Ultimately, fate had it that we couldn't make it there. A horrific explosion in Tripoli, Lebanon on the morning of our departure killed 20 innocent souls, maimed scores of guiltless passersby and of course brought our plans to an abrupt end. I was going to tell you about Paradise but I'll leave it till another day. Since marriage and real life are nowhere close to being heaven, my story will take another twist.
It's been twenty years. We had good times and bad. We shared many blessings and misfortunes. We brought to life three wonderful kids. We gave up a hundred unrealized dreams. We made plans then changed them then made other plans then changed them again. We climbed and stumbled but went on. We laughed and cried. We fought and made up. Through it all, however, we kept our promises as we had the common sense to keep them small. Come evening, we were always back, friends and lovers for life.
Leaving our insouciant kids behind, we jumped in the car and headed in the direction of Wadi Al-Nassara (Valley of Christians). In order to remove any religious connotation and maintain its secular policy the government chose to rename it as Wadi Al-Nadara (Valley of Freshness). But you can't change history at the whim of an enlightened or benighted decision maker and accordingly the region is known to all, to its native inhabitants and to visitors alike by its original name only, the stunningly beautiful Wadi Al-Nassara, Valley of Christians.
Om Fares and I are very different indeed. Her idea of fun calls for practicality and organization. She is the type who enjoys the destination and considers the trip as an unavoidable requisite. She appreciates the panoramic landscape but under normal circumstances can't wait to really get where she's going. I, on the other hand, often tend to forget all together where I'm heading to in the first place. I don't mind to alter my road, extend my excursion or bring it to an immature end on impulse. As Om Fares knew that I must've been deeply disappointed about the cancellation of our trip to Ehden she gave me some leeway and unbounded my impetuosity. 50 kilometers southeast of Tartous we exited the main highway leading to Homs and headed north. The valley is dotted by small villages and towns, each boasting a church or a monastery ranging in size and prominence from the splendid to the self-effacing. Unguided and unconcerned we followed the bends of the winding road. As we approached each village I made a happy announcement (to Om Fares) that we would finally eat somewhere there. To her, I must've sounded like a lost captain trying to reassure his passengers that he knows where the hell he's going. Between you and me, I didn't care at all. I just wanted to prolong the voyage as much as feasible. Like usual, Om Fares had to eventually step in. "I'm very hungry", she said. "It's already 3:30 pm and your invitation was for lunch if I'm not mistaken". I looked right, left then straight down the road where I glimpsed an arrow underneath some Arabic writing. The sign read: Hotel Francis –Restaurant and Pool. The SUV climbed laboriously up the steep incline, twisting and turning through a series of hairpin curves before we finally made it into a flower-adorned parking lot. The restaurant was packed with a jubilant crowd. We were asked by the waiter if we were invited to the baptizing party. "We're not", I replied, "we can come back another time". "But of course not, please follow me to this lovely table right at the edge of the precipice. You will have a commanding view of the valley below and the party herein". The crowd was lively. Food and Arak flowed un-restrained. The dance floor was bustling with the young and old holding hands and swaying with the rhythm in a traditional Syrian Dabkeh. It was a double baptizing of a brother and sister. Both were dressed with beautiful white outfits and made their daddy and mommy swell with pride and joy. The father raised his glass and saluted everyone, guests and strangers. We all replied with happy wishes to Johnny and Patricia.
Have I ever told you that Om Fares never drinks? She always keeps a tab of how many glasses of Arak I've had though. I told her that she must surmount this nasty habit of hers but to no avail. Over the years she had come to accept that my actual limit is higher than the one she had envisioned for me. Our quarrels over the fact that I drink and that she does not have become less frequent. Yet she still refuses to equate my acceptance of her abstinence with her approval of my indulgence. Oh well, women!
Hand in hand, we walked back to the car gingerly and merrily. She was ginger, I was merry. Just an instant before we stepped out of the restaurant, the priest who had earlier performed the baptizing ceremony and who of course was an invited guest had left. I was just about to zoom out of the parking lot when Om Fares and I took notice of him. I slammed the break and smiled at him. "Can we give you a ride Father", Om Fares asked. Without the slightest hesitation, he opened the backdoor and jumped in. He looked both ginger and merry. "Such a nice party...", she started. Women! They can't even start a conversation. "Good Arak, eh Abouna (Father)?" I looked sideways and knowingly with the intention of conveying to her that this is how you break the ice with a man of the cloth. To her, and as she told me later, I just sounded and looked drunk and stupid.
By the look of him he was in his mid-seventies. Father Youhanna was a diminutive man with a long white beard. But what struck me most about him as I kept glancing at him through the rear view mirror were his eyes. They shined with a profound sense of acceptance. We were Muslims we informed him but the gleam in the eyes never even flickered. I followed his left and right instructions as we plunged further down the dale. We were not heading to the famous Deir Mar Gerges as I privately suspected. Instead we found ourselves at the modest gate of a little church. The inscriptions indicated that it was the church of the Saydeh (Notre Dame St. Marie) and that it was founded in 1921.
In fact a very old chapel dating back to the 12th century was discovered in the early 1900’s by the locals in a thicket of shrubs and trees where we were standing at that moment. It was built by some pious European Crusader as a place of worship rather than extravagance. For centuries it remained invisible to all eyes until a solitary man collecting firewood stumbled on a large stone by chance. After the site was cleaned and reclaimed, the original structure became visible. It was and still is protected by two huge trees which are believed to have been blessed by the Virgin. As news of the miraculous church and trees traveled near and far, the locals pitched in and worked on restoring the small Minster with their own hands. The faithful expatriates were still not rich in their second chosen countries at the time. Nevertheless they sent modest donations until the tower was rebuilt along with a fence and a small garden. The first modern mass was thus performed sometime in 1921.
We accepted Father Youhanna’s invitation to visit his church. From somewhere in the folds of his robe he produced a huge ancient key, turned it in the antique lock and pushed back the wooden door. The olden hinges creaked with acquiescence as we entered a single room measuring less than 60 square meters. The basin where the children were baptized still stood by the altar. There was broken glass on the floor and spilt olive oil. The priest made a note that he ought to clean it after we leave. He asked us if we wanted to light any candle. Two, we agreed, one for Om Fares and the other for me. He blessed our 20 years then unassumingly recounted the history of his domain as he has been serving this church for his last 20 years. Before, he had served the Lord for 30 years in Bhamdoun, Lebanon to which he arrived from his original Syrian village near Hama as a young man. He’s been wearing a robe since. 50 years had changed Youhanna into an older man but he was blessed with assent and contentment. This is where he performed baptisms beyond remembrance. He has done his best to ease the pain and suffering of hundreds of dying men and women. He has bonded couples in holy matrimony, witnessed the spring of new life, endured the scourges of summer, embraced his loneliness in autumn as the émigrés left back to their (forever) second homes and is anticipating the promise that winter is around the corner for him. He can rest in peace one day knowing that he has done his best in the service of his beloved church.
He promised to visit us on his first call to Tartous. We agreed that we will ride together to Deir Blemmana near Banias, a mystical shrine kept by his sisters the nuns. Om Fares voiced her wonder. "He’s a good man no doubt, but I can’t really understand you. I know your deep-rooted aversion to Muslim Sheikhs and Christian Priests, yet you and Father Youhanna got along so nicely". "He’s poor", I answered matter-of-factly. When a man of God develops an affinity for power and money he loses not only his credibility but his actual raison d’être.
Thus was our celebration of our 20th anniversary, unassuming and spontaneous. We didn’t make it to Paradise but instead found tremendous pleasure in the company of each other. So much like the last 20 years of our lives.