Letters from Lebanon: A memoir of life and love during a time of conflict by Caroline Karkoutli with Sue Kelso Ryan, Published Sept 9, 2019
Not long ago, I received a call for help from another writer, Sue Kelso Ryan, asking for someone to help her get the word about a memoir she wrote with Caroline Karkoutli, English schoolteacher who spent part of her life abroad teaching English while searching for adventure and new experiences. Caroline now suffers from dementia, so she wanted to capture her memories of her life during that pivotal time her life for herself and her family.
As someone who studied abroad to teach TEFL, and as someone who has had family members with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, I felt compelled to share Caroline’s story so she could preserve it before this cruel disease takes away everything else.
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Caroline is a headstrong young woman looking for adventure, who quits her job in London for a challenging teaching career in Lebanon. Living and working in the mountain villages near Beirut, she develops two great passions. One is for Fathi, a mysterious and attractive older man, who is Muslim; a complete contrast to her own upbringing. The other is the country itself – the cosmopolitan ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’, with its exotic food, beaches and mountain resorts.Soon her peaceful existence is shattered by civil war and the bitterly-fought international tensions of the 1970s and 80s. When the first shells fall on her village, Caroline has some painful decisions to make that will change her life forever. How will she protect her new-found happiness and the lives of those she loves? Caroline’s description of Lebanon is nostalgic for the country that welcomed her, a stranger, as one of its own.
Look what I found today, hidden among a collection of photos, in a carton that once contained Turkish cigarettes – an old black and white photograph of you in your Syrian cavalry uniform. That was a lifetime ago. What a handsome chap you were. Seeing it again, I’m not surprised I fell for your almond-shaped eyes and your smile that seemed to be only for me. Of course, I never saw you in uniform; that was when you were young. By the time we met, your face showed the creases of age and experience. Come to think of it, it’s a miracle that we did meet – a Turkish journalist who lived in Syria and was straight out of prison, and an English schoolteacher, who both happened to be on the same bus to Turkey. Neither of us knew then what was in store for us together, but I’m grateful for that chance encounter every day.
With all my love, Caroline
I glance back at the black and white photograph of the young man and turn over another. Here’s Fathi again, a slightly older man with a beard and wearing swimming trunks, posing unselfconsciously on a beach. A third picture is in colour and shows him on stone steps in front of a building with a balcony, railings, and bougainvillea growing wild everywhere. Without meaning to, I sigh, recalling our life together.
Looking back, my own adventures began because of my philosophy, “I like to travel; therefore I will teach.” I don’t know what career choices you were offered when you were about to leave school, but we were told, “Well you can be a teacher or a secretary.” That’s all we were offered. There was nothing that suggested adventure. Nothing that involved getting away from home and exploring whatever the world might offer me. Nothing appealing at all. Certainly, nobody mentioned living abroad, marrying a political activist who spoke Arabic, and raising my children in the midst of a civil war. Come to think of it, that might not have sounded too appealing to the young me either. I was rebellious but not at all familiar with the ways of the world.
I turn again to the photograph in my hand, holding it to the light and gazing again on the handsome man it depicts. Middle-aged, smiling, bearded – it is my husband and everything about him is familiar to me. But where was the photo taken? Did I take it? Maybe it was taken by a friend or family member before we met. I struggle to remember, cursing the dementia diagnosis that means my memory is ebbing away, little by little, carrying with it the memories I treasure.
A deafening crash nearby. I flinch, turning my head to locate the source of the danger, even though it is 30 years since I lived in a war zone. Realisation dawns. It was just the children next door playing. No bombs; no threat of imminent injury or death. Just my mind playing tricks on me again. My heartbeat gradually returns to normal. I let the photo slip onto the table in front of me, take a sip of my tea and take up my pen. Well, this book is hardly going to write itself, is it?
Dear Mum, Dad and Sheila,
This is just a quick line to let you know that the plane was on time yesterday and I arrived safely.
The school is in a small village called Choueifat, about six miles south of Beirut, and there was a driver waiting at the airport to take me there. I was introduced to Mr and Mrs Saad, the school’s owners, and had a meal with them last night. Mrs Saad talked a little to me about the school and what I would be expected to do.
