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Image by Anne Nygård
The Pine Tree in the Patio
By Vartan Koumrouyan

never asked myself why and thought that war was a fact of life everywhere, and was not such a big deal, says the author

I live with my mother and my son. He’s ten years old and mother is 83. I have inherited a traditional way of life from the country I was born in. A middle-class family with my brother, sisters and grandfather. Three generations under the same roof in our house in Zouk Mikhael, just two minutes before Jounieh, the coastal town, east of Beirut.

We still maintain family values here in Paris, inherited from the past when such things mattered and were a safety net to fall back to because life was difficult then, as it always was in the Middle East for centuries, if not a millennia. Our roots are antecedent to the Ottoman Empire, today’s Turkey, predating even the Roman Empire, when our kings ruled from the Caucasus to the Mediterranean Sea and were absorbed into the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great after the death of the King of Kings, Darius the Great.

The First World War and the Second World War are, if I may say so, regarded as skirmishes, by my grandfather. He never made a fuss or talked about, not once, so I guess he took the long view of these worldly matters, even if he was the only survivor of his extended family in 1919, having lost all the lands in the village of Sivas with the livestock which was the mainstay of the ancient people, and, as he told me when I was a small boy, all the gold coins in a crockery jar the elders of the village hid in the ground near an oak tree by the sheep pen, before they were driven to exile, a practice known today as ethnic cleansing, to become refugee on the island of Corfu, in Greece, Alexandretta-Iskenderun in Syria, and finally Lebanon, to live in the karantina camp near the harbour.

The French gave this word to the Lebanese vocabulary. It is derived from ´quarantaine ´, meaning a forty day period of isolation for travellers who entered the country via the ships from the harbour, to attest they are free of contagious diseases and their good health.

The area later became a permanent settlement for many apatrides, nomads, stateless people when the Middle East was being redrawn and given new names as the Ottoman Empire dissolved. The French writer De Nerval mentions his days in isolation in this area, in his Voyage en Orient, and Lamartine also, though Lamartine rented a house and had a street in his name, in one of those many ottoman caravanserais that still exist today in Gemmayzeh, from where he had the view of the harbour and the sea, in the Gouraud district. The Gouraud street is named after General Henri Gouraud, who, upon visiting the tomb of Saladin in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus in 1920, is reported to have said ‘Saladin, we’re back’, seven hundred years after Saladin vanquished the Crusades to reconquer Jerusalem, in October 1187.

‘Vosky, what do you want to eat?’ my mother asks my son in the morning.

Vosky was the nickname my grandfather and I gave to my son. I thought it might project us, my grandfather, myself and my son into the future, a lineage of some sort with these five letters that might set us apart in the streamlined vision of the world, an identity with a different story, for the sake of diversity.

She cajoles him in her soft, old voice, early on when it’s still dark outside in this month of December, encouraging him to get up and go to school. What does he know about us, this small boy, if anything, about our past, the century long peregrination as refugees through the continents to finally reach Paris thirty years ago, that he will discover when he grows up.

He speaks three languages and already has the taste of travel, a first-hand experience of long jeep rides in Palawan, an island in the South China Sea, Philippines, to our jungle house in the north when we lived there, and later, his experience of airports and long hauls from the Pacific to the European continent when he was five years old.

My mother says, ‘what you want to eat’, and in her mind, the ritual of breaking bread kept its original form and purpose, eating when hungry only, sequenced to the timing of the day, breakfast, lunch and dinner, to morning, noon and night, which she associates with the ceremony of the ancient tradition without the fuss of modern cuisine.

Most of the time she cooks a simple dish, pasta, rice, eggplant with minced meat, and we sit at the table to eat in silence. We don’t talk too much and have little to say to each other, except when she says I shouldn’t add more olive oil to the dish or the omelette. I tell her that olive oil is better than butter, which is not in our culinary tradition, and the Mediterranean diet in Crete, based on olive oil, lemon, garlic, tomatoes, parsley and thyme, makes people live to be a hundred years old, ‘look at Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, and Saladin for that matter, they died young, but they died with the sword in their hand, like real warriors’. And of course, she knows nothing about these people, and she says, as if reproving me, “You read too many books, you better find a job !”. And this is why I became a taxi driver.

We maintain these family values, I am afraid to say, that are defunct in other cultures.

My son, growing up, will remember these names when I tell him to repeat them after me, when I listen to the Concert for Bangladesh, Glenn Gould’s Bach Variation or Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. He will have something to think about when he gets tired of playing games on his tablet. He will have something to remember, with roots going back a millennia, and these names will be the seeds to make him evolve in life with a meaning, to make him feel he has an identity, instead of being vague, undecided and listless.

I see him playing on his tablet and ask him: “Is it boring?” He says, “yes” without looking up. And I sense in the routine of the days, the narrowness of the scope, the only choice he is taught at school to be.

