Written by: Nikola Popović
Translated by: Jelena Ćuslović
Early mornings in Bsharri make your breath freeze, even if it’s spring. The road that leads to the town and meanders through the lines of old houses with turquoise windows is empty this morning. In the cold biting air, one can hear the crowns of evergreen trees rustle when a bird flies nearby flapping its wings. My son is trying to get sight of trucks, ships, and planes rumbling over Beirut skyscrapers, but it is all in vain. Only a flock of rooks can be seen flying at intervals; they will separate to fly into two groups for a while and then get together again. These aren’t harbor seagulls that follow cargo ships and occasionally take a rest on a yacht mast. Nor are they domesticated brown turtle doves that fly down on wooden thresholds of the houses in the port of Beirut. These birds fly over rocky paths and narrow passages that reverberate with rich timbres of pipe organs and timpani. Bsharri and the Kadisha valley are in northern Lebanon. Tripoli is located even further north. In the east, beyond mountaintops snow-covered now, there are some roads that run through the Beqaa valley and lead to the Roman temple Baalbek as well as the border where you could hear the echoing sounds of Syrian battles.
It’s the Gibran’s district – that’s how the Lebanese call the whole area around Bsharri where the poet Khalil Gibran was born. This is the home he left and was writing about in his poems that follow the rhythm of Biblical psalms while he was gazing at New York boulevards. There is a museum in a cave on the site of the former Maronite monastery. The museum keeps some editions of his books published in many countries from all around the world, the letters bursting with his yearning for the homeland. ”My Lebanon is acquainted with the secrets of life without being fully aware of it. My Lebanon is a wistful longing that, when is at its height, reaches a distant ending of the unseen believing it’s a dream,” Gibran wrote.
In the furthest reaches of the cave, there is the Gibran’s grave, but these cold rooms aren’t gloomy whatsoever. Even death here is, as the Bosnian poet Antun Branko Šimić wrote, ”Something quite human”. There are Gibran’s portraits and nymph drawings with their twisted bodies beaming from the walls. Poets are intrigued to go far, but their roads would always take them back to the rocky ground of Herzegovina or the Mount Lebanon, the places where all the smells are more distinctive and colors brighter than anywhere else in the world.
In Bsharri like in the whole of Lebanon, the stories about past events are an integral part of everyday life, passed down from generation to generation while each has a different detail built into its body. Some occasional episodes of unrequited love or bohemia, follow the biography of the poet who was sensitive to the needs and changes in the big world. What happened in Gibran’s homeland in the 1920s was only an echo of the misfortune that concurrently befell Europe dividing booty after the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Lebanon was then taken over by the French but Gibran didn’t live long enough to welcome his country independence in the Middle East. It was something that he desperately yearned for and was reached in the next war storm, a decade after his death.
The book covers of this great poet are of different designs: some of them are minimalist with no details, only with his name and the name of the book written in simple letters, others accompanied by the poet’s illustrations or rims ornamented with luxurious vignettes and arabesques. In this museum, there’s a myriad of things joined together – different letters and traditions, world destinations and roads. But there’s also something unique here – a hundred pages of one of the most translated books about discovering the world and listening attentively to how it’s breathing. It is about the world where a man is an exceptional but at the same time a lonely being. ”Life is an island, rocks are its desires, trees its dreams, and flowers its loneliness, streams of our aspirations, and it is in the middle of an ocean of solitude and seclusion.”
A motel decorated in a hunting lodge style with the roof descending to the ground and built in the 1970s has everything, even soap bars in bathrooms, dating back to the times before the civil war that ended at the beginning of the 1990s. On the walls, there are hunting trophies – the heads of wild boars, roe deer and weasels, Ottoman pistols, carbines, and sabers. On the dance floor where the tourists from around the world used to have fun at, there are now Eastern bunnies and stuffed toys like on numerous holiday occasions in the mornings that have taken place so far. In the cabinet, there are postcards, bottles of vodka, ceramic beer mugs, snow globes with Santa in his sleigh pulled by reindeer, money notes from France, West and East Germany, miniature replicas of the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Without answering the questions about hot water and soap or the inexplicably high price of the rooms, the hotel owner is handing out to few guests from Beirut the map of the valley marking the sights to see: monasteries, caves, and paths. At the same time when the images of Syrian war units are on TV, he goes on to talk more and more about himself, repeating the same words over and over again. He is addressing his audience with less interest than at the moment he started while they are looking over the walls and through the windows, gazing at the valley. He is telling them that Kadisha is an extraordinary valley, there isn’t a similar one anywhere else in the world, and it is the reason why he has never wanted to leave. As for the hotel, he says: ”It’s expensive because the valley is unique.”
