be subject to a large fine and a prison sentence," my informant replied.
We cancelled the trip. For three more years we waited. One day I happened to mention Lebanon to a friend in the Syria and Lebanese Southern Federation and she connected us with Marie Shaheen-Michael. We were told, "Marie was a professor in Beirut, and she has connections. She's putting together a group of Lebanese Americans who'll be going in the fall. This is the trip you need to take." I called Marie, and an energetic e-mail correspondence culminated in the long-awaited trip.
Getting ready included a trip to the Travel Clinic. Although we weren't scheduled to leave until October, we wanted to be sure any possible reactions to immunizations wouldn't spill onto traveling days. So Peter and I met in August at the downtown Clinic. The doctor at the Travel Clinic talked with us about health risks - very few – for Americans in Lebanon. We were given printed literature, which warned us that we were not to eat produce unless we could peel away the skin. Under no circumstances were we to drink the water. "There go my salads," I moaned. Then we were given shots and told to come back in six months.
As the time for leaving got closer, I experienced anxiety about my wardrobe. I'd never been to Lebanon and wanted to be sensitive to the culture of our Middle Eastern hosts, so I gave Marie another call.
"Marie, this is Marthe Curry in San Antonio, and I have another question. I still don't know what to wear. Are slacks appropriate for women or do I need to shop for long dresses?" Marie laughed at my quandary. "Marthe, I'm goin' to be wearin' slacks. You'll want somethin' dressy for meetings and dinner, but otherwise pants are just fine."
"You're sure they won't be offensive?"
"Of course not. Now you call if you have any other questions. You'll be receivin' a packet from me pretty soon with information about clothin' and a detailed itinerary. We'll stay in touch."
And with that, Marie was off. I neglected to mention that I have very white hair that frequently draws attention when we travel, and I was afraid I would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. Peter suggested I take a hat or scarf to cover my head, and with that I was somewhat mollified.
While we waited in the Houston terminal, we practiced our French. I knew no Arabic but would soon learn important phrases like yalla habibi (hurry, dear one) and helwi (pretty). We'd already faxed Father Tabet who was back in Beirut and he had volunteered to plan our free days. We were set.
The only glitch, which was minor, happened on the last stretch from Paris to Beirut. Just as we were getting settled, the hostess for Middle East Airlines asked in her lovely French accent what we wanted to drink. Not knowing the French word for "cranberry", I asked for a cranberry juice cocktail. Never looking up from my book, I took a large gulp of the vilest concoction that burned. I asked Peter to have a taste. He smiled as he sipped and recognized that his tee-totaling wife had just had a gin-infused cocktail. Our mortified hostess quickly rectified the situation with a plastic cup of apple juice. I made a mental reminder to be more precise in communicating.
"Finally!" my journal reads. "We are in Lebanon… at about 4:00 p.m. We met up with our group and guide and took a bus - about an hour's ride - to Adma [a village which is now part of Beirut] where our hotel is located."
Peter and I had only spoken with Marie by phone, so she had no way of recognizing us. When she advanced on the passengers pouring from the airport, she moved with such confidence and was dressed with such flair, I knew she had to be Marie. She greeted one, then another of the group, and I approached her saying, "Bonjour, Madam. Je m'appelle Marthe Curry. Nous sommes ici!"
Just as quickly, Marie responded, "You're not with my group!"
"Oh, yes, we are," I countered in English as she took a look at the name badges. We had a quick laugh, introduced ourselves, and then got acquainted with our Lebanese guide, Haitham Herzallah, and our traveling buddies of the next two weeks.
And just as quickly we all got acquainted with the traffic in Lebanon! Having driven in the United Kingdom where everyone drives on the "wrong side of the road" and ridden many times through the craziness that is the roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in no way prepared us for traffic in Beirut. We looked in vain for traffic lights and stop signs. We wondered what had happened to the stripes dividing lanes of traffic. The rules of the road were not only relaxed but were frightening! I decided the best way to cope was to look out the side window and not ahead at the mayhem.
We wound our way from the airport through areas of devastation from the previous decade of war. Our route took us to the edge of the Mediterranean as we moved into downtown Beirut and the renovation projects that were restoring landmark buildings to their former glory. An interesting sidelight to the restoration, we learned, was that the work has uncovered archeological remains from the Persian-Phoenician period, and this was being incorporated within the city center.