“We will travel later in June, don’t worry”, I told him.

In my mind I count the days for our trip to the jungle house on the island.

I want him to wait in anticipation for the departure day, to nourish expectations and excitement to make him dream about at night, rekindle his memories of the jungle house, that it is still a desired destination, different with its own time zone and existing outside of what he knows of the world, with his own thoughts about it.

People born on the Mediterranean shores are like that. The Mediterranean culture is like an archaeological excavation with layers upon layers representing the foundation of mankind, from the clay tablets of Mesopotamia and the Sumerians who partitioned time to 60 seconds a minute and 365 days a year still in use today, to Greek mythology and the Pharaohs. They have a feeling they are the descendants of something bigger and older than themselves for which they show respect, because they have always been here, under one name and another, under one ruler, warlord or imperator. The Crusades, Pharaohs, Sumerians, Phoenicians, Christians, Muslim and Jews alike, with the same origins if you went back in time far enough, when people worshipped statues, the sun, the moon or nothing at all, and lived in prairies and forests with wild beasts and still confronted each other in times of war, like Hannibal and his elephants, the greatest war general of all time according to Napoleon, who crossed the Alps to conquer Rome in the second Punic war in 214 BC.

The days to which I have a filial attachment to are the memories of the eucalyptus trees near Saint Kevork church at the entrance of the Karantina Camp. Its peeling bark in thick contorted sheets and the smell of the dry leaves, when the bus stopped and we walked to the shop of my grandfather behind the train terminal, the Beirut-Damascus line and the adjacent land with rusted rails tracks, overgrown thistles and laurel and bougainvillea hedges with purple flowers like dices over the pillars of the fence, the small arched building of the station, its broken windows and swallow nests in the corners of the ceiling, the melting asphalt and the smell of motor oil in the garage, the guard in his cabin to whom I showed the empty water jug I came to fill from the water tube along the wall with a barrel under it, where the drops leaked.

My grandfather was exiled to Lebanon from the village of Sivas in Eastern Turkey, when the Ottoman Empire retreated to the actual borders of Turkey, when Istanbul was called Constantinople and the Byzantine kingdom ruled all over the area to the Black Sea for 1123 years and 8 months, until its fall at the hands of the conquering Oman Ghazi in 1330, and by that date, the great schism that divided the Christian Religion between catholic and orthodox had already been effective for 3 centuries.

The other thing I remember is the karantina camp and the wooden cabins built on the lowlands the river flooded during the rainy season. It was a swamp infested with mosquitoes and along the banks where they constructed makeshift shelters which symbolised their refugee status, small huts and wooden cabins between one another, blackened with age, where clothes hung on small window traps and narrow wooden stairs.

My grandfather built one of those cabins on the roof of our house in Jounieh, where he raised pigeons and rabbits and stored his garden tools, rusty forks, a shovel, a sickle, torn, rusty nails and a hammer he used to fix the eucalyptus branches on the vine trellis under which he sat to read his books in the shade.

We were grateful for this country because it gave us a new nationality and a home, and with that piece of paper, we were not refugees anymore, but then the war started again, and it lasted many years. I had nothing to do with it, except suffer the consequences.

It was the routine of the days that never varied and, most importantly, it closed the perspectives of the future. It made escape impossible because it was difficult to concentrate on anything, but when I read sometimes, I felt like the words were my companion and I was not lonely anymore, surrounded by inanimate objects in my room, the words in comparison had a life of their own and opened new horizons.

On the shelf there was a large book with glossy pages and Russian vocabulary and photos of the earth’s geology in layers corresponding to different colours, ore in red, yellow and shades of brown, with the Great Expectations of Charles Dickens and Les Trois Mousquetaires that I started to read, then I began to take my father’s transistor to bed at night to listen to Voice of America, Radio Monte Carlo and the BBC, especially when the war news was the only thing happening to fill the emptiness of the days and nights.

In terms of meaning, the environment had little when there were people in it, confident of themselves, knowing perfectly what to do and why, despite the war as if it didn’t reach them yet, even when they held guns. It all seemed predestined, that I had to be born in independent Lebanon, my Grandfather under the Ottoman Empire and my father under the French Protectorate, and through the pregrenation between continents, centuries and political entities, we became the ‘eternal wandering jews of the earth, to quote Nietzsche on Spinoza, with no nations or nationalist leanings, and be content that we were not God’s favorite tribe; reaching Spinoza’s idea of God, the Natura Naturans, nature acting by itself, not the Divine, imminently present, God, the Natura Naturata, believing that God was punishing us for no reason.

In these terms, the world was not new in my eyes, but its awareness accompanied me when I became familiar with Spinoza’s definition of God, and it made me light and nimble, ready to accept fate whatever it was. I instinctively knew the falsehood of the civil war in Beirut, because the unnecessary embellishment of religion was the reason why people killed each other. You could go to war like a true warrior, but not hiding behind religion, to kill others in its name.

