Somehow I’d been looking at old posts and happened to come across a post in which I’d shared an article in a periodical I’d found written by May Ziadeh as I was moving through translating her first book of poems, Flowers of a Dream. I hadn’t read it then, had saved it for much later, was glad to see it was actually a short story she’d published in Egypt and written in French. I read it for the first time after I’d already written my first ghazal poem, ”This Ring.”
When I read May’s story, it also came to my mind how French was the first foreign language I’d learned just a little of at age four in Pre-K and how a child in the class would be sent to ask the cafeteria staff for a tray of milk cartons for the class that day. I used to sometimes go downstairs when it was my turn and on my own say, ‘Bonjour. Je’mappelle Jade’ And then ask in English for the milk and sometimes end by counting to ten in French, which was apparently a very cute sight by the reactions in the staff I’d remember.
And now presenting…🙂
Beloved (Memories of Lebanon)
by May Ziadeh
“It is your father’s will,” said the aunt.
— “Ah, my dear aunt, my dear friend! It is my father’s will but not mine. And I refuse, I don’t want this man!”
— “But what are your objections?”
— “My objections? They do not exist, replied Lamia. Okay, that this gentleman is “perfect,” to speak like my father. But this perfection is unbearable to me and I don’t want it!”
— “Would you have in your imagination the portrait of some prince charming? Would you have an “Ideal”? Say it!”
“I don’t know!” ”No!”
“Finally,” said the aunt, rising, to leave, “…think very carefully, O Lamia, try to be reasonable and obey your father. Don’t forget to come tomorrow, because I’ll have over some of my relatives from Beirut. Come early and we’ll have fun.”
Her friend left, the girl went to the window. Gloriously, the sun went away and in the evening, overwhelming with sweetness, fell on the Lebanese mountains. She looked at the twilight where the hill was bathed, now almost unreal, facing her dear village. And as things blurred and faded in the darkness, their souls seemed to grow and become more and more imposing, while the dreams of the young, undecided heart before life sought to take shape as they were formulated. “My ideal, Say it!”
“By the way, my ideal, I have never thought of it. How is he? the Prince Charming of my imagination, as my aunt from Beirut says, let’s look into this a little!’’
—“My ideal is rather great, because I have always felt a little pity for people of very small stature. So he is big and looking well. He has a mustache and he smokes…. He’s a big smoker. A man who does not smoke is just a silly little girl and looks singularly like the unbearable perfection so much praised by my father.”
“My ideal has beautiful blue-green eyes, terrible those eyes, like the sea in anger and calm as the waves in meditation… He has an interesting face and a soft smile. Yes, his smile is all the sweeter because he has a very beautiful mouth, although the teeth are not perfect. He speaks very well when he wants to, but also knows to be silent, and while others seek to shine and compete in salient features and witty words, he is pleased to say insignificant or detached words, or to keep a proud and distant silence…
“And so, his forehead! and his expressive head! And his hair, of a very dark blond or of a very light chestnut that falls undulating upon the temples…”
“How serious he is and how young he is! He is both very hard and very tender; he loves me much more than he shows; he scolds me for my childishness and for my paradoxes; he would like to make me a kind, wise and reasonable child, and yet he adores my caprices and my poutings. And sometimes, after scolding me and making me cry, he becomes very forgiving and very gentle again, and his wide pupils, meditative like the great waters of the Ocean, seem to gather even more to implore me and ask forgiveness… Oh! how beautiful he is, my Ideal! I have not yet met him, but he is the soul of everything, of everything.”
“Ah! You see, young lady, the evening is too beautiful and too sweet in the mountains of Lebanon, and the immense legacy of the centuries that is scattered in you makes you too sad and too dreamy. O Lamia, watch over your heart!”
The dawn whitened the contours of the horizon and the clouds dotted here and there in the firmament, were delicately coloured with pink, blue, and mauve mixed with gold.
Lamia had slept very little, because she thought of the beautiful stranger she’d already met several times at her aunt’s house in Beirut. Was he the Ideal?
The young Lebanese threw away her blankets and with a charming gesture raised the recalcitrant curls of her black hair. Then, jumping to the bottom of her bed, she came to the window.
Because Lamia, the little child of the village raised among the nuns in Beirut, had, like all the young girls — be they Parisians or peasants — a small, beloved corner where she isolated herself to dream, cry or remember…
For a long time she was dreaming, looking without seeing them—the splendours of the morning. All was mingled before her beautiful loving Oriental eyes and on the long, harmonious line of the surrounding mountains, in the valleys carved by the neighboring heights, in the morning blue air, everywhere before her and around her, an invisible hand traced in luminous letters a name that she had read and reread a thousand times during her dreams of insomnia: Fouad! Fouad… And she murmured the name with a smile, and cast a mantle upon her shoulders, and went out of her chamber, and out of the house, and dreamed of it in the lands of her father.
The little bell of the village was ringing, calling them to prayer, and the pious Maronites, their rosaries in hand, passed in front of the girl to go to Mass.
Very tired, Lamia sat on a rock hidden by thick trees, far from the road. She felt happy, but her heart was tight. Something very heavy weighed on it, and this something so heavy, this burden, was a name, a cherished name; she repeated it again and again: Fouad! A deep and sweet voice answered, “Are you calling me?”
The girl blushed when she saw Fouad a few steps away from her. But the young man approached and stretched out at his feet, said: “O Lamia! I have spent every hour of the night under your window. I love your house because it is yours and because you live in it.” — “I spent the night reading your name, which was glowing in the dark. Your name is so pretty!” the girl simply said — Very pretty, Fouad went on, when he read the pronoun. But yours is so sweet! It sings to my memory what your love sings to my heart: the divine song of Youth and Dreams!”
— And yours, says Lamia, your eyes are so big, so sweet! Your blue-green eyes, both terrible, like the sea in fury and calm, like the waves in meditation. Ah! I dreamed of your eyes before your voice!”
Lamia smiled. A heavenly bliss filled her being. Fouad continued: — “Your smile also sings the song of Flowers that cannot die… And your eyes! Ah! Once in my life I have seen eyes… no, that’s indefinable! And those eyes are yours… They do not sing, they whisper what the mysterious waves whisper in the light of day and in the darkness of night. It is magical and incomprehensible!”
“See you tonight,” he said, would you? —
“I will,” she said almost without hesitation.
Around midnight, Lamia could see a smoker prowling around her house. She understood that the cigarette was only a signal, and hurried to join the one who called her. The night was deeply obscure and the two lovers left the village without making any unpleasant encounters. They got into a car waiting for them and the car went towards the nearest village, at the entrance of which they were greeted by some friends who had come to meet them. Without losing a minute, the small procession went silently towards the house of the priest.
They knocked on the door and the old priest, still badly awake, came to open it. Then, without giving him time to ask for explanations, Fouad bowed before him, saying:
“O Reverend Father, bear witness to my marriage to Lamia, Ibrahim’s daughter, for I take her to be my wife.” And Lamia said: “O Fouad, I accept you as my husband!” Then, leaving the good old priest in perplexity, they left, happy and convinced of the indissolubility of their union, and their happiness encouraged others to imitate them.
The kidnapping of young girls is a very old custom. Some use it to escape the tyranny of ignorant or unjust parents. Instead of marrying the unloved man appointed by his father and mother, the girl lets herself be kidnapped by another, another, by the one she prefers, by the “Ideal”. And despite the march of civilization before which the ancient customs slowly disappear, it is still so in some parts of Lebanon.
—by May Ziadeh