Along the coastline, we continued to move as the view alternated between buildings gashed from tank shelling and new construction arising like the phoenix. One characteristic that surfaced repeatedly was the incredible nature of the Lebanese to survive, endure, and thrive.
Despite millennia of perilous existence, surrounded or threatened by superior forces, the Lebanese remain. Even more admirable than their continuity, is the Lebanese spirit and wonderful joie de vivre. This became obvious as Haitham pointed out various structures while describing the horrors the people had experienced and overcome.
Arriving at the beautiful Regency Palace Hotel, we were greeted by the courteous staff. After Peter wishfully decided that the slim, beautiful, dark-haired young woman who helped him was a cousin, we took the elevator to our room on the second floor. I wasn't prepared for the preferential treatment we received because judges are so respected in Lebanon. Marie had selected a spacious room with an equally spacious balcony overlooking Adma with the mountains on one side and the deep blue of the Mediterranean on the other. A large crystal bowl of fresh fruit was on the table. Papa Leon had been right -- the fruit was big, and the grapes were delicious. Already the tone of the famous Lebanese hospitality had been set.
We were on our own for dinner and chose the hotel's Al Sabil restaurant, which specialized in Lebanese food. Again we were surprised. The abundance of food in the mezze (appetizers) would have been sufficient for our whole dinner. We had ordered tabouleh (I'd forgotten that we weren't supposed to eat fresh produce!), hummus, and kibbeh. By the time we had eaten the mixed olives, nuts, fresh vegetables, meat and cheese pies, and babaghanouj, we could hardly eat dinner. But this was an evening of celebration. At last Peter was in the homeland of his forefathers.
The following day, after resisting a groaning sideboard in the hotel's breakfast room, we boarded the bus to many cries of yalla! yalla! We headed for the presidential palace. En route, Haitham pointed out an army encampment where young men were being kept in physical readiness. Every young man is drafted for one year to serve in the military.
The presidential palace was rebuilt two years ago after being totally destroyed. Private individuals, who spared no cost, financed the project. The palace design and decor exuded a certain clean minimalism with marble and lovely wood paneling throughout. We were ushered through security into a large foyer and from there to an impressive hallway with an abundance of oriental rugs and fine paintings. Peter, an artist himself, was especially impressed with the superb quality of the paintings. Queen Noor of Jordan was just leaving the palace and our visit was next on the president's agenda.
The reception room into which we were shown had rugs encircled with sofas and chairs of distinct Lebanese design with a hint of the French.
At one end of the beautifully appointed room stood a magnificent inlaid chest of mother-of-pearl. We were all seated and reminded that crossing one's legs, revealing the shoe soles is considered an insult and should be avoided.
The doors were opened for President Emile Lahoud and we all stood. We knew the president had been a military leader but had not anticipated his charm and lean good looks. President Lahoud spied seven-year-old Sam Baron, the "mascot" of our group, and called him forward. Without hesitation, Sam introduced himself and found a place on the president's lap.
"Sam," the president asked in impeccable English, "why are you so dressed up?" Sam had worn a little suit with a white shirt and tie.
"I did it for you," Sam responded and was rewarded by President Lahoud's broad smile.
Each of us had an opportunity to speak briefly with the president, and he extended the hospitality of the country to us. We were charmed and appreciative of the time he set aside to meet with us.
We spent a leisurely afternoon at the hotel, occupied with correspondence and phone calls. By evening, the thermometer was sinking, and I was grateful for the blazer I had packed. Marie was hosting a dinner for us at the Al Bandar Restaurant in Zouk up the mountain where it was sure to be even cooler. She had sent an invitation to the American Embassy, and the ambassador was to be represented by David Hale, his Deputy Chief of Mission. Marie promised an entertaining evening.
Again we enjoyed a lavish meal of banquet proportions. The waiters, dressed in Lebanese folk dress, kept bringing dishes. Peter and I rolled our eyes at each other wondering how we'd make it to the last course. Then the music began with a trio of young men with keyboard, drum, and mandolin who sang haunting songs in minor keys. At a break, Marie stood to introduce special guests: Mr. Hale and an associate, Father Jamiel, and Ghazi and Ghana Harb. Ghazi heads an international engineering firm, and his sister Ghana, married to the ambassador to Chile, publishes "Today's Outlook", an upscale Lebanese magazine.