I met the other teachers today. They are very kind and friendly. The kids are an excitable bunch, but I think we’ll get on OK. It has been very wet here, so it’s lucky I brought my big coat. I’m hoping to get out and explore and maybe see Beirut soon. Apparently, we can ring the UK from a local shop, but we will need to arrange a time. Shall we say Sunday at five, your time? I think this letter will reach you before then.
I hope everything is well with you. I will write again next week with some more news.
Love from Caroline.
I peered out of the window of the aircraft as it descended towards Beirut. We flew over the port area, low-rise office buildings, blocks of flats, hotels and boulevards, all seemingly squashed between mountains and the intensely turquoise-blue sea. A surge of excitement rose in me, as the ground rose to meet the wheels of the aircraft, and we bumped along the runway. After disembarking the plane, I made my way through the bustling terminal building to the exit, clutching my small suitcase tightly. I searched the crowds outside for the driver who should be there to meet me. Someone touched my arm and I turned to see a small, slim, dark-haired man, meeting his wide grin with my own enthusiastic smile. He had a placard with my name on it.
“Miss Begbie?” he asked, taking my bag without taking his eyes from mine. “I’m Ahmed.”
“That’s me! Are you taking me to Choueifat?”
The driver nodded his head solemnly. He seemed to recognise my poor attempt at pronouncing the village name and as far as I could tell he wasn’t judging me. He popped open the boot of his gleaming black Mercedes and loaded my bag, before helping me into the back seat of the car. If anything, the interior of the car was hotter than the humid air outside and I was grateful when he rolled down the windows. The driver swung the vehicle out into the traffic, and I lost my breath as he accelerated and swerved, heading north, then doubling back onto a highway heading south. In no time, we left the city behind and the busy, two-lane road cut through farmland. My impression was that most villages in Lebanon seemed to be at the tops of hills. We passed small houses in valleys, vineyards on the terraced hillsides and an abundance of fruit and vegetable plots in the farmland at the side of the highway. But what struck me especially was the backdrop of vast, arid, mountainous hillsides that dominated the skyline. I saw what seemed like whole families working in fields dotted with vast ranks of olive trees, where they spread sheets out under the trees, beating the branches with sticks until the olives dropped down in a cloud of leaves. Others were gathering vegetables and loading reluctant donkeys with burdens that their slim legs seemed ill-equipped to bear. Before long the driver threw the car off the highway and onto a smaller road. As the road began weaving up into the hillside, I looked back at the turquoise-blue of the Mediterranean.
I leaned forward, gripping the bench seat that divided the front from the back of the car, “Is this the way to the school?” Ahmed caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and nodded and slowed very slightly, as he negotiated the hairpin bends. We still passed houses occasionally, set in the pine-forested hillside and I caught glimpses of the sea again, now bathed in an orange glow of the setting sun. Gradually, more houses and the odd shop began to cluster around the edge of the road, and we entered a village. Soon we swung left, past a gateway and along a short drive.
“Welcome to Choueifat School,” Ahmed announced, springing out of the taxi and depositing my suitcase on a rough-cobbled courtyard. Leaping back in, he departed as fast as he came, leaving me in a haze of blue diesel fumes, gazing after him. Then silence. Or rather, not really silence; there was a cacophony of bird song and cicadas as the local wildlife began to settle for the night. I looked around. In front of me was a two-storey building with a balcony and graceful arches, with two single-storey, flat-roofed buildings forming a u-shape on either side of the main block. The pines surrounding the courtyard had faded to black silhouettes as the sun set. My eye was drawn to the only source of light, which was coming from a large, square building to my left and up a steep set of steps from the courtyard. Someone appeared to be waiting for me there, so I set off towards them.
“Miss Begbie? Welcome to Choueifat. Let me take your bag and I’ll introduce you to Mr and Mrs Saad right away.” The neat, middle-aged woman took my bag and led me along a path beside the buildings, then up a flight of steps to a large stone villa with a balcony and shutters. At the door, I was handed, relay-style, to a young man, who led me along a dimly lit, stone-floored corridor. I blinked as we entered a large, grand living space and smiled as an elegantly dressed woman approached and offered her hand.
“Welcome to Choueifat School, Miss Begbie. I am Leila Saad,” she said.
“Caroline,” I said, “and thank you. It’s good to meet you in person.”
Mrs Saad did all the talking; a beautifully presented woman, she was slim, elegant and stylish. Almost without realising, I found myself trying to tidy my hair and brush down the creases in my travelling clothes with my hands.
