One evening about 10 years ago, after a family dinner filled with my father’s stories of his childhood and youth in Damascus and Lebanon, my mother and I were in the kitchen when she said, “Someday, we ought to record your father telling his stories.” Many of them told about experiences with his parents and paternal grandparents, whom he referred to using the affectionate Arabic Jiddu and Teta—Grandpa and Grandma.
A few weeks later, the Gallery Al-Quds in Washington, D.C., asked me to consider developing work for a solo exhibition. During the conversation I mentioned the possibility of a show centered around my father’s true stories and, ultimately, his arrival in the us. I told the gallery I envisioned a series of paintings, each based on one of his stories, inspired stylistically by Jacob Lawrence’s famous series, “The Migration of the Negro.”
The gallery loved the idea, but then I had to ask my father for his approval. This turned out to be not so easy. Born in 1927 in Damascus, he moved to Beirut, Lebanon, in 1933, though he returned often to Damascus to visit family. In 1946, he was 19 years old when my grandparents brought him with them to the us.
At first, he refused my request, explaining that these were private family stories. My mother said they would talk it over. About an hour later, my father agreed, reluctantly, to write down his stories.
Many times I would go to my parents’ home in Alexandria, Virginia, and I would sit at the kitchen table while my father showed me a new story he was working on. They were not long, and with each one he added a bit more detail. This enriched my painting, and it also allowed a special intimacy during those conversations. I treasure those times.
We continued over several years, a story here and a story there, until there were 24. After that, he said that was the last one.
I keep hoping he will change his mind.
Charity and Compassion
When Jiddu told my father this story, he prefaced it by saying his father had told it to him and he must never forget it, and that is how he told it to me.
Once there was an amir [prince] who owned a horse so strong and beautiful that it was known all over the land. Other amirs were envious and tried to buy the horse, but the owner always refused. Selling the horse, he said, would be like selling a member of his family.
One day a crook came to one of the envious amirs and offered, for a price, to steal the horse. The bargain was made.
The crook waited by the side of the road where the amir and the wonderful horse passed each day. When the amir approached, the crook began to cry and wail. The amir stopped to inquire why, and the crook replied he was very sick and needed a doctor, and he was too sick to climb up on the horse. The amir dismounted to help him, and as soon as the crook was seated in the saddle, he took off at a gallop.
The amir called loudly, “Stop and the horse is yours.” The man stopped and returned, knowing that the amir would never go back on his word. “Do not say you stole this horse,” the amir said. “Say that I gave it to you. Do this so that charity and compassion will not disappear from our community.”
Making Raisins and Drying Figs
In the summer, my sister and I loved to visit Jiddu’s and Teta’s house in the mountains. We were free to play in the garden, make new friends and ride on Jiddu’s donkey. But the best days were those that we spent in the kroum [vineyard]. We had to leave the house very early in the morning because Jiddu insisted that the grapes and figs should be picked when the dew was still on them.
To harvest the figs, Jiddu and I would climb the fig tree, fill our basket with ripe figs and then lower it to Teta and my sister. They spread the figs on cloth sheets, flattened them and then covered them with a clean cheese- cloth to protect them from dust and insects. After about 10 days in the hot sun, the figs would be dried and ready to be put in storage for the winter.
Making raisins, however, was more complicated. Teta took the bunches of grapes and lay them neatly on white sheets covered with straw. My sister always wanted the rows of grapes to be separated by color in long neat stripes of purple, black and white. Teta humored her, even though once they were dried, they would be all mixed up together. After the grapes were lined up to my sister’s satisfaction, Teta sprayed them: She had dipped bunches of herbs, called tayyoun, that grew wild on the slopes adjacent to the vineyard, into a mixture she had prepared from ashes, water and other ingredients, and she shook the liquid on the grapes.
Every day we would return to the vineyards to check on the drying figs and raisins and to moisten the grapes. When it was time to return home, we always left with dried figs, raisins and new stories to share with our friends in the city.
Planting Olive Trees
Visiting Jiddu and Teta in their mountain village was always a treat. Teta would have special sweets and my favorite food prepared for me. Best of all though was Jiddu taking me with him to the fields. Sometimes it was a brief trip to see how the plants were growing. But sometimes Jiddu would ask me to be “Jiddu’s helper” and assist with the small chores. During one visit, Jiddu told me that we would be planting olive trees. Because we would be staying in the olive fields all day, we had to bring with us a zuwaidy [picnic lunch], water and other provisions.
