A whirlwind of emotions has swept through these first four days in Beirut.
On Saturday the 15th, before my friend came to take us to the most beautiful place in Lebanon that I had always wanted to visit, the Jeita Grotto, my nephew offered to take us to the Armenian Cemetery Center in Bourj Hammoud, as soon as he heard me say that I wanted to visit where my father, Vramchabouh, his mother, Perouz, and his sister Hripsime, have been laid to rest in an unmarked grave. For some reason, my family has not been able to mark the plot with names and details, but with the help of my nephew and my childhood memory, we were able to figure out the place and find it. After reflecting on the simple red earth, I walked around and looked for other relatives’ plots and found my maternal aunt’s, Tervanda and her husband, Harutyun (Male Armenian name translates to Resurrection) and his mother – the Seropians’ resting place.
This Armenian Cemetery Center has three denominations. When you stand to face the main entry gates, the one on the right is the Armenian Evangelical section, the one facing is the Armenian Orthodox, Apostolic section and on the left is the Armenian Catholic section. The other two denominations looked like they have done renovations, but the Armenian Evangelical section did not look as well as the others. Maybe people like my family have a part in this neglect. When people escape a war-torn country they look for the path of survival and do not think what they are leaving behind.
Thank God for my friend who had made a point to reserve the Saturday afternoon, after her work, to take us to the Jeita Grotto. After the cemetery visit, this was a welcomed activity. I had heard about this extraordinary creation and had always wanted to go see it, but of course, my parents were never able to take us because of the war and financial scarcity. Sometimes we did not see the sun for ten days during the war, let alone a field trip to a touristic destination. Other times, we had no money for food, let alone an excursion with the entire family. This visit was literally on top of my “To Visit List”. Now, at the age of 50 going on 51, it felt like the child in me woke up and thanked God for this gift – Sometimes what we desire does not come to us as fast as we wish for – God’s timing is NOT ours.
At the cave entrance, we were asked to leave our cell phones and cameras in a locked box, as they do not allow any form of photography. They have both an upper level and a lower level cave. We started on the upper level and gave in all our cell phones and our SLR Nikon camera and picked them up after the walk in the cave. The cave has walkways with railings and some parts of the flooring is slippery as the cave is a live organism and some of the drippings of minerals continue to form the cave’s “Statues”. At one part of our walk, I felt that I was standing underneath the Tree of Life, that is how much these shapes and forms are alive and speak to me, to us. We proceeded to the lower level after we finished this section. They have a train that takes people to the lower level once you get out of this section and pick up your cameras and cell phones. This time, I became a rebel, and gave in my SLR camera but kept my cell phone in my purse. I do believe if I use no flash to take a picture, it does not harm the cave, I hope I am right. So, all five of us made it into a little boat, this section required a little boat ride. Clear, sparkling water inviting us to a boat ride of serenity and peace. It was a beautiful boat ride, where you needed to duck your head to enter the cruising area. The tour guide came to steer the boat. He was a kind man and I told him in my broken Lebanese that I was back in Lebanon after 35 years of departure and it was a dream of mine to visit Jeita. I also confessed to him that I had my cell phone with me and would like to take a few pictures with the flash off if he would allow me. His reply was affirmative. He explained that flashless photography has always been allowed, but they confiscate all cell phones and cameras now because many people take flash photography against all rules and regulations and that is why they have decided to not allow any form of photography. He cautioned me to pay attention that there are no other boats around when I take pictures. So, we snapped a few photos and he actually helped us snap a group picture.
What a gorgeous place this is. It has a presence that touches your heart yet speaks no words. I thought to myself – this is The Presence that we search for and know little about. The Creator is present in all Creation if we ONLY take time to BE present with the Presence. What a gift this was. If you have some time, check out the site: www.jeitagrotto.com.
We continued our day and after a wonderful Lebanese Dinner, we returned home just in time to sleep and get up the next day to go to church – The Armenian Evangelical Church in Nor Marash. This church is the church of the school I attended, and where the foundation of my faith was laid. Before church began, the minister, who was a classmate and a neighbour of mine from childhood, told me that most of the people from Bourj Hammoud are in Anjar, a place in the beautiful mountains of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, where they are celebrating the Day of the Cross, so there may not be a lot of attendees. I assured him that whoever is meant to be here will be here. And they were. My mom’s first cousin came with her daughter, one of our old neighbours came and told me that she had not been to church for two weeks, but today something in her pushed her to come and how happy she was that she came. So, whoever was meant to come was there. After church, many spoke to me how they imagined my mother speaking at the pulpit, others mentioned how my father used to take wonderful pictures at the school and they still treasure those pictures. My Mother’s first cousin congratulated me in what has God graced me in my life. And, I agreed with her that this was unimaginable but that is how God works. Our time after the church was seeing people of my childhood and meeting people for the first time and establishing and renewing ties of love and peace. These were strengthened by a few people as we went up to the minister’s home and had brunch. After this, my friend took us away for an afternoon full of memories of old.
On our way to the restaurant where my father was a photographer, we stopped at the Armenian Church Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias. We visited the church and found Communion Breadcrumbs left from the morning Mass. Reminded me of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Then we walked to the newly renovated room dedicated to the Armenian Genocide. It was a difficult moment but yet a powerful reminder of strength, survival and endurance.
Afterwards, we arrived at the restaurant settled in the valley of beautiful, natural waterfalls. He was the photographer there for so many years. He had a little cubby hole where my brother and he developed the photographs of those enjoying a nice supper with Lebanese music and belly dancers and sold the pictures right away. From this little cubby hole, he fed nine mouths. This was before the cellular era. The proprietor not only remembered my dad, but he also asked how my brother Hagop (Jacob) is. He sent us dessert and fruits after we were fed like royalty and my friend’s gift of taking us there was another precious moment in time, where we used to go regularly, almost every Sunday. Sometimes we could not afford a taxi fee, so we used to walk from Bourj Hammoud to Al Fawar Antelias, which was over an hour and thirty-minute walk, but we did it gladly, not having enough money was never a problem when you had the joy of walking with family and friends.
Our journey of this day continued up to the mountains of Lebanon, to the villages we used to spend our Summer days, and the village of Bologna was full as they were celebrating the Feast Day of Thecla. I remember this commotion from my childhood, but I never knew who this celebration was for, until this day. Thecla, about whom I studied at Concordia University, was a saint of the early Christian Church, and a disciple with Apostle Paul, she was one of the very first women of the early church workers. It is interesting that I had heard this name and seen these celebrations almost every Summer of my childhood, but it is ONLY now that I understand this Lebanese celebration, it is called Mar Takla – in Lebanon, they have 43 different churches named after her and many nunneries.
Beloved, from physical birth, life, to physical death, what love, kindness, courage and joy we leave behind helps us create a blessed memory that never fails. From the forgotten burial plots of Bourj Hammoud to the ever-living memories of those we remember in our conversations, to the First Century Saints we celebrate, they testify to us that death does not have the last word. We continue to be Living Witnesses of the Creator, just like nature does in her own way. We experience Grace, Mercy, Sustenance and Love that no one can take away. To this I say, Thanks be to God today and Always. Amen.
Signing Off… Sunday, September 16, 11:45 p.m. – Cinema Royal Building, Nor Marash, Bourj Hammoud.