Syria, the Land of Lebanon/Chapter 4

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Syria, the Land of Lebanon by Lewis Gaston Leary
Chapter IV

CHAPTER IV


THE SPIRIT OF OLYMPIA


MOUNT LEBANON looks to-day upon such a contest as it has never seen before. Yet Syria has witnessed many struggles. From the time men first began to fight, this land has hardly had opportunity to learn what peace and quiet mean. There are people on the campus of the American College this afternoon who can remember when the slopes of the mountain ran with blood; some of the best sprinters know what it is to flee for their lives, and even this week there has been killing on the streets of Beirut.

The contest to-day, however, is a new thing under the Syrian sun. It is not the first time that athletic games have been held—there was a field-day as far back as 1898—but this time the preparations have been of an unusual character. During the whole week, men have been busy rolling and marking the track and removing every stick and pebble from the football field. The classrooms have been emptied of all their chairs and benches, and the faculty committee has erected four grand stands, seating over a thousand people. These will not begin to accommodate all the spectators, however, and students living in dormitories that front on the athletic field find that they have suddenly become very popular among the ladies of the city.

The football teams have ordered sweaters and shin-guards from England, and the Beirut tailors have been puzzling their brains over queerly shaped garments for the sprinters. The medals on exhibition in the college library were struck in Boston especially for this occasion, and bear on their faces the college emblem, a cedar of Lebanon. Besides the prizes for each event, the American consul will give a gold medal to the champion all-round athlete. Best of all, the governor of Lebanon has promised to attend and has sent his famous military band to provide the afternoon's music. When to these various good things is added the glory of a Syrian springtime, and a campus set high on a bluff overlooking the blue Mediterranean, with Mount Lebanon raising its snow-capped summits high in the background, it is an occasion and a setting to quicken the slowest pulse.

To-day is so full of excitement, however, that nobody thinks very much of anything outside the athletic field. The governor's band has come early, with all kinds of instruments, especially those which make a very loud noise. A tent has been erected for them in the center of the field, and over the tent is a little American flag. The East is always so incomprehensible and contradictory that it occasions no particular surprise that a Syrian military band should be playing Sousa marches under the American colors.

But it looks as if we had at last succeeded in making the East hustle a little. All Beirut seems to be crowding into the campus. It is almost a part of his religion for an Oriental never to do anything on time; yet the grand stands are already full, and the soldiers stationed at the gate-house can hardly hold the crowds back long enough for the porter to collect their tickets. The scene is dazzling, dizzying, bewildering, like Coney Island and the Derby and the Yale-Princeton game all jumbled together.

There must be at least five thousand strangers on the college grounds, and every color of the spectrum is here, especially the very brilliant ones. The military band, with their blue uniforms and red fezes, seem almost shabby and dull in comparison with the more garish coloring all around them. The seats are mostly filled with women, whose showy dresses are hideous individually and beautiful as part of the general color scheme. Moslem harems are here with their weird veils, and there are many pretty Levantines in rich, inappropriate silks and satins. In Syria, however, the ladies do not monopolize the bright garments. Handsome young Turkish officers swagger along under yards of gold lace, merchants from the city are wearing their best and baggiest satin trousers and embroidered waistcoats and broad silk sashes, while the sons of Egyptian millionaires sport the elegantly fitting coats and tinted vests which now form the favorite costume of the streets of Cairo. The color spreads over the field and up the grand stands, with bright splashes along the sides of the dormitories. Long strips of red and white bunting flaunt the college colors; American and British and Greek and Turkish flags wave above, and the students' windows are decorated with their national emblems or class banners.

Early in the afternoon an American tutor, while ushering the women of a Moslem harem across the campus, suggested, in rather labored Arabic, that they pass around the back of one of the dormitories so as to avoid the crowd. Imagine his surprise and consternation when one of the ladies replied, "No, thank you; I'd rather go around in front"—and said it in perfect English, with just a suspicion of a Yankee twang! Who was hidden behind that black veil? What foolish, tragic venture had brought it about that an American girl should dwell behind the latticed windows of a Moslem seraglio?

But the students have no intention of being obscured by their guests. They are out a thousand strong, with their best clothes and their loudest voices. They represent every race and tongue and faith of the Near East, with here and there a stranger from Europe or South America. At first thought, it seems as though they could never be amalgamated, even for an afternoon. Here, for example, are a dozen names, representing as many nationalities; Hafiz Abd-ul-Malik, Neshan Hamyartsumian, Ahmed Zeki, Basileios Theodoropolous, Tahir Huseini, Carlos d'Oliveira, Aldo Villa, Mordecai Elstein, Emmanuel Mattsson, Joseph Miklasievicz, Eugène Faure, Emile Kirehner. As to religion, they are Moslems, Jews, Druses, Babites, and Christians of every sect. Some of the languages they speak are Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Chaldean, Persian, Greek, Yiddish, English, Swedish, Bulgarian, Abyssinian, Italian, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish and Russian. As to geographical distribution, they come from the Balkans in the north and from Baghdad, forty days' journey to the east; from a thousand miles up the Nile, and from New York and Brazil in the west.

Probably no other institution in the world includes such a mixture of antagonistic peoples and religions, and, until quite recently, the members of each of the more largely represented races kept closely together. It used to be seldom that a Jew, for instance, associated with an Armenian outside of class hours. In the evenings the Greek students would gather in one another's rooms, or march around the campus arm in arm, singing their national songs. The Egyptians, most of whom were of very wealthy families, promenaded together, discussing the fleshpots of
Students of the American College celebrating an athletic victory

Students of the American College celebrating an athletic victory

The Cape of Beirut viewed from Mount Lebanon

The Cape of Beirut viewed from Mount Lebanon

Cairo. Even among the Syrians, who have always formed the majority of the student body, there were lines of division between the men from Tripoli in the north and from Sidon or Jedeideh in the south. If these groups are considered as being separated by latitudinal lines, there were also the longitudinal divisions between Christian and Moslem and Jew; and sometimes long-cherished feuds broke into flame and pitched battles took place on the campus.

Not the least benefit arising from the introduction of American athletic sports has been a weakening of these ancient racial and religious barriers. The antagonisms still exist, strong and danger-breeding; but there has been a large advance made toward a more catholic college spirit. It would not be true to say that athletics has been the only cause, or even the chief cause of this change; for by precept and example, by religious instruction and social intercourse, the faculty are continually molding the characters of these young men. Yet it is true that in the case of more than one recalcitrant student whom no other influence seemed able to touch, the latent manliness has been brought out through his newly awakened interest in sports.

Most Orientals are very averse to physical exercise. Their traditional idea of enjoyment is to sit under an awning, drinking coffee and playing backgammon. That a man should go out and run around a track in shameless nakedness, and this with no hope of gain, only strengthens their conclusion that all Franks are mad. The Syrians are an imitative people, however, and some years ago the influence of the younger instructors tempted a few of the preparatory boys out for foot-races. But you cannot run a hundred-yard dash with long, baggy trousers and a silk robe which flops about your ankles. Even if you "gird up the loins" by tucking your skirts into your sash, the effect is more startling than speedy. Soon, one by one, the students ordered trousers from the city tailors. At first these garments were poorly cut and viewed with suspicion; but to-day there are hardly three men in the academic and graduate departments who wear the native costume outside of their rooms, and many of the students dress with an elegance that their professors cannot afford to emulate.

It was football, however, that did the most toward unification of the heterogeneous student body. The value of team-work is a comparatively new idea to western Asia and eastern Europe. Since the days of Alcibiades and Absalom the old ideal has been that of "every man for himself." If it had not been so, the history of the world might have been different. It was comparatively easy to understand the joy of winning a foot-race or a tennis tournament; but to play an untheatrical part in a match, obeying the captain and working for the good of the team—that was a very different thing. The students always play the association game, and it used to be the ambition of every youth to get the ball, and carry it down the field all by himself, while the audience cheered, "Bravo, bravo!" So the faculty arranged matches with the crews of visiting British warships, and from sad experience the college learned the value of side plays and frequent passes, and began to see dimly that good football is played, not with the legs and mouth alone, but with the head, and that hard team-work is better than grand stand exploits.[1] That lesson may some day change the map of Asia.