The next morning, Jiddu and I set out for the fields much earlier than usual, with a donkey carrying our provisions and small olive plants. We worked hard planting the young olive trees in furrows Jiddu had dug earlier. My job was to hold the plant straight while Jiddu would dig a small hole in the ground for each plant. Then I ladled some water from the water drum on each new olive tree.
During our break for lunch, I told Jiddu that next year I would return to help him harvest the olive crop. He smiled and said that would be difficult because olive trees take many, many years before they bear fruit. Disappointed, I asked him why we were bothering to plant olive trees if we would be dead before they would give us any fruit. He looked at me with a serious expression and said, “Zara’u fa akalna, nazra’u fa ya’kulun.” (“They planted so we would eat; we plant so our descendants will eat.”)
The Show Box
Long before cinemas or television entertained Lebanese children, there was the sanduk al-firji. This was a brightly decorated, semicircular box that was strapped to the back of an itinerant entertainer. He would come into the village loudly chanting previews of the stories he had, going from hara to hara [street to street] and ending in the village square.
First he unstrapped the sanduk. It was about 18 inches high and had five or six glassed portholes equidistant from each other. On either end of the box were two small inner poles attached to a scroll with bright glossy pictures telling one or more of the fabled Arab stories such as “Antar and Abla” or “Abu Zayd al-Hilali.”
He placed the box on a stool and set up a circular bench facing it. The village children took turns handing him their kharjiyyi, spending money, and in groups of five or six, they peeked into the box and watched the story through the portholes. The entertainer rolled the screen, chanting about the beauty of the ladies, the courage of the men and the strength of their horses. Usually the lucky viewers would briefly give up their place to siblings or friends who did not have enough kharjiyyi.
When all those who wanted to see the show were accommodated, the entertainer strapped the show box to his back, picked up the stool and bench, and walked to the next village, chanting previews and enticing new viewers.
It was an amazement to me at the time how he synchronized the chanted story with the pictures on the rolling scroll. And the box, the beautiful sanduk, with its colorful pictures and many tiny mirrors, was a source of wonder, even without the stories.
Walk to the Water Fountain (Mishwar’ a al-‘Ayn)
In the old days, the only water supply for the village was the communal water fountain. Young women, the sabaya, walked to the fountain at sunset, balancing large colorful water jugs on their heads. This walk to get water had become, over time, a much anticipated social event known as the mishwar (“walk”).
At the fountain, the sabaya would show off their fine dresses, chat and gossip. The young men of the village, the shabbab, would also go to the fountain at the same time to watch and innocently flirt with the young women. Occasionally a young man or woman would muster enough courage to say a word or two to a special person.
In time, the mishwar remained an accepted custom, as the young people in the village would take walks in the late afternoon, whether they now had running water in their homes or not. The sabaya and shabbab would meet, admire each other and flirt from a safe distance.
Playing Basara in Teta’s Room
In Syria and Lebanon, Basara is one of the simplest and easiest card games. Older members of the family teach the younger ones how to play it. When everything else fails and you want the younger kids to quiet down and stay out of trouble, playing Basara is the answer.
My grandmother, Teta, was no exception. During inclement weather when we could not play outside, a Basara game would be proposed by Teta. Sometimes we would suggest a game knowing full well there would be treats after the game.
Teta would sit on the rug in her room. We completed the circle sitting around her. Usually she dealt the cards, though sometimes, to please us, she would ask one of us to deal instead.
We liked playing Basara with Teta. She overlooked minor cheating and made sure one of us won. To us, she seemed very old. At the time, we did not know of anyone older. Her colorful headscarf, her mendeel, trimmed with beads, was wrapped around her head. Teta wore several skirts, one over the other, with a bright apron on top. We were fascinated with the skirts. Under two or three of them, she had a homemade cloth bag, a dikki, tied around her waist with a ribbon. In this bag, Teta kept some change and keys. One key, the most interesting to us, opened a small wooden cupboard in her room in which she kept cookies and sweets. Another key opened a large enameled wooden box in which she kept her finer things, her valuables and any large-denomination money.
After the game, we would begin to pester Teta by asking her to show us what she had in her cupboard. When an indirect request to view the inside of the cupboard did not succeed, a united plea for sweets would be uttered. That demand, in various forms, ultimately succeeded, and sweets would be produced and passed around. If and when the sweets were not in abundance, small change we called nigl would be distributed.
Evenings in the Kroum
Every summer I spent several weeks at my grandparents’ house, which was in Zahle, a mountain village in Lebanon. The best part of the visit would be a trip Jiddu and I would make to the kroum, or vineyard. There we would spend a week working, talking and just being together. During the day, Jiddu and I worked in the field. He would tell me what to do and explain to me why things were done in a certain way. Jiddu spent the day not just talking to me, but he would talk also to the trees and grapevines as if they were people visiting us. In a way, the kroum had become intertwined with the family, part of the community.
As he worked, he would tell me that this tree was planted when Uncle Jamil was born, or this tree was planted when Aunt Wadi’a was married. Every place and plant in the vineyard was connected to something. Sometimes it related to national events or world events, but mostly the connections were to family events. The fields and the kroum had become a diary of family history that he was passing on to me.
Jiddu was also an authority on the wild plants and herbs that grew in and around the kroum. This is good for curing a cold, he would say. This is good for an upset stomach, and this is good to flavor a stew. We would collect many of these herbs and wildflowers and dry them to be used in winter.
Every evening after supper, Jiddu would light the kerosene lamp, brew some herbal tea over the charcoal fire and then begin telling stories about our family. He would tell stories about those who had gone abroad, those who did well and those who did not; the good sheep and the black sheep. And then, if he wasn’t tired, Jiddu would recite poetry or tell stories that usually had a moral or lesson to learn. He never preached to me, but he always made sure I got the message.
More than anything else, Jiddu loved to recite poems, and he loved to hear poetry being recited. Sometimes he would ask me to recite poems I had learned in school. I tried my best, but I could not satisfy his thirst for hearing one poem after another.
Once when I was about 13, he asked me to recite, but I could only remember one poem and part of another. When I stopped reciting, he turned the kerosene lamp off and we went to sleep. The next night he asked me to recite more poetry. I repeated the same poem that I had recited the night before. Jiddu protested that this was the same poetry that I had recited the previous evening. I confessed that it was all I knew. Jiddu looked at me for some time before saying that if after eight years of school, all I could remember was a poem and a half, then I was wasting my time and my parents’ money and that I had better quit school and start working.
After that, Jiddu never asked me to recite anything, though he continued to tell me stories and to teach me about various plants in the vineyard. Poetry, however, never re-entered our life in the kroum.
Subhiyyi at Teta’s House
This ritual was a morning routine that never varied. We grew up with the impression that we, the grandchildren, were not to interfere with the morning’s activities.
Usually, six or seven older women, all widowed, would gather at my grandmother’s house. In the fall, spring and summer, the gathering would take place in the courtyard around the water fountain. In the winter the meetings were held in the living room around the charcoal brazier. Two or three argillas [water pipes] were prepared, and the flavored tobacco mixed and dampened. I loved the smell of the tobacco being prepared because it was usually mixed with carob or grape molasses. The aroma made me hungry for a molasses and tahini sandwich, which we called arouss, the same word for a wedding.
At about 10 o’clock the women would begin to drift in. They did not knock on the door, which was always open anyway. My grandmother would be seated in her usual place, and each woman would sit in her same place. They all dressed the same: black tannouras [long skirts] over several slips, tied around the waist with a sash. On top they wore a black jacket over an embroidered vest, and a light blue or gray mendeel covering their hair. It would be coquettishly tied at an angle, a practice carried over from their younger days.
After they arrived, usually within minutes of each other, my grandmother would begin the coffee ritual. The coffee beans were placed in the mahmassi, a small steel pan with a long handle so that the hand holding it would not be burned. The slowly roasting beans were stirred with a long-handled spoon until my grandmother would determine the color was just right. They were spread on a tray to cool, and then one of the women ground them in the mathani [coffee grinder]. When my grandmother decided enough ground coffee had accumulated in the little wooden drawer in the mathani, she added it to the boiling water in the pot on the brazier and began to stir. When the coffee threatened to boil over, she removed it quickly from the heat, stirred it and returned it to the fire. This process was repeated three times, and the second time, a few teaspoons of sugar were added. Coffee was served in tiny cups, and the conversations began.
What impressed me at the time and until now was that the stories were always the same, told each day by the same woman, and yet the women never seemed to tire of telling or hearing them. They were almost always dated by some important occurrence they all seemed to remember, such as a flood or drought, epidemic or revolution. They recalled their birthdates in the same manner, almost always the time of some calamitous event. My grandmother was born during the tawshi [revolution] of 1865. After any of these events were referred to, there was a chorus of “tinthaker ma tin ‘aad” (“may it be remembered but never repeated”).