“And this is my husband, Charles Saad.”
Casting my eyes to one side, I saw that Mr Saad had settled in an armchair and was content to let his wife do the introductions and tell me about the school. In stark contrast to his wife, he was a heavily built man, whose stomach hung down over the belt of his trousers. Evidently, he liked his food! He smiled slightly and nodded in my general direction. He seemed preoccupied with some paperwork, so I turned once again to his beautiful wife.
“I hope you had a good journey, Caroline?” she enquired. “Let’s get you settled and then perhaps you’d like to join us for supper?”
Shortly after, I found myself sitting at a dining table, chatting to Mrs Saad and being waited on as though I was the most important of guests, rather than a young, inexperienced teacher, taking up a post in a foreign country for the first time and ever so slightly out of my depth. The food I was presented with was completely new to me but delicious and I ate hungrily everything that was served. I’d not had anything like it before – what the hell was it? “Thank you,” I said, as each dish arrived. I remembered my table manners and tried to make polite conversation, though I had no idea what passed for polite conversation at a Lebanese dinner table.
Looking around as we ate, I saw that the Saad residence was tastefully and expensively decorated, with gilt-framed works of art on the stone walls and rich rugs and soft furnishings. Our food was served on delicate china and we drank from crystal glasses, which twinkled in the subtle lighting.
Darkness had fallen swiftly. Soon after we’d eaten, Mrs Saad found a torch and we took a short walk around the school site, with Mrs Saad pointing out the dormitories, the kindergarten and primary classrooms, and the buildings where the older children were taught. Then the housekeeper took me to my room, where I had time to reflect a little on what I had discovered so far. The Saad family were welcoming, and their western dress was familiar, so that was a good start.
Settling into my new surroundings, I thought of my parents, back home in London, and the plain English cooking that my mum prepared there every day. I wondered what they would make of my new surroundings. I remembered my parents waving me off at the airport just a few hours earlier. In those days, communications weren’t anything like today – no internet, no instant messaging and not much chance of hearing from each other for weeks at a time. I knew I wouldn’t get news from home for a while but if I’m honest, I was ready for a break from being accountable and looking for an adventure.
If you know me now, you might be surprised when I say I was quiet and shy in my early twenties. If you’d met me then, you would probably describe me as a listener; someone who observed life, kept their ambitions for adventure and their passions inside. When things didn’t go my way, I would accept that and deal with it, but I wouldn’t walk away.
What did my parents think, when I announced that I was heading to Beirut to teach? I hardly know now whether they were afraid for me, but I suppose they put up with the idea, realising that I was going to have to go and work things out for myself. They still had my younger sister Sheila around, after all. Like most young people, I don’t suppose I considered them while making my decision. All I knew was that I wanted to travel, and this was my chance.
I wasn’t set on going anywhere in particular, as long as it was past Europe; further away. I didn’t want to go to France or Germany or anywhere like that. Somewhere where they were likely to want a teacher. I wasn’t aiming to do good or anything; I was purely satisfying my own aim of going abroad to find out what the rest of the world was like. I was looking for travel and excitement. Most people said, “What are you doing that for? You could get a job here. I’ve got a nice job in Brize Norton,” or something similar. I suppose they were surprised that it was me who was the one going on an adventure. As I say, I was fairly quiet and shy as a youngster when I didn’t know people; quite happy to listen and comply, rather than putting my oar in. Teachers would say, “And what do you think, Caroline?” And I’d jump in surprise and give some sort of feeble response. But underneath it all I’m one for adventure, even though I don’t expect to know what will happen. I just accept things and deal with them. So, I applied for various jobs overseas and before long my appointment to a school in Lebanon was arranged. I couldn’t wait.
It wasn’t my first trip overseas; that was to Sweden, when I was in my teens. Dad had relatives of some sort in Stockholm and I was invited to visit them. I found that quite frightening, as everything was in a foreign language. I had thought that I might try to learn Swedish, but I didn’t. I am not a linguist, I don’t absorb languages easily at all, so I found Swedish hard graft. The country itself wasn’t like England; everything – including street names, food, clothes styles and architecture – was slightly different and new to me. I had a really nice time with my hosts, who were welcoming and took me to a whole variety of interesting places, such as the city of Uppsala and along by the lakes. It was a great holiday and it kick-started my determination to travel to foreign lands.
