Lures of Little Lebanon

Reading again about the terrible atrocities and horrific suffering in the Middle East, I’m aware that although many American are able to name the cities and rivers in that region, many have little knowledge of the way things were only decades ago.

I wrote the following in 1966 for the Minneapolis Star Tribune after I returned from serving in the Peace Corps and traveling through the Middle East.

 

Lures of Little Lebanon Enticing, Powerful

By Barbara Hoffbeck Scoblic

 

(originally printed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Sunday, April 17, 1966)

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Barbara Hoffbeck, who taught English in Thailand for two years as a member of the Peace Corps, spent six months traveling through Burma, Nepal, India, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Greece on her way home to Big Stone City, S.D. Her stay in Lebanon lasted longer than expected.

We were window shopping in Beirut, Lebanon, and stopped to admire the large dahlias, asters and other flowers at a sidewalk shop. The owner, seeing our interest, chose two long-stemmed roses, and, with a smile, handed them to us.

Another time I heard, “Bonjour, mademoiselle,” as I hurried down a side street. I stopped and looked back.

The shopkeeper of a candy store where I sometimes bought a few things was leaning over the counter. With a smile he gave me a few freshly carameled nuts.

These are two of the pleasant things that happened during my stay in Lebanon.

A friend and I had allotted five days on our itinerary for the little country, but the mountains, the flowers, the blue of the Mediterranean Sea, the gracious people, the interesting streets and the gay music made us stay longer.

On a spring day with the sun shining we postponed our plane reservations for the first time. After three postponements, we canceled our reservations all together. In the end we found jobs, sublet an apartment and lived in Lebanon for five months.

Lebanon, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, is at the crossroads between East and West and is a blend of the two—French and Arabic are mixed easily in conversations, the minarets and mosques and the steeples of churches add height to the skyline, and European styles mix with traditional dress in the streets.

Though the country is small (only 130 miles long by 30 miles wide), there is much to see.

There are the stately cedars of Lebanon, on the slopes of Dahr el-Kadib, about 75 miles from Beirut. Contemporaries of these trees were used by Solomon to build his temple and by the pharaohs to build their boats. Today, as the country’s national emblem, they’re the lone design on the Lebanese flag.

Fifty-five miles east of Beirut on a road that leads over the mountains is Baalbek. It was used by the Phoenicians to honor the god Baal and later by the Greeks, Romans, Christians and Moslems.

The Roman ruins there are the largest in the world and the six remaining columns of the Temple of Jupiter are among the most beautiful.

Byblos, 25 miles up the coastline from Beirut, is said to be the oldest continually inhabited seaport. Now a little town (known as Gebal) it was once the seat of Phoenician civilization.

The forerunner of our modern alphabet was developed there. Traces of a Neolithic village (dating back to 5,000 B.C.) have been excavated and ruins of more recent civilizations can be explored.

Thirty miles from Beirut is Beit-id-dine. At Beit-id-dine is the palace of the Emir Bechir, former ruler of Lebanon.

With intricately carved wooden ceilings, fine marble furnishings and mosaic floors it is a beautiful example of 19th century Lebanese architecture. Sometimes the Lebanese president uses it as a summer home.

A ride over the mountains to the Bekaa plateau makes an interesting day’s trip. On such a ride a person might see trees heavy with blossoms or fruit, a mosque with a beautiful aqua-blue dome, fields thick with flowers, Bedouins herding their sheep, an occasional camel and certainly villages. A village in Lebanon is worth a close look, with its red-tiled roofs, narrow streets and beautiful mountain views.

Near Beirut is Dog River where the consecutive conquerors of Lebanon, including Nebuchadnezzar, have carved their names. To the south are Tyre and Saida, two old Phoenician cities with long histories.

All of these places can be reached easily and inexpensively by “service.” These are taxis in which the passengers split the fare and which follow a fixed route.

Their stations are in the center of town. Taxi and “service” fares should always be agreed upon before the trip. “Services” can also be taken as far as Damascus in Syria and, with one transfer, to Jerusalem.

But a person need not leave Beirut to enjoy Lebanon. Beirut is a pleasant mixture of old homes and modern buildings, cobble-stoned streets and new highways.

There are bazaars where you can buy fruits, vegetables, flowers, shoes, clothes, gold jewelry, almost everything. The bazaars are a whirl of activity, color and sound.

