Eid Mar Elias
Traditionally in Lebanon and Syria, Christian children celebrate their Saint's Day instead of their birthday. Those who are named Paul (Bulous) for example, celebrate St. Paul's Day as their own feast day.
My father's feast day is Eid Mar Elias. When he was a child, the celebration lasted all day and it began by going to the church named Saint Elias.
In the main yard of the church, nawbis (musical bands) from surrounding villages would assemble. Sword and dabki dancers would arrive. Children, dogs and beggars thronged the churchyard in large numbers. The young men (shabab) would be trying to impress the young ladies (sabaya) with their prowess in foot races, weight lifting and occasionally, horse races. Those children named after the saint were given new clothes and more than the usual spending money to buy and sample all the treats being offered for sale by the various vendors.
In the late afternoon, tired and happy, they would return home to wait for friends and relatives to come with more gifts and good wishes.
My father as a small boy, living in Bab al-Mussalla in Midan, the old quarter of Damascus, remembers being fascinated by the various peddlers, who wandered the narrow streets chanting about their products and services.
Sellers of fruits, vegetables, sweets, as well as knife sharpeners, pruners and buyers of old items, filled the air with their melodic chants. These rhyming chants never actually mentioned the name of the item being offered, but described in detail the color, freshness and taste. Buyers knew by the traditional chants what was being offered for sale, which also would dictate the day's menu. The streets were crowded with loaded donkeys, push carts and peddlers carrying large trays (sddur) piled high with cakes and other tasty things. Children playing in the street or on their way to school would also keep an eye out for the sellers of sweets. These were mostly seasonal. Cooked steaming sweet beets and popcorn were sold in winter. Ice with syrup (sweeq) was sold in the summer. Kaak and manaquish were sold year round. While Tamari with molasses were sold only on feast days. Invariably the daily allowance was exchanged for a Kaak with Za'atar, a Tamari or a handful of Hanblas, a tasty fruit that can be carried in the pocket without being damaged. Usually the sweets were shared or bartered with others, thus expanding the purchasing power of the daily allowance.
According to my father, the nicest of the peddlers was the Hallab who chanted about his fresh milk. The Hallab had a small flock of eight to ten Damascene goats. The goats were mostly brown, large and gentle. They had two dangling strands from their necks. The small children would stand eye to eye with the goats to pet and hug them on their way to school. The Hallab did not mind and both the goats and the children loved the attention. The Hallab carried a pail (suttle) and a measuring can (kaylee) and a long bamboo stick. When the housewife opened the door and asked for milk, the Hallab would milk one of his goats right there. If she planned to make yoghurt that day, more milk would be required. If the goats began to wander, the Hallab gently guided them back to the herd. After the fresh milk was delivered and the Hallab was paid, he continued on his route, chanting about his beautiful goats.
The other peddlers could not compete with the Hallab, his wonderful goats and the pleasure of petting the gentle and loving animals. My father remembers that after powdered milk appeared on the grocery shelves, milk never tasted the same again.
My grandfather, Jiddu, as a good Greek Orthodox, had great respect for Tsarist Russia. When the Tsar was defeated and exiled after the Bolshevik Revolution, Jiddu assumed that it was a temporary exile. Believing the Tsar and the Russian Empire would soon return to their previous glory. Jiddu saw an opportunity to make his fortune.
He sold the family possessions, cattle, land, jewelry etc. and bought Russian rubles, which by then had become almost worthless. All the rubles were stacked in wooden boxes and stored in a big closet in Jiddu's house. In the beginning, his children could not touch the rubles, only look at the hoard from a safe distance.
Time passed, the Tsar and his family were killed, and Jiddu's rules were gradually relaxed. The children were allowed to handle the rubles, count them, admire their various sizes and denominations, and in Jiddu's absence, show them to their friends. Finally the rubles lost all their mystique. Even Jiddu would occasionally laugh at his folly although no one else would have dared to bring up the economic details of that transaction.
Helen Zughaib was born in Beirut, Lebanon, living mostly in the Middle East and Europe before coming to the United States to study art. She received her BFA from Syracuse University, College of Visual and Performing Arts in 1981. She paints using gouache and ink on paper, transforming her subjects into a combination of colors and patterns, creating a nontraditional sense of space and perspective.
Her work has been widely exhibited in galleries and museums in the United States, Europe and Lebanon. Her paintings are included in many private and public collections, including the White House, World Bank, Library of Congress, US Consulate General, Vancouver, Canada, American Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, and the Arab American National Museum in Detroit, Michigan. In 2008, she served as United States Cultural Envoy to the West Bank, Palestine. In 2009, she was sent to Switzerland under the State Department’s Speaker and Specialist Program. Most recently, President Obama gave one of Zughaib’s pieces to Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki of Iraq, upon his official visit to the White House, and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, gave one of her pieces to the King of Morocco.
As an Arab American, Helen feels that her background in the Middle East allows her to approach the experiences she has in America, in a unique way, remaining an observer of both the Arab and American cultures. She believes that the arts are one of the most important tools we have to help shape and foster dialogue and positive ideas between the Middle East and the United States.