Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘customs

The Bibles: A Repository of the Customs in the Near East (March 25, 2009)

  

Note 1:  I have published 5 posts on the theme of customs and tradition in the Near East and mostly extracted from the Bibles, Old and New, with some development and clarifications to the benefit of the western civilizations. 

This series of posts was inspired by the book that I reviewed “The Syrian Christ” by Abraham Metrie Rihbany. The book was published in English in 1916 and I read the Arabic translation.  I thought that it was a good idea to attach relevant contexts to the fragment of verses that predicators are fond of using on the ground that abstract concepts don’t need any historical, geographic, or people’s customs context.

The customs and traditions of the Land in the Levant were practiced thousands of years before Judaism came to be. 

The Jewish religion adopted the customs of the Land and wrote in the same style of imagery, maxims, and aphorism. The original manuscripts describe accurately the culture of the Land and in the same style.

Note 2: The Bibles are not famous for historical accuracy: they were not written by the dozens of scribes for that purpose. 

The Bibles are excellent sources as repositories of the customs and traditions in the Near East, which are still practiced for over 5 thousand of years.  It has been said that if Abraham and his generation were resurrected they will feel perfectly at home and go about their daily routines and tasks as if they have just waken from a dream. 

Although “modernism” was forced upon the Levant, especially in the urban centers and megalopolis areas, the remote towns and villages have been practically spared and left untouched, even for cooking their weekly load of Levantine bread.  In this article, Near East and Levant group Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria as one Land that the Bibles describe the customs and tradition of its people.

 

A brief Introduction:

Since time immemorial the Near East was famous for exporting olive oil, grape wine and dried figs.  No wonder that grape vine, olive trees and fig trees are the symbols of prosperity and shade in this region where it does not rain for straight 7 months.

The coastal regions of the Levant imported all kinds of grains, especially, wheat and lentil.

The meals are frugal and consisting of thin large loaves of bread (khobz markouk) baked in special underground oven once a week, a few olives, tomatoes, onion, vegetable from the garden, and dried fruits in the off seasons. Wheat was transformed in crushed wheat (borghol) for the kebeh and tabouli; diary components were cooked into many varieties of cheese, yogurt, labneh, and keshk. 

Meat was scarce and a single sheep was over fed during summer to be slaughtered in late autumn and the meat cooked and dried (kawarma) and saved for winter for the omelets. A couple of goats or cows lived in the basement or a side room and chicken were raised for eggs and for the occasional guests. 

Nothing would go to waste and summer time was a hectic period for all kinds of chores related to storing provisions for winter.

 

On the Written Style

The written style in the Levant is characterized by direct pronouncements expressing feeling and describing what is seen and heard.  The sentences are not encumbered by prefixes such as “I think”, “I believe”, “I am not sure”, “It is possible”, “There might be other versions”, “I might be wrong”, or “It is my opinion”, or what the western writers have adopted from the Greek rational style. 

The style in the Levant sounds confident, categorical, and conveying the total truth though it does not mean that the people cannot discriminate or feel the variations and uncertainties.  The writers in the Levant simply feel that all these attachments are redundant since it is a fact of life that nothing is categorical or certain; thus, superfluous additions disturb the flow of thoughts and the ideas that need to be conveyed. 

Consequently, the author feels that the western readers of the Bible should tone down their uneasiness with “outrageous” direct and assured pronouncements in the Bible.

 

 On the Verbal Style

 The verbal style tends toward the devotional and far from the business approach. The dialect in the Levant reveals the relationship with the Creator is the first of wisdom and spirituality is a foundation.  The recurring mention of God the provider at the beginning of any reply or “peace of God be upon you” or telling a worker “God gives you health” or to the harvester “God bless your crop” or asking the shepherd “How are the blessed ones?” or saying “What’s its religion?” to get more information on the nature of a thing are all part of the daily utterances.

When the Levantine tells a story he is extravagant and the facts sound too far fetched simply because he wants to amuse and impress; the listener understands perfectly the intent of the fantasy and they share a good laugh.  The rational westerner gets the impression that the Levantine is not honest because he does not stick to the bare boring facts.  For example, when you wake up someone at seven you tell him “Get up, it is already noon and the daylight is over”; when there is a large gathering we say “The entire town was assembled”. 

Jesus said “if your right eye sinned snatched it out; better not your whole body ends up in the eternal fire” or “if someone asks to be clothed give him your robe and underwear too” or “Forgive 77 times 7 a day” which drive the holy number seven to an extreme number of holiness; a number that should not be taken to the word but to drive in the message of ready forgiveness.

In the Bibles it is said “After six days” and you wonder starting from which date, which event?  Or it is said “They went up a high mountain” and you want to ask “how high?” and “which mountain?”  If you insist on the height of the mountain he would reply “it was so high it pierced the clouds” The purpose of the story is to entertain and prepare for the punch line.  For example, John the Baptist is not in the mood of cajoling and says to the Pharisees “Sons of vipers, how will you escape the wrath of God? I tell you if God wished he will turn these stones sons of Abraham”

The Levantine is ever ready to swear on his father, his head, his mustaches, and anything that is holy to convey the message of his sincerity.  It is this custom of constant swearing that baffle the westerner and increases his suspicions.  Jesus was aware of this custom and insisted on his disciples never to swear on anything but rather “let your answer be yes, yes or no, no”.  This summoning of Jesus had no effects whatsoever in our Land.

It is important to grasp four characteristics in the Levantine customs:

1. first, every region and every town has its own slang and it is the best proof of your origin. For example, the more Peter denied his knowledge of Jesus the more people were convinced that he was from Galilee. After the battle between the Galaad and the Efrem prisoners were slaughtered because they pronounced “shiboulat” “siboulat”.

2. Second, it is recommended to insist until requests are obtained; for example, Gideon insists on two material miracles from God to believe him; or when Jesus repeats three times “Do you love me Peter?” before he divulges the most important order of “shepherding the flock” of disciples.

3. Third, insinuation is not understood and abhorred and thus, a clear solemn affirmation is demanded.

4. Fourth, the Levantine does not appreciate constraining and transition expressions such as “As I see, or I think that, or it is alleged, or it is possible, and so forth”.  The Levantine verbal expression is of certitude and feeling, compatible to his spiritual and devotional nature.

 

On Business Transactions:

Abraham had no piece of land in Canaan; his clan let their goats and sheep graze in unclaimed lands. As there was a death in the family Abraham resolved to prepare for his burial; he sent a third party to ask Afroun son of Sohar of the tribe of Hath for a small piece of land to bury the dead. Abraham said: “I am a guest in your land. Could you give me a swath so that I may bury what is in front of me?”  Every village had a burying ground facing east and guests, by the custom of hospitality, could be enjoying the same facilities. Afroun replied: “Abraham you are a reverend and I shall bury the deceased in the best of our graves” Abraham had set his mind to settle in Canaan and wanted his own burial ground, thus he asked to buy a piece of land.  Afroun replied: “A land of no more than 400 silver shekels should not be an obstacle” Abraham got the hint and sent the amount.  This polite and diplomatic negotiation is part of the Levant customs thousand of years before Abraham came to Canaan.

On Bread and Salt:

In the Levant, women leaven their dough overnight in clay pottery for the next day baking; the baking lasted a whole day for a week ration. The neighboring families would select a day to using the special oven dug in the ground.  The Jews were ordered to leave Egypt immediately.  They carried their unleavened dough in wooden boxes, as done in Egypt, and had to eat their bread barely leavened.  The shepherds in the fields in the Levant cook their own unleavened bread while at work.

Jesus said in the Lord prayer “Lord, give us our daily bread” The people in the Levant believe that their daily bread is not just from their labor; the Lord had participated from start to finish to offering the daily bread.  I cannot help but offer a current and political rapprochement: the successive US Administrations and the media “talking heads” would like us to believe that whatever prosperity is befalling other States it is simply because of US contributions; on the other hand, whatever calamities and miseries the world is suffering should not be laid on the USA: the USA does not bear any responsibility and should not be blamed.

It is the custom for a guest not to eat until he settles his recriminations with the host; thus bread and salt are the symbol of renewed friendship and loyalty.  The worst enemy is the one who shared your bread and salt and then shifted loyalty without any warning.  People never stepped on crumbs of bread (aysh meaning living); they pick up any bread off the ground, kiss it and then place it above ground level.