Or there is the campus of the American University 0f Beirut. Its location, overlooking the Mediterranean with mountains in the distance, makes it one of the most beautiful anywhere.

Or there are shops along the more modern streets with all the goods of the Near East for sale: rugs from Iran, mother-of-pearl mosaics from Syria, saris rom India.

To me, the most interesting place in Beirut is the Borj (also known as the Place de Canons), the square in the old section of the city. Here a person should just stop and look.

One will see sheiks in their long white robes and veils walking past importantly; priests with long beards and black robes or monks in brown cassocks and sandals busy on errands; career girls wearing impossibly high high-heeled shoes tripping over cobblestones; porters moving steadily under their heavy loads through traffic; Moslem women in black dresses, their faces covered with black scarves and seemingly guided by radar as they move along the crowded sidewalks.

The old, the young, the ordinary, the interesting, they are all there to be seen on the streets and sidewalks near the Borj.

As a British friend said when trying to explain her enjoyment of Beirut, “It’s alive.”

A tourist need not “rough” it. There are many new hotels in Beirut. But it’s recommended that a visitor make reservations before he arrives.

One of the best hotels is the Phoenicia. New and modern, it not only has every comfort, but also a beautiful view of the sea only a few yards from its door.

Offering the same view is the St. Georges. Long the traditional hotel in Beirut, it offers its own waterfront and beach,

Although Arabic is the native tongue and French the second language, any English-speaking person usually will have no trouble communicating.

There are many restaurants that offer excellent European and American meals. But Arabic food is aromatic and delicious and several meals of it should be included in a visitor’s schedule.

Some of my best meals were served in small restaurants along out-of-the-way streets.

A friendship began this way. Knowing that typical foods and typical prices wouldn’t be found in Western-style restaurants, my friend and I entered one with only three tables.

The owner didn’t speak any English and we didn’t speak any Arabic, but we were soon served a delicious meal of “homos,” a thick mixture of chickpeas and sesame oil, and “kefta,” ground meat and chopped parsley broiled on a skewer, which we ate with round flat Arabic bread.

We returned often. Our conversations largely consisted of “Good?” and our reply, “Good. Very good.”

One day, through an interpreter, the restaurant owner invited us to his home. We spent a very pleasant Sunday afternoon with his wife and children. Although he said few mutually comprehensible words, we smiled and laughed a lot.

There are many ways to say “welcome” in Arabic. A visitor in Lebanon will hear them often.

 

 

Summer Musings

The pungent smell of chicken being grilled on skewers caught my attention as I walked out of my Manhattan apartment building last Sunday. That and the sound of 50’s big-band music blaring from a speaker.

The Second Avenue Street Fair was in full swing. The event is held every year on the second Sunday in June. It promises tasty food, free entertainment, and unparalleled people watching.

I wandered to the end of the block. Amid all the milling people, my eyes were drawn to a couple with three young children. The smallest rode on his father’s shoulders. The tallest girl held her mother’s hand. But the middle child, a boy, was impatient and kept dashing ahead. In the short time that I stood there watching them, the mother called to him three times, “Come back, you must stay near us!”

The children’s excitement, the cooking odors, the sun beating down—welcome after a dreary winter—took me back to my childhood in South Dakota.

Each year the Farmers’ Club picnic was held near the river in a field not far from our house. The event was always planned on a Sunday in late June, after the fields had been planted and before the big push to harvest had begun. The hour was selected so the women could attend church services, but still have enough time to put finishing touches on the dishes they’d bring to the picnic.

My mother was able to relax and listen intently to the priest’s sermon knowing that four pies were cooling on the kitchen counter and a pot of baked beans was reaching perfection in the oven of our wood-burning range. On Saturday she’d chased, slaughtered, and plucked eight chickens. Early that Sunday morning she baked them in batches, two at a time. One of my brothers pulled potatoes from the garden, and one of us girls cleaned and peeled them. While the potatoes cooked, my mother made mayonnaise by blending her special mix of ingredients into egg yolks.

Chickens, beans, potato salad, pies, dinner rolls, the card table with an oil cloth covering, serving and eating utensils, glasses and cups were loaded into our car. With our mother seated beside him, Dad drove down the driveway, past the cottonwood and the old oak, and continued eastward along a rough hilly road. He parked the car at the edge of a large untilled field.

