Going Back Home

Trip Start Jan 18, 2006
Trip End Jun 02, 2006

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Lebanon Day One: Lost in Beirut

I didn't have time to think before Lebanon, the day of my departure passed by quickly between the naps and the complicated logistics of leaving Egypt. I remember the EgyptAir receptionist who wouldn't process my e-ticket until she had grilled me about hotel reservations, my financial security, and whether or not I actually had anyone meeting me in the country. She had helped two people who were behind me before her manager finally said I was "ok" and I got the ticket. Checking in and going through security almost took longer than the flight.

As soon as the plane landed I entered into a euphoric excitement that would last for the next five days. I had done it...I had made it to Lebanon. But there were still the details of daily life and at that particular moment I needed to get us a cab to the hostel. A very helpful money changer recommended a particular cab driver and we blindly accepted his advice. Forty minutes late we realized how poor this decision had been. The cab driver charged us an exorbitant price and after he failed at finding our hostel he just dumped us on some random corner.

Everything was mass confusion and between the mix of French and Arabic I thought that we were at the hostel. The driver pointed us to a man who led us into an apartment complex. Within five minutes we were sitting awkwardly in a living room with three elderly, Lebanese women. My Arabic was pathetic, my sentences fragmented and filled with Egyptian colloquial. The women stared at me as I tried to explain.

"We students, I mean, we are from Egypt...and we're trying to find a hotel.." It didn't take long for me to recognize the look of confusion on their faces. "Vous parlez français?" I asked at the end. A light of recognition appeared in their faces and suddenly they were all talking at once. I sighed with relief and explained our situation again, this time with the wonderful, soft syllables of a Western language.

"But this is not a hotel," the one woman said in surprise.

"It isn't?"

"No, we live here. Who brought you here? You must have had a very bad cab driver" This information was hardly consoling and I was struggling to come up with a new plan. Meanwhile, Erin my traveling companion, was looking completely overwhelmed as she understood neither French nor why we were sitting in some stranger's house.

The women decided that the solution was for us to drink coffee so we were shooed up a staircase where we found the younger generations of the family, a daughter and her two children. The children were college students and spoke English, they were plopped on a couch watching the end of Rocky IV. Erin and I joined them, enjoying the movie as well as two teas and some chocolates. The mother was running around in the background, frantically calling cousins and uncles to try and sort the situation out. Eventually a nephew was reached who had a car and who knew where our hostel was. He drove us for free and a half hour later we were in our room.

Our receptionist made no apologies for the inconspicuous location of his establishment and greeted me only with the words, "Customs called about you, and there is a problem with your papers." I turned white thinking that my first night in Beirut couldn't be going much worse. It turned out that I had mistakenly been given a 6 month, multiple-entry visa. No worries, though, the hostel owner promptly whipped out a pen and changed the wording of my visa himself. Oh, the Middle East...

Lebanon Day Two: Going Back Home

Ever since I decided to study abroad in the Middle East, visiting my ancestral village of Bazbina was in the back of my mind. Three generations ago my great-grandfather left Bazbina, Lebanon and came with his wife to New Kensington, PA. Many other men came with him and they formed the Bazbina club. This club and the Syrian Orthodox church preserved their Arab traditions and I grew up cooking the traditional recipes in the old church cookbook and hearing stories about the life that was left behind. Details were few and far between and in my mind it all had become legend. Once we landed in Beirut, I knew that I had to at least try and see if all the stories were true.

We awoke in Beirut ready to leave the city after the previous night's mishaps. The hostel owner brought us a sort of cheese stromboli type thing that we washed down with tea before we set out to try and muddle our way through Lebanon's bus system. We went to the unmarked bus stop that the owner had pointed out to us and waited. The minibuses looked just like all the other privately owned vehicles and I was afraid we might accidentally hitchhike. But a minibus eventually pulled over that was headed to Tripoli and for little over two dollars took us to the northern, coastal city.

Once in Tripoli our minibus driver wouldn't let us out until he was sure we knew where we going. He actually walked us almost to the door of the hostel, we were so appreciative of his fatherly protection. The hostel was a haven of peace and comfort. The receptionist got us settled in and served me some much needed coffee. Coffee in Lebanon could wake the dead. No longer was I drinking in the horrible Nescafé of Egypt. This stuff is thick as mud so that the bottom of your cup fills with a quarter inch of solid grinds. The sugar is brewed into it so you can't protest against the Arab sugar portions.

My Egyptian Arabic was getting me nowhere in Lebanon and in Beirut most people had passable English. Once in the North though I had to switch to French, which startled everyone because Americans are famous for being monolingual. One Belgian tourist that I met on a bus exclaimed, "Your French is so good," which flattered me until he added , "for an American." If I hadn't been able to speak French we would have been completely stuck.

