Peace Before the Rage
It's 1978. I am thirteen years old. My family is in the third year of living in this bomb shelter, a tiny underground room that sits off to the side of a bombed-out pile of rubble that was once our beautiful home. Tonight the shelling is the heaviest it has been in two and a half years. The three of us, my elderly father and mother and me, sit in the dark on the corner of the bed.
We have been trapped in our shelter now for three days, and we are out of water. A shell hit near the entrance of our shelter, collapsing a wall of sandbags against our door and imprisoning us inside. We have given up trying to get it open.
No one knows we are trapped. For three days we have called out and screamed for help. But we are too far from the road for anyone to hear us amid the explosions. Besides, no one is going to venture outside in this heavy shelling. We don't talk about it, but we could die of thirst or starvation if this goes on much longer.
The shelling is so bad we can't sleep. If a big 155-millimeter bomb lands on our shelter, that's the end for us. I do not want to die. I only hope it will kill us quickly, just bang and nothing more, rather than wounding us so that we die slowly and painfully. There is no one to get us to the hospital or give us first aid. I've already gone through being wounded and buried alive in rubble. A direct hit from a shell would be better.
To distract me, my parents are talking about my childhood, telling me how surprised they were when I came into their life, how much joy I have brought them, how they regret that I must live through this nightmare.
I was born in the small town of Marjayoun, a once peaceful, idyllic Christian town in the mountains of southern Lebanon. For my first ten years I lived a charmed and privileged life. All that came to an end when a religious war, declared by the Muslims against the Christians, and tore my country and my life apart. It was a war that the world did not understand.
This book is a warning. It is a warning that what happened to me and my country of birth could, terrifyingly, happen here in America, my country of adoption. It is a warning about what happened to countless other non-Muslims in the Middle East and what should never happen again anywhere or to anyone else. It now is becoming a dire warning because I see increasing evidence that what happened to me in Lebanon is beginning to happen in towns and cities throughout America and the Western world. Watching the World Trade Center buildings fall in 2001, I was struck by the same fear that I experienced during the war in Lebanon. As I watched, words instinctively came from my mouth as I spoke to the TV screen: "Now they are here." I knew instantly why I had survived the suffering I experienced and what the purpose of my life would be. My being an eyewitness to the assault of Islamic jihad against non-Muslim Lebanese gives me a voice to help America and the West understand what is now happening to them.
But for you to understand anything about how the Middle East and Islamic jihad relate to the West, you must remember this: without understanding the past you will never understand the present and will have no idea how to plan for the future.
My country of Lebanon was much like America and the West are today. It was an island of freedom in the middle of an Islamic sea of tyranny and oppression. The majority of our citizens adhered to European Christian customs, traditions, ethics, and philosophy. Beirut, our capital, was commonly called the Paris of the Middle East. Our seemingly modern lifestyle, progressive thinking, democratic form of government, and schools of higher learning were a thorn in the side of the backward, feuding, feudal Arab world, whose Islamic customs and religious philosophies dominated other countries of the Middle East.
Lebanon is small, about 135 miles long and only about 25 to 50 miles wide. It is situated on the east coast of the Mediterranean between Israel to the south and Syria to the east and north. Lebanon has both pristine beaches and snowcapped mountains, and an ideal Mediterranean climate most of the time. Its coastal resorts and city nightlife were famous before the war. In ancient times, Lebanon was known as "the White" because of its distinctive snow-crowned inland mountain ranges.
My town, Marjayoun, lies between two beautiful green valleys, along the top of a long range of hills that runs from the border of Israel north into southern Lebanon. To the west is the Litani River valley. The hill slopes gently down to the river on the far side of the valley that runs along the bottom of steep cliffs that border its western bank. On top of the cliff stands the historic Beaufort Castle, once inhabited by a French nobleman who in the 1860s was sent by Napoleon III to intervene on behalf of the Christians in Lebanon being plagued by the Druze, a religious sect of Islam. The other valley to the east has many springs, which explains the name of my town: Marjayoun means "the valley of springs." Across this valley toward the east is a large Muslim town called Elkhiam. Beyond Elkhiam, rising over nine thousand feet, is Mount Hermon, which is usually snowcapped.
Marjayoun was a small, peaceful town, much like any small town in the USA, with about three thousand citizens. There were Catholic and Protestant churches and a cemetery. The church bells rang for services, prayers, weddings, and funerals. We had a town center where we did most of our shopping, and one movie theater, which doubled as a place for community activities and school stage productions. There was a Catholic school, a private school, and public elementary and high schools. Some people were farmers who worked the fields down in the valley. Some were businessmen who had hardware stores, grocery stores, clothing stores, beauty parlors, and restaurants. We had an elected city council and mayor. It was a close-knit country town that you might drive through in five minutes. It was a great place to live. While growing up as the only child born to an elderly couple, I always knew there would be a special meaning and purpose for my life. That meaning and purpose would be derived from the horror Lebanon and I would soon face, and are what this book is about.
