An extract from The Curtain Maker of Beirut
Chapter Two – A Walk in the Qadisha Valley, Northern Lebanon
I sit on a ledge of rock beside a fast-flowing stream, on the cusp of darkness and light, watching the place where the tree shadows end. The sound of rushing water fills my head. Above the torrent, clusters of leaves shine lemon yellow and sap green in the pure light.
Deirdre’s haversack lies a few feet away: she is exploring by herself and will come back for me soon. We are down on the floor of the Qadisha gorge, somewhere between the Maronite Christian monasteries of Mar Elisha and Deer as Salib. Behind the trees, a dark pink cliff rises a thousand metres into the sky.
I reach for Deirdre’s bag and pull out the bottle of water she has carried from our hotel in Becharre. For me it’s too hot to walk much further and my belly is aching down in the pit, alarming me. I lean back, resting against warm stone. Inches away, a grey-green lizard stops, quivers, listens. The water races on. I hear footsteps from the left; but no-one comes.
At half past twelve Deirdre re-appears.
“I’ve found a better place for you to sit,” she says, “Just a bit further on.” She holds out her hand and pulls me to my feet.
We sling our bags over our shoulders and climb back up to the wide track that runs along this side of the valley. For the first few hundred metres it is over-hung by trees and we walk steadily, our sticks tapping softly on the dry earth. Then the track climbs up and swings round, leaving the river-bed far below. The trees thin out, the earth turns to sand, young shrubs and thistles grow on the verges and the air vibrates with the humming of crickets. The full heat of the sun confronts us.
“Not far now,” Deirdre promises. “You’ll like it when we get there. And I’ll go on for a while, see if I can find Qanoubian.” She walks beside me without a hat, her fair curls lifting and dropping on the back of her neck. Her arms are turning a gingery brown.
I pull the brim of my hat over my eyes and walk slowly. In the distance a couple of old cars are parked across the track. On the far side of the valley, perched above the river, I see the square stone forms of ancient buildings. As we pass the cars, we hear voices. The track dips down and there, ahead of us, is a large Coca-Cola sign fixed to the wall of a little house. Beside it, I read the words “Restaurant Abu Josef”. A group of children watch three men who stoop over shovels, digging a trench at the side of the house. A woman sits at a table in the shade, preparing food. The men straighten up as we appear.
“Itfaddalu!” they cry, Welcome! pointing to the flat roof of the house which is crowded with tables and chairs under a cloth awning. I wave to Deirdre and stagger up the outside steps.
I choose a table in the shade, enjoying the slight breeze that rises from the river. The leaves of a grape vine trail from the metal frame that supports the awning, making patterns of light and dark on the concrete parapet. The other tables are deserted apart from a couple who are getting up to go. The man has an expensive-looking camera and I guess they are French. We greet each other and I add, stating the obvious,”Il fait chaud, hein?” Pilgrims, I wonder, or just casual tourists?
“Bof, pas tellement,” the man brushes away my remark. This heat is nothing to a Frenchman. He strides to the edge of the roof, screws up his eyes and focusses the camera.
“This is the Holy Valley,” he announces with solemnity, “the refuge of the Maronite saints, who lived encircled by Islam.” His expression implies that no fate could have been worse. The man has a thick beard and is dressed in baggy shorts. “On y va, Helene?” he says to his companion.
I walk to the edge of the roof, wondering if the man has confused the past with the present. The Qadisha valley is celebrated in local lore as the historic ‘place of refuge’ of the Maronite holy men, but the refuge they sought was from their fellow Christians, not from Moslems. The Maronites are the descendants of a small Christian sect originally from Arabia, whose doctrines were declared heretical by the Orthodox Byzantine church in 680 AD. In the tenth century, after persecution in the Orontes valley to the north, the Maronites migrated south to Mount Lebanon, preferring to live under Moslem rule. Their holy men settled in the Qadisha valley, which in those days was cut off by snow for half the year and in summer accessible from the surrounding mountains only by precipitous paths cut into walls of rock. Two centuries later, in 1180, the Maronites became Catholics, and from the sixteenth century on they developed close ties with France.
Below the restaurant, the gorge opens out. Abandoned terraces follow the contours of the rock on either side of the valley, making rhythms of green and brown. Half a dozen grey stone houses stand above the river, shaded by fruit trees. A figure in a long black habit moves on a balcony… or am I seeing things? These houses are likely to be long deserted.
I hear movement behind me. A girl of about nine has come to ask what I want to drink. She has thick dark hair which falls over her shoulders, pale skin and eyes of a colour between black and green.
“There’s Coca-Cola” she says in French, “or Fanta.” She hovers beside the tall, glass-fronted fridge that stands in one corner.
“Mm,” I reply, “I’ll have a Coca-Cola.”
