Excerpt for Where the Cedars Rise by , available in its entirety at Smashwords






Where the cedars rise


By Sonia Gebrael

First published in Australia in 2017 by Sonia Gebrael

www.soniagebrael.com.au


Copyright  Sonia Gebrael, 2017


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior written permission of the author.


Gebrael, Sonia Mary 1976

Where The Cedars Rise


ISBN 978-0-9953851-0-8


Front cover image copyright  Fiona Jayde Media, 2017


Front Cover photo by Elias Hanna


Printed in Australia by Eureka Printing

11-15 Leicester Ave

Glen Waverley

VIC 3150


Edited by Louise Jaques, 2017

www.louisejaques.com


Orders and information: www.soniagebrael.com.au

Foreword


As I begin to write this foreword, I sit here in the shade of the luscious trees at the entrance to the Gibran Kahlil Gibran Museum in the village of Bcharre, North Lebanon, the village where this wonderful novel is set. Who would have thought that the invitation to write this entre’, I would occur a few days before I am about to embark on my own pilgrimage to the land of my ancestry and on the soil in which Sonia’s lively characters will tread.


What makes this even more appetising is my personal passion for anything that explores the cross-cultural labyrinth that many of us have experienced, through having one foot in the (Middle) East and the other in the West. As a cross cultural Psychologist, my interest in human behaviour was not inspired so much by the forefathers of psychology as by the forbearers of my ancestry, and it is this human expose' of emotions, behaviours, cultural norms, two-way acculturation and humour that Sonia delivers in an accessible, and delicious way. Having fallen head first into Sonia’s debut novel, ‘What Lies beneath the Cedars’, the deeper dive into this sequel is a no brainer. Sonia brings to fruition the seeds planted earlier and with this comes a real connection to the characters and to the complexities that very few even articulate let alone dare to expose. When I landed here on Lebanese soil a few days ago, I was “home” and in the same realistic way we see Lucy, the central character, finally making the trip and heaving a deep sigh as she begins to ‘breath with her Eastern lung’.


When Lucy transports the life, she has lived in country Australia (including her Australian boyfriend Rhys) and a whole lot of assumptions, to the land of her Mother, Father and her grandparents, Tayta and Jido, we see the pressing of a psychological and emotional default button that immediately sets in motion a process of learning, yearning, and churning!


From ensuring that she maintains the honour of the family name through demonstrating “wajbet” (the right thing to do and expected to do), to craving the stolen kisses from her boyfriend on the flat-topped roof, Lucy walks us through the reality of family, love, reputation, gossip, culture, devastation and the obligatory unknown suitor! All of this in the real-life village that holds its name and reputation as high as the mountain upon which it sits.


With that thought, I look up and take in exactly that view. The mountains on both this and the opposite side of the Holy Valley, the cedars standing tall and majestic and the crisp air reminding me that I am high, high up in altitude, and a light-headed intoxication is to be expected. Well that certainly is delivered in this book.


Sonia’s ability to consider the paradox that is Lebanon, also becomes a filter enabling us to see the paradox within us all. As she describes reality - 'A Maronite Chapel stands beside a Mosque and an Orthodox Church beside a Catholic Cathedral', this extends to the internal paradoxes' faced by the characters Sonia so articulately creates and develops. The chuckles of familiarity when Lucy’s mother, Amelia, begs her to ‘not act like boyfriend and girlfriend’ and the concept of creating a scenario that would ensure the saving of face which is an imperative because, “what boy and girl travel together before marriage…he is her bodyguard…it's her first trip to Lebanon.” The humour, reality, anxiety and sheer bliss is mesmerising, even for those of us who thought we had acculturated fully, the butterflies in the stomach were again activated as our parental voices in our head were on loudspeaker.


Even as Lucy immerses herself in Lebanon, the parallel story of “what is left behind," is illustrated through her sister Grace who holds the fort back in Australia. Experiences not uncommon in Diaspora communities still reeling with responsibility and connection whilst carving a new way of being. The inter-cultural and cross-cultural dance that sees all of us move in and out of the roles both real or perceived, that connect us to our identity.


There are many moments in reading Where the Cedars Rise that will touch you but none more than the image that Sonia so skillfully paints with words to reflect the relationship between Lucy's aging grandfather and her boyfriend Rhys - an unlikely connection where there was no common language, yet soulful connection speaks volumes.


Yes, many may see this book as a love story, it is and it is much, much more. It explores traditional love but it also spotlights the power of learning to love the self and the ripple effect that has when we take the risk to be whole. In true Sonia style, she again has done this in a way that pays homage to the culture, to its people and most importantly to its continual evolution. Whether it is with tongue in cheek or tears in your eyes, I know you will enjoy every word on the page, every ounce of humour, grief, sarcasm, inner voices, hummus and tabouli and Arabic in phonetic English. And it all tastes just that bit better when you read it where I am right now. Where the Cedars Rise is delicious.

Yalla, Tfadalou ou Alef Mabrouk! (Yalla, welcome and enjoy the feast!)


Judy Saba

Cross Cultural Psychologist

Diversity Trainer

2010 Churchill Fellow

Self-Committed Foodie and lover of all things Gibran



Dedication



For my relatives

who sleep and rise beneath the Cedars,

You welcomed me whole into your hearts,

showed me my home,

and helped me to remember who I am.







There’s a place

Not so near

The origin of stories

That we all hear


Stories of struggles

Of triumphs and tears

Of friendships and recipes

Passed on through the years


Stories of childhood

With so little, yet full

Mother Nature their teacher

The land, their school


A place of wealth

Of a different kind

Of landscapes and loves ones

They left behind


This place that fills

Our folks with pride

This place, my home, is

Where the Cedars Rise


- Jacqueline Hajje

Arabic glossary


Arabic Glossary

Arabic words in phonetic English, and their meanings are quite subjective. The words used in the book are based on my interpretation and in context of the story.


Ahlen/Ahle: Welcome

Allah: God

Allah yir hammoo: God bless his/her soul (said commonly when saying someone’s name who has passed)

Arak:  The traditional alcoholic beverage in Lebanon and parts of the Middle East. It is clear and unsweetened anise flavoured.

