Sunday, May 16, 2010
I often write about a Tartous that is no more, about a time that treads on the fringe of anamnesis. I might be a nostalgic old dude but I am neither bitter nor grumpy. I simply miss a past that is far too beautiful to be laid to rest then forgotten.
Until the 1980's Al-Mina street was the crown jewel of my city. I was born right there, where I planted the red arrow on this photo dating back to the early 1960's. It was taken from the roof of the Awkaf building looking north. I remember every single building in that photo, a few of which still stand after almost five decades.
The Roman port, which was later obliterated, is visible right across the street from my home by the sea. So is the open field we called Al-Bayader with a tin roof cafe that was the compelling gathering place for all the Tartoussi men in the evening. During the day it served as playground for us kids. We played ball, rode our bicycles and made up games of unimaginable simplicity. Women with their children strolled down the long street as ice cream vendors carried their big thermoses on their backs and roasted corncob outcriers pushed their colorful carts with blazing fires.
There was a short-haired pointer dog in almost every house down the street. Men and boys hunted year round. Game birds were abundant and lunch invariably included quails, thrush, shukkar partridges or doves. Anyone who did not own a felucca had a fishing rod. A small piece of dough was all the bait needed to catch the most magnificent specimens of Buri fish. Sure they sold lamb at the butcher shop but red meat was something reserved for special occasions and shunned at in our everyday Mediterranean diet.
Less than a handful of cars cruised the sleepy town. The mayor had an automobile of course and so did the doctor. There were three or four taxis people shared to go to Tripoli on a jaunt or to travel to Damascus for an overwhelming need. However, the streets of Tartous were teaming with Vespas, Lambrettas and bicycles. Oh, and we had quite a few tumbors (wooden carts pulled by donkeys or mules) which adequately fulfilled the roles of delivery trucks and utility vehicles. As a kid I never found a compelling reason to venture beyond Al-Mina. Inland Tartoussis, those who did not live on the front row facing the sea, came to us instead. Everybody knew everybody else. Everyone had a nickname and it was used to call him by. The houses of the rich had more rooms than those of the less fortunate but there were no significant visual clues setting people apart. A wealthy person who took himself seriously stood to lose most. Nobody liked him and all the money in the world could not buy him an ounce of respect.
During summer break and unless a kid was sick he rarely stayed at home. Our parents had no reason to worry about us. We were always to be found somewhere by the sea. Most of us learned how to swim before we could take our first steps. We were obviously as safe outdoors as we were inside our own homes but it was much more fun. The visible thin line in the background of the picture is the foundation for the northern breakwater of what later became the Port of Tartous. We went there, searched for and found Batlouness (mussels) on the submerged rocks. We would spread them on a piece of discarded tin, collect splinters of wood from ill-fated boats and cook them on the spot. They provided more lunch than any raucous kid needed to keep him going for the rest of the long day and they were tastier than the fanciest restaurant in the world could ever dream of presenting.
I grew up there, on that stretch of road. I wore high rubber boots in the winter and an orange parka over my uniform. A ten-minute walk due east put me in school but I never followed a straight course. From a distance, I shadowed the girl next door to her school, just in case some backland lad was fool enough to cross her path. I also gazed at her cute little butt in the tight Foutouweh Khaki pants every single step along the way. I had my first kiss on the roof of one of these buildings. Her cheeks turned red when we kissed and her lips tasted of strawberries. We both trembled as I gathered my courage and cupped her breast. It was smaller and firmer than a crunchy apple and infinitely more scrumptious.
In a trance, I stare at the frozen moment captured in this old photograph. Phantasms from my past flicker on a screen in my mind. The laughter of the dead echos against the walls, memories of those who sailed West shimmer on the facades and the twinkle in the eyes of my remaining companions reassures me that it was all real, that I am neither bitter nor grumpy. We had all known better times... on Al-Mina Street.