My grandpa was alone when he read his books and newspapers, or when he was in the garden getting busy with his plants and fruit trees. He didn’t really care about the war, and we were guests in Lebanon. He had seen it before, and it didn’t affect him on a personal level. He had some kind of intellectual immunity, a parallel environment where he was dissociated from the war and happy in a world where he divested himself of the étiquette of the ‘victim’. He was not a survivor of genocide anymore. He was a new man in Beirut, with grandchildren, a house, a garden, rabbits and pigeons in his cabin on the roof. We stayed away from the war when the neighbourhood boys went to training camps in the mountains of Sannine and Faraya. We stayed away from the war, except when the shells started to reach our neighbourhood.

We readied the basement, put sandbags on the door, whitewashed the walls, put mattresses and pillows on the floor and whenever the echoes of the rockets got louder, we came down to the shelter and waited until it was over. This situation lasted many years. On Voice of America on short wave, late at night, I listened to old blues songs sometimes when I slept in the shelter. Sometimes to John Peel’s choice of punk bands, or From our Own Correspondence, when the situation was tense, on the BBC World Service.

It was the only window to the outside, to know what the rest of the world thought about us, and not knowing what I know now, I would feel ashamed of myself for it. My father and Monsieur Selim listened to Oum Kalsoum and old Egyptian songs between the flash bulletin of the latest from the green line; the front line that divided Beirut in two, between the Christians and the Muslim. They played backgammon on the veranda under the pine trees in the afternoon. On Sunday, they took us to the beach in Jounieh. One time, I remember, when my father bought his Mercedes, they took us to the Martyr Square in downtown Beirut when there was a ceasefire, to watch an old western movie at Empire cinema with Garry Cooper, and another time, The Big Boss, Bruce Lee.

My grandfather was unmoved by all this. He refused to sleep with us in the shelter, and kept observing his garden routine until noon, and after lunch, he read his newspapers and books under the vine pergola. For him, the war had ended long time ago in 1918, and the only thing he cared to talk about with Monsieur Selim when they played backgammon, was when he would ask him when it will rain, because he was supposed to know more about nature, being older, and because he had planted eggplant and tomatoes. Balancing his fist as if he wanted an appropriate guess, he would smile and wait, because he knew the answer.

My grandpa would look towards the sky, right and left, and slightly raise his hand as if he was feeling the elements, and say, showing the two fingers, the victory sign, meaning two days, adding sometimes the thumb, meaning three days, and Monsieur Selim would then really smile, murmuring slowly the words ‘zaman, zaman’ to let my grandfather read his lips because he was deaf, and they would both smile together as if these two words had a lot of meaning to them, or that perhaps it was their secret joke.

It was the situation we grew up with, fluid and like a whispering breeze from far away, because it started in the summer, and at nights when windows were open to the Mediterranean breeze, the gunshots and later the echoes of explosions were carried over the sea with the westerly from Beirut. Deep thumps dissolved in their last reverberations in the dead of the night, because we were in bed, sleeping, and had to get up and run to the shelter. But there was no awareness that another way of life existed, except what we have seen in films. The movies were just movies, the happy ending and the hero who always wins and is always the good guy. They were not serious. They were made to please, and didn’t reflect the reality of the war, such as you see it first-hand.

The war and the refusal of its acceptance was gradual.

I never asked myself why and thought that war was a fact of life everywhere, and was not such a big deal, because life went on as usual, except when these events interrupted the ordinary things of every day. Yes, we had pine trees and we lost them because of the war.

Reading and writing didn’t start as an angst healing process. It was only to stand against the boredom of repetitive things in which there was no change or any prospect of change.

There was the Pizzeria Verona on the autostrade near our house we went to at night during cease fires and there was a lull in the fighting. This was a culinary variation, a novelty that transported us through our taste buds to another mood which was different from the actual deadlock situation. Then there was the filter less Camel cigarette, contraband because not all groceries had them. The used jeans and second hand clothes in the thrift shops imported from the US, which had the whiff of foreigners to whom they belonged, a country we could not go to, representing what we aimed to emulate, the dream that was theirs bequeathed to us with these jeans now having a second life, a transition from the land of the free to the land of the dead, living a surrogate dream in a land torn apart, smoking Camel cigarettes, listening the The Wall, drinking Schlitz all night.

It was a way of being, living and thinking, far away from Woodstock and Isle of Wight; an art of being a rebel with a real cause that had the capacity to erase the successive days of the war.      

Image by Laura Chouette

Vartan Koumrouyan lives in Paris, France, Manila, and the island of Palawan, in the South China Sea Philippines. His work has been published in 'Tulatulahan.' He runs a YouTube channel called 'Palawan Jungle Days.'

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