Benet: Daughter.
Bogia:  Not an Arabic word, but we made it one anyhow. Was often used by Lebanese families when describing a person or style that is considered an enemy or destructive to a way of life. Perhaps it derived from the English word Bogie meaning 'evil spirit'?
Esme Salib:   Name of the Cross. A religious reference. Generally used when describing something too nice or too beautiful but can also be used as an expression of surprise or fear, as it is asking for God's blessing or help.
Habibte/Habibi/Habibe:   My Love; Beloved.
Harom:    To pity or feel empathetic towards someone.

Hawa: Air/breeze.

Hejez: Military Checkpoint.

Holu: Come in or come around! Inviting someone into your home.

Jered: Farming area.

Jido: Grandfather.
Khorle: Uncle. Specifically mother’s brother.

Kific/Kifek:  How are you?

Libnan: Lebanon.
Maret khorle: Aunty. Specifically, wife of my mother’s brother.

Maret umma: Aunty. In this book also Mother-in-law.

Quesek/Queskorn: Cheers. Said often when saluting Arak.

Sadik: Friend.

Shabeb: Young men and women.

Shou: What? What’s going on?

Shub: Young man.

Tfadle: Welcome. Said to welcome someone into the home, or to invite them to eat.

Tayta:  Grandmother.
Ya Helwe: Oh, beautiful.

Yalla:    Come on; let's go; hurry up. It is also said for no reason at all!
Walla hemik: Don’t let it bother you.

Wayni: Where is?

Food:


Manoosh: Lebanese pizza’s traditionally topped with oregano mixture and olive oil.

Sumboosik:  Very delicious finger food, made from traditional Lebanese dough stuffed with a mix of meat and pine nuts and spices. It is usually made in large quantities for festive occasions, by several ladies working around a large table. The process and social aspect can be in itself, a festive occasion!
Falafel/Tabouli:  Anyone who knows Lebanese food requires no explanation!

Map of Lebanon




PROLOGUE


Opal Hills. 27th June, 2003


Amelia was shaking when she took a deep breath and dialled the number. Her heart was beating at a rapid pace in contrast to the long and static dial tone in her ear.

There was a brief pause in the ringing sound and she braced herself for a conversation that she had been putting off for some time. Her Arabic had become quite slang over the years, as her conversations in general fell into pattern with the other Lebanese migrants in Opal Hills who all spoke in the same informal waya complex concoction of phonetic-Arabic and sort-of-English. But now she knew she would have to bring out the big guns to converse with her brother.

She gripped the white portable phone tighter when she heard the gravelly voice down the line. They spoke in Arabic.

“Hello?” he said.

“Hello, my brother?”

“Yes Amelia, is that you? How are you? It’s Joseph.”

“Hello Joseph, can you hear me? The line is cutting out.” She raised her voice.

“Yes Amelia, I can hear you. I’m so happy to hear your voice. How’s Grace and Lucy?”

“They are good, my brother, thank you. They’re busy with their things. How’s the weather there?”

“Yes good, good. It’s warming up now thank God, and there?”

“Fine yes, starting to get cold.” Amelia paused. “How’s my father and my brothers and their families?”

“All well thanks to God’s grace. Your father? He is doing alright, not too bad, his memory is getting difficult, he is forgetful. We worry about him but thank God, he is still with us. We haven’t heard from you for a long time Amelia

She cut him off and waved her hand in the air. “I’ve been busy, Joseph, with the shop and everything. I cannot leave it. What can I do? But I pray for you all the time.”

He was silent and she cleared her throat.

“My brother, Lucy is coming to Lebanon, she will be there in a few days. It was a last-minute decision. She said she wants to see her culture.”

“Lucy, really so soon? Oh, we welcome her, that is great news. When?”

“On Tuesday she arrives at Beirut, God willing. She wants to stay for two weeks or so.”

“So short? What is two weeks? She needs to stay three months. Lucy, my love, yes we would love to have her.”

Amelia began to pace the dark hallway. “My brother, I don’t want you to bother with her. I know you are all very busy and my father is not well. Please don’t worry, she will stay in Beirut with her father’s cousin or I can arrange a hotel for her

“Hotel? Are you kidding, my sister? No, no, my niece is not staying in a hotel.

“But Joseph she will be happier that way and you are all busy. I’m just telling you because I didn’t want you to be upset if you didn’t know. She will come to Bcharre of course to see you, but please let her

“My sister, you stayed away from us, and you want your daughter to be the same?” The silence that followed made her feel uncomfortable. “We will put her in our hearts. She needs to see her grandfather, her uncles and cousins and her mother’s village. She is staying with us or I will be very upset with you. We want to see her, to get to know her, she is our daughter too.”

Amelia gritted her teeth. “I don’t want to trouble

“Enough Amelia! There is no trouble, she will be a blessing from God.”

“Ok my brother, ok I don’t want to upset you

“Then that’s enough then!” he ordered.

Amelia sucked in her breath and leaned her forehead on her closed bedroom door. Eight thousand miles away and he could still shut her down. She should have known better. The conversation was not how she planned it to be, and she thought quickly.

She licked her dry lips. “My brother, there is just one thing. She’s not coming alone. Um…there is a young man, he works with us. He is Australianbut he’s a very nice man,” she added quickly. “He has worked for us for many years, and is from a good family. He is going to…England to see his mother…his father just died, and he said he could escort Lucy to Lebanon. I’m scared for her to go to Lebanon like that, she hasn’t been anywhere on her own before. And he kindly said he would go on the plane with her and make sure she arrives safe and sound.” Amelia shook her head at her mess.

“Really? Yes, alright that is good. Beirut airport can be difficult but we will be there to meet her when she arrives.” He sounded pleased.

Amelia swallowed hard. “Joseph, he may want to stay, he said he wants to see Lebanon, since he is there, he may stay in Lebanon but you don’t have to worry about him

“He is welcome with Lucy, my sister. He can stay with us too.”

Amelia groaned. “You don’t have to

“No, we insist, any friend of your family is a friend of ours, we will make him feel welcome.”

She threw a hand up in the air. “Ok my brother whatever you say, you know what you are doing. He looks a little...rough, they are like that here in Australia, but he is a lovely person, his heart is good.”

