Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Photo of the outdoor altar during the St. Ephram celebrations 2008 My name is Ephram. My nephew's name is Ephram. "Frem" for short. In christening at least, both of us. It is the Sunday before last of September, and the village has agglomerated in the tiny church of Mar Ephram (St. Ephram) which is somewhere in the bushes. This is not the real Mar Ephram celebration, the real one is on January 28th, but in olden times that date would be too cold to celebrate anything, and so it was settled to celebrate the feast on the above-mentioned date. Youngsters have spent part of the night there preparing the festivities, and making out. This year there wasn’t much crowd as usual, many people traveled during the war, and some internal feuds in the village prevent some people from showing up. But some of the rituals are still there: The two masses – the early one at 7:30 and the other one at 10 am. By noon, all trace of the celebrations would vanish. The celebration of Mar Ephram, who is also the patron saint of the village and whose name every family has among their male children, is also an unofficial “end of summer celebration” whereby friends and lovers, and lovers-to-be, and ex-lovers would meet for one last ritual before one of them goes down to Beirut to spend the winter – or both of them for that matter. The old road that used to lead to the church and which is just a small path between thorny patches that ends in a stairway near the church, has been replaced by one which is now asphalted. Visiting Mar Ephram is not the tedious task it used to be, and parents do not have to hold their toddlers on the shoulders for the way back and forth, elderly women do not have to put on straw hats and wear rubber boots they’d wear to go thyme-gathering. and very few people pack their lunches to spend the day there – why bother when one can go back home for the regular Sunday meal now that the coming and going there is so easy? Nowadays, it is a civilized affair, but at least they still do boiled wheat with a bit of raisin like they used to in the old days. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood leading to a church, and I took the schizo"Frem"ia, and that has made all the difference. That end of summer celebration witnessed some many girlfriends splitting from their summer boyfriends, some many loves promised under the scorching sun only to wither with when watered by the winter rains, and so many tapes inside double-deck radios blasting with the compilation of the bygone summer hits, with an AA “re-O-vac” pair of batteries held somewhere in the ammunition bags, and someone always forgets the dried raisins for the boiled wheat so that the whole bucket would only get a handful of drops and lucky is the one who would get just one in his plastic cup. Someone always has to come back to fetch more charcoal because the barbecue would never light up, or because someone spilled water on those already there, or because the meat was not enough, or the ice cubes have melted away in the sun. Any excuse is a good excuse to get back in the car through the “new” road (Before it was asphalted) alone with a girlfriend. Behind the church, candles are burning and incense is offered, on top of it, tents are dressed for those who spent the night, in front of it a set of plastic chairs for those who could not enter the crammed church, which is too small to hold more than a couple of dozen faithful in addition to the priest, and the choir, and the front row sorority members. My first remembrances of Beirut were not about the city itself, it was about coming back to it. It was almost always the day after the Mar Ephram celebration which would be too close for comfort for the beginning of the school year. Mother would be doing the big cleaning that apartment in Beirut needs after the long summer break spent at the village, and she would send us away – the three of us – to spend the day at a nearby uncle’s place so that we wouldn’t interfere with her work. Only once do I remember her getting someone to help here, a Sri Lankese our neighbor recommended. The three matchbox cars we bought during one of the big clean ups (A “Renault 5 turbo” (Still hot from the “Never say: Never again” James Bond movie) for my eldest brother, a “BMW 525” for my middle brother, and a Porsche 914 for me) are still in my possession and whenever I see them in the back of my drawer, I still picture my mother with a cigarette from her mouth (“I can’t work without one”), working on overdrive with her short hair wrapped in an old scarf, perched on a chair and doing the top of the refrigerator. Then everything I would see in the city would remind me of the village: This girl looks like Randa Moukawam, and this car is like that of Amo Azar (Uncle Azar), and this shirt is like the one Zouzou wears. The city, in all its might, would be a tame mirror for the small village where the summer was spent. But that only lasts for a few days, and then Beirut would develop its own references once more: The shop with the Goldorak toys, the bookseller with the magazine with the Madonna poster in it, the discotheque that sells photos of pop stars made from amateurish snaps of posters (Duran Duran with the original line up, George Michael, the odd Michael Jackson, some Kim Wilde, and the only Boy George picture there that I always seem to find). By then, the city’s famed mild autumn (“Autumn in Beirut and Spring in Damascus”) would have set in, and before the “second summer” (“Between October and November is another summer”) there would be a interlude of a season where weather is crisp enough, not for coats or jumpers, but just for the summer wardrobe to be worn without sweating, where the faux-chill of the air-conditioning would not be needed, where it is mild to sit on balconies, and where the city would be awakening from its afternoon nap on the sounds of an ambulant “a’asriyye kaak” (Literally “afternoon twilight cookie”: A cookie filled with thyme and sometimes spread cheese added to it – which most notably was marketed by Syrian intelligence agents) merchant, with their distinctive and melodious “kaak, kaak” yelling – so much that it was assumed that graduating from intelligence school in Syria involved some courses in voice crafting and basics of musicology. And slowly, dark would start to descend on a tranquil city, one that put its political differences aside, its battered and bruised buildings on the shelf, and its scarred inhabitants on the back burner, for the crispy pleasure of “kaak” eaten by children who had just celebrated “Mar Ephram” the day before, and said goodbye to their summer flings (Not knowing they were flings) and their de facto friends to go back to a city that gets only remembered when coming back to it.

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