Early the next day we were on the road for a drive into the Chouf area. Before leaving, Peter and I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. It was only the second morning of our stay, but when the maitre d' saw us, he brought Peter a pot of coffee and me a pot of tea. I was impressed with the service and his memory.
Peter and I were becoming more comfortable with the traffic and commented frequently at the politeness of the drivers. We never saw an accident even though there seemed to be no speed limit and no rules about overtaking and passing vehicles. Even on treacherous mountain roads, the drivers displayed uncanny ability.
At Baaklin, we visited a specialty craft shop where we enjoyed delicious, freshly baked Lebanese bread with a mixture of cheeses sprinkled on top. There were also pots of coffee and tea prepared especially for us. We marveled over cases of delicately worked embroidery and lace fashioned into clothes, table linens, and other articles. How grateful we were that the Lebanese were familiar with and accepted United States currency.
Most of us in the group had U. S. currency and credit cards. Some had travelers’ checks but were disappointed to learn that they were generally accepted only at banks. Others quickly discovered that the Casino du Liban was just up the hill from our hotel and took advantage of the opportunity to cash checks there. (Or was it the gambling that drew them?)
While I was standing on the balcony of the shop taking in the scenery and the village tableaux, I happened to catch sight of a pair of gorgeous black eyes staring across at me from the neighboring house. A white veil and head-covering, typical Druze attire for a married lady, framed the eyes. I ran to get my camera only to find that my subject had disappeared. Hoping to get another glimpse, I rapidly descended the stairs to the street, and within minutes the beautiful lady and a petite version of herself appeared. I motioned to her, pointing to my camera and back to her, asking if I could take her picture. No, she shook her head, but she pointed at her three-year-old daughter. I was given permission to photograph beautiful little Ita with her dark skirt, pale pink blouse, and white scarf which will probably one day cover her lovely face just as her mother's face was covered.
The Beiteddine Palace was the next stop where we gained further insight into Lebanese hospitality. In earlier times, visitors were freely permitted to stay up to three nights without inquiry in an area set aside for guests. The tradition of hospitality is an ancient one. We wrapped up the day with a ride through the magnificent Chouf Mountains to the Mir Amin Palace for another splendid dinner and a breathtaking view.
Another judge, Alfred Mansour, and his wife Mary Jo were part of the U. S. entourage. Like Peter, Judge Mansour was involved with civic affairs, and both were avidly involved in local arts programs. Mary Jo was a prominent businesswoman who allocated time for volunteer activities and was interested in the work I did as board chairman of a United Way agency. Having been to Lebanon on previous occasions, the Mansours provided helpful insights.
When the new day began with a drive up the mountain to Harissa and the Cathedral of Our Lady, we parted with the Mansours at the stairs leading to the statue of Our Lady. They had seen the view before and would catch up with us at the gift shop. As we climbed, the stairway narrowed, and I found myself edging more to the inside wall looking out and not down. The view from the top was worth the climb for laid out beneath us was a panorama of Beirut sprawling on the shores of the Mediterranean with Kaslik and Jounieh licking at her heels. From our bird's-eye view, we saw pockets of pine trees punctuated by new structures of stone and steel being built by a people who refused to be vanquished.
An architect's dream awaited us on the ground as we inched our way down to join our friends in a tour of the soaring Cathedral of Our Lady of Lebanon. Even from our hotel balcony some miles away, the cathedral situated on the mountaintop appeared to sail upon the clouds like a mystical Phoenician vessel. Up close, the giant ribs of the cathedral pointed upwards as though to entreat worshippers to lift their physical and spiritual eyes. Lost in thought, our reverie was broken with the familiar "Yalla habibi, yalla!" Back onto the bus.