The physical director of the college now has under his charge no fewer than eighteen football teams, besides twelve basketball teams, six hockey teams, four baseball teams and a cross-country running club; thirty men play at cricket regularly forty-seven hold certificates or medals of the (British) Royal Life Saving Society, and there are a hundred and thirty-five entries for to-day's field and track events.[2]

It makes one homesick to hear the cheers. With the exception of an occasional "meet" with some mission school, like those at Jerusalem and Sidon, there is no opportunity to compete with rival institutions. Indeed, there is no other college in the Near East which would have any chance of winning in competition with the "S. P. C." So the enthusiasm finds a vent in cheering for the various schools of the university and for the class champions. Three of the departments—the preparatory, academic and medical—are each as large as many an American college. The competition among these runs very high, and to-day a banner is to be given to the one whose members shall score most points. Now the various department "yells" have stopped for a moment, and an upper classman starts the college cheer, just as inane to read and just as soul-stirring to hear as are those of Harvard or Yale or Princeton. There is a good deal of singing, too. The college song, like that of Cornell, is set to the tune of "Annie Lisle," but the words are full of local allusions—


"Far, far above the waters
 Of the deep blue sea,
Lies the campus of the college
 Where we love to be.

"Far away, behold Keneiseh!
 Far beyond, Sunnin!
Rising hoary to the heavens,
 Clad in glorious sheen."


Suddenly an usher comes running from the gatehouse with the news that the governor's carriage is in sight. It can hardly be true, however; for it still lacks a few minutes of two o'clock, and it would be contrary to Syrian custom for an official of such exalted rank to arrive at the same time with ordinary people. Probably he will come at about three o'clock, and stay a half hour or so, just to assure the college of his good-will. Indeed, this will be the first time that a governor has even put in an appearance at the annual games. But, after all, the usher is right. The pasha is coming—three minutes ahead of time! There is hardly a consul on the dignitaries' platform; even the American representative has not arrived yet, and there would be no one properly to welcome the governor, if the president of the college did not throw dignity to the winds and sprint across the campus to meet him.

The escort rides in at a slow canter, with sabers glistening and accouterments clattering. First come young officers, handsome and foppish, their bosoms heavy with gold lace and medals, and their Arab stallions snorting and prancing; then follows the guard of grizzled, sunburned Lebanon soldiers, clothed in blue Zouave uniforms and holding repeating-rifles across the pommels of their saddles. Behind the soldiers are carriages containing the members of the staff and their ladies; and last of all, attended by out-riders, the carriage of his excellency. The pasha is a thin little old man with a gray beard and shrewd, tired eyes; and, in striking contrast to his gayly caparisoned escort, he is quietly dressed in a dark business suit. He is a Pole by birth, a Roman Catholic by religion, a Turkish soldier by profession, and a gentleman by instinct and breeding. A son of the governor is also here. He is an attaché of the Turkish embassy at Paris, and one would take him for a cultured Frenchman. The wife of the attaché is a young American woman, a member of one of our best-known and wealthiest New York families.

Among the other guests in the seats of honor are a Greek priest, a Moslem mollah and a Druse emir. The senior missionary is telling the professor of philosophy how Yale used to play football back in the fifties, while the lady of the German consul is talking babies to the senior missionary's wife. The Welsh doctor, who used to live in Brazil, is talking French to the Italian professor from Cairo. The exporter of Damascus rugs is swapping Dakota stories with the Syrian editor who took the Arab troupe to the Chicago Exposition.

And in the middle of the field the official announcer is lifting up a megaphone to shout across the babel of tongues—

"Winner of the dromedary race, Saladin; second, Haroun al Raschid; third, Sinbad. The next event will be the high jump on enchanted carpets!"

At least, that is what one would expect to hear amid this brilliant theatrical setting. But instead the call comes in faultless English—

"All out for the hundred-yard dash!"

In the finals of this race there are four men; a Greek, an Egyptian and two Syrians. Khalil Meshaqah, of the medical school, wins in ten and two-fifth seconds, without spikes, and on a dirt track[3] without guiding ropes. The college is not ashamed of its athletic records. Among its prize winners this afternoon are the best jumper of the Island of Cyprus, the champion swimmer of Alexandria, and the Greek who won the hundred-meter race in the recent Pan-Hellenic Games at Athens. On the first few field-days the Greeks carried everything before them; indeed, on one occasion three Greeks from Cyprus made more points than all the other students combined. Now, however, after only a few years of training, some splendid athletes are being developed among the Syrians, Armenians and Egyptians. Of the six men who win most points to-day, four are Syrians, one is a Greek and one is a Scotchman.

