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Monday, August 18, 2008

20 Years

Om Fares and I were to embark on our annual pilgrimage to Paradise. It was a little more extraordinary this year as we meant to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary in Ehden, Lebanon. We reserved a special room at the Hotel Abshi where we had spent the first few days of our honeymoon back in 1988. Back then, we had proceeded from Ehden to Los Angeles and subsequently to Tuscon, Arizona before we made it back home to Tartous. We're both in love with Ehden, a small town in Northern Lebanon. Situated at 1,500m on a mountain shoulder, it lies in perfect serenity on top of a perpetual bank of clouds. Nature endowed this magical place with beautifully amazing scenery. But it was a man who built a restaurant and placed it near Mar Sarkis, a spring gushing out of the mountains and appropriately named it: Ferdos or Paradise.

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.

43 comments:

Anonymous said...

Abufare, I enjoy everything you put, you relly can make me trevel with you , smell , feel ,taste, eaven the ARAK, I can feel it,

ps, congradulations for Omfares and you

Anonymous said...

Feliz Aniversario y que sean muchos años mas! : )
mucho cariño siempre,

w.b. yeats

Her Epiphany said...

Eh ya Abu Fares,

My father always loved Ehden he never stops talking about it, I wish I could take him there.
It doesn't matter where you are going, all that matters is who is sharing this journey with you. It is all about Companionship, isn't it?
People sometimes neglect that and they overwhelm themselves with planning and organizing and 90% of them end up having a bad time and basically with no added value whatsoever.
We should realize the true meaning and essence of marriage and union, and I sensed it in every word you wrote.
"Even in the most mature spiritual partnership, a mate is only there to give you back to yourself."
I hope one day I will be able to meet your "Life Partner" as I had the honor of meeting you and knowing you.
God Bless you, Om Fares and the children.

KJ said...

Abu Fares, today is, without a doubt, the most miserable day of my short life.

I am happy to have read this story of yours before it ended so I don't have to crown it the worst no more.

Bless you and Um Fares, and may many more 20 years come with you two hand in hand.

You're an admirable man as you're an admirable couple, and I hope I learn the ways of personal freedom before the chains learn their ways of imprisonment.

I hope you find the freedom you seek, and I can only say you only need to look under your nose to find it.

God bless, and thank you :)

Lujayn said...

Abu Fares, happy anniversary!! Hope the two of you continue to find tremendous pleasure in each others’ company for a long time to come, and hope I am blessed with a similar marriage! That region is really beautiful, isn’t it? We spent a few days there on our honeymoon and I loved every inch of it. We took a different route (Tartous to Safita) and despite getting motion sickness from the endless winding roads, I enjoyed the scenery tremendously; the orchards, the villages, the water springs, everything. I don’t know if the area is like this year round, but during the summer, it feels like heaven. So laid back and relaxed and green.

And Tartous? You have every right to love that city – it’s a city with character! We spent a few hours wandering around the old city, followed by a drive along the corniche, and absolutely loved it. So sorry we couldn’t meet up (and so sorry I didn’t call again – things got super busy post-honeymoon) but I am definitely coming back to Tartous again, so we’ll meet up for sure! I have to hear more about your recipes for successful marriages :)))

Shannon said...

Congratulations to you and Om Fares! I'm sorry you didn't reach "Paradise" but am nonetheless grateful I got to travel vicariously on this voyage with you.

abufares said...

@lê
If I made you (almost) taste the Arak then I'm happy.
Thanks for your wishes.

abufares said...

@w.b. yeats
Sólo tengo bellos recuerdos de nuestro tiempo juntos. Le deseo, ahora y siempre, mucha suerte y felicidad.
Expresando la esperanza de que algún día se reuniría de nuevo y tienen una gran risa del corazón

(gracias google)

abufares said...

@Zena
It was my great pleasure to have met you. Please give me a buzz when you're in town. Om Fares and I would both love to see you.

abufares said...

@KJ
3a2balak Ya KJ. I wish that the time to come will dissolve all of your problems. Wave after wave of happiness washing a bar of soap left on a deserted beach.

abufares said...

