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On Nothing to See

June 8, 2017

 

I have made a long enough descent into the void to speak with certainty. There is nothing but beauty – and beauty has only one perfect expression, Poetry. All the rest is a lie.

— Stéphane Mallarmé

 

© Yara Zgheib All Rights Reserved

 

At six twenty-nine the pistachio green shutters of Baskinta are still closed. The occasional fruit and vegetable truck drives by, the sleepy, red plated taxi. Abou George el dikkanje[1] has not yet opened shop, his narrow, Ali Baba’s cave of random goods; a few shelves of government subsidized bread and staples like coffee, tea, zaatar,[2] Picon,[3] and the more interesting, to the children at least, cheap chocolate and candy bars, colorful bags of potato chips.

 

From December to April, over the clouds, under the snow, the village and Abou George are alone, save for the skiers and snowboarders who stop for manakish[4] on their way to the slopes. Some of the locals flock to Beirut for warmth, some of the young ones go abroad. Not all come back but spring does, every year. Now Baskinta is flushed red with cherry trees.

 

To this little village perched on top of a mountain dipping into the Mediterranean Sea, few tourists ever come. There is nothing to see. The village keeps its secret well; a few houses and orchards along a narrow one way street. A church, a spring, a square.

 

And the starting point of a walking trail, twenty-four kilometers long, along twenty-two landmarks of some of Lebanon’s greatest literary minds.

 

The Russians and French built schools, centers, monasteries in the region in the eighteenth century. The people flocked to them and the writers, philosophers, poets, artists emerged.

 

Facing the sea to the west and rising many thousands of feet above it, with a front broad, steep and craggy,’ Mikhail Naimy sat on this rock and wrote The Book of Mirdad. A little further down, his house and the six hundred year old oak tree he loved. His nephew, now ninety-one, still lives here with photographs and stories he generously shares.

 

To the east, Jabal Sannine, of which Abdallah Ghanem wrote: ‘Upon my heart she tapped and said, ‘Oh kindly open let me see.’’ Up front, Amin Maalouf’s house, his school, the Ain el Qabou spring that he immortalized in The Rock of Tanios.

 

Suleiman Kettaneh, Rachid Ayoub, Georges Ghanem, Georges Aroyan. Voices, pens, and brush strokes that defined Lebanon. There is nothing to see but beauty, culture, history on this trail. This village, and the next, do not belong to tourists; my father’s land is that of the bakers, farmers, walkers, goat herders and poets.

 

The air smells, almost tastes like lavender and thyme. The sun is slowly coming out. Through the vines overhead, still grapeless and green, pink and orange light trickles in.

 

At six thirty the shutters open decidedly and the white lace curtains are pulled back. Plastic chairs are brought out through the front doors and the porches are briskly swept.

 

The rakwe[5] is set on the gas stove. Soon the water simmers and then one, two, three spoons of coffee are stirred in.

 

Just in time: a stranger arrives.

 

Ahla w sahla![6]

 

An extra chair and porcelain cup appear.

 

Ma’ hel aw bala hel?[7]

 

With cardamom, of course. Brought to boil one, two, three times. Poured. Now,

 

let me tell you a few stories about all you are about to see.

 

 

 

[1] Abou George the grocer

[2] Thyme

[3] Brand of shelf stable cream cheese

[4] Typical Lebanese baked breakfast fare

[5] Long handled kettle for brewing Turkish coffee

[6] Welcome!

[7] With or without cardamom?

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