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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Five O


The Scar
In the aftermath of the six-day-war a long trench was dug in the middle of an open field near my home by the sea. More like a scar, it measured a hundred meters long by two meters wide. We kids went there and played War in the afternoon.
"Tatatatatata," we roared back and forth, reproducing the cracking reports of machine guns. When we all died, I climbed out with muddied pants and sand in my hair and rode my bicycle frantically across the gritty breadth of the field. I sped over the pebbles raising a storm of dust in my wake all the while keeping a watchful eye on the gaping wound in the ground. I pulled to the edge of the asphalt and braked hard in a sweeping arc. I stood up, removed the sticky underwear wedged up my ass and gathered my courage to jump to sea side. I pedaled as furiously as I could. The wheels spun in the air over the ditch then made contact, an inch or two short. I plunged forward hitting a sharp protruding stone chin first. The gush of warm blood sprinkled the earth through my fingers. I staggered then fell. Human voices faded in the background; the light of day dimmed then was swallowed by darkness. Minutes later I regained consciousness and winced in pain.
“How is he doctor? Please tell me how he is?”
“Don't worry Abu Tarek¹. He's a tough kid.” My father reassured the man who carried my limp body to him and continued stitching my chin.
I still have the scar.

New World

I stared at the masts of ships disappearing below the horizon. Seagulls shrieked above, soared with invisible drafts then vanished. A crowd of ancestral spirits prattled in my head, nudging me and pulling at my sleeve. You should leave, they called, it's time. Streaks of lightening cast short-lived shadows on the high walls of dead-end alleys. I bid farewell to the life I knew, hunched over against the cold drizzle and walked away.
It was raining in Louisiana too on my 18th birthday but this time I took my clothes off and let the deluge wash my dehydrated skin. Nobody is right, I found out, but we might be all wrong. I absorbed this realization like a Porifera² left to die in the sun. I pitied the wasted youth of my generation and those yet to come for not facing their days and nights with decisions and indecisions.
We spun the bottle: Truth or Dare?
"What do you want to do with your life?"
"I want to fuck the universe till it screams." I was drunk, when I said that, or stoned. I think I was both.
I never got around actually doing that but I did kiss it... and it moaned.

Daughter of Astarte³

She was having a hard time breathing as I held her tiny body in my arms. There she was a part of me outside of me for the first time. I stayed all night by the NICU.
"Get some sleep." The doctor who stitched my chin twenty years earlier said and patted my shoulder.
He reassured me that she'll be alright in the morning, not because he was certain but because he wanted to as much as I did.
"Her name is Ebla" I said, "after the great Syrian city that proved that the whole world is living a big lie."
"Give me the pleasure of naming her myself." My father said. "She's Diana, goddess of the hunt and of the moon, daughter of our own Astarte."
I sat for hours on end near Diana's cot waiting for her to wake up. Then one day she rode my motorcycle on the winding mountain roads and on my back in the same house where I was born. She changed me forever. She made me a father.


"How long?"
"A month. Two at most." Dad replied.
I spent the next four weeks with her. She told me a story everyday, except that they kept getting shorter. So did her days as she slept more and more until she never woke up.
I missed my mother, my storyteller, my friend, my fan and idol. She was my rock in times of need, my lighthouse in the storm, my laughter and tears. I lost her.

Falling in Love
I was a late bloomer. I had lived my entire life in the shadow of a paradox, etherized with the void of being and the timidity of acceptance. I fell in love… with life, with the morning sun and the silent passage of the moon across the sky. I embraced time and distance at last. I fathomed the “seemingly” predetermined motion of the heavenly bodies in the sky, the toil of ants underground and our human voyage. As I passively rode the rapids down the river I had a change of heart. I found a low hanging branch and held on to it. There is a beautiful ait upstream, a little further back. I do not want to be anywhere else.
That eventually the torrent would sweep us all became irrelevant. I swam against the current to reach my island or die trying.

Five moments in time, mind-picked from the fleeting decades of my life. I am 50*

¹ Abu Tarek, my neighbor, made the best Knafeh in the world. He passed away ten years ago.
² Porifera: an animal phylum comprising the sponges.
³ Astarte: Syrian Goddess, grandmother of all the subsequent Greek and Roman Goddesses of fertility, sexuality and war

* 50: Coming up this week.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Perhaps I should start this article by explaining the term Levant(1) since it might not be familiar to all the readers of this blog. The word comes from Middle French and means the Orient. From a geographical perspective, the Levant is that region of West Asia comprising the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. It is bordered to the north by the Taurus mountains of Turkey. It reaches the Zagros mountain range which forms the border between Iraq and Iran to the east and extends southward to the Arabian desert. The Island of Cyprus was historically, and until very recent times culturally, a part of Greater Syria, as the Levant is known to the more fervent Syrian Social Nationalists in Lebanon and Syria. Additionally, Jordan, Palestine, the Sinai Desert and parts of Iraq belong to this region as well. If you are wondering whether I accidentally omitted Israel or not, wonder no more. A sixty-two year old “country” with an acute identity crisis as to claim that it invented Hummus and Falafel, both documented to have been served in popular eating houses in Tartous in the latter part of the 19th century, does not belong here. The apartheid walls they built will mostly keep them, the Israelis, prisoners of their own guilt, further isolating them from a magical place of immense ethnic diversity.