By this time, we had established our seating arrangements and were getting to know our fellow travelers. Ahead of us sat Margaret (pronounced "Mawgrit" in the lovely southern drawl) Bayhi and her sister, Eloise Persac. The "girls" had brought their grown children, Georges Bayhi and Mary Ann Henchey, who sat at our side. This, Eloise's first trip abroad, was whetting her appetite for more as she and Margaret outdistanced those younger ones among us. As for Margaret, she wielded her elegant silver-encrusted cane like a queen's orb and never permitted it to slow her down. She and Margaret were the grand dames with us all in their train.
Georges and Mary Ann, inseparable and always compatible, were cousins who didn't see much of each other at home. Georges stays busy as district attorney while Mary Ann tries to keep up with teenagers and her cardiologist husband. Georges was inadvertently about to provide us with one of the most unforgettable events of the journey.
Directly behind us sat young Sam's mother, Mary Baron, and her father, Fred Kahwajy, who had immigrated to the United States from Lebanon when he was ten years old. Mary and her husband, whose work as a college professor kept him from accompanying his family, had come to Lebanon about seven years earlier to adopt their precious Sam. Mary was back in Lebanon on a pilgrimage of her own.
The bus pulled into our destination, the winter home of the Maronite Patriarch. Having been to the Vatican in Rome, it was interesting to see the quiet dignity of the Italianate architecture that contrasted with the bustle of activity. A kindly older priest who had pulled a brown sweater over his robe showed us into an anteroom to await our appointment. The excitement mounted as we prepared crosses and rosaries for blessing by the Patriarch.
When the moment arrived, the brown-and-black-clad priest led the way. We were seated in chairs placed on the edges of the carpets in a large audience chamber. His Beatitude's throne was at the front of the room immediately under a portrait of Pope John Paul II. The Patriarch was awaiting us with twinkling eyes and a face that reflected authority and peace.
Accustomed as I was to hearing rallying cries of support for Israel, I was deeply disturbed with the reality of the Lebanese plight and our nation's apparent lack of response. I recalled the military presence we saw every day driving through Beirut and the countryside, the presence of both Lebanese and Syrian soldiers. I was aware of the Palestinian refugee camps scattered throughout the villages and heard daily reports of Israeli bombings in the south of Lebanon. And now the Maronite Patriarch was simply asking for a greater awareness by the United States of the tenuous Lebanese existence. It was a cry that deserved to be heard in Washington.
Our itinerary took us on to Jeita to view the spectacular caves and then to Byblos for lunch at Pepe Abed on the waterfront. The setting was like a picture postcard with wooden fishing boats and nets that could have been used by the disciples when Jesus called them to follow him. After the typical mezze, we were served platters of French fries and long, skinny fish with heads intact. Absolutely delicious!
And the ruins at Byblos were wonderful. The oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world boasted sites from prehistoric days to times when houses were round, then square and rectangular. Canaanites had lived in Byblos thirty-four centuries before Christ. Phoenicians, Romans, Crusaders, and Ottomans followed. Standing on various promontories throughout the site, one became lost in the overwhelming sense of history. We would find ourselves returning several times to this wonderful place.
The next day our bus made an unscheduled detour as a surprise for Georges. The charming little village of Qnat was his ancestral home, and Haitham squeezed it into the day's program. We wandered quaint streets where bougainvilleas and grapes still grew in the late fall.
The only sign of the twentieth century was a smallish truck that criss-crossed the village selling produce. In its wake came the bread merchant, Salam, who was leading a donkey loaded with fresh-baked Lebanese bread. Salam, her head covered in a bright scarf, was dressed in a patterned dress with a dark apron and was wearing rubber golashes. When we asked if she would pose for a picture, she gave us a big grin and planted herself squarely at the side of her donkey in compliance.
Wandering into the town square, we made our way to the unpretentious church. A treat awaited us as we entered and spied the lovely gilded arches in the altar area and the highly decorative plasterwork and moldings. The deep blue ceiling boasted an edging of gilded trelliswork with clear sky blue studded in glittering silver globes and golden stars at the center. Suspended from the middle of the ceiling were three beautiful crystal chandeliers. Peter and I marveled at the sacrifice that must have been necessary for the little parish to display its love and devotion so generously.
Back outside, a small cluster of people had gathered around Georges. Between snapshots we listened in on the conversation - Peter translating for me. Some of the older people remembered Georges' family, and Georges had located the old homestead. We all shared a sense of discovery as we walked around the plaster and stone house, teasing Georges about the conversions he'd need to make to provide a bed-and-breakfast lodging for our future use.
