On that corner the Beirut-Damascus Highway suddenly forks. Its two branches, unpopulated, stretch away from each other. The right branch leads to an exit from Lebanon to Syria. The left branch, an inactive distance sunk in red dirt, goes on for a mile then emerges as the main entrance to town. If you continue straight from there, an Armenian church with a pointed dome will stop you in the middle. If you insist on pressing forward, you will have to climb the Anti-Lebanon Mountain range. But the Lebanese and Syrian army soldiers won’t allow you to go far. Once on the mountain, turn around. The village, all eight square miles of it, is hemmed in greens. The Anjar spring is in the northeast. The eighth century Umayyad Fortress in the south. Minarets of a neighboring town break the horizon in the northwest.
It wasn’t always green, this little town. It was a red desert in 1939 when the French built it for my ancestors. The French Mandate could not guarantee the safety of the Armenians in their homeland Musa Dagh, now in Eastern Turkey. Thus, the people of all six villages were displaced.
On the first street where the orchards end, a four-foot window gapes through the time-worn wall of a room. I was born there. It is a French Room. A remnant ofa square cement building that once had a cement outhouse a few yards away. In the old days, the structures were lined like sardine cans on the foothills. My father built the house, adding rooms like new tetragons on a quilt.
Early on he and our neighbors attached the room to the outhouse with tin and boards. They poured concrete over the dirt and the space transformed into a kitchen. The rain drummed on the tin roof, rocking me to daze. This is the nostalgic memory.
My father whitewashed the room, but not the cement outhouse. That was a dark place. Darker was the black hole open on the floor like the mouth of a monster with infinite depth. On Friday evenings, my mother placed a plywood board on the cavity and a wooden bath stool above it. A Primus stove hummed and puffed heating water in an aluminum barrel. The hammered and engraved brass bowl was from Aleppo. Its ornaments were curly and embossed. It trembled in my mother’s hand as she poured hot water over me. Concrete smelled like damp dirt road. The scent of olive and bay laurel soap mixed with my mother’s sweat. Vapor droplets rushed down the grey walls through the edges into the black hole. I tried to escape, crying. Mother pulled me back to the bench. I imagined the hole swallowing me into the unknown, dark deep.
Bathing was not the only thing that terrified me. High on the wall in our one room home a small glass bottle hung from a nail. It once contained penicillin administered to someone, somewhere, some time unknown to me. I stared at its new content— dark, ash-color crumbs. My mother had tied a thin tricolor ribbon on its neck. Red, blue, orange, the colors of the Armenian flag, before it was a Soviet Republic. My father had asked a friend to bring him the earth.
“It’s soil from our homeland,” he explained to me. “When your mother and I die, you will sprinkle that earth on us.”
The bottle horrified me. I didn’t want to see it lowered from its dominant spot. It hung, partially sideways, miserable and mysterious, watching us from high above. In time, I felt affection for the country the earth came from. I felt a yearning and recited poems dedicated to that non-Soviet or Soviet country the earth came from. I sang for its land, for that faraway place where I was supposed to belong.
Yet the bottle remained, its terror undefeated, until April 1993. I was not there when it had to come down. On my mother’s request, it traveled in a suitcase to New Jersey, America, to serve half its purpose. My father’s visit to his daughters was cut short. In my absence, on my behalf, a priest sang an Armenian church hymn I had intoned for others. The bottle was emptied. The contents were gone. I imagine my mother’s hand trembled as she sprinkled the earth.
Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash.