Hanifah's Secret Pudding
Hanifah was reticent concerning the ingredients that went into the making of her exquisite muhallabia milk puddings. Not even her husband was allowed into the kitchen while preparation was under way, although Nabil, their eleven year old son would sometimes sneak in to lick the mixing bowl.
Hanifah would be asked to prepare a large quantity of her famed puddings for the enjoyment of all, if there was to be a wedding or a christening in any of the surrounding mountain villages,. This she would do with great pleasure, pouring out the mixture into little glass dishes, then garnishing each with a blended glaze of grated pistachio, clear honey and stewed quince.
The consistency, taste and aroma were all delightful, and the joy, derived from the eating was eagerly anticipated. The women in the village would cajole and plead with her to reveal the enigmatic flavourings she used, but it was a secret that Hanifah never divulged. It was suggested that she used the milk of a goat or a camel. Some salacious gossips, speaking with a hint of envy, even implied that she might be using breast milk, a preposterous assumption which was readily dismissed.
In time the petty jealousies gave way to pride by association. Her neighbours would boast “the best muhallabia on Mount Lebanon is made in our town of Becharre by a woman whose devout grandmother was visited by an angel, who revealed the recipe to her, as a reward for her piety and devotion to the Virgin Mary.” In time the exaggeration became gospel, after which any attempt to discover the mystery was to question the divine will. Hanifah was able to keep herself in ready money by catering for those who occasionally requested her to exercise her culinary expertise.
She was a full bodied attractive woman, taller than average, with a demeanour and smile which showed that she was at one with the world. She had been married for more than twelve years to Tannous who worked away from home for many weeks at a time. Because of this, Hanifah’s occasional earning capacity from the preparation of muhullabia was useful.
Tannous was a strong, stocky man known for his strength and good humour. He adored his wife and son, and always brought both of them little gifts whenever he came home to Becharre. Concealing his Christian background, and posing as a Moslem he had managed to obtain work as a brakeman on the Hejaz railway, which ran between Damascus and the Islamic holy city of Medina. This line was constructed with Turkish money and labour, and in addition to transporting pilgrims to Medina, it doubled as military transport for the Ottoman troops going into Arabia to enforce their empire. This was at the height of the First World War, and the railway often received hostile attention from Arab revolutionaries seeking to liberate themselves and their people from their Turkish overlords. The tracks were regularly lifted out of position, and discarded. This meant that the train driver had to proceed at a very cautious pace, which in turn had the effect of slowing down or disrupting troop movements. Mines were also a hazard.
On a very hot afternoon, during one of Tannous’s tours of duty, one of these mines exploded horrendously, throwing him a few feet from the train into a sand slope, where he lay concussed and unconscious. Many of the Turkish soldiers were killed outright, but the few who managed to survive quickly regrouped into fighting positions, anticipating an attack from the Arabs, who were expected to follow up their ambush.
Nothing happened. Not one Arab came.
After a tense waiting period, the soldiers wearily began to calm down. An appraisal of their situation began and finally, a general withdrawing took place. They were forced by circumstance to leave their dead to the heat of the merciless sun, and the greedy appetites of the circling vultures.
Three or more hours went by. After the humidity had died down, and a gentle evening breeze was cooling the air, Tannous partly regained consciousness. Someone was cradling his head and moistening his lips with water. Slowly, he opened his eyes, and saw before him a Bedouin, with a taut unsmiling face, helping him to sip. A few paces behind this man he spotted a few others, standing near their camels and talking amongst themselves in an excited manner. Tannous lapsed back into unconsciousness.
When he again awoke, he was lying on a thick rug inside a tent. A black man in Arab costume smiled at him, stood up, leaned over, smiled again and then retreated outside the tent flap where he called out to somebody. The person who came in was the man who had given him water. Tannous raised himself up weakly onto his elbows, and with questions written all over his face, stared uncomprehendingly at his benefactor.
“We found you on the sand, almost cooked in the sun and mumbling in Arabic. So we knew you were not one of our enemies. Also you were not wearing a military uniform. Tomorrow, after the sun has passed its noon position, we will arrive at the Wadi Halif oasis, where you can rest and recover.” Tannous fell back on his supporting cushions, confused. His host passed him peeled fruit and spoke to him again. “Who are you? What name do you have?” Tannous could not answer. His mind was muddled. No thought would stay still long enough for him to express it. “I can’t remember” He became agitated. “I can’t remember anything. How did you come to find me? What was I doing there?”
“Rest now” came the reply. “We will talk more when you are stronger, God willing.” He prepared to leave but Tannous asked another question. “You said I was mumbling when I was unconscious. What was it that I was mumbling?”
“You were saying something about muhullabia and smiling. Go to sleep now. You have suffered heavy bruising and your face is badly cut, but all that apart, you are remarkably intact. Nasraf will stay with you” he added, pointing to the black slave who smiled at him earlier.
Tannous was a wiry, fit man of 34. His work on the railway had conditioned him to many hardships when travelling across the desert. Searing heat from the merciless sun and the added heat from the engine boiler toughened him. This acquired toughness guaranteed that he would probably survive his wounds and the injuries to the head.
