The Flame Trees of Beirut

“It was like being bitten by a beautiful dragon fly whose wings were of such splendour that the victim did not even feel the nip in the flesh.” Robert Fisk – Pity the Nation Lebanon At War.

 

My first impression of Beirut was how much like Haifa in Israel it looked. The city tumbling down from the surrounding hills, buildings almost falling into the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean Sea.

Beirut was so much like Haifa that in the days preceding Israel’s aerial bombing of the city in 1982 the pilots used Haifa to practice its raids using that city as its dummy for the real thing.

The bombing of Lebanon by Israel and the subsequent slaughter of innocent Palestinian refugees in the camps by the Lebanese Phalanges shocked the outside world. Reporters and photographers sent harrowing scenes back verbally and visually that the west could not fully comprehend. And perhaps we could never understand.

The country continued over the years to be a hot spot for conflict and its capital  bombed to oblivion meant the hedonist city of Beirut was a place no longer on the tourist trail. My constant trips to Israel meant that even when peace was restored I could not visit.

And those that did visit said the city was destroyed, buildings left abandoned, bombed, burnt and razed to the ground. And of course the kidnappings and hostages all added to the reputation of Lebanon not being a place for your average traveller.

In the 21st Century, a country that had in Biblical times provided the cedar trees for Solomon’s Temple to be built in Jerusalem now had the monumental task of rebuilding its capital from the rubble.

And of course that is the first thing I noticed on my walk around the city, just how many abandoned buildings there were. And it was difficult to establish with any confidence which conflict had caused their destruction.

The hotel where I stayed near the famous Corniche abutted onto a cluster of such buildings. One hidden behind the veil of a huge overgrown flame tree was possibly from the Ottoman times, the wrought iron bars on the windows had rusted beyond repair.

The flame tree hiding the building was blooming later then many in Beirut. Probably because it was in virtual shade from the surrounding buildings. Over the week the leaves turned from pastel yellow, to orange and vibrant red.

Behind this ghostly beauty was an old apartment block. Three storeys high, it too had all the signs of being abandoned in a rush. Wooden slats on all the glassless windows had been virtually bleached white by years of sun and wind. One home at the top had geraniums growing from the window box. Spots of red like blood splayed across the peeling paint of the wall.

At dusk bats would flitter through the open doors and windows, flapping up into the balmy evening air. Sometimes they would fly close to where I stood on my balcony. Harmless little creatures, surviving in a place that once saw an aerial attack of a far worse and deadly kind.

I wondered did all of the occupants of the building make it out alive, running away before the attacks, or did they stay and endure hoping to survive? And what happened to them? Where did they go? Where are they now? What kind of life do they and their families have now?

Another building which appeared empty was an office block. The age of the building suggested that perhaps this was abandoned in a more recent conflict. It still had all the glass in the windows intact. Curtains hung yellow and dusty in some rooms. But at night there was always one room illuminated. Had someone set up home there? Electricity was obviously still connected, and perhaps running water. Was he security, or was he just someone who lived where he knew he would be left in peace?

Buildings like these are dotted all around Beirut. Some like the Holiday Inn have gaping holes in them from where the firing burst open the walls. The concrete edifice that the local calls The Blob, peppered with shell fire and bullet holes. Buildings left to ruin alongside the new rebuilds.

For many the re- building of Beirut is a great thing but I couldn’t but help think as they rebuilt the city, they were trying to re write their history, just like Haifa in Israel, slowly creating a sanitised city devoid of all the trapping of humanity. By my hotel there were old Arabic shops alongside a new air conditioned super market that sold new trendy products.

Many places I walked I felt I could have been in Brighton in England. The Arabic past not obliterated but absorbed by a Western conception of how the city should be. The souks of Beirut are now pristine tents set up in St Georges Bay selling designer items, pretty shiny things with no trace of the country’s heritage in their makeup.

There were on days when I have to confess I took a bus just to go to the outskirts of the refugee camp at Sabra. Just to look across that invisible line to see where a nation of persecuted and oppressed people lived. Just to remind myself I was in a country situated in the Middle East, between Syria and Israel.  That God forbid I wasn’t in Brighton.