Our official route for the day led along the Holy Valley where Christians hid in caves during persecution. The sheer drop from the tops of the ridges two miles above sea level made one wonder at the courage of believers in going to and from their hideouts. Haitham told us that over 400 churches or monuments remained in the Valley.
The winding mountainous road carried us over hairpin curves to the Cedars area where we hiked through what remains of the famous forest. Throughout the centuries, most of the magnificent cedars were cut down and used as currency in international trade so that only a fraction remains. The military is assisting national and international non-profit organization in replanting thousands of trees annually.
From the forest, we drove through the ski area at Bsharre and on to the Chbat Hotel for a welcomed lunch of mezze and steamy hot lentil soup. Lebanese rice pudding with a hint of rose water and fresh apple preserves finished off another excellent meal.
On the road again, we arrived in Tripoli to see Saint Giles' Castle which dates back to Crusader times. Tripoli was our first experience of the souks. As we made our slow progress down the narrow streets, we were overcome with the sense of having moved back in time hundreds of years. The shops tumbled over each other in no particular order but with delightful spontaneity. Odors were pungent as were the fragrances of spices. A favorite shop was the soap-maker's where we found soaps of innumerable scents and intricately carved shapes.
After a very full day, the bus was mouse-quiet on the return trip. Younger members of the group formed their own party and were escorted by Haitham into town while others of us wrote postcards and journal notes. The following day was Sunday, and we would all be on our own for the first time.
Father Marwan Tabet and his friend, Father Phillip, arrived early. It was a special day of commemoration in their parish, and we would attend the service memorializing those who had died in the recent conflict. St. George's Maronite Church was situated in nearby Bhamdoon, an area that was the summer home of many prominent families and which received maximum damage during the war.
On the Damascus road which led to the village, we passed the Ministry of Defense which was marked with two imposing works, a statue of Fakr-el-Dine and a stunning monument composed of full-sized tanks stacked atop each other and facing all directions. The monument struck me as a symbol of the constant vigilance of the Lebanese in their determination to endure. Sadly, I was not allowed to take a picture.
Arriving at St. George's, we were gratified at the large number of young people. In fact, the choir was composed totally of young folk. Two keyboards accompanying the worship, one of the musicians was barely in his teens. We were amused at ourselves in thinking that we were far removed from the contemporary, and here we were being confronted by a very up-to-date band of youngsters!
Being familiar with the language, Peter participated in the service while I joined in spirit. There was a deep sense of joy emanating from the eight priests who led the service and the man who directed the choir from his heart.
After the service, Peter visited with parishioners, and I made my way through the packed aisles to speak with the choir director. Happily, he spoke French, and I was able to express our appreciation for the beautiful music. Very humbly, he told me that his job was to help us pray. With happy and uplifted hearts, we rejoined Father Tabet who had arranged a very special meeting for us.
In the quest to help Peter discover his roots, Father Tabet had made a call to General I. Ghanem, former Commander-in-Chief of the Lebanese Army. It so happened that General Ghanem was staying in his summer home in Saghbine, the village of Peter's family. Father Tabet had arranged a visit for us with General Ghanem to see what could be learned. The moment for which we had traveled thousands of miles was at hand.
We rounded the curve in the road and saw the sign that declared Saghbine, Peter's ancestral home. There, perched above and below us, was the charming village nestled on the mountainside, overlooking the Beqaa plain and one of the lakes in the region. Father Tabet stopped the car so that we could savor the occasion. Tiny lanes wound off the main road with little stone and plaster cottages clinging bravely along the sides. Six thousand people inhabited Saghbine, and we hoped some of them were Khourys.
Father Tabet turned the car into one of the little lanes and we climbed up and up until we reached General Ghanem's imposing home with its splendid view of the Beqaa. We parked and walked up to the front entrance passing under a vine-covered arbor with oversized purple and green grapes, escaping to dangle inches from our heads. Peter couldn't resist the temptation and quickly popped one into his mouth.
