Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Abode of the Moon

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Abode of the Moon

Article excerpt

Nothing could match the location of the Malti house in Deir el-Amar (the Abode of the Moon). One of the most famous villages in Lebanon, Deir el-Amar is nestled in the Shouf Mountains, about a two-hour drive from Beirut on winding mountain roads, which cars shared with meandering sheep. Steeped in the country's tumultuous history and boasting Ottoman palaces, Deir el-Amar was a stop on the road to Beit el-Din. There, a preserved Ottoman palace serves as the summer residence of the president of Lebanon, where he can exchange the Beirut heat for the cool breezes of the Shouf Mountains.

Two churches flanked our three-story family house in Deir el-Amar. One church, up a steep set of enormous stairs, was visible from the back kitchen window of our third floor. The other, St. Elias, was a large complex that enclosed a church, a seminary, and living quarters for priests and visiting dignitaries.

One entered our house through a large metal double door, leading into an even larger rectangular courtyard. To the left and down some stairs, the visitor encountered another courtyard. This one was square, with a living room/ salon facing the stairs and my father's medical clinic to the left. At the end of the courtyard was a Turkish toilet (a hole in the floor over which one squats). Occupying the place of honor was an enormous lemon tree whose buds perfumed the entire house in springtime. The tree stood tall, as if proud of its status as the closest neighbor of my father's clinic, over whose entrance it hovered like a mother over her child. When I was little, I was sure that if the tree chose to speak, it would reveal timeless secrets.

Inside Papa's clinic, a large desk faced a window with a view of the courtyard and the lemon tree. Thick medical books and stacks of journals inhabited the top of the desk, and a large wooden swivel chair accompanied it. The clinic also boasted a glass-top table on wheels with medical instruments and vials of liquids unfamiliar to me, as well as chairs reserved for the physician and patients. Another table held medical pamphlets and fliers. A covered bench, tucked into a recess in the left wall, served those who needed to lie down for Papa's examination.

The living room was a mass of intricately woven and colorful Oriental wool carpets. More a salon in the Middle Eastern fashion than a Western parlor, it boasted a high sitting area with woolen cushions. Oriental carpets covered the floor. In the back corner, a piano concealed its existence, since my Aunt Najla, once a talented piano player, was now too crippled to approach her favored instrument. Behind the piano, a curtain opened to reveal another set of stairs, at the bottom of which rested the old Ford that Papa no longer drove. Keeping the car company were enormous glass barrels of freshly pressed olive oil from our olive groves. Opposite the car and the olive oil, in the same oversized hallway, a permanently locked door led to the world outside the family home.

This salon was at once public and private. It was where the Malti family entertained guests, served the legendary Easter feast, and celebrated the Christmas holiday. But it was also where our live-in companion slept: an old, almost-deaf woman, Umm Zahiyya. My brother Constantine (Qustantine in Arabic, and hence the nickname Costy) and I sometimes joined her for the night, cuddling with our cats on the Oriental carpets.

On the other side of the lemon tree, a long flight of stairs led to the uppermost floor of the house, which was surrounded by a kind of veranda we called the balcon. There was nothing more wonderful than the balcon in summer, when mattresses appeared as if by sleight-of-hand on its floor. We slept in the open air, gazing at the star-studded sky, and the entire village seemed to live outdoors.

Our balcon vied with Aunt Najla's roof for pleasure on summer nights. It was on those nights that we village children contributed to transforming the roofs from open-air sleeping places to spots where people spent more time awake than asleep. …

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