Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.

2013 July

A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

The Dome of the Custom House, Dublin

THE MOST RECENT series of the ITV detective drama “Foyle’s War”, though set in London, was filmed entirely in Dublin. (Ah, those Bord Scannán incentives!). I’ve noticed a phenomenon in which something set in England but filmed in Ireland suffers from English stereotype overcompensation. What this entails is unnecessarily sticking noticeably English ‘things’ (double-decker bus, red pillarbox) into the frame when, if filmed in England, the directors might otherwise be satisfied without these subconscious emblems reassuring the viewer that they are not in fact in the country the programme was actually filmed in.

So two characters meeting on a street of Georgian houses will have a red post box shoved into some arbitrary place on the street to remind us we’re in jolly old England. Despite this, any devotées of the Georgian style will recognise the Irishness of the houses because of the subtle yet noticeable difference between the Georgian styles of, say, London, Edinburgh, Bath, and Dublin.

Anyhow, not to reveal too much of the plot of this latest series, but Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle is recruited into a post-war British intelligence gathering organisation. The exterior shots of the building used as this group’s headquarters is the Custom House on River Liffey in Dublin, only the show’s producers have digitally removed the building’s prominent dome, presumably in order to make it less distinctive and identifiable. (more…)

July 30, 2013 6:20 pm | Link | 6 Comments »

Into the Qadisha Valley

THE HOLY VALLEY cuts down like a gash in the earth, with the cathedral city of Bcharré on the clifftop, almost hanging off of it. One almost wonders if you started building at the other end of the town, it might force St Seba’s Cathedral off over into the deep beyond. There is something almost Lord of the Rings about the setting, a Levantine Minas Tirith, if only Tolkein had been a Maronite.

The Qadisha Valley (Ouadi Qadisha, وادي قاديشا, literally the “Holy Valley”) takes its name from the Aramaic word for saintly and for over a millennium its natural caves have provided shelter for hermits seeking solitude as well as others seeking refuge and safety. Evidence of human habitation dates back to the Paleolithic era, and the Qannubin Monastery here is said to have been founded by the Emperor Theodosius the Great in the fourth century. While this is the holiest ground of the Maronite Catholics, hermits living in these caves and in these monasteries have been Melchite, Nestorian, Armenian, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian. When the Monastery of St Maron was sacked by Antiochene Monophysites, many monks fled to the Qadisha Valley, strengthening the presence of this Eastern church which has always remained in communion with Rome. For over five hundred years, the Maronite patriarch made Deir Qannubin his seat. (Since 1830 the Patriarchate has been based at Bkerké above the pleasant Mediterranean city of Jounieh).

It was a hot summer’s day when we arrived and as chance had it we couldn’t even get very far into Bcharré.

“A man has died. We can’t go on,” the driver mysteriously intones. (A funeral procession is underway).

Very well. We carry on down circuitously weaving through the outer-lying portions of the town, through a small necropolis, and then finally into the valley proper. While the Qadisha valley attracts many pilgrims and travellers, this is not some easy tourist route, though nor is it difficult as hiking goes (unless, like us, you have a partially blind Paralympian among your party).

Up and down you go amongst small rivulets and meandering paths joining and divorcing from your own, led by a guide who speaks neither French nor English (thank God our Lebanese friends were with us).

Eventually, having passed a considerable way down, and then up a little ways, we are taken to a cave which has been segmented with stone walls into a chapel.

Much to my surprise, murals still survive in this exposed environment, protected by the overhanging rock.

The iconoclastic damage looked quite recent, and our guide explained it probably dated from as recently as the Syrian occupation (1976–2005).

Monasticism began in the East, of course, and Western monasticism is a slightly different kettle of fish. While hermits once lived in these caves, almost all of today’s Qadisha monks are gathered into the formal Maronite communities (Baladites, Aleppians, and Antonins) or into the other non-Maronite monasteries in the valley.

Brushing the dust of the Qadisha Valley from my shoes at the end of the day, I wondered if the first monks slapped their sandals together, discarding the very same sand sixteen hundred years earlier after they finished their Liturgy of the Hours for the day (though I somehow doubt it).

July 22, 2013 5:56 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

Lebanon Diary

Early evening sun illuminates the pendentives and architraves of the Maronite church. Discoloured prints of numerous saints — of East and West — crowd one of the few side altars. The Arabic numerals indicate the date of its dedication: 1971 — before the war.

Without internet in a remote village in northern Lebanon, elevation 500 ft, we are cut off from the outside world. Word reaches us of a military coup in Egypt. (I hate missing a coup!) The reactions are a mixture of relief and caution, and a little wonderment at how things must have moved very quickly. Curiosity is sparked as to what else is going on in the world outside Sourat.

Dappled sunlight. Unfamiliar saints. A lizard scurries past, its long processional tail trailing behind it.

D.G. of the Financial Times drops in and brings that commodity we most desire: news from elsewhere. I quiz him on the coup in Egypt, how it played out, how it was orchestrated, and what he thinks of it, but there is little time.

At night, reading Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love on the terrace with a Gauloise and a bottle of Almaza. Two wolves cry in the distance and I remember hearing the snorting of a wild boar a few nights previous. One chased Emmanuel on his way back from ‘the Palace’ (as we have dubbed the Abouna’s house, where the honoured guests stay) and was shot and killed — the photos of the quarry being displayed on an iPhone handed round.

