In the Chouf valley of Lebanon, in between Deir Al Qamar and Beiteddin Palace, there stands the Moussa Castle – a construction of a quite imposing magnitude. Unlike most of the typical tourist attractions in the country, this one does not represent any major civilization, nor does it commemorate a landmark of historical significance. Still, every year numerous visitors stoop to pass under its low entrance door, captivated – like bees to honey – by the story of love, ego, and betrayal out of which the building emerged.
The castle was single-handedly built by Moussa Al Maamari, a Lebanese man, now in his mid-80s. Today, Moussa does not frequent the dimly-lit rooms regularly; yet, his presence is palpable not only in the construction itself but in the overall ambiance, like a spirit destined never to let go. After all, he spent 60 years of his life (that is, 21,900 days or 394,200 hours) carving each stone separately, or crafting the numerous clay animated figures that populate every room and corner! It is not easy to get detached. Not for Moussa, anyway.
Most would say that his life is a testament to human persistence towards the accomplishment of a dream: a celebration of what a single person can achieve based on sheer will and passion. And, to a certain extent, this is true.
It seems that Moussa, coming from a rather low-income family, was dreaming since a young age of a big house. It is reported that, at school, he was often beaten by his teacher for doodling plans and sketches, and was scornfully labeled as “incompetent” to achieve anything significant in his life. On top of that, a few years later, he was contemptuously rejected by the woman who has been identified ever since as “his first love” and who replied to his adolescent amorous confessions with the phrase “Dad owns a palace, what have you got!”. At that moment, Moussa vowed to himself to prove everyone wrong and build his long-desired castle.
Indeed, by the time he was twenty years old, he had already found a way to buy a piece of land and start the building process. He hammered the stones one by one adding creative decorations that leave all visitors speechless, and filled every room with figures he handcrafted entirely by himself, presenting folkloric scenes from life in the Lebanese villages. A classroom representation is easily located among the various displays, with a teacher raising his stick to beat the figure of young Moussa who is drawing castles, eternally dreaming. Finally, there is a section that hosts an impressively big collection of old weapons and tools.
It is said that, once, Moussa invited his “first love” (who, at that time, was not as prosperous anymore) to the castle so that he could flaunt over what he had achieved having as sole ammunition his strong will, hard work, and relentless focus on his goal. To enter the building – the story continues – she had to stoop under a small door Moussa had built with the intention to force her towards a symbolic act of submission and humiliation. Visitors enter today through the same door, and most giggle with a feeling of inexplicable satisfaction over what is perceived as Moussa’s revenge.
Despite what appears to be an egotistical obsession towards that specific woman, Moussa did not stay single. He got married, and his children run now the castle-museum. His wife, in charge of the souvenir shop, dismisses with a decisive wave of her hand the ghost of this “first love” who has been the foundation (and, to some extent, inspiration) of her husband’s life, business, and success. She refuses to recognize a potential rival in the face of another old woman now living abroad and proudly recounts the story of how she chose Moussa, among other men, for her husband. They have shared a good and long life together – but neither she nor the story talk about love.
The castle that rises on the green slopes of the Chouf valley is a proof of what a person can create if inspired or sufficiently provoked, but not (to my eyes) an expression of redemption, self-healing, or peace. The perpetual repetition of a story that seeks revenge to feed a wounded ego, and diverts the energy of a whole lifetime towards the satisfaction of what appears to be an inferiority complex is not necessarily a source of inspiration or an example worth following. Moussa’s ambition for a castle has indeed been fulfilled in a way the world will keep talking about for many years to come; the dream of love though – if, ever, there was any – has been lost among sketches, tools, and stones. Because, in the realms of a what is called “true love” and “life’s higher purpose,” there is no room for ego, complexes, or revenge. A legacy worthy to be passed on to the next generations is enclosed solely in the integrity and authenticity of the heart. And this seems to be missing from Moussa’s famous story.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou