The Lure of the Levant

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The Lure of the Levant

By Lucine Kasbarian

October 17, 1987

Published in the Armenian Weekly and Asbarez

I was warned that such a venture would be risky. Improving the conditions of an Armenian village so near to the Turkish border was not to be taken lightly. Many tried to discourage me. Unshaken I packed for Kessab, Syria this August with anticipation. I would join 44 other volunteers with the Land and Culture Organization (LCO), a French-based Armenian group with a commitment to preserving Armenian structures and upgrading the standards of economic sufficiency in Armenian enclaves found in the Middle East.

Upon my arrival in Kessab, it was pleasing to see what appeared to be an Armenian tenaciousness in successfully retaining their distinct ethnic character. However, I found it displeasing to see how a region void of modern technological and economic advancements had affected the indigenous Armenian population. Yet all the while, the resulting environment is what made Kessab so intriguing.

As first-time participants in this program, we developed initial questions that were answered as we became familiar with our surroundings. We better understood why Diasporan Armenians came to help natives with their own lands in Kessab. The villagers did not have the collective power, opportunity or wherewithal to take on the responsibilities necessary for the restoration or preservation of certain village-owned properties. A few of the projects underway included the restoration of an Armenian chapel and the rediscovery of the source of a spring in order to create a reservoir for irrigation purposes. Had these needs not been identified and addressed by concerned individuals, the Syrian government may have exercised its right to divert to other uses areas not being occupied or properly cultivated.

Discovering Kessab was like finding a place on the globe that I had always pictured in my mind. I knew this place -- a remnant of the Cilician Armenian Kingdom -- had to exist somewhere. The versatility and adaptability of the soil, which appeared to be ill-suited for any kind of cultivation, was fascinating. The colors of Kessab were vibrant yet muted, faded and weather-beaten; the textures, coarse, grainy, leathery, smooth. Some old-timer could be found tending sheep and cattle in his shalvar and pillbox hat. I wondered how many people at home know that as a walnut is picked off a tree as a fruit, one has to peel the soft skin off before the shell can be cracked open.

There were times when my surroundings played tricks on my senses. It was as if I didn’t know what century I was in. In 110 degree heat, I was cutting away cactus brush and other wild growth with my sickle, overlooking the rugged hills, valleys and the azure Mediterranean just below. I took a break from work and ate figs and grapes off the vine. As I breathlessly reached a peak it had taken hours to climb, there were no signs of civilization, just the mountains, the mist and me. Those were moments when I imagined myself living the life of an Armenian peasant in 1887, tilling the land or covering ground with a shepherd and his goats.

Some said my fascination with the scheme of things would wane with familiarity and routine. Yet every day for a month, I would gaze with awe at the enveloping skies, the winding mountain roads, and the structures camouflaged by dust, foliage and other natural elements. Every day, I would climb, lift, dig and scrape with a force I didn’t know I possessed, for there I was, paying a debt owed to my ancestors, vowing to save the remains of Armenia.

In Kessab, our energy built more energy. Our togetherness and strength felt through unity motivated each of us beyond what we thought were our former limitations. I found myself in my element. After four years of scholastic stimulation, I was aching for strenuous physical activity. I wore my favorite worn clothing with no traces of makeup, perfume or nail polish. My lungs and head were clear. The work anointed my body and as exercise always does, offered a feeling of inner confidence that all obstacles could be overcome.

With both eyes open, I readily recognized that my impressions were held by someone who didn’t live in Kessab on a permanent basis. I met many inhabitants who wished to emigrate elsewhere for hopes of finding greater opportunities and less constriction. I was in no position to demand that they remain to reserve the traditional Armenian presence there, for I had not nearly walked a mile in their shoes. I know that volunteering to work in Kessab is not for everyone. A variety of products, unlimited water supplies, and other comforts we take for granted are not available. Yes, when we weren’t working or sleeping, we were singing, dancing, playing practical jokes and exchanging banter about our views and lives back home. But we came to Kessab prepared to face those 10 hours of labor each day. A Californian Armenian tourist who visited our sites remarked that back where he came from, he would have hired illegal aliens if need be for such labor, and could pay them less than minimum wage. He obviously did not understand why each of us chose to volunteer in Kessab, and readily acknowledged that fact.

The force exerted in those weeks proved exhausting, but the rewards more than compensated. It was with great pleasure that I witnessed the signs of affection and respect that grew among the guests and hosts, and I saw many program participants leave Kessab with an awakened pride for their heritage and the desire to learn the joys and sorrows, the all-encompassing life of an Armenian.

For every Armenian that is frustrated by the apathy or obstacles by which he feels surrounded in the Armenian realm, the LCO’s project in Kessab is the ultimate place in which one may, for once, see the immediate fruits of his labors.