Light years from the academy

100_3862To Joseph on his 20th birthday

Leaning over a game of Backgammon in the main square of this remote mountain village of the Levant, the four unemployed teenagers didn’t see it coming. Youssef Habib lunged at them from the back with his barely visible Swiss army knife. It was late 1943, and the war was raging everywhere, yet elsewhere. Youssef Habib was a communist; his hero Stalin was winning the war, yet the other teenagers constantly bullied him for it. He was fed up.

The knife wounds were minor, but for one of the foursome. Assaad, whose name ironically meant “Merriest,” got it in the neck. Soon after, meningitis and high fever fell him into a coma, and his mountain village fell into a spell. The women dressed in black, filled the churches, prayed, lit candles, and whispered. Joséphine, who knew that Assaad was crazy about her, prayed and made a pledge to Virgin Mary. She, who was planning to join the convent to be a nun, committed to marry him if only Jesus would save him. The story goes that Assaad’s uncle, Girgis, who eventually lived to be a hundred, had developed his notorious hump ever since he sat and slept on that hospital chair for 40 days and 40 nights, holding his nephew’s hand and praying for him to come out of his coma.

It just happened that the very first dose of Penicillin arrived from France to “l’Hôtel-Dieu du Levant”. Though destined for the French military, the legendary Professeur Ciaudo of the Jesuits’ run Faculté de Médecine, decided to try it on the 18-years old, an only child of his widowed mother. The miracle happened, the bells of the nineteen churches of the mountain village rang for 24 hours, women screamed their joy in the narrow streets, young men danced the Dabké in the village square, and Joséphine had no choice but to honour her pledge to Virgin Mary.

The winds of war were starting to wind down, when the newlywed embarked on another quest for survival, joining the millions in Europe and the Levant, who were trying to escape their shattered humanity. They soon were off on a boat to Marseille on their way to Western Africa. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry himself could have once piloted the dinky small plane that flew them over the Sahara desert. French Guinée was where Assaad’s late father had died a few years earlier at the age of 35. “The fever came and took him,” they said in his village back home.

There was no farm in Africa waiting for the young lad to inherit, only a grainy photo of his father’s dead body taken by French colonials. But the couple persevered: Conakry, Abidjan, Ouagadougou, Ségou, and finally Bamako, where they eventually made a comfortable living. They had six kids, who eventually had to be rushed home to a Christian boarding school in the old country: one morning, one of the babysitters, Lassiné, had shown up to the family home with smallpox pores on his arms.

Many years later, they returned home to finally settle down and live peacefully with their children. But destiny struck again in 1968. The taxi taking Assaad to the capital hit a truck on the coastal highway. His body lied there on the pavement with more broken bones that any of the witnesses could count.

Cars zoomed by, looking away and ignoring the gory accident scene, until one man from his village stopped, recognized him and took his broken body to the hospital. But another not-so-divine intervention was urgently needed to get the critically injured Assaad admitted at l’Hôtel-Dieu. All the costs that would be incurred by the hospital, a hefty sum, had to be paid in advance and on the spot. The Good Samaritan, who had brought him there, didn’t flinch. He paid it all.

His name was Youssef Habib. Twenty-five years after his youthful folly in the village square, he had made his way out of prison and up the social/economic ladder.

Josephine and Assaad are heroes of mine.

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