Adonis Diaries

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Rainbow over the Levant: Planning for the insurrection, (continue 7)

Chapter 4: Planning for the insurrection (1371-1375)

In Beirut, two trusted friends of Antoun were popular and well positioned to gather rumors, information, and pieces of intelligence concerning the state of the population humor.  Gergis, nicknamed Al Ustaz (the teacher) because he could read and write in three languages, was a 26 year old bachelor of an unknown origin.  He installed himself in a ramshackle booth in the main trading street or souk: people would approach him to read letters for them and translate papers or write petitions for small fees.

The other close friend was Noura Nabatat, nicknamed Al Shafiate (the one who can cure physical diseases using herbal concoctions) or Shafiate for short, was a practitioner of herbal remedies. She was 23 years of age and learned this trade from her father who attended to the health of rich landlords.  Noura moved to Beirut after her father’s death and visited her mother and younger sister Salsabeel once a month in the mountain village of Beit Chaar, a day voyage on a mule.

Noura earned her living reasonably well: she was in great demand from elder people who frequently recovered quickly from their illnesses at the sight of her lovely face and serene demeanor.  Unfortunately, many men exaggerated their sickness in order to see her more often, and lingered in bed longer than required, which brought the wrath of their wives on Noura.

The best customers of Noura were the children and young girls who preferred her to those crackly faced and blood letting medicine persons, who mostly drove their clients mad with fear from their loud incantations and suffocating the household with fumes.

Gergis and Noura were acquainted with two notable Jewish merchants in the souk.  Ephraim Al Jasheh (The Greedy) was in the trade of jewelry, gold and silver artifacts, and lending money.  Haim Al Khayat (The tailor) was in the clothing trade and a renowned tailor.  His shop was a labyrinth of corridors and nooks filled with every imaginable clothing article from buttons to second hand garments suitable to all social status. Anyone could come in and exit a different man, vested in the class status he desired, provided the price was right.

These two Jews were intrinsically familiar with contraband merchandize and on excellent terms with both the rich nobles and thieves. In this period, Jews avoided the Christian strongholds, not only because business was less fruitful there but also because the Moslems were more tolerant with them.

This tolerance was a reality because, in general, the Moslems did not give a hoot that the Jews were responsible for crucifying Jesus and because they believed that they descended from the same prophet and Patriarch Abraham. The Christian noble houses never admitted Jews to step inside their residences, and trade was performed through Christian middle men; Gergis was always ready to be part in a financial transaction either for trading jewelry or cloth.

Antoun, Noura and Gergis became an inseparable trio, with a shared passion for reading books that were not related to religions; not that they were atheists or nonreligious at heart but because they needed to enlarge their knowledge in matters that might enhance their practice in earning their livelihood.  This trio freely shared what they had been learning in knowledge, information, and intelligence about the state of affairs in their county.

Swapping books among themselves was a common practice every time they met in their favorite hangouts for eating or evening gatherings.  Noura and Antoun became fairly conversant in law and politics thanks to their association with Gergis who advised clients on the legal procedures and, occasionally, implicitly litigated cases.  Antoun and Gergis acquired the rudiments in herbal medicine, family behaviors and traditions among the down trodden thanks to their relationship with Noura.  Gergis and Noura became fairly well versed in the business of contraband and the articles that are most sought after, among the rich class, and they acquired the basics of the values of products traded in the souk. Their friendship was strengthened on the basis of their good taste for poetry and exotic cuisines and the uninhibited atmosphere that reigned in their neighborhoods.

This nucleus of friends generated circles of acquaintances through referrals for business and trades from which a group of close friends, who shared good humors and a serious outlook to their conditions, gelled into a well established small association that met frequently and at appointed places.

A need for secrecy and a low profile existence soon overshadowed their youthful zeal when well founded rumors spread that the authorities were getting interested in their meeting patterns. The nucleus of the three original members decided to form three separate groups.  The three friends met clandestinely, mostly off shore fishing, to devise strategies for their business transactions and enlarge their network of referrals.

