Kisses from a Distance



Kisses from a Distance is a memoir that was conceived after the death of the author’s mother and the discovery of a cache of over 200 letters in her personal effects. The correspondence spanned some sixty-five years and was mainly from family and friends in her native Lebanon. The discovery of the letters stimulated Mr. Ellis’ memories and he began a journey to verify the truth of the stories he had heard as a youth. After several trips to the land of his ancestors, visiting with relatives on both sides of his genealogy, trips to libraries, scouring archives, and reading and collecting obscure books, he unearthed many historical facts that are unknown to the general public. The author was often surprised at what he learned and each time he thought the storyline was set it would take a different twist or turn.

The tale begins with the virtual kidnapping--and ultimate marriage--of the author’s grandmother from a remote Lebanese convent in 1895. It chronicles that unhappy marriage through the birth of children, including the author’s mother, family financial difficulties, and the emigration of the author’s grandfather to the New World. The left behind family suffers through the First World War, the accommodations that had to be made due to the oppressive rule of their Ottoman masters, starvation, rampant disease, natural disasters, and death.

Raff Ellis intersperses his travels in the narrative with the history of the period as it affected the Lebanese people in general and his relatives in particular. The journey spanned nearly eight years before the manuscript was finally completed.

Comprehensive written and oral records contributed to making this work into an engaging story of general interest. It ushers the reader into a world of intimate thoughts and actions, oftentimes in the characters’ own words.

Following is Chapter 1 from Part I of the story.


Part I

The Hobeiches

Chapter 1 – A man is not a stranger because you do not know him.

“Kidnapped!” she said.

“Kidnapped?” the wide-eyed boy replied.
I was the wide-eyed boy who filed the story away in the recesses of my memory, to be recalled only after my mother’s death many years later. The story was about her mother, a story she retold many times, as if the mere retelling could change what had happened.

In 1895, my grandmother, Adela el Khazen, was a young woman of eighteen who had committed herself to a life of chastity, contemplation, and prayer with the Sisters of St. Francis DeSales. She did not realize that a chance meeting some two years earlier would send her life careening in an unanticipated direction.

The chapel bell at the stone-walled convent had tolled some ten minutes earlier, but Adela didn’t take notice. The tall young woman in her antiseptic white habit was busily dusting the marble statuary outside the chapel, thinking only about evening devotions.

Her thoughts were interrupted by one of her sister postulants, who told her to go immediately to mother superior’s office. The request was unusual, and Adela wondered what she could have done to warrant the summons while she hurried to obey. At her knock, Mother Anisa rose and led her to the visitor’s room. There, Adela was shocked to see her cousin Farid el Khazen and Father Boulous, her parish priest, seated on the other side of the wooden lattice that divided the nuns from the outside world. Someone in the family must have died, was her first reaction, for it was the wrong time of the year for visitors, even relatives.

Cousin Farid, a neatly coiffed young man with a handlebar moustache who was making a name for himself as a journalist in the coastal city of Jounieh, rose to greet Adela as she rushed forward and stuck her fingers through the carved wooden lattice. She clutched the barrier tightly, as if to strangle her mounting fear. In a voice trembling with apprehension she asked, “What has happened?” Farid assured her that no bad news had brought them. ”Why is the priest here?” she asked. The rotund cleric, who remained comfortably seated, had never visited her before. Fr. Boulos also assured her that there was nothing to worry about--they had come on a joyous mission.

Adela forced herself to appear calm. She warily asked the priest, whom she had never trusted, what he meant. Fr. Boulos replied as he mindlessly stroked his bushy beard, “We have brought you a suitor!”

This shocked the pious young woman who had never contemplated matrimony. Her first reaction was to scream a refusal, but her tongue grew thick and refused to cooperate. Mother Anisa guided her to a rude, stiff-backed chair and bade her sit down. Adela looked at Mother Anisa imploringly, but received no reassurance. The nun was behaving deferentially to the priest and avoiding the pleading glances of the postulant who began to pray that this was a nightmare that would soon pass.

After what seemed an eternity, Adela composed herself enough to say sharply to Fr. Boulos, “This is impossible!” She was to be professed in two months, God willing, and that she had never considered the married state. Her voice trailed off as she turned to Mother Anisa, whom she trusted would save her.