As a small boy, living in Bab al-Mussalla in Midan, the old quarter of Damascus, I remember being fascinated by the various peddlers who wandered the narrow streets chanting about their products and services. Sellers of fruits, vegetables and sweets, as well as knife sharpeners, pruners and buyers of old items, all filled the air with their melodic chants. These rhyming chants never actually mentioned the name of the item being offered, but described in detail the color, freshness and taste. Buyers knew by the traditional chants what was being offered for sale, which also would dictate the day’s menu. The streets were crowded with loaded donkeys, pushcarts and peddlers carrying large trays (sddur) piled high with cakes and other tasty things.
Children playing in the street or on their way to school would keep an eye out especially for the sellers of sweets. These were mostly seasonal. Cooked, steaming sweet beets and popcorn were sold in winter. Ice with syrup called sweeq was sold in the summer. Kaak and manaquish were sold year-round, while tamari with molasses were sold only on feast days. Invariably the daily allowance was exchanged for a kaak with za’atar (bread with spices and olive oil), a tamari or a handful of hanblas, a tasty fruit that can be carried in the pocket without being damaged. Usually the sweets were shared or bartered with others, thus expanding the purchasing power of the daily allowance.
I remember the nicest of the peddlers was the Hallab who chanted about his fresh milk. The Hallab had a small flock of eight to ten Damascene goats. The goats were mostly brown, large and gentle. They had two dangling strands from their necks. The small children would stand eye to eye with the goats to pet and hug them on their way to school. The Hallab did not mind, and both the goats and the children loved the attention.
The Hallab carried a pail, a measuring can and a long bamboo stick. When the housewife opened the door and asked for milk, the Hallab would milk one of his goats right there. If she planned to make yoghurt that day, more milk would be required. If the goats began to wander, the Hallab gently guided them back to the herd. After the fresh milk was delivered and the Hallab was paid, he continued on his route, chanting about his beautiful goats.
The other peddlers could not compete with the Hallab, his wonderful goats and the pleasure of petting the gentle and loving animals. I remember that after powdered milk appeared on the grocery shelves, milk never tasted the same again.
When a child is born
In the past, children were born at home with a midwife assisting. This was an occasion when the female members of the family actively participated. They helped the midwife by encouraging the new mother to “bite on a hanky,” to stop her screaming by telling her “sa’adi waladik,” to a certain extent meaning the equivalent of “push.” They also made coffee, tea, zhurat and yansoon drinks for the visitors who flocked in to participate or just to satisfy their curiosity.
As soon as the child was born, the midwife completed her professional duties by informing the father and menfolk of the successful birth and the sex of the child. This was an occasion to pay and tip the midwife. The size of the gratuity depended on the sex of the child and whether the family had desired a boy or girl.
After the midwife was gone, the new mother was dressed in a fancy silk bed jacket, and the baby was wrapped like a papoose in fancy swaddling clothes. The new father entered the room, and depending on his financial circumstances, he put a piece of jewelry on the mother’s pillow and one or more gold coins in the baby’s crib.
From the mother’s bedroom, the zalagheet would begin, which is a kind of chant they did on feast days and other special occasions. It was led by the grandmother, until all the neighbors and family had joined in.
Then for 40 days, the mother stayed in bed pampered and served, changing silk jackets as often as her husband’s wealth permitted. Neighbors, family and friends dropped in to congratulate the parents and to give unsolicited advice and gossip. During this time, the guests were treated to a dish called mughly, which was a mix of spices, powdered rice and sugar.
The mughly is followed by snaniyyi, which is served when the baby gets its first tooth. Snaniyyi is made from boiled wheat, sugar, sweet meats and brightly colored candy. It is piled high on a large tray with maward and mazahar [flowers and rosewater] sprinkled on top. It is beautiful to look at as well as to eat.
To protect against the evil eye and other misfortunes, blue beads, small icons and hijabs are pinned to the clothes and baby’s crib. Blue beads and hands of Fatima protect against the evil eye, while hijabs, amulets and talismans protect the child from illness, microbes and other calamities. The hijab is a sewn small package, triangular in shape, that conceals a talisman or written prayer with spiritual powers to protect the child. When the child grows up, the hijab can be sewn into the inner shirt, to keep the protective powers working. The hijab is never to be opened or disrespected in any way.
