Saturday, October 6, 2018, we got picked up by my niece, to go to her house in Zahle, the third largest city in Lebanon with a population of about 120,000. My niece lives there with her husband and two daughters. The distance from Beirut is about an hour but with traffic and winding roads, it is a good two hours and a half. She showed to us a new highway is being built and told us, next time we would use that road. We were grateful that she came all the way to Beirut to pick us up to spend some time with her and her family.
Zahle was so much cooler and less humid than Beirut, we truly appreciated this break from the heat and humidity. After we arrived at her house, she prepared lunch for us, Gary rested, and I went up to the roof top to see the surroundings of their house. My niece’s husband was busy reserving extra water for us in the big containers, so that we can take showers that evening. He also told me that behind the hills in front of me was Syria, not more than a mile or two away from us; he also showed me the chicken coop on the other side of their house where they purchase fresh eggs from, one can hear the chickens’ voices. I also had a chance to take pictures of flowers and dry lands full of life. Everything around us was organic, even the danger of living in that area was organic and imminent – one can almost feel it.
After having lunch with the family, and my niece getting a load of our laundry done as well, she took us to the city of Baalbek, to see the ancient ruins. It is said that habitation in Baalbek goes back to more than nine-thousand years. However, for me this was more than just an antiquity site to visit. This was the path of my exodus out of Lebanon 35 years ago to Damascus, Syria, consequently to Los Angeles; and three years later to Canada. Suddenly, I became that 15-year-old girl remembering details of that journey out of Lebanon – it all came back to me in a split second. My great-nieces were so tired that we decided not to go walking around the site of the ancient grounds, but we captured a few pictures outside the premises. This short visit was good enough for me as it confirmed the path that I had traveled to get out of Lebanon back in September 1983.
On our drive back to my niece’s house, Gary brought to my attention a field full of tents in the distance off the highway – but not close enough for us to capture a photo. However, my niece confirmed that “Uncle Gary is right, these are the tents the refugees from Syria call home”. There was another interesting element on our drive, at every other lamp post there were Arabic words, which were actually Islamic utterances. This one says, “Thanks be to God”.
In the evening, we had to wear sweaters and cover up with extra blankets because of the fresh cool air. What a difference a thousand plus meters of elevation can make. During supper, we decided that we need to go back to Beirut on Sunday afternoon instead of Monday morning at 4 a.m., with my niece’s husband who works for the Lebanese Army and must travel to Beirut once a week. His schedule is 4-3, he stays in Beirut for 4 days and comes home for 3 days. Good thing they have accommodations for him at his workplace. Grateful to my best friend, who had offered in advance that if we wanted to come back to Beirut on Sunday afternoon, she would come up and pick us up – we decided to take up her offer.
On Sunday, October 7, 2018, my friend, her husband and their eldest daughter arrived at my niece’s place, picked us up and took us for sightseeing before we all met at Restaurant Al Shams (Sun), for lunch. My friend insisted that there is an Armenian Apostolic Church in the city of Rayak (some spell it, Riyak), not far from Zahle, that was established back in the early years after the Armenian Genocide (1915) and that we must go and find it. Just like the typical Armenian-Lebanese way of doing things, she had no address, no clue where it was, however, by asking around here and there we found the church. The North American, GPS- driven person in me was ready to give up after asking a few people, but they did not. So, we found this little church and found out that they hold 4-6 worship services a year there. The priest from the nearby village of Anjar comes and conducts these worship services. The grounds and the buildings were renovated in 1994. An elderly couple, the grounds keeper, Mr. George Esfayir, and his wife, who also act as security guards showed us around. They only spoke Lebanese (Arabic) and live in a small house in the courtyard of the church. They also offered us to stay for lunch, but we already had luncheon reservations. This search was worth the trip and the pains of asking around – to see and experience this small church was life giving. My friend was right, “You have to see this church, Tak”.
After finding this church, we were swept away to the heart of downtown Zahle, where the river goes through its center. We walked around the pathway of the river where coffee shops, ice cream shops, and a casino are found, along with men and women selling fresh, deshelled walnuts, home made sweets and toys. My friend and I are never able to resist the Lebanese ice cream, “Ashta”. Even though we were headed for lunch, but that ice cream was truly calling our names and we stopped to enjoy some. (Booza Ashta – Ice cream Ashta is a chewy ice cream which is made of thickened cream, flavored with rose or orange blossom water, served with a sprinkle of pistachios.)
Time was getting short to go for our lunch, however my friend insisted that we stop at a famous winery in Zahle, CHATEAU KSARA (I checked, LCBO and SAAQ in Quebec sell their wine). The name means the Great Castle, founded in 1857. When we arrived, my friend told the tour guide that we did not have much time and if it was possible that we go to the cave section of the tour and see the place where the wines are stored and hear just a few moments about the beginning of this winery, and they said yes, without even charging us any entrance fees. I was amazed to learn during the cave visit that this used to be a Jesuit Monastery and this cave was found in 1898, when the Jesuit priests realized that foxes were stealing their chickens and disappearing. They investigated for a long time and found this cave where the foxes were hiding and enjoying the chickens. Moreover, in World War I, many Lebanese hid in this cave for safety. It was amazing to hear that there are over one million bottles of wine stored in the cave, besides the thousands of barrels that are stored there as well. It made me think that it is in the darkness of the cave that the wine can keep its goodness. Think about it… I was also amazed how our honest and open communication with the ticket vendor and the tour guide allowed us to get in and out quickly and without any fees to pay.
We made it to the Restaurant Al Shams (Sun), where we looked for table number 542, which was the table assigned for us. What a huge place. I remember from my childhood that this used to be a small restaurant for maybe 100 people, now, I cannot fathom the immensity of this place, and yet the amazing service. This restaurant is well known for their “balloon french fries”. There are many assumptions how this is made, but no one knows the actual recipe.
Right before we left the restaurant, we ran into a minister from Beirut, who is the director of the Armenian Nursing Home, near my sister’s apartment, who was enjoying lunch with his wife and another couple. They had enjoyed Sunday morning worship service in Anjar with a few of their elderly. They brought a bus load of elderly from Beirut to enjoy the cooler weather. They could not bring many, as they do not have accessible buses to transport them. In Lebanon accessibility is a rare thing to find. The other couple’s wife was a classmate of mine back in the day and it was so wonderful to run into them, as I was thinking of her and had wanted to meet her after 35 years. Here we were making plans to meet them tomorrow, Monday morning at their offices in Beirut. Even our decision to go back to Beirut on Sunday worked out for the best.
What a whirlwind thirty-three hours this has been. From Saturday morning pick up to Sunday evening arrival back to Beirut, with a horrendous traffic jam that took us over three-and-a-half-hours instead of an hour and fifteen minutes. But once again, as we were being driven down the mountainous region of Lebanon, we enjoyed good company, fun conversations, and a glorious Mediterranean sunset that only comes around very rarely to those who do not live in Lebanon.
I have been thinking, if it was not for my friend’s persistence, I would not have seen that small but beautiful Armenia Apostolic Church – a diamond in the wilderness of Lebanon and if it was not for the foxes stealing the chicken from the Jesuit Priests, they would have never discovered the cave, where goodness abides in darkness. I wonder, what things have we stopped looking for just because we have no specific details? I also wonder, what things have we lost that have helped us find new miracles?
Signing off… Sunday, October 7, 2018, 11:45 p.m. Cinema Royal Building, Nor Marash, Bourj Hammoud.