These meetings acquired political overtones whenever serious events occurred that hampered the way of life of the companions.  Social purposes for agitating and rallying masses to specific causes enriched their actions in subtlety and cunning.  Divergences in political views and maneuvering were opportunities for lengthy and worthy discussions that provided Antoun an incentive for sorting out his muddled mind and encouraged him to get organized on a larger scale and on solid ground.

It dawned on Antoun that he could lead separate groups of partisans with different interests, though sharing a few basic discontent views on the political status.  The landlord system was considered a heavy burden on the peasants, artisans, and working class along with the inequities emanating from the non contribution of the landlords in the expenses for maintaining the Emirs’ life style and the fickle military expeditions.

It was commonly recognized that there was an established imbalance in the delivering of justice among the classes and the heavy punishments of the judges on the disinherited were spreading havoc in the spirit of the citizens. Consequently, Antoun decided that he would lead 3 groups of partisans, one in the cities, another one among the outlaws in the remote mountains, and a third among the pirates of the seas.

The nagging problem was what political organization to replace the hated old one? Alternative political systems could not be conceived due to the enduring feudal, confessional, and representatives of God’s Sultans, inherited from divine ancestors for centuries with different names of religions, casts, honors and titles.  Any inherited political format had to be divinely inspired or descending from a prophet’s genealogical tree.

For the outlaws it really did not matter much what ruling system was in place, as long as their status as outlaws is rescinded and their past sins forgiven, so that they could return home unmolested with the accumulated loots. The city partisans’ views were complicated and varied.  The majority could not conceive of a different system but a fairer one, where the rotten noblemen and judges are deposed, exiled or incarcerated.

This mind set was not based only on tradition but because the religious authorities have always supported the old system and people never considered questioning the fallibility of their clergymen when their proclamations were supported by excerpts from religious Books, mostly taken out of context. A minority contemplated some kind of balance in power, with a say of the citizens in the taxation laws and decisions, but had no idea what could be done to bring balance in the power of authority so that responsibilities could be accounted for and remedies enacted.

A tiny educated nucleus wanted to emulate the Greek form of democracy where the people elect their leaders for the executive and for the members of the legislative House, though they had not the slightest idea of how to proceed and implement these Utopian tendencies.  Gergis alone was deeply involved in writing down a rudimentary form of a Constitution with guidelines to a set of laws that should govern the citizens, but he failed to communicate his endeavor: his work was in the tentative stages and he lacked the necessary information of the Roman codes of law and how they governed their vast multiracial Empire. Anyway, Gergis knew of no one to translate Latin manuscripts for him.  Besides, he was not sure any member was educated enough to contribute in his research and rationally discuss his thoughts.

The sources of these confusions on an important matter as “how to be governed” was not solely attributable to a widespread illiteracy and ignorance on how they were actually governed, but also because Antoun did not yet expand his purposes beyond the Metn County. Since most of the partisans were Christians, and the big majority from the Christian Orthodox denomination, the arguments of the partisans were superficial and lacked inclusion of other religious sects, castes, and races in their planning and discussions.

There were however many Moslem Sunni renegades in the mountains that fled from sentences of imprisonment, or were tracked down for fraudulent mandates against them.  They constituted communities of their own and cooperated with the Christian outlaws in moments of danger; and vice versa, many Christian renegades lived in the coastal cities of majority Moslem communities, but did not mingle as openly as city life offered in variety of opinions and customs.

It was obvious to any sensible partisan that Antoun was and wanted to remain the leader for as long as he could hold on, without the need for a formal election and he was willing to accept any political system that would ensure his prime authority.  So the implicit attitude was to wait until the insurrection succeeded.  Thus, any discussion was basically cut short on any political system to agree on.

Nevertheless, Antoun had a pretty good idea on the taxation reforms that needed to be implemented and the inkling to allowing the townships to elect their own leaders and council members in order to check any resurgence of the old influential landlords.