While I remove my walking boots the girl brings a bottle with a straw and sits down beside me. I ask her how far it is to Qanoubian and she points up the valley, in the direction taken by.
“It’s not far,” she says, smiling, “I’ll show you if you want.”
But I shake my head. “No thanks, I need to rest for a while.” The girl gets up and fetches a little leaflet in French with a map of the valley. All the monasteries, chapels and grottoes are marked. “D’you live here?” I ask.
“No, no, we live in Blawza,” she points to the cliff tops which tower above us on the right side of the gorge, “but in summer we come here every day. My dad’s building two toilets for the restaurant.” She looks at me. “D’you know, in the past, lots and lots of people lived in this valley.”
“Where’ve they all gone?”
“To Canada and Australia and… lots of different places.”
“Are they going to come back?”
“No, they’re not coming back. We don’t even know exactly where they are, most of them.” She stares at me, as if trying to formulate a question. “Have you been to Lebanon before?”
“No, this is my first time. I’ve been to the Middle East before though, I’ve been to Palestine and Syria and Iraq…”
I smile. “Australia’s a long, long way away.”
The girl rests her forearms on the brown plastic table-cloth and swings her feet under the table. After a few moments she says, “My mum’s cooking downstairs… D’you want something to eat?”
“What have you got?”
“Hummous, mouttabal, meatballs, salad, pommes frites…”
“A plate of hummous would be nice.”
“Just hummous?” The girl’s eyes grow larger.
I smile. “I’ll have hummous, then I’ll see.”
She runs downstairs and returns after a couple of minutes with a little dish of hummous and a basket of bread. “My mum’s made mujeddera” she announces. “She says you can have some if you like.”
I smile in delight. Mujeddera is one of my favourite Levantine dishes. “Go on then,” I say, “just a small dish.”
The girl runs downstairs again and returns with a plate of lentils and rice stewed in cumin. “Sometimes I make it myself,” she says with pride.
I eat the mujeddera and pushed the plate of hummous towards my companion, but she refuses it.
“Where’s your friend gone?” she asks.
“To see the monastery at Qanoubian.”
“Has she got a telephone?”
“What, with her? No.”
“We have three telephones,” the girl tells me in a serious voice. “One mobile, one land phone downstairs and one in Blawza.”
“Have you!” I was surprised, earlier, to see telegraph wires in the valley.
“Why didn’t you go with your friend to the monastery?”
“I was too tired.” Should I tell her? I wonder. “I’m pregnant. I can’t walk very far at the moment, I have to rest a lot.”
The little girl nods. “When you finish your food you can lie down on the bed there,” she points to a rickety bed in the corner, half sheltered by the awning and half in the sun.
When she stacks up the plates and carries them down the stairs, I pad over to the edge of the roof in my socks. Behind the restaurant the men have stopped digging, leaving their spades propped against the side of the trench. The toilets they are building will be squalid huts plagued by flies, but badly needed, all the same. If it weren’t so hot I would wander off in search of a well-hidden spot among the abandoned fruit trees. But the sun is at its zenith. I step back beneath the awning, roll a jersey from my bag into a pillow and lie down on the bed. My head and shoulders are in the shade, while sunlight plays over my legs. Tendrils of grape vine shift in the air above me, making patterns on my stomach. I wonder if the baby is enjoying the warmth.
Who he or she is, I don’t yet know. I feel something akin to shyness as I lay a hand upon my bump. Shyness and anxiety. For it remains to be seen whether the baby will forgive me this last jamboree, this final fling of childless woman freedom which I am seizing on the eve of motherhood.
Two months earlier, when I asked my GP if I would be crazy to visit Lebanon in the sixteenth week of pregnancy, she replied blandly ‘Just be careful what you eat. No salad, no unpasteurised soft white cheese.’ Then a funny look came into her eyes. ‘Of course, if something goes wrong, you won’t have the same medical care you would have here.’
I walked home slowly, imagining the worst.
But a day later I called Deirdre to see if she wanted to come with me.
‘Lebanon?’ said Deirdre in her soft Scottish accent. ‘Sure, I’ll come. But not to Beirut.’ Deirdre hated cities. ‘Let’s go walking in the mountains.’
‘I won’t be able to walk as far as you.’
‘No matter. If we go in September it should be good weather. Bring a drawing book, you can sit under a tree while I go on a bit.’
I longed to see Beirut, but I could wait: if Lebanon was safe, as by all accounts it was, perhaps I’d go back when the baby was old enough to travel. Meanwhile, some fresh air and Arabic conversation would do me good. ‘Fine,’ I said, ‘let’s go and see the north.’
