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THE FIGS FROM LEBANON

Searching For My Origins And Making Good On A Promise

--Part One--

The Journey To Kafaraka

This story, like many others, has no specific beginning or end. It could have started with a conversation that I had with my grandfather Miguel when I was ten years old, in the front porch of his house. I asked my grandfather to talk about his life in Lebanon, the country where he was born. My grandpa was very mysterious about his own childhood, and he usually said little about his past. That summer night, however, my grandfather decided to tell me a few things about his early years in Kafaraka, a small village in the mountains of Lebanon. He told me, among other things, that the figs of Lebanon were delicious and certainly the best in the word. I promised him that one day I would visit Kafaraka and eat a fig over there.

One night, twenty-nine years later, I felt sad and extremely alone in my office in New Jersey, after finishing my sessions with my patients. I am a physician specialized in psychiatry who treats mostly persons suffering from alcoholism and drug abuse problems. It saddens me to see so many young man and women devastated not only by the disease of addiction but also by the indifference or scorn they receive from mainstream society. That night, after providing care to my patients, I reflected on the contrast between my happy childhood and the despair experienced by so many of those seeking care from me.

My grandfather Miguel was responsible for a lot of the joy that I enjoyed growing up. He left Lebanon at age nine to eventually settle in the small town of Igarapava, in Brazil. His immigration was somewhat of mystery to me because I did not know why he and his family left the Middle East. To the extent that I knew, he had no relatives left in Lebanon. In Igarapava, I spent most of my vacations, surrounded by relatives and friends of arabic origin. Family ties were very close, relationships were consistently warm, and even distant relatives called each other “cousin”. During my vacations in that small town, my grandfather took my brother, my cousins, and I to fish, hunt and to enjoy the great outdoors in the then wild countryside of Brazil. I never participated in hunting, but the contact with nature was exhilarating. I learned to camp, cook, and explore rivers, marshlands, and forests under the loving supervision of my grandpa.

At age nineteen, I start planing to go to Lebanon to fulfill my promise. Each time I got closer to take a trip to that country, something terrible would happen. First Lebanon got itself engulfed by an extraordinarily destructive civil war. People of lebanese descent in Brazil felt ashamed of what was going on. The politics of the Middle-East seemed incomprehensible to me. Lebanese people would kill each other for the most irrational of reasons, and other countries used that beautiful biblical land to display their power and influence at a terrible price for the local population. Every time the civil war seemed to wane, a new horrible event would renew the horror in that land. The great powers armed the many warring factions, adding to a never ending bloodshed. For fifteen years, lebanese killed each other, some times with abandon, and the intervening foreign countries also experienced severe loss of human life. My grandfather had always expressed to me his strong belief in the equality of men, regardless of religion, nationality, or religious belief. My arabic friends and relatives in Brazil were consistently warm, hospitable, and generous. I found it extremely difficult to reconcile, in my mind, my personal experiences with people of arabic descent and the sadness and brutality reported in the news.

I left Brazil in 1981 to pursue an academic career in psychiatry in the United States. I became a permanent resident in America, and eventually an american citizen. Like my grandfather, I became an immigrant. My grandfather died a few years after I left Brazil, and my thoughts of visiting Lebanon faded away. My career was exciting and fulfilled all my expectations. America is a country at the same time welcoming and full of possibilities. I achieved a very satisfying degree of professional achievement, and my wife and I raised two children in our adopted country. Despite the rewards of my new life, I never forgot the love and friendship that I enjoyed growing up in Brazil and my happy childhood in Igarapava.

The civil war in Lebanon, like all wars, one day came to an end. Ten years later, in the year 2000, Israel ended its occupation of the south of the country. The thought of visiting the land of my ancestors came back to my mind. Then, something horrible happened. From my house in New Jersey, I saw smoke covering half of the sky in the fateful day of September 11 of 2001. Once again, I put aside any thoughts of visiting the Middle East.

Two years later, mysterious events started happening in my life. My daughter Adriana decided to study the arabic language and middle eastern dance. It is important to notice that I am of lebanese descent only on my maternal side. My wife has no arabic ancestry, making my daughter only “one fourth” arabic. I was amazed with her interest in a culture at the center of so much controversy. Later that year, I met Ziad, a social worker born in Iraqi who was pursuing an internship at the psychiatric hospital where I work. Ziad encouraged me to study arabic and to connect to my ancestral roots. In January of 2004, during a visit to see my parents in Brazil, I talked to Futin, the only relative of mine who had been to Lebanon. Futin is one of my mother’s cousins, and she braved the dangers of the lebanese civil war to visit Kafaraka in 1978. I asked her why she run such a risk, and Futin told me that her father told her that the figs of Lebanon were the best of the world. She experienced an irresistible urge to eat figs in Kafaraka. Back in New Jersey, I told Claire, a psychiatrist who works with me at the hospital, that I was thinking about visiting Lebanon. Claire does not have any middle eastern background, but her father lived in Lebanon in the nineteen thirties working as an archeologist. I asked Claire about what her father liked the best in the Land of the Cedars. She told me that he liked the figs.

I am not mystical or particularly religious, but I started feeling that there was a message for me in these coincidental events. I had frequent dreams and thoughts about my grandfather and about Kafaraka. I bought books to self teach colloquial levantine arabic and scheduled a flight to Beirut to take place in September of 2004. Friends and relatives expressed concern about my travel plans to that part of the world, given the prevailing international situation. In my prayers and in my dreams, however, I felt a certainty growing inside my soul that the answers to many of my questions about the purpose of my life were waiting for me in Lebanon.

I was not the only person in my family thinking about my family origins. Walkyria, a relative of mine of lebanese descent opened a small restaurant in São Paulo, Brazil, and named it Kafaraka. My maternal cousin Marcelo, who also lives in Brazil, started looking in the internet for clues about our family. My grandfather’s full name was Miguel Dib Mattar. Marcelo eventually exchanged electronic correspondence with William Matar. Among many activities, William runs a number of magnificent web sites about Lebanon. One of these sites is dedicated to the artistic work of his father Joseph Matar, a noted lebanese painter, thinker, and poet. Despite the resemblance of last names, William and Joseph were not related to our family. Marcelo encouraged me to contact William prior to my trip. I visited the site where the pictures of Joseph Matar’s work were posted, and I saw a canvas that impressed me in a way that I could not easily describe with words. This painting was named “The Mystic Light”. It depicted an old lebanese house. I felt that one of the rooms in that house somehow related to me. After receiving a print of the exquisite work of art, I framed it and placed it in my office at the hospital. Everyday, I thought that there was a house with a special room waiting for me in Lebanon.

At age fifty, after so many postponements, I took a plane to Beirut. The day was September 29 of 2004. I mentioned above that my grandpa was secretive about his past. I knew that his mother left Lebanon in 1909, when he was only nine years old. He came with his brothers and sisters to the state of São Paulo, in Brazil. I thought that all his family had emigrated to the new country. At the time of his arrival to Brazil, Lebanon was part of the collapsing Ottoman empire. I was certain that all that I would find in Kafaraka pertaining to my family would be birth registrations and maybe a family grave site in an old cemetery. In my dreams, however, there was a family waiting for me.

The first moment that my childhood dream seemed to materialize into reality was when I left the modern Beirut International Airport. I took a cab ride to a hotel in downtown. The cab driver overcharged me and displayed great skill at the art of haggling. Being cheated by a charming and crafty taxi driver was my first experience in my promised land. The car drove trough still impoverished neighborhoods south of Beirut, and I saw buildings with bullet holes and other scars of the war. After arriving at the hotel , I called William. He kindly invited me to go to Byblos and generously offered to pick me up and drive me to his house the next day. It was late in the afternoon, and I strolled in the boardwalk of Beirut, witnessing my first magnificent mediterranean sunset.

Next morning, I had breakfast near the enchanting campus of the American University of Beirut. After savoring a memorable cup of turkish coffee, I felt the ground shake under my feet and heard the loud noise of an explosion. It dawned on me that I was in the Middle East without any doubt. Soon I learned that a car bomb had exploded not far from where I was. Strangely, I felt very serene and safe. Somehow, in my thoughts, I felt the reassuring presence of my grandfather. An hour later, William picked me up in my hotel. William is a lively and exceedingly warm young man. Although we had never met before, he treated me like a brother. William brought back my memories of the hospitality and kindness of lebanese people that I was so fond of in Brazil. He is an attorney, but his activities are centered around promoting the beauty and achievements of Lebanon through multiple sites in the internet. His website “Lebanon Panorama” is a window for people around the world who want to have a glimpse of his beautiful homeland. William took me to the ancient phoenician city of Byblos. The name Bible comes from Byblos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth. The modern name for Byblos is Jbail, meaning rock or mountain in arabic.

