Pedro Reyes Abraham Jr., the all-around performing artist everybody fondly calls “Edru,” officially retired as a member of the University of the Philippines faculty last June 4, capping his teaching career with a month-long tour of the Visayas where, together with his students, he tirelessly performed and lectured for the common folk. Like many of us who entered UP as freshmen in the early ’60s and stayed on to teach after graduation, Edru completes a cycle of academic life spanning exactly half a century.
A few days ago, his colleagues in the Department of Art Studies organized a small sendoff party to which his closest friends and contemporaries were invited. It was a happy and sentimental occasion, memorably framed by the kulintang music provided by Kontra-Gapi, the durable gamelan group that Edru founded in 1989. His fellow professors, students, and friends spoke about him as a passionate teacher, a gifted artist, a political activist, and a gentle and loving person. When it was his turn to speak, Edru began by recalling his early childhood in Tuguegarao, the son of a Maronite Catholic from Lebanon who had migrated to the Philippines just before the outbreak of World War I.
His father, Butrous Abraham Fakhri, was one of those intrepid young men sent away by their families primarily to avoid being conscripted for war. The crumbling Ottoman Empire, of which their homeland was a satrapy, had chosen to side with Germany and was once more mobilizing its exhausted army. Many of these youths went to Europe and Central and South America; others headed for Australia and New Zealand. Originally bound for Australia, Butrous and his friends decided to disembark in Manila, possibly attracted by the fact that the Philippines was a Catholic country and was then a colony of the United States, a neutral power at the start of WW1.
Edru’s father somehow found his way to Cagayan Valley, changed his Arabic name into the more Hispanic “Pedro Abraham,” set up various businesses, and, when he was more stable and much older, married Josefina Pagulayan Reyes from an Ibanag Protestant family. The young Lebanese émigré became completely Filipinized, making Tuguegarao his permanent home, and never returned to Lebanon. Today, the first item in Edru’s bucket list is to retrace his father’s journey, and go back to the Maronite village of Becharre in the Bekaa-Kafra valley in Northern Lebanon, where his father’s relatives still live.
The Maronites were among the early Christian groups that steadfastly maintained their ethno-religious identity throughout the Arab Islamic conquest. Although for centuries they lost contact with the mainstream Catholic tradition, the Vatican recognized them as belonging to the Oriental part of the Church, sending French missionaries in the 16th century to educate and guide them in their faith. A 19th-century Maronite monk, Youssef Makhlouf who took the name “Charbel,” was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1977. He was a first cousin of Edru’s father.
Although today they constitute no more than 20 percent of modern Lebanon’s population, the Maronites have remained a culturally and politically dominant force in a country that is mainly Arabic and Muslim. Some say that if present Lebanon has remained a country separate from Syria, it is largely due to the strong presence of the Maronite Catholics who feel more attached to Europe than to Arabia.
And so, as I listened to my dear friend Edru, formidably Arab-looking in every way, thank the gentle genes of his father for his artistry, I began to imagine the older society and civilization from which he sprang. In previous conversations, I had told Edru of an unusual visit that my wife and I made to Lebanon in 1968. On our way to England for graduate school, we had decided to take the long leisurely route to Europe offered by a round-the-world ticket. We looked at the map and chose what we thought were among the most ancient of cities—Athens, Beirut and Istanbul.
I remember being so captivated by the beauty of Beirut that we decided to stay a little longer and skip Istanbul altogether. We went to the ruins of Baalbek and scooped snow in the ice-covered mountains just outside Beirut. We could have proceeded to Damascus in Syria by taxi if we had not been overtaken by fear of vanishing in a totally foreign land. “Was it really the Paris of the Middle East?” I recall Edru asking me about Beirut. What I remember was a walking city dotted by small cafés and restaurants, from which you could watch the sunset across the Mediterranean while sipping arak.
I did not have the words to adequately portray the mystique of this place then. But, recently, I came across Kamal Salibi’s history of Lebanon, and found the vocabulary that had eluded me. This is how Salibi saw his country: “A veritable paradise—by contrast with the desert which began as one crossed the eastern borders from the Bekaa valley into Syria … majestic peaks capped with snow for much of the year, rising hoary above terraced mountain slopes dotted with the red roof-tops of countless villages nestled among orchards or vineyards, set against a stark blue sky, and directly overlooking the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean.”
I completely empathize with Edru’s yearning to see his father’s homeland. He was only 10 when his father died. He and his siblings were too young to appreciate the context of the stories their father had told them. Now that he is retired, Edru feels it is a good time to pick up these forgotten strands of his personal life. As he meets his Maronite relatives and learns more about the world his father left behind, he will surely understand himself better. And we can only wish him well.
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