Separately, Mariam, a member of the mountain outlaws gang and Noura in the city group, were outspoken and relentlessly brought forth to Antoun the consequences and needed remedies for fomenting a call for an insurgency.  They realized that the major burden in any calamity would ultimately rest on the females’ shoulders and that they would have to cater for the children, elderly people, and the wounded. Mariam and Noura insisted that if a definite action had to be decided then, they had the right to discuss openly and at length the requisite changes that need to be enacted and the alternative duties and responsibilities of each committee.

The fact is both Mariam and Noura made Antoun realize that not much explicit serious discussion had been exchanged within the partisans because, mainly, the males were not that talkative and refrained from bringing topics that would be interpreted as cowardice or ignorance on their part.  Antoun knew that the Emir had infiltrated the outlaws but decided that, by taking judicious precautions, open dialogues among his partisans were necessary to generating the kind of feedback for clarifying the main objectives and problems facing the unity and steadfastness of the insurgents.

Mariam, Noura, and Antoun discussed and devised a rudimentary conversational method to encourage open dialogue among the partisans and would interchange roles when necessary for prompting the partisans into speaking their minds as equals in the decision process.  In the practice of open dialogue, Antoun learned a different kind of patience, basically how to listen carefully to opinions and refrain from interposing, interjecting, or delivering his own opinion before all information was proposed, classified and summarized.

A series of questions were laid out to be asked and responses expounded upon. Antoun noted down a set of questions that he recapitulated on the many gatherings he had with his partisans such as: “What it is that we want?”, “What is it that we wish to do?”, “What is the most important objective for us all?”, “What is the final big thing we all are decided to fight and die for?”, “What is to be done if we agreed on that objective?”, “How are we to proceed if we win power?”, “What is the most important decision we must implement immediately after we take control?”, “Who is planning to resume his normal life after victory”?, “Who is willing to continue his services as a civil servant?”, “What committee are you willing and capable of serving in?”, “Who is ready to continue the fight and suffer additional hardships in the event things turned badly?”, “What comes first, family security or the achievement of the main objective?”, “Who is willing to learn reading and writing if teaching is provided?”.

Being essentially a business man who got dragged into politics, Antoun enjoyed discussing with the down to earth partisans, whom proved to be very meticulous to details when prompted to expand on their opinions. However, as the night dragged on, a few partisans in the gathering, and in the spirit of companionship, would become sentimental and would divulge profound personal secrets that would throw Antoun into confusion.

One of the partisans declared in a passionate tirade: “I am ready to spell by blood for the movement because you are all my friends, but in case I die during the insurgency I do not see who will benefit from my sacrifice, since I have no relatives left in this world.”  Instead of replying with abstract notions or rebuking a well founded and deeply rooted life needs for continuity, Antoun would get busy finding a wife for his distraught partisan and engaging the community into resolving this unhappiness.  The empathy routines were left to his more talented female companions.

The arguments that rattled Antoun into despair and sudden frenzy, and which were numerous at the start of initiating the gathering sessions, were related to religious affiliations.  Many partisans with limited knowledge felt the urge to show off and could not find any argument in their arsenal but to express the acquired discrimination attitudes toward the Moslems or other Christian denominations, and made it a point of honor to display their ignorance and their isolation.

A few partisans went as far as accusing Antoun to doing business with the Jews and Moslem infidels and, not just trading on a grand scale, but socializing, eating and drinking with them.  They blamed him to bringing a few of the Moslems to the mountains as associates to him, and rub it in their noses by inviting them to the meetings.

These sessions that dwelt on the sectarian issues were the most trying and delicate to contain, and Antoun proved his leadership at these crucial moments, albeit not in a constructive manner.

The leader Antoun was habitually respectful to the clergies, especially those close to the people, but had comprehended that religion could be used as a lethal weapon in politics and, more often, to disrupt the fabric of harmony in society for local petty interests.  Antoun had taken stock of the discredit that the movement would suffer if he played in the hands of the extreme confessionals, and decided to respond clearly and categorically to any deviation from unity of all the partisans regardless of sect, or religion, or place of birth.

In the beginning, the partisans tried hard to deviate from the problems at hand by steering the discussion to the familiar ground of base discriminating aspects, in this confined society, but Antoun learned to be firm in directing the discussion and keeping it on the target.  He encouraged confronting the discrimination tendencies and steered the discussion toward fruitful dialogues and thus, winning the mind of the vast majority of moderates.