One day my father and I were chatting about everything and nothing in particular when he told me the following day he was going to Dayr Saydnaya, and I could accompany him if I wanted to.
The Dayr was a convent in the outskirts of Damascus, and it was his favorite charity. I accepted gladly, as this was one trip I enjoyed and looked forward to.
He asked me what I thought of charity. I replied that people appreciate good deeds because such acts meet their special needs. He then asked me about blind charity, where the donor does not know the recipient and has no idea what the need may be. He proceeded to tell me a story exemplifying this kind of blind charity, which he described as the most sincere.
Once there was a very rich woman, the wife of a governor of a prosperous port city. Once a week she would take a big basket and seal it with tar to make it waterproof. In the bottom of the basket, she would write a line from a poem, “Do charitable deeds even if they may be out of place, for no act goes unrewarded.” Then she would fill the basket with food, water and clothing and drop it in the sea to be carried away by the waves and the wind.
After some time, she and her family took a long boat trip to visit relatives in another port city. Heavy storms demolished their boat, and many on board drowned. She also would have drowned had she not clung to a plank of wood. In time, she drifted to shore where she collapsed with hunger, thirst and exhaustion.
She woke up in someone’s garden. The lady of the house told her the servants had found her on the beach and thought she was dead, but then realized she was still alive, and so they brought her to the garden. The lady of the house said she could stay with them as a washerwoman, and she gladly accepted.
One day the lady brought a big bamboo basket full of laundry and asked the woman to wash them. When the woman reached the bottom of the basket, she saw the line of poetry that she herself used to write in the bottom of those baskets before dropping them in the sea. She had recognized her own basket. She sat down and began to cry.
When the lady of the house came to check on the laundry, she found the woman sobbing. Asking her why she was crying, the washerwoman explained that the basket was one of hers, and she went on to describe how she would fill them with provisions and drop them into the sea thinking that some shipwrecked people would find the baskets and use the food and water to survive.
The lady of the house was amazed, and she told the woman that once she and her husband were shipwrecked. They had lost everything. Then a big basket drifted by, and they clung to it until they landed on shore nearby. When they revived, they walked to the city, found jobs and, in time, prospered. Out of sentimentality, they kept the basket and used it, thinking someday they would learn more about it and the line of poetry written on the bottom in praise of blind charity.
The lady took the washerwoman into her own quarters and, when her husband returned home, told him about the day’s events. He suggested the woman live with them as a member of the family. They also decided to continue to fill the baskets with provisions and drop them into the sea, in hope that someday a needy person would find them and survive.
After a very long wait, permission to travel to America had been granted. Reservations on a ship from Beirut to New York City were made, and a departure date became certain. The goodbyes began in the village. Relatives, friends and neighbors came to drink coffee and exchange stories about others who had emigrated.
Finally, two days before the actual departure, the entire family traveled to Beirut to stay in a hotel and say their final goodbyes. My mother could not believe that she was finally emigrating with her family to America. She got all the passports, tickets and whatever jewelry and money she had in a special handbag, which she held onto even in her sleep.
She also had to be certain that the suitcases packed with gifts for her relatives in America were safe. A large Oriental rug, purchased in Damascus as a gift for her sister, had been wrapped separately and was always kept in her sight. Hotel employees, relatives and I were all fully occupied on guard duty for two days.
On the morning of the departure, it was determined that the ship was too big to come to the pier. The passengers, suitcases, last-minute gifts and the carpet all had to be put in a large rowboat manned by four sailors. My mother insisted that she sit on top of the rug no matter what that did to the stability of the boat. When they were safely on board the big ship, she demanded that the sailors put all the suitcases and carpet in her cabin. They argued that everything not needed on the voyage must be put in the hold. It finally took an officer of the ship to intervene and guarantee that nothing would be stolen.
Today, that carpet rests in a place of prominence in my daughter Karen’s home.
Coming to America
It was the end of the long sea voyage. During dinner the night before we arrived, we learned that the ship, the Vulcania, would be passing by the Statue of Liberty at about four a.m. the next morning. A spontaneous decision was made by some of the younger passengers to see the Statue of Liberty.
And so, 16 days after leaving the port of Beirut for New York City, an exuberant group of us, from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, stayed up all night to greet with the dawn the Statue of Liberty.
I remember it was a clear morning.