Other families also pulled up and parked. Everyone unloaded their goods and then, while the women set up the tables and the men heated up the grill, boys and girls grabbed cane poles and small tin buckets of bait and rushed to the river bank. As the youngsters caught fish, the men cleaned and grilled them. Everyone served themselves from the bounty, taking seconds and thirds until they thought they could eat no more.

But dessert was still to come! Scoops of the best-ever ice cream (made by the local creamery) topped off slices of pie. Later slivers of icy watermelon cooled everyone down.

The women huddled in the shade catching up on the town news, while the men, after kicking large stones aside, drove stakes into the ground in preparation for rambunctious rounds of horseshoe.

Young boys waded in the river and laughed when schools of small fish tickled their feet. Girls made mud pies decorated with twigs and red berries. The older kids ran around with abandon—playing hide and seek and tag amongst the old oaks and in the thickets.

The impatient voice of the Upper East Side mom broke through my memory and returned my attention to the present.

“Stay where I can see you!”

I watched as the little boy reluctantly made his way back through the crowded street and felt sorry for him.

On those splendid afternoons of the Farmers’ Club picnics, we children had been entirely free to wander and explore. No parent would call upon us to do a chore. There’d be no order to go feed the chickens, pull weeds, or check on newborn animals. On those splendid afternoons we had been simply kids.

© Barbara Scoblic 2019

The Ants

Do ants mourn? It’s been proven scientifically that elephants mourn and anecdotally that horses, dogs, and cats mourn. But ants? Yes, they do. After a serious twelve-hour study observing errant ants, I have concluded that ants do mourn.

The other day when I had my second cup of morning coffee sitting on the couch looking at the paper I glanced over to pick up my coffee cup when I saw an ant. Then another, then another. I started squishing them with a Kleenex, running back and forth to the bathroom to flush them down. It turned out that these ants were strong. They often didn’t squish and I had to be careful that they didn’t creep out of the tissue and up my arm. I captured several of these ants. Then I noticed that they were wandering around walking back and forth in this one particular area. What could that be? Why were they doing that? I kept on squishing, but I was still curious. I looked closer. There was a dead ant that I had squished but not picked up. They were coming to pay their respects. I felt a little bad as I kept capturing the ants. But eventually I thought I had them all.

Later in the afternoon there were another two ants, then three. I got them also. Much later at about ten o’clock at night I glanced over and saw one more ant. He’d returned to the spot where I’d removed the squished ant. He paid his respects. Did he expect a monument or some sort of memorial? Well, there was none.

And then, with a phantom apology to my young grandson who loves all things that creep and crawl, slither and slide, I squashed that ant, too.

My conclusion after this long exhausting study is that ants do mourn. 

© Barbara Scoblic 2019

 

 

Tastes and Smells of Spring

On a morning last week when the sun had risen high enough to brighten my apartment, I heard songbirds from the courtyard eleven floors below. Spring! I felt a deep longing to be out in the midst of nature. That feeling lingered all day.

I called my three brothers and my sister in turn. What do you remember about the smells and tastes of spring on our farm? I asked each one.

Bill in Illinois answered his cell when he was about to enter the market where he’d stopped to pick up some fruit.

“I remember, when stepping out onto our South Porch, the smell of the wet chips beneath the basswood tree and the fragrant aroma of the lilac blossoms that grew a few yards away. Those scents combined to make—” he paused for a moment, “—a special sweet perfume.”

John picked up the phone in Indiana. He remembers the long-awaited end to winter’s frigid bite. And recalls how when he left the house first thing in the morning, the air felt soft and caressed his skin.

Helen, talking to me from the kitchen of her house in Minnesota, still vividly recalls sitting on the Big Rock preparing to bait her hook, and the distinctive scent that wafted out when she opened the tin can and pulled a worm from the damp earth.

In North Dakota, Bob excused himself from his breakfast partners at the local hang-out café and stepped into its lobby to hear me better. As we talked he remembered our mother’s salad made from the first lettuce of the season and the indescribable taste of those leaves topped with the dressing she’d prepared.

