The authentic heart of a country (especially an unknown one) is uncovered only through the stories of its people. Some of these stories are significant and inspirational, bathed in floodlight. Others – my favorite ones – are simple, humble, and humane, often inconsequential. With the careless lightness of dandelion seeds wafting in the air, they land here and there leaving only subtle marks. Each one of them may be blurry or incomplete on its own, however, in their totality, they weave a social fabric that not only embodies the identity of the country, it also unites us all on a plane that is both higher and deeper than the fragmented reality in which we often isolate ourselves. And, even though such stories do not come with valuable insights, they emanate peace and tranquility, reminding us that reaching out, listening, and connecting is the most gratifying part of any journey.
The merciless sun of July was scorching over our heads as we were ambling through the alleys of old Tyre. It was just midday, yet, the town had already receded into a lethargic lull. The streets were empty, and the silence was broken only by the sleepy murmur of a few Ethiopian maids catching up under the feeble shadows cast by the walls on either side of the road. The doors to the courtyards of the traditional houses were left open – a timid invitation to any meager draft of air – and we could sneak peek on groups of women taking refuge under the shade of trees, playing with a cup of coffee in their hands, engaged in conversations that also felt drained by the heat. Only the vibrant flower bouquets overflowing from countless pots hanging from walls and ceilings maintained surprising levels of liveliness.
Among these pockets of domestic equanimity, we noticed a woman sitting alone in her garden, a small table with a baking pan and two plastic basins in front of her, her hands busy in a sequence of repetitive movements. There was such sweetness in the scene and a throwback to childhood memories long foregone, that we felt compelled to invite ourselves into her house, just to say hello. That’s how we met Mme Marcella. Her hair was trapped in a fillet, and her fingers were dipped into half-cooked mincemeat, as she was stuffing a big pile of zucchini to prepare ablama. “The stuffing is simple,” she explained. “I only add onion, salt, green and white pepper, pine seeds, and cinnamon. The secret lies in frying a bit the zucchini before cooking them. And, add the Laban at the end so that it keeps its creamy white color; if Laban is cooked for long, it turns yellow, and this is not how it should be.” The Ethiopian maid, Happy, appeared from inside the house, hovering around with the distinctive smiling face of her race. Mme Marcella invited us to lunch but, unfortunately, we could not stay for long. We just sat for a while with her, surrounded by pictures and statues of Virgin Mary, tables with small hookas, birds in cages, a green parrot, and the colorful flowers that seem to reflect the character of Tyre. Conversation unfolded effortlessly over recipe secrets, news about her recent operation and her fragile health, the beauty of her house with its big rooms, decorated marble floors, and old furniture, some family updates, and even a bit of gossip on people we did not know. She smiled and chatted, her fingers moving relentlessly. It took us only a few minutes to feel at home, and we were almost sorry to wave goodbye, stepping, once again, into the heat of the streets.
The barber shop of Philippe Safar is on Bliss street, across the entrance of the American University of Beirut (AUB). It looks so traditional and old-fashioned that, on an impulse and while on our way to a meeting, we opened the door just to look inside. Philippe, an aged Lebanese guy with a respectable, stylish, and sophisticated aura who keeps his hair and mustache carefully dyed in dark shades, was not busy and welcomed us with a broad smile. The store is obviously small, yet he took us around its four corners, highlighting with pride the inception of the business by his father in 1930, his diplomas from France on the walls, the shelves full of photos of himself with numerous politicians and AUB Presidents, the lines of flags from many countries – gifts from ambassadors who, along with all the rest, have passed over the years by Philippe’s chair – and the barber chair from Chicago ordered around 50 years ago and still commemorated as a priceless possession. It turned out that Philippe is a well-known character in Beirut, and his shop a neighborhood landmark, even for AUB students who often leave the bustling campus across the street to chat with him and listen to his stories on life before, during, and after the war. Who knew there was so much to be discovered just by being curious and opening a door.
I was visiting Tripoli for only two days and, yet, I got entangled in the unparalleled Lebanese hospitality, receiving an invitation to celebrate, along with the family who was hosting me, the beginning of the university life of one of their nieces.
There were already at least fifty people, all relatives, in the apartment when we arrived. Chairs had been lined up around the walls, and most guests were sitting, so that each newcomer could go around shaking hands, smiling, and kissing, in what I understood is the typical greeting ceremony when going to a Lebanese house. Despite the crowd, we found a few empty seats and took our positions for the next newcomers, standing up and shaking hands again and again. The humming buzz of the ongoing conversations was soothing, and everyone was keen to make me feel at home, speaking in English to engage me in the discussion. The crystal chandeliers – freshly washed to shine even brighter – cast a cozy glow; a middle-aged waiter in formal attire was passing around with a tray of juices, while the buffet table was being set. The air-conditioning and a few fans worked to the maximum, yet it was not easy to keep the room cool, and the frequent electricity failures caused every time a few moments of sweaty despair.
I stepped a bit aside, holding my overloaded plate (full of a variety of home-cooked dishes that would put a 5-star hotel to shame), observing the crowd, the room, the expressions, the body language, even the occasional singing of Fairuz hits. And a certainty grew inside me that I have lived this before, that I have been transferred to another time and another era where I had belonged and still belong. Politics, the economy, the Syrian refugees, family challenges, recipes, plans for the summer, stories of old trips, updates, advice, and confessions, were all discussed simultaneously among the members of a huge family that are constantly pulled together and pushed apart in the way human nature always behaves. I embraced with my eyes the room and felt blessed I had been given the opportunity to be part of that moment, to transcend into an unknown past and fly into a similarly unknown future, where we perpetually connect over celebrations and get reminded how it feels to be united.
The more I connect with the people of a country, the more their stories intertwine with my memories and become part of my stories as well. And I travel, keeping a weather eye open for new conversations and acquaintances – an avid story-hunter; a collector of instantanés that seep joy, grief, or heartache; a permanent believer in the beauty hidden even in the passing, almost trivial, human connections.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless stated otherwise)