A breakfast of dates and labban was put before Tannous in the morning. He tried to gain a sitting position but his bruised body was stiff and aching. Nasraf, the black slave, ever smiling, came to his aid and gently eased him to a cross legged position on the rug. The cuts and injuries made this difficult, but he felt that he had to do it in order to regain some sense of himself and his present surroundings. He ate thankfully, but in a quiet way. Somehow he intuited that it was not good protocol to question a slave, despite the fact that he was desperate to know the answers to all his confusions. He came to the realisation, despairingly, that he had lost his memory. Whether or not it was a temporary or permanent condition, there was no way to know. Even his own name was lost to him. A tremendous sadness enveloped him, and a small trickling tear glistened on his cheek.
He sat in this benumbed condition for some time until his rescuer, of the day before, made his appearance through the tent flap and greeted Tannous “Salaam Aleichem”
“Aleichem Salaam” came the rejoinder from the amnesiac, who had remembered his manners at least.
“I am Abu Selim of the Howeitat tribe, and you are my guest.” Clapping his hands gently, twice, he turned toward the slave, who began to prepare coffee in a copper tanaku. There was a gentle glowing fire in a small brazier. The sound of a multitude of excited voices could be heard outside. “We are many hundreds of men, and tomorrow we engage with our enemies. But, today we will arrive at the Wadi Halif oasis, where we will refresh ourselves and our camels.”
Tannous enquired, “Who are your enemies that you must meet with them with many hundreds of men?”
“Our enemies are those who seek to enslave us, and with the help of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, we will drive them to the jaws of hell. We have the support of the British, and they have sent us Orrance, an English officer, who has many clever ideas and stratagems to ensure our victory.”
Orrance, it seemed to Tannous, an unusual name for an Englishman, but then the coffee was served and out of his mind it went. Both men sipped the black liquid from a finjan and spoke together for a brief time until Abu left him saying, “At the oasis I must leave you in the care of Nasraf and the women. No harm will come to you, and you can rest and recover. When I return, you can tell me your whole story.” Tannous nodded his agreement but suddenly realised that his whole story was a mystery which he himself, could not fathom.
The rest of the morning was full of activity. The tents were dismantled and folded along with the rugs and hangings. Pack camels were loaded. Women and slaves gathered the cooking and eating utensils, and these too were hoisted on to the ships of the desert. Tannous was lifted onto a camel and obligingly supported there by Nasraf.
The resulting long and trailing caravan wound its way over the sand dunes and gullies to an open, green and pleasant oasis. The men, after refreshing themselves and watering their camels, rode out to seek and engage with the enemy, leaving the women, slaves and Tannous in the cool shade of the Tamarisk trees. He fell into a grateful sleep.
Seven weeks later news reached Becharre that Tannous had been killed in an attack on the railway. Hanifah, distraught at the news, had suspected as much when he was more than two weeks overdue coming home. She went straight to the church to light candles and to speak to the priest, requesting that he say a special requiem mass. On returning home she cleaned everything thoroughly, made the bed, washed the hair of her son Nabil, and tended to her own appearance. Only when all this was completed did the full impact of the news hit her with despairing force. She collapsed in to a chair and her pretty 29 year old face grimaced and wrinkled into total grief. Her solitude and vulnerability transformed into great gulping sobs and hot streaming tears – anguished and unstoppable.
Her neighbours and relations began arriving at her house in small groups of twos and threes. Hanifah received them dutifully, but was unable to cope with the mournful dispositions or to respond to their solaces and commiserations, without choking on her own despair. Nabil clung to her as much for her support as for his. Hanifah’s own father, Habib, arrived and took over the tasks of hospitality. He filled a dish with cigarettes, and gave it to Nabil to pass around among the men. Most of the women had brought a plate of food which Habib took from them. He covered the table with a thick cloth on which he spread out all the dishes in a calm and purposeful way. Two of the women were in the kitchen preparing coffee in two large copper tanaku pots. Placing these on a brass tray together with many little coffee cups, they brought it into the room where the others had gathered.
Conversation began haltingly in a subdued manner but gradually increased in pace and volume as people began to relax. As the evening wore on there were even humorous anecdotes and reluctant laughter. Habib and two of the men stayed in the house through the night. They kept themselves awake and distracted playing backgammon until Habib suggested that the noise of the thrown dice and markers may be disturbing Hanifah’s sleep. They then took up cards and played basrah for a couple of hours.
This nocturnal ritual was repeated with minor variations for two more nights, but with different men. The tradition of maintaining a presence in a house of the bereaved is very ancient in the mountains, and continues to this day.
In the afternoon of the third day Hanifah, together with her father and son left the house for the first time since they had heard of Tannous’s death. They walked out from Becharre and round the top rim of the Kadisha valley, over to the neighbouring village of Bekaa Kafra – the highest village on Mount Lebanon. It was their intention to say prayers in the Basilica of Saint Cherbal, and to discuss Hanifah’s options for the future. To leave Lebanon to join other members of her family in other parts of the world was the dominant centre of their discussion. The economic advantages to be derived from emigrating would perhaps enable Nabil to receive an education and later to work in some capacity to support himself and his mother.
Hanifah had two sisters, Barbara and Maria, who married and settled in Cuba. Another, Zarify, married to a rug merchant and settled in Broken Hill, Australia and, in Dunedin, New Zealand she had two brothers, Yauob and Yussuf, as well as her father’s brother, also called Tannous. To join any of them and begin a new life would be advantageous, but where to go to and how to get there? Habib knew he would be losing his last remaining daughter but he loved his children enough to let them go.
With the war still raging it was difficult to leave the country. No ships were using Lebanese ports. However it was possible to find owners of fishing boats and other small craft willing, in return for baksheesh, to make the crossing to Cyprus, or even as far as Port Said in Egypt now that the British forces had wrestled it away from the Turks. Many Syrian nationals, including those from Mount Lebanon, were managing to exit using these clandestine, but increasingly busy, channels of escape.
Seven months later Habib, along with three other families, took Hanifah and Nabil on a three day journey by donkey cart down the Kadish valley, across the fertile valleys and plain around the area of Bechmezel and, finally, over the coastal hills to the town of Enfe, a few miles south of Tripoli. This was a busy little fishing port, situated on the nose of the coastline, with a beautiful sheltered bay and was protected from the mountain winds, by a profusion of tall cypress trees on the hills at the back of the town. Arrangements had been made to meet a man named Boutrous at the Basilica of Our Lady of The Winds. Gathered there were about a dozen other people, also waiting for Boutrous. They, too, had come down from mountain villages at various times in the previous two days, and had been camping in the refuge of the church. Two women had managed to make apple tea over a small primus stove, and were generously offering small glasses of the hot beverage to new arrivals. Hanifah thankfully took a glass while Habib took two more for himself and Nabil. Silently, all three sipped slowly whilst wondering what would happen next. They did not have long to wait. Boutrous, a short, portly man with ill fitting clothing, stubble lined face and droopy moustache announced his presence and summoned all to hear what he had to say.
“The women will go first with any children. Go up the gangplank on to the boat and go immediately below the deck through the hatchway. You must stay well out of sight until we have reached open sea away from the coastline. The men will then follow on, but stay on deck. However you must sit in the stern where there are boxes and crates for the purpose. Make sure you have your money ready and pass it over before you go up the gangplank. Under no circumstances will we take those without the means to pay.”
The listening assembly began to stir, slowly and grumpily. The final farewells were made and Hanifah tearfully held on to her father, reluctant to leave him. She stayed in that position for some time, weeping until Boutrous urged her to make her way. Despondently she did so with Nabil under her arm. Habib had given him two high value British coins which he was still holding in his hot little hand. – a sovereign and a half sovereign Up the gangway they went, and followed the others to the lower decks. They negotiated a space for themselves, where they were able to deposit their modest luggage and leave room to sit and later, lie down to sleep.
Conversation among the women was not very forthcoming. A feeling of bewilderment spread and also a sense of suspicion, an irrational suspicion of one another. The children were kept close to their mothers and discouraged from approaching each other, even though their young eyes displayed a longing to ease the tension and to mix. This situation prevailed until they all felt the initial movement of the boat as it launched out to sea.
The vessel was a fishing ketch, twelve meters in length and four and a half meters wide. She was timber clad with a wooden hull and powered by a steam engine of German manufacture. A huge pile of logs was stacked next to it, from which a crew member would grab one or two from time to time, to feed the boiler.
It was almost dusk when the boat got under way. It displayed no lights at all for fear of being challenged by any Turkish war boats which may still have been operational, even though the British navy had re-established command of the Eastern Mediterranean by this point in time. Still, caution was the watchword.
The male passengers on the upper decks were exercising caution of a different variety. There was a fear that now the Captain and his crew had their money they could easily maroon their gullible passengers and head back for more.
Now that they were underway, the women relaxed a bit more and began to quietly converse with one another. Hanifah was also easier in her mind with the tenuous situation. She was heading for Port Said to stay with a cousin. From there she would write a letter to her sister Zarify in Broken Hill, giving her the whole sorrowful story and telling her of her intention to join her, as soon passage on an Australia bound ship could be secured. Because the postal service in Lebanon had been suspended owing to the hostilities, she would have to write from Egypt, where it was known that the British had re-established something resembling a normal postal service. With these thoughts in her mind Hanifah fell into a fitful sleep with Nabil at her side.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning there was a commotion up on deck. A voice was heard bellowing through a loudspeaker, and the boat was slowing down. An English ship had come alongside and was issuing a challenge to the fishing ketch to heave to and allow an inspection party to go on board. Gun running to the Turks had been a recent problem which justified this action. A quick and thorough search was accomplished. One of the sailors who came across the women below spotted Nabil’s coins, the sovereign and half sovereign, and was curious as to how he came by them. Neither Nabil nor anyone else could speak English, and as the sailor knew no Arabic, the query was not understood. The sailor looked askance at Nabil but allowed him to keep hold of his coins. From then on, Nabil kept them hidden in his sock for fear of more unwelcome attention.