I remember watching our mother as she tossed it together. My father and brothers were seated at the table waiting to be served, but in this task she would not be hurried.  Carefully, methodically she worked to blend all of the brown sugar granules and flecks of dry mustard into a small bowl of cream, separated from our cow’s milk, that she’d purposefully allowed to sour on the kitchen counter.

At four years old I was aware of the tension emanating from the other room where my father and brothers waited impatiently. It was planting season, and they were anxious to get back to the fields. Even at that age I was amazed at my mother’s serenity as she performed this ritual of Spring. 

© Barbara Scoblic 2019

 

Dance of the Dragonflies

2004

On the Saturday following Labor Day, our property had been transformed into a different ecological zone. After a summer of weekend rains, it was raining again.  By early evening the rain had stopped, but the land, and everything on it, had become saturated.  There was standing water on top of the hill. Frogs were hopping in and out the newly created ponds. Below the hill, patches of fog dulled the vivid autumn colors of trees in the distance.

Overnight a cold front moved in, banishing the fog, and in the morning trees, flowers and grasses stood sharp again.  There was only a short time before we’d begin the drive back to the city, and I hurriedly set out, camera over my shoulder. 

I’d been working hard to identify and photograph the flora on our property. I’d made a lot of progress the past spring, using blossoms of flowers and trees as the guiding feature. But at this time, early fall, I was reminded of how many species I still couldn’t identify. The bushes and low trees along the edge of the meadows were dense.  In summer they’d made an uninterrupted palisade of green. 

In fall, however, their individuality became apparent. The leaves were beginning to turn, and there were berries of different colors. Now I could easily identify different varieties of dogwood by their sprigs of red or white berries. There were smooth deep purple berries on some branches, bumpy deep purple on others. Were they viburnum berries, mulberries, or serviceberries?  The week before, guidebook in hand, I’d discovered we had bittersweet on our land.  In late summer bittersweet berries are plump balls of delicate green, not the easily recognizable crinkled-up orange ones.  I walked around Pine Island to check on the pin cherry that I’d located last autumn. Once again it was decorated with graceful dangles of pink and green berries.

A change in the light made me realize I’d spent more time in my discovery mode than I’d planned.  The sun was going down. As I quickly hiked back to the car, I stepped into a band of  soft amber light.  It highlighted a small patch of meadow near the treeline that the farmer hadn’t bothered to mow. White Queen Anne’s lace, yellow goldenrod, pink clover, and purple wild asters stood above dull-colored grass.  In that leftover ragtag of summer, dozens of dragonflies dipped and rose, alighting on each flower for only a moment, before they lifted and flew again. The light picked up the colors of the wildflowers and transferred them to the dragonflies’ delicate, translucent wings.  Through my entire field of vision little glints of  pale yellow, pink, and lavender rose and fell to nature’s silent music.

I didn’t bother to take out my camera. No photograph could capture this scene. I stood and tried to imprint the intricate dance into my memory.

© Barbara Scoblic 2019

Bird’s-eye View

                                               

 1960

In a Cesna, my boyfriend and I flew a few hundred feet above the twisting Whetstone River, and then he swooped us down even lower over my childhood farm.

 The gentle hills were flattened. They lost their contours. The great twists of the river were diminished; the proud oaks and cottonwoods lost their height, and their pride. And then with a shift of the clouds the deep green leaves, the bronze of the river, even the black spots of my father’s cows (that I spied in the pasture) lightened. All that I love faded to shades of gray. That beloved parcel of land had become an unfamiliar fading photograph.

© Barbara Scoblic 2019

Skipping Stones on Walden Pond

1995

If on that January afternoon

you had been standing near the ragged heap of rocks

where we had just added ours

and heard our laughter (but not seen us),

you would have guessed, perhaps,

three twelve-year-old girls escaped from a boring class,

not three women.

 

A thin layer of ice,

not quite reaching the shore,

created a large crystal drum, as we three sisters by choice

(when would we be together again?)

skipped our stones, making music,

zinging notes that echoed on to

the far edge of the dark tree-bordered bowl.

 

For a few minutes we competed,

searching along the shore for the best stone

and then aiming it carefully

to see who could make the music last longest,

but competing was not for us

and so,

we laughed and marveled at this moment.

 

Then, together, we each threw one last stone,

And hurried away,

Before silence could begin.

© Barbara Scoblic 2019