The housekeeper greeted us and showed us into the salon where we saw the general. What were we expecting? A warrior, a leader of men, yes – but not the remarkably soft-spoken and thoroughly polished gentleman we met in General Ghanem. The three men talked amiably in Arabic with occasional breaks while General Ghanem placed calls to the local parish priest who was away from his house. The general addressed his remarks to me in French so that we were all included in the conversation. Contrary to our lifestyle at home, the visit was leisurely, and the general seemed in no hurry.
When lunch was announced, General Ghanem's sister joined us in the dining room. By now, we were prepared for the holiday-sized meal his staff set before us.
Returning to the salon after eating, General Ghanem again called the priest's home and discovered that he had returned. The general requested that the priest locate parish records with any mention of Peter's family.
After expressions of gratitude, we took our leave of General Ghanem and searched out the priest who, coincidentally, was named Elias El-Khoury. We were taken down a stairway into a room that was centered with a small rectangular table and a very large, very old ledger. Father El-Khoury introduced us to his wife and cousin, also an El-Khoury. The three newfound "cousins" were beaming with pleasure as Father El-Khoury opened the ledger from the back and began leafing through the pages. He stopped at one page and began scanning the entries penned in Arabic with faded brown ink. His eyes ran down the names that had been written more than a hundred years ago and paused at a particular entry. Triumphantly, he pointed.
"There, there it is. Your father's name - Leon Khoury."
Peter peered intently at the paper.
"It mentions a Rose Khoury," added Father El-Khoury, looking up from the ledger.
"Yes, yes. My father had a sister Rose," Peter agreed with excitement. "She went on to Venezuela. Does that say, 'Rose'?"
"Yes, your aunt Rose."
There were a few seconds of silence as Peter, overcome with emotion, struggled to collect himself. He hadn't expected this much.
He left us briefly as we all spoke at once. We learned that the Saghbine El-Khourys had cousins in Ohio. And Peter had cousins in Ohio. All the cousins were in Akron. Surely these had to be distant relatives. This would be something to pursue in the future. For now, Peter was elated with what he'd found. It was infinitely more than he had expected.
Father El-Khoury copied the baptismal record and stamped it with an official church seal. A root of the family tree had been unearthed! More visiting and a time in the El-Khoury's private chapel ended our first meeting with the family, but we hoped it wouldn't be the last.
Wake-up call at 4:30 Monday morning alerted us to what would be the longest day of our journey. The itinerary stated that we would visit Damascus, but when we arrived at the border, none of us was prepared for the two hours we waited to cross into Syria. Checking multiple passports and visas was the explanation given for the extended delay.
Once we crossed the border, the contrast between the two countries was obvious. The roads were better, and the country appeared to be more prosperous. Arriving in Damascus, we saw a beautiful, ancient capitol city that was thoroughly modern. Our many questions revealed that the perceived necessity of the Syrian military in Lebanon came with a costly price tag that created a substantial drain on the Lebanese economy. Perhaps the peace process will bring about the cessation of hostilities in the south of Lebanon thereby ending the need for Syrian occupation.
Aside from troubling political questions, we found Damascus to be an intriguing city filled with antiquities. We visited the National Museum, lunched at the Sham Palace Hotel, toured the 'Azm Palace, and shopped in the souk. I was especially gratified to see Straight Street [New Testament; Acts of the Apostles: "the street called straight"], the area to which Saint Paul had been directed after his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road.
Fred Kahwajy had been corresponding with a gentleman from Damascus for scores of years but had never met him. Mr. Fred and Haitham set out on foot to find the friend Mr. Fred had never seen. The rest of us went separate ways with instructions to meet near Straight Street. As the sun was setting and we were counting heads to leave, an elated twosome rushed to the bus. Haitham had searched for a "shop on the square" and intuitively located and brought together Mr. Fred and his pen pal. Haitham told us he hadn't cared if they did run late; he was determined to find Mr. Fred's friend. They returned with time to spare.
The next day we traveled to the fertile Bekaa Valley to the city of Baalbeck, a strategic area of Lebanon secured by Lebanese and Syrian soldiers. Although it was forbidden to photograph military personnel or encampments, I desperately wanted to document the incongruous juxtaposition of the large sign that read "Bienvenue, Welcome" next to armed soldiers in bunkers with a nearby tower and armed sentry. Most likely, one became accustomed to the ever-present military in that part of the world.
