Sunday, May 16, 2010

Al-Mina Street


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.

21 comments:

Neetu said...

Going down the memory lane with you

Karin said...

I join in dear friend, walking down memory lane, if you don't mind! What a great review of old times while recalling situations, pictures, tastes and sensations! If I think back of those years during the time I was a first grader ... my godness - maybe I should write about one day, what do you think?
GREAT post Abufares, great post indeed!!

abufares said...

@Neetu
Please walk along. The more the merrier, always.

abufares said...

@Karin
I would love to read about your Munich. Although I've traveled far and wide I still haven't set foot in Germany. Well not exactly, I transited through Hamburg once. There's no one better to take us on a mind tour around Bavaria than you and I really look forward to it.

Joseph said...

The memories that, forever have impregnated my mind and soul with images, sounds and scents are just that, memories! Beautiful memories that are far more real than the place that once was my intimate village, and now is no more!
Certainly things move on with the times... places grow just like people do, in numbers and in years. But, like everything else some things mature beautifully and well, and some unfortunately go sour!

It's going to take a miracle to slow down and control this runaway train...

Yes, we had all known better times, Abufares. You, on Al-mina Street, and millions of others elsewhere around the world.

A great write up, Abufares, as always.

Gabriela said...

Portuguese language has an untranslatable beautiful word to describe all the nostalgia you transmit here: saudade.
Surely I'm not wrong if I say that everyone has its own Al-mina Street. I do.
All the best, my friend.

abufares said...

@Joseph
We each has his or her own Al-Mina Street and this is exactly what this post was about.

I'm not fighting the inevitable nor standing in its way. However, there is a common sense of guilt associated with Nostalgia intellectually. Time and again we read or hear about the futility of reminiscing over the past, about the solid reality of the present and the potential of the future.

I have no guilt whatsoever enjoying my memories. They are, as you rightly pointed out, more real than the place itself. I possess a selective mind. I offhandedly dismiss the bad memories while I foster those endearing to me and infuse them with a dash of magical sparkle... for myself, for my inner joy.

abufares said...

@Gabriela
Without having knowledge of the Portuguese language the word Saudade immediately revealed itself to me. We're lucky to have one in Arabic too: Haneen حنين

I have saudade/haneen for my old house by the sea, for my mother running her fingers through my hair and for the smell of a freshly baked cake welcoming my return from school.

But I also have saudade/haneen for an embrace to come, for a place I've never seen and for a time that isn't yet.

BIL said...

Abufares,
With this post and the comments I see, each of us has some of those special moments/places when revisited just are not the same. Some would call it progress, a natural evolution or (as in many cases) someone’s fat headed ideas being put into reality “something” for the sole purpose to promote themselves and to have that lasting legacy for others to be in awe of…how sad. All the more so when one thinks of cities as old as your beloved Tartous. We have the same thing happening all over the country in which I live. The historic buildings are more often than not let to rot simply because the money is not there to refurbish them or they are not the most energy efficient. Yesterday, I had visited my childhood home town and seen it slowly evolved into something that even I did not recognize. I have seen the old majestic homes from the mid 1800s with their wonderful views overlooking the Mississippi River being torn down to make room for a new express way. But the memories still remain of the way it once was, with the small town charm that will ever be in my mind. Bitter……no, just sad knowing it was once a much nicer place than what it presents itself today. Great Post BIL

abufares said...

@BIL
It does hurt when we see that our birthplace had morphed into something grotesque.

The impact of these changes on city folks are not as hard as they are on those of us who came from smaller towns and villages.
That my Tartous lives only in my mind and in the scattered black & white photos taken mostly by people who had already passed away is somehow painful.

Progress should have strictly controlled negative effects on the environment, history and/or culture of a region.

When I read that in a country such as the US these avoidable mistakes are happening it doesn't make me feel better about my own hometown. It has the exact opposite effect since I get the feeling that I'm advocating a lost cause.

I hope someone, someday stops in the way and decides that enough is enough. The argument is that more people need more resources is self-defeating because we do live on a finite planet and we cannot continue to grow indefinitely.
There are still a lucky few places in the world and I hope we can learn their secret and absorb their wisdom.

Joseph said...

@Gabriela, the first thing that came to my mind when I read your comment earlier today was, “Cesaria Evora’s” “Saudade” Words are unnecessary here!
Abufares, has hit the nail on the head! Haneen; melancholic yet beautiful and melancholic once again!

Mariyah said...

I stood there, for a moment, on Al-Mina street, around 1965. I smelled the sea air, heard the relaxed traffic on the street, and watched the children playing. One child, in particular, had a very mischievous look on his face. ;) What a lovely place lost in time but not memory. Thank you, Abufares, for taking us there.

abufares said...

@Mariyah

"1965!? Oh, OK." He agreed reluctantly. Moments later and as if struck by a flash of genius, he reconsidered.
"Why not 1975?" The mischievous look remained on his face, except he was no longer that innocent child :-)

Yazan said...

Out of everything that you've written here on this blog (and I think I've every last word of it), the ones that stuck the most in my mind, are your poignant memories of that town and those people. The sheer energy in those words you pen down, whirls me on a journey to a past long before I was.

This time that belongs not to any history, this mythical picturesque and vivid image, copied down from the memory of that child, this man. The Japanese have a word, that can hardly be translated, for this feeling you bring, 物の哀れ (mono no aware). It describes the transience of things and the bittersweet sadness at their passing. But more than that, it describes this stillness in the universe outside and inside all of us, beyond the daily changing landscape of real history.

Beautiful, absolutely beautiful, is what I wanted to say.

abufares said...

