In the waning heat of summer, thirteen friends coveted a reunion before time and space disperse them again into the four corners of the world. Real Tartoussis, hard working men of different pursuits, driven by the same ambition that impelled their Phoenician ancestors to go out and see the world, were to meet. A dinner table was chosen in a deep valley buried somewhere between the mountains of Tartous.
It was my turn to host. I was asked to make it memorable. Some of them I will not see in years, leaving country and kin and heading out to Martinique, to the China Sea, to the Persian Gulf, to Italy, to unknown wharfs and beyond. What we all had in common, in addition to a life binding friendship, is our eternal love for Tartous.
"Something they shall never forget, that’s what they asked for, when I proposed the invitation."
The first time I had head was, of all places, in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois at a Greek restaurant called the Parthenon. That was a long time ago, when I was a wanderer still, before I made it back to harbor. Having head is just my way of playing with words to make them gentler, although a little naughtier. I need to prepare some readers to what’s coming next, mildly and without coercion. Although eating the head of a butchered animal is ordinary and considered a delicacy in many countries, I had my first chance to try it out in America. It was fantastic and delicious. The Greeks have one of the finest cuisines in the world. I always found their entrées exceptionally scrumptious. They are familiar yet with a twist. The familiarity comes from our being neighbors sharing the same sea and sun. The twist comes from the subtleties of customs and pedigree.
I had to enlist the help of a gifted glutton, a dear friend and an invited guest for the evening. “How many sheep heads do we need to feed all of us?” I asked, “I want to surprise them all with heads.” Without hesitation, without giving it a second thought, he said: “We need one head only. It will sure surprise them as hell. We need one bull’s head.” It was early morning yet; he hung up the phone telling me to leave it to him. He will take care of it. He sure did, and a couple of hours later he called again. The head was gorgeous, he assured me. It was already skinned and cleaned. The meat weighs only 6 kg after the process. So, and in prudent maneuver on his part, he went ahead and bought an additional tongue weighing 2 kg. He reckoned that 8 kg (~18 lbs.) of meat, cooked in a big pot of Burghul and Hommos should be just about right for thirteen hungry lads. “Of course”, he continued, “you should order a full Mezza. We don’t want unbuckled belts at the end. A bucket of plain yogurt, a couple of watermelons and some sweet Herisseh should be just about right." And right he was.
The meat had to be sent soonest to the village for the lengthy cooking process required. I called the chef in the valley where the banquet was to take place. A strike of luck, he was in Tartous buying provisions for his little restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Thank God for mobile phones. We held a 3-way conference, the chef, the glutton and me. We spoke in code, and I set up the meeting for them. The chef’s pickup was approaching from the north in one of the narrower streets of Tartous. My friend’s taxi intercepted from the south. With discretion and efficiency the drop was made. Few words uttered over the wireless network. We shall be there at 2100 hour. We want the whole place. Close the restaurant down at 2030. Hang the “Reserved" sign on the outer door and carry out what’s need to be done.
Our dinner wasn’t over before midnight. The meat was cooked over firewood, slowly turning into the tenderest veal this side of the Mediterranean. Beyond words, we enjoyed the company of men. The feast was outlandish to a few of us who never had head before. Arak and beer flowed in rivers and springs. Sandals taken off, shirts unbuttoned, belts unbuckled, stomachs filled and hearts warmed. Friendship, the everlasting kind was the bond that brought us together.
We will have an encore in a month or two. Some of us won’t be here. Others might arrive from distant lands and seas. We will find something unforgettable to do. Again!