SIDON, Lebanon: For today’s youths, distance may be no barrier to love, but there’s a generation of Lebanese who still remember the struggle to connect with distant loved ones during the Civil War.
Hajj Raslan Afara, who worked as a truck driver transporting fruits and vegetables between Lebanon and the Gulf, reminisces about the sweeter cargo he was entrusted with over the past 50 years.
“Back then I used to carry recorded tapes of love songs from a girl to her fiance or from a woman to her husband. I used to carry Lebanese sweets and food,” Afara, who is now in his 70s, laughs.
“We used to carry letters with us from Lebanese to their loved ones who emigrated to work in the Gulf, because at that time sending letter through the postal service during the times of war was very difficult.”
Sahar Rinno was one of the star-crossed lovers who depended on Afar’s help to hold onto the spark with her fiance. The letters would take about six months to be delivered, especially at the onset of the Lebanese Civil War back in 1975.
“I used to send the letter and wait impatiently for a response,” she says.
Luckily, Rinno found the patience to wait for a reply from her love, whom she is now married to and has four children with.
For her husband Jamal Rinno, the letters were a true labor of love, as they required that he learn to read and write Arabic in order to stay in touch with his sweetheart.
“I learned how to write and read by sending her letters of love, and reading hers,” Jamal says.
Modern day Romeos and Juliets have it much easier, according to Jamal, with the availability of voice and video chat.
“Today everything has changed with technology, modernity and international communication and satellite systems, Internet, social networking and email. People who are parted by deserts and seas can see and talk to one another as if they were in the same house,” he says. “During the good old times of the postal service, a letter was the most important means of communication between people, in addition to the telephone. In the old days in Lebanon, people would sacrifice everything to send a letter to a lover or a husband in the Gulf countries.”For Mona Najm, a resident of Sidon, modern technology makes the distance between her and her fiance seem nonexistent.
“I know nothing about writing letters, I can make a video call to my fiance in Germany and feel that he is nearby,” she says.
Likewise, Zainab Kharnoubi, who talks regularly with her brothers in Germany and Switzerland, knows nothing about the value of letters.
“I haven’t written to them for 15 years, we communicate with smartphones and through WhatsApp and Viber,” she says.
But for Lebanese living abroad before the rise of cellphones and the Internet, technology cannot replace the personal sentiment of carefully written love letters and packages of sweets and nuts sent from home.
Kharnoubi’s neighbor, Umm Dia says these special packages were a “big deal.”
“The letter was the most important thing. We would read the letters dozens of times before sending them through the postal service, we cried and felt extreme sadness when the postal service was halted during the war.”
Her son Dia agrees. “I remember a driver named Ahmad Nasser who used to bring us the tapes and the letters and we used to shout with joy when we opened the door for him,” he says. “My father died two years ago, and I still have his letters, that used to start with, ‘Dear Son Dia,’ and end with a note stating the amount of money he was sending and the date of the next letter.”
Dia expresses gratitude toward the drivers like Afara who ferried letters to and from Lebanon.
“Without the drivers and their generosity back then, we wouldn’t have known any information about my father,” he says.
Delivering the missives at the height of the Civil War was no small feat, Afara says.
“Back in the 1960s I used to transport fruits to Kuwait where the first telephone station in the Gulf was installed. I used to call my family to inform them of my safe arrival, but the Civil War in Lebanon soon severed all means of communication,” he says.
“I used to travel twice a month to the Gulf, and as the war escalated, me and dozens of other drivers became the sole link between families in Lebanon and their loved ones working in the Gulf,” he says.
“I used to carry letters, food, sweets and nuts and drive for 2,200 kilometers so that I could arrive in three days and deliver the items and carry back their answers,” Afara adds.
“The men here used to send their fiancees and wives tapes and a tape recorder so that their families could record their messages and voices on it. They would also trust us to send jewelry and rings,” Afara says.
For Jamal Rinno, few things brought more joy than these packages from home.
“These items sent by our families would travel 2,000 kilometers to reach us in the heart of the desert,” Jamal says.
“When the letters and the sweets reached us we used to be overwhelmed with happiness. I used to smell the letters and kiss them,” he recalls.
“My fiancee used to plant a kiss on the letter with lipstick. When I touched the kiss, I used to be overwhelmed with sweet and joyful feelings. It’s something that I can’t describe,” he says.
“Now everything has changed. I returned home and I now communicate with my friends with modern means,” he adds.
Afara has stopped working as a driver because of his old age, but he says he still runs into people whose letters he delivered during the Civil War. “Wherever I go to Arab and foreign countries I meet people who greet me warmly, but I don’t remember them. They remind me afterward of the letters I used to carry in my truck to their loved ones.”