The first time I heard Lebanese Arabic I remember thinking, what happened to all the vowels. The words were clipped and fast and the sentences ran on forever. Gone were the happy, hard "g's" of Egypt and instead everything was smoothed out with French liaisons so that all the words ran together in one endless stream of syllables. I surrendered and would ask even street beggars if they spoke French before attempting an interaction in Arabic.

The woman who ran our Tripoli hostel spoke flawless French and soon she was rearranging our itinerary. She said we didn't have time for Bcharré that day and that we should stay in Tripoli. I was about to accept this plan when I brought up Bazbina. She was excited to learn that I was Lebanese, as are all Arabs. We are after all a tribal people.

"My great-grandpa came from this village here," I said pointing to the tiny dot on my Lonely Planet map.

"Oh, so you want to visit family in this village."

"Well, sort of. I don't know anyone there. I want to take some pictures to show my grandfather because my family in America has never seen the village." She seemed a bit baffled by this idea but when she realized I was determined to go she decided to help me.

"Ok, you need to hire a driver to take you there. But you must go with our cousin. We will get you a good price and it is better because we know him." She said and with that my dream became a reality.

For an hour we drove inland away from the sea and into the mountains. Then for another hour we wound through the hills as our driver asked for directions again and again. Apparently, Bazbina is a small place that is easy to miss.

The countryside was so beautiful; there were flowers and goats everywhere. The hills had been terraced so that farmers could raise crops. At last the car stopped and the driver announced matter-of-factly "Nous sommes en Bazbina." I grabbed my video camera and jumped out. Everything was interesting to me. The beautiful orthodox church clinging to the hillside, the quaint village houses, and the pedestrians that were staring at my camera. I was trying to memorize it all, to document it on film and at the same time imagine what my life would have been like if my great-grandfather hadn't left.

But all too soon the magical moment turned awkward. I wanted to stay as long as possible in Bazbina but the town was small with no shops or restaurants or anything really to see. My driver was growing restless. So after snapping pictures we were on our way back down the hill and I couldn't help feeling a bit disappointed about the brevity of the experience. But then, by chance, we passed another car and for some reason our driver started telling them in Arabic why I was there. Next thing I knew I was handing over the photos I had brought with me of my great-grandpa. The Arabic was flying and again and again I heard the name Moussa, my family's name before they came to America. After that it was all a blur of French and Arabic and people surrounding me as they lead me into someone's home.

The house belonged to the Moussa family and they greeted me with the same warmth and hospitality that I experienced at family reunions. Erin was seated on a couch, she had a shocked look on her face as everything was occurring in languages she didn't understand. I was placed in the middle of the room and as tea was brewing they all gathered around me. There were three generations in the room, the oldest individuals spoke only Arabic, their children spoke Arabic and French, and the grandchildren had broken English. All three languages were used as we tried to explain things to each other over the next two hours. Sweet cakes, teas, and several coffees sustained me as I was stretched to my linguistic limits.

Anwar, the oldest and the patriarch of the household, was sitting in front of me scrutinizing my photos. He recognized my great-granfather's name Barbar Khalil Moussi, which was changed to William Joseph in America. He also remembered that my great-grandfather had a brother whose name he thought had been Mike Joseph in the U.S. I told him about New Kensington, and the steel mills, and the Bazbina Society and any other story I could think of.

As soon as I muttered my first phrase of Arabic they all drew back and exclaimed "but she is Egyptian!" I tried to soften my accent and continued to plow through, occasionally resorting to French. They asked me why I was in Cairo and about my life in America. When I told them I was a math major Anwar said, "Of, course! You are a Moussa. All Moussas are good at mathematics. Throughout the years we have always been the top students." I smiled, wondering how true this was.

Soon more people were arriving, cousins and Uncles dropping in to see the American immigrant. I met the man who runs the website bazbina.com and he took my photograph to put up online. After four rounds of tea and dozens of photos, our driver was getting impatient and we needed to leave. I didn't want to go at all, but I consoled myself with the resolution that one day I would be back.

My heart was still pounding as we wound back through the hills. Something inside of me finally felt at peace. I felt as if, at last, I had gone home.
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Sheri on

Yes his brother was Michael Joseph, my great-grandfather. He lived most of his life in Monessen, PA with his wife Anna, and his children.

Diane Pokomo Fraser on

Thanks for the information and photos. Michael Joseph from New Kensington, then Monessen, PA was my grandfather, my mother, Helen Joseph's father. It was wonderful to learn about his home town.

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