Souking around Saida, Biking Around Beirut

I had a cold & the Internet at home was down for some days. That gave me time to figure out how the pictures get from the camera to my laptop, at long last and I have been reading. David Hirst, Robert “Fiski” Fisk, other titles Mahmoud gave me, others that I found in our lounge bookshelf.

And I wrote. About things that popped into my memory…

from the Middle East to the Middle of Europe:

my first cedar tree

it stands, no, actually towers in the front garden of the house I grew up in. I reckon it should be about 33 years old. going on 34.
Before being transplanted and raising up towards the power lines and spreading its roots towards the foundations of our house, my majestic cedar was a Christmas tree. It was probably around 1978, the year my brother Pierre was born; Pitou was not here yet, Mariusz we hadn’t found yet.
Little cedar and me were, I recall my mom and dad telling me, the same height, back then. We’ve both grown quite a bit, since then. Pierre, who cares a lot for our house, has a few times threatened to make use of his chain saw and cut “ton cèdre”, given that it (apparently) upsets the foundation of our house.
Now that I am in Lebanon, the home of the cedar tree, I hope to have secured my beautiful cedar tree a long life. He is after all, the tallest tree in the centre of the village.

thinking about my cedar connection, brought up other childhood memories. I decided to write them out. and share them. Most of all, they are dedicated to those who nurtured me from day one, my parents, my siblings, a lot of family, my circle of love aka friends, little beautiful ones born these past years – and Aimé, my nephew.


one thing we seem to no longer appreciate when we grow up is being able to enjoy the same thing again. and again. and again. mind you, i know some people who will play a new CD for weeks… but generally, we tire of things rather quickly.
When I was small, my brother Pierre (again, Pitou wasn’t born or as we used to tell him when he was small, he had not been taken out of the “tiroir”, the drawer (we’re a clan of carpenters) & Mariusz hadn’t been found), we played this “trick” on my dad who used to come upstairs from the workshop late, after we’d eaten but before it was bed time.
At least once a week, my mom would make us “des oefs à la coque” (soft boiled eggs). She got the eggs from our neighbor, Grete, a farmer, who kept a dozen or so chicken. We learnt from a young age that nature is unpredictable, that abundant harvests are precious blessings. Grete’s chicken at times would just not lay vast quantities, so my mom or rather her emissaries (Pierre or me and did we dread those trips to get them eggs!) would frequently be sent back home with half the amount of eggs requested. Or none at all.
Egg supplies permitting, we’d get our “oeuf à la coque”, which my mom would slice open with a knife. We’d then scoop the sliced off hat out with a “petite cuillère”, before using the hard crust of bread (think German bread) to dip into the yolk. We loved that!
What we loved even more, was once we’d scooped our eggs out, to use one of our empty egg shells, turn it upside down and place it in my dad’s egg holder.

We could just not wait for him to come up the stairs and sit down at the table, in front of his egg. Ceremoniously, he’d take his knife and tap it. “Ah. What’s that sound? This egg sounds weird… What’s going on with Grete’s eggs?”

By then, Pierre and I would giggle.

Again, my dad tapped the egg shell.

We were ready to burst.

When his knife finally crashed into the empty egg shell, we were squealing with laughter. “Aaah, but chérie, what kind of egg are you serving me?” my dad would ask my mom, with a deadpan face.
And you know what?

We did it again. and again. and again.

Before we found Mariusz, my dad, who was an astounding mix between conformist and total anarchist (he would be the only one to jump up out of a crowd of onlookers and extinguish a burning car or gladly screw the asylum-seeking laws and hire whoever wanted to work for him, at market rate) but also insist on the streets be swept , the windows cleaned every Saturday as “one ought to do so”.
As a result of his stance, us kids (again, Pitou wasn’t there till 1984) saw some colorful characters in his workshop and around our lunch or dinner table. There were some recovering druggies, some “Aussteiger” (non-conformist, leftists, anarchists, tree-huggers, lots of them) who worked until they had money to stop working for a while, or travel to India to take drumming lessons for 3 months or go to see their girlfriend in Uruguay.

One of my favorites was Bernd. One day he was part of the house. He was a tall bear of a man, from Hamburg, which to us in the south sounded oh so far. But we knew it was not exotic.

Bernd came to our village to be part of the local ashram. Yip, our 500 people hamlet, which only had a mobile (aka bi-weekly) bank, baker and butcher, a weekly “fish man” driving past in winter, did have an ashram! Because it was run by women, Bernd couldn’t stay there. So he was his yogi self at the ashram but worked for my dad and lived downstairs. Until it was time to move on again.
At some stage, I was collecting coins. Remo, who scared me a bit, gave me coins from Uruguay – “best climate in the world!”
I put a painting my mom had been given, up in my room. She’d received it as a gift from one of the guys who worked with my dad.
And one day, we got Jamal. From the social department, we were told that he’d been in prison, had been tortured and was from Lebanon. This was around 1990. Germany would be unified on 2 October, Lebanon’s civil war, following the Taif Agreement, was over.
After spending some time working for my dad and living downstairs (it may have been 6 months or even a year), regardless of the fact that he’d face repeated imprisonment, Jamal was given notice that there was no longer grounds for his status as an asylum seeker to be upheld. It was time to go.

My parents tried. Nothing could be done, it seemed. Once given notice, Jamal had to be ready to leave within a few hours’ notice. It was my first experience of bureaucratic brutality. I had just turned 16, reached the legal age to get married and seriously considered that, to help Jamal stay. We didn’t speak Arabic, he spoke neither French, barely English or German. But eyes do speak, do tell, do reveal the quintessential facts of our character, bare our soul.
I’ll never forget the day we received the call that he would be flown out within hours. We said goodbye to Jamal, feeling powerless, sore, worried.
He gave us his address, in Arabic and Latin alphabet. I can visualize it pinned to my mom’s board for a long time, those lines, waves and dots, that apparently designated a place, in another country, where there had been war and there now was peace, for some.
I know maman wrote to him. Sadly, we never heard from him.
Now that I am in Lebanon, I think about Jamal. And the irony of my own, certainly far less dramatic, displacement leading me to his country.


About Tales from a Small Country

I'm a project coordinator and features writer with a passion for the seventh art, a keen interest in culture and mobility, as well as social and environmental subjects. Half French, half German by origin possibly explains why I am drawn to divided countries and diverse societies: I called Cape Town in South Africa home for over a decade before coming to Beirut in early 2012. Besides people watching and cats, I also love Tripoli, Lebanon's second city.
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One Response to Souking around Saida, Biking Around Beirut

  1. Mimi says:

    “my dad, who was an astounding mix between conformist and total anarchist.”
    Loved reading about your dad Nathalie. Somehow it reminded me of interactions with you and Pitou. And I still think of him in August on my birthday.
    love and chick-peace in your Lebanon adventures…

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