@Yazan
I enjoy writing about my memories of my town and her people more than anything else.
物の哀れ (mono no aware)
Is it about a sweet sadness dipped in bitter happiness? Because that's how I exactly feel when I reminisce about those days. Blogging about them is my humble attempt at recording a history of Tartous which otherwise would disappear from the collective
conscience of her descendants.

KJ said...

I am suffering from a lonely night, which have been very frequent in the past and thankfully they cross paths with me less often. But tonight I am both alone and lonely, which often compels me to drown in one too many thoughts, most of which now centre around why inability to exist in that lifetime you narrate.

I live in the most consumerist city in the world, devoid of nature and devoid of the natural - the healthy lifestyle and life cycles of a normal human being. Sure, I can find part of it, but it is too tainted by fakeness for me to undertake.

When I read your stories I sit and wonder, what would I tell my kids? Surely my time, to them, would be a much simpler time. I feel guilty in considering bringing children to this world, but I will not be selfish and would push them all the way for them to achieve their dreams and aspirations, and hope for a better world.

I long for this simpler time, where I don't have to have a list of acronyms on my diplomas and resumes, where I don't need to pay an exorbitantly large sum of money to a greedy landlord, where I don't need to always be up to date with the plethora of technologies and current universals to stay at least on par with my peers.

True, I can choose to opt out, and go live somewhere more quiet and frozen in time. The longing is so cruel, and so is the mind, which compels me to keep my aspirations and outlook to the future through the roof.

I've noticed this a lot with us born in 1984. It's a magical number - we're stuck between past and future. Our present is the transition between the generations. And it's mentally exhausting to be on a train with no clear source and a foggy destination.

I am learning to enjoy the ride, more than the months before, and enjoy looking out the window. There's really nothing more I can do.

My apologies in hijacking your post. But you always manage to remove my writing block, and I fear the thoughts wouldn't be penned down if I took my time to create a post on my own blog.

abufares said...

@KJ
Thank you for your "long" comment. You don't have to apologize at all, I'm really happy you put so much thought into it.
I often wonder about my kids. What will their memories be like about Tartous. Except for home and school they know very little. I wouldn't be able to stand it here if it were not for my memories and I really feel sorry for the young folks... stuck in this time and place.

fantasia Lillith said...

I always find this fascinating. For those that had the experience of growing up in one single place, this way of reminiscing ... is something I can read, enjoy and smile at - but cannot share. I moved every 4 years. My father was a diplomat and as such - there is no sense of "home town". I do not have a village, a street, nor childhood friends to reminisce this way about. There are no roots. Perhaps no sense of loss.

I found this post fascinating - as one does listening to an experience one simply can't share.

Beautifully written as always.

abufares said...

@Fantasia
Just like you in a way I moved out of my childhood cocoon too soon. But Al Mina Street imprinted itself on my consciousness irrevocably. Tartous of the 1960's was more open to the rest of the world than the rest of Syria. Al Mina was its western front, its facade and window to the endless blue sea. Ironically, I'm attached to a bygone place that defied, in essence, staying in one place for long. I miss the place that ingrained my mind and soul with the love of travel, of leaving it and discovering other far away places.

tartousi from almina said...

i want to start from where you finished your nice story ,yes : we had all known better times ...on al-mina street.....

i was looking to the nice photo which reminded me my shildehood about 40-45 years ago , and look today to that busy dirty street , busy with people from nowhere became the daily faces of that deformed street. and dirty with the quality of new residents saying today we are from al-mina street .

faces have been changed , names have been differentd , buildings became more high but certainly more ugly and glassy, nothing links today to the original al- mina street ,exept memories in our heads , we, the real al mina street stones.

we were born there , few meters away of each other , i still hear the cries of the ladies giving birth to their childs at your fathers clinic , most of the al-mina children passed between his hands before getting hugged by their mums for the first time .
whom are al mina street people today?

a big smuggler , had a lot of dirty money to buy half of the streets old buildings , or a big thief became a respectfull person in today's society , or maybe a cakes vendor transformed his wooden carriage in a nice mercedes paid by those whom didn't have their salaries paid for a couple of years from him.

new comers are nicely set up along that quite street , making so called buiseness , but under the clouds of phosphates flying from the port nearby , so nobody knows what kind of buiseness they are doing...

no place to park your car , as both sides are filled with (noveauriches) cars,everyone of them must have three or four highly branded cars , as their fathers had before a highly equipped (tonbours) , so they are used to the trafic at al- mina street.

where can we find our selves my dear , no more (bayader) tin covered coffe where our fathers used to sit and play cards , no ( oyoon ) to go for a nice clean swimm followed by a watermelon cracked by the cold water coming from the natural springs among the golden sands.

no ( zanzouaa) at the empty land next to our house ,which became a huge tower with dirty glassed walls.

no cinema ( al amir ) or ( alnejmeh) where we had our (falafel ) sandwich and sinalco (cazzouzeh) during watching the indian films .

all those nice memories are scrambled with new faces and foreign rules governing the daily life of al-mina street.

(rizk allah) on those days of that street full of oraginilaty and love in the 60th , with the taste of (boury) fishes we were catching at ( bahr al sheaar) in front of your house ,and the flavour of (naoumeh ) this magic mixture of pinuts powder with sugar given to us every thursday by ( kho
ujayeh) after having a sucssesfull week of coran reading.

where is al-mina street today ?

it is only in such photo like you have posted , and our hearts where no one can touch to its nice history.

yes ,we had all known better times ..on al-mina street

abufares said...

@tartousi from almina

Well what can I say?! You said it all :-)
Right now I'm craving a Sinalco Kazouzeh and a Falafel sandwich more than anything else.
Thank you for taking me down memory lane from one Tartoussi from Al Mina to another ;-)