Widows Cling to Past Glories of Beirut : Lifestyles: Deprivation has replaced enchantment, yet these elderly emigres insist on the right to live alone with their memories.
The winter evenings plunge her ground-floor apartment into darkness by 5 o’clock. And with electricity rationed to six hours out of every 30, the frail, stooped woman simply goes to bed rather than sit alone in the dark.
For Felicitas Edle von Schroffenegg, who has spent the last 60 of her 94 years in Beirut, her bedtime routine begins with a sleeping pill that works until midnight. After she wakes the first time, she listens to classical music on the radio for a few hours before taking a second pill.
“I whistle in the dark,” she says. “And I have a little soprano. Sometimes I sing along with Maria Callas.”
Days are easier, but they are just as long. The world is a place where “I have lasted too long,” the Austrian-born Felicitas says, as if apologizing for her existence.
If it’s true that misery loves company, Felicitas has plenty of it. Hidden in the recesses of Beirut’s Old Quarters, once known for European residents and architectural charm, are the human remnants of a kind of life erased forever by 15 1/2 years of civil war and near-anarchy.
It was a life spent in the Lebanese capital during its heyday, when it was a dazzling cosmopolitan center for commerce, intellect and fashion set between pine-covered mountains and the Mediterranean. Gleaming high-rise buildings and an up-to-the-minute shopping district blended with the goldsmith’s traditional souk, or marketplace. More than 100,000 foreigners mingled with Middle Eastern royalty, high rollers and adventurers--and tourists came in droves.
“Ah, life in Beirut was uncomplicated, wonderful!” Erma, an 80-year-old Hungarian, exclaims as she remembers that time, which began in the 1940s. (Like many of the Europeans interviewed, Erma asked not to be fully identified.)
But like Beirut itself, even in this time of peace, many of the roughly 20 elderly Europeans left seem to have had their unique vibrancy sapped.
Erma, haggard and nearly toothless, lives in a neighborhood trashed by militias during the war and now occupied by Shiite squatters. Tatiana, 76, a Russian who suffers from emphysema, lives in an area next to the old Green Line, a no-man’s land for a decade and a half.
Although these three women do not know each other, their lifestyles and struggles are sadly similar: All were only children. All had childless marriages. All are widows. Money problems, water and electricity shortages, security concerns and even everyday shopping tax their limited energies to the breaking point.
Each speaks four or five languages, and their bookshelves reflect their linguistic talents. Interestingly, none speaks Arabic well, and none reads or writes it; Tatiana says Arabic “looks like macaroni” to her.
Just as precarious as their existence is their legal status.
When Erma and Felicitas married Lebanese men in their youth, their governments obliged them to surrender their passports and take Lebanese documents. Still labeled foreigners by the Lebanese and Lebanese by their own governments, they are helped by neither and ignored by both. Tatiana retains French nationality, which she assumed when she married a Frenchman, but she finds herself in much the same position.
It’s a poignant denouement to lives begun with adventure and hope--or, as Erma notes wistfully, “Good memories hurt more than the bad. But what can I do?”
Erma’s journey to Lebanon began at age 15, when she ran away from home to marry a handsome Romanian many years her senior. Two years later, they were divorced. From then on, her story winds its way from Bucharest to Persia and Iraq, with romance and adventure at every step.
Fate came calling in 1939, when her then-paramour, an Italian prince and diplomat in Baghdad, was evacuated as World War II began. Before she could join him, she was arrested by the British army.
“They thought I would have information about the Italian Embassy and the prince’s work,” she says.
She spent the war years in British-run detention camps in Palestine and Uganda, held because of her Romanian passport. When the war was over, the British sent her back to Beirut, penniless. But the fiery Erma was soon dancing with folkloric troupes, working behind the bar at Beirut’s best nightclubs and making friends with the jet set.
A four-year marriage to a Lebanese ended in divorce. Once back on her own, she bought a pension (boarding house) where she has lived for 40 years.
The civil war was particularly difficult for Erma, who lost her best friends, an elderly French couple living upstairs, when a shell scored a direct hit on their apartment. She also lost a fortune in jewelry during the war--stolen, she says, by neighbors with militia connections.
“I know who they are,” she says, pointing to a house across the street. “But if I had said something. . . .” She draws her finger, like a knife, across her throat.
These days, it is Erma’s talent for sewing that earns her enough to live on. Her clientele, lower-income Shiite women from the quarter, order chiffon party dresses with as many sequins and spangles as the gowns can hold.
When she is feeling down, she looks around the discolored walls of her living room and declares flatly, “I’m tired. I’m ready to die.” But then she picks up a magazine and clips out a few more recipes, saying, “Now, does that look like someone who is ready to die?”
Only a few blocks from Erma lives Tatiana, whose adventures began with her family’s flight from Bolshevik Russia in 1917. The family settled in Berlin, where Tatiana studied and then performed ballet.
She recalls what she says is the most memorable compliment she ever received: “ ‘I have watched you dancing. You have a lot of talent. I’m not surprised you are Russian.’ ” The year was 1936, and her admirer was Marlene Dietrich.
From Berlin, she went to Cairo, where for 18 years she ran a ballet school. It was a glamorous time: She says she met King Farouk, interviewed Omar Sharif and once shared a table with Rita Hayworth and the Aga Khan.
Tatiana has that encounter with the Aga Khan on film, but she insists that the suitcases of photographs and film in her bedroom remain closed. Only one picture, taken in her late 20s and set on a bookshelf, allows a public glimpse of her once-exotic face.
A chance meeting on a flight from Cairo to Paris led to marriage for Tatiana. Her husband, an architect-interior designer, worked for the Egyptian king until Farouk’s overthrow in 1952. Then the couple moved to Beirut.
Although all the women have financial problems these days, Tatiana is obsessed with hers. Her bank closed more than a year ago and shows little sign of reopening. At her side is pile of bank statements and letters that she fingers as if they were rosary beads.
Of the three women, Felicitas took the most straightforward route to Lebanon. She met and married a Lebanese merchant in Italy in 1924, and they moved to Beirut in 1931.
Her good humor has seen her through some dark days. Twice forced out of her home by militias and once by a six-month spate of shelling, she has been given refuge by her landlord, the building’s janitor and by a Swiss friend whose house has a bomb shelter, where she slept for two months during shelling in 1989.
Suffering severe eye problems, Felicitas can no longer read, a loss she feels greatly. For her and the others, reading has been their mainstay.
Felicitas’ one relative, a niece of her late husband, gives her a small monthly stipend.
Their difficult lives not withstanding, the three women still savor certain treats, memories of happier days: For Felicitas, it’s ice cream. For Tatiana, it’s fresh fish. And Erma’s dream--deep inside Islamic fundamentalist territory--is a ham pizza and a bottle of wine.
But even during the happy moments, fear and uncertainty are never far away. At this point, the greatest fear these women have is being forced from their homes by squatters, money crises or poor health. For years, Erma didn’t set foot outside her apartment. Friends did some of her shopping, but usually she lowered a basket and called out her order to the little grocery below.
Felicitas refuses to go to a home for the aged in spite of her difficult living conditions and frail condition. Persuaded by friends to take a look at one home, she tells how she played detective: “I went into an old man’s room and asked about the heating. He told me there wasn’t any.” End of visit.
“This is where I want to die,” she says. “Right here in my own home.”
She moved into the apartment house in 1936, when it was a luxury building. A couple of months ago, the owner came and stripped the corridors of the marble decor. He doesn’t even collect the rent anymore.
Friends installed a battery-operated musical bell so Felicitas would know when someone was at the door, even when the electricity was off. And sometimes, deep in the Lebanese night, the bell will chime this tune: “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”