The search being completed and the Royal Navy being satisfied, the inspection party disembarked back to their own vessel. Both vessels carried on following their own course.
Days later the fishing ketch weighed anchor at a disused jetty in Port Said. Hanifah and Nabil came on shore with the others and located the cousin with whom they would be staying.
Tannous after spending many months recuperating as guest of his Arab protectors and his benefactor Abu Selim, had not yet recovered sufficiently to recall his name or origins. His dilemma became a source of amusement to some of the women. In between the washing and cooking which was their daily life, they would tease him in a flirtatious way, not knowing if there was a woman or family in his life. They would pretend to be match-makers and jokingly parade the “unwantables” before him – those girls with a limp or a minor deformity whose chance of a domestic life was fairly negligible. All this farcical behaviour, although highly entertaining for the women was depressing for Tannous and sorely irritating. His inability to restore himself to himself left him feeling vulnerable and impotent. His decaying self esteem transformed him in the eyes of the women into something less than a man, for they picked up on it and felt able to freely goad him. He spent his days alone, away from them on the perimeter of the oasis, desperately trying to remember his name and his past life.
His inactivity in the Oasis also bothered him. Abu Selin was often away for many days at a time. On his next return Tannous, now that his strength and fitness had returned, resolved to ask him for some useful activity, perhaps even ride out with him and all the others on their next sortie against the Turks.
Abu Selim arrived back that very day, along with two or three hundred camel mounted Arabs, firing their rifles skyward in exultation. Apparently they had achieved a great victory. The women, finding the excitement contagious, began to shrilly ululate, dancing together and praising Allah.
Later that evening, after Abu Selim had eaten and relaxed, he related to Tannous the escapades of the last few days.
“The Turks”, he began “were occupying the port of Aquaba thus preventing Allied shipping not only from entering the harbour but also from supplying their own regular armies. The Arab irregulars also went without necessary equipment and ordnance because of the blockage. The Turkish big guns were trained on the seafront to defend against any incursion by the British navy or other allied shipping. However “Orrance” (that strange English name again) “inspired a plan to make an epic crossing of many, many days across the desert, to approach and attack Aquaba from the rear, behind the Turkish defences. We rode in the dark for many nights using she camels, which are fitter, more obedient. and do not bleat. Our great Arab force was augmented with eager men from various tribes along the way, eager to be with us and to join our great cause. The night before our planned dash into the town we camped a few miles away to refresh ourselves and to pray to Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, for a great victory
“We surprised the Turks at dawn with our ambush. They were unable to swing the big guns around to a defensive position. They were taken completely unawares and surrendered the town after only a brief battle, absolutely incredulous that Arabs were capable of organising themselves into a disciplined credible and effective force.”
Abu Selim’s wide satisfied smile and raised eyebrows belied the reputation of ruthlessness which was attributed to him. He had dedicated himself to ridding the Ottoman Empire from his tribal lands. He was a proud Howeitat and he owed his main allegiance to his tribe. The concept of a Pan Arab nation had only now begun to impress itself on the collective consciousness with the recent bilateral successes against a common enemy. With the capture of Aquaba, the whole complexion of the Arab revolt was changed, allowing the total desert campaign to be fought for a recognised universal purpose.
Tannous expressed his restlessness to Abu Selim. “What is there that I can do to help you. I am as strong now as I ever was but I have nothing to occupy me. The women and the slaves bore me with their childish prattle. Give me tasks that I may fulfil for you and demonstrate my gratitude and good will into the bargain”
Abu Selim scratched his bearded chin thoughtfully and spoke. “You are my guest and therefore a gift from Allah, the Compasionate, the Merciful. All that I have is yours and you have only to ask”
“What I ask,” replied Tannous, “is that I not be left to vegetate. I can’t remember what it is that I can do but surely, you can use me in some capacity. I feel instinctively that I can work hard, and my body is yearning to stretch and push and lift”
The word “lift” awakened a thought in Abu Selim’s eyes. “You want to lift? There maybe is an opportunity for you at Aquaba. Now that the port is open to shipping, there is a great need for workers at the wharves and dock warehouses. It will get busier and busier. Maybe the work and activity amongst all the men will jolt your memory. Maybe someone may even recognise you there.”
Late into the evening Tannous and Abu Selim talked of Aquaba and ships, until the sound of a plucked oud was heard on the oasis breeze. Someone raised his voice and sang a long sustained song about a tree in a village..and its fruit..and its restorative properties..and its beautiful scent..and its rare attainment.
The port of Aquaba, nine days later, was thronging with men, machines, ships, steel, timber, wool, sugar, sherbet sellers, coffee hawkers, sergeants, sailors and supplies. Tannous was brought to a burnt out office which had been cleared and taken over as an administration depot for various clerks of shipping. The clerk to whom he was brought was signing up men as deckhands and engine room sweaters for the few merchant ships in the harbour.
Tannous gave as his name, Selim bin Howeitat, with the full permission of his benefactor. The officials in wartime were nowhere near as bureaucratic as they are in peacetime. Tannous, without having to give his place of birth or his father’s name, was given a seaman’s ticket and told to report to the purser of the steamship Hummingbird which was at the end of a long jetty directly in front of the office.
