Man of the Orchard


Update: Since I wrote this piece in February, Sukoon, an Arab literary magazine, kindly republished it here. I was also asked to turn the tribute into the below podcast for Black River Press. With thanks to both Rewa and Themba. 

I first met jeddo (grandpa) in August 1987. I was just three years old, but I have this distinct memory of him hurriedly running down the driveway of his humble orchard-home in Zahrani, barefoot, in the pouring rain, to embrace my mother. He hadn’t seen her since just before the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1982; they’d barely communicated in the interim. Tears were streaming down his face as he held her.

Osman “Abu Nasser” Antar was born to Zahra and Mahmoud in Sidon in 1929. He was the fifth of eight other siblings — one sister, and seven brothers. His father was a trader and a landowner who worked between Palestine and South Lebanon; he managed his finances poorly.

When jeddo was barely 11, my great-grandfather unexpectedly passed away, leaving the family of ten with very little to survive on. My grandpa was consequently forced to leave school to provide for himself, his younger siblings, and his mother.

When I think of jeddo, it’s almost always of him sitting on the ground, in front of a pile of ripe oranges that he’d picked from the bustan (orchard) he tended to, with a kuffiyeh wrapped around his head, dressed in his khaki work clothes.

He’d often have Fairouz, Umm Kulthoum or Mohammad Abdul Wahab playing from a little radio in the background as he carefully arranged the oranges into crates to be taken to the market.

Sometimes, when he was in a particularly good mood, he’d have classical Arabic ballads blasting from my uncle’s parked car as he worked, or he’d hum their tunes whilst feeding the chickens in the coop.

Jeddo was, to my mind, a man of the land. To him, the land of the orchard was life, and he was rarely away from it.

Jeddo started picking fruit and crops as a young boy. When it was blossoming season, he’d wake up at the crack of dawn to head to the orchards with his brothers, where they’d stay for days until they finished their jobs, before returning to the city. For hours on end, they’d toil away at the land, guarding the crops and irrigating and picking the oranges and lemons.

When jeddo’s father passed away, working at the orchards to the south of Sidon would become his primary source of income, and ultimately, his profession. He quickly took on a reputation of being one of the finest men of the orchards in his area. He upheld that reputation for more than six decades, working the land with a sense of pride and ownership that left almost everyone he came into contact with in awe.

Jeddo would eventually join the city’s trade union, hosting meetings for the tens of men of Sidon who, like himself, worked in the orchards. Once a week, grandpa would line up the chairs in the garden of the orchard he tended to and along the private road that led to it. The workers would congregate to discuss the affairs of the union.

Grandpa would eventually become treasurer of the union, a role which would see him travel between Sidon and Damascus and which would earn him a mention in a historical book on the southern port city. Those meetings at his boss’s bustan and the crowd they attracted became so notorious, that political figures from Maarouf Saad to Nazih Bizri would compete for jeddo’s support; the congregation often translated into votes.

My mother’s childhood home in the south of Lebanon was simple. In the middle of a beautiful, modest-sized orchard, it seemed cut off from the rest of the world. The walls were worn and cracked, and the beds, which I’d share with my aunts, were stiff. In the summers, it was unbearably hot, and in the winter, unbearably cold.

But in between trips to Lebanon from the U.K., I thought of that small home as a vast palace full of treasures, and of my grandfather, as the king of that palace.

Every Sunday after we moved back to Lebanon in the mid-nineties, we’d congregate at the bustan  in Zahrani for extended family lunches. They almost always consisted of kousa mehshi (stuffed zucchini) — my grandparents’ favourite — or dishes that my brothers and I would request, such as grandma’s homemade pizza or wara’ 3enab (stuffed vine leaves). Grapes dangling from the vine leaves that jeddo had grown himself were picked for dessert.

Before and after my rebellious years at college (sorry mama), I cherished those Sundays. Specifically the moments following lunch, when my grandparents would move to the living room to watch the news on a tiny black-and-white TV set, teta (grandma) lying down, weary after cooking a feast for 10+ people, and jeddo sitting upright in his chair, with his rosary beads in one hand.

On his other palm, he’d almost always rest his head before dozing off, drifting in and out of sleep. Sometimes he’d briefly wake up to smack a mosquito on his arm or leg. It always made us laugh, how he’d fall back to sleep instantaneously.