The night is punctuated by the sound of repeated explosions in the distance. Luckily these are fireworks — a particular Lebanese obsession. It seems symptomatic of the Lebanese mentality that — having spent so long being so close to death — it is necessary to celebrate being alive. One may as well have a good time, and the Lebanese are experienced at having a good time.

In the car on the way to the pharmacy, Mahe our indispensable handyman (and a refugee) talks to Niall about Syria. “Syria. Big war. Boom boom. Muslims fight Assad. Assad fight Muslims. Big war.”

• • •

BUILD! BUILD! BUILD! Beirut is abuzz with cranes and construction and wood boarding over the site of new projects. That tower wasn’t there last year, was it? No. And doubtless by next year new spires will scrape the sky over St George’s Bay, where the saint slew the dragon. Is he dormant there beneath the waters still? Something lurks perpetually beneath the Lebanon, occasionally raising its head above the surface in open violence. Just then a Hezbollah building in the southern suburbs is bombed. The list of assassinations in this country’s history is long and depressing, from that of Maarouf Saad which (arguably) sparked the fifteen-year Civil War, and of course the former prime minister Rafik Hariri’s killing in 2005. Even since Hariri’s death, no fewer than twelve Lebanese public figures have been assassinated.

Have you ever been to Rafik Hariri’s tomb? It’s a slightly vulgar thing, still shrouded in its temporary marquee, giving it a somewhat transient feel, as if it might up sticks and away to Sidon or Tripoli at a moment’s notice. We nipped in the other day after a trip to the adjacent mosque he had built, completed in 2007 with its brilliant blue dome. The mosque’s design is traditional but not entirely perfect. The massive crystal chandelier hanging from the vast central dome is impressive but perhaps a bit much. Somehow, we are deprived of ancillary spaces: going through the main entrance one feels a certain lack of procession. No narthex, no nave, you just take off your shoes, step through the open doors, and are there. Why not one of those spacious courtyards which grace so many older mosques? Land in Beirut doesn’t come cheap.

Of course, when it was completed it was noticed that the minarets overshadowed the campanile of the adjacent Maronite cathedral, which meant the Catholic bell-tower had to be rebuilt to be at least the same height as the Sunni minaret, or perhaps an inch taller. Just to be on the safe side.

We had arranged to meet G. and the others twenty minutes later at the Grand Café on the Place de l’Étoile, which was a silly idea. A wedding was finishing at St George’s, the Greek cathedral, as we rolled up and we joined in the applause for the happy couple when they exeunted the church. In between, however, we nipped in to Hariri’s tomb, or perhaps shrine is the more appropriate word. It is choc-a-bloc with oversized portrait photographs of the smiling premier in his prime — a mix of political, semi-tribal, and religious devotion. The soldiers guard it nonchalantly and seem glad for some visitors on a Saturday afternoon. One presumes plans are being made for some grand mausoleum to supersed the transient tent with its faint hint of a vagabond yurt. We had to move on to a rather trendy place in Gemmayze, Mo stopping along the way as he ran into friends.

• • •

These nuns are magnificent: it is impossible to respect them enough. They do an impossible task taking care of so many physically and mentally handicapped, on very little resources. They take anyone and everyone under their wing — Christian, Muslim, Druze, whatever. Their founder, Abouna Yaacoub (Père Jacques), is up for canonisation and the fruits of his foundation are still flowering. We’ve visited a number of the care homes they run — in Antelias, Dar al Kamar, etc. — and while the conditions are very basic I think the love these nuns have shines through. They have devoted their entire lives to serve these men and women who often, ignored and forgotten, have no one else. They are also completely clued in; you wouldn’t be able to get anything past them. The Mother Superior’s mobile rings, she answers and buzzes off away to put something right.

• • •

Arabic is a beautiful language, though at its most beautiful when spoken by women. (But then: isn’t every language?)

“Our relationship to France is completely different. We were never a colony, only a protectorate, a mandate. My grandparents still refer to France as the mother country.” Still, the decline of the French language here is noticeable, as is the concurrent advance of English. The new global tongue dominates billboards and advertisements, not to mention the radio. In some places in the countryside, I’ve seen new streetsigns in Arabic first and English second: no French. (Beirut seems to have escaped this phenomenon).

If Lebanon ever loses the French language, it will lose part of itself. But the Lebanese, who have many admirable qualities, are expert businessmen — merchanting is in their blood — and English is the language of business. Not just business, but culture too: if you’re given a handbill advertising some small art show or exhibition, it’s invariably in English.

An evening party at a family home in Bsous, on the hills overlooking the capital. Everything is simply perfect. R, S, and I sit down amidst the grove of olive trees and immediately a small table with nibbly things is moved to just before us for our convenience. Beer, wine, and merriment flow and while the pool shines glows eerily as the lights of Beirut twinkle before us. Our hosts speak little English but we make do with French. P.A. claims (in that way that he often does) that P.’s father is so brilliant he was Minister of Finance to both Lebanese governments during the Civil War. When was this house built? 1890s? 1910s? It’s hard to tell. It suffered during the war but has been restored well and sensibly. Its location is beyond envy and I only wish we were here during the day to see the view across Beirut to the Mediterranean beyond.

July 22, 2013 5:52 pm | Link | 2 Comments »
July 22, 2013 5:50 pm | Link | 4 Comments »
Home | About | Contact | Categories | Paginated Index | Twitter | Facebook | RSS/Atom Feed
andrewcusack.com | © Andrew Cusack 2004-present (Unless otherwise stated)