Fifty-two years old, with an opulent and well-rounded shape. A head of hair that once tried to be reddish. Despite her weight, an energy and dynamism that say a lot about her will. She is a woman who is mistress of her surroundings, who dominates places — in this case, the Villa Nadia.

It is a large dwelling, amid olive trees, on Bahsas Hill which stands over Tripoli. A place of one’s dreams. She transformed it into a hotel in 1975, when the civil war began. On the walls there are no bullet marks, no signs of battle at all, though less than 200 meters away lie the ruins of blown-up houses. A place detached from time and space. The bougainvilleas never stop taking their pleasures where they may. The mimosa and jacarenda lose their flowers and leaves only to the breeze, not to the burst of a bomb. Life follows a biological rhythm here.

As if that is not enough! The interior of the Villa Nadia is a reproduction of Ottoman style: A central fountain and around it four guest rooms… each for a different season. In the corner, a staircase disappears, leading to the bedrooms.

Nadia is Christian. Her mother was from Damascus, her father from Tripoli where she has always lived, too, except for a three-year interlude in Santiago, Chile. It was an unfortunate interlude — a failed marriage, husband a gambler, nervous depression. All between 17 and 20 years ago. That marks a life, but also frees a woman from many social pressures. To bring herself out of it, Nadia opened a fashion boutique in the city. “It was the first time,” she says, “that a woman dared to open a business in Tripoli.” People gossiped about her. Not surprising, when someone upsets traditions. Nadia held on, asserted herself, and built her reputation. With her earnings she built this house. Quite naturally, she is proud of it. Now that her children have grown up, she has remarried an international lawyer: a Muslim, she says, to be precise.

“Patrick…could you please….” (Nadia breaks into English.) The Sri Lankan servant hurries at her slightest call. Servant or not, who would refuse her orders in this place she controls, only several meters from the Syrian positions. “Positions” is a generous term, though. You should see the little lads in paratroop fatigues, whose red color prevails over the drabs of the camouflage. Wedged behind their sandbags, a rifle on the shoulder, some openly pick their noses, others read. The rare vehicles that drive on the country road are the only thing to disturb the atmosphere of inactivity.

“These Syrians, they have a plan for Lebanon, but they do not want to reveal it,” Nadia says. “You can’t have confidence in these people. They say one thing and do another. What are they still doing here? They sow disorder and do not want us to have peace. Just like the Palestinians, they wanted to take Lebanon and throw us out of our homes. These people are all the same. They are not content with what they have. They want more, always more. They are lazy hooligans, good-for-nothings. We have this situation because of them and who knows when it is going to end. Everyday, everyday something new. For eight years, no one has been able to do anything. You will see in just a few minutes, the festival is going to begin. They are going to hit one another the way they do every evening” — in the distance, some bursts of automatic weapon fire — “Ah! Well! Didn’t I tell you! Do you hear? It’s beginning. You don’t even know who is aiming at whom. On, my God, what a life! When is it going to stop!”

“As for me, I don’t know anything about politics, but I am going to tell you, I don’t understand anyone who works against his country. That one from Zghorta” — Sulayman Franjiyya, whose name she doesn’t mention — “everyone knows that he has killed 40 people in a church with his own hands. After that he fled for refuge in Syria, and of course he developed relationships over there. Since then, he has worked for them, which is not surprising. If you go to Zghorta you will see, the women always wear black, they are always in mourning.”

“Patrick… please, could you… Yes, what was I saying to you? Politics, I know nothing about that. But these socialist hooligans, bandits, thieves who talk, talk, talk to hide what they are doing. They are the ones who have brought disorder here. Fortunately, Bashir came. I loved that boy. I loved him like my own son. A true Lebanese. I remember, it was in 1974, he was the only one to talk as if he was talking about his own country: Lebanon. He was young then, but he was the only one who understood and who said what people were thinking. Fortunately, he was there. Without him, I don’t know where we would be today. Really, I loved that boy. He knew how to speak simply, easy for everyone to understand. And he said things that were right. I loved him like my son. If only the good God had taken my life rather than his! Those are the ones” — pointing a finger in the direction of the Syrian positions — “that did the deed. You know it. Wait, today someone brought me a picture of Bashir. I must show it to you. You will see how handsome he is …ya habibi…. He is handsome, don’t you think? I kiss him every time I see him. Wait, there is another picture. I keep it in my purse and I go through all the roadblocks with it…. I don’t give a damn, what can they do to me? It’s my country, isn’t it? Hang on, I am going to show you some even more beautiful photos. They are in the armoire in my bedroom. Come see.”

Nadia opens the locked doors of the armoire. Inside are hung two posters. One of Bashir, with a martial air, arms crossed in a military uniform. Nadia rushes to kiss it. “Each time I see it, I can’t keep from kissing it. Forgive me, won’t you? I’m so emotional. I loved him so much.”

In the other photograph, the Gemayel family: the father, Pierre, flanked by his two sons. Bashir dressed in khakhi, Amin in a three-piece suit. “He is also a son of Lebanon. We have a good president. May God take the years that are left to me and give them to him. I swear to you, this is what I hope for Lebanon. With him, we will achieve peace, you will see.”

“Patrick…Patrick…is it ready for Madam? Come, your dinner is ready. I have made some kufta with some goat meat that I buy in a village over there. I don’t buy meat just anywhere. For each kind of meat, I go where it is best. That way I know it is good. I know who killed the animal. I’ll tell you this, and don’t think that I am a fanatic, but the meat killed by a Muslim has a different taste from that killed by a Christian. It has a particular smell that I can’t stand.”

—Translated by Eric Hooglund

Jean and George

Jean is from Zghorta, George from Batroun. Both are Maronites, married and with children. Good friends, old friends. In Lebanon, when you approach the age of 40 and remain friends, that says a lot. Theirs is a strong and solid friendship, literally tested under fire.

Jean’s apartment, where they meet, overlooks Zghorta — a town tucked into a lush valley, surrounded by mountains. Without delay, they exchange the latest news. Their purpose is not conspiracy, but survival. Tripoli is now isolated from Beirut by Phalangist-controlled mountains and the Christian-Druze war in the Matn and Shouf. Men like Jean and George, who took up arms against the Phalange during the civil war, cannot pass through without risking their lives. If they had held only political positions they might make it — but having been fighters, it’s impossible. So Beirut is inaccessible to both.

The conversation is unemotional, getting quickly to the heart of the matter. Dates and facts. Each sentence is loaded with history; concrete details, here and there, lend color, form and sounds. A memory evoked may be heartwarming; a sigh may recall events of the past. They mention avenues of hope, though these are few. The resistance in the south, the Movement of Islamic Reunification in Bab al-Tabbana. Tripoli, the northern region of Lebanon, remains what it was: the left, the Palestinians, the democratic and revolutionary movements continue to exist. Is it a last bastion or a point of departure? Like a tennis match, hope serves to despair who then returns the ball. Who will score the point? All the contradictions surface: international, regional, national and, above all, local. The micro-sociology of local power gets lost in the maze of Zghorta’s torturous streets dominated for centuries by one of five families in turn — Franjiyya, Karami, Duwayhi, Mu&lsqou;awwad, Makari.

Jean, from Zghorta, broke with his family for political reasons, but he cannot resist showing us the neighborhood of his childhood. Giving honor where it is due, he begins with the church. It is an old Maronite church with low narrow doors which forced riders to dismount before entering. The carved stones breathe history. The priest, in his sacristy, listens to each visitor in turn, then calls their attention to the tombs of French Jesuits buried here in the eighteenth century. As he deciphers the tombstones, written in Syriac or in Arabic, women dressed in black recite their prayers. Jean, the old Parti Populaire Syrien militant, [1] relives his youth. George, far from his native town of Batrun, hardly suppresses his sense of irony: in spite of everything, his friend has not freed himself from tradition.

The tour is not over. After the church, Jean takes us to see his uncle whom he has not seen for a very long time, for reasons one can imagine. But the water mill is worth the visit, even if it means forgetting those things. It is an old building, damaged by time, exposed to every wind, dominated by the noise of a brook which passes underneath to turn the millstone. The uncle is there, sitting amid sacks of wheat. It is the end of the afternoon, and he is resting before going home. On the roof of the mill, soaked wheat is being dried again before being crushed — not to be made into flour but to be cracked in the customary Lebanese way. “This burghul makes the best kufta,” says George, who has lost his ironic tone. He now yields to the smell of wheat and a countryside that has suddenly recalled his own childhood. He allows himself to conjure it up in a few sentences, almost embarrassed to reveal, in turn, his attachment to this land. Zghorta, June 1983

—Translated by Judith Tucker


[1] The Parti Populaire Syrien was founded in the 1930s as a right-wing nationalist paramilitary cadre party. It proclaimed Syrian as opposed to Arab or Lebanese nationalism, and maintained that historic and geographic “greater Syria” included all of Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, as well. After the 1950s, when the party changed its name to the Syrian Social National Party, it concentrated on issues of socioeconomic reform. In the 1970s, it functioned prominently as a component of the Lebanese National Movement. Explicitly anti-sectarian, the party drew its members primarily from Lebanon’s Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic communities; its present membership now comes from virtually all of Lebanon’s communities.

How to cite this article:

Marie-Christine Aulas "Pictures from the North," Middle East Report 118 (October 1983).

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