Perhaps it was wrong to assume. Perhaps I was wrong to think that because wars leave scars they mightn’t want to hear about it. It can be that the fissures brought to human understanding by communalism are not easy to ford, but it’s equally true that humans are adaptable. Perhaps I underestimated them and it was cowardly not to mention Bangladesh.
The Kadisha Valley in Lebanon’s north is a traditional Maronite Christian stronghold and Lebanon’s 1980s civil war cannot but have reaffirmed that. Opinions seemed ridged, or so I assumed, memories too fresh. But Bangladesh played no role in that war and neither had I, so could I not have mentioned the similarity between Bangladeshi Muslim hospitality and their hospitality-of-the-cedars?
They say that little Lebanon is a country where you can ski and swim in the same day. I’d taken the bus from Tripoli on Lebanon’s Mediterranean to the heights of the valley, to stand at the base of a ski slope. I wasn’t there to ski but to admire the trees. I wanted to see the cedars.
Those trees are not only Lebanon’s national symbol, featured on the flag. Ancient Egyptians used their resin in mummification and with the boats the Phoenicians built from their timbers they spread their civilisation across the Mediterranean. In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh the cedar forests were considered the dwelling of the Gods, while Moses, according to the Bible, used their bark in circumcisions and to cure leprosy. King Solomon’s temple was built from their wood.
There aren’t many of Lebanon’s cedars left, and for the most part they are difficult to access; and all I got to see were a few specimens in the town of Bcharre. It’s not that there haven’t been attempts to preserve them: Roman Emperor Hadrian decreed a law to this effect as did the Mamluk Caliphs. In 1876 Queen Victoria financed a wall to protect their limbs from foraging goats.
There were trees, just a few, and they were just trees. But the cedars are Lebanon and the heritage of half the world.
Yet in the Kadisha Valley where names tend to echo it wasn’t Ancient ones that seemed to predominate. Rather, there were two of more modern vintage: the early twentieth century Lebanese-American writer Khalil Gibran who was born in Bcharre, and the nineteenth century Maronite Christian saint, St. Charbel Makhluf.
I discovered this because there was no bus down the mountain again. It’s the sort of thing I am good at neglecting to plan, return transport. And I hoped to reach Beirut by late evening. There’s a freeway that runs along the coast and it is possible, theoretically, to see the cedars and reach the capital in the same day.
I stood on the road waiting for a passing car. And it was Lebanon so the first one stopped.
Tony was driving. But the small thrill of not having waited more than thirty seconds was undone when he said they lived in the next village and would only go that far. It was a small start.
It can’t have been more than ten minutes to his village, but we conversed. He strung English words together in a similar fashion to the largish house he’d constructed: room by room as he could, by his own hand. Coffee was offered. Yes, Beirut was far, but perhaps a thick, black coffee wouldn’t hurt.
It helped being Australian. In the 1980s Australia had more compassion to it and many Lebanese refugees resettled there. In Lebanon everybody had a relative or neighbour living in Sydney.
By the end of the coffee Tony’s wife made, Tony had suggested a walk around the village, in particular to see a church. Yes, Beirut was far but perhaps a village tour wouldn’t hurt. Local insight: the traveller’s treasure.
Of the village there’s little to report apart from the striking valley views and that about every second home was boarded up. Why was that, I asked Tony. ‘They all live in Sydney,’ he said.
Of the church, it was remarkable. It was built into a cliff face with a round hole and a ladder that had to be climbed to get inside. The church was a narrow ledge walled up on the outside with some kind of bricks, compact and historical. It was built in a time of wars between Muslims and Christians, in centuries past, and the ladder entryway enabled the priests inside to protect themselves. They kept swords to use on any that might think to climb that ladder to attack them.
Tony said it was really rather better to stay the night and leave in the morning; and yes, Beirut was far. Perhaps a day later wouldn’t hurt.
Tony’s wife made kebab wrapped in flat bread for dinner and they put them on top of the heater to keep them warm. We played cards and spoke on many topics, including my travels and life. But I didn’t mention Bangladesh.
‘Before today,’ Tony said, and I’ll not forget it, ‘you had one house in Sydney. But now you have two!’ It’s truer that I had many houses, if not on the deed exactly, but I was touched by the generosity of his words.
He spoke of St Charbel, who as a boy tended sheep and spent years as a Maronite priest recluse in the simplest of circumstances. Many miracles are attributed to him, including a partially paralysed woman who dreamt of him and awoke cured, with the ability to walk again. She had two wounds in her neck and St. Charbel said in her dream that he did surgery to heal her. ‘If you pray to St Charbel,’ Tony said, ‘Your prayers will be answered.’
On the following day, down the mountain, I made Beirut: all with private transport. It’s not a thing to do but I did.
It’s interesting because within two months I’d be riding a Honda in the Rajasthani desert with a friend there telling me with equal sincerity, ‘If you pray to Sai Baba, your prayers will be answered.’ And in Bangladesh, for guests they make tea.
But it was in Sydney that my thoughts turned again to the Kadisha Valley. I penned a letter. There was no reply and it was at least two years later I knew he’d received it.
I was at home in the flat I was renting in a predominantly Muslim suburb of Sydney one evening when the phone rang. It was George. I can categorically say there’s nothing wrong with receiving a call from George except that I didn’t know any George. And this George, how did he get my number? ‘I’m Tony’s cousin,’ he said, ‘I live in Sydney but I’ve just been to Lebanon and he was talking a lot about you. I want to meet you.’
‘Some guy called George rang for you,’ my sister said later, ‘I gave him your number.’
I visited George’s house, how could I not, for coffee, baklava sweets and chat about the Kadisha Valley and Tony. And I couldn’t help it. I should’ve known better. I told him what Tony said about having an extra home, the words stuck in my mind. ‘Before today,’ said George, ‘you had two homes, but now you have three.’ And in Bangladesh, I should’ve said, for guests they make tea.
‘Spare me the political events and power struggles,’ wrote Gibran, ‘as the whole earth is my homeland and all men are my fellow countrymen.’ It’s what I learnt from the cedars: Lebanon, the heritage of half the world.