When Gideon gathered his “large army” to fight the Midyanites, God ordered Gideon to select the soldiers that stooped in front of the stream and drank off the palm of their hands.  That was the custom of the noble citizens in the land; the common people knelt and drank directly off the stream.  Thus, Gideon ended up with 300 soldiers who were deemed courageous, sober, and worthy to fight.

On Handicapped persons: 

Handicapped individuals have a hard life in the Levant; they are nicknamed according to their handicaps; up very recently they were hidden from the public.  In Jesus travels handicapped individuals had hard time approaching Jesus; the crowd would prevent them from coming close because handicaps were considered punishment from God.  A handicapped woman got her courage and dared to touch the robe of Jesus and was cured.  Jesus told her: “Woman, it is your faith and not my cloth that cured you. Go in peace” Jesus was alluding to the custom that touching anything holy would cure or satisfy a want.

On Injustice:

Carrying the cross Jesus said “Sisters of Jerusalem, don’t cry over me.  Those who manhandled moist branches what they wouldn’t do with the dry ones?”  If the sacerdotal caste could sentence to death an innocent man then what you, sisters of Jerusalem, expect them to do with you and your children?  You should be starting to cry over your coming miseries and injustices.  Aphorisms on moist things versus dry ones, or bitter versus sweet tasty foods are many in the Levant.

On Animals:

Jesus warned Peter that he would repudiate him three times before the second crow of the coq.  There is a custom in the Levant when guest hear the second crow of the coq to start leaving.  The host has invariably to retort “You guys are mistaken, this is the first crow”. You may search Google for how many times a coq crows per day but in the Levant we maintain that coq crows at sun down, midnight and at dawn.

Jesus said about the surprise visit of death: “Stay awake; you don’t know when the Master of the house will show up; in the evening, at midnight or the last crow of the coq”.  The oriental Christian communities used the nights to pray and watch for the second coming of “Son of God”

Pigs are considered the dirtiest and lowest of animals.  When Jesus chased out the demons off a crazy man then the evil spirit entered pigs that rushed to the lake.  The younger son who asked for his inheritance ended up caring for pigs (the lowest job anyone could get) and could not even eat what the pigs ate though he loved “kharoub” which fills the stomach.

On Wheat Grinding: 

On the theme of sudden death Jesus recount another aphorism of the Land “Two of you are grinding wheat in a quern (hand mill), one is taken away and the other saved”.  It was the custom for two women friends to undertake the boring task of grinding wheat grain in two circular stone querns; a strong woman could do it alone but it is more fun to pass the time when two are chatting away.  Thus, you can never know when your closest friend will die.  Nowadays, in remote areas, the hand mill or “jaroush” is used to convert wheat grains into crushed wheat which is a staple ingredient to many traditional dishes like “tabouli”, “kebeh, and countless varieties.

On Revelations: 

Revelations abound in the Bible to the prophets, Elizabeth, Marie, and many times to Joseph who obeyed and executed the orders promptly.  Revelations are common phenomenon in the Levant.  A family would pay visits to shrines dedicated to a saint for fertility or for kinds of handicaps; the family would stay at the shrine praying and fasting as many nights as necessary until a revelation related to their wishes descends.  The families visit shrines confident that their “demands” would be exhausted.

For example, Hanna, the mother of the Virgin Marie had a revelation that she would be pregnant, so had Elizabeth (Alisabat), the sister of Hanna, who begot John the Baptist, so had Marie who gave birth to Jesus, so did the mother of Melki Sadek, the highest priest of the Land and King of Jerusalem to whom Abraham paid the teethe (tenth of income) as did Isaac and then Jacob, so did the mother of Samuel (Name of El), so had the mother of Jeremiah (Aramia) and countless others.

Those mothers vowed (nezer) their offspring to monasteries that were common in Phoenicia and Galilee.  The offspring who stayed in these monasteries for a large part of their youth were called Nazereen.  Jesus stayed in the monastery of Mount Carmel and administered by the Esseneans, adjacent to the Great Temple, from age 6 until he was in the age of aiding the family earning a living.  That is why Jesus was said to be a Nazarenos or who lived in the region of Galilee of the Nazarenes.  The town of Nazareth did not exist until the second century after Christ and Jesus roamed Lebanon, the ten main cities in Syria and Jordan (Decapolis) while preparing his disciples to spread his message.

On Shepherding and Faith

Jesus said “I am the good shepherd who is ready to sacrifice for his sheep”. The shepherding was the oldest and most common job in the Levant and people learned leadership, and enjoyed freedom and solitude.  The shepherd, during the extended dry season, would lead his flock “the blessed ones” to the upper lands for grazing by mid March as the sheep or goat gave birth.  The shepherd would carry the new born and the mothers would follow him, confident in her shepherd. 

The shepherd would arrange a stockade (hazeera) of stones about 5 feet high and top it with brambles and sleep at the entrance in a makeshift tent with his dog. “The truth is anyone who does not enter the stockade by the entrance is a thief; the shepherd enters from the door and the sheep hear his voice and their names and they go out to graze” because the stockade could be climbed with minor scratches. By mid October, the shepherd dismantles his stockade and moves his flock to lower altitudes where the sheep are horded in a one room basement (mrah) with no windows; Isaiah said: “My residence was dismantled and taken away from me as the shepherd tent”

Shepherding requires skills in tight passageway amid the orchards that were not usually fenced.  The shepherd had to pay for whatever the sheep ate if he was unable to control his flock; the town people would not let the shepherd cross the village if they could not trust his guiding skills.  The flock trusted the shepherd because he would ward off wolves and hyenas and even follow the scavenger to its lair to retrieve the sheep or part of it and return it to the flock if alive. Jesus said: “A shepherd would leave his flock to go after the lost sheep”. The flock is not afraid of narrow hazardous paths taken by the shepherd “the shadow of death valley” because it trusts its leader.

 

Grape vines:

When Jesus mentions “The product of grape vine” is meant wine; though grapes were customarily dried (zabeeb) in abundance.  Kids would always carry handful of raisins in their oversized pockets as sweet and also to bribe other children; when long caravans of camels arrive at the market place, kids would bribe the conductors with raisins for a ride to the wells.  Women would get frustrated because camels drank most of the well and the women had to dip their buckets far deeper.  Grape vines were used as aphorism such as “I am the vine and you are its branches” or “Your wife is like a fecund vine around your house. Your sons like olive trees around your dinner table”.  The Prophet Micah said “They will sit under the vine and the fig tree and nothing will scare them”

The ceremonies of grape pressing by men’ and boys’ feet lasted days and nights until the juices were flowed to special receptacles of stones and clay. The press was made of a large stone vat set up on the roof of the house with a certain incline for the flow of the juice. The settled grape juice (rawook) was drunk by the poor people who could not afford wine “the (poor) pressed and felt thirsty”.  The rawook would then be boiled at various degrees; sour wine was preferred by men but sweet wine needed high boiling temperature because preferred by women. When the juice was destined to prepare molasses “debs” then white clay was added to the grapes before pressing for more efficient filtering of organic components.  Isaiah (Ashaya) said “Why your robe is reddish and your cloth looking as you were pressing grapes?”

Nowadays, the national drink is arak or ouzou in Greece and it is basically the condensation of the boiled grape juice through alembics; it is called “mtalat” when the process of condensation is performed three times for a content 97% alcoholic.

Gideon wanted to avoid paying tax on his wheat harvest.  The grape was not ripe yet and thus, Gideon used the top of his house to beat the wheat where grapes were pressed by feet though it was not yet the season of grape pressing.  He was hoping that the Midyanites would not discover his subterfuge.

 

The Roof Tops:

The houses in the Levant used to be of just one large room where the entire family slept and ate in the winter season; the adjacent split room or a basement sheltered the chicken, goats, cows, or donkey.  The rest of the dry seasons that extended for over 7 months the main meeting place was the roof top; a makeshift tent of dangling grape vines and dry branches, and called “alyyeh“.  The roof was built with supporting tree trunks at three feet intervals and cross branches with no gaps and then 12 inches of dirt rolled over by a cylindrical stone at every season. 

Official announcements or the arrival of caravans or any kind of major warnings such as the voices of field keepers (natour) were done by climbing a roof. Jesus advised his disciple to announce the Good News from the roof tops so that every one should hear the message clear and sound; that is what Peter did.  Families would go up to the roof tops to pray and cry and the new comer Hebrews didn’t like this custom of the Land.

When a paraplegic was dangled from a roof top for Jesus to heal the friends dug out the dirt and removed a few branches and made enough space (kofaa) then placed the sick man on a blanket with the four corners attached to a rope.