@Lujayn
I'm sorry too I couldn't see you. I was on my way to Beirut when you were there. Better luck for both of us next time.
I wish you and your other half the best of luck and happiness.

abufares said...

@Shannon
Thank you my friend. Inshallah soon we'll hear all about your wonderful wedding. (This might sound stupid in English but these would've been the words you'd expect to hear had you congratulated someone on his 20th wedding's anniversary).

Mariyah said...

Oh, Abu Fares. I read this post yesterday and have been mulling it over and over since. How beautifully written - not fancy but honest. I thoroughly enjoyed the story of the Priest...what it revealed about you and the places you visited. I'm sorry you didn't get to your paradise, but sometimes fate has a way of smiling on us...bringing us something unexpected and memorable. Congratulations to both you and Om Fares on your 20 years together. YOU are lucky to have found each other!:)

Anonymous said...

Gracias google?!

did you run your brain out trying to translate from English to Spanish, or used google to translate for you? It was fairly well done...

Anyway, good lord! you are celebrating your 20th and Carlos and I just celebrated our 22nd this last January!!! Time flies when you are having FUN!

We will share our good memories together some day...

We are heading to Glasgow Scotland on September 9th. Laura, my oldest, will attend the Glasgow School of the Arts as an exchange student for the Fall 2008. Carlos and I will spend 4 days at Glasgow and then head to London for a spell. Closer but not close enough to Tartous...

But I keep my hopes up! : )

Bonne Anniversaire

w.b. yeats

abufares said...

@Mariyah
Not fancy but honest... I'd like to think that you've just described me. Don't worry about my lost chance at Paradise, there's always another time for one more ride... I hope.
Meanwhile thanks so much for your wishes. May happiness hit you like a runaway freight train and sweep you by... completely :-)

abufares said...

@w.b. yeats
Google is my multilingual secretary. She looks gorgeous in her décolleté. Together we conspired to come up with my response to your first comment.
You know what. You taught me most of the Spanish I still remember. Rather than you being a bad teacher, I think I was a lousy student. Yet, amazingly, I still understand most of a conversation.
Back in 2000, I appeared (very briefly) on a local TV station in Majorca where I delivered a short speech (in Spanish) at a press conference. hahaha you should've seen me.
I can't write a damn word on my own. I mix it with English and French when I try to speak it... but somehow I manage to get my point across. My knees turn to jelly when I hear Spanish being spoken by a beautiful woman... but you already know that.
Have a great time in Scotland. I wish I were there... preferably without Carlos ;-)

Mariyah said...

Thank you, Abu Fares! Perhaps I should spend more time near the railroad tracks! ;)

From what I've read, "not fancy but honest" does describe you. Perhaps I'll be lucky enough to meet you in person one day to see if my evaluation is correct.

Anonymous said...

Aufares just look at this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOHPk8f4WeA, it is so beautiful

KJ said...

did u just call me a soap bar :P

saint said...

Smooth prose, anyone can enjoy and ride with you in your trip. A year from now, you should start thinking of publishing. I think the Arak industry should reward you with free supply for advertising the product across the glob, you deserve it.
Abufares, the Ehden in Lebanon, is it close the ( nab3 al3asal) “honey spring” in any chance.

Highlander said...

Abufares, I am not long enough on the blogs but when I do check in your blog is my first stop and I see how much beauty I have missed. This post made me feel so much peace with the earth and the people I want to visit that little village when I come to Syria next time it really is a slice of Paradise.
Happy 20th Anniversary to you and Oumfares and may you enjoy the forthcoming years even more.
H.

abufares said...

@Mariyah
I'll let you know when I'm planning to be in Damascus. I doubt that I'll make it before Ramadan (or during). Then we'll talk about evaluations :-)

abufares said...

@KJ
I meant to say a tube of toothpaste. Sorry for the mistake!

abufares said...