Soon the word spread that the quickest way to be cast away from the movement is to indulge in unsubstantiated recriminations based on religious myths and discrimination.  Consequently, blunt references were transformed into innuendos or wrapped in benign joking bouts that finally did more harm to the cohesion of the movement than opting for direct confrontation and patient enlightenment.

With the exception of confessional opinions, the trio of friends learned never to preempt any position or offer an opinion until everyone had answered the question, extracted clarifications, and then offered a summary of the exposed opinions. The kind of answers that the trio would respond to in order to ward off taking definite positions was as follow: “It is not for me to say what should be your position”, or “It is for all of us to agree at the end”, or “We will do what we agreed upon”, or “We need much honesty among ourselves and we will eventually trust to respect each others opinions”, or “We need much information on our enemy”, or “Whoever can provide us with reliable sources, it is his duty to strengthen our knowledge”, or “We need to think more on that issue; sharing knowledge, information and intelligence will enhance our confidence in victory”, or “I am one of you, who also lacks more knowledge and information.  I would not impose any position before you share with me facts and vision”, or “Until everyone feels secure to share with everyone else his difficulties, limitations and capabilities, it would be an untenable situation for our struggle, which will be plagued with inefficiency and shortcomings”.

Before starting on his trip to the mountains, Antoun would send a messenger to inform Mariam of the time and place of his visit, and then would huddle with her for hours in secret, and occasionally with Mustafa when he accompanied him, rehashing the topics and the role playing mechanism before the general gathering with the outlawed gangs.

Mustafa, a 26 year old Sunni Moslem, was a de facto right hand man of Antoun and was an eloquent and conversant negotiator. Mustafa infiltrated many garrisons and linked excellent communications with greedy officers and sergeants who enjoyed unavailable goods at reasonable prices.

Mariam insisted on Elias joining her in the general meetings because she felt that his outspoken character would enrich the conversation with hard topics that should be dealt with ultimately. After three months of frequent meetings, which used on occasions to take the best part of the nights, a short list of positions and desires were condensed.  The renegades of the mountains expressed the following inkling:

The mountain renegades preferred a peaceful and secure life in their own towns.

They demanded compensation be paid for their participation after victory, so that they could rehabilitate their shattered business and way of life.

They abhorred any kind of taxes, but would eventually share in the expenses of running a government if fair taxes were levied on all citizens and if the city civil officers did not enjoy social or economic privileges.

They adamantly refused forced military recruiting; only voluntary participation with fair wages could be contemplated.

They expressed their staunch right to elect their village chief as well as the enforcers of the laws.

Donations in money or lands to monasteries or to the bishops should be taxed heavily and after the agreement of the community.

Profits generated from free works by the peasants to monasteries and bishops should be taxed and the proceeds invested in schools or anything beneficial to the communities.

The coastal city group expressed different priorities in a mercantile spirit, but with the same candor, reflecting a variation in their way of life such as:

The right of every city dweller to own properties in any section of town without any class or religious discrimination but price affordability.

Everyone could rent a shop in any ‘souk’ regardless of religious beliefs or artisan profession.

Any religious denomination should have the right to erect its own center of worship.

Fair taxes should be levied on every profitable business with no exception.

Trade union should be allowed to organize and send petitions for legal demands.

Entrance fees to other coastal towns and cities should be eliminated.

Goods and services should be exchanged freely among towns and cities within the same county and export taxes eliminated to encourage trade and commerce.

The essential advantage of these meetings was that everyone believed that later important decisions would be discussed openly and freely.  This feeling that everyone’s ideas and opinions were important was a new discovery and trends of empowerment were enhanced within the insurgents.

Initially, the coastal city group and the outlaws’ partisans in the mountains were totally separated in the organization and had no communication with each other, except through Antoun and one of his close fearless associates called Mustafa Baltaji in the contraband business.