           

At the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples are eating on the roof top of a house, the “alyyat”; the family gathers in that shed during the hot seasons that extend for seven months from Mid May to mid September. Jesus and the disciples are sitting in a circle around several large platters of various dishes; everyone extends his hand to dip his piece of bread in the platter of his liking; there are no spoons or forks.  The scene is not as represented by Leonardo Da Vinci in the customs of Florence. 

A server pour the wine in a single cup, starting by the most ranked in the gathering.  Before drinking the cup in one shot the guest wishes long life to his friends and ask them to remember him if he is about to leave them for an extended trip; then he selects the next guest to drink and the server pour wine for the selected person and in the same single cup. After supper, the cup is passed around and everyone takes just a sip.  Jesus said “I longed so much to eat this supper with you before I suffer”

Jesus said: “The first one to dip his bread in my platter will deliver me tonight” was confusing to the disciples because they all dipped in Jesus’ platter one time or another. Judas was always the second in command and must have arranged to have his favorite platter close to him and Jesus for easy access; thus, Judas was the most plausible one to first dip his bread in Jesus platter. Young John loved Jesus and expressed his feeling as to the customs of the Levant by reclining his head on Jesus’ shoulder.  Jesus adhered to the customs of eating supper and his salutes about eating his flesh or drinking his blood in remembrance of him had a spiritual undertone and suggesting that he was to leave his disciples for good. 

Jesus dipped a piece of bread in a platter and specifically offered it to Judas as a symbol of friendship no matter what is in Judas’ heart and mind. Jesus presented the box of money to Judas, the treasurer, as a sign that nothing is changed in Jesus faith to Judas loyalty in matter of financial transactions. Anyway, Judas was from a rich family and didn’t need small changes.

In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus expresses his feelings of sorrows and pains as a Levantine; he lets his feelings pour out and wants his closest friends to share his feelings.  Three times he invites Peter and the sons of Zebedeh to keep the wake with him because “my soul is sad to death”.  Jesus was praying with such earnestness that his “sweating was of blood”. Jesus had no choice but to obey his father and urged God “Father, if it were possible to take away this biter cup, but it is not as I wish but as you want.

Judas approached Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and kissed him several times on the cheeks. Judas was thus telling Jesus, according to the Levant customs, that as of this instant they are on a par in ranks and that Judas decided that he no longer considers Jesus as the Messiah. Some one of a lower rank would shake hands and fake to kiss the right hand and the higher ranked person would fake a kiss on the cheek. Judas was using a custom for greetings that could also be used as a sign for the soldiers to get hold of the leader.

 

On Obeying Parents:

Obeying parents is not just a filial feeling in the Levant but a religious duty.  The command is “Obey your mother and father” and God punished Adam for simply disobeying him, period.  The story of Luc when Jesus, aged 12 then, was found discussing among the priests in the Temple as the clan went on pilgrimage is revealing. Jesus had priority of which parents to obey first: he reminded his parents that he has a duty to obey his God El first.  In the Levant, no family starts or leaves on a trip before counting and making sure of the presence of all the members of the family.  After the count, Jesus decided to return to the Temple.

After the count, his family didn’t worry about Jesus because he was supposed to be amid the wider clan of relatives and because the Great Temple on Mount Carmel (not Jerusalem) was a familiar visiting place and no more than half a day walk to “Bethlehem of Tyr or Efrateh” where they lived, on the east side of Mount Carmel in Upper Galilee.  In none of the parables you find the eldest son depicted as the villain or disrespectful of traditions.  Eldest sons represent the fathers and the continuation of customs.

 

On Kingdom of Heaven

In the Levant we understand intuitively the figures of speech and parables that the West has hard time to comprehend; we understand and readily accept the meaning though it takes a life time to assimilate the true meaning.  Jesus said “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a person who is convinced that there is a treasure hidden in a piece of land. He gathers all his saving a buy the land” The predicators in the West would like to interpret this sentence as a gold or silver mine in the land that need to be excavated and they go at great length into legal terms to differentiate among the words “hidden and buried”. 

The customs in our Land was to bury the jar of saved gold and silver coins in the garden or an unclaimed piece of land because the habitat was small (barely one large room where the entire household sleep and eat in) and could not sustain serious hiding places.  Tribes would hide their treasure in the desert before waging a battle and many would never survive to dig up their treasures.

Thus, the individual who bought the land, if he were lucky would have to dig up most of the land anyway to find the jar of treasure.  The meaning is in order to reach the Kingdom of Heaven you would have to go through the same process of fulfilling a dream by investing money, time, and effort most of your life. Consequently, faith is a good starting point to sustain the duration of the long haul but it is not enough if you lack charity in your heart; you have to learn to care and love and support your brothers and neighbors. It is a hard and long endeavor to pass through the “hole of the needle

For example, many predicators in the west tried their best to explain the concept of “a hole in a needle” when Jesus said “It is easier for a camel to go through the hole of a needle than a rich person to go to heaven”.  The predicators in the west invented a more plausible and palatable explanation by saying that “the hole in the needle” was the small door in the huge gate reserved for the passage of individual; they said that a camel could pass through if not loaded with baggage; another nice figure of speech though not correct. In the languages of the Land, Arabic, Aramaic, or Hebrew the names of the small doors in gates were never called by anything referring to needle. The language in the Levant is extravagant for describing the almost impossible tasks that require perseverance and ingenuity.

 

Jesus goes on: “Kingdom of heaven is like a land that was sawn with good grains of wheat.  At night, an enemy comes and saw “zouan” (a grain that resembles wheat but causes pain, dizziness, and suffering for many days when mixed with wheat grains; it is mostly used to feed chicken).  The cultivators (slaves) asked the master permission to sort out and pull out the “zouan” from the field. The master said that it is useless since the whole field is ruined” In dire periods of famine many would mix “zouan” with wheat to make profit regardless of the consequences.  The honest master would not take the chance of being perceived as a fraud if his good grain was inadvertently adulterated with “zouan”.

Jesus told the servants to patiently and meticulously remove the “zouan” from the wheat then gather around a bonfire to burn the “zouan”

 

The same idea relates with leaven that was saved in a bag of wheat in order not to rot quickly; in another verse in order to leaven the entire bag of wheat flour.  In ancient periods, people would eat unleavened bread because it was very hard and difficult to keep usable leaven in hot and desert regions.  Thus, leaven had the bad connotation of spoilage agent, such as when Jesus warned his disciples “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” but the disciples didn’t understand this figure of speech: they lived at an advanced and urban period when leaven was no longer associated with spoilage but as a good catalyst.  Consequently, the parable of Jesus “Kingdom of Heaven is like a leaven that a woman hide in three bags of wheat flour until all the bags were leavened and ready to bake refers to the good use of small quantities to affect large lots. 

Thus, a term could be used to convey contradictory meaning if we are not conversant with the customs and period of the saying.  In the Levant, cultivators believe that “zouan” will grow among wheat no mater how careful we proceed in sawing fields. Consequently, it is advisable to rotate the field to grow other kinds of harvests in order to have the opportunity to pull out all the “zouan” that spoiled the field for later wheat harvests.

           

Jesus said “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who had misplaced one of her ten coins.  She searches all nights and all days (when the husband is not home), she searches in every nook and cranny and she sweep the floor until she finds the missing coin.  Then this woman would call up her neighboring women friends to join her and celebrate” (Most of the time they spend more on these gathering than what the coin was worth).  People worked hard to earn a coin and the man of the house would invariable express his displeasure for a missing coin and every women had gone through the same experience many times in their lives and it was a real occasion for women to gather, recount, and recall their daily troubles.  There are times for anxiety and relentless searches and times for relaxation and sharing. 

There are moments for prioritizing our quests and leaving many tasks undone to focus on an urgent one, such as saving our soul in order not to anger our Lord.  This story is almost identical in meaning as the shepherd who leaves 99 head of sheep grazing unattended in order to find the lost one.

 

On Women:

Regardless of exterior behaviors of “non-polite” communication with women, men have utmost respect and considerations for their wives and sisters and girls. Inside the homes the couples are at par in responsibilities and duties if not biased toward the wives; “When there is love affectation is redundant”.  In that spirit, it is the good intensions that count and not the actual behaviors.  

The Levantine regards the expressions “If you please”, or “be kind enough” are superfluous because love and respect are natural and come with the territory.  This behavior is compatible with the simple and rough daily living; houses are simply furnished with the basic necessities and the entire family members sleep and eat in one room or two; there are no exclusive rooms or quarters for the grown ups; and thus privacy is not a priority.

