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.




December 2022

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