The Hummingbird was a dirty rusted hulk, hardly seaworthy. However all similar vessels in the eastern Mediterranean, under British jurisdiction, were commandeered into emergency service at this time in an effort to reinvigorate the supply lines to the Arab peninsula. Presently being unloaded were shapeless bales, cheap packing crates and livestock. A crane on the deck was lifting cattle by means of a suspended sling taken under the belly of the animal. Up it went, and the crane, swinging the sling slowly over the gang-rail, lowered the poor mooing creature onto the dockside, before returning empty for another. Amid the shouting of orders and instructions, organised, and methodical activity was taking place.
Tannous managed to locate the purser after inquiring from a dockhand his whereabouts and description. He was a swarthy man, with an unshaven face and sweaty brow, and after a cursory glance at Tannous’s seaman’s ticket directed him to the chief deckhand, who was leaning over the gang rail on the upper deck of the ship.
Within an hour Tannous was stacking crates below decks. The crates were being lifted from the dock by the crane and brought up and over the ships side and lowered into the hull. Six other men were engaged in the same work and the pace was steady. Tannous, who had not exercised his muscles and stamina for some time, found the work both tiring and invigorating. He wondered about the contents of the crates. He was told by one of the other workmen, who was an Australian, and spoke atrocious Arabic, that the crates contained shattered metal and shrapnel which was being shipped back to England to be melted down and recast into armaments and ammunition.
There was a short break for food and drink. A cook from the ships galley arrived with a large leather holdall and proceeded to bring out the contents. It contained shavings of hot meat wrapped in flat bread, and these he distributed among the men. He also distributed bottles of cheap Egyptian beer to wash down the meal and slake the thirst. The men had to make do with this beverage as the water supply in Aquaba was not yet fully restored and was still too risky to drink. In the evening, when the work had ceased, Tannous was allotted a hammock with the other men below deck. The smell of stale sweat and malodorous men was acrid in his nostrils, but his exhaustion freed him from the unpleasantness and delivered him into slumber.
At sea the next day his duties involved him in rope maintenance and the oiling of the winches. This latter mechanical operation jelled something in his memory. He had an inkling that his former life involved him with this sort of machinery, and he went about his tasks with an instinctive sureness and thoroughness which surprised and pleased the chief deckhand.
The ship with its twin funnels belching black oily smoke, chugged its way down the Gulf of Aquaba out into the Red Sea and headed North up to the Suez Canal. On the way they passed many ships going in the opposite direction - merchant ships and Royal Navy destroyers. The Allied supply lines had been re-established and a frantic replenishing of stores, dried beans and corn, military clothing and blankets were being shipped to wherever they were urgently needed.
Tannous was furiously completing his above deck duties before the setting of the sun. Darkness descended quickly at this latitude and the night was upon them with an even blackness as the ship came out of the canal and set a course for Port Said. The harbour which would in peacetime be brightly lit, was subdued this night with the moderateness of its lighting. The Hummingbird pulled in at the same jetty that Hanifah’s ship had used previously.
Hanifah in fact, was still with her cousin in Cairo having been unable to secure passage on any vessel at all until the war should be over. She helped her cousin who made a modest income catering for the refugees from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. Hanifah prepared a huge batch of her famous muhullabia puddings for the christening of a young Palestinian boy. This caused the usual exclamations of surprise and delight followed by requests for her unique recipe, which were all gently denied. However Hanifah began to teach Nabil her secret art. Her thinking was that as they were likely to find themselves in foreign lands and strange cities, it would be desirable to have the means of creating a livelihood if necessary. And when is it not necessary? She taught him many other dishes besides and in the following eleven months that they remained in Cairo, Nabil became as skilled as his mother and found great satisfaction in his new accomplishments. He was a clever boy – bright, intelligent and with his mother’s placid smile and demeanour. He would voluntarily rise early to prepare breakfast for Hanifah and her cousin, and if there was a catering engagement for that day he would ensure that all saucepans, utensils and glassware were clean and ready for use. He matured quickly in this environment and learnt much, despite the fact of his education being interrupted, probably for some time.
One glorious day the war was declared over. An armistice was to be signed and peace talks on the whole Middle East were convened in Paris. It seemed that the Arabs would at last achieve freedom, although the British and the French were seeking to retain considerable influence in the region, not through occupation, but through mandates. Hanifah pondered the thought of returning to her mountain village of Becharre but her cousin dissuaded her.
“Apart from your dear father, may God bless him, there is nothing in Becharre that could possibly induce you to want to go back. With your husband dead and no one to provide for you and Nabil, what would be the point? Your brothers and sisters are all doing well elsewhere and any one of them is in a position to offer you assistance and help you start a fresh life in new surroundings. They would love for you to be with them, and Nabil would have chances that would otherwise be denied him.