The announcer comes out again into the center of the field and shouts through his megaphone, first in English and then in Arabic—

"The discus has just been thrown one hundred and ten feet, breaking the college record!" So the campus bursts into a new uproar of shouting and singing, and the students make quite unnecessary inquiries as to "What's the matter with McLaughlan?" while somebody tries to explain what it is all about to the Turkish governor, who understands neither English nor Arabic, and the governor's daughter-in-law looks as if she were thinking of Travers Island.

It would take too long to describe all the events of the day: how Nedrah Meshaqah wins the thousand-yard "campus race," how Iatrou keeps the shot-put in the Greek ranks, or how Bedr breaks the record for the high jump. The real significance of the occasion is that it is all so like the field-meets of our American colleges at home.

The only typically Syrian event is the jareed-throw—and the javelin has since been included among American field-events. The jareed is a blunt dart about four feet long and an inch in diameter, and it is always thrown underhand. The Arabs use it in various games, somewhat as the old Greeks employed the javelin. At the college it is thrown for distance; and this is one of the most interesting contests, as it requires not only strength and quickness but a peculiar knack which it is almost impossible for a foreigner to learn. It looks very easy to one who has tossed baseballs all his life; yet when the American first attempts to throw the short, light stick, he sends it whirling around like a windmill. But watch that young Druse sheikh, as he carefully balances the jareed upon his finger, and then grasps it gently but firmly at the approved spot. A few slow swings of the arm to get the direction, a lean backward until the stick nearly touches the ground behind, then a jump forward and a throw so long that his hand moves fully nine feet in a straight line before it lets the missile go with a furious rifling motion—and the jareed darts up and off with a queer little nervous twist like an angry snake, and drops nearly two hundred feet away, with a force that would have broken a man's skull.

It is a proud moment for thirty Eastern athletes when they step up to the platform where the governor and his staff are sitting, and receive their medals from the Norwegian wife of the American consul and the American daughter-in-law of the Turkish pasha. Everything is over now except the football game, and the governor has stayed through it all, thus giving a most signal mark of his interest and approval. He indicates his wish to retire, and the crowd gives way for his escort. The carriages drive up to the grand stand with much snapping of whips, and the outriders prance gayly around on their restive Arabs. But just then the football teams run out into the field, resplendent in their new uniforms; and the governor repents of his decision to leave, sinks back into his seat and motions the carriages to drive away.

The captain of the medical team is a great, bearded Syrian, six feet tall. The captain of the collegiate eleven is two inches taller, also a Syrian in name and very proud of his country and race, but with a sense of humor and a knowledge of team-work which he probably inherited from his American mother. One of the full-backs is a very sturdy fellow who was born in Cyprus of a French mother and speaks Greek as his native tongue; but there is a canny twinkle in his eye and a burr in his speech which make it seem quite natural that his name should begin with "Mac." Many brilliant plays are made by the son of an Egyptian millionaire, the Druse sheikh who won the jareed throw, and an American from Jerusalem. The collegiate eleven is composed of four Syrians, three Egyptians, an Armenian, a Scotchman, an American and an Austrian; but racial and religious differences are forgotten as they play together for the honor of their side. It is a hard game, yet a very fair one, and when the "Medics" win by a score of two goals to one, even the college men lustily cheer the victors.

As the gay-colored crowd breaks over the field, his fellow-students seize the captain of the winning team and carry him around on their shoulders, singing and shouting all the while. Medical banners wave, medical hats and fezes are thrown into the air and medical men cheer until they can cheer no more. Soon the other students join in, and department rivalries are forgotten in a loud enthusiasm for alma mater. At the dinner hour the usual rules of decorum are for once relaxed, and the happy pandemonium continues until bedtime. Then at last, tired and sleepy and voiceless, the college settles down to a long rest, after the best field-day that has ever been held in the Turkish Empire.

  1. In 1913, the college team defeated the champions of the British Mediterranean Fleet.
  2. The above figures are for the current year, 1913. With this exception, however, the chapter is not in any sense a composite, but describes the happenings of one actual field-day held during the author's residence in Beirut.
  3. Since this record was made, a new athletic field with a cinder track has been laid out adjoining the campus.