At Baalbeck, we saw archeological sites that surpassed anything we had seen in Greece. Haitham, himself a university student of archeology, explained some of the tasks pertinent to such work. After reinforcing a site, the team proceeds with restoration, reconstructing up to 20% of original construction (more is considered reproduction and would not be authentic), and moving to the original location. We could have spent the whole week studying the site in Baalbeck, but time constraints and the familiar "Yalla!" kept us moving. Continuing on to Anjar, we made a brief stop at a tiny roadside shop.
It was there that I confirmed a suspicion I'd been nursing for days: The Lebanese are born shoppers! I had observed over the course of the week that we had not missed one shopping opportunity, and it finally came into focus. This shopping/merchandising thing had to be an ancient legacy dating back to the Phoenicians!
When Haitham was able to gather everyone up again, we proceeded to Anjar, the site of three palaces of the Umayyad Dynasty. Many shops -- of course! -- had been part of the original village, which had been built on the Roman plan of two intersecting main streets running north-south and east-west. According to typical Roman design, a channel ran down the center of the streets for sewage. A unique feature of Anjar, however, was the combination of brick and stone that was thought to reduce the damage done by earthquake.
Back at the hotel, we were determined to use the following day for personal business and rest, with adequate time for reading. After our day off, Father Tabet arrived to escort us to the Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik where we visited with the director, Professor Dr. P. Joseph Mouannes. An assistant walked in with a tray of the potent Turkish coffee and a box of chocolates. The conversation revolved around political issues in Lebanon and the need for engagement on the part of the United States. Once again, we heard the lament that the United States has focused much of its energy and resources in only one area of the Middle East, Israel. We could only agree. Before leaving, Dr. Mouannes gave us the first issue of the Encyclopedie Maronite published by the university.
Father Tabet took us on a walking tour of the campus that included the newly created law school headed by Dr. P. Louis El-Ferkh. We joined Dr. El-Ferkh in his office. He was interested to learn that Peter had taught law for years at Saint Mary's University School of Law while simultaneously presiding over a state court of law. He and Peter discussed the possibility of structuring an intensive law seminar that Peter would teach in the spring semester, an intriguing idea. From there, we had a VIP tour of the library and the university arts center.
A meeting of the Maronite League was next on the agenda. The Maronite League is a Maronite public awareness group composed of prominent men who monitor and comment on important socio-political and economic issues that affect Lebanon in general and the Maronites in particular. The discussion was conducted in French and focused on specific incidents and national policies. I was seated next to the vice president; Peter was between two attorneys. Afterward, Peter conversed briefly with the Ambassador from Mexico, Mr. Edgardo Flores Rivas, while I visited with the vice president.
After the meeting, we toured areas of downtown Beirut with its booming reconstruction projects.
The following day, Peter and I made a walking tour of the downtown Beirut shopping area, and after breakfast a driver took us to the heart of the shopping district. Mindful of the fast-moving traffic with no stoplights, we crossed streets with extreme caution. After about an hour of looking into windows, we were ready to return to the Regency. Judge Mansour joined us for lunch, and we prepared for a meeting with two of the military judges, one who happened to be the brother of President Lahoud.
Ghana and Ghazi Harb were our companions for the evening. Their father, who is the union leader for the country, met us at the courthouse. Ghazi had brought several cameras to record our meeting and he was permitted to take one through the security checkpoints. Armed soldiers were posted at the entrance and throughout the court buildings.
We had been told that Judge Lahoud was colorful but the truth had been grossly understated. Passing the last checkpoint, the door opened to the judge's chambers, and Judge Lahoud rushed from his seat to greet us attired in a vivid egg-yolk-yellow shirt with khaki pants. Upon seating us, he went to the closet to grab an electric-blue jacket that he donned, explaining with a grin that he liked color. When picture-taking time arrived, Judge Lahoud put on a yellow and blue striped tie -- an altogether delightful and disarming man.
We were introduced to Judge Omar M. Natour, a perfect complement to Judge Lahoud in traditional suit and tie. Both judges talked with us about the Lebanese judicial system, comparing notes with Judges Mansour and Peter. The Lebanese judges were interested in salaries and benefits of American judges as well as terms of office. We heard again the call for American involvement in Lebanon and a more equitable distribution of resources.
