Ras Beirut, ninety years ago…
The photos above show the Seelye house in Hamra, gypsies with dancing bear, the Seelyes on some outings and with friends.
Seventy five years later, what’s left of my Beirut memories?
It was long after our arrival in 1919 that I became aware of the different parts of the city. For me, there was Ras Beirut and then there was the rest of Beirut. We lived in Ras Beirut, where the American University was located. Ras Beirut was a nice open combination of old houses with tiled roofs and new apartment buildings being built. Roads were often dusty at that time. From the lighthouse at the end of Bliss street, this wonderful lighthouse, one could see a sandy beach down to the left when facing out to sea. I suppose all of those places are much closer together than I remember them, but even as a kid I would realize that Beirut was a wonderful variety of city and non-city. There were also the high walls in the streets. Once you rang a bell and opened a door in a wall you could walk into dark gardens with their trees and flowers. And when you passed these walls on the street, you would wonder what was behind them.
The sound of the tram going around the corner is still in my memory. I remember it well enough that even today I can imitate it. I adored driving and used to go out to the car and pretend I was driving. Because of that, I was aware of honking and there was much honking of horns. Even back then there were lots of cars and lots of noise in Beirut. From time to time, gypsies added to the hullabaloo of the city. I remember them with their dancing bear on leashes on the dirt road beyond the barbed wire fence on one side of our house…
My memory however betrays me on smells. There were probably some smells typical of the city but it seems that I was not particularly conscious of them. I don’t recall having jasmine in our garden; do you have jasmine, smells of jasmine in Beirut?
Cookies in my time were not that good, but sometimes somebody would bring back from the downtown some French pastry with little worm-shaped chocolate pieces sprinkled over the top. That was for me the greatest thing to have. Then, one student from the AUB went to the United States and learned about dairy processes and came back to Beirut and started a dairy business to make whipping cream. We were allowed to have whipped cream on Wednesday evenings—one spoonful of whipped cream. Of course, there was also the baklavah and the kaak bisumsum. Every now and again my parents would let us buy kaak bisumsum on our way back from swimming, with zaatar sprinkled in it. I used to love the Lebanese dishes though I can’t remember their names. But yes the Lebanese food was delicious.
As for the general attitude towards America and Americans, when I look back, I realize that the atmosphere then was permeated with love and admiration. There was no tension in the air and no sense that you were spoiling things or disturbing them; there was just a perfectly accepting and loving atmosphere, quite different from now. At the time there wasn’t any threat of being hurt because you were American or a foreigner; there was never that in the air in my childhood. There was the habit of pinching the cheek of young people or babies, but it was to show affection. Sometimes little boys would throw stones at you just because you were you or you were different, but it wasn’t because you were an American. Anyway that wasn’t often and it certainly was innocent.There was innocence there.
One thing I regret however is that there wasn’t any kind of pulse or rhythm that brought us into the orbit of the Lebanese as kids. My mother had good Lebanese friends, but our childhood friends were school friends who were all in the American school and who were being prepared for American colleges. If I had any control over the past, I would certainly ensure that Arabic gets taught in the American school.
We left Beirut in 1934. I was told that things have changed a lot. But this is the way it will always remain to me, in my memory.