“Yes of course he is welcome. What’s his name?”

“Rhys.”

“Riiz?”

“No Rhys, my brother, with an ‘e’ soundRhys.”

“Ritz?”

“Rhys, yes Rhys.”

Tsk tsk, what’s that name anyhow? That’s ok we will call him Rez, I’m sure he will answer.”

“Ok thank you Joseph, God bless you.”

“And you too.” He paused. “Oh, and Lucy has left her fiancé, is that right? He was a nice man too we heard, from a good family. What happened?”

Amelia felt the shame race through her veins. “You heard? I was going to tell you.”

“Mariana your uncle’s daughter, was speaking to a lady here from the village, who was speaking to her brother in Australia, who’s a cousin of Lucy’s fiancé…”

“Of course, their tongues are long,” she mumbled under her breath. “I don’t know what to say, you know how children are. He was a nice man but Lucy found him…difficult and…well better then they leave each other before the wedding.”

Her heart was pounding painfully. Could she just hang up on the conversation?

“Doesn’t matter, my sister, yes I know children have a mind of their own these days. What can we do, as long as they stay healthy.” He paused and there was a crackling sound in the line. “We wish you were coming with Lucy too, Amelia. Change your mind and come.”

“I can’t my brother, God willing maybe next year. I have the shop and I can’t leave. Grace needs me she is moving to her new house soon and I need to help her…I can’t leave. Say hello to everyone there.”

His was quiet again. “Ok whatever you like Amelia, we miss you, and your father misses you too.”

Amelia felt his words tear through her heart. She nodded.

“And I miss you more.”



PART 1



CHAPTER 1



A traveller I am, and a navigator, and every day I discover a new region within my soul.”

Khalil Gibran



Beirut, Rafic Hariri Airport. 30th June, 2003



The immigration officer had the loveliest crystal, quartz green eyes that Lucy had ever seen, and an ugly snarl about his mouth.

Passporot?” he held out his hand and when Lucy looked at him blankly, he added with a thick accent, “this your first time to Libnan?”

Lucy felt the sweat trickle down her spine as she struggled to hear him over the blustering commotion that surrounded her. Voices of young and old in Arabic, chatting excitedly or angrily (it was difficult to differentiate between the two), booming announcements over the speaker and suitcases being dropped and opened. She eyed out the two army officers standing by the glass exit doors who were casually sporting M16 rifles slung over their shoulders. She looked back at the officer in the crisp white shirt with ‘Bassem’ pinned on the black name tag. She handed him both passports.

“Yes,” she replied and wondered if she should speak in Arabic. Would it help? Would she stand out less? All those years that her parents begged her to become more proficient in their native tongue would have been useful now. She turned to Rhys and offered him a strained smile as the officer examined their passports.

Rhys returned the smile. He seemed so relaxed; far more relaxed than her. She knew it was because he had become familiar with foreign places and languages from all the weird, wonderful and hazardous places he had visited. He encircled her waist, drawing her in closer and she felt his warm breath by her ear as he said, “don’t worry, they’ll arrest me before they arrest you.”

She chuckled nervously and Bassem raised his head quickly. He glanced at Rhys and expanded his chest, filling it up with air. Immediately the extra five centimetres in height that he gained with that movement was enough to trump Rhys’ height and the Bassem seemed pleased with himself.

“How long you here for?” His eyes rested on Rhys.

“Two weeks or so,” Rhys sounded confident, “however long they’ll take me.”

Bassem glared at Rhys, his eyes taking in the black earring and moving down to his tattooed arm that was bent over the counter.

“You Lebanese?”

Was that a threat that Lucy heard in his voice?

“I’m trying to be one,” Rhys said smugly.

“And you?” Bassem addressed Lucy.

She had a smart response sitting on the tip of her tongue, itching to come out, but it appeared that this man lacked a sense of humour, plus she was conscious of those rifles in the background.

How to answer this?

“Yes, I’m Lebanesewell my parents were born in Lebanon and I was born in Australia, so I suppose I’m Australian with Lebanese background, or...”

He didn’t wait for her to finish and handed the passports to them and nodded towards the glass exit doors with his unsmiling bedroom eyes.

Ahle wa sahle ala bladik (welcome to your country),” he said

Rhys grasped the long black handle of Lucy’s luggage and wheeled it out as she followed him.

“I’ll take it, you have yours,” she insisted.

“That’s ok,” he adjusted his khaki backpack more comfortably onto his back. “Yours is a breeze.”

She was floored when she saw the modest backpack he had brought, and wondered how he had managed to fit in all his belongings. She had spent a good amount of money on her sturdy purple suitcase and struggled to stick to the twenty-kilo luggage limit. Her mother insisted that she pack almost all of her wardrobe.

“You never know if you need to go to a party or Church or who comes over...the shops are not like here Lucy, they are not close by and you will not find clothes easily if you are needing anything. I don’t want you to bother your cousins to take you as well.”

Other than her personal gear, her suitcase was packed with plastic bags full of ‘gifts’mainly boxes of over-the-counter medications. That was the standard expectation of Lebanon-bound travellers from Opal Hills, as they immediately became drug couriers for the locals who were sending their loved ones overseasa year’s supply of headache tablets and anti-histamines. Where was she travelling to, that Panadol was not an easily accessible item?

They moved through the exit doors with the momentum of the crowds, as if they were amongst a herd of sheep. As they stepped out from the cool, grey slate airport, the sun hit their faces and they were weighed down with an overwhelming heaviness of heat in the air. It was such a stark contrast to the winter weather of Sydney and she questioned the logic of wearing jeans that now stuck uncomfortably to her thighs.

Immediately there was a sound of chaos, a chorus of horns beeping in the distance, and booming yells. Clusters of anxious faces were gathered in front of where cars were haphazardly parked. She could taste the sea in the air and licked her dry lips.

“Mum said my uncle and cousin are meeting us but I don’t know what they look like, Rhys, I only saw a couple of old pictures that mum’s got. I’ve no idea how I’m gonna know them.”

