A Remembrance of the Holidays in Lebanon
We all have our stories of Lebanon during the holiday season – at least of the end of year celebrations. My first visit was in 1974 as I was returning to Lebanon from North Yemen (at the time), having served as Peace Corps Training Director in Sanaa. And I thought New York knew how to show off during the holidays! Lights, music, comradery, and a waning feeling of better days to come – despite the growing presence of refugees in the country – were the hallmarks of the season, regardless of affiliation.
I was to be the guest of the Al-Atrash family in Syria having served with Farid’s brother who headed up the UN project in Yemen. Also an accomplished oud player, it was his charm and intensity that convinced me to visit the jebl that bore the family name. As it would turn out, Farid died during the visit or I may have been his greatest American fan, forsaking my ties to rock and roll.
Two notable memories stand out from my visit to Jebl Atrash. Getting up at five in the morning to watch the women back bread stands out. I had seen loaves of bread fresh-baked in the Furn el Chebbak neighborhood where some of my cousins lived, and had had the Yemini version of khubz mulawah, but was unprepared for and highly impressed by the handicraft of manakish – unleavened dough rolled paper thin on what looked like a very large pin cushion slapped on a heated surface and pulled off quickly – as it became a most delicious and warming breakfast food blanket.
The other was being awakened by the patriarch of the family early in the morning, who watched Israeli air force jets stream overhead while saying to me, “thank you USA!” I did not forget that lesson.
My family in Lebanon, put off by my concern with all things Arab, did not hesitate to remind me that I should be with them, not roaming around Syria. So I returned to hear their cries about “a state within a state,” and the price that Lebanon paid for having an “Arab face.” The table was set for the civil war, just waiting for one group or another to take issue with their status. They did not have to wait long…
Back to Beirut, the city of lights, where every street was festooned (is there a better word?!) with lights, decorations, and festivities galore. There was no confessional sensitivity on the surface as the city and country focused on celebrations which extended all over the downtown and around Martyrs’ Square. I had come to Lebanon twice before that during the summers with my US-based family, but I didn’t know what to expect during the winter time. The spirit of the holidays was pervasive then, just as it is now, while people struggled to throw off the pall of the current politics and remember better times.
These were clearly the days that portended the coming crisis. People in the streets would smile wanly and say, “If only…” waiting for the US or for France to change the dynamics and relieve the latest feelings of occupation. While the politicians bickered and the region’s stability continued to deteriorate, diplomats scurried between capitals to maintain the image of Arab unity, with death tolls continuing to mount and terrorism becoming an acknowledged regional reality in the meantime.
Hijacking, hostage taking, and bombings in civilian areas shook the Earth from North Africa to the Levant. Radicals of all persuasions took to the streets to protest various occupations, corrupt regimes, autocratic governments, and the need for justice, however defined. But there were always the holidays. No matter what one’s belief system, the prayers that year were for peace and justice and harmony – and they still are.
Lebanon is still searching for basic answers in order to reconcile its strained past and bleak future based on a semblance of the “good old days.” Not much chance of that. Yesterday it was the pasha who set the path; today there are the zu’ama’; and tomorrow? Let’s pray that the youth of today take up the mantle of justice, freedom, neutrality, and equity underpinning peace in Lebanon for a better tomorrow.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.