“I would even try to talk you into staying here and helping me, but now that the war is over, all the people who have required my services in the past will now want to return to their own homes; and if not, they will make their ways to America, Australia or any where else that gives them a chance to start anew and provide some sort of security for themselves, their children and their grandchildren. So, my dear cousin Hanifah, put all thought of returning to Becharre out of your head and begin to think about going on”
After this little speech Hanifah’s mind concentrated on her future away from Lebanon, the land of her birth, happiness and deep love.
The British shipping line, Shaw Savill and Albion, resumed their passenger service in 1919 from Southampton to New Zealand via Australia The two primary routes that their ships took were either around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to Freemantle in Western Australia, and on to New Zealand, or around Gibraltar, along the Mediterranean and through the Suez canal. After having been in Cairo for almost two years, Hanifah and Nabil had managed to book two berths in steerage class on the Arawa, which was due to call at Port Said in January 1920. Their disembarkation port would be Sydney, and their final destination Broken Hill NSW where Hanifah would join her sister Zarify
The Arawa had been built as a refrigeration ship to bring Mutton from New Zealand to the UK and to return with manufactured goods, but had been requisitioned in the recent war as a troop ship. She now had a new coating of paint and a reconditioned boiler system, and on her arrival in Port Said received a rapturous greeting from a multitude of locals who had all turned out to welcome the first passenger ship for years. Hanifah and Nabil were escorted up the gangplank by the cousin who was trying not to weep too much at this stage. The upper decks were full of prosperous, well groomed gentlemen and expensively dressed ladies of a certain age, who looked askance at Haifa and her entourage of three - clearly inexpensively dressed and un-coiffured to the same degree! A steward approached Hanifah to ask for her tickets. After checking them against a copy of the passenger list, which he carried on a clipboard, he beckoned to be followed, and quickly hustled them down to the lower decks and the fourth class berths.
Two hours later came the announcement over the tannoy “All ashore that’s going ashore.” That was the moment for Hanifah’s cousin to kiss Hanifah and Nabil for the last time and to give them each a long, lingering emotional hug. All three were weeping uncontrollably and were reluctant to take their partings from one another. They made their way back up to the open decks and from here the cousin made her way haltingly down the gangplank.
A bustling noisy throng of well-wishers crowded the wharf on the portside of the ship calling up to their relations and loved ones on the decks above them. Jokes, messages, and observation filled the air from wharf to ship and back again. Coloured streamers were thrown to their full length by the departing passengers to the multitude below. This formed a tenuous bond between the persons holding each end. Soon, the deafening hoot of the ship’s horn sounded three times around the entire harbour of Port Said- the signal for departure. The gangplanks were rolled back, ropes were loosed from the bollards and a great shout went up from the crowd as the two pilot tugs eased the huge liner away from the dock and out into the middle harbour. Two more blasts from the ship’s horn and she eased herself to the harbour exit toward the open sea, and eventually eastwards towards the Suez Canal. The journey to Australia would take nearly six weeks.
All this time Tannous still worked as a seaman on the Hummingbird, which had sailed to and fro between Egypt and Great Britain, for the previous two years, with an occasional foray to South Africa and one to Perth’s growing port of Freemantle. His memory had lately begun to throw up images of a woman he took to be his wife, perhaps, and another of a panoramic view from a mountain village. He described these occurrences to Joe, a fellow crew member from Palestine who had befriended him. “I can see in my mind a distant view of the sea and behind me, I think, are mountains with a topping of snow. I also see an attractive woman, who has some connection to me. She is smiling and preparing something in a large bowl. It is dreamlike but I know that it is not a dream, and I seem unable to find the key to unlock the door into my full memory”
Joe listened with his usual patience and offered an opinion. “From what you say and from the dialect which you speak, I would say you were describing Mount Lebanon. I have been convinced for some time that your speech places you there. Your way of speaking Arabic is identical to those men of Lebanon with whom I have had acquaintance in the past. Not only the dialect, but also the accent.”
Tannous had already related his adventures with Abu Selim of the Arab Howeitat tribe. He described to Joe his restless time at the Oasis and his experience as the butt of the women’s jokes about him. Joe was intrigued and had asked many questions of Tannous about his accident on the Hejaz railway. He had concluded that Tannous, who he only knew as Selim, had been a train driver or fireman on the engine from which he was thrown. The Turks had employed men of many other nationalities on their railway systems, even when their own military were being transported.
As the weeks and months passed Joe and Tannous would converse almost daily in an attempt to revive the forgotten life, the forgotten name, and the forgotten background of the unfortunate man. Whenever shore leave was given, both of the men would take it together. They would look for a café, in order to partake of different food from that of the uninspiring fare aboard ship.
During one of these stops, which took place on the occasion of the second visit of the Hummingbird to Fremantle, Joe was eager to tell Tannous of their pending visit to Melbourne. “My brother lives in Melbourne with his wife and two daughters, one of whom is getting married at the very time that our ship will be in port. So I want you to come with me. Although I and my brother are Palestinian as you know, there are likely to be Lebanese there and who knows, maybe someone will recognise you”.
Three days later the Hummingbird docked at Melbourne. Joe’s brother was at the dockside to meet the ship and was waiting for the men to disembark. Tannous in the meantime, was suffering misgivings about going to the wedding. He felt acutely like a non person who did not even know his real name. He was known as Selim to all on board ship and this fed his fear of embarrassment at attending a large wedding reception, full of smiling, garrulous people, eager to make him welcome. How could he feel welcome as a non person, as an impostor almost. He explained his misgivings to Joe who would not hear of his not coming and who re-assured him most vehemently that his fears were groundless, finally convincing Tannous to accompany him ashore. Joe who had not seen his brother for seven years hugged him with such a feeling of deep affection that even Tannous had to brush away his tears. He yearned to know if he had a brother or even a sister with whom he could exchange identical hugs and embraces, and talk with in a breathless gabbling manner. After the intense filial feelings had been expressed and an introduction had been concluded, all three set off in the brother’s car to that happy man’s home.
Hanifah and Nabil had also arrived in Australia the year before, and had been living in Broken Hill with Zarify and her husband Hunnah (John) Betro and their large family of eight sons and one daughter. It was a sad time for Zarify. Three of her sons had lost their lives in the war. They had enlisted in the Australian forces and had been shipped to Gallipoli and North Africa and slaughtered alongside their fellow Anzacs.
Hanifah was receiving romantic overtures from a Lebanese bachelor called Ramon, who was a caterer in Melbourne and who visited his parents in Broken Hill regularly. He was smitten with Hanifah from the time of their introduction some months previously. To him, a young widow with a young son should think about providing a father for her child. Ramon was very aware of her charms and also of her wonderful skill at muhullabia preparation. He offered to employ Nabil who was now fifteen years of age, in his catering business in Melbourne. Nabil was eager for the chance. He was now also as adept as his mother in the making and presentation of muhhalabia, and he realised that here was a chance to employ his skill to his own and his mother’s benefit. Nabil was the only living person to whom Hanifah had imparted her secret and she swore him to keep the recipe in his head only and not to write it down anywhere or reveal it to anyone. This meant Ramon as well of course. Both mother and son were shrewd enough to know that they possessed a means of livelihood which could easily be usurped and lost once the secret recipe was common knowledge.
Ramon, as good as his word, took Nabil with him to Melbourne on his next return to that city. During the following few months Nabil learnt many facets of the catering trade, and had even had the satisfaction of being asked to prepare muhullabia for a christening, a first communion and now a wedding. He had been asked to prepare an enormous quantity of his muhullabia speciality. Ramon had to buy in an extra five dozen of the special little glass dishes that were required for the pudding and had promised Nabil his usual bonus for his work. Ramon had tried to cajole him on occasion to show him how he did his preparation, but Nabil remained silent.
The day of the wedding was sunny with a clear sky of blue. The reception was to be held under a specially erected marquee on the lawn belonging to the bride’s father, a wealthy immigrant who had made his money from a chain of five retail stores. After the marriage had taken place, the wedding guests made their way to the reception by various means, by foot, taxi and in the case of the happy couple – by horse and cart.
A huge central table was heaped abundantly with food, all supplied by Ramon’s Catering Specialists. Among the dishes were kibbee naye, falafel, labban, baba ghanoush, mihshi flafley, Olives, Gherkins, plaited salted zhibbon and sugared lettuce together with huge baskets of flat bread. Nestling among the many sweets and desserts was Nabil’s contribution – dozens and dozens of the little glass dishes of muhullabia garnished with a pistacchio, quince and honey compote. Ramon was pleased with the display and especially with Nabil’s expertise and work ethic. His efforts and capabilities had surprised Ramon adding to the pride and goodwill of the business. Ramon’s excellent humour together with the ambience of the wedding convinced him that he should propose to Hanifah without any further procrastination. Tomorrow he would drive up to Broken Hill and convince her that it would be the best thing for her and Nabil and that he would be a good provider, husband and stepfather. But today, he had his business to attend to.
The day progressed in a glowing atmosphere of gaiety and laughter. A quintet of Arabic musicians began playing traditional folkloric music. Three men formed a line position in the centre of the lawn, and with their hands on each other’s shoulders began to dance the Dabke. Other men began to join in, women began to sway and ululate while others joined in singing and clapping in time. The atmosphere was gorgeous and wonderful for the children who were all beautifully dressed and smart in their wedding outfits which did not however, prevent them from running wild around the dancers on the lawn or getting their knees dirty when they skidded on the grass.
The bride shared a dance with her father and another with her Uncle Joe whom she had not seen since she was a little girl, and finally with her new husband, to the delight of everyone.
Refreshments were now being taken and there was a short break for the musicians.
From out of nowhere a loud sustained groan was heard. It was the frightening sound of someone experiencing terrible pain. Everybody turned in amazement and curiosity. Sitting at one of the perimeter tables was a middle aged man whom no one seemed to recognise. His hands were at either side of his head and he was rocking back and forth while continuing to moan. In front of him on the table was an empty muhallabia dish. His eyes were fixed on it in a wide and staring manner. No one knew what to do for a second until one of the bridesmaids approached him, and putting her arms on his shoulders attempted to calm him. The moaning subsided a little and then burying his face in his hand, he began to cry. Joe, the bride’s uncle came over to the table and said to the man.
“What is it Selim? What is the matter? Are you sick? Are you in pain?” The man held his hand up for a pause while he composed himself for a reply.
“Joe, my name is not Selim. It is Tannous. I am from Becharre on Mount Lebanon. I have a wife and a son and a father in law. I have remembered everything. It has all come back to me with a suddenness that I can’t understand. I must get back to my family but I don’t know where to start”
The wedding guests now crowded around. Someone had realised earlier that he had been suffering from memory loss and this fact was passed from one to the other with exclamations which varied between surprise, delight and shock.
Joe asked him. “What do you think caused you to remember my friend?. Was it the music, or maybe the dancers. Did you recognise someone or did someone recognise you perhaps?”
“No! It was none of these. It was while I was eating the milk pudding” A gasp went up from those gathered near enough to hear. “The taste of the muhullabia triggered something in my brain. It tasted so very familiar that at first I couldn’t comprehend why. Scenes and pictures began to come into my head. Then I slowly realised that muhallabia had been an important part of my past life. My wife had made a speciality of this dish. The flavour she managed to create was unique to her and she was celebrated for it”.
Oohs and ahs followed this last remark. The intriguing tale began to unfold among the wedding guests, and each one had an opinion and an interpretation, and the buzz of excited talk was increasing when someone said, “let him continue”
Tannous drank a little water and wiped his lips. “I cannot believe that someone has managed to match the flavour and delicacy of the muhullabia that my wife used to prepare. It is uncanny. Even the garnishing is similar if not identical. It is so very, very strange. I do not understand it. I do not understand it at all”
Someone went to fetch Nabil, telling him that there was a fascination concerning his puddings. He was used to being told they were fascinating but this was slightly different and with his curiosity aroused he came to Tannous’s table. When Tannous saw Nabil his mouth dropped open and his speaking ceased abruptly. He began to shiver with apprehension. Someone thinking he was cold threw a wedding sash around his shoulders. A strange silence descended. Everyone went quiet. What was happening to this strange man? Was he about to suffer a heart attack?. Tannous continued staring fixedly at the son whom he recognised. Even though Nabil had grown tall in four years he had not changed in any other way. He still had the same healthy hair and benign smile.
Tannous on the other hand had changed dramatically. Nabil did not recognise the father who he believed was dead in any case. The little hair that Tannous had left was now permeated with grey. His skin was browner, saltier and weather beaten. Nabil was wondering why he stared so, why he shivered and why he was only half standing out of his seat
Tannous reached out his arms to his son but withdrew them at once. He saw that he was not recognised. He stood up properly for a moment then slowly resumed his seat. He took Nabil’s hand in his and asked him. “They say that it is you that prepared the muhallabia that I have eaten. It was beautifully made and delicious to taste. Tell me, where did you learn such art?”
Nabil was confused but replied “It is a family secret passed on to me by my mother”
“And is your mother still living?”
“She is” Nabil replied.
“And your father?”
Nabil lowered his eyes. “My father is dead. He was killed in Arabia”
Tannous was taken aback at this response but began to understand the situation a little. After a short pause he asked “And has your mother remarried?”
Nabil was wondering why all the questions were being fired at him and almost reluctantly he replied. “Not yet, but my employer Ramon, over there,” he said, pointing, “is planning to ask her in the next day or two.”
Tannous was still holding Nabil’s hand in his. Now he took the other hand as well and looking deeply into Nabil’s eyes he said. “Your father is not dead. He lives, by the grace of God, he is well.and he loves you.” Whilst this was being said, the son was incredibly recognising the father that he though he had lost. He became so agitated with confusion, sentiment and affection that he lost control and broke down.
Nobody seemed to comprehend what was going on except Joe, who, placing his hand on Nabil’s shoulder after a short silence, said to Tannous. “Your son?” Tannous nodded his affirmation and put his arms around Nabil. Nabil did likewise and together they wept on each others necks.
Hanifah had her husband restored to her two days later, courtesy of Ramon who drove Tannous and Nabil to Broken Hill. At first the reunited couple were awkward with each other but for a week they talked non stop, both relating their own adventures.
Tannous settled in Broken Hill and using his mechanical skills worked at repairing and maintaining mining equipment and machinery.
In 1931 Tannous and Hanifah were prosperous enough to return to Lebanon where they planned to care for his ageing mother and her father, who now lived on his own.
Nabil remained in Australia, eventually starting up his own catering business in Broken Hill. In 1934, a few weeks before he was due to be married he died from cancer. All his possessions and worldly goods went to his Auntie Zarify, including his sovereign and half sovereign.
In 1952- Zarify’s last remaining son, Les Betro, my father, brought her to Dunedin. She died in1955 and is buried in Anderson’s Bay Cemetery. Before she passed over she bequeathed Nabil’s half soverieign to me and the full sovereign to my younger brother Gerard. I have mine still in an inlaid box on my piano.
The crux of this story came from my paternal grandmother Zarify, and other details were added by Julian Johns who knew Nabil when they both lived in Broken Hill in the early 1930’s.
Denis Betro 2007