The tradition of nomadic tribes raiding sedentary affluent villages and taking women captives heightened the protective customs in the Levant and restricted women’s work within the villages.   Women were restrained from showing off and retorting vehemently in gatherings of men.   

The attitude of men of adopting the two extreme behaviors of sanctifying women (horma) and occasional “contempt” might convey a feeling of disdain but it is basically a childish behavior coupled with lack of a cultural life that the harsh demands for survival do not reserve time for “luxury”.  The Hebraic laws considered women with no soul and thus could be transacted as chattel; this is not the case for the rest of the people of the Land; and thus this huge cultural difference between the Hebrew Mosaic traditions and the traditions in the Levant.

“Thus spoken God; they will come carrying the little girls over the shoulders.  Kings will be your vassals and queens will nurse you”  The custom of carrying kid girls over shoulders is widely practiced in the Levant; mother resumes her daily tasks while the kid girls sit on their shoulders while getting a hold on the head. The prophet Isaiah (Ashaya) speaks in imageries what the “noble” class in the Levant expects the common people to practice in their presence.

New Born were wrapped like mummies; first they are washed with lukewarm water and their bodies rubbed with salt and then scented before a square piece of cloth join their arms by the side of the body and the legs stretched.  An unwanted baby or when someone is cursed the maxim says “You were not rubbed with salt when you were born”

 

On Feet.

Feet were considered dirty because people went barefoot or wearing thongs at best. The same is true when John the Baptist said about the coming Messiah “I will be most honored if he permit me to untie his shoe lace” because feet were considered dirty parts of the body and stooping near feet is not acceptable and thus, the custom of sitting by the feet of a nobility is a mark of homage bestowed on him.  When the sister of Martha, Mary of Magdala, pours expensive perfumes on Jesus’ feet and rubbed them with her hair she was expressing her complete humiliation and attesting to the Messiah status of Jesus. 

Note 1: The people in the Levant are people of faith; they refrain from rationally structuring their religion into dogma.  The early Christian communities relied on the custom of brotherhood and faith in the community. It is only when Christian communities were established in Greece and Rome that structuring got underway.  Hundreds of Christian sects mushroomed in the Levant according to a few alterations in the re-structuring of the dogma that spanned into political and self autonomous sects.  After the conclave of Nicee (Turkey) in 325, during the pagan Emperor Constantine, the Church got highly structured and hierarchical; the pagan ceremonies, symbols, and pageantry were introduced to win over the pagans who were in the majority.  Since then, persecution of the “heretic” Christian sects started and is still alive into modern time.

Note 2:  I am no theologian, and frankly, I don’t feel hot for any structured and formalized religions.  I am a guy who is appalled by sects abusing religion for political ends, for institutional profit, and for personal aggrandizement.  Occasionally, a few books of historical nature in matter of religion drop into my hands and they expose a few lethal fallacies; I have no choice but to react, expose the confusion related to abstract concepts out of their historical, geographical, and cultural context.  I cannot withstand sects that abolish individual reflection for the benefit of the “collectivity” or their close knit communities. I disseminate what my personal reflections feel right to inform and educate.

The Bibles: Customs in the Near East (Part 5, March 25, 2009)

 

 

Note:  The Bibles are not famous for historical accuracies; they were not written by the dozens of scribes for that purpose.  The Bibles are excellent sources as repositories of the customs and traditions in the Near East which are still practiced for over five thousand of years.  It has been said that if Abraham and his generation were resurrected they will feel perfectly at home and go about their daily routines and tasks as if they have just waken from a dream. 

 

Since time immemorial the Near East was famous for exporting olive oil, grape wine and dried figs.  No wonder that grape vine, olive trees and fig trees are the symbols of prosperity and shade in this region where it does not rain for straight seven months. The coastal regions of the Levant imported all kinds of grains, especially, wheat and lentil. 

 

When Jesus mentions “The product of grape vine” is meant wine; though grapes were customarily dried (zabeeb) in abundance.  Kids would always carry handful of raisins in their oversized pockets as sweet and also to bribe other children; when long caravans of camels arrive at the market place, kids would bribe the conductors with raisins for a ride to the wells.  Women would get frustrated because camels drank most of the well and the women had to dip their buckets far deeper.  Grape vines were used as aphorism such as “I am the vine and you are its branches” or “Your wife is like a fecund vine around your house. Your sons like olive trees around your dinner table”.  The Prophet Micah said “They will sit under the vine and the fig tree and nothing will scare them”

The ceremonies of grape pressing by men’ and boys’ feet lasted days and nights until the juices were flowed to special receptacles of stones and clay. The press was made of a large stone vat set up on the roof of the house with a certain incline for the flow of the juice. The settled grape juice (rawook) was drunk by the poor people who could not afford wine “the (poor) pressed and felt thirsty”.  The rawook would then be boiled at various degrees; sour wine was preferred by men but sweet wine needed high boiling temperature because preferred by women. When the juice was destined to prepare molasses “debs” then white clay was added to the grapes before pressing for more efficient filtering of organic components.  Isaiah (Ashaya) said “Why your robe is reddish and your cloth looking as you were pressing grapes?”

Nowadays, the national drink is arak or ouzou in Greece and it is basically the condensation of the boiled grape juice through alembics; it is called “mtalat” when the process of condensation is performed three times for a content 97% alcoholic.

 

The houses in the Levant used to be of just one large room where the entire slept and ate in the winter season; the adjacent split room or a basement sheltered the chicken, goats, cows, or donkey.  The rest of the dry seasons that extended for over 7 months the main meeting place was the roof top; a makeshift tent of dangling grape vines and dry branches, and called “alyyeh”.  The roof was built with supporting tree trunks at three feet intervals and cross branches with no gaps and then 12 inches of dirt rolled over by a cylindrical stone at every season.  Official announcements or the arrival of caravans or any kind of major warnings such as the voices of field keepers (natour) were done by climbing a roof. Jesus advised his disciple to announce the Good News from the roof tops so that every one should hear the message clear and sound; that is what Peter did.  Families would go up to the roof tops to pray and cry and the new comer Hebrews didn’t like this custom of the Land.

When a paraplegic was dangled from a roof top for Jesus to heal the friends dug out the dirt and removed a few branches and made enough space (kofaa) then placed the sick man on a blanket with the four corners attached to a rope.

 

Jesus said “I am the good shepherd who is ready to sacrifice for his sheep”. The shepherding was the oldest and most common job in the Levant and people learned leadership, and enjoyed freedom and solitude.  The shepherd, during the extended dry season, would lead his flock “the blessed ones” to the upper lands for grazing by mid March as the sheep or goat gave birth.  The shepherd would carry the new born and the mothers would follow him, confident in her shepherd.  The shepherd would arrange a stockade (hazeera) of stones about 5 feet high and top it with brambles and sleep at the entrance in a makeshift tent with his dog. “The truth is anyone who does not enter the stockade by the entrance is a thief; the shepherd enters from the door and the sheep hear his voice and their names and they go out to graze” because the stockade could be climbed with minor scratches. By mid October, the shepherd dismantles his stockade and moves his flock to lower altitudes where the sheep are horded in a one room basement (mrah) with no windows; Isaiah said: “My residence was dismantled and taken away from me as the shepherd tent”

Shepherding requires skills in tight passageway amid the orchards that were not usually fenced.  The shepherd had to pay for whatever the sheep ate if he was unable to control his flock; the town people would not let the shepherd cross the village if they could not trust his guiding skills.  The flock trusted the shepherd because he would ward off wolves and hyenas and even follow the scavenger to its lair to retrieve the sheep or part of it and return it to the flock if alive. Jesus said: “A shepherd would leave his flock to go after the lost sheep”. The flock is not afraid of narrow hazardous paths taken by the shepherd “the shadow of death valley” because it trusts its leader.

Customs in the Levant: Figures of speech in the Bibles (March 24, 2009)

Note: The Bibles, New and Old, are packed with parables, stories, and figures of speech based on the customs of the Land in the Levant. 

In the Levant we understand intuitively these figures of speech that the West has hard time to comprehend.  

In the Levant we understand and readily accept the meaning, though it takes a life time to assimilate the true meaning.  