Her eyes rested on the sea of faces staring back at her, like seagulls standing back, waiting and watching their movements. There were a number of men with a similar look, black hair, dark skin, and perspiration marks blotted on their long-sleeved printed shirts. They were calling and beckoning her, and she couldn’t tell if they were waiting for someone else or they knew her.

“I think they’re taxi drivers,” Rhys said shielding his eyes from the blistering sun.

They took further steps and there was another crowd this time standing behind a chain barrier. Lucy was being shouldered from behind by scores of travellers lugging their suitcases, and crying out one by one as they fell into welcoming arms in blubbering tears.

Lucy slowed her steps. They had nearly reached the barrier and the faces were unfamiliar. Just when she had given up on finding any relatives, she heard a man’s voice calling from the crowd, “Loucee! Loucee Shadid!”

Her eyes searched the strange faces, until they rested on arms that were waving up high.

“Is that them?”

She squinted as they approached the crowd. Just as she wondered why she could no longer see those arms, two men appeared in front of her, and before she could see make out their faces well, she was enveloped in a rib-breaking squeeze and felt a sweaty cheek sticking to hers. Lips pressed firmly against her right cheek, then the left then the right again. The man stood back and Lucy noticed balding dark-brown hair, and water-logged eyes through round glasses.

“Lucy habibte, kific? Ahle...ahle…” he welcomed her.

He continued in Arabic, “Do you know me? I am Uncle Joseph.”

She gathered herself and wanted to wipe the moisture from her cheek but knew that would be an insult.

“Of course, hello khorle, kifek?”

“Good, good,” he replied and she was grateful to hear those words in English. So far so good.

He turned to Rhys who was holding out his hand.

“Nice to meet you sir,” Rhys said politely.

Joseph scrutinised Rhys and his outstretched hand, and contorted his face as if he had tasted something distasteful.

Just as Lucy’s heart sank and Rhys lowered his hand slowly, Joseph grabbed at Rhys by his upper arms and kissed him, right, left then right again. She could see Rhys’ bewilderment by the way his body stiffened.

Ahle Rez!” Joseph exclaimed.

“Thank you,” Rhys said and Lucy released an awkward laugh.

A younger version of Joseph with a lot more hair, dark and curly, and with eyes the colour of roasted Lebanese coffee beans appeared. He seemed to be in his late twenties and Lucy tried desperately to recall the family tree that her mum sketched for her before she left. He kissed Lucy the same way and his sharp stubble scratched her cheek. He too was clammy with perspiration but was doused in a potent smell of spicy men’s aftershave.

“Hello Lucy, I’m Elie, your cousin.”

Though there was thickness to his English, it was at least clearer with a hint of an American rolled accent.

Immediately, they lead them out of the crowds and bluster of the airport towards a makeshift parking lot where cars were sardined in disorderly ways. They strolled up to a white Mercedes-Benz, a model from the early eighties that seemed tatty and worse for wear, and opened the boot.

Elie gestured to Rhys’ backpack. “This all you have?”

“Yeah, I travel lightly.”

Joseph and Elie hauled the suitcases and backpack into the snug boot and tied down the load with a piece of rope when the boot would not close all the way. Lucy had spent a small fortune on her suitcase, which was now stuffed in a trembling pile and she hoped that it would survive the journey. It had cost her $250 and she settled on that after the salesperson insisted it would be better for a flight than the $75 suitcase that would surely not survive the journey. It certainly looked expensive with the gold stitching around the edges and a gold-plated emblem on the front.

She tried not to let it show that the odour in the air bothered her. There was a strong diesel smell that filled Lucy’s nostrils and she restricted her breathing to her slightly open mouth and instead felt the heat tickle her throat. The cool sweat trickled down from her temple to jaw, and down her back, and she pulled at her t-shirt to fan herself. At this rate, she would arrive at her cousin’s house no better than a melting ice block.

“How long are you in Lebanon for?” Elie asked as he tightened the rope.

“We are thinking of two weeks,” Lucy answered. “We don’t want to bother you, we can stay in a hotel.”

“No way, this will not happen, cousin. We spoke to your mother already. You are both very welcome.”

Her mother had already filled her in that they had insisted on this, but she felt it was obligatory not to assume. “Thanks Elie, that’s very kind.”

“You are English?” Elie asked Rhys.

“Australian,” Rhys answered.

“Oh, but your parents, they are from England?”

“Um...” Rhys shot Lucy a glance.

“Aunty Amelia said your parents live in England and you live in Ostraylia.”

“Oh yeah that’s right, his parents come from England,” Lucy interrupted as she felt her shirt stick to her back.

Elie shrugged and walked to the driver’s door. “England…Ostraylia…it’s all the same for us.”

Rhys’ eyes widened and Lucy replied with a small shake of her head, begging him with her eyes not to say anything. What had her mother told them?

Elie sat in the driver’s seat. He and his father insisted that Lucy sit in the front passenger seat but she refused to. There was no way that she was going to leave Rhys on his own. She was at the point of begging.

“Please I’ll sit in the back, I get car sick, please I’ll be better in the back.”

The doors made a loud squeak when opened and had to be slammed hard to make them shut properly. There was a potent odour of cigarette smoke and petrol fumes in the cramped car. Elie started the engine and the haunting tones of a female Lebanese singer crackled through the speaker.

Joseph lifted up an open bag of red grapes that was beside him and gestured to them.

“No, thank you,” Lucy said quickly.

“Oh thanks,” Rhys leaned over and snapped a cluster and tossed the little balls into his mouth. Elie and Joseph shared words under their breath that Lucy didn’t understand and she was concerned that they were talking about Rhys.

Elie glanced over his shoulder and noticed Lucy and Rhys were searching around them. “This car has no belt, we use this for when we do the delivery. The BMW is with your cousin Peter today and last minute we could not change, pardon we didn’t know you were coming."

“That’s ok sorry Elie, but will you get in trouble?”

Elie let out a boisterous laugh, taking her by surprise. “Trouble? No trouble here my cousin. Nobody wears them.”

Lucy glanced at Rhys and caught his smirk. She wondered if he was thinking the same…freedom! She felt a rush of thrill come over her at the risk of it all, and a smile formed at her lips.