My parents' house was located on the road that ran along the ridge of the hill connecting Marjayoun with another Christian town to the south called Klaia. Our majestic two-story stone house was set into the side of a hill and surrounded by beautiful gardens of fruit trees and flowers. My parents had been married for more than twenty years but were unable to have any children. In Arab culture, it is considered shameful when a woman is unable to bear children, and it is always considered the woman's fault. Thus, being childless had been a major source of frustration for my parents. They had prayed for a child year after year. Then, in the late summer of 1964, my mother, at fifty-four years of age, noticed a mysterious swelling in her abdomen. Her alarm increased as the swelling continued to grow. She began to believe that she was ill with cancer and about to die. Since she was a devout Maronite Christian, she prayed about her "illness" every evening at the altar of the Virgin Mary hanging on the wall of the living room. She would spend hours praying to Mary and Jesus for comfort, saying the rosary, burning candles, and crossing herself.
A visit to the doctor was in order. After a few tests the doctor had great news: she was pregnant. My mother's mouth dropped open. She couldn't believe her ears. "No! How can that be?" she asked. "At my age! And my husband is sixty!" Although the signs would have been unmistakable to a younger woman, she never imagined that she could become pregnant at her age.
Despite the potential difficulty and danger in having a child at her age, my mother was overjoyed. She couldn't wait to tell my father. Finally, their prayers had been answered. My parents would love me very much, and my birth would always be looked upon as redemption for my mother, and proof of God's love.
Although everyone was delighted with the news, my mother, with only two months left in her pregnancy, faced a new concern. Would her child be a boy or a girl? My mother was well educated for a woman in Lebanese society, and had a self-assurance and confidence few women could muster. She knew, however, that Arab culture praised the birth of a boy but condemned the birth of a girl. As her delivery day approached, this reality cast a shadow over her joy.
I had not yet been born, but the oppressive hand of Arab culture and society had already touched my life.
The nearest hospital that could handle deliveries was a two-hour drive away. When the day arrived, my father loaded my mother and her suitcase into a taxi and sent her off to the hospital alone. He stayed home. Men in Lebanon don't have much to do with delivering babies or taking care of children. They will take credit if the baby is a boy, and will shower him with attention, love, and praise. If the baby is a girl, usually there is neither credit taken nor attention paid. After delivery a woman will know immediately if it is a girl by the lack of excitement and congratulations by the doctor or nurses. In my mother's case, because of her age, she was congratulated on surviving delivery and giving birth to a healthy child.
However, even though I was a girl, people from all the surrounding towns and from every walk of life came to see us in Marjayoun because my father was a former government official, a successful businessman, and a pillar of the Maronite community. Indeed, he had raised the money to build the church in Marjayoun. So they came to pay their respects and to see and be seen, bringing with them the traditional birth gifts of gold jewelry, milk, and honey. The church gave a present of incense to my parents so that they could light a candle and burn it every night in thanks for my birth. I was told many times throughout my youth that the turnout for my birth celebration was "pretty good, for a girl."
My early childhood could be described as idyllic. As my parents' only child, I was lavished with all of their affection. They were also financially comfortable, so, along with their care and love, they could afford to give me lots of toys and material possessions. After retiring from his job with the Lebanese government in his late fifties, my father became a landlord and restaurateur. He built a restaurant on our property, as well as a few small homes attached to our main residence, which he rented out to other families.
Like most of the buildings in Lebanon, our house was constructed of light brown stone quarried from our mountains. Each room had high ceilings, and across the front of each story were the main doors and eight wide arched windows. My father's restaurant was located to the left and front of our property, facing the main road. A long driveway to the right of the restaurant went up the hill to our house.
My parents kept big, elaborate gardens bordered by jasmine bushes both in front and in back of our house. They planted strawberries, about ten different kinds of grapes, and every kind of fruit tree you could imagine: apple, orange, grapefruit, peach, plum, pear, persimmon, apricot, lemon, fig, and cherry. They also planted mint, parsley, and many types of vegetables: three kinds of beans, artichokes, squash, eggplant, cauliflower, green peppers, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, watermelons, and cantaloupe. In addition to fruit-bearing trees and bushes, they grew roses. In the springtime, all the trees and bushes would bloom in a variety of colors. We lived in a virtual Garden of Eden.
My day always started with a long breakfast, usually hot milk and eggs with both of my parents. Papa and Mama woke early, at six thirty. Papa would make his list of fresh restaurant supplies to buy for the day from the market while Mama made breakfast.
For me, every day was like a party. The people renting in our apartment complex became one big family. We were nine children all about the same age--within five years of each other--and we always played together. We might start the day outside or in one of the apartments, but since I had so many toys--and my own playroom--we usually ended up at my house. Our moms would also gather there each morning, bringing with them whatever they were going to fix for lunch. While preparing lunch, they would drink coffee, share news and gossip, laugh and cry.
