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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Creme Al-Tayeh

I delve in a well of memories, back to a time when a die-hard and venerable gentleman never stepped outside his home without a tarboosh on his head. The clear image of one distinguished octogenarian coalesces in my mind. He originally came from Lattakia and settled in El-Khrab, beyond the southern "Bab-el-Hara" of old Tartous. I've never seen him except in a three-piece suit (mostly white) and a polished smile on his face. He opened shop in the 1940's in the narrow Souk and became a fixed feature among the array of butcher shops, Msabbha and Fool joints, rope sellers, tailors, vegetable merchants, pickle peddlers, hardware stores and  blacksmiths. His shop was unique though, a refined bookstore in an agrestic neighborhood. His name was Mustafa Al-Tayeh (1897-1984)  مصطفى الطايع and he didn't only sell books but was also an Attar, the only perfume maker in Tartous.

Mr. Al-Tayeh was fascinated with roses and dedicated his life to extracting their essence and capturing their fragrance. In 1950 he created what eventually immortalized him, a certain balm made from garnered rose butter and aptly called it Creme Al-Tayeh كريم الطايع. Within a few years, it became a genuine Tartoussi household name. Its inventor held that his secret formula possessed extraordinary medicinal properties and that it was a cure for virtually any dermatological ailment. Sixty years later, we still don't dispute his claim in Tartous, Creme Al-Tayeh is a magical balm and anyone lucky enough to have tried it would attest to that.

As a teenager, my first line of defense against pimples was a dab of the buttery balm. That's all it took, a dab or two, once or twice and my skin was clear again. From lip sores to hemorrhoids, burns, bruises, lacerations, eczema, black spots, hair loss, hair growth, bumps, ulcers, irritation and skin rash, Creme Al-Tayeh cured them all. It came in two forms, pink and white, prepared from either red or white rose petals. It was only a matter of preference to choose one color or another but most often everyone ended up buying both. Now as far as I'm concerned the most bewildering quality of the small jar was that it never seemed to run out of balm. During the extensive research in preparing this post (you can tell, can't you?) I asked a random sample of family and friends if they ever bought a jar and used it completely. They all confirmed my initial doubt, it's more likely to have it misplaced, to move out of the house and lose it during the packing and unpacking or to immigrate to another country than to actually consume it all.

 Heyam Younis

Then as luck would have it I ran into a retired ambulance driver who transported patients to larger hospitals in Damascus. I remembered a previous conversation we've had in which he told me that he always ferried cartons full of Creme Al-Tayeh to one store in the Kassaa area of Damascus in his ambulance. There was a huge demand on the Creme and he ran a lucrative business on the side. Then he conspiratorially confided that among the Kassaa store very special clients and regular users of Creme Al-Tayeh were the Lebanese Younis Sisters, Heyam and Nezha. Now I really wonder how many readers actually know who Heyam and Nezha Younis are. Is there a statistically significant correlation between those readers who've heard of both Creme Al-Tayeh and of the Younis Sisters? I suppose this fascinating possibility deserves further investigation. Yet I can't let you (Ignorant Readers) get away with your callowness. To recognize Haifa Wehbe as a Lebanese superstar and not embrace Heyam's beautiful voice (and eyes) is sacrilegious. And what about you, Arabic movies' buffs who've never heard, or daydreamed of Nezha Younis? You should all be ashamed of yourselves.

Nezha Younis

The eldest of Mustafa Al-Tayeh's four daughters inherited the formula and continued in the footsteps of her father. She too had passed away but was able to transfer the secret to her sisters. They still prepare the balm, fill the jars and sell them at home in Tartous. Creme Al-Tayeh is also available in a few selected stores in the city and outside. I have 2 jars in my bathroom and I use them mostly for shaving cuts since, alas, I'm way past getting pimples on my face. If you tried it all but still can't get that perfect Tartoussi skin now you know our little secret. Nature and savvy conspired into making us the beautiful people we really are. Well these and a kindly gentleman from Lattakia...
who once upon a time made the clever choice and moved to the right place.

Friday, June 11, 2010


To profess to be doing God's will is a form of megalomania. -Joseph Prescott, aphorist (1913-2001)

A dear friend of mine, an artist, a humanist and a self-professed atheist with an absolute and egalitarian renunciation of all religions wrote me a letter. She received information by email, too bad to be true, she thought, about Islam. "I cannot believe that all of what is written here is true, so I'm asking you to write something about this in your blog. I want you to respond to this trash."

Now considering that I've been recently called "Evil" for my secular views by one of the more assiduous Islamist bloggers, personally slandered by an obnoxious and vindictive shaver for my pro-Western disposition and an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist by a Zionist/Crusader mummy I don't find myself well-suited for the task of defending Islam or any other religion for that matter. I am a secular humanist and I have taken a clear position on the matter. I value human thought above all and am ready to challenge any notion claiming to be of divine origin.