Elie kicked the car into gear and drove it out on to the road, barely looking out for the oncoming traffic. The navy-blue rosary beads with silver cross, dangled from the rear-view mirror like a pendulum as he took a sharp turn.

Elise yanked his seat forward. “You have room?” he called out to Rhys, whose knees were wedged into the back of Elie’s seat.

“Yeah, all good,” Rhys replied.

Lucy’s heart melted at how Rhys was trying so hard. His face was flushed, and he looked uncomfortable in his relaxed jeans and black Nelson Mandela T-shirt. Sweat marks trailed down the front of his shirt and he wiped his sweaty brow with the palm of his hand.

“Phew it’s really hot, isn’t it? Different to our winter now that’s for sure.” Rhys held on to the back of Elie’s seat and leaned forward.

“Ah yes you came from winter now, welcome to Beirut heat. Yalla when we get to our village, you will find a big difference. Many escape the summer in Beirut and head north to the mountains for three months in the holidays, the air is better.”

Joseph asked Elie in Arabic what they were talking about and Elie translated.

“You speak Arabic?” Elie asked.

“A little bit. I understand more then I speak.” She sounded each word separately and carefully unsure if she was articulating herself well enough or insulting them by assuming they were stupid. “When you talk fast, it’s difficult but I understood now what you were saying to khorle.” She made a point to save an embarrassing situation.

“Your mum should teach you,” Uncle Joseph said in Arabic. “This is your country too.”

Lucy opened her mouth but no words came out.

Elie manoeuvred the car as it merged with the traffic on the freeway. Cars were lined bumper-to-bumper and Elie grunted as he changed gears. “It will be a long ride, two or three hours to Bcharre. Are you ok back there Ossie?”

“Yeah, all good mate,” Rhys responded.

Elie glanced at his rear-view mirror. “Mate?”

“Yeah…mate, it means friend.”

“I have not heard that one…mate...” he nodded. “Nice. Don’t worry, Ossie-mate, by the time you leave here we will make you our sadik...that means friend.”

Lucy gazed out of her open window, the wind was slapping her face and she welcomed the wind cooling her skin. She closed her eyes momentarily. She could smell Beirut…the fumes, roasted meat, rubble and dust. When her eyes opened they settled on high cream buildings, partly rubbled, with the walls and facades splattered with political graffiti, and bearing scars of countless bullet holes, a dominant symbol of the civil war.

The abandoned buildings stood side by side to modern commercial buildings with frosted glass windows as if to be a continual reminder of the bloodshed of war and struggles that brought them here. Often there were shards of metal, twisted rubble and strips of broken glass scattered sporadically across piles of dust.

Electricity wires draped the city like garlands, dangerously gaping down at pedestrians. At times they hung heavily in overgrown bunches from leaning poles, and their intertwining cables seemed impossible to trace their origin or destination. She was unsure if electricity was in abundance or limited in supply by the electrical jungle she was faced with.

Around her there was a constant sound of cars beeping, and the cracking noise of jack hammers on every corner. Construction appeared every so often and in between there were those abandoned bereft buildings.

Lucy removed her camera from her duffle bag. It was a hand-held one that fit snugly into her palm and doubled as a video camera. She held it up and videoed Beirut flashing by as they moved on the highway.

She took in advertising billboards in all shapes and sizes, some in better condition than others, advertising Pepsi, overseas call cards, banks and fashion. Lucy registered each one, and used them to form her idea of everyday living in Lebanon. Elie pointed and explained, seemingly unfazed, but for Lucy, everything was a sight for fresh eyes. And she was learning that this was a country of contrasts.

There were parades of vendors selling brushes, brooms, corn and kaake (bread covered in sesame). Taxi drivers were littered on every corner. Well-dressed business men walked on hurriedly, and girls in tight jeans, midriff tops, accentuating their breasts and donning large rimmed, black sunglasses passed them.

On some curb sides, groups of men were gathered, dressed in long sleeve printed shirts and pants with cigarettes dangling between their teeth. They were darker-skinned and sitting or standing in clusters watching the cars drive past.

“Who are they?” Lucy called out over the onslaught of sound.

Elie followed her hand. “Those men? They are the Sooriya waiting for the work. They start early morning and sit on the road. The lucky ones are picked up for work.”

“Syrians? So they just sit there all day?” Lucy asked.

“Yes, someone will pick them up, they are cheap and will work for ten thousand lira. Lira is not worth much hereone thousand lira is like one American dollar. The Lebnaniya will not work for lira, they work for dollars, you understand? These men will work for nothing but they are treated like nothing too.”

Rhys glanced at Lucy and raised both eyebrows. “Well Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

She nodded. It seemed a sad and desperate way to live, and so far removed from their world. It was then that the realities of the country hit Lucy and she thought about her new suitcase with the gold plate piled in the boot. She wished she had bought the cheaper one.



****



It had been two weeks since Lucy and Rhys had booked their flight to Lebanon. That day when her dream of being with him was finally realised in the carpark of the village shops, they returned to the travel agent to be told that her flight in two days’ time was completely sold out. Rhys insisted that she go ahead without him, and he would follow but Lucy would not hear of it. She didn’t want to make it obvious to Rhys that the thought of separating again from him terrified her. She could not risk that he would slip between her fingers if she let him go, even for a moment. But when she noticed that he too didn’t seem convinced of that plan, the decision was made to re-book so they could leave together.

It made for a sweet couple of weeks of late night phone calls to one another, and Rhys taking the long drive to Opal Hills to see her at every opportunity. Lucy was conscious that he was putting himself out so much and often told him so. A flicker of passion would fire from his eye as he stroked her cheek.

“Wild horses couldn’t keep me away from you, sweetheart…” he would murmur by her ear.

They dated as she dreamed they would: romantic dinners, soppy movies, walks in parks and long drives. They shared passionate kisses and lingering touches. He awakened a part of her that she never knew existed. Her heart had never been so full and she had never felt so alive.

Her mother had resigned to the fact that her deck of cards had fallen and kept her mouth closed. She was civil to Rhys, but told Lucy that although he was welcome into their home, he certainly wasn’t welcome into her room. Sex, pre-marriage had always been forbidden, culturally and religiously.