This was the city where Israel in an attempt to obliterate a nation of people helped the Lebanese Phalanges in the slaughter of innocent children, women and old men. Have they chosen to forget?

By the end of my week in Beirut workers were putting the finishing touches on a new shiny tower block that overlooked the Corniche. Potted Palm Trees were being placed strategically along the entrance to the building. Yes I know what you are all thinking Potted Palm Trees in the Middle East!

I was vaguely reassured by the site of an old bombed out wreck of building next to it, plants that had gone wild and were slowly escaping down the balcony to freedom.

 

Next week Miss Walton gets accidently kidnapped by two bus drivers and taken up into the hills of Lebanon!

The last story teller of Marrakech.

For centuries the square called Jemmaa el Fna in the city of Marrakech had been a place for the art of storytelling to thrive. People who could not read or write and did not have TV or computers, would come and sit and listen to a story being told and played out by a hlaykia – a story teller.

Now the new modern age of TV, Facebook, and computers means they have become virtually redundant. For me the thought of not reading the written word is unimaginable. I am sure in years to come there will be campaign for the last author.

Whilst on a recent sojourn in Morocco I was unwell. Fortunately I had enough books for me to just sit back read and also to write and so here is a very inferior modern story that I hope captures the spirit of the story tellers of Marrakech. For those wanting to read a more traditional example I recommend – Richard Hamilton –The last story tellers.

 

The rich baker of Azemmour.

 

Once upon a time in Azemmour, there was a young boy called Moulay. He dreamed of being rich. He lived in a small house inside the walls of the Old Portuguese Medina of Azemmour with his mother and his six brothers and sisters. He was happy enough, but he was restless and wanted more.

Often he would row his small wooden boat along the canal called Wadi Oum er Rbia, at the mouth of the estuary he would think of how he would sail a boat right through the white tipped waves of the Atlantic ocean and make his way to Europe. Where he could work and become rich.

He had heard of a city called London. That city had a river too but it had rich people’s boats sailing on it. And the whole of London had rich people living there.

Moulay began working in the communal bakery when he was twelve. This was a place where all his neighbours would bring their bread for the baker to bake their daily bread. Every one took their dough there, for people in the Medina did not have ovens to cook. They cooked meat on open braziers outside but bread was always taken to the baker.

Moulay worked hard, but his head was in the clouds. He still dreamed of London and being rich.

One day the owner of the baker came to Moulay with a very generous offer. “I have watched you these past few years and you work very hard Moulay. I have only daughters, no sons to pass my business onto. I am old and soon will not be able to work. I want you to have my bakery. I offer you my eldest daughter Fatimah as your wife. And then the bakery will become yours.”

Moulay knew that this was a very generous offer. Fatimah was pretty and very kind natured and would make a very suitable wife. But Moulay loved the younger daughter Rashida. She was more beautiful than Fatimah if not as kind hearted.

Whilst Moulay pondered over the request, one of his cousins paid a visit from Casablanca, that very French city further up the coast. His cousin flashed his cash and began to flirt with Rashida.

Mohammed took his cousin aside one day and whispered in his ear, “Rashida is too pretty for you, it will have to be a rich man for her.” This was something that Moulay knew was true he wished it wasn’t true but he knew Rashida was what the Europeans called – High Maintenance.

“But,” Mohammed continued, “I know how you can become rich, so rich you could afford two wives like Rashida.”

Moulay was all ears, money soon to be his, lots of it too.

“You have to be very brave and be able to sail a boat.” Mohammed said.

Moulay could sail a boat no problem. As to brave? All doubts were quickly dispelled about his courage at the thought of achieving his dream of being rich.

“What do you need me to do?” he replied to Mohammed, a growing feeling of excitement rising in him. He was up for the adventure.

“My boss has a very precious cargo that needs to be taken to Europe. I will arrange the time and place for you. All you have to do is sail the boat across the sea to Spain. Moulay thought that was easy. A boat can be sailed across the stretch of Mediterranean Sea no problem he deduced.

So one cold dark winter morning, Moulay left his mother and his siblings and headed further up the coast line to where he was told the boat with the cargo would be waiting for him.

But when he got there he was shocked and immediately had second thoughts. There was the boat low in the water, heavy with the cargo of people. Illegal immigrants headed for Europe in the hope of a better life.