But I stop abruptly before I differentiate between the merits and the fallacies of each monotheist religion against the other(s) for the simple and only reason that they are basically similar. They share the same strengths and weaknesses. Where they vary is with their interpretation of divinity and their degree of obsession with rituals. To reply to the venomous anti-Islamic propaganda of Nonie Darwish, founder of Arabs for Israel, is self-defeating. To bring myself to her level of ignorance and idiocy is not an option. She seems to be focused on discrediting Islam, Arabism and Palestine in one sweeping attack. She irrevocably mixes fabrications from the worst nightmarish interpretations of the Koran, archaic pre-Islamic tribal traditions of the desert and the outright lies of Zionist evangelism into an in-cohesive body of thought. And, she fails terribly in convincing anyone who is not already more imbecilic than her.

Every human being reacts to the idea/truth of God within the wide spectrum of one of four different ways. The first is for a person to be a believer of one religion only. The second is to be an atheist. The third is to believe in "God(s)" outside the bounds of religion. The fourth and rarest of all is to ascertain that all religions hold some element of truth in them and could not be mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, the mass majority of men and women falls in the first group and it is from this immense array of humanity that extremists and bigots in all of their known forms, including Taliban, Crusaders and Zionists arise. This is the cradle of Islamist terrorism against the West, Christian genocide against Jews and Muslims and the Israeli holocaust against the Palestinians and humanity.

When a Christian converts to Islam and elaborates on her new-found bliss (according to her) without denigrating her old faith she is adhering to what is basically "good" and benevolent in both Christianity and Islam. However, when Nonie Darwish ascertains that she abandoned Islam because it is a terrible religion and deserted Egypt because it is a disgusting country; that she became a Christian and later founded Arabs for Israel she is only being herself, a fake humanitarian usurper and hate mongrel. A Christian, one who comprehends the message of Jesus, is incapable of writing something so despicably vile about another faith. An Arab for Israel, however, is the perfect hayena to do just that.

Nonie, I'm not calling you infidel. You're nothing more than a hate perpetuating bitch.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Welcome 2

Bassem left me gasping for a word to say as the soft petals quivered in my hands. I didn't know of a single young man or woman in town who lived alone. Yet I couldn't imagine him staying with his parents. He simply looked out of place and perhaps a little out of time. I haven't seen him before and judging by the way he looked at me he didn't know me at all. As friendly and cordial as I am I don't normally greet total strangers on the sidewalk and chat with them. It was the twinkle in his eyes, however, his spiffy and detached smile that made me notice him as he walked by. He was late for work, he said. I instinctively glanced at my wristwatch. Nine o'clock! His office must be very close indeed.

I have dodged all attempts to pin me to a prearranged marriage. My father left me alone and gave me the breathing space I needed. My mother and two aunts didn't hold their fire back for a single day though. I was thirty and unmarried and they have vowed to put an end to my solitary existence. I loved mother dearly but she suffocated me as much as she neglected my father. It hurt her how close we were, he and I. She couldn't understand that by letting me fly on my own, by setting me free, by watching from a distance daddy was in fact with me every single moment. As hard as I tried to understand her motives behind her insistence on getting me married I couldn't. It was as if my life and hers depended on it.

"But mom I don't love him. I don't care that he's a doctor or about his family. I don't wanna get married now, and certainly not to him."

Their professions varied but they were all the same. Big boys who plunged head on into marrying a girl they didn't even know because she was pretty, came from a good family and passed their mothers discerning taste in women. This place suffocated me and if it were not for dad I would've not returned from abroad. I knew he was ill and I knew how my mother felt about him, or perhaps did not. As I grew up and witnessed their parallel lives I thought that her desultory journey would prevent her from committing her parents' mistake with me. I was wrong. Father was twenty years her senior and a century or two ahead of her and the town's folks' arrested development. He was undemanding and unobtrusive but when it became increasingly more difficult for him to be in his beloved bookstore, as he did everyday since as far back as I can remember, he called me and conveyed his message shyly. He wanted me near him but more importantly he wanted the bookstore to remain open.

I sold seven books to four other customers by 1:30. One of them, an elderly lady bought two dozens of red and white carnations too. I called dad over the phone and excitedly informed him about my first day's bounty. Delight tiptoed in between the chords of his frail voice. He asked about the seven books as if they were his flesh and blood. It was never about the money for him since he inherited plenty to make him and his family live comfortably. It was only about the books, my little brothers and sisters as he used to tell me when I was in first grade. I hesitated then...

"Dad, I met someone this morning."


"Here in the bookstore."

"What did he buy?"

"A bouquet of beautiful flowers."

"uh huh."

"Then he gave them to me dad."

He swallowed his thoughts, rolled them around in his head. "You sound happy habibti."

"I am!"

"Don't let anyone take that away from you. Follow your heart my Fatina."

He hung up, tired but not weighed down. I could see him lying content in bed with an open book over his chest. Oh how I love him. Tears swelled in my eyes when I remembered how ill he was, how lonely his life had been and how I'm going to lose him soon. The chimes over the door trilled with a distant song. I rubbed my eyes quickly with the back of my hand, straightened my dress and looked up. Bassem stood there with his enchanting smile.


"Hi Bassem."

"How are you?" He eyed me with tender concern. "Is everything alright?"

"Yes it is. " His worry dispelled the tears and spilled a gentle wave of quiet in my heart. He saw that.

"Listen. I was wondering if..?"

"Yes!" I answered. "I've been waiting all along."

by Abufares