MY SULTAN

In this excerpt from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s WarI explain how a handsome young Lebanese swept me off my feet and introduced me to a world I had until then only dreamed of.

For years I had imagined living somewhere in Central Asia. I saw myself behind a strong Tijik on a galloping horse. In other dreams I was sailing the South China Sea on my way to Borneo, the scent of nutmeg and cinnamon in the air. Or I was kidnapped by a sultan and traversing a brilliant star-lit desert atop a camel.

My future in Beirut began in a dream where sheets of sand and waves of dunes rippled across the serene beauty of a boundless stretch of desert. My dream-woman lived in a tent with her Bedouin husband. Like him she was tall and majestic. Her long blue garment embroidered in gold shone brilliantly when she stepped into the sun. Her golden hair hung in two long braids almost touching the ground. She was queen of her husband’s tribe in the exotic land of Ali Baba, of Scheherazade’s A Thousand and One Nights, a place where caravans of laden camels traveled along sand highways heading for market at the desert’s edge.

I met ‘my’ Sultan in early December 1964, not on a sandy desert of my dreams but when he began his internship at the Washington Hospital Center. A mutual friend who had attended the same medical school in Beirut introduced us. Over the next six months when Michel was not on call on alternate nights we spent every minute together. He introduced me to his world of music, art, language and culture. I saw my first live opera, attended a concert at the National Symphony Orchestra and heard Jean-Pierre Rampal play the flute. Michel took me to charming restaurants in Georgetown where we sat at secluded, candlelit tables and ordered champagne. For my birthday he gave me a pair of gold earrings studded with turquoise stones. Sometimes after a concert at the Washington Cathedral, where I heard Bach and Vivaldi for the first time, we would stroll through Rock Creek Park.

I loved that he treated me like a lady, opening doors and pulling out chairs. When he took my hand, he kissed it; when he looked into my eyes, his smile was reassuring. In his ongoing effort to speak better English he was willing to be corrected when he made a mistake. I loved everything about him. I loved the texture of his slightly darker skin and the warmth it gave off in the sunlight that made his black eyes glow. There was something special about the way his curly hair lay in tiny ringlets on the back of his neck. I loved the way he kept his nails short and clean; his fine leather shoes and cashmere socks; his Chanel cologne; the way he wore his beautifully-tailored cotton shirts and silk ties with French labels under luxuriously soft woolen suits. There was always a neatly folded handkerchief in his right pants pocket. Sitting beside him in a dark theater I loved the way he took my hand in his, the way he stroked my palm in circles with his thumb. Most of all, I loved his gentleness.

As our plane approached Beirut on June 17, 1969, I saw miles and miles of pristine beaches beside turquoise waters. Along the corniche dozens of white marble buildings glistened like pearls in the late afternoon sun.

My heart throbbed with excitement. ‘Just as I dared imagine,’ I thought, ‘only better.’

When we landed the passengers applauded. As they stood gathering their belongings they turned to each other, mostly perfect strangers, and said ‘Hamdalah al salame,’ which Michel explained, meant ‘Welcome home, thank God you had a safe trip.’

“Why were they cheering?” I asked. “Were they afraid they would not land safely?”

An elderly man seated behind us overheard our conversation. “Mais non, Madame, we applaud because we are glad to be back in our dear city.”

I had never seen such warmth, such joie de vivre. I would come to learn that this was standard behavior for the gentle but spirited Lebanese.

This book is available for purchase here.

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