The Bible is packed with stories representing the customs and traditions of the in-land people because the Jews or Hebrew barely had any communication or trade with the coastal urban centers that had versatile and cosmopolitan customs.  Fact is in the time of Moses, Jerusalem was already an urban center 800 years ago. Jesus was born and raised in mostly coastal urban centers such as Haifa, Sidon and Tyr (District of Lebanon at the period)

Jesus said “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a person who is convinced that there is a treasure hidden in a piece of land. He gathers all his saving to buy the land” The preachers in Western civilization would like to interpret this sentence as a gold or silver mine in the land that need to be excavated and they go at great length into legal terms to differentiate among the words “hidden and buried”. 

The customs in our Land was to bury the jar of saved gold and silver coins in the garden on an unclaimed piece of land because the habitat was small (barely one large room where the entire household sleep and eat in) and could not sustain serious hiding places.  Tribes would hide their treasure in the desert before waging a battle and many would never survive to dig up their treasures.

Thus, the individual who bought the land thinking the jar was hidden in it, he would have to dig up most of the land anyway to find the jar of treasure, if he were correct in his information. 

The meaning is “in order to reach the Kingdom of Heaven you would have to go through the same process of fulfilling a dream by investing money, time, and effort most of your life”. Consequently, faith is a good starting point to sustain the duration in the long haul, but it is not enough if you lack charity in your heart; you have to learn to care and love and support your brothers and neighbors. It is a hard and long endeavor to pass through the “hole of the needle

For example, many predicators in the West tried their best to explain the concept of “a hole in a needle” when Jesus said “It is easier for a camel to go through the hole of a needle than a rich person to go to heaven”.  The preachers in the west invented a more plausible and palatable explanation by saying that “the hole in the needle” was the small door in the huge gate reserved for the passage of individual. They said that a camel could pass through if not loaded with baggage; another nice figure of speech though not correct.

In the languages of the Land, Arabic, Aramaic, or Hebrew the names of the small doors in gates were never called by anything that referred to needle. The language in the Levant is extravagant for describing the almost impossible tasks that require perseverance and ingenuity.

“Kingdom of heaven is like a land that was sawn with good grains of wheat.  At night, an enemy comes and saw “zouan” (a grain that resembles wheat but causes pain, dizziness, and suffering for many days when mixed with wheat grains; it is mostly used to feed chicken). The cultivators (slaves) asked the master permission to sort out and pull out the “zouan” from the field. The master said that it is useless since the whole field is ruined.”  

In dire periods of famine, many would mix “zouan” with wheat to make profit regardless of the consequences.  The honest master would not take the chance of being perceived as a fraud if his good grain was inadvertently adulterated with “zouan”.

In another verse, Jesus told the servants to patiently and meticulously remove the “zouan” from the wheat, then gather around a bonfire to burn the “zouan”

The same idea relates with leaven that was saved in a bag of wheat in order not to rot quickly; in another verse in order to leaven the entire bag of wheat flour.  In ancient periods, people would eat unleavened bread because it was very hard and difficult to keep usable leaven in hot and desert regions.  Thus, leaven had the bad connotation of a spoilage agent, such as when Jesus warned his disciples “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” but the contemporary people do not understand this figure of speech: they are living at an advanced and urban period when leaven is no longer associated with spoilage but as a good catalyst. 

Consequently, the parable of Jesus “Kingdom of Heaven is like a leaven that a woman hide in 3 bags of wheat flour until all the bags were leavened and ready to bake, refers to the good use of small quantities that can affect large lots.  Thus, a term could be used to convey contradictory meaning if we are not conversant with the customs and period of the saying.

In the Levant, cultivators believe that “zouan” will grow among wheat no mater how careful we proceed in sawing fields. Consequently, it is advisable to rotate the field to grow other kinds of harvests in order to have the opportunity to pull out all the “zouan” that spoiled the field for later wheat harvests.

Jesus said in the Lord prayer “Lord, give us our daily bread” The people in the Levant believe that their daily bread is not just from their labor:  The Lord had participated from start to finish to offering the daily bread.  I cannot help but offer a current and political rapprochement: the successive US Administrations and the media “talking heads” would like us to believe that whatever prosperity is befalling other States it is simply because of US contributions. On the other hand, whatever calamities and miseries the world is suffering should not be laid on the USA: the USA does not bear any responsibility and should not be blamed.

Jesus said “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who had misplaced one of her ten coins.  She searches all nights and all days (when the husband is not home), she searches in every nook and cranny and she sweep the floor until she finds the missing coin.  Then this woman would call up her neighboring women friends to join her and celebrate” (Most of the time they spend more on these gathering than what the coin was worth).

People worked hard to earn a coin and the man of the house would invariable express his displeasure for a missing coin and every women had gone through the same experience many times in their lives and it was a real occasion for women to gather, recount, and recall their daily troubles. 

There are times for anxiety and relentless searches and times for relaxation and sharing.  There are moments for prioritizing our quests and leaving many tasks undone to focus on an urgent one, such as saving our soul in order not to anger our Lord. 

This story is almost identical in meaning to the shepherd who leaves 99 head of sheep grazing unattended in order to find the lost one.

The Last Supper: Customs in the Levant; Chapter 3.  (March 22, 2009)

 

Obeying parents is not just a filial feeling in the Levant (Near East region of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine) but a religious duty. 

The command is “Obey your mother and father” and God punished Adam for simply disobeying him, period.  The story of St. Luke when Jesus, at aged 12, was found discussing among the priests in the Grand Temple of Carmel as the clan went on pilgrimage is revealing: Jesus had priority to obey his Father; he reminded his parents that he has a duty to obey his God El first. 

In the Levant, no family starts or leaves on a trip before counting and making sure of the presence of all the members of the family. 

After the count, Jesus decided to return to the Temple. After the count, his family didn’t worry about Jesus because he was supposed to be amid the wider clan of relatives and because the Great Temple on Mount Carmel (not Jerusalem) was a familiar visiting place and no more than half a day walk to the town of “Bethlehem Efrateh” (Not the one close to Jerusalem) where they lived (on the east side of Mount Carmel in Upper Galilee) which was within the administrative district of Tyre (and not the Bethlehem in Judea).

 

At the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples are eating on the roof of a house.  In the Levant, most roofs have a grapevine dangling over an open shed called “aliyat“. The family gathers in that shed during the hot seasons that extend for seven months from Mid May to mid September.

Jesus and the disciples are sitting in a circle around several large platters of various dishes; everyone extends his hand to dip his piece of bread in the platter of his liking; there are no spoons or forks. 

The scene is not as represented by Leonardo Da Vinci in the customs of Florence where you see a server pouring wine in a single cup, starting by the most ranked in the gathering. 

In the Levant customs, before drinking the cup in one shot, the guest wishes long life to his friends and ask them to remember him if he is about to leave them for an extended trip; then he selects the guest sitting next to him to drink in the same single cup. After supper, the cup is passed around and everyone takes just a sip.  Jesus said “I longed so much to eat this supper with you before I suffer”

            Jesus said: “The first one to dip his bread in my platter will deliver me tonight” was confusing to the disciples because they all dipped in Jesus’ platter one time or another. Judas was always the second in command and must have arranged to have his favorite platter close to him and Jesus for easy access. Thus, Judas was the most plausible one to first dip his bread in Jesus’ platter.

Young John loved Jesus and expressed his feeling as to the customs of the Levant by reclining his head on Jesus’ shoulder. 

Jesus adhered to the customs of eating supper; his saluting expressions about eating his flesh or drinking his blood in remembrance of him had a spiritual undertone and suggesting that he was to leave his disciples for good. 

Jesus dipped a piece of bread in a platter and specifically offered it to Judas as a symbol of friendship, no matter what is in Judas’ heart and mind.

Jesus presented the box of money to Judas, the treasurer, as a sign that nothing is changed in Jesus’ faith to Judas loyalty in matter of financial transactions. Anyway, Judas was from a rich family and didn’t need small changes.

            In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus expresses his feelings of sorrows and pains as a Levantine; he lets his feelings pour out and wants his closest friends to share his feelings. 

Three times he invites Peter and the sons of Zebedee to keep the wake with him because “my soul is sad to death”.  Jesus was praying with such earnestness that his “sweating was of blood”. Jesus had no choice but to obey his Father and urged his God by saying: “Father, if it were possible to take away this bitter cup, but it is not as I wish but as you want”

            Judas approached Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and kissed him several times on the cheeks. Judas was thus telling Jesus, according to the Levant customs that, as of this instant, they are on a par in ranks and that Judas decided that he no longer considers Jesus as the Messiah.

Some one of a lower rank would shake hands and fake to kiss the right hand, but the higher ranked person would fake a kiss on the cheek. Judas was using a custom for greetings that was used as a sign for the soldiers to get hold of the leader.