The armed group of outlaws and deserters were supplied by contraband military hardware and organized formally into specialized units and indoctrinated to an upcoming uprising with promises of substantial loot and occasional revenge.  Coordination and cohesion among the various gangs were established and trained through small and many tactical attacks that generated loot and high morale among the infant army.

Gregorios Bahri knew that Antoun was behind some of the looting adventures, and that he received a sizable share in the looting of the hated and useless noblemen, but was kept in the dark from the secret political schemes of Antoun.  In order to safeguard his prosperous contraband business from reprisals, Gregorious made a deal with Antoun to publicly go his separate way, but keeping secretly close contraband operations for specific items and products.

Consequently, Antoun had legally set up a trading center, paid his dues and was recognized as a gentleman among the merchants of the souk. As an honorable citizen, Antoun had to search for a wife.

Novel:  Rainbow over the Levant (A historical fiction)

Introduction

In 14th century Levant, an Arabian stallion was a Cadillac symbol among the noblemen in Mount Lebanon; horses primarily meant a Panzer tank for the forces of the viceroys governing the provinces on behalf of the Mameluks’ Sultan in Egypt.  Luca Antonius, nicknamed “Al Fares” (The Knight), begot Youssef Luca who begot Antonios Youssef Fares.

Luca Fares served in his youth as a knight in the personal guard of the Emir in the county Capital Mtein in the Metn district in central Mount Lebanon   He was a Christian Orthodox with religious allegiance to the declining Byzantine Empire and was a hot headed character and got entangled in many brawls that finally discredited the good judgment of the Emir.  The Emir had no choice but to fire Luca from his entourage and sent him packing with a small fortune and an admonition never to return to Mtein.

Luca bought himself a piece of land near the current village of Khonshara, less than ten kilometers from the Capital Mtein, but never stayed long on his land.  The peasants cultivating his land had field days during his many peregrinations outside his fief until his eldest son Youssef took over.  Luca was killed mysteriously on a hunting trip and Youssef set his mind to take roots on his land, cultivate it stubbornly, forget about horses and knight ship and then married a strong headed, down to earth wife.

Geography of Mount Lebanon

The current Metn County as the other counties of Mount Lebanon are naturally bordered by the Mediterranean Sea in the West and the western chain of mountains in the East; the small river of Nahr Kalb that dries up in summer time separates this canton in the North from neighboring Kesrouan with the Sannine Mountains on the East.  At the time of the story, the Metn was separated from the coastal shore administratively and juristically. The mountainous Chouf region formed the southern borders where the Moslem Druze sect, a Fatimide splintered schism from the Shiite Moslem religion, had taken roots a century and a half ago.  The Druze sect had just been created and was small, weak, and facing serious persecution.  Across the eastern slopes of Sannine lays the major town called Zahle in the Bekaa Valley; this is the largest valley in Lebanon rich in wheat and cereals.

The Bekaa Valley running between two chains of mountains north to south about one hundred km long and twenty five km wide on average was the main region to grow wheat and cereals.  Caravans to and fro that valley passed through the Metn to trade wheat and winter stocks of goods such as potteries, olive, olive oil, cutleries and silk cloth. The journeys were long, arduous and dangerous in these unpredictable and lawless periods. Thus, the caravans were guarded by trained fighters and their leaders were familiar with the various fief lords and gang lords.

At the time of the novel, the Metn did not extend to the sea and its total superficies was no more than 800 square kilometers, 40 kilometers from east to west and 20 kilometers from north to south.  Mount Lebanon is naturally divided in counties separated by deep small river valleys running east to west and emptying in the Mediterranean Sea. The religious affiliations in Mount Lebanon at the time were from north to south: Christian Maronites in the Bshari and part of the Betroun regions, Christian Byzantine Orthodox in the current Koura, Byblos, Kesrouan and Metn regions, then the middle part under the Druz sect concentrated in the Chouf region and the southern part of Jabal Amel of mostly Moslem Shiaa.  The Moslem Sunni were primarily entrenched in the littoral.