Moulay nearly said, “No.”. But the lure of the money and having Rashida as his wife swayed him.

They were not going to sail across the Mediterranean Sea, as he had expected. Instead they were to sail up the north Atlantic coast and then to the south west coast of Spain.

The first few hours of sailing were easy. By now the sun was up and a cool breeze seemed to be pushing them to the direction they needed to go. I few of the men – for they were all men he had now established – were sea sick but that was to be expected.

But then a storm of such magnitude began and the waves were higher than the boat. Many of the men fell overboard; they quickly sank beneath the cruel sea. Their cries all but obliterated by the sound of the angry storm.

But somehow Moulay sailed on, driven now just with the will to survive and to hit land any land.

And so the boat did eventually hit land – the South West coast of the country called Spain. There was a lorry waiting for them to take them through Spain and France to Calais.

Moulay had not planned to go with them, not really for he had only planned to sail the boat to Spain. But he thought, Allah has got me this far. I will go on in the lorry to France.

The lorry did not stop very often and soon the water they had been supplied with was gone. The smell of the bodies all crammed in together was insufferable, and just when Moulay was about to give up, the lorry stopped one last time and opened up the doors.

The last surviving men staggered and fell out and began their last part of the journey to England.

Moulay in a semi delirious state noticed that the weather once again had changed. There was no blue sky and sun. Just grey skies and dampness, the continual drizzle of rain.

But he told himself, all would be OK once they reached London.

So hiding between the legs of sheep headed for England Moulay finally arrived in that country where dreams were made, where everyone was rich. But Moulay was not driven to London, he was driven further north to a place he could not pronounce. A place called Lincolnshire.

And here for several months he worked over 18 hours a day six days a week. For what even he knew was a pittance. And the misery of being on a farm, in the middle of nowhere nearly broke his resolve.

There was no sun to warm his bones. The caravan he lived in with 10 other men was cold and damp and soon began to smell.

In the short moments of sleep. He began to dream of Azemmour. The town where the sky was always blue and where a breeze from the Wadi carried the smells of cooking and the sound of laughter from the Medina. There was no call here for payer from the muezzin, just the call to work like dogs.

And so one night when he had woken up having dreamt of the smell of fresh bread from the bakery. The bakery that had he said yes would now be his.  Moulay prayed to Allah for help. He was not sure that he was praying in the right direction but he was sure that Allah would forgive him that one small transgression.

And Allah answered his prayers. “You must put your trust in authority Moulay.”

He pondered on what this meant. But then he knew. So he got up, and although as usual it was raining, he walked out of the farm, before the dogs were even up to bark a warning to the farmer.

He trudged through a field of heavy mud. And kept walking till he came to a road that was tarmac. Walking the road he came to a sign, with two arrows.  One with a long name he couldn’t read, but in brackets the number 25, and the other with a shorter name that he still couldn’t read with in brackets the number 15. He chose the direction with the shorter name and the smaller number and continued to walk.

Soon he could see the sprawl of a town or a city and he pushed on towards the place. Before he had made it to the outskirts of the town, a police car pulled up alongside of him.

He did not struggle, he climbed into the back of car willingly. And so without a passport, money or any form of identification Moulay took the long road back to Azemmour.

When he returned home, thinner, older and very much wiser, his mother cried that she thought he was dead. His sisters cried that they thought he was dead. His brothers cried they thought he was dead. And his cousin, rather less enthusiastically greeted him and with less joy said, “I thought you were dead.”

When he went to the bakery, Fatimah was still not married, she smiled a welcome to Moulay and her father shook his hand. He went to say, “I thought….”

Moulay interrupted him and sadly said, “Yes. I know you thought I was dead.”

Rashida had married Mohammed and was now pregnant. And although still very beautiful was now even more high maintenance and still not so kind hearted as Fatimah.

A year later he married Fatimah and became the owner of the bakery.

The only time Moulay thought of England again was when a grey cloud sailed across the blue skies of Azemmour. Or sometimes when a tourist walked past his bakery and stared in with curiosity. He would shudder at the memory of his time in England. He never spoke of his time in the country where the sun did not shine. He was grateful that Allah had helped back from the ends of the world and now looked forward to his future with less money but richer by far in many other ways.