The Beirut Diaries: “Doumations” in a globalised world
Douma’s old stone houses sit perched in their own unique world of pre-globalisation. Leaning on their Ottoman ancestors, Italianate villas grace the sides of the sleepy village with exceptional grace. Their thick stone walls, almost one metre thick, furnish homes with climate control against harsh winters and hot, dry summers. Turkish rugs lie draped across cool floors, inviting occupants to retreat from their geranium-filled balconies into a charming other-world era of low Ottoman sofas, decorated in dark reds and blues, tables built from brass trays lined with qahwe pots and tiny cups, and black and white photographs mounting the heavy walls, recounting an illustrious past. Forged iron chandeliers are strung low from timber ceilings; ancient cooking vessels are crammed into a dark corner and the hollowed tile in the floor remains blackened from the braziers of burning coals used only fifty years ago to keep the hearths warm.
Some eighty kilometres from the frenzied summer fire of Beirut, the cool mountain air blows soothingly across the men playing backgammon in their wooden shop below ponderous grape vines. Everyone spots the stranger in town; she will provide their entertainment and discussion for at least the next twenty-four hours and a one kilometre circuit from the pharmacy to the church will take in excess of two hours as the villagers open their homes for endless rounds of coffee, biscuits and fruit which cannot be refused. Only an elderly sun-crisped woman dressed from head to foot in black, walking alone with her curses, ignores the stranger. The teenage joy-riders, who will plague peaceful sleep at night, pretend they haven’t seen the stranger, as they fix their hair in the windows of the local barber.
Amidst ancient olive trees and Christ
The scorpion shape of the village can be spied from above, amongst olive trees that pre-date Jesus Christ by some 400 years. Visible by its famous red roofs, Douma is tucked deep into the mountain valleys where the Eastern Christian population has always lived, their Orthodox churches arriving more recently to sit side-by-side, quite literally, with their Catholic brethren. The mark of the Orthodoxy lies imprinted across Douma, in both the many churches (some sixteen or seventeen at last count) and in the foundations of the village itself, once famous for its thriving souk. Some homes still display framed photographs of the Russian Tsars, as a mark of their gratitude for the help they received in constructing the modern village.
As Sunday’s bells ring out for mass, both congregations spill out of two sets of parallel steps which lead down from two hollowed domes, one Catholic and one Orthodox, each blessed by the grace of God, towards the solitary café in town, named George’s Patisserie because it originally sold a few trays of baklawa. Today, fresh trays remain for sale but the modernisation of Douma has led George to offer his customers the international flavours of pizza, nachos and Greek salad, as well as the ever-present shish taouk, which is a delicious, glorified chicken kebab and chips wrapped in thick pitta bread and doused in a rich, garlic mayonnaise; omnipresent in Lebanon, the kebab is a ferocious competitor for the McArabia Beefburger, which thankfully is entirely absent on the roads leading up from the coast.
The scent of pine and rosemary drifts across the valley, mingling with the apple argileh curls coming from George’s yard and the teenage perfume of young girls sitting amongst the trees gossiping about secret crushes and boys. Their whispers turn to giggles as we walk past. It is the hour of the collective town stroll of Lebanese mountain villages, once travelled by foot, and now a showpiece for the local accumulation of flash cars from Germany, Britain and Japan. The odd gleaming mustang, the local wedding hire, rips across the precarious roads, winding at speed through the jeeps and Mercedes. Doumanians, despite their cars however, lack the bravado of some other northern villages and their residents take extraordinary pride in their origins.
Here, in this village, the elders once poisoned a Turkish army brigade in order to avoid paying unjust taxes, burying the men and their horses in the hills high above where fig trees now burden the earth with copious fruit. Here, in this village, the Malouf family and many others left the mountains to make their fortunes in the Americas: A famous rocking chair upon which Ronald Reagan once sat can trace itself back to these hills. A bevy of dark-haired Easterners who now populate Brazil, Argentina, Cuba and Mexico are tied forever to this winding scorpion. Some returned, many did not, their remaining legacy found in houses as carefully restored as any in Lebanon, a place where inhabitants are proud to open their homes to a stranger to show off the magnificence of their antiquities – a weary accounts book, bound in greying leather, which records all the assets of every home in 1930, yellowing lace curtains and bedspreads crocheted by a great-grandmother, or her mother, one of generations of women whose simplicity or complicity led them either to stay or to go, marrying in the exotic climes of Cairo, or upon the steps of a blessed Orthodox church.
Glocalisation a la Douma
Douma is a village whose history is bound up in so many places: Syria, Turkey, France, where its twin is found, Latin America and Russia. Douma, a peaceful bastion in a troubled land, unwittingly finds herself as an early model for ‘glocalisation’. From the comfort of their terrace armchairs, munching pink rosebud pistachios straight from the tree, Doumanians are able to reach across any atlas and find their local branch.
September 12th 2010 Beirut, Lebanon.