The Metn, as all Mount Lebanon regions, is an area of hills and valleys with many streams of fresh water. The inhabitants conquered the hilly lands by structuring the parcel of lands in a cascading step design for planting and growing fruit trees, olive trees and green vegetables.  This was hard work since the walls of these parcels of cultivated lands had to be built of stones removed from the land itself.  The Metn was under the rule of the Viceroy of Tripoli, more than a hundred kilometer to the north on the seashore.

The region was not densely inhabited and the Christian Maronite sect did not yet make any major inroads in that part of Mount Lebanon and was based mainly in the northern Mountains, east of Tripoli.   It can be conjectured that less than 60 thousand souls lived in the Metn at the time. The language was a mixture of Arabic, Byzantine and Aramaic slang (the main language during Jesus Christ period and for many centuries to come). Female dressed with several layers of colorful garments very similar to the nowadays customs in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Cherkessk. The male wore the traditional colorful vests with a large band of cloth, black or red, wrapped several times around the waist and pantaloons, black or white, tight at the ankles and oversized around the crotch.

The Roman Christian missionaries had barely made a dent during the last two centuries and had closer relationship with the Maronite sect than with the other Christian sects who did not recognize the infallibility of the Pope.  The Crusaders’ clergy were more intent on fomenting troubles every time a bishop was to be elected or consecrated than promoting enlightenment.  It might be surmised that a few small religious schools were instituted and artisan shops catering to the war efforts of the crusaders prospered.

This story starts in 1346 when the Mameluks’ dynasty in Egypt had already captured every Crusader’s strongholds in Lebanon and Syria’s coast line and pushed back the Mogul invaders beyond the Euphrates River in 1262.  Holako the Mogul had entered Baghdad in 1258 without resistance and devastated this glorious city, spread havoc and plundered it for 40 days. The Mogul hordes emptied the vast libraries of books and manuscripts and drowned them in the Tiger River, and then executed the last Arabic Caliphate Al Mustaesem.  A flourishing Arab civilization that existed for five centuries was annihilated.

Part 1:  My Sunny Levant; Antonios (1346-1381)

Chapter 1: Genesis of a Metnit family

After his wedding, the minor landlord Youssef Fares spread the word that his first born boy would be named Antoun.  His wife Jamila was a proud and steadfast person but made her young husband promise to expand their one large room home to include a private bedroom with door by the time she gives birth to a child; she also wished not to have to step outside for bodily needs and washing, as was common, because she had a deep sense of privacy and propriety.  The stone house was a tad larger than the neighbors’ but resembled them by the lack of modern amenities; at night, beddings were removed from a special drawer to replace the cushions spread around the room while the tiny kitchen was located on the north-west corner.

Eleven months later, Jamila gave birth to Latifa, a girl.  It was too early for Youssef to despair and his immediate second attempt produced Youmna, a girl, thirteen months later.  Within fifteen days of Youmna’s birth, Youssef went ahead with his project and was stopped dead in his track.   The strong headed and shrewd Jamila sent him packing to the fields to work harder and give priority to feeding his growing family. A year went by and Youssef’s male friends and relatives smirked at him and nicknamed his eldest daughter Antouneyeh which precipitated Youssef in a state of isolation, shunning friends and acquaintances.  Jamila sensed that business was deteriorating and the atmosphere in the house darkening and so she decided to give the nod for Youssef to resume his cherished project of producing a boy and crossed her fingers that destiny would turn more clement: Jamila did not believe in large families and mocked the traditional economic viability that feeding more mouths is the panacea for riches and life’s security in advanced age.

Jamila hired a helper to salvage the energies of Youssef and economized in everything except on substantial breakfasts and suppers, understanding that destiny had to be catered to if enterprises had to be successful.  Jamila would boil water in cold weather to warm Youssef’s feet after a day’s work and rub his back and shoulders with a warm wet cloth; everything had to contribute to begetting a healthy boy that should be called Antoun.