Like clockwork, Jeddo would then head back to the bustan, where he’d work until the sun went down. Before we’d leave to Sidon, he would load up the trunk of the car with oranges, lemons, bananas and assorted vegetables that he’d grown and picked himself. The scent of orange blossoms at the bustan was so dense, it stayed with us for hours after leaving.

Growing up, we’d heard multiple legendary stories about jeddo. Some of them, he told us with a chuckle. Others, we heard from teta or mama or our uncles. We learned to suspend rational judgment on the veracity of the stories.

A donkey once kicked jeddo in the face, breaking his nose instantaneously, he told us. Despite the pain it caused him, he almost immediately repositioned his nose, straightening the broken bone, he said. It’s a story he’d share repeatedly over the years, explaining to my brothers that they should be abadayat (good and strong men).

Jeddo’s surname, Antar (the name of a legendary Arab poet and warrior), sometimes seemed poetic. Like he’d strived, throughout his long life, to live up to it.

In another one of those stories, jeddo had apparently killed a poisonous snake with a shotgun — despite being paralysed with fear — at the age of 13.

The snake’s skin was so tough, the bullet wouldn’t go through it with the first shot. He was said to have killed the snake with the second and last bullet: by shooting it straight into its mouth.

Jeddo was notoriously handsome, even as an elderly man. As a teenager, he was acutely aware of this, constantly using his looks and charm to flirt with girls.

But grandpa was also a poor man, who spent most of his days working for very little. In his downtime, he’d loiter the streets with his older brother and best friend, Saleh, who worked in the orchards with him. Realising they couldn’t capture the attention of girls in their shabby work clothes, they once decided to save up some money to buy a nice shirt, to impress them. They’d take turns wearing it.

One of those ladies was Souad Yemen, my grandma. Jeddo first caught a glimpse of her in town, while he was still in his khaki work clothes. She was taking a stroll with grandpa’s aunts — the wives of her uncles — and her beauty struck him, he’d tell us. Instead of saying hello right away, though, he ran home, showered, put on the smart shirt and trousers, and hurried back to town to join them. This was a lady jeddo wanted to impress.

A proud woman, teta ignored him all evening.

Teta was extremely rigid with jeddo at first. She did not like men who flirted so ostentatiously with her, and she would never, ever flirt back. My grandma was, my mother says, “brought up like a princess,” having been extremely spoiled by her father. But jeddo wouldn’t give up on her. He befriended her father, despite the fact that he was scared of him, and eventually secured a job at his bustan.

Teta would warm up to jeddo eventually. One summer’s afternoon, when the akadinia (loquats) were in season, she invited her friends over for lunch.

Jeddo, at the time, was working in the bustan — picking the loquats — when teta’s friend brought a tray over to him, with a message from Souad: she wanted some of the fruit. He arranged them for her in an intricate pyramid, before sending the tray back. They married shortly afterwards.

Teta’s mother, dismayed by the match, said her daughter would spend the rest of her life washing grandpa’s work clothes.

Years earlier — when my grandmother was still a teenager and my grandfather a lad —  teta and her girlfriends would frequently meet up to catch up and gossip. During one of those meet-ups, grandma’s friend said in passing that if a girl recited a certain prayer, she’d see her future husband in her dreams.

Shortly after their discussion, teta did indeed dream of jeddo, whom she had hardly noticed at the time. In the dream, he was leading a donkey with saddles on both of its sides. One of the two saddles was heavier than the other, and jeddo spent the entire journey trying to balance the two. A fitting premonition, if there ever was one.

Jeddo and teta had a wonderfully complex relationship that continually teetered on the edge of complete collapse. Despite living humbly, they struggled financially during the first fifteen years or so of their marriage. Having already left school against my great-grandma’s wishes, teta provoked the ire of her mother when she married jeddo.

But, in between the stresses that weighed them down — they had two very ill daughters — they also shared some private, playful moments, away from their six children. They had a secret little cupboard at their orchard home that they’d constantly replenish with treats, including the finest nuts, snacks and drinks.

When my mother, Mariam, was born, she contracted typhoid fever. Frantic, grandpa took his ill child to the only doctor in the city, quickly burning through the little money he had. He needed 5 liras, the doctor told him, to purchase medicine urgently needed to treat my mother.