Well now that I have passed my political message across I can focus on the more meaningful aspects of life. Among my most persistent interests in the field of Levantine history is the pursuit of Syrian deities. I find it myopic that the West traces its roots to Greek culture and mythology then stops. The Greeks were outstanding in their own right and they indeed were the catalyst behind the rise of Western civilization. But history predated them and started a little further east, not too far from where I am sitting right now behind my American branded laptop. German Archeologist, Markus Gschwind remarked that “beneath every footstep in Syria is an ancient civilization(2).” Rightly so, as merely a stone throw away from my window Phoenician ships once sailed across the Mediterranean carrying dyes and silk in their holds and the Alphabet and Gods in the language of their sailors. My story today is about one Syrian Goddess by the name of Atargatis(3).

Today Atargatis might not be a household Syrian name as other “local” deities but that does not make her any less significant. In fact, she is perhaps the most important pre-monotheist divinity of the Levant. Early evidence of her cult dates back to 1,000 BC but what fascinates me most about her is that she was in fact the first mermaid(4). Atargatis, whose followers eventually spread to Greece and Rome was the half-human / half-fish Goddess of Earth, Fertility and Water. Early on both the dove and the fish were used as symbols of her. The dove as an emblem of love and the fish representing bounty and fertility. She was also, to the faithful, responsible for motivation and inventiveness and her reign extended beyond the realm of land and sea to encompass the heavens. Zeus (The Greeks called Her Derketo, Goddess of Syria) splashed an image of a fish in the sky for her sake by creating the Pisces constellation.

Phoenician sailors brought her to Sicily. From there her  followers spread northward reaching Rome, where she was known as Dea Syria, the Syrian Goddess. She was admitted into the Roman pantheon side by side with Jupiter (Syrian Haddad :-) and worshiped as reverently. Her faith continued to grow and spread throughout the Roman Empire and the Gaul (Western Europe) and toward the end of this era she reached the status of the Great Mother Goddess of the Empire.
Atargatis is a Semitic word. She was called Athtart by the Phoenicians and perhaps that explains why she is often confused with Astarte. Strong evidence suggests that they were two different deities as their cults were very distinct from one another initially. Several other goddesses, Syrian, Greek and Roman were later identified with Atargatis, perhaps all better known than her: Ishtar, Venus Urania, Hera, Rhea, Cybele, Aphrodite and Artemis Azzanathcona. Even most Syrians today are more familiar with Atargatis' daughter Semiramis, the famous Assyrian queen who built the hanging gardens.

Early Syrian religions did not provide impetus for the rise of monotheist Judaism, Christianity and Islam only but formed the mythological bedrock of paganism in Europe. The statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen(5) sculpted by Edvard Erichsen in 1913 is said to symbolize a fairy tale. Danish author and poet Hans Christian Andersen wrote about a mermaid who fell in love with a prince living on land and who came to shore everyday to see him. Is it a Viking figment of imagination or simply a Syrian story of old neglected by the sons and daughters of Atargatis?

(1)Levant: also known as Al-Mashriq and Bilad Al-Sham
(2)Thaindian News
(3)The Obscure Goddess Online Dictionary
(5)The Little Mermaid

Friday, February 05, 2010

Let it Snow

I stood behind the kitchen window on this Friday morning. It was 7:00AM when the cloud above broke her water. Flurries of snow started falling and drifting in the light wind, very unusual for seaside Mediterranean Tartous. I went outside to the balcony to drink my espresso and enjoyed five magical minutes. The thermometer showed 8ºC. What a glorious day!

I woke Fares up, “Come on! There must be plenty of snow for us in Kadmous.”

“Oh, Baba! Are you sure?” Fares had only been in the snow once a few years ago in Farayyah, Lebanon. He was about five and he had a blast so his excitement was only natural.

At 10:00AM we left Tartous and headed north on the Lattakia Highway. 35 KM down the road we crossed Banias and made a right turn and quickly climbed our way up the mountains. I could tell that whatever snow we might find would be light at best. We crossed one enchanted village after the other, Bermaya, Faresh Ka'bieh, Isquableh as we steadily gained altitude. 57 KM from home we reached Kadmous at an elevation of 1000 m (0ºC). Fares could not believe his eyes, there was snow indeed and everywhere. We drove for five minutes due north and stopped by a snow covered hill and well... played in the snow.

I hope you enjoy this short video of the day.