Every third of December in Beirut, children in masks roam their neighborhood knocking on doors, collecting sweets and chocolate, to celebrate the Eid al-Barbara, the feast of Barbara. Screaming heyshlee Barbara - run away Barbara - it has become a tradition to compete with each other for the biggest stash of goodies.
A local legend, the historical figure of Barbara is considered a saint by many Lebanese. She is, naturally, the patron saint of gunmen and those who handle explosives, and her festival is celebrated rather like Halloween, which is a festival relatively new to Lebanon.
And, just like St Valentine and St Nicholas, this saint has become a marketable concept and an opportunity to sell, in this case, costumes and gory masks.
Scary like politics
In the past, local kids used to conjure up frightening disguises with whatever they could find at home. But today, every bit as scary, mass-produced plastic masks of monsters and Lebanese politicians bought from street vendors are the custom.
“Animal masks, such as lion and tiger, are the most popular with small kids,” says Jeanne d’Arc Zakkareye, a street vendor in Saide, Achrafieh. “Dora the Explorer costumes are all the rage, followed by Batman and witches.”
And, of course, “Aoun and Geagea masks are really popular around here. But if you ask me, I wouldn’t pick either of them,” she adds.
Does she believe in Barbara’s sainthood? “Well, no saint was able to cure my brother,” she says. Zakkareye points to a crippled man crouched on the pavement next to her stall. His legs are deformed.
In Hamra, “the Saad Hariri mask is the top seller in my shop,” says Souad [she prefers to be known as Em Samer], owner of Dani, a shop in Makdesi Street. “Kids are coming in with their parents to take a look at the masks, but this year few people are buying.”
Zakkareye agrees, adding that if people buy they are going for the cheap masks. Maybe the global recession is even hitting the mask market even though they only cost 1,000 - 3,000 LL.
According to local legends, Barbara was a young Roman girl who lived in the Beqaa region of Lebanon. Her father was governor of the Roman city of Baalbek and loyal to pagan gods. He kept his daughter under lock and key in a Rapunzel-style tower to avoid all contact with the outside world.
“In Baalbeck we celebrate Saint Barbara with a huge street festival,” says Rima El Berkachy, a Beqaa resident who swears that Barbara really does originate in Baalbek.
The story goes that instead of letting down her hair to welcome illicit suitors, Barbara used her solitary confinement to do some serious soul searching. She converted to Christianity and disguised herself when she escaped from the tower to elude her father - hence the tradition to dress up in costumes and masks.
Alas, Barbara’s story was no fairy tale, and there is no happy ending. Her father gave orders to have her beheaded. Legend has it that lightning struck and the earth swallowed her body; her father died shortly after.
The patron saint of gunners
“For most of us, Barbara is just a childhood tradition and we celebrate it regardless of our religion,” says Souad, pointing out that she was a Christian married to a Muslim. She believes that few Lebanese seem to ponder on the religious significance of the day, preferring to focus on the carnival fun aspect.
In 1975, it was a different story. “Militias smashed the windows of the shops in Hamra selling masks,” said Souad. Why? Back then, wearing masks to mark a religious custom was frowned upon.
Traditional food for Barbara is a dish of sugared boiled barley. “We also eat qatayef, pancakes, stuffed with ashta, clotted cream, or walnuts,” says Kamal Mouzawak,founder of Souk al-Tayyib farmers market.
According to Mouzawak, the reason for serving the barley is linked to when Barbara tried to escape from her father. While hiding in a field, the wheat sprouted and kept her hidden – that’s until soldiers captured her.
The sprouting wheat is also considered a symbol of fertility by Baalbeck’s community, says anthropologist Joelle Haroun. Also the “stuffed” qatayef – go figure.
There are several churches in Lebanon dedicated to Barbara and in Baalbek the Greek Catholic cathedral is dedicated to her.
“In the early Byzantine era the court of Jupiter's temple was converted to a church dedicated to Saint Barbara,” says Mouzawak.
There seemed to be fewer kids ‘trick-or-treating’ in our neighborhood this year. It would be a shame if traditional Barbara night of mayhem was left behind by Halloween. Perhaps if a politician's mask doesn’t appeal, kids could make their own costumes again.
And then they should get out on the streets and be glad that this December no one went out on a senseless bender to smash up the masks and magic of a night all Lebanese can enjoy.