I drift in and out of sleep, mindful of the risk of sun-stroke but longing to give way to my body’s weariness. A breath of air touches my cheek and I half open my eyes to find that white clouds are floating in the space between the canopy and the parapet. Closing them again, I turn on my side. If the weather turned cooler, what a blessing that would be. A box spring digs into my shoulder.
After half an hour I push myself slowly upright and swing my legs over the side of the bed. The cramping in my belly has abated and a thirst for hot, sweet tea drives me. I press my fingers into the corners of my eyes and force my feet into my walking boots.
At the foot of the outside steps I hear the clanking of pots. Rounding the corner of the building, through an open window I see a woman standing at a table, her hands buried in a bowl containing a moist, brown mixture. The smell of raw onions reaches me. The woman is plump and pretty with her daughter’s dark hair and pale skin.
“Hello!” I say in Arabic, “Your mujeddera was delicious.”
She looks pleased. “Glad you enjoyed it.” She presses a dollop of the brown mixture against the sides of a small bowl, tosses a wedge of dripping into the centre and turns out the bowl-shaped cake onto a metal tray. I watch, trying to decide whether it’s sweet or savoury.
“What’s that you’re making?”
“Bulgar cakes.” She presses another dollop of mixture into the bowl.
“Does it have meat in?”
“Of course. Meat, bulgar, garlic, onion. You’ve never tried it?” The woman lookes at me with an air of disbelief. She wears her blouse open at the neck, draped loosely over her large bosom.
“I was wondering,” I say, “could I have a cup of tea?”
My friend sits on a stool at the back of the kitchen.
“Sara!” the woman shouts. “Put water on to boil. Have a seat, please.” She waves me to an outside table, beneath another trellised vine.
When Sara brings the tea I hear a man’s voice in the kitchen. Looking up I see him standing beside the woman, telling her a joke, as he washes his hands in the sink. His arms are tanned dark gold.
“Your dad?” I ask Sara.
The man appears round the side of the house and walks towards us, holding out his hand.
“Your friend still not back yet?” he asks as he greets me.
“She went to see the monastery, I’ll go and look for her in a while.”
“It’s better now,” he nods,” Getting cooler.” His trousers are caked with soil and beads of sweat stand out on his neck. The sleeves of his shirt are rolled above his elbows and his shirt is half unbuttoned. A brush of wirey hair springs up from his forehead.
He is surprised that I speak Arabic and asks me where I learned it. Hesitantly, I tell him that I once spent a year in Palestine. Many Maronites dislike the Palestinians, but the man appears unconcerned. “First time in Lebanon? You saw Qadisha, Becharre? All this area is beautiful.”
He smiles, but when I asked him what life’s like now the war is over, his forehead contracts into a mass of furrows.
“Things are very difficult. The economy’s in a big mess. You see, during the war there was money. Especially in this area. We’re close to the Bekaa valley.” The man opens his eyes wide. “Every inch of the Bekaa was used to cultivate hashish. And they brought it out across these mountains.” He gestures towards the head of the valley. “In those days, nobody went without. Today, some people are even saying they want to return to the days of war, because of the money we had then.”
“Hashish is illegal now, isn’t it?”
“You won’t find a single field of hashish down there. Have you been to the Bekaa?”
“Not yet.” I wonder whether the man means that I won’t find hashish or that it isn’t there. The penalty for growing hashish today is life imprisonment with hard labour. But I’ve read that some desperate peasants are resuming its cultivation in fields far from the roads. In the high, arid valley, little else will grow. “But I thought lots of money flowed into Lebanon after the war,” I go on. “Into Beirut, anyway?” In the early nineties the government raised millions of dollars from Lebanese ex-patriates to reconstruct the centre of Beirut.
The man lights a cigarette and looks at me across the table. “A few years back, there was a lot of money. Two years ago, I was working in Beirut for Solidere, the government construction company. It was good for a while; but then the money ran out!” He raises his big hands from the table top in despair. “Every building gang that used to have ten workers, now has four or five.” He shakes his head. “The big money’s gone.”
I stir sugar into my tea. “D’you still live in Beirut?”
“In Jounieh, just up the coast.” Jounieh was a fishing village at the start of the war in 1975, but soon became a stronghold of the Christian right and the port through which they received weapons from the Israelis. The man brightens. “Jounieh is beautiful! You must go there. Here everything is old,” he gestures dismissively at the valley around us. “But in Jounieh it’s all new. All nightclubs and casinos and hotels… really, you’ll love the place. I’ll give you my address.” He takes out a piece of paper and asks me for a pen. Tony Chedid, he writes in Latin letters on a slant, followed by a phone number. He looks up, slightly embarassed. “When you telephone,” he says, “You’ll get my Madame. If you tell me your name I’ll explain that you’ll be phoning.”
I give Tony my name and ask if he has children.
“Two boys. And you?”