Once we arrived at William’s house, I met his father, Joseph Matar. Remarkable is not a word to make justice to the uniqueness of Joseph Matar. He is energetic, vibrant, and charismatic. His art reflects a cosmic awareness of this world and of the worlds beyond. William invited me to see his father’s studio. I felt emotions that I never before experienced at the sight of his watercolors and oil paintings. Joseph Matars art has a soul stirring quality that I can not match with words. His portraits evoke the memory of a time before time itself existed. His paintings of lebanese landscapes reminded me of dreams that I had long forgotten and about a time that I desperately wanted to recapture. In particular, I felt moved by a canvas representing a fallen carob tree. The fallen, large carob tree made me think about the mystery of death and about my own connection with those who came before me. Little I knew at that moment that in a few days, I would find out that a carob tree would be a key to connect my consciousness to the distant past that led to my life. At the center of the cemetery of Kafaraka, a carob tree stands, surrounded by the grave sites of my ancestors. In an instant, looking at that magnificent artistic representation, I felt connected to a special moment, simultaneously distant and timeless. Joseph Matar’s paintings representing the mysteries of Christianity provided me the proper preparation for the next stage of my journey, particularly because I have never been particularly religious. My visit to his house was the first of many graces that I would receive in Lebanon.

After inviting me to a delicious lunch in their house, William and his father told me that they would take me to Kafaraka to take a look at my ancestral village. They were about to present me with the gift that I most wanted since I was a child. In my prayers, I had promised my grandfather that I would not only eat a fig in his hometown but also pray to the Virgin Mary on his behalf. He was very devout to the Blessed Mother and always participated in religious processions in her honor in Brazil. He attended the Catholic Church in Brazil but shared with me that he missed the traditions of the Orthodox Church in Lebanon.

The trip from Jbail to Kafaraka lasted about 30 minutes. This was the most exciting half hour of my life. As soon as we entered my ancestral village, I saw the name Mattar in a pastry shop. Did I have any living distant relatives in Kafaraka? Was I going to eat a fig and pray for the Virgin Mary for my grandfather? These questions inundated my mind. The great psychiatrist, Doctor Carl Jung, coined the term “synchronicity” to describe coincidences with a meaning. Lebanon was about to surprise me with an unending string of coincidences with profound meanings to me.

Kafaraka is a small, picturesque village situated in a valley filled with olive trees, in the northern part of Lebanon. Some of its buildings were very old. Joseph and William started asking questions to local villagers since my knowledge of the beautiful arabic language was only rudimentary. First we met Cido, who was also born in Brazil and maybe also was distantly related to my grandmother Adiba. He directed us to an elderly man named Anwar Mattar, with the same family name of my grandfather but not closely related. Anwar Mattar told us about the story of a woman from Kafaraka who left Lebanon to live in Brazil in the early twentieth century, without her husband. One of her children, named Assad Mattar, remained in Lebanon. He apparently loved very much one of his brothers who left for Brazil and named his grandson after the beloved brother. This grandson was named Michel, and he currently lives in Kafarka. Miguel is the portuguese version of Mikhail, my grandfather’s original name. Michael is the french version of the same name. Could Michel be a cousin of my mine?

Cido, William, Joseph and I went to Michel’s house. Michel answered the door and invited us inside his house. His living room was decorated in a manner eerily similar to the houses of my relatives who lived in Brazil. He offered us coffee and sweets and started asking and answering questions. My head was spinning with the events. At times, I talked directly to Michel in French or Arabic. My knowledge of these two languages is quite limited. I spoked with Cido in Portuguese, with William in English and with Joseph in Spanish. They translated some of the communication between Michel and I. After all, mixing languages is a very lebanese thing to do!

Michel talked about his family and about his great-uncle in Brazil who had lived in Igarapava and worked in the rice business. We quickly ascertained that we were talking about my grandfather Miguel. When we found out that were relatives, Michel and I became teary and embraced each other. At that moment, I felt a need to pray to the Blessed Mother and thank her for the miracle that I had just witnessed. Michael appeared to read my thoughts and gave me a portrait of the Miraculous Virgin Mary of Kafaraka. Then, silently, I prayed and thanked my grandfather for taking me to this journey of discovery to Lebanon, the land of the cedars, and the true doorway to man’s Spirit.

My promise was almost completely fulfilled, but I still had to eat a fig in Kafaraka. To my disappointment, I was told by Cido that the fig season was over and that it would be almost impossible to find a fresh fig in Lebanon at that time of the year. Michel, however, told me not to worry. He directed me to the front of his house where a fig tree was waiting for me, with the last figs of the season...

By Dr. Hugo Franco