Lucy was respectful of her mum’s wishes and was paranoid about how that came across to Rhys. Secretly she was grateful that she could hide behind her mother’s rules. She assumed that he would expect them to be sharing a bed by now, and wondered how he felt about dating a thirty-year-old virgin. As much as she trusted him and their love, it was difficult for her to push past years of conditioning and fear, and give herself to him freely that way. Her dating experience was limited but safe. The few dates she had been on when she was younger were with Lebanese boys who shared the similar values, as did Antoine when the two were engaged. Although Antoine had told her that he wasn’t a virgin, he knew that Lucy was, and there was that general assumption that they wouldn’t be sleeping with one another until after the wedding.

She was embarrassed to bring up the subject with Rhys, afraid it would be the breaking point of their relationship. In nervous laughter she would drop hints about the restrictions of being Lebanese and she assumed that he knew by the way she pulled back at certain times.

Although he told her that he didn’t mind waiting and just being with her was enough for him, she still felt this niggling divide deep inside. The way his breathing became laborious as they steamed up car windows, or the way his eyes glazed over in the heat of a passionate moment, made Lucy feel guilty. She was fearful that one day that he would lose patience and prefer a relationship with someone elseone that didn’t come with such inhibitions.

She now glanced his way as he was gazing out his open window, his eyes taking in the history of surrounding them.

She imagined that he was thinking as she was, and seeing the paradox of Beirut at every point. A Maronite Chapel stood beside a new mosque, and an Orthodox Church beside a Catholic Cathedral. She was surprised to see ice-cream parlours, Parisian-style stores, and high-end boutiques lining some streets. And on nearly every store was the sign ‘soldes taped to the window.

She leaned forward. “Elie, I didn’t know there would be so much French everywhere, all the shops have signs in French.”

“Yes, well it’s the first language here. In the villages, we speak Arabic mostly, but here in Beirut, it’s all francais. We learn englais, francais and Arabic in school before we learn anything else.”

“Your mother never told you?” Joseph asked in Arabic.

“Ah yeah we always speak about Lebanon at home, I knew that…I just didn’t expect…” She glanced at Rhys. I’m scared, she mouthed and he grinned. She caught sight of Elie’s deep-set eyes, framed by the rear-view mirror and directed her gaze out her window again.

She felt Rhys’ finger link through her own as it rested on the seat beside her. It was the reassurance she needed that he was completely there. This was her uncle and her cousin, yet she knew him better than she knew them.

“Ah welcome welcome ya shabeb…” Elie grunted and Lucy hurriedly moved her hand away. Her gaze followed Elie’s out the windscreen.

She counted four men ahead wearing military clothing, though a darker shade of khaki than the ones she had seen at the airport. Their skin was a deeper brown colour, and they wore gruff expressions as they held their rifles in front of their bodies. White plastic chairs were positioned in front of a simple concrete shelter that had a Syrian flag laid over it, where two of the men sat, dangling cigarettes from their mouths with their legs stretched out in front of them.

Elie brought the car to a complete stop when the two standing men took large strides towards their vehicle and one of the men positioned his rifle at Elie’s headlights. Lucy heard her uncle mutter angrily under his breath.

She lifted her camera and began to film the man as he walked towards the car. The thrill took over her fear of being confronted with a man with a gun and she pressed on the red ‘record’ button.

She didn’t think anything of it until Joseph turned around to her and ordered her to lower her hand by yelling, “NAZLIYE!” before he slapped the camera downwards.

Lucy frozeimmobilised by her uncle’s burst of anger and by the military man who leaned towards Elie’s window. There was saliva sitting on the corners of his mouth and he was spitting venom as he yelled incoherent words in Arabic. His chilly stare was directed at Lucy, and Rhys calmly removed the camera from Lucy’s shaking hands and held on to it.

Elie seemed to grovel at the man and Lucy understood bits of it.

“Cousin from Australia…she does not know…from the airport…luggage in the boot…”

Lucy trembled. She caught Rhys’ reassuring glance but even he appeared to strain beneath the smile.

This is it, Lucy thought. This is not Australia. I’m going to be arrested, raped, kidnapped, tortured, taken away. All those news stories she heard snippets of, or showed disinterest about as her parents explained to her came flooding back. What would they tell mum?

The man glared at Lucy, then at Rhys where his eyes locked a moment longer.

Elie opened the glove box and removed a card that was covered by a dirty and torn plastic sleeve and handed it to the man. The man studied both sides of the card as the second man walked toward them with a firm grip on his rifle.

Lucy felt heat rush through her body. She was not reassured by the concerned look in her uncle’s eyes either or how he shifted around on his seat. The man licked his lips, and his dark eyes lasered in on Lucy. Lucy noticed Rhys tighten his fist on his thigh.

“Where are you going?” he asked Elie in Arabic, his voice throaty and coarse.

“To Bcharre in the North. Everyone is waiting there for us to arrive,” Elie replied.

Passporot?

“You have passports?” Elie glanced back at them. Sweat beads forming on his forehead.

“Yes…yes of course,” she fumbled through her shoulder bag and removed the travel wallet where she had secured them.

Elie handed them over and the man inspected them at close range, his nose almost touching the booklets. Lucy felt dirty by the way his eyes took in their pictures. He returned the passports to Elie and gave a nod towards the red grapes.

Joseph picked up the open bag and leaned towards him.

“Here you go, they are delicious, share them with everyone, God bless this food you are eating.”

The man took the grapes, stepped back and nodded for them to pass.

“Thank you, God bless you oh strong one!” Elie called out in Arabic, and he began to pull away. Inside the car there was deathly silence before Joseph swore. Lucy turned around and gazed out the back windscreen at the men who were eating their grapes.

“I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…I didn’t know,” Lucy wiped her forehead with her palm.

“Ok habibte,” her uncle said. “Sorry…” He waved his hands and Lucy understood he was apologising for his outburst.

Elie explained. “Baba was protecting you, they do not like the photograph. Don’t worry about them. It is just the Sooriya army. They talk, and have no spine. They will not do anything but we must stop or we cannot pass through the hejez, the check point. There are the Lebanese hejez too but you will see that they look cleaner and nicer than this Sooriya one.”