Mother Anisa—uncharacteristically severe--told Adela that it would do no harm to listen to what aboona (Father) had to say. After all, he had come a long distance, and it would be rude to dismiss his words without consideration. The nun rose and took Adela by the elbow, guiding her through a side door that separated the cloistered portion of the convent from the area open to visitors—where Adela had not been since the day that she entered the convent. Farid and the priest joined them, leading the trembling Adela down the path to the convent’s iron-barred outer door.

Adela was almost too nervous to take in the priest’s words about the sacredness of marriage and the suitor he had brought. Sheikh Nami Hobeiche, Fr. Boulos said, came from a good family, one that was as white as the inside of a turnip. Adela had met the sheikh two years before at the hostel her parents ran in the Mazraat, where she had served him a meal. The sheikh was sure she would remember.

The memory burst forth, reddening Adela’s cheeks with shame. Men were not to be thought of in a romantic context by young women in her situation. She attempted to cover her embarrassment by saying she was not sure she recalled the encounter.

Encounter, not meeting, for Adela, like any well-brought up young sheikha, knew better than to make eye contact with a strange man, no matter how attractive. Engaging him in conversation also was out of the question. She never would have encountered the sheikh at all, but one of the peasant workers had taken ill, and Adela had been pressed into service in her place.

Why the Hobeiche sheikh appeared that day at the hostel in the mountain village of Mazraat Kfar Dibienne is a mystery, although the prominent Maronite Christian clans of el Khazen and Hobeiche were not strangers. Nami, as Sheikh Namatallah was called, would easily be at home with the el Khazen.

The tall, imperious, sheikh marched in, inhaling the aromas that promised to quiet the rumblings of his substantial appetite. Just past thirty years of age, he was dressed in the gentleman’s costume of the period, a white collarless shirt, baggy pantaloons, and boots, his riding crop dangling loosely from his left hand. He crossed the small room to introduce himself to Adela’s father, seated on a stool opposite the front entrance. The other guests turned to observe the new arrival as Adela’s father, Sheikh Abdullah el Khazen, greeted Nami. They then began vying to exchange salaams with the young sheikh. Almost everyone in Lebanon knew of the Hobeiche family’s eminent history, for they were not bashful in boasting about their exploits, including having acted as guides for the Crusaders in the eleventh century.

While serving lunch to the confident stranger, Adela became aware of her attraction to him. Although she betrayed no emotion, she noted the way he parted his close-cropped wavy hair near the center of his scalp, just like the European priests she had seen at school. She could feel the stranger’s deep brown eyes upon her as he wolfed his meal, but she kept her head slightly bowed and tended to her chores. Neither she nor the sheikh uttered a word to each other, but this did not stop him from giving the sixteen-year-old girl long, direct glances.

After Sheikh Nami had finished his lunch, downed his Turkish coffee, paid his final respects to his host, and mounted his horse, Adela hurried outside to catch a glimpse of the departing stranger. She could see only his long erect back, disappearing into a cloud of dust kicked up by his galloping steed. A dashing figure, she thought innocently, soon putting the encounter out of her mind.

Now she was a postulant at a convent where other members of her clan also followed the religious life. Many el Khazens had become priests, monks, and nuns, forsaking the increasingly diminished life of the privileged class. She balked at the thought of marriage. But Fr. Boulos dismissed her reservations, saying it wasn’t important if she remembered the gentleman in question, who was waiting by the hitching rail to become reacquainted. They had come directly from her father’s house, the priest said, adding that her father had given his blessing to the courtship, believing that the union would be good for both families. The priest said it would be a shame for Adela to waste away in the convent. She must consider her family first.

Adela protested that she had to get ready for vespers, wondering fleetingly why her “suitor” had remained outside. She asked the priest to tell Sheikh Hobeiche that she was sorry for his trouble and turned to go inside the convent--but the priest barred her way. Her protests made him so angry that his mottled brown eyes turned black and his voice took on a menacing tone. He reminded Adela that they had come a long way, and had followed all the steps of propriety. She would not be permitted to insult them, he snapped, turning to grab Adela’s arm so violently that his flat-topped cap nearly fell off. The usually sympathetic Farid had accepted a supporting role in the priest’s production. Although Adela’s whispered pleas for help genuinely disturbed him, he trailed the pair down the path from the convent.