At first, jeddo sought an advance from his employer, but the man refused. He’d loaned his brother money to buy a cow, and requested repayment, but he said he was unable to hand over the funds.

Off jeddo went to a café in the old city, where he ordered tea, and sat in stubborn, somber silence for hours. The owner of the café approached grandpa, asking him what was wrong, and jeddo — proud man that he was — couldn’t bring himself to speak the entire truth.

“I’ve forgotten my money in another pair of trousers at home,” he told the shop owner. “I need 5 liras to buy medicine for my sick daughter.”

The shopkeeper, who knew of jeddo’s plight, handed over his day’s earnings, which added up to 17 liras — all the money he had in his apron. When grandpa refused to accept the money, claiming it was far more than he needed, the man insisted he take it all.

My mother maintains, till today, that it’s the combination of the shop keeper’s kindness and jeddo’s determination that saved her life.

As the problems mounted, teta and jeddo decided it would be best to go their separate ways. Though the divorce wouldn’t last for long, it was something of a small disaster for the family, the effects of which would linger for years.

Grandpa, stubborn as he was, would claim he was saamed (steadfast) when people would say he should take teta back, as they were clearly still in love with one another.

Teta would eventually return from Damascus, where she stayed with her family during the divorce, and jeddo couldn’t help but soften up.

The divorce lasted less than a year, but it’s a period of time that jeddo would look back on with great regret and remorse, until the day he died.

During the Israeli invasion of 1982, the IDF would infiltrate the South, eventually reaching Zahrani, where my grandpa and his family lived. Stories circulated that the army was patrolling the surrounding areas, so jeddo had instructed the family on how to behave should the inevitable happen, to ensure their safety: He would act cordially, and the children and teta would remain quiet, indoors.

An Israeli army contingent did indeed reach the bustan, as they neared Sidon. Upon encountering jeddo, who was terrified but composed, they asked for water. The senior officer, who knew Arabic, got to talking to my grandpa about his family, and jeddo told them that he had a daughter who was married and who lived with her husband in Ireland.

Jeddo continued conversing, attempting to conceal his fear, unsure what else he could do. He said he hadn’t been in touch with my mother for months, and that she’d surely be worried about the family’s safety. The Israeli officer asked for a contact number, and promised he would soon call my parents to convey to them that jeddo and the family were indeed safe.

Weeks later, my father, then a doctor at a hospital in the U.K., was told, while he was at work, that he had received an international phone call. A man claiming to be an Israeli officer told my dad that his wife’s family was safe. Shocked, my father reasoned that it was a prank call, and hung up on the man.

It wasn’t until 1987, when my mother first saw jeddo on a trip back to Lebanon after the invasion, that she and my father came to realise it was indeed a true, and somewhat remarkable story.

Among jeddo’s most endearing qualities was his sense of humour. When I was about 15 or 16, and still a tomboy, he told me I should “wear high heels every now and then,” because I’d started looking “more like my four brothers” than a young lady.

In his final years of life, he’d occasionally ask someone to bring him a pocket  mirror. He’d then peer into it seriously, before saying, “TOZZZ” (fart), and handing it back over with a chuckle. He’d do the same when he’d see photos of himself as a younger, handsome man.

But jeddo’s most captivating quality was his sensitivity. I’d seen him cry multiple times. While he did indeed live up to his surname, he found no shame in exposing his weaknesses.

Every time I’d leave Lebanon after visiting, when I’d say goodbye to him, he would break down into tears, and say he was frightened this would be the last time he would see me.

Each time, he would ask me to take care of my mama once he’d pass, because he could see mama in me, and mama was special.

After my teta passed away in 2010, jeddo would constantly speak of her, how they met, and the love they’d shared, tearing up each time. Occasionally, he would say, lovingly and with a chuckle, that being with her was a lot like the “taming of the shrew.”

When jeddo was bedridden, toward the end, he had a picture of teta taped up next to where he rested his head, on the wall. We’d often catch him looking at it with a sense of guilt and longing.

Osman Abu Nasser Antar passed away at the age of 87, on February 4, the same date as teta’s birthday.

May you rest in peace together, jeddo and teta. How I love you both. ♦

 

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