“Syrian Army?” Lucy asked. “But why do you have to listen to them?”

“To stay alive, to pass through to the daya, the villages. We have no choice. You should carry the passport everywhere in Libnan, in case we pass through any checkpoints.”

“But it’s Lebanon, our country, how dare they tell us if we can pass through!” Lucy felt anger bubbling, heightened by the fear of what just happened. “Doesn’t it make you angry?”

Elie scoffed. “Anger does nothing here cousin. Libnan is angry but it does not make it better. We have no government, no leader, how do we expect to have freedom? I was more worried about our Ossie here in the back,” he motioned with his head.

“Me?” Rhys asked.

“Yes, pardon me but you look how they say it…?”

Bogia?” Lucy said.

Shou?” Elie asked.

Bogia like rough-looking. Is that not right?”

Elie glanced at Joseph and shook his head.

Bogia,” they both mumbled. “No not a Lebanese word, Lucy,” Elie said.

“Really?” Puzzled, Lucy relaxed back into the seat.

“But if you mean he looks difficult, yes, with those tattoos. We are lucky we did not catch them on a bad day, they like a challenge.”

“Maybe he just wanted to eat grapes,” Rhys added and they laughed, but Elie’s words terrified Lucy.

“I like you Ossie,” Elie added.

Rhys leaned forward, his knees dug again into the back of Elie’s seat again. “Seriously what would happen if you just drove past and didn’t stop?”

Elie snorted. “One time I was with my sadik and he was driving. It was late and we had been drinking a little you know, being silly. We did not think and drove a distance away, straight past the Sooriya hejez. We stopped when we heard the gun blastthey shot our car tyres.”

“Really?” Rhys raised both eyebrows.

“Yes, that was the easy part. They were yelling and angry and you know we become like children and say, ‘sorry we always drive past but we didn’t notice this time.’ But they were perhaps angry or seeing that we were laughing and told us to get out of the car. My friend was, sorry to say, sick…he vomit on the ground and some went on the Sooriya’s shoe. And that was it.”

Joseph glanced at Elie and shook his head.

Elie continued. “I can tell you we had a beating that night. So, I will not make the same mistake again.”

They drove further on and Lucy continued to drink in the sights. She noticed Rhys had his eyes fixed out of his window too.

“So, you are having a holiday to England after Libnan, yes?” Elie asked suddenly.

“Me?” Rhys asked.

“Yes, to your parents?”

Rhys glanced at Lucy and she told him with her eyes to go along with it.

“Yeah…yeah I am, I haven’t seen mum and dad for a long time, I’ve left it too long and I thought I better get to them.”

“Distance is difficult, yes? I am sorry to hear about your father.”

Rhys glanced at Lucy and shrugged. “Dad? He’s alright, he’ll be ok, he always kicks on.”

Joseph gestured with his hands. “He...he dead? Allah yir hammoo.”

“Died?” Lucy coughed out.

“Yes…Aunty Amelia said he…just died now,” Elie added cautiously.

Rhys spoke fast. “Oh yeah that’s right he did die. I forgot,” he forced a chuckle, “the poor sod.”

Lucy cleared her throat and fanned her face with her bare hand. “It’s hot in Beirut, isn’t it?”

Joseph asked if she wanted water to drink.

Elie added, “Yes we will stop and buy water for everyone and you can call your mother and tell her that you arrived. She must worry.”

“Yes, I need to call my mother.” Lucy tried to keep the strain out of her voice. She had filled her mother in about Rhys’ background, how his natural father was estranged from him and died several years ago and Rhys’ stepfather died when Rhys was young. What had her mother told them?

A moment later they pulled up in front of what looked like an open garage with a faded red and white Pepsi sign hanging on for dear life above the doorway. Lucy expected Elie to park by the curb but took her by complete surprise when he stopped the car in the middle of the road while his dad hopped out. A short and stocky man wearing a white singlet over a rounded stomach and dangling a toothpick from his mouth stood in the doorway to the store. He nodded to a passing Joseph and then followed him into the darkened room.

Car horns were sounding behind and Lucy glanced around nervously seeing cars speed past them. Elie was tapping his hand on the bonnet and resting his elbow on the open window.

“Um Elie, can you park here? It’s the middle of the road?” Lucy asked.

“Lulu, it’s Lebanon, we park wherever we want.”

“But everyone’s beeping, they must be angry.”

“They’re not angry, they’re saying hello.” Then he let out a loud call and waved his hand as a car passed. “Marhaba!”

“I guess that means hello?” Rhys asked and when Lucy nodded he laughed. “I could get used to this place.”

Joseph walked out of the store cradling several bottles of water in one arm and in the other hand, a black mobile phone. Lucy opened the car door and climbed out to help him. He held on to the water and handed her the phone instead.

“Mama,” he said.

Lucy took the phone from him.

“Mum?” she called out above the constant sound horns beeping. She stepped up to the safety of the curb.

“Lucy habibte?” Her mum’s anxious tone sounded down the line.

“Yes, mum it’s me.”

“You arrived?”

“Yeah sorry we didn’t call earlier but we arrived, we’re fine.”

“Thank God I was worried. I didn’t sleep all night, thank God you alright. How was the plane trip?”

“It was fine…good, tiring, but we made it. Khorle Joseph and Elie have picked us up and we are going up to Bcharre I think they said.”

“Oh good look after yourself. But Lucy stay with them ok? They will look after you, don’t go to any places on your own. Lebanon is not like here. Be careful, don’t let me worry about you. Remember the money I gave you and what I said, don’t let anyone pay for anything.”

Lucy moved away from the old man’s prying eyes who was chewing on the twig in his mouth.

She placed one finger in the other ear to block out the noise. The breeze from the cars going past felt heavy with a mixture of heat and fumes. “Yes, I will mum I remember don’t worry I’ll be fine. But listen…who did you tell them Rhys was? What’s going on?”

She heard her mum grunt. “Lucy, don’t ask...”

“Of course, I need to ask. They’re saying that he’s going to England?”

“I told them he was going to England to see his parents and he is taking you to Lebanon on the way, to make sure you arrive ok.”