I pat my stomach. “First one on the way.”
“Oh,” he raises his eyebrows. “It’s not obvious, to look at you. Just a couple of months?”
“Four.” I wish for the hundredth time that my bump was bigger.
“Where’s your husband?”
“At home. He was too busy at work to come with me.” This is a half truth, but it will do. Paul did not demur when I told him I was planning to travel with Deirdre.
“Your friend’s coming back for you?”
I take a swig of tea. “In a minute I’ll wander up the path and look for her.”
The cloud has cleared, but the air is cooler as I set out along the path to Qanoubian. Perhaps Deirdre has twisted her ankle, or fallen asleep in the sun. On Tony Chedid’s directions, I follow a sandy track until I come to a wooden signpost wedged into the ground, pointing to a smaller path which leads upwards into the scrub. Soon I see a square stone building in front of me with pale blue wooden shutters. A flight of steps leads to a raised courtyard at the back of the building. On the roof stands a stumpy wooden cross. I stop and listen, wondering what I’ll do if Deirdre isn’t here. The monastery has the air of being deserted, and my ears bring me no sounds. Even the crickets have gone quiet. Far below me in the gorge, the river whispers.
I feel uneasy. Perhaps the Maronite saints of old left a spirit of hostility to strangers in the place. I am from the Christian west, as a child I even briefly attended a church school, but I am not a practising Christian.
I walk slowly up the steps, emerging in the courtyard. On the far side, the facade of a chapel projects from the rock face. Several feet above the ground, a lizard clings amongst the lichen, its tail curled, its body a-quiver.
To my left, a cloister runs along the side of the square building. Underfoot, the flagstones are uneven. Weeds push up between the cracks.
“Hiya!” Deirdre’s voice sings out from high above me. She is waving from the monastery roof. I watch while she saunters down another flight of steps. “Have you been asleep?” she asks. “Your cheeks are rosy. Come and see inside the chapel.” I follow her across the courtyard, glad to have found her. “There were some people here earlier,” she remarks, “a French couple. They said the place has been re-opened recently. Nuns live here in the summer, playing host to young Maronites from abroad who want to find their ancestral roots. There’s a kitchen over there, and some cells.” She waves towards the cloister. “And there used to be a tunnel for the Patriarch to escape in times of danger.”
Inside the chapel, a weak electric light illuminates a fresco that fills one wall from floor to ceiling. The Virgin Mary is being crowned by three wise men. The figures are bordered on either side by a column of blond, cherubic angels with black, outstretched wings. A mediaeval-looking sun hangs above one column, a moon above the other.
Deirdre turns to me. “They mummified the body of one of the patriarchs who lived here.” Her face bears a look midway between fascination and abhorrence. “He’s in a glass case in a vault next to the chapel.”
I wrinkle up my nose. “I don’t want to see him.”
It is five o’clock and time to begin the hour’s walk back to Mar Elisha. We climb down the stone staircase and re-trace our steps to the restaurant Abu Josef. Sara’s family and their helpers are sitting at a long tressle table against the house wall, eating a meal. They wave, call out greetings and invite us to join them, but we thank them and decline.
We march steadily down the track that runs above the river. The temperature is dropping and the sun has shifted to the far wall of the valley. The sound of the river grows louder, birds call to one another and in the freshness of the evening I am able to quicken my pace. The track leads through woods beside the river, until we emerge close to Mar Elisha. Our thoughts turn towards Becharre, where we were staying. Throwing back our heads we see, above the thousand metre wall of rock that seals the valley, a half-built apartment block against the fading sky.
Behind us, a car engine grinds into life. Turning, we see lights through the trees. We walk on, comforted by the feeling that others, too, are going home.
The car, an old Mercedes, halts beside us.
“Ittfaddalu! Get in!” The back door opens and I see Tony Chedid smiling at me through the gloaming. “We’re going through Becharre, we’ll give you a ride.” He nods at Deirdre.
I stoop down and peer into the car. The upholstery is ripped and two windows are missing. Sara’s mother sits in the front beside her husband, a weather-beaten man in a keffiyah. Sara perches on her mother’s lap, jammed up against the gear-stick. In the back a little boy presses his face against the window. Tony Chedid climbs out.
I squash up beside the little boy and Deirdre gets in after me, gathering our haversacks on her lap. Tony climbs in beside Deirdre and slams the door. We murmur our gratitude, but our weary hosts do not reply. The man in the keffiyah sighs, changes gear and urges the over-laden car forwards.
In five minutes we are climbing steadily on the tarmac road, gaining height with every switch-back. I turn my head and gaze back down the valley. The sky is a shadey grey-blue, crowded with the dark forms of bushes, trees and rocks. A crag glows orange-pink in the last light, then turns to dirty purple. The day is done.