ABRÁÇANA (en)
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ABRÁÇANA (en)

GOING BACK TO THE LAND WHERE I'VE NEVER BEEN

I TOOK A TIME TRAVEL: I VISITED THE TOWN WHERE MY GRANDFATHER AND THE FAMILY OF MY GRANDMOTHER CAME FROM, IN LEBANON

House that belonged to my grandmother's family, in Jdeidet Marjaayoun

When I decided I'd come to Lebanon, I sent a message to Gassoub, a first cousin of my father who was born and lived in Lebanon till his adolescence and now lives in Ribeirão Preto, to ask if we still had relatives here.

His answer was very Lebanese: "My brother still lives there, in Jdeidet Marjaayoun. Go there and ask for Abdo Chammas, he will host you".

“Cool, Ga, but do you think I could maybe call him beforehand to let him know I'm coming?", I asked. "Oh, yeah, that can work as well", he said and proceeded to share his brother's phone number with me.

I was a little apprehensive and reluctant, because I don't who the man is and he had probably never heard of me, and I was about to call and ask him to host me in his house. I was uncomfortable, finding this whole idea pretty weird, but on my second day in Lebanon I gathered enough energy to call Abdo.

When he picked up, I rushed to share all my family credentials with him, to make sure he knew who I am: "This is Felipe Chammas, from Brazil, son of Farid, your cousin. Who gave me your number was your brother, Gassoub".

He was very receptive, called me "habib" (dear) at least 8 times in 2 minutes of talk, and said I could come whenever, that his home was open to me.

So I talked with my friend to figure out how I could get to Jdeidet Marjaayoun, which is located some 100km south of Beirut, and I found out that the logistics wouldn't be so simple:
I'd have to catch a minivan to Saida, a trip thats costs 2 thousand Lebanese Pounds (~1,30 dollars) and that I ended up doing beforehand when I visited the city;
from there, I'd have to catch another minivan to Nabatieh, which I had asked about when I was in Saida and was already aware where it'd leave from and that it'd also cost me 2 thousand Lebanese Pounds;
and, in Nabatieh, I'd have to find a way to get to Marjaayoun, since there's no collective transportation that travels this route.

I wasn't very comfortable with diving into this, specially to go meet people who I didn't even know. But I knew I wouldn't easily have another opportunity to visit the town where my grandparents came from, and I thought that was important, so I decided it was worth the effort.

When I confirmed to Abdo that I'd go, he said it was all good, that I just needed to send him my passport information so he could send them to the soldiers that control the traffic checkpoint of people who enter and leave the region. Then, he shared with me the contact of the soldier Farouk, who I'd have to call before reaching the checkpoint.

What? How come?

I didn't understand it very well. Soldiers? Checkpoint? But I wouldn't be leaving Lebanon…

Well, yea, but the region of Marjaayoun if very near the border with Israel, and the two countries are officially at war, so everyone needs a permit to access the area.

I was committed to the adventure, so I went on.

TIME TO GO

The minivans don't have a time table around which they work — the dynamic is: fill up the car and leave — , so I knew that my 100km trip could take me many hours.

I left home early, at 8:30am, because Abdo asked me to be there by lunch time.

I walked around 20 minutes to Cola, one of the departure points of the minivans. I hopped onto the van we departed in literally 1 minute.

Inside the minivan

After 50 minutes, we arrived in Saida. I walked for about 5 minutes to the place where the minivans to Nabatieh. I found out which one of the vans I should take and, as unusual as it seems, I around 3 minutes we left.

Cool, everything was flowing.

Then I decided to call Farouk to let him know I was on my way to Nabatieh, that I'd soon be at the checkpoint (which was located after Nabatieh). He told me to call him again when I arrived at the checkpoint.

In Nabatieh, I realized that, as expected, people there spoke less English than in Beirut and Saida.

I was able to communicate with a taxi driver with my broken French, and he told me he'd charge 25 thousand Lebanese Pounds (more than 16 dollars) to take me to Marjaayoun, which was only around 20km away.

I found it too expensive.

A soldier that was near us and spoke English already went on to ask me if I had a permit to enter the region of Marjaayoun. I answered calmly that my uncle lived there and that I should call a soldier when I got to the checkpoint, but I felt a little tension running in my body.

I asked if there was another way to get to Marjaayoun. The taxi driver pointed to the taxi that was right by us and said he could take me to Talenhas, a town that is 7km away from Marjaayoun, for 6 thousand Lebanese Pounds.

They said I could find ride from there to my final destination. I accepted the offer, but started considering the possibility of having to walk these 7km.

Right when I said I'd go, two women arrived and completed the taxi load, so we departed.

Suddenly, ahead on the road, I see the army checkpoint and the soldier who's inside the car says: time to call your soldier friend.