As of the Bible: Customs in the Levant, part 2.  (March 15, 2009)

Note: I intend to post a series of articles on the theme: “Customs and traditions in the Near East”. All these customs and traditions of the Land in the Levant were practiced thousands of years before Judaism came to be.  The Jewish religion adopted the customs of the land and wrote in the same style of imagery, maxims, and aphorism.

Jesus warned Peter that he would repudiate him three times before the second crow of the cock

There is a custom in the Levant when guest hear the second crow of the cock to prepare to start leaving.  The host has invariably to retort “You guys are mistaken, this is the first crow”. You may search Google for how many times a cock crows per day but in the Levant we maintain that cocks crow at sun down, midnight and at dawn.

Jesus said about the surprise visit of sudden death: “Stay awake; you don’t know when the Master of the house will show up; in the evening, at midnight or the last crow of the cock“. 

The oriental Christian communities used the nights to pray and watch for the second coming of “Son of God” (Preparing for the next coming)

On the same theme of sudden death Jesus recount another aphorism of the land “Two of you are grinding wheat in a quern (hand mill), one is taken away and the other saved”. 

It was the custom for two women friends to undertake the boring task of grinding wheat grain in two circular stone querns. a  A strong woman could do it alone but it is more fun to pass the time when two are chatting away.  Thus, you can never know when your closest friend will die.  Nowadays, in remote areas, the hand mill or “jaroush” is used to convert wheat grains into crushed wheat which is a staple ingredient to many traditional dishes like “tabouli”, “kebeh, and countless varieties.

Revelations abound in the Bible to the prophets, Elizabeth, Marie, and many times to Joseph who obeyed and executed the orders promptly. 

Revelations are common phenomenon in the Levant.  A family would pay visits to shrines dedicated to a saint for fertility or for kinds of handicaps; the family would stay at the shrine praying and fasting as many nights as necessary until a revelation related to their wishes descends. 

The families visit shrines confident that their “demands” would be exhausted.

When babies are born they are wrapped like mummies. First the baby is washed with lukewarm water and their bodies rubbed with salt and then scented before a square piece of cloth join their arms by the side of the body and the legs stretched. 

An unwanted baby or when someone is cursed the maxim says “You were not rubbed with salt when you were born

“Girls: Customs in the Levant” by Mai Ghoussoub

Note: As a series on customs in the Levant I decided to publish an article by late Mai Ghoussoub  titled
“Missed Opportunities”.

“It took me a long time to understand why my mother loved to tell the story of the doctor who delivered me. Whenever there was a willing audience, she would tell it. I must have heard it a thousand times.For her story to make sense, you need to know that I am the second female born to my parents and that my sister and I are their only progeny.’When Dr Razook left the delivery room, his face was tense and he walked past your father without looking at him. Your father was waiting anxiously for the baby to be delivered so that he could join me. (In those days, husbands were never allowed to witness the birth of their child). The attitude of the doctor terrified your father, who thought that something terrible must have happened to me and to our baby. When he knew that I had given birth to a healthy baby girl, he was delighted. Dr Razook did not like to deliver girls, especially if the parents were his friends, and he felt his reputation as a gynaecologist was perturbed by every female he brought into the world. As for your dad and me, we did not care one way or the other, boy or girl’.The story of my birth as told by my mother is a perfect metaphor for my country of origin. It is the story of juxtaposed values and contradictions. Yes, it is OK to be born a girl but the story never ends here. There is a ‘but’, a Mediterranean ‘but’ and a westernized OK that have to coexist, and modernized citizens somehow have to juggle and survive within the spaces of this coexistence. And they have to do it with grace and honour, My parents are from the generation of Middle Easterners who lived at the time of transition from the traditional values of large families to the westernized nuclear family with a maximum of two children, raised and educated in the best schools you could afford. They dreamt of bringing up free, responsible individuals – individuals who were nonetheless constantly reminded that they were the custodians of their family’s honour, especially if they stood on the female side of the gender border; individuals who had to watch constantly for ‘what the neighbours say’ about them and their parents, their uncles, cousins and other relatives.

My story, the way I tried to live my life, is a desperate, not always unhappy, effort to reconcile at least two epochs, two modes of behaviour, two value systems that prevailed simultaneously and very concretely in pre-war Lebanon.

Let me come back to my mother. A clever woman, she was considered very marriageable thanks to her good looks and was consequently withdrawn from school, in the late 1940s, by her parents at the age of sixteen. She had loved her school and treasured the knowledge she had acquired there, mainly in the sciences. She had no say about her parents’ decision and anyway she had fallen in love with my father. My father, a modern young man, cared very little about the difference in their religious confessions and courted her openly because he had ‘good intentions’. They felt madly in love and married when she was seventeen and he twenty years old. They despised marriages of convenience or calculation, believed in true love and had the Hollywood movies, already triumphant over the screens of Beirut, to confirm the rightness of their romantic choice. There were a few couples like them in Lebanon in those days, but they were not the rule. Nine months after their wedding, they brought my older sister into this world. They were delighted; they adored her. One only has to look at the infinite number of pictures they took of her, and at the journal my mother kept, in which are recorded every smile, every tooth that appeared on the baby girl’s face. It occurred to me once that the same Dr Razook had delivered my sister, and that he may have been as disappointed by his deed as he was when it was my turn to show up. But, for some unexplained reason, it was only my appearance that seemed to be a worthy story for my mother to narrate. The reason should have been obvious to me. It may not matter to the parents if the newborn is male or female, but in the wider society there is nothing to boast about when you bring only girls into this Middle Eastern world. You have to be very keen on bringing up a small, well-cared-for family to stop after the second child and not try for the special one that will perpetuate your name and speak for the virility of the father and the blessing of the mother.

Garçon manqué was the term I kept having about me. Tomboy. The French expression is more revealing. A boy missed. An opportunity missed. But the values, which the post-industrial societies had introduced in our Levant reality, were tangible enough and no third child was to be expected. So my story meets that of my society. I am female, accepted as such but unconsciously or very silently wished different. The context in which I was born, the Lebanon of the 1950s, was a paradigm of this dichotomy. Some named the two poles in this combination modern and traditional, others used the labels east and west, now the term post-modern is frequently used.

I can think of a perfect metaphor: un garçon manqué, a missed boy, and “une opportunité manquee”, a missed opportunity. A country that has missed its democratic and tolerant potentialities. A happy alternative. But …

To go back to my gender and its implications: like any child who finds him/herself at the centre of attention, I started to play the role that made me successful among the members of my family and their friends. I started to behave as a tomboy. I wrote to Father Christmas asking him for a cowboy outfit. When I played with my dolls I did so discreetly, for the pleasure of mothering or dressing them was hampered by a sharp feeling of guilt and the fear of disappointing the grown-ups. I joined the boys in the courtyard after school to play football and all was free and fun until Sit Zalfa, an imposing old neighbour, saw me fighting physically over the score with one of the boys. She used to terrify us with her severe chignon and her Turkish and Italian vocabulary. ‘Pronto,’ she screamed, pointing her stick at me and then in the direction of my home. She visited my parents and told them that it was not ‘right’ for a nine year-old girl m mix with the boys of the neighbourhood. That was the end of my street life. What the neighbours said proved more powerful than the cute image of a garçon manqué. The neighbours’ opinion had a decisive influence on my parents, who still insisted that it did not matter to them if I were a girl or a boy. We were already in the early 1960s, and Lebanon enjoyed the rule of a functioning parliament; a coop d’état had been defeated and my mother as well as my aunts dressed in the latest Parisian fashion. My mixed school was preparing to separate the girls from the boys: yes, even the French Lycée adapted its rules to the Arab Mediterranean reality of Lebanese society. Religion and religious teaching were not allowed inside the secular institution, but girls who were approaching puberty had to be separated from boys. A garçon manqué in a girls’ school did not make much sense. A segregated secular Lycée would have been an anomaly in France, but we were not in France, even though we spoke French and believed, in the values of the Enlightenment.