Youssef Fares was a wreck when his wife was pregnant for the third time and could no longer appreciate the jokes of his close friends, attributing the successive birth of females to his weak virility and the dominance of his wife in family affairs. The whole community knew that Youssef wanted to call his first born son Antoun and so he was nicknamed Bou Antoun (father of Antoun) immediately after his marriage.  Youssef had driven Jamila to the walls in the last nine months, ordering her to pray more rosaries than needed, spending plenty of money on religious donations and making her submit to all kinds of traditional requests that would guarantee giving birth to a baby boy this time around.

In 1346, the big three kilograms baby Antoun showed up in his entire splendor.  Many exhaled a deep sight of relief, especially Latifa his eldest sister.  Jamila was drained from every ounce of energy and experienced a period of baby blues that lasted two weeks; she directed Youssef not to receive visitors while she was sick and to delay any major celebration until she could be ready to participate fully in the baptismal ceremony.

For the first time, scared to see his strong wife in such a state of depression and weakness, Youssef reluctantly postponed the grand celebration and sent word to the neighbors to temporarily guard his house from well wishers until Jamila was up to the task of honoring guests.

Jamila tried to breast feed big baby Antoun for two days and gave up this arduous and ineffectual endeavor, so that Youssef had to find surrogate mothers for the frequently and ever so hungry Antoun.  The house allowed only breast feeding females to enter in the first week and then Bou Antoun had to carry his new born son to different houses, at least four times a day, and suffer accidents and the humiliating caprices of little Antoun until a permanent deal to breast feed the gluttonous Antoun was arranged.

One night, Youssef confided to his wife his apprehensions about the baby boy; it seems that while he was carrying his boy to a feeding mother the baby constantly tried to rummage through his chest, proving that he was unable to be discriminating in a hungry state.  Youssef failed on the spot to describe his own embarrassment but when he realized the purpose of baby Antoun,  in a weak moment, he revealed to Jamila that he felt his neck independent of his body, his head revolving in all directions for signs of any witness to Antoun’s behavior, his face scarlet hot with shame.  These two weeks of personal tending to his baby son’s needs proved a wealth of direct attachment and close bonding that not many fathers experience in their life time.

Bou Antoun threw a grandiose banquet for the occasion of baptizing his son and he entertained his audience as the supreme king sneering at his friends and threatening them for dire consequences if any of them dared any worn out jokes about virility and lack of authority.  During the festivity, Bou Antoun would dart flaming glances at Jamila and the only responses received from her steel cold eyes he correctly interpreted as saying: “Forget it.  Wipe it out of your mind.  You got what you wanted and do not expect any further special attentions.  Just sit tight and wait if and when I give any new signals.”

Youssef spent his energy expanding his business and planning for Antoun’s future who grew up comfortable among women; a great deal of self esteem sharpened his mind under the watchful eyes of his strong spirited and hard working mother.  Antoun was officially weaned within 18 months but he knew his surrogate mothers and felt at home attempting to breast feeding from anyone he was familiar with. The next four years opened many neighbors’ doors to the growing Antoun who used to help himself to double and three portions at each meal when food was being served, his being most welcomed as a member of the family.  Jamila was obliged during the many special occasions to cook extra portions of sweets to be offered as gifts to the multitude of surrogate mothers in order to repay the favors of her neighbors and as compensation for the ravages done to the neighbors’ depleting pantries.

At 8 of age Antoun was sent to a nearby religious school to learn reading and writing in both languages of Arabic and Aramaic, and some elementary arithmetic. He was also introduced to the rudiments of the French language from a learned monk.  In the afternoons, Antoun helped on the family farms and ultimately was responsible for the accounting.  During religious holidays his sisters and he used to memorize whole sections of the Bible and then act scenes to entertain the family and guests assembled before dinner.  Since girls were not to go to any school outside their homes, his eldest sister Latifa would hang out with Antoun and share his school lessons on pretence of keeping an eye on his scheduled school assignments.

One day, Latifa overheard a disgruntled man cursing saint Anthony because he donated some money for the Saint in order to recover a precious lost object to no avail. Latifa put a twist on the saying and her mom heard her chanting: “Mar Antoun of Mrouj, big thief and far gone senile.”  Latifa was to ask forgiveness on her knees in front of the saint’s statue and wear a male St. Anthony frock for a month.


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October 2020
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