@saint
Arak is not a product really. It's part of our heritage and the best of it can't be advertised since it's homemade. I feel it to be unfair and stupid that some people pretend that it's alien to our culture. Well it's not. They can be the virtuous ostriches if they choose but their exposed asses are fair game :-)
Ehden lies east of Tripoli. You drive through Zgharta, Ehden, Bsharri then the Famed Cedar Woods at an elevation of 2,200 m if I'm not mistaken. A little further east lies the highest peak in Lebanon Al-Kernet Al-Sawda at 3,300 m.

abufares said...

@Highlander
a biG HELLO to my favorite Libyan girl.
Thank you for your wishes.
When you make it again to Syria please let me know so that together we'll make it, as close as possible to paradise.

Mariyah said...

Indeed, Abu Fares, we shall. I will look forward to it!! :)

Piscean Rubble said...

Hello Abufares. I've been reading your blog for a while but have never commented. I have dreamed of visiting Syria for some time now, and this post made me want to go all that much more. I hope that when I do visit, I can find all of these out of the way places - just follow the road, so to speak.

Is Arak like the Greek Ouzo...anise flavoured?

Thanks for taking us along on your trip and congratulations to you and your wife on a long and happy marriage.

Isobel Kanellos

The Syrian Brit said...

My friend,
Often, the journey itself is far more important than the destination it takes you to..
It seems to me that this is as true for your 20th Anniversary Break, as it is for your marriage as a whole..
Many, many congratulations..
May your life together continue to be a happy and exciting journey.

Allie said...

Congratulations on your 20 year anniversary. Your writing is always beautiful in its simplicity and honesty. I treasure each post from you. Thank you for sharing this, and other, experiences.

abufares said...

@Isobel
Arak is very similar to Ouzo indeed. check out this old post of mine for more info:

http://www.abufares.net/2006/10/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about.html

Thank you for your wishes and don't wait too long to make that trip to Syria. You'll be pleasantly surprised, I hope/

abufares said...

@SB
It's been a while and you've been greatly missed.
Thank you for the kind words and I still look forward finally meeting.

abufares said...

@Allie
Thank you! For gracing the comment section with your sweet words.

Az3ar's Fan said...

A much belated Alf mabrouk to my second favorite Syrian and his lovely wife.

abufares said...

@az3ar's fan
On behalf of Om Fares and myself, thanks for the wishes. I too hope that life brings you only the best there is.

DUBAI JAZZ said...

Great post as usual. The sea man navigating through the winding mountainous roads, and the modest hospitable preist. All fit a good anniversary. Did I mention how great your descreptive writing is?

Best wishes to you and to Om Fares. May you enjoy celebrating this occasion in hundered year to come.

May happiness shower you like storm and may bliss flood every detail of your daily life. Also, may contentment charge through your life and mine like a nascar sweeping by the finish line :-)

Karin said...

What a fantastic post Abufares ... like always I enjoyed every single word! I could sense the atmosphere, smell and even taste the Arrak (ooops!) ... and picture as well Father Youhanna's white beard and eyes!

I can relate so well to your way of enjoying trips ... among family and friends I am ominously known for my split-second-decisions!

ALF ALF MABROUK to you and Om Fares ... may you be as happy and content for MANY MANY years to come!!

MISSING YOU ALL!!

abufares said...

@DJ
Thanks for the wet fast lane wishes. 3a2balak and soon Inshallah.

abufares said...

@Karin
1st I must apologize for not writing back. I was away and upon my return read your email among at least two dozens. I forgot to reply... sorry.
On behalf of Om Fares and myself thank you and may happiness nest at your window sill and wake you up every morning with beautiful songs.

Karin said...

What a sweet thing to say - thanks so much!
No need to apologize dear friend! Many news ... soon I'll drop a line!
Best regards to Om Fares!

Anonymous said...

Many happy returns to both of you.

As always, this post was a very nice piece of work!

Today (the 25th) is our 20th anniversary (Katib ElKitab)

Abu Abdo

MomTo5 said...

Mash allah,nice post.
Best wishes to you and
to Umm Fares.
/Johanna

abufares said...

Alf Mabrouk Abo Abdo
3a2bal Al3omer Kello
Ramadan Karim

abufares said...

momto5
Thank you Johanna
Our best wishes to you and your family as well