I had heard my parents calling me a tomboy, and now I started hearing my mother asserting that I was very good in the sciences, the objective ones. Accordingly I became good at mathematics and physics. My grades in French literature, a subject I adored, did not impress my mother, whereas her face would beam with joy whenever she saw me resolving some geometry or calculus problem. This was a safer way of replacing the boy who was never to be born; safer than playing and fighting with the boys over a football kick. For sciences do not jeopardize virtue or reputation. At school, when I was not yet fourteen years old, I read The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir and heard of free love, but a concert by Johnny Halliday, the French pop star, was cancelled by the Minister of interior, the ‘progressive’ Kamal Jumblatt, who believed that ‘western degenerate images’ did not suit our moral values and might be harmful to our youth. Along with all the citizens of the Lebanon in the 1960s, I learned to live with these conflicting attitudes and values. jugglers we became: with more or less graciousness, sometimes over some broken eggs, we wove our way through mini skirts and scarves, chanting anti-imperialist slogans as well as the Beatles. The kitsch singer Taroub sang for an Arab public, while her sister Mayada set Arabic words to western pop songs. When a dance called the Hully Gully invaded the night-clubs of Lebanon, the famous Diva Sabah sang Hully Dabke Yaba Of:

Hully Gully est connu chez tous les occidentaux,
Hully Dabke Yaba Off est connu chez les Orientaux, presque le même et tout le monde l’aime.

Neither we nor Sabbath could have guessed that the Occident and the Orient were going to sing to totally different tunes. From Radio Cairo the mesmerizing voice of Umm Kulsum was asking for a rifle – A’tini Bunduqiya’ – a rifle to liberate Arab land. We were reading Jean-Paul Sartre and starting to demonstrate for the liberation of Palestine.

By the early 1970s l was studying mathematics and French literature. Male and female subjects. Feminism was on the agenda: George Tarabishi translated Sheila Rowbotham, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was available in the bookshops and Sonia Beiruti, a TV broadcaster, invited a few of us to her TV show to debate women’s emancipation. Two scenes from that period keep recurring in my memory. First scene: on this Tv show, I said I wanted to be a free woman and to be independent, to work so that I would not live off my father’ or a future husband’s money. My father, who was watching the programme, felt deeply humiliated. He took the words as an insult to his honour. Second scene: during a student demonstration, a few women jumped on the shoulders of their colleagues to lead and chant revolutionary slogans. Everybody in this demonstration had seen the pictures of May 1968 in France and the dynamic images of the women lifted above the crowds by their co-objectors. ‘Scandalous,’ screamed some passers-by, as well as a few demonstrators. The women were put down very quickly. We may have been influenced by May 1968 but we were not in the Latin Quarter of Paris; we were still on the shores of the Mediterranean.

We were a parliamentary democracy we had no kings and no army generals ruling over us, but many of our politicians were the sons of landowners or sons of other politicians. They all spoke of democracy and we called for our right to independence as women while armed militias were being formed and operations to restore women’s virginity were easily available. Somehow, I see a parallel between my studying mathematics at the American University and French literature at the Lebanese National University, between my gender that held me responsible for the family’s reputation on one hand and my county’s coexisting contradictions on the other.

Feminism was an obvious route to follow for somebody like me – a woman who had believed that men’s spaces were not totally impermeable, not mysterious or difficult to handle. You play with boys, enter their classrooms, obtain better grade than many of them and then you are asked to obey them or accept an inequality that places them above you? This was very difficult to swallow, especially if Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex has been widely read among your French educated friends and her assertion that ‘on ne naît pas une femme, on la devient’ (one is not born a woman, one becomes one) is a cool slogan to raise. Old feminism, that of the pioneers such as Hoda Shatrawi or the active lawyer Laure Meghayzel, felt inadequate to our youthful impatience We did not want only equality, the right to be professional while ensuring that we were first and foremost ‘good mothers’: we wanted to claim loudly and shamelessly that nothing could stop us from realizing our wishes and that our bodies belonged to us.

Engels, Reich and Alexandra Kollontai’s teachings gave a social dimension to our belief that ‘all is possible’. The country itself believed that its rise as the financial-tourism heaven of the Middle East and its enriched Gulf region was unstoppable, that the Palestinian resistance fighters were the local expression of the Vietnamese freedom fighters. We spoke out loudly against the hypocrisy of our society. We were getting more radicalized in our beliefs, and so were the contradictions and the conflicts in Lebanon.

A time came when, in the middle of the bloody and cruel sequences of the civil war, I started to miss the so-called hypocrisy of pre-war times. The feeling that ‘I want everything and I want it now’ dissipated. I looked with different eyes on the liberalism of my parents who had to bite on their Mediterranean wound and let me be. They tolerated my freedom of movement, even though my tomboy image was long dead and buried under the powerful influence of Sitt Zalfa and her ilk.

I moved to the other side of the Green Line, where I thought people would be free from the prejudices of my own milieu. There I found a reversed mirror detonating with the same kind of intolerance. What we called hypocrisy before the war was the best form of compromise people had found for living together. The taboo preventing one from spelling out one’s dislike for the other had been a good discipline. Look around you and see how ugly it all becomes when people feel no inhibition in their intolerance. I am not calling for censorship, far from it. People have the right to express their feelings, however despicable we may think them, but this should not discourage us from doing all we can to relate hatred for the other’s colour, race or sexual choice to the notion of bad, uncivilized and immoral and to link the violent expression of this hatred to legal judgment and action.

Yes, it took me a long time to realize why my mother loved to tell the story of Dr Razook and my birth. It took me longer to realize that the contradictions my parents had to live through opened great new spaces for me. And if they had not hoped for me to jump over the limiting fences my gender imposed on me, I may have been confined to living, all my life, on one side of the border(s) and I would have never learnt that we were all as human or as bad as ‘the other’ during the ugly years of our civil war. If my mother had not told this story, would I have had the confidence, some eighteen years ago, to face the London bank manager who was reluctant to deal with me as one of the directors of Saqi Books and ‘would rather see my male boss’? Would I have had the courage to bend the long aluminium rod that holds my sculptures, would I have been capable to be ‘the other’, to integrate among the others without pain and often with plenty of fun? I may have been a missed opportunity for Dr Razook and others like him; I still believe that I am better off missing the narrowness of the choice that would have been my secure lot and instead taking the risk of following my individual routes.

 

Mai Ghoussoub
Writer and artist who has written widely on culture and Middle Easter issues. Her latest publications include Leaving Beirut and Imagined Masculinities (co-edited with Emma Sinclair Webb).

As of the Bible: Customs in the Levant, part 1.  (March 14, 2009)

Note: I translated from the Arabic versions of the Bible because they convey more accurately the meaning of the life style and aphorisms in the Land of the Near East.  I intend to post a series of articles on the theme: “Customs and traditions in the Near East”    

All these customs and traditions of the Land in the Levant were practiced thousands of years before Judaism came to be.  The Jewish religion adopted the customs of the land and wrote in the same style of imagery, maxims, and aphorism. The original manuscripts describe accurately the culture of the land and in the same style.

Abraham had no piece of land in Canaan; his clan let their goats and sheep graze in unclaimed lands. As there was a death in the family Abraham resolved to prepare for his burial; he sent a third party to ask Afroun son of Sohar of the tribe of Hath for a small piece of land to bury the dead. Abraham said: “I am a guest in your land. Could you give me a swath so that I may bury what is in front of me?”  Every village had a burying ground facing east and guests, by the custom of hospitality, could be enjoying the same facilities. Afroun replied: “Abraham you are a reverend and I shall bury the deceased in the best of our graves” Abraham had set his mind to settle in Canaan and wanted his own burial ground, thus he asked to buy a piece of land.  Afroun replied: “A land of no more than 400 silver shekels should not be an obstacle” Abraham got the hint and sent the amount.  This polite and diplomatic negotiation is part of the Levant customs thousand of years before Abraham came to Canaan.

            Abraham told his head slave “Lay your hand under my thigh. Pray never let my son marry a Canaan girl amidst whom I am living but one from my tribe” This custom of placing hand under thighs is the custom of the land representing an oath; nowadays we insert the hand under the belt.  The custom also requires that the most respected in the family or clan is to propose on behalf of the father for the hand of a wife to his son.

            In the Levant, women leaven their dough overnight in clay pottery for the next day baking; the baking lasted a whole day for a week ration. The neighboring families would select a day to using the special oven dug in the ground.  The Jews were ordered to leave Egypt immediately.  They carried their unleavened dough in wooden boxes, as done in Egypt, and had to eat their bread barely leavened.  The shepherds in the fields in the Levant cook their own unleavened bread while at work.

            Gideon wanted to avoid paying tax on his wheat harvest.  The grape was not ripe yet and thus, Gideon used the top of his house to beat the wheat where grapes were pressed by feet.  He was hoping that the Midyanites would not discover his subterfuge.