On my first morning in Choueifat, I woke early, to heavy rain and wondered what to expect. I was looking forward to it but had no preconceived ideas about teaching in a different country. I had been recruited to teach English to all the infant classes at Choueifat school, and Mrs Saad had said that meant I would be moving between classrooms at the end of each class, indicated by the ringing of a bell. All the other classes were taught in Arabic.
I was taken down what seemed like endless, slippery steps to be shown the staff room and where I would teach. The classrooms were in the u-shaped courtyard I’d seen the night before – four rooms in what I had at first taken to be some dilapidated stables. This was the infant section of the school, and as I opened the door to one of the classrooms, I spotted that the roof had already begun to leak, and buckets had been found to catch the water. I’d arrived in October and this, it seemed, was the rainy season.
The children began to arrive; a complete mixture of European and Middle Eastern complexions, dress and languages. Some were local but the majority jumped down from expensive foreign cars that seemed barely to hesitate near the driveway before swishing away through puddles on the rutted road. Many of the kids were wet by the time they reached the classroom.
The morning passed in a blur of introductions, new classrooms, noise and excitement. When the bell rang for the end of the final session, I followed some of the other teachers to the staff room and plonked myself down in a chair, feeling weary already. Soon Mrs Saad was at my elbow, introducing me to my colleagues and arranging for one to take me to lunch.
Over the meal table, I asked one of my colleagues, “How come the kids are soaked when they arrive – do they come far?”
“You’ve seen the ones in the Mercs and limos?” one replied. “They’re from rich Beirut families and their family chauffeurs bring them up the hill from the city. Then there are the expat families, and some of the other kids are boarders from Middle Eastern families who have got wealthy from oil money. They just have to come down from the dormitory buildings. The others are village kids, and many of them have walked some miles to get here. The school’s reputation is good, and the families are desperate to have their kids educated, even if that means they get soaked on their way here!”
“Have you noticed that the Saads don’t spend much of their fat school fees on roof repairs or heating?” chipped in another teacher. “You can’t fail to notice the buckets on the classroom floors, collecting the rainwater that gets in. And of course there’s no glass in the windows. Just you wait until the winter. We all huddle together for warmth!”
“I wondered about that,” I replied. “I’m already cursing myself for not bringing enough jumpers or gloves, but I thought this was a warm country.”
“Ah,” they glanced at each other, and one gave me a big wink. “Just you wait until it gets snowy. None of the kids will come at all; they can’t get up the hill to the school because of the ice and snow.”
“How long does that last?”
They laughed, obviously enjoying my surprise.
“It varies. Sometimes it’s quickly over and other times you seem to spend your life clumping about in it and trying not to fall over. It can last for weeks high up in the Lebanese mountains, even when it is long gone from the hillsides around the school. It makes for beautiful views. But eventually spring comes around again, it gets warmer and we get back to full classes.”
Back in the first lesson of the afternoon, the contrasts with teaching in England were becoming plain. One of those came in the person of a certain Miss Dalal. She had greeted me with a small smile and a silent handshake when I arrived, but without any impression of warmth; this woman was discipline on legs. At first I had thought her main job was to ring the bell that indicated the end of a lesson. On my way to a class, I saw a small child being led away by Miss Dalal and realised he must have been naughty by the expressions on both their faces. So her role also included discipline, I reasoned. Other teachers later shared with me that Miss Dalal had a fearsome reputation for beating the children, which came as a shock. This was at odds with the liberal teaching methods I’d just been taught, and it wasn’t the way I liked to do things at all.
“She has a selection of sticks and rulers, some with a metal edge to them – they cut! She is a vicious woman,” I was warned. I checked my colleagues’ expressions for any signs of teasing – half expecting them to take advantage of me as the new girl – but they were deadly serious.
“You think Miss Dalal is bad!” A Lebanese teacher confided. “At the secondary school I attended, we had supervisors controlling the corridors, making sure everyone behaved. They’re like glorified teaching assistants, mostly Palestinians without papers, and because they don’t have work permits, they are easy to get rid of. They’re afraid of losing their jobs and the kids are afraid of them.”