The checkpoint was sort of like that

I called and, luckily, Farouk picked up quickly. I told him I was at the checkpoint. He asked me for my name and last name and said he'd call the soldiers there.

We stopped at the checkpoint and the soldier, with the largest machine gun I've ever seen, checked everyone's ID and, of course, when he saw that I was Brazilian, he told me to get off the car. The soldier who was in the car explained to him that I had family there and that a soldier would call them for the permit.

I walked to a room at the checkpoint, they took my passport and I stood outside waiting, escorted by the soldier and his largest machine gun I've ever seen in my life. He spoke little English but, because I am Brazilian, he took the opportunity to ask me if I played football. I said that I did a little, he said he really loves it.

The phone rang inside the room.

I thought "it must be Farouk". Someone answered, spoke, but did not direct any message to us.

We waited a little longer and then my car's driver comes over to see what's up. We were there for around 10 minutes, which seemed like half an hour, until the phone rand again, someone picked it up and I could hear, amongst his Arabic words, a "Felíp Cham-mas", with an Arabic accent.

He hung up, handed me the passport and let me go. I was in.
We went back to the car and headed to Talenhas.

When the driver stopped for me to get down, I realized I was kind of in the middle of nowhere. There was something that reminded me of a bus stop at the other side of the road, but I didn't have much hope, because I knew there was no public transportation there. I caught my backpack, paid the driver and, as soon as the car took off, a man that was sitting at a construction near to where I stopped approached me, asking if I needed a taxi.

I said I wanted to go to Marjaayoun and he said he'd charge me 8 thousand Lebanese Pounds. I bargained a little because otherwise I wouldn't have money to go back, so he agreed to tale me for 5 thousand.

I arrived in Marjaayoun without much having wasted too much energy and my sensation was that I had just interacted with a network of people who had been informed that I was coming and were just waiting for me to show up so they could help me in their own ways.

In a total of 2 hours and 45 minutes since I left the apartment by foot in Beirut, for 15 thousand Lebanese Pounts (10 dollars), I accomplished in 4 parts the trip which would've taken me around 1 hour and 45 minutes directly by car and was walking up my uncle's street.

Not bad at all.

I'M HERE

When I appear on Abdo's street, he's up front waiting for me and soon comes Hanan, his sister, to welcome me as well. They seem very, very happy to see me.

They hug me and kiss me amongst many "habib", while Abdo, who speaks English, repeats a few "welcome" and Hanan repeats many "ahlan uasahlan", the equivalent in Arabic.

I enter the house and the decoration calls my attentions.
Many articles, such as the cupboard, the chandelier and some table decoration pieces seem a lot like the ones we had a home in Prudente, and the style as a whole reminded me of my uncle Faissal's home, who lived in the house that belonged to my grandfather before.

Mermão, Gassoub e meu pai

As soon as I walk in, Hanan walks to a little table and points to a portrait. I see the picture and identify my oldest brother, Danilo, side by side with Gassoub and my father. I found it really funny because, after all, Gassoub is their brother, but they do not really know my brother and my father.

They start offering me a lot of food and drinks. Arak (Lebanese distilled alcoholic drink), coffee, whiskey, nuts, "zeytunes" (olives).

We sit there for a while, talking.

Abdo, Hanan and me

I find out that our lunch will be an event, to which the rest of the family that still remains was invited — a cousin of my father, Fouaz, and his wife Magida; another cousin, Afaf and her son, Assad.

I gave them a brief update on everything in Brazil, shared what I know about my father and uncles, told them who my brothers are nowadays (that is: what they work with), etc.

While we waited for the guests to arrive, some random people stop by the house and, by the way they walk in, look at me and come say hello, I have the feeling that they knew I'd be there.

By uncles arrive and, at last, comes Assad, and we're ready to eat.

THE LUNCH I FORESAW

When Abdo told me he wanted me to be there for lunch, I had a subtle thought of letting him know I'm vegetarian, but I thought it didn't fit in our quick talk, I didn't feel comfortable doing it.

I thought I'd eat whatever they had prepared that fit my diet.

As expected from authentic Lebanese people, they prepared a feast to welcome me: tabouleh, hommos, Lebanese rice, vegetables, labneh and, of course, A LOT of meat — chicken filled with rice, grape leaves filled with beef, courgettes filled with beef and kafta.

Before I could finish the sentence "I don't eat mea…", Hanan literally shoved a grape leaf roll into my mouth. I noticed by the flavor it had meat in it, but I ate it calmly and din't say anything.

I prepared my plate only with vegetarian things — rice, hommos, tabouleh and I even got a little bit of labneh. I noticed everyone was watching me and, when they say my plate, they said: here, take some chicken.

I said I'd rather not eat it, because I hadn't been eating meat for a while.

“Oh, but you have to eat. We made it for you.”
“So eat some grape leaves.”
“Do you want some kafta?”
“Take a piece of courgette, at least.”

At this moment, I decided I'd face the situation as an invitation for me to practice my flexibility. I decided I wouldn't suffer ideologically, I'd eat as little as possible to not disappoint them and would go on light minded.

The lunch went on, we talked punctually about things, they kept offering me food, I kept ducking from the meat and sticking to hommos, rice and tabouleh.

Me, Fouaz, Magida, Assad, Hanan, Abdo and Afaf

I only got away with not eating the chicken. I ended up eating 2 pieces of kafta, 2 little rolls of grape leaves with beef (one that Hanan shoved into my mouth and another one they put on my plate) and a piece of courgette with shredded meat.

The experience was interesting to see what it'd taste like to me. And, trying to get rid of my vegetarian bias, I say it didn't please me at all.

Anyway, I was happy with myself for me able to flexibilize and follow on light minded.

But the result in my stomach was different.

I was stuffed for the rest of the day, I couldn't have dinner, my stomach made very peculiar noises, I produced the stinkiest farts of the past 6 years and 4 days later my poo is still very soft.

That's what happened.

I hadn't eaten meat for 6 years and, after two little pieces of kafta, two small rolls of grape leaves with beef and one piece of courgette with shredded meat, that was the result in my body.

I'm sharing this not as an argument that meat is bad for you or that everyone has to quit meat, but as a verification of how much the digestion of such food demands, at least from my body.

And life goes on.

THE PLAIN OF MANY SPRINGS

After lunch, Fouaz and Magida went out to buy olives from a family that produces it nearby and took me for a ride.

By the way, I was very impressed and excited with how much olives grow in the valley, because I'm addicted to olives.

Fouaz told me that Marjaayoun, the name of the region, is composed of two words: “Marj”, which means plain; and “Ayoun”, plural of “Ay”, which means spring.

Hence, the name of the region means Plain of many springs.

“Jdeidet”, which is the specific name of the town where they live, means new. And that's because, many years ago, Marjaayoun was located elsewhere and people migrated to where it is new for survival reasons.

The region also has a few Syrian refugee camps, which were formed in 2011, when the situation in Syria got worse. They came to the region and now have some pieces of land in which they work for income.

A WAR ZONE

In the ride, we also went by the border of Lebanon and Israel and, for the first time, I had the opportunity of being in an official war zone.

Many Lebanese soldiers, high walls and barbed fences, trucks and soldiers from United Nations.

A very bad feeling.

Fear for being close of so many fire weapons, apprehension with the possibility of a conflict breaking anytime, sadness for seeing how far human disagreement can go.

Abdo told me that, in 2006, when the Israeli army invaded the region, the whole village had to run away. As a matter of fact, everyone that had lunch with me took off from Marjaayoun as quickly as they could, without taking a single belonging. They fled to Beirut and didn't come back for about a month.

A thought that came to me was of how lucky I am to be from Brazil, a country that hasn't been in a war for over 100 years.
But quickly I realized how that was a privilege of mine and of a small portion of Brazilians.

Because in Brazil there's a way between the police and civilians, usually the ones with less buying power and from more socially vulnerable regions. In 2017, Brazilian police killed 5.144 people and 367 policemen died.

In Brazil there's a war between the police against back people, specially young men — every 23 minutes, a young black man dies in Brazil.

In Brazil there's also a war over land, in which traditional, indigenous, quilombola peoples and environmentalist are killed for trying to defend their homes and the forest. Brazil was the leader in deaths of activists and environmentalists in 2017, with 57 deaths.

In Brazil there's a war against lesbian, gays, bissexual and transgender people, and we're the world leader in the murder of these people as well. There were 445 murders of LGBTs in Brazil in 2017 — one person every 19 hours. Up till may 2018, there were 153 people murdered.

In Brazil there's also a war against women happening right under everyone's nose, but the discussion on taking responsibility for the institutionalized sexism is still not given priority. In 2017, there were 4.473 women murdered.

But, since I'm not in any of these groups that are affected by these wars, I don't feel these conflicts on my body.

Watching everything that's happening in Brazil during these presidential elections, in which a man is leading the polls with a speech of arming people in order to promote security and saying extremely intolerant and disrespectful things agains traditional peoples, black people, LGBTs and women, I was taken by deep sadness and despair.

To make it even more complicated, how can I handle such situation when dear people, who I love deeply, are supporting all that?

At the personal level, I believe in everyday politics. Learning how to listen, how to love and how to take stands from that point of being.
At the collective level, I believe in becoming more engaged in the movements that call me and that I believe that can bring change to my world and to the collective from below up, from the collective organization of people who make up society.

I choose to see this reflection and another factor that confirms that my recent life choices converse with the reality I dream of. I reaffirm to myself my desire to dedicate my time, my energy and my sweat to working with things that influence this situation directly.

(RE)DISCOVERING THE FAMILY

At night, we went back to family mode.

I spent quite some time with Abdo and Hanan looking at the pictures they had of my father, my uncles, my grandparents, my father's aunts and even of my mother and my oldest brother, that I'd never seen before. My grandfather would write to Lebanon often, sending them pictures and telling how things were in Brazil.

During all my life, I had a sensation that I didn't have family on my father's side.

My grandma passed away when my father was about 15 years old and my grandpa passed way when I was only 3, so I have no memory of either of them. Though Fuad and Faissal, my uncles, lived in Prudente, physically close to me, I always felt a huge distance between us because of the come-and-go of their relationship with my father, which would break and amend frequently for different reasons.

I think I saw a picture of the entire family of my father for the first time.

Grandma Julieta; grandpa Ângelo; uncle Faissal in front of grandma; my father, Farid, in front of grandpa; and uncle Fuad being held by grandpa.

I found out that my grandpa's real name, who I'd always known as Ângelo Abdo Chammas, was actually Mjali — of course, Ângelo doesn't sound very Lebanese, right? (hahahahaha).

I saw pictures of my father when he was young.
I saw my look in their eyes.

My father, kind of like me, kind of like Rafa

I saw Rafa's face, mixed with mine, in his face.

I saw my father playing at the city band.
I saw my father with his brothers and cousin in a moment that gave me the sense that they were young men who were enjoying life actively.

I though of how, in those moments that the pictures showed, my father would've never thought the ways his life would end up going.
I thought about how much I want to keep as a priority the care for the ways my own life is going.

Abdo looked at me and said, kind of emotive, that he could barely believe I was there, that he was very happy that I'd come, because I'm part of the family.

It gave me the goosebumps.

My uncles, Fuad and Faissal, my father and their cousin, Gassoub

My father never came to visit the land where he came from.
The land where his father was born, raised and left a lot of history, relationships and love behind.
The land where up to today the home of his mother's family is still standing.

To me that's really important.

First and foremost, for myself.
Because I want to know me better, where I come from, and understand this in a less intelectual and more sensorial level.

But also for my father and my brothers.
We've never had an easy relationship with our father and my goal is not to change this. I don't want to erase what happened, nor do I have the expectations of one day having the four of us sitting for lunch on a Sunday eating olives, lupin seeds, nuts and labneh.

What I seek is peace.

Inside myself and in the relationship with each one of them, who've been the most important men in my life so far. In the process of creating a new way to see myself, I want to also see them differently and find out what's there, in each chapter of this story, to be learnt.

Because it seems to me that this thing of learning with my own story is like those lottery scratchcards:

We get a piece of paper, apparently in a random way, whose number is already there, but we can't see year. And with the extremely simple act of scratching the metal cover — which can be done with a coin, with the lid of a pen or even with the nail — we discover what has always been there, waiting for us.

But with the difference that in the process of learning from life, different from the lottery, it's up to us to decide if we win or not with what we have in our hands.

SO (VERY) LONG

On the following morning, I went with Fouaz and Abdo to Souk El Hen, the local market that happens every Tuesday.

When we came back, Hanan was cooking mjadara, because I had mentioned on the day before that it was my favorite dish. She also went after some aubergines to make babaganush, because she also heard me say I liked it.

We had a vegetarian lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting and talking about random subjects. Before I left, Hanan said she was extremely happy that I came, because it made her remember her brother, who she hasn't seen in a long time, and her uncle, who's already passed almost three decades ago.

Me, Hanan and Abdo in their garden

Abdo arranged a taxi for me and a little before it arrived, they said they'd like me to come back with the whole Lebanese crew — Farid, Fuad, Faissal and Gassoub.

I said that, personally, I'd love for that to happen, but that putting these 4 in the same flight for over ten hours was too much of a risk for a lot of people who had nothing to do with them (hahahahaha).

They laughed.

At goodbye, we hugged, Hanan kissed me and handed me a little lunch bad with the leftovers of mjadara, babaganush, falafel and salad.

In the car, on the way to Beirut, I kept think of what had just happened.

I had the feeling of having plugged in a cable that lightened up a lot of things that were dark in my life. I was seeing everything in HD and being able to interprete more clearly the story which I'm part of.

I don't know what realizations will come, but I think there's still a lot to dawn on me from this chapter of my life.

For now, I go on with a sensation that I believe to be analogous to that of a tree being transplanted from a pot to the earth:

Finding more space to deepen my roots so I can keep growing towards the light, blooming and offering my fruits to the world.

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