            When Gideon gathered his “large army” to fight the Midyanites, God ordered Gideon to select the soldiers that stooped in front of the stream and drank off the palm of their hands.  That was the custom of the noble citizens in the land; the common people knelt and drank directly off the stream.  Thus, Gideon ended up with 300 soldiers who were deemed courageous, sober, and worthy to fight.

            Handicapped persons have a hard life in the Levant; they are nicknamed according to their handicaps and up very recently they were hidden from the public.  A handicapped woman got her courage and dared to touch the robe of Jesus and was cured.  Jesus told her: “Woman, it is your faith and not my cloth that cured you. Go in peace” Jesus was alluding to the custom that touching anything holy would cure or satisfy a want.

            “Thus spoken God; they will come carrying the little girls over the shoulders.  Kings will be your vassals and queens will nurse you” The custom of carrying kid girls over shoulders is not practiced in the west but in the Levant mother resume her daily tasks while the kid girls sit their shoulders and getting a hold on the head. The prophet Ashaya speaks in imageries that the “noble” class in the Levant expect the common people to practice in their presence.

            The same is true when John the Baptist said about the coming Messiah “I will be most honored if he permit me to untie his shoe lace” because feet were considered dirty parts of the body and stooping near feet is not acceptable and thus, the custom of sitting by the feet of a nobility is a mark of homage bestowed on him.

            Carrying the cross Jesus said “Sisters of Jerusalem, don’t cry over me.  Those who manhandled moist branches what they wouldn’t do with the dry ones?”  If the sacerdotal caste could sentence to death an innocent man then what you, sisters of Jerusalem, expect them to do with you and your children?  You should be starting to cry over your coming miseries and injustices.  Aphorisms on moist things versus dry ones, or bitter versus sweet tasty foods are many in the Levant

Note 2: The people in the Levant are people of faith; they refrain from rationally structuring their religion into dogma.  The early Christian communities relied on the custom of brotherhood and faith in the community. It is only when Christian communities were established in Greece and Rome that structuring got underway.  Hundreds of Christian sects mushroomed in the Levant according to a few alterations in the re-structuring of the dogma that spanned into political and self autonomous sects.  After the conclave of Nicee (Turkey) in 425, during the pagan Emperor Constantine, the Church got highly structured and hierarchical; the pagan ceremonies, symbols, and pageantry were introduced to win over the pagans who were in the majority.  Since then, persecution of the “heretic” Christian sects started and is still alive into modern time.

The Syrian Christ (Book Review, March 12, 2009)

In 1916, Abraham Mertie Rihbany published “The Syrian Christ”; eleven editions have so far been printed.  This manuscript was a compendium of articles submitted to the Atlantic Monthly from 1914 to 1916.  Rihbany wrote: “When I read the Bible, I have the distinct impression that I am reading a fresh letter arriving from my parents and relatives in Lebanon”.

Abraham Rihbany undertook to explain to the western Christians the customs and traditions of the civilization in the Levant (Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) that are almost unchanged since Christ and an exhaustive explanation of the written and verbal style of the Bible.

The target audience is the American Christian (mostly among the Protestant sects) who tends to accept every word in the Bible integrally without much openness, analysis, or comprehension of the customs and traditions of the Levant that are described in the Bible. The purpose is to describe the environment and daily life in which Jesus lived, grew up, roamed, was nurtured, and the language (Aramaic), the maxims, the aphorisms of “The Sacred Land” that Jesus spoke.

It was the author’s premise that assimilating the Syrian customs and traditions allows the western Christians to comprehend the verbal imageries of the Bible and appreciate their real values and how the multitudes of stories start to make sense.

The verbal and written style in the Levant is characterized by direct pronouncements expressing feeling and describing what is seen and heard.  The sentences are not encumbered by prefixes such as “I think”, “I believe”, “I am not sure”, “It is possible”, “There might be other versions”, “I might be wrong”, “It is my opinion”, or what the western writers have adopted from the Greek rational style.

The written style in the Levant sounds of utter confidence, categorical, and conveying the total truth, though it does not mean that the people cannot discriminate or feel the variations and uncertainties.  The writers in the Levant simply feel that all these attachments are redundant since it is a fact of life that nothing is categorical or certain.  Thus, superfluous additions disturb the flow of thoughts and the ideas that need to be conveyed.  Rihbany feels that the western readers of the Bible should tone down their uneasiness with “outrageous” direct pronouncements and sentences in the Bible.

The manuscript is of six chapters in 187 pages.  The first chapter is about Jesus the Syrian man, his birth, the star, obedience to parents, holyday and Eucharist.  The second chapter is on the Levant verbal style, the daily parlance, the curses, love of the enemy, “the untruthful eastern person”, impression when challenged by professionalism, speaking in maxim and aphorism, and swearing. Chapter three is on bread and salt, the sacred food, “our daily bread”, “forcing invitation to eat”, “retarding a leaving guest”, and family reunions.  Chapter four is on boarding and sleeping overnight, the “souk”, the rooftop of the house, the grapevine and garden, and the shepherd.  Chapter five is on the sisters of Marie and Martha, women in the Levant, Saint Paul and women, Jesus and his mother, and “a gentle woman”.  Chapter six is called “here and there” in the Bible.

You will realize that the custom was, especially for widows, to be persistent in their demands, sit by the judge feet and keep urging him until the judge relents and gives in.  The custom was for a traveler to stop at the main Carrefour of a town and wait for the first passerby to invite him to stay the night and be fed; if the wait was prolonged then the town would be blemished of infamy for centuries. The custom was to refrain from sharing “bread and salt” until the conversation settle all the differences and the parties are satisfied that they are friends and loyal.

You will learn that visiting a shrine of a Saint was targeting a specific demand; the mother or the family would sleep overnight and sometimes for many days until the Saint or his “ghost” shows up to deliver the good message. The author explains the external form of patriarchal attitude and the internal customs within a family; the custom of keeping doors open until the time to go to bed.

People in the Levant know the cause and effects of phenomenon but they also believe that if God wishes then the effects will not take place no matter what. This is a far cry of the western mind that insists that God has nothing to do with errors or failures and some other supplementary causes have to be investigated when the appropriate effects do not materialize.

(All these customs and traditions of the Land in the Levant were practiced thousands of years before Judaism came to be.  The Jewish religion adopted the customs of the land and wrote in the same style of imagery, maxims, and aphorism. The original manuscripts describe accurately the culture of the land and in the same style even though a few wrote4 in Greek, the language of the highly literate of the period. The writers of the Bible and the New Testaments were people of the land and spoke in the language of the land. Thus, it would be beneficial to be cognizant of the culture and civilization of the land in order to fully appreciate Christianism and the teaching of Jesus. The Bible is a wonderful source for learning the customs of the Land if read to that purpose)

Note 1: I read the Arabic translation by Ussama Ajaj Al Mohtar ISBN: 9953-417-05-9. When I get hold of the original English version then I might have another go for a thorough detailed review.

Note 2: The author Abraham Metrie Rihbany was born in 1869 in the village of Chouwir in Lebanon, one of 11 kids. He integrated a Protestant school in Souk al Gharb in 1886 and was appointed to teach the elementary classes for 3 years in order to cover the expenses. He immigrated to the USA in 1891 and contributed in editing the first Arab daily in the USA “Kawkab al Shark” (The Eastern Planet). Rihbany ventured into a new job of talking in churches in the evening about the “Sacred Land” for contributions. He was selected to represent the Syrian associations in the USA to the Peace Conference held in Paris in 1919. Abraham Rihbany met with the delegates and King Fayssal for 4 months and published a book on that event “Wise Men from the East and from the West” in 1922.

In 1918, Rihbany published “America Save the Near East” urging the USA to deny France and Britain any mandate status over the States in the Levant and warned on the organized Zionist movement to settling in Palestine.  Rihbany published eight books in total among them “Militant America and Jesus Christ” in 1917 and an autobiography “A Far Journey” in 1913 after he visited Lebanon with his wife in 1898.  Rihbany died in 1944; he was 75 of age.

Note 3:  Tourists to the Levant, visiting the urban centers, might not recognize the basic characteristics shared by the population.  Whatever differences seen by tourists are at best skin deep.  The behaviors of the urban citizens are basically the same as in the villages regardless of the verbal proclamations and intentions expressed to the contrary. , March 12, 2009)

 

 


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

September 2020
M T W T F S S
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
282930  

Blog Stats

  • 1,418,891 hits

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.adonisbouh@gmail.com

Join 771 other followers

%d bloggers like this: