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“Em Hassan”: An ancient story from South Lebanon

My grandmother, Em Hassan, (her first boy name is Hassan) was tall and pretty. She married very young as was the tradition in south Lebanon and among the Shia community. She had four children from her first husband: Two boys and two girls.

In 1915, the Ottoman Empire was hoarding all the able male bodies to serve in the army or work for free. The locust and other calamities spread famine and miseries in Lebanon.  The husband decided to flee with his family to Jordan: He was familiar with side trails since he was a muleteer.

In Jordan, the family was robbed by a gang and all the saved gold money vanished. Two days later, the husband decided to lodge a complaint with the nearest “police office”. At night, the gang killed the husband in retaliation.

How Em Hassan managed to return to her hometown Nabatiyeh with her four kids with nothing? The Story does not dwell on that horror return trip.

The in-laws of Em Hassan refused to give back what they kept as safe-keeping. But Em Hassan had a house and she rented two rooms to make ends meet and work the fields as daily worker.

A young sheikh, a recent graduate from the religious university of Al  Azhar in Cairo, rented two rooms and started to teach the Coran to a few young kids.  This handsome sheikh was married to a beautiful woman, from Turkish origin, and the neighborhood would visit to appraise this “high-class” woman.

Eventually, this sheikh married Em Hassan who was ten years older, and he called her Khadijeh since the first wife of the Prophet Mohammad was ten years older. What happened to this smashing first wife? The story does not say a word: This side story could have been a great one.

One of the well-to do feudal landlords accepted to send Em Hassan kids to a Protestant boarding school in Saida for the orphans.

When Em Hassan remarried, she decided to retrieve her kids and live with their new father. The boys didn’t get along with this sheikh and they ended up working in Beirut and marrying.

By this time, Em Hassan had two kids: Kamel and a girl Kamleh (Perfect), and the new husband had eloped with a younger woman and divorced her and moved to a nearby town.

Em Hassan tried hard and frequently to demand alimony for the children, but the religious sheikh promised and never delivered.

Kamel and Kamleh spent their days searching their father in the souk of Nabatiyeh, hoping that he might buy them sugar, rice, and meat. This father hardly satisfied their demands and engaged in the fleeing game as soon as he heard of the presence of his children.

Kamel and Kamleh walked barefoot and their mother spent the night removing the thorns from their bloodied feet. They had a couple of cows and a few chicken and would hit the neighboring fields gathering wheat grains after the harvest. A day work would disappear in a blink after dinner was readied.

Em Hassan sold the cows and took the kids to Beirut to live with one of her daughters house. She worked in the house, taking care of the kids of her daughter. The boys went to school, but Kamel and Kamleh never had a chance to attend any schooling. Kamleh ended up illiterate, even though she demanded to go to schools, and saying: “In Beirut, even the pigeons go to school!”

Her older daughter died from the appendix. The second from a rat bite.

Em Hassan eldest boy Hassan played the lute and wanted to be a singer, but wouldn’t dare.

The second boy, who never smiled, was a tram conductor. (I caught up with the tram before it was put to rest in the early 1970’s. The electrical tram passed in the middle of the streets in Beirut, and it was always crammed and people hanging out of the open doors…)

Kamleh eventually was forced to marry the husband of her older sister after she died from a rat bite. Kamleh was 14 years old and she gave two kids to this older very devout man. But this is another story… The main character, and mother of author Hanan El Cheihk

Em Hassan, the tall and beautiful woman had a life a toil. Her youngest Kamleh won’t have anything to do with that tradition and followed her heart, whatever it took to live with her love-life.

Note: This story is part of the translated Arabic book “Kamleh (Perfect): An entire History” by Hanan El Cheihk.




February 2023

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