When they passed through the iron door, Adela saw Sheikh Nami standing with his elbow draped over the saddle of the same speckled white horse he was riding on the day he appeared in the Mazraat. Her cousin’s horse and the priest’s mule were at the hitching rail as well. The sheikh was so nonchalant, so sure of himself, she thought, studying his face anew, noting its symmetrical features, firm jaw, modest nose and close-cropped, dark, wavy hair. She conceded that he was a handsome man, even if she didn’t care for his brushy moustache.

Regaining his composure, the priest made the introductions in his sycophantic manner. Nodding to Sheikh Nami, he presented the girl as Sheikha Adela el Khazen, the young woman who had attracted the sheikh’s eye in a previous encounter.

Sheikh Nami, speaking excellent French, said it was a pleasure to meet her again. His voice was firm and melodious as he reached for Adela’s right hand, rosary and all, and brought it to his lips to kiss it, emulating the manner of his Continental tutors. Adela trembled as Nami’s lips and moustache touched her hand, and she told the sheikh that she didn’t speak French. (She didn’t have the presence of mind to add that she spoke some Italian, learned from Italian nuns at her school.) Effortlessly reverting to his native Arabic, Nami reminded Adela of their previous meeting, which he claimed never to have forgotten. He asked if she remembered it as well.

Adela gave him a puzzled look, wrinkling her brow so tightly that it made her look much older than eighteen. “It is hard to remember, especially from that long ago,” she said, adding that she had to go inside for evening prayers. But when she turned to reenter the convent, she bumped into Fr. Boulous, who had stationed himself between her and the iron door.

Nami told her not to be in such a hurry and again reached for her hand, but Adela was ready for him this time, and deftly avoided his grasp. Nami began to talk of his family’s history, how for many generations his ancestors and Adela’s had fought side by side in the name of their religion and for the independence of Lebanon. Every so often, the priest would nod his head and make an exclamation in praise of God. Each time he invoked God’s name, Adela made the sign of the cross and kissed the crucifix attached to her rosary.

As the light in the sky turned from orange to gray, Adela began to fidget and again looked imploringly at her cousin Farid, but his face showed that his allegiance was to the priest and the sheikh. “Listen carefully, because this is very important to you and to the family,” Farid said. Adela responded by bowing her head and staring at the ground in despair.

Adela felt smothered by the shroud of words that the sheikh and the priest so adroitly knit about her--no matter how much she fidgeted, she sank deeper and deeper into its folds. When dusk fell, one of the nuns, unnoticed by everyone but the priest, slipped out of the convent and slammed the iron door shut with a resounding clang.

Simultaneously, the chapel bell began to peal, startling both Adela and the priest’s donkey. Adela turned to reenter the convent. The priest had stepped aside, but the iron door was locked. Above the braying of the donkey, Adela cried out to the sister, “I can’t get in!” Without replying—without a backward glance--the nun disappeared inside.

With the harsh metallic clang reverberating in her ears, Adela continued pleading for the nun to open the iron door. Her eyes filled with tears, and she began to beat on the door with her fists. A burr on one of the bars cut the heel of her right hand, leaving bloody smears on the iron.

The priest reminded Adela that if a postulant was found outside the iron door after sunset, she forfeited her presumption of purity, and her right to return to the cloister. Adela now had no option but to return home.

The realization that the sisters would no longer take her back stabbed at Adela. She clutched her breast and banged her head repeatedly against the unyielding iron. She sobbed uncontrollably as the priest, with uncharacteristic tenderness, led her from the iron door to her cousin’s horse. He reassured her that all would be well, that there would be rejoicing in the Mazraat when they returned.

Astride Farid’s horse, Adela composed herself and fell deathly silent. But her face revealed her inner pain, the pain of one betrayed not only by her family and her priest, but also by her beloved Sisters of St. Francis De Sales. Farid gazed sadly at Adela and, while bandaging her hand with his handkerchief, whispered reassuring words. He gently caressed the swelling welt on her forehead, an ugly bruise that quickly turned from red to purple. But Adela said nothing.

The jubilant Nami mounted his horse with a triumphant grin. He had made a bridal conquest in the finest romantic tradition of his country, and he would not let Adela’s depression diminish his joy. In Lebanese culture, kidnapping brides was not uncommon-- stories of such escapades are told in many folktales.

With the clanging of that iron door, a new chapter in the history of my family began.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.