That’s how the life enclosed with this landscape and the change of seasons got its meaning here while, on the other hand, it would lack logic if it existed outside its limits. Living here implied not using a lot of words. At the staircase that starts in the vicinity of the cathedral and leads all the way to the Gibran’s house, a few elderly locals are playing backgammon. Before they roll a pair of dice, they stare at the mother-of-pearl ornaments on the board for some time. A tailoring shop is nearby just under the arcade overgrown with ivy and with the balconies above where tussocks of grass peep shyly through the cracks. Further down the road, there is a shop where you can buy balls of wool and spindles. Walking all the way to the cathedral, locals formally dressed briefly greet one another in a soft voice. Everything reminds of the scenes from a silent movie.
The Holy Valley, that’s what Kadisha means in Aramaic. There haven’t been any people who speak Aramaic in Lebanon for more than a hundred years. It has survived only as a language used during a Maronite liturgy in monasteries that date back to the times when Maronite priests found a refuge from persecution in the valley. The shrines there were chiseled in caves, and the caves converted into monastic cells. Qozhaya Monastery keeps the first printing press of the Middle East from the 16th century. French missionaries would come to Kadisha to teach their religion, and therefore French is still spoken here. They also brought grapevine with them to Kadisha as well as the tradition of winevmaking. There are olive groves and vineyards all around the monastery.
At the inn, not far away from the monastery, they serve wine in jugs made of green glass. But wine here, in Kadisha, is dry and astringent like the sloping ground where the grapes grow and get their aromas from. There are no fairy tales about this wine similar to the one that describes the Beqaa Valley vineyard and is imbued with the soft sounds of the Arabian lute. Apart from birds chirping and singing in Kadisha, the sips of wine are also accompanied by loud church bell sounds immersed in a harmonious combination of low and high pitched tones. While we are leaving the place, the eyes of our hosts are all on us, and a German shepherd tethered to a post is barking. My son approaches the dog fearlessly stretching out his hands, laughs and imitates the barking sounds as he does when we read books about animals. The Gibran’s cave doesn’t seem gloomy. It is the gaze of our hosts and their dog barking both at them and us that evoke such a feeling. Before we go sightseeing here, we pass armed guards when I take my son by his little hand that keeps my fear and disquiet, something I also have a habit of doing in south Lebanon. He isn’t afraid of dogs, nor the steep path that mountaineers take when climbing down all the way to Don Pedro, a hermit from Columbia. He has retired from society and started living in a cave, his monastic cell. The Columbian – it is how everyone in Kadisha calls him. After he had come to Lebanon and spent a trial period in a monastery, he decided to stay in this cave for the rest of his life.
But Don Pedro cannot fit the conventional image of a hermit as a person lulled into his overgrown beard and silence. This old man willingly welcomes his guests whom he will gladly tell all about his life, family and football games in Columbia, and also about how his studies in theology he took up in the US brought him to Lebanon. Locals bring him food. He grows vegetables in front of the cave and hardly ever goes down to the river to catch some fish. They believe he has the power to see the future and therefore seek his advice on lots of health problems, love dilemmas or their work.
It is summer and in order to take steep paths in Kadisha you have to be careful and ready to climb up hard on their way back. Close to an old olive tree that is just next to the path, a few mountaineers are trying to improve a cell phone signal while one of them is talking to his wife about the unpaid bills. They make pictures of the valley with their digital cameras admiring the scenery. The chimes of the church bells can’t be heard here, only the buzzing sounds of insects. The rocks are hot and sun rays vertical.
Winter is to start in a few months. Kadisha and its paths are going to be snow-covered soon. Don Pedro will spend yet another winter without any guests, gazing at the sky and being devoted to his prayers. Visitors will return to the town and crowded streets where one can always hear the buzzing sounds of various machines and a human life is defined by work, taxes, and bills to pay, family, taking care of children who would continue our existence.
Kadisha is in north Lebanon and located between the mountain and the sea. It isn’t a gentle valley, but a place where time passes in silence that hides old valley premonitions flying like birds low over the ground. And while I’m walking through the woods the people from the valley call the Cedars of God, I think I see Gibran in a long flowing white shirt. Like a mystic prophet, it seems to me that he will hide behind the trees, disappear and vanish like nights and days while he is wandering the valley looking for its secrets.
Translated from the Serbian original, “Kadiša, dolina tišine” in “Stories from Lebanon” (Priče iz Libana).
Nikola Popović (Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, 1979) is a researcher and lecturer in the Music Department of the Faculty of Philology and Arts (University of Kragujevac, Serbia). He has published Serbian translations of Ettore Masina, Simona Vinci, Valeria Parrella, and other authors, as well as numerous essays on the aesthetics of contemporary Italian prose in Serbian and Italian. His publications also include reviews of books, films, and plays. He has published the book Priče iz Libana (Stories from Lebanon), as well as fictional stories inspired by his trips to Lebanon, Ghana, Congo, and other countries.
Translator, Jelena Ćuslović (b. 1978) is an English teacher, translator, and writer. She has published two books so far: Snovi za budne (Dreams for the Awake, 2017), a collection of short stories, and Oči (The Eyes, 2018), a novel, and is currently working on a picture book, Najda, vila izgubljenih želja (Najda, the Fairy of Lost Wishes). She is a writer who translates and a translator who writes and is in love with both art forms that require creative commitment to the same extent.