“What? Like a bodyguard or something? What for? That’s a ridiculous story!”

“Lucy, it’s better this way-”

“How is that better? Can’t he be my boyfriend? That’s what he is mum, you need to accept that because that’s what he is!”

“Yes habibte God knows I have no hold over you anymore, and what can I say? But please this is not right in Lebanon. They are not like here. It’s rude to live with a boyfriend and travel with him alone like that. Please…I didn’t stand in your way when he wanted to go with you…you are there for two weeks only. Just pretend he’s a family friend, he works at the café. He wants to see Lebanon too while you are there and then he is going to England to see his parents. Don’t tell them you are together and please don’t act like a…boyfriend/girlfriend in front of them.”

“Why do I need to this mum...it’s so unfair?”

She heard the strain in her mum’s voice. “Listen, Lucy. I tell you what’s unfair… I tried so hard with both of my children to bring them up the right way. Can’t I just have one child who makes me proud, that people haven’t spoken about? You know the community still look at me in strange ways because of your sister. And they are talking about you and Antoine; the other day Samira told me she heard some ladies talk rubbish outside the Church. You just left your fiancé and now you are with an Ostraliya man overseas so quickly…please I can’t take it anymore…if your father was here…”

Lucy couldn’t stop the guilt that twisted in her stomach. She took a deep breath. “Ok, mum…ok I get it, I won’t embarrass you, I promise. But couldn’t you have told me before we left home?”

“Sorry habibte yes I know, but I was scared to.”

Lucy groaned. “Well it would’ve been helpful for Rhys to know that his father just died, khorle Joseph was almost planning the old man’s funeral.”

CHAPTER 2



We are all prisoners but some of us are in cells with windows and some without.”

Khalil Gibran



Opal Hills



“Do you want to take lunch today?” Grace asked Lachie, because she felt that she had to.

She was secretly hoping that he would say ‘no.’ She had yet to make Jake’s pre-school lunch (an easy ritual of Vegemite with the crusts removed), but for Lachie, it would mean slicing tomatoes, cucumber and carrots and frankly she was tired.

“Nah, I’ll grab something,” he mumbled into the coffee steam as he bought it to his lips. His eyes were glued on to the sports page of the paper.

“What time are you home tonight?”

He glanced at his watch, as if it held the answer.

“Probably seven or so. I have to cover for Mick, he took that shift for me last week when you wanted to go to that wake thing for that stranger we never met.”

Grace removed two slices of bread from the bag.

“She wasn’t a stranger, that was mum’s very close friend. We grew up with them and mum was devastated that she died. We had to pay our respects.”

He snapped the paper as he opened it wider. “Pay our respects? We sat in the hall like we were watching a movie but instead watched a row of people on chairs. You’re not allowed to talk to them, I have no idea what benefit it was to them, having us there. What a waste of time.”

Jake clutched on to Grace’s flannelette pyjama pants that had lost their shape over time and wiped his snot-filled nose back and forth across her thigh.

“Lachie, where’s this coming from? You didn’t say anything last week. Far out, I hate the way you bring up your grievances three days later. Why couldn’t you tell me before? You didn’t have to go!”

He placed the paper on the table and looked at her. “What did you want me to say when confronted with Grace and Amelia together? Amelia alone could make Hitler fall to his knees. I don’t have a say in this house, I’ve learnt to keep my mouth shut, it’s easier that way.”

“Gee you can be a baby sometimes-”

“Thanks G, that’s sweet coming from you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. I’m just tired ok? I didn’t sleep much last night, Jakey kept kicking me. I can’t wait until we move and he’s in his own bed”

Mammma,” Jake pulled at her pants. “Carry meeee,” he wailed.

She picked him up roughly, squeezing his upper arms a little too tightly and his crying intensified.

“And what about me?” She raised her voice over his cries. “I’m running around after Jake, between the cafe and home, helping out, it’s not a walk in the park for me either, I’m just as tired you know? You only need to worry about work, I have to do everything else! I’m tired more then you, yet you don’t see me sulking all the time.”

He punched a few digits into his phone. “Please G, don’t start now! If you’re not happy let’s move out. The house is liveable now, we can start moving.”

“You know I can’t do that

“Yeah, your mum,” he groaned. “Why do you treat her like she’s a child, she’s a grown woman. She’s not exactly an imbecile.”

Grace glanced down the quiet hallway. “Shh Lachie, she’ll hear you. She’s done so much for us, she’s helped us heaps with us living here.”

Lachie stood up and folded the newspaper in half. “Help, yes…but not without a noose around our necks,” he mumbled under his breath, but Grace heard him. She knew that he wanted her to hear him. He stood up and took a last gulp of the coffee and placed the cup in the sink behind her.

“Can you call that bloke for the blinds and meet him at the house so you can pick what you want.”

“Yeah,” she looked down at Jake who had his head rested on her shoulder and kissed his soft forehead.

Lachie ruffled Jake’s hair and dropped a kiss on Grace’s cheek. It was quick, he barely touched her.

“See ya later,” he said as he collected his case and walked out.



****



Amelia heard every word. They often thought that she didn’t hear them, or understand, but she always did. She became an expert at pressing her ear firmly up against the hollow bedroom or bathroom door until she heard their conversations clearly.

She had finished her shower much earlier, and stood fully dressed in the bathroom for some time, but waited until she heard the front door shut firmly before she emerged. He was gone. Her beloved daughter looked sloppy, her light brown hair was dishevelled.

Tayta!” Jake called out as soon as he lay eyes on his grandmother.

Aida smiled brightly and clapped her hands together, “good morning Tayta.”

“Good morning habibe, yalla come to Tayta.” She took him from Grace’s arms.

“Good morning, habibte.” She took in Grace’s despondent look. Her naked morning face was unforgiving with dark circles beneath her eyes and blotchiness on her cheek. Amelia wanted to scream at her, ‘it’s not my fault you married him, you didn’t listen to me!’

“Hi mum.”

“Lachlan’s gone?”

“Yes,” Grace replied and took a sip of her coffee. “Coffee, mum?”

“Yes thank you,” Amelia went to the pantry to remove the round, silver tin. “Biscuit Jakey?”


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