Now that I knew what to expect, I noticed that Miss Dalal would walk around outside the classrooms, and occasionally you would hear the whack from her stick and a child’s yell. Then one day my class was enjoying a rather rowdy singing session, and the door creaked open. The singing stopped, replaced by complete silence. I turned to see what the interruption was. At the door was a tiny, fierce creature; Miss Dalal. I soon realised the reason for the effect Miss Dalal was having on my class; she might be slightly built but she had indeed come armed with a sturdy stick. I had no intention of letting her beat any of my kids with her big stick, so I got my courage up and said firmly, “I’m teaching!”
Miss Dalal never did get her hands on my children. However, I wasn’t above taking advantage of their natural reluctance to be sent to see her. Just a single mention of “Miss Dalal—” in a voice laden with foreboding would deter any child contemplating disrupting my class.
At the end of my first day, the children dispersed. I went to take a closer look at the commotion at the end of the driveway, where you couldn’t move for all the big, posh cars collecting the children who had come up from Beirut. Who knows how their parents became so wealthy? Asking around among the other teachers, there were rumours about a lot of black-market activity, but I can’t be sure it was that. Finally, the last car door slammed, and the last Mercedes shot off down the hill in a blue haze of diesel. Walking back through the school grounds I watched, fascinated, as shrieking, laughing and squabbling children played games, many of which were unfamiliar to me. These children boarded at the school and they were allowed some freedom to play after supper and before being herded into their dormitories for the night.
My first day was over and I made my way to the staff room, where other teachers were gathered at a dark wooden table, sitting on formal sofas or chatting in groups. Some of the teachers were Lebanese locals and they had gone home to their families; others were resident, like me. It seemed that most of their leisure time was spent quietly in the school itself, with the other staff and perhaps with the odd book or a game of cards and a chat. As is usual in any workplace, there was also some grumbling about how the school was run and any problems that had arisen during the day. The teachers were mostly female, especially in the primary school classes. They were all sociable and friendly. We were a mixed bunch, from a variety of different backgrounds and countries, though we tended to fall naturally into two groups – the English gathered together and the others, which included Iraqis, Iranians and several Germans, mixed together. The English teachers taught English and the others taught everything else. It was interesting to hear their views on the school and the teaching methods we were expected to employ.
“How did your first day go, Caroline?” asked one.
“It was different!” I said, seeing some wry smiles and nods from the others.
“Yes, it’s unlike any school that most of us have taught in before. One of the main problems is the lack of basic resources to do any teaching with. I don’t know how they expect the kids to learn.”
This was something I agreed with immediately. “Yes, is it right that the only text book I’ve been given is American? The topics and illustrations don’t seem to mean much to any of the kids, whether they are Lebanese, Austrian, German or French pupils. The characters – Anita and Tony – live in a huge American house, on a farm on the prairies. It’s nothing like the village houses or city apartments that the kids here are likely to be familiar with. Are we expected to sit there repeating phrases like, ‘What can the dog see? It can see Tony. What is Anita doing? Anita is reading a book’ all day long?”
“I’m afraid so,” came the reply. “The approved method here is repetition and rote learning. Forget any creative ideas you might have!” The speaker looked jaded and sighed as he slumped down into a chair against the wall.
“The books we used at my previous school in Wembley and at my teacher training college were pretty tedious but I’m beginning to miss them already!” I said. “At least with those books you had the sense that these were real people and the kids could identify with them, but I really feel that they are going to struggle.” I looked around to see whether anyone was shocked and felt braver as I saw that nobody was disagreeing. “Isn’t it possible to adapt our methods – to teach the children, not the book, as someone once said?”
But my colleagues were wary. One whispered, “Better not to risk it. The Saads have their methods and it pays to stick to them.”
‘Hmm,’ I thought, ‘What’s the point, if they aren’t learning anything?’ I am a strong believer that young children learn best when they’re having fun and so I resolved to inject some excitement into my lessons, whether the Saads liked it or not.
The next day, we did some singing and tapping rhythms – whisper it, we even told some jokes! I soon discovered that they could learn, they just had to be taught properly. Some of the children had one English-speaking parent, so they managed the language more readily. I quite quickly recognised the children that I had to give something a bit harder to and the ones I’d have to sit with, when I could, for longish periods of time. And so I began my time at Choueifat, confident that I could make a difference by bringing in some different methods and that I could keep my young charges in order. After all, we had Miss Dalal outside.
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