A RITUAL THOUSANDS OF YEARS OLD

This is another excerpt from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War. In this scene we are about to leave our apartment after yet another cease fire, the fifteenth in the past year, has been broken. Our apartment is located on the infamous Green Line, a virtual no man’s land where identity papers and Fate determined life and death.

The original Green Line in Beirut was designed by a Frenchman named Ecochard. Under his supervision bougainvillea and eucalyptus trees were planted the entire length of Damascus Street from the city center all the way to the end of Fourn ni Chebak. The warring factions had transformed the Green Line into a deadly territorial divide between East and West Beirut, a virtual no-man’s land where identity papers and Fate determined life and death.

Because renewed hostilities on the Green Line were inevitable we decided we should take refuge elsewhere. Badaro Street, where we lived, was technically on the West Beirut side of the Green Line and we were worried there might be some sort of formal closure of the two sectors which would restrict our activities and prevent Michel from getting to his hospital.

From the onset of the war I had never had the leisure to pack away my valuables in their proper places. We usually threw a few things into a suitcase and scampered to get out the door as shells fell around us.

March 1976 was different.

In the Sultan family certain possessions like carpets and antiques were highly prized. Michel and I had two Persian carpets, wedding gifts from one of my father-in-law’s associates. Each was approximately twenty-five feet long; they were nearly seventy-five years old and had to be rolled up very carefully. Once I finished lifting chairs and moving tables and sofas, I rolled up the carpets and tied a plastic bag on each end to prevent moths and mites from crawling inside, and stored the carpets, one on top of the other, behind the couch. I pulled up the Venetian blinds and tied the living and dining room curtains in knots and wound them over the rods.

Our most important treasures were a dozen three-thousand year-old vases, some only three inches tall. They came from my father-in-law’s collection which included some five hundred amazingly intact artifacts: vases, Roman busts, oil lamps, and coins, which he kept in a vitrine in his apartment in Achrafieh.

I loved to touch these precious objects and run my fingers along their smooth surfaces. Their transparency made them seem so fragile, yet they were as solid as if they had just been made. Their colors varied from pale blue to turquoise. Several of the taller foot high vases has frosted exteriors which gave an added visual dimension. Their uses varied too. The tallest one held spices. Body oils were stored in the medium sizes; musk and cedar-wood for the men, lavender and jasmine for the women. Perhaps the smaller wide brimmed ones, used as receptacles for tear drops, held the sorrow of another war or some abandoned lover.

This time as I put them away it struck me, as it never had, that many other women before me had cared for these same vases. How arrogant of me not to have thought of that! I was only a curator honored to be entrusted with these precious artifacts of ancient civilizations. Since at least the Babylonian, Roman and Greek invasions women had made it their job to preserve these particular vases while their men were away fighting. Here I was, another housewife in the midst of yet another war, carrying out the same ritual thousands of years later.

This book is available for purchase here.

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