Judges Lahoud and Natour subsequently walked us through some of the courtrooms and buildings describing functions of rooms and pointing out security features. They described an assassination that had occurred a few years previously at the very spot where we stood. That explained the need for increased protection. The evening grew late and we left through ranks of heavily armed guards.
The next day was rainy when Father Tabet arrived to take us to the Shrine of Saint Sharbel. Although the rainfall darkened the sky overhead, it added a mystic touch to our journey. The fog and rain rolled in and out of the mountains as we ascended to an elevation of 6,000 feet. Below us, the terraced slopes were stairways for mythical giants. The rain and fog discouraged other visitors and made the shrine our own private retreat. Quietness enfolded us as we prayed. We saw discarded crutches and other testimonials of people who had been healed.
Climbing even higher to the hermitage, we gingerly followed the rain-slicked path of many previous visitors, perhaps even St. Sharbel himself. A sign on the pathway read, "I will praise the Lord all my life." All nature joined the psalmist in worship. From the top of the mountain, the view was awe-inspiring. A sense of peace, of "God's [being] in His heaven" made words unnecessary.
We came back down the mountain as one must always do in real life, and the weather cleared. We drove back to Jounieh to inspect the facilities at Le College des Apôtres where Father Tabet is the Director of Development. From there we went to VDLC, Voix de le Charité, the only Christian radio station in Lebanon. Evening had overtaken us and it was time to return to the Regency Palace.
We rode and talked, thinking of all the ways we had been deeply touched the last few days. From Father Tabet we learned a lovely saying that seemed to express the heart of Lebanese hospitality. When thanked for his kindnesses, he would reply, "Nothing but a pleasure." It was a phrase that washed over us with love and a hope that we respond to others in the same way.
When Father Tabet arrived in the morning, he said that we would go to Saida (Sidon) in deference to my request. I wanted to see the city that Jesus had visited and of which he had spoken. The three of us traveled south to see another ancient town. We climbed to the roof of the Sea Castle and looked out at docks where trucks were loading huge blocks of stone onto ocean-going cargo ships. A troop of Boy Scouts shared the castle with us, and the youngsters scampered with abandon up crumbling steps to perch precariously on walls dating to the Crusades. Having finally been given enough time to explore - no "Yalla!" all day – we strolled down the causeway where we encountered some lovely young Shiite women who allowed me to be photographed with them.
As we walked to the neighboring seaside restaurant, we saw a study in contrasts. A Shiite mother with her young child was striding across the lawn totally encased in fabric excepting her eyes. The wind caught the folds of her skirt and revealed, of all things, blue jeans! It was a happy marriage of tradition and fashion.
Back in Beirut we found we had time for a return trip to Byblos and arrived just as the sun was casting lingering rays of red and gold over the Mediterranean. A wedding had just taken place at the Church of Saint John Mark and we were greeted by departing guests who knew Father Tabet. We wandered through the church and into the gardens absorbing the serenity of the moment. It was much too soon when we had to return to the hotel to dress for our final dinner with the group at the casino.
We reserved the last day of our Lebanese odyssey for shopping. Father Tabet's driver took us back to Byblos where we'd found a wonderful little shop in the souk. We arrived just as the owner was returning from her daily visit to church. As I looked through stacks of beautiful hand-sewn linens, the shopkeeper and Peter carried on animated negotiations. It was difficult to tell who was having the most fun. We finally made our purchase and left loaded down with bags of table linens for ourselves and for Christmas gifts.
By evening we had managed to stow gifts and belongings in our luggage in preparation for going home. We visited with other members of the group and exchanged highlights of the day. Father Tabet arrived with a gift from Father El-Khoury. After we had left him, Father El-Khoury had continued to look through the church register and had found the baptismal record of Peter's brother, the only sibling born in Lebanon. Father Tabet gave Peter the certificate which Father El-Khoury had copied.
It was hard saying goodbye to Father Tabet, a gentle man who was "nothing but a pleasure", but we know we will see him again. And as for the Sacred Land, Lebanon, the land that for a brief two weeks was our homeland, its people, their strength, spirit, and charm will always remain in our hearts.
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