When I turned four, it was time for me to go to school. My parents sent me to a private school, Le Saint Coeur, one of the most reputable Catholic primary schools in the country. Le Saint Coeur was on the edge of a tall hill from where we could look down and see the entire green valley and smaller hills covered with wildflowers. We had a breathtaking view of historic Beaufort Castle, as well as one of the most famous rivers in the Middle East, the Litani. The winding, sparkling Litani flows from Syria to Lebanon, supplying most of the country with water and hydroelectric power.
Our lessons were taught in both Arabic and French, and the teachers, especially the nuns, were strict and demanding. Homework was assigned from the very first day. But I loved school, and I wanted to be a "good girl," so I worked hard, learned quickly, and soon, I could read and write in both languages.
Our school day was finished at 2:00 p.m. After we were released, I would go home and eat lunch with Papa and Mama. In Lebanon, the midday meal is the main meal of the day. It's the time when family members gather around the table to eat and talk over the morning's events and their plans for the rest of the day.
It was always a joy to come home from school and find my parents standing outside on the balcony waiting for me. They would greet me with a big smile, a hug, and a kiss. Driving rain, summer heat, freezing snow--it didn't matter to them. In the wintertime, they would stand shivering in their coats or under umbrellas until I arrived. My mother would greet me by telling me all the special things she had done for me that day. She would say, "Look, I made you your favorite cake," or "You know what? The dress that I was sewing for you is finished. I can't wait for you to try it on." The house would always smell wonderful when I came home from school. Our meal would include fresh bread from the bakery and a variety of delicious fruits. I would proudly tell my parents about what I had learned in school that day, and then we would take a nap, as was customary. I remember the roads would be empty at that hour because everyone in town would be sleeping. Today, as a mother and businesswoman in American society, I really miss that custom.
Around three o'clock in the afternoon, Marjayoun would wake up from its community nap. Papa would go down to his restaurant to be ready when all the shops and businesses reopened at around four. On some afternoons Mama would take me along while she went to visit her friends. Some of them owned businesses, and we would walk to them and buy ice cream and visit. The wives worked alongside their husbands running the stores, as my mother helped my dad.
As much as I loved playing grown-up with Mama and her friends, my favorite afternoon activity was riding my bicycle from one end of Marjayoun to the other. This was no ordinary bicycle. It was painted red and yellow. Papa had put a light and a horn on it too, but I was never allowed to use the horn on the road. That would not have been polite or ladylike.
Whether I went with Mama to visit with her friends or riding on my bicycle, we would always end up at Papa's restaurant for dinner. The air around the restaurant was filled with tempting aromas from the kitchen, and if the wind was right I could identify the evening's specialty a hundred feet away. Our restaurant was known not only for the best food in town and the best prices, but also for the beautiful view. People loved sitting out on the terrace facing majestic, snowcapped Mount Hermon across the boulevard.
At seven thirty, Mama would take me up to our house and tidy up or prepare for the next day while I studied and did homework. When Papa came home from the restaurant, they would both tuck me into bed and sit with me for a while. We would say our prayers and exchange endearments, and I would go to sleep happy, comfortable, and secure.
For my tenth birthday, October 21, 1974, my parents decided to throw a huge birthday party. My mother was sixty-five years old, and my father was approaching seventy. They invited all their closest friends and all of mine for an early sit-down dinner. Even my teacher, Mademoiselle Amal, was invited. About twenty adults and fifteen children came, including, of course, our entire housing complex's children and parents, plus Tante Madeline and Uncle Jamil with their sons Walid and Milad, and Tante Samira and Uncle George with their three girls, Rose, Violette, and Ghada. They dressed in their Sunday best and walked from the other end of town just to attend the dinner.
Mama spent the whole day chopping vegetables for tabouli, the traditional Lebanese salad, and making kebabs to cook on the shish that afternoon. She had been cooking for the previous two days, preparing stuffed grape leaves; kibbe, the traditional Lebanese meat loaf; humus; meat pies; a variety of Lebanese appetizers; and of course baklava. My father didn't go to the restaurant that day. Instead, he spent the morning cutting roses from our garden for the table. Since it was already fall, the sky was cloudy and the air a bit chilly, so the dinner was held indoors. Our dining-room table wasn't big enough, so my parents borrowed furniture from the restaurant. My mother got out her fancy embroidered tablecloths and arranged roses at both ends of the table. She was determined that everything would be just perfect. At three o'clock, I got dressed in a white-and-green dress that Mama had sewn just for the occasion.
Every inch of the main table was covered with appetizers, from cashews and almonds to every single dip and delicacy on the Lebanese menu. My parents were pleased and proud as their guests kept commenting on the delicious food and the wonderful decorations. Little did we know that this was going to be the last party for a long, long time. Indeed, it marked the end of my dream childhood. One month later, in November 1975, Lebanon's national nightmare began, and with it began the destruction of our lives.
Copyright © 2006 by Brigitte Gabriel. All rights reserved.