“Hello Leanne and Simon. Terrible indeed! Here in Choueir it sounded like a fighter jet broke the sound barrier above the house. The house shook. A window was blown open. If this was the effect in this village, high in the mountains, tucked in a valley shielded from Beirut by a mountain, no wonder that much of Beirut is a disaster zone. Still, we have much to be thankful for. Everybody I know is safe.”
-a message from my cousin in Lebanon this morning. Choueir is located 30 kilometers from Beirut.
The news of the horrific explosion in Beirut feels like an emotional shock wave which is still shaking my heart!
When Simon and I visited two years ago we were amazed by this energetic, complicated city at the feet of Mt. Lebanon. An incredible mountain backdrop to a city stage. Beirut faces west over the Mediterranean, a bright sloping puzzle of apartment buildings with window views of the sea (and the port).
Countless drama have played out on this stage. Yesterday’s explosion being the latest, a tragedy upon tragedy beyond Shakespearean proportions. Who can fathom the beginning or the ending of this epic tale?
A story within a story
My great Grandmother grew up in Lebanon before immigrating to South Africa after she married at sixteen years of age. Her memoirs are recorded and together with the writings of her parents tell a fascinating story. Here is a beautiful description of their home town Choueir, written in the 1890’s by both her mother (Sarah Spurr) and her father Dr. Howie.
Quote from the book
Dr. Howie’s native village, Shweir (Choueir), geographically speaking is situated about twenty miles Northeast of Beirut, about 4000 ft (1200 m) above the Mediterranean. There is a carriage road from the city of Beirut on the coast to the ridge on the western slope of which the village is situated.
In a little sketch called “Passion Week in Mount Lebanon”, Mrs Howie speaks of Shweir as follows:
“The week before Easter is one of the busiest in the whole year, for the spring has begun and young leaves already deck the trees, and those who are going to raise silkworms have a great deal to do by way of preparation. The life of the village at this season can be best observed by ascending a flat roof and looking around for a few minutes.
It is Saturday, April 5th., the day on which the raising of Lazarus is commemorated by the Greek Orthodox Church. The first thing one observes is the beautiful landscape. A magnificent Amphitheatre rising from a great depth to a great height, the several tiers of terraces from top to bottom festooned with green as the tender vines put forth or the mulberry begins to display its thick foliage. Which above all the tall pine, with its evergreen bushy top, stands sentinel, holding aloft and umbrella-like sunshade over the tender flowers beneath.
On one side of the amphitheatre, the village of Shweir clinging to the Mountain side, is decidedly picturesque in its stout ensemble while vis-.-vis the little hamlet of Ain-Sindiany (the fountain of the Oak) is also picturesquely situated, and to crown all, “our Hermon” Mount Sunnin, looks serenely upon us, through an azure haze, with a cooling effect as the snow still clings to the thick folds around his ancient brow.
Beside the twittering of birds and the crowing of cocks, we hear the Druze talking to his oxen, in a language he and they understand, as with difficulty he guides the plough in and out among the mulberry trees on the narrow terraces.
At the fountain, a few paces from our house, some women have been washing last year’s dirt off their wicker trays and are now getting them ready for the approaching silkworm season.
A little further on, I see Um-Khattar washing a four-year old boy in front of her house: he has not a shred on and the early morning air is still cool but I suppose she must take him by the forelock; the grandmother is taking a little girl in hand and washing her head in an equally public manner. Beyond, Um-Selim and Um-Abdallah have turned all their beds, cushions and rugs into the open and the sound of beating carpets or rather straw mats and rugs reaches our ears.
Some of the women have already got their washing out on the line for this is the general wash day and in a short time the whole place will be draped with linen that is to be donned tomorrow. Dress makers are busiest of all, for every woman wants to come in new dress on Easter Sunday.
The village children have a holiday today and their voices at play blend with the multitude of other sounds.
There is no want of animation and yet there is no hurry or bustle. All are about their business in the most orthodox fashion.
The late Dr Howie thus describes “ Our Location. This district, both in the days of Solomon as well as at the time of the rebuilding, furnished workmen and material for the Temple at Jerusalem (I Kings V, 13-14). It lies in the centre of the Promised Land, according to the definitions of Numbers 34 and Josh. 13.5.
It is a mountainous region “stern and wild” the roads are rough and even dangerous.
The population is as heterogeneous as a Haggis and almost too great for the space (that was in 1895). For bread-stuff, our principal food, we depend entirely upon the Hauran (East of Jordan), in Asia Minor, and even on Russia. Our animal food is chiefly mutton and comes from Armenia and Kurdistan. For lighting purposes, the former generation used the native olive oil in old fashioned clay vessels, but we now invest in U.S or Russian paraffin. The main thing which we export is raw silk. Several factories for the spinning of which, have been in this country for generations and have made firewood and every kind of timber scarce and expensive, in the absence of native coal mines.
Strangely, the arabic text I chose to write on the front page of my diary in gold means “overcome”. This was done in 2017. I can’t remember why or how I came to write that on the illustration but it seems appropriate today. On the inside cover I made the little emblem with the words “beautiful things can be made of dust” … another enigma!
To everyone in Lebanon who are suffering either from injuries or from economic difficulties please don’t give up hope. We will build something beautiful from the dust.
As some of you know, I am working on a book about our Lebanese history, with writing and paintings by my Great-great Grandmother Sarah Francis Spurr Howie (Journalist NYT), her sister Gertrude Spurr (a famous Canadian Artist), Canada (my Great Grandmother), Kitty (my Grandmother) and Heather (my Mother and a fabulous artist) and of course, my own illustrations made during the trip.
Hope to have that published by the end of this year. If you have any historical material to contribute to this sublime project please contact me. On the flip side…Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese writer said this…