Village of Ehden, North of Lebanon by Paul Saad

Letter from Mount Lebanon

Peace is precarious in Lebanon, where everyone remembers the toll of previous conflicts and fears the spread of war.

Ehden is an ancient village on the northern heights of Mount Lebanon. Perched above the Qadisha (Sacred) Valley, it has long been a redoubt of the Maronite sect, an Eastern rite of Roman Catholicism whose adherents built their first church, Saint Mamas, here in 749 AD. Some Maronites like to claim descent from the Phoenicians, although their fourth-century founder, Saint Maroun, was born in northern Syria and never set foot in Lebanon. The people of Ehden and Zgharta, its sister village in the foothills nearer the sea, spoke Aramaic into the nineteenth century. Even today their Arabic is pronounced with a distinctive Aramaic accent. Most Lebanese, including urban Maronites, regard them as hillbillies whose feuds would embarrass the Hatfields and McCoys. Five families—Frangieh, Moawad, Doueihy, Karam, and Makary—have vied for dominance over the centuries. The Frangiehs have been primus inter pares since one of them, Suleiman Frangieh, became president of Lebanon in 1970.

My Makary grandmother raised me on mountain folktales. In one, her father is killed defending the village from an Ottoman raid about 1890, a few months before she was born. Other relatives told me he died in a feud among the families. Although her mother married again and took her to the New World, she never lost touch with her native land. Her Arabic—like her cooking—marked her as a born-and-bred Zghartawi.

The first time I visited the ancestral seat, fifty years ago, I had to crouch to get through the doorway of Our Lady of Zgharta Maronite Church. The truncated entrance had been built to stop Ottoman cavalry from riding into and desecrating the sanctuary. Almost every woman in the village dressed in black as an emblem of mourning for the husband, son, brother, or father lost in one or another of the vendettas that plagued their lives. The closest equivalent I ever found was the mountain village of Corleone in Sicily—immortalized by Mario Puzo in The Godfather — where women in black scurried silently in and out of the churches while men in flat caps stood outside bars with their hands in their pockets.

Read the full extract on The New York Review of Books, the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language.

Main image: panoramic view of Ehden, Lebanon by Paul Saad, Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Letter from Mount Lebanon

  1. Christopher Menon

    Beautifully written.

    I’d be interested to read anything you’re writing about the current conflict in the Middle East. Thanks.


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