Valley of Faith

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 and flexible.  They can heal.  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 civil war in the 1980s cannot but have encouraged that.  Opinions seemed ridged, or so I assumed, memories too fresh.  I felt lucky not to be directly affected by that history.  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 and 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.  The rings of history are the essence of their trunks.  Ancient Egyptians used their resin in mummification and with the boats the Phoenicians built with 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, which doubles as a ski resort.  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 Biblical or Ancient ones that seemed to predominate.  Rather there were two of more modern vintage: the early twentieth century Lebanese-American artist, poet and writer Khalil Gibran who was born in Bcharre, where there is a museum dedicated to his life that was closed on a Sunday; 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.  Better still 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 little road through Bcharre and waited for a passing car. 

And it was Lebanon so the very first one stopped.

Tony was driving and his friend was there.  But the small thrill of not having to wait for more than thirty seconds was undone when he said they lived in the next village and would only go that far.  It was nonetheless a small start.

It can’t have been more than ten minutes to his village, but in the ten minutes we struck up a conversation.  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 an Australian because in the 1980s Australia had more compassion to it than it has these days and many Lebanese refugees resettled there.  In Lebanon everybody had a relative or neighbour that now lived in Sydney

His wife made the coffee and it didn’t take long.  Tony was proud of the house he’d built, as he should have been.  By the end of the coffee his friend had extended an invitation to his house and Tony had suggested a walk around the village, in particular to see a special church nearby.  Yes, Beirut was far but perhaps a village tour wouldn’t hurt.  Local insight: the traveller’s jewel.

Of the village there’s little to report apart from the striking valley views and that about every second home was boarded up.  Why is that, I asked Tony.  ‘They all live in Sydney,’ he said, ‘but they come here from time to time.’

Of the church, well, it was remarkable.  It was built into a cliff face with a small round hole and a ladder that had to be climbed to get inside.  The church itself was a narrow section, a ledge walled up on the outside with some kind of bricks, compact and historical.  It was built in the time of wars between Muslims and Christians, in centuries past, and, Tony explained, the ladder entry enabled the priests inside to protect themselves.  They kept swords to use on any that might think to climb that ladder to attack them.

I wouldn’t have seen that church if it wasn’t for Tony.  At his friend’s house, again over coffee, he 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: I really had no fixed schedule.

For dinner, Tony’s wife made a type of kebab wrapped in flat bread and I liked that they put them on top of the heater to keep them warm.  We played cards and we must have spoken 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 exactly on the deed, but I was really touched by the generosity of his words.  And I should have said it: in Bangladesh for guests they make tea.

He spoke of St Charbel, who as a boy tended sheep and spent his days in prayer in the mountains.  He spent years as a Maronite priest recluse in the simplest of circumstances.  Many miracles are attributed to St. Charbel, including after his death when a partially paralysed woman dreamt of him and awoke cured, with the ability to walk again.  She had two wounds in her neck and St. Charbel had said in her dream that he did surgery to heal her as a symbol, to bring people back to their faith.  ‘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 really a thing to do but I did. 

It’s funny 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 after that, in Sydney, when my thoughts turned once more to the Kadisha Valley.  I penned a letter and sent some photos.  There was no reply which I just assumed was because Tony wasn’t a letter-writing type of guy.  Indeed, it was at least two years later that I even knew he’d received it.

It happened on one evening when I was at home, in the flat I was renting in a predominantly Muslim suburb of Sydney.  The phone rang.  It was George.  I can say categorically that there’s nothing wrong with receiving a telephone call from George except that I didn’t know any George.  And this George, how did he get my phone 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, without a thought, on the next day, ‘I gave him your number.’

I went to see George one afternoon, how could I not, for coffee, baklava sweets  and chat about the Kadisha Valley and his cousin Tony.   And I couldn’t help it.  I should have 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 explained it, 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.’  Well, that’s what I learnt from the cedars: Lebanon, the heritage of half the world.

But the pigeons are flying to Syria, but there's a wedding going on in Africa, but don't forget the oak tree... 

And in Bangladesh, they make tea.

This article also published in The Star, here: Valley of Faith

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