Tales of ordinary lives on Mount Lebanon

Tales of ordinary lives on Mount Lebanon
Culture: Maha Baaklini's "The Bridge of Time" weaves a narrative of everyday people, and everyday forgiveness.
6 min read
07 December, 2015
Laurens tells the stories hidden in the mountains [AFP]
For her novel, La Passarelle du temps ["The Bridge of Time"], a decidedly French affair, Maha Baaklini Laurens chose to follow in the grand footsteps of Arabic-speaking and Lebanese storytellers such as Salam El-Rassi and Maroun Abboud, novelists who explore the depths of a troubled and at times ironic memory. 

The Bridge of Time is a consciously autobiographical novel, testament to a glossed-over memory. It is a place of multi-faith memory, where war gradually draws on the referents of a bloody conflict.

The novel opens with a paternal grandfather returning from America "with some modest savings and his hat-wearing wife", and can only be described as a pleasure to read. It is a delight from the first to the last line.

It is no mean feat, transcribing a tale from the region of Mount Lebanon in the language of Molière, building the linguistic bridge between the memory of the protagonists anchored in the first decade of the 20th century, and that of the narrator at the beginning of the 21st century, attending to the desires of globalised identities.

It is a feat on the part of the storyteller, who masterfully manipulates changes of timeframe, place and language in order to weave stories across the pages, with humour and colour that vie with their solemnity and emotion.

Bzebdine, the "flash of green between the two Matn" is a village dating from different eras, with Maronite and Druze communities, to which both peoples claim to belong with equal zeal.

Not long after the civil war, even the slightest event mobilises the population's two opposing communities and the rival families within. And so, when a conflict flares up, concerning a chair that the grandfather had brought to the church, and reserved specifically for his wife so she could sit in an American manner on the day of mass, he decides to build a second family church in order to avenge the insult.

As a result, the Druze community in the village splits, and those loyal to the grandfather help him not only to build his church, but also campaign for the right to participate in its naming. An urban landmark is erected in Bzebdine, whose origin lies in an intra-community dispute but which is built thanks to intercommunity solidarity.

A faith-related monument emerges in the (incidentally Maronite) village, the construction of which takes place thanks to a realignment of religious alliances.

Identities, rites and representations

Taking this anecdote as a starting point, the following 357 pages knits the detached, yet tender narrative of the daily lives of Maronite families - much to the delight of social and religious anthropologists.

It demonstrates that the inhabitants of Bzebdine defined interaction rituals and shares an understanding that a sustainable solution to conflict is based in the ethical necessity of preserving the face of the adversary, long before Erving Goffman did so.
     A sustainable solution to conflict is based in the ethical necessity of preserving the face of the adversary

The reader learns of the purpose of myths and representations as levers for preserving community identity and preventing marriages between the two communities.

Also, for the Maronite inhabitants, as generous and hospitable as their Druze neighbours in Bzebdine might be, they have occult practices: they receive their Christian guests during the day and spoil them, "then at night, quick! They cut their throats. That's just how it is, they know no other way…"

The narrative touches on a myriad of representations linked to the worship of saints, who, on the whole only differ from man by the divine grace with which they are endowed. And so, in choosing the name of the new church, and aware of the Druze neighbours' preference for a "formidable" patron saint, the acts of glory of all the saints are set out, before selecting the Virgin Mary, who may be woman, but who is venerated by all religions.

These saints are familiar to everyone in the village - they are the saints of the region. Called on more or less frequently depending on the powers with which they are invested, they are integrated into the experience of family life and associated with everyday acts.

Some are more prized by certain families than by others, and in the same family, hierarchies and individual preferences form according to a fair distribution that is sure not to anger any of them: "Saint Charbel, blessed is his name of course, but Saint Anthony, he's altogether different."
     They are not simply vehicles for passing on memories, savoir-faire and values, they seek explicit recognition

Lastly, there are the women. These women, from the child narrator at the beginning of the 1960s, surrounded by her mother, grandmothers, and village elders, to those whose strong characters structure the memory of the village, and occupy a major role in local politics: they are not simply vehicles for passing on memories, savoir-faire and values, they seek explicit recognition.

Their authority over the local community depends on their age; and this explains how the priest comes to reroute an entire procession, to which a cardinal is invited, with the sole purpose of passing by the house of an "important" female elder, who is at risk of going blind and who lives as a recluse, forcing the cardinal to pay her a visit and bless her.

The daily reality 

Saints are worshipped individually and collectively, in the form of processions and local celebrations, and their protection is invoked beyond the personal, family or village level.

They are called on in Beirut at the beginning of the war in 1975, firstly to protect the narrator's family from the bombings, and then also to protect the whole building, neighbourhood and Beirut "both parts of it… because the others are humans too" - and finally, the whole of Lebanon.

The civil war experienced through the looking glass of everyday life takes on meanings other than those attributed to it by geopolitics, and which are no less decisive. Cohesion in the village around its religious diversity does not stop the war from taking its course, or the young from fighting in opposing camps, though outside the village, elsewhere, in Beirut.

This cohesion is all the more necessary - for it rekindles memories of famine during the Great War, and refers in turn to former bloody conflicts that pitted the Maronites against the Druze in 1860.

Built as a series of short stories structured around the common thread of Bzebdine and characters who appear and reappear over the course of events, The Bridge of Time is a novel that is hilarious at every turn - including, most of all, those passages that deal with the civil war, but whose humour leaves the reader with a melancholic aftertaste.

In considering the origins of murderous identities, the same question arises: what is the origin of the madness that grips peaceful populations, whose most virulent battles of the past now raise a smile, for they appear child's play in comparison to the barbaric actions we witness today?