Beirut, its patron and the dragon

Trying to dig into the stories Beirut is made of. At first, very little comes to mind but then starting the search and the questioning, it feels like I am entering a maze of interconnected stories.

I could talk about Abu el-Abd, the famous Beiruti character, but a quick internet search about him found me only the well known jokes and some photos of Ismail Haniya of Hamas, who also appears to be known as Abu el-Abd. Then the Phoenix came to mind (الفينيق او العنقاء), the mythical bird that dies in flames and is reborn from the ashes over and over again. I was intrigued by the fact that this myth had its roots in this part of the world, starting with its name, but was uncomfortable with the all too many similarities drawn between it and Beirut, the city that will also rise from its ashes. I personally couldn't justify why it had to burn itself every so often to start with.

So I eventually settled on one of the ancient myths which I would have thought we all knew; that of the dragon, and the city's savior, St. Georges (مار جريس) or, depending on your religious preferrence, Al-Khidr (الخضر) the "wali". Asking about that I get a huge mix of stories, about two characters that have a long list of achievements on their CVs. The common thing, is that both saved the city of Beirut by slaying the dragon that threatened it and its people. One version says that the dragon would come out every year and slay one of its girls, and that St. George al-Khidr responded in one of the years to the prayer of a particularly devout girl (and in other versions, the daughter of the city's governor) and slayed the dragon. It is this savior who is today Beirut's patron, usually referred to with the use of both names together as if they are are one "St. George Al-Khodr", or مار جريس الخضر.

We in Beirut would like to think of him as ours, and several references, mention particular seaside spaces as historically the dragon's hiding, nesting, or death space, though many of them are now unreachable. Check this out for example:

The 20-foot square well from which the dragon periodically arose stands on the northern edge of the city. Now it forms the center of a Muslim primary school playground, but it is paved over because the teachers were afraid the children would fall in. And the pupils are not told about the dragon lest they have nightmares. Next to the school lies the site of the slaying. The Crusaders built a chapel over the spot, but since 1661 it has alternated between chapel and mosque. Today, the yard-and-a-half thick walls that formed the tower support a modern minaret.

There are mosques and churches after his/their name all over the city, including the mosque in Carantina (which used to be a church) and the Greek Orthodox church in down town.

Yet each have their own story, Saint George, who some would say was born in Beirut, seems to be the patron of not only Beirut, but of Palestine, England, Greece, Moscow, and a dozen other places. He had a glamorous military career, and was tortured in failing attempts to force him out of Christianity. After various torture sessions, of which he was revived from apparent death three times, he was decapitated on April 23, the day on which he is celebrated today as a saint.

Al-Khidr on the other hand is also the good man (الرجل الصالح) who accompanied Prophet Moses and shared with him some of his wisdom (the Cave: 18:60 -18:82). The story is cited in the Koran without naming Al-Khidr, but the link between the good man and Al-Khidr is well entrenched in popular culture. A three part interesting exploration of what knowledge is and an invitation for us to "have patience in that of which we have not got a comprehensive knowledge", it is definitely worth a read (in Arabic and in English).

In Ahmad Kaabor's 80's song "Beirut ya Beirut", Al-Khidr is on the gates of the city marrying her off (Beirut is female by the way, for those who don't speak Arabic) - who the happy groom is though is up for interpretation. There is an old very well known Iraqi prayer in the name of Al-Khidr, now better known as the Kamil Prayer (دعاء كميل) which you could listen to tens of recordings of it here, and even get an English translation.

From that I am taken to myths yet to unfold, of hidden places that I wrote about before, of a city that once had seven gates, with seven layers under the ground since it was, like the Phoenix, destroyed and rebuilt seven times. A three fold city, like St. George's three-time resurrection, which you could all take part in weaving, in the upcoming three day performances of Zokak Theater Company and Lotos Collective, taking place in 3 secret locations in Beirut. You could join in disclosing each location if you meet at any of the below at 18:30 today 19/8 or 20/8 or 21/8.

• Long Beach Parking Area, Manara
• Barometre Pub (facing Khoury Hospital), Hamra
• Corner of Furn el Chebak & Sami Es Solh, (intersection)

.. and maybe then I might write about yet another Beirut story.


Anonymous said...

Thank you,
you feed my nostalgia and you satisfy it.

Anonymous said...

as you said every city has it's own khader, or mar, hope we will have a new good man like them to save us from the dragon in Palistine.

Muzna said...

Fab, come to Lebanon that is a better cure for the nostalgia..

Anonymous, yes, that dragon in Palestine definitely needs slaying.. though I don't think one good man (or woman of course) is enough..

Jaleela said...

Muzna - I love how you always manage to take us on a journey through our own city - and here I thought I knew it so well!

Muzna said...

Glad you like it Jaleela, there is a lot more to discover, but my "urban walks" and city exploration companion is missing..

georges salameh said...

dear muzna,

I was born in beirut and visited it only few times, but i couldn't resist sharing my personal version of this city in a photo:
even if my name is georges and the phoenician myth is so appealing, I always thought of beirut as a floating feminine figure...

thank you for your stories.

palermo august 2009

Muzna said...

Thanks George, good photo you have there.. and I too, can't think of Beirut but as a female.. but I am almost sure she is not veiled .. I'd probably have her put sex underwear on, or a belly dancing outfit :)