Habib Nader loved his moonshine. He used to say that “to make high-proof Arak, you need the best grapes, in the best hands to be plucked at the right time.” His Arak was so potent you had to pour more water than usual to turn this Lebanese version of pure colorless “White Lightnin’” into white, anise-scented alcohol. But in Habib’s old house, where traditions were religiously observed, diluting Arak was akin to blasphemy. A gentle man, he treated his Arak like his own fresh tobacco or his World War II-vintage rifles and shotguns: with silent tenderness and reverence.
Only Habib Nader’s love of his seven sons and daughters and their offspring would surpass his devotion to Arak, tobacco and firearms. Habib Nader was a handsome, proud mountain man; his reddish high cheek bones finely chiseled a beguiling twinkle in his deep brown eyes. That face was graced with the most arrogant, majestic white mustache the rugged mountains of Northern Lebanon have ever seen. He was slender and tall in his improvised turban. Walking the streets and fields or leading his pack animals through winding dirt roads and ravines of Akkar province, he seemed to float effortlessly. Slouching was for others.
But for many in Habib Nader’s bucolic village of Qubayyat, he was known for a voice so powerful and gritty it drowned out church bells. He was a fixture at weddings where, after some Arak, he would sing about eternal love and gallantry and traditional mountain ballads. In his twilight years he would sing only at his grandchildren’s weddings. Regretfully, I missed his last act at my brother Michel’s wedding. I could not afford to attend, for I was trying to survive my first year in America. I was thrilled when I was told that the voice did not betray the proud mountain man.
I vividly remember Habib Nader’s nightly ritual of inspecting his guns after dinner while sitting by the wooden stove sipping coffee. He was partial to the French MAS-36 Rifle (MAS-1936) that was common in the village. He would place it on his lap, clean it with fine cloth and oil it, always in silence and devotion as if caressing a woman. Guns in Lebanon’s isolated mountain villages were ubiquitous. They were companions on rough roads, used for self-defense and protection of family and property. In the 1960s the prominent Shia leader Imam Musa Al-Sadr summed up the gun culture with the phrase “arms are the ornaments of men.” Al-Sadr, who was referring to defending one’s country, could never have imagined how his followers and other Lebanese would abuse it as they plunged their country into never-ending wars of all against all.
Decades later, when I acquired a small farm in Virginia, my new friends discovered I had no guns to protect myself. They quickly remedied this, helping me buy a .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum revolver, a Henry rifle and a Winchester Model 94 Theodore Roosevelt Commemorative Lever Action Rifle (a limited edition honoring the 26th president, an avid hunter). An implicit threat to my wife, Rudaina, when she was alone at the farm ended my reluctance to acquire lethal ornaments. My friends knew of my long fascination with lever action rifles from watching countless Western movies. My grandfather would have appreciated my justification: self-protection, deterrence (this is Virginia, man, everybody has guns here) and defending my horses and chickens from coyotes and rabid animals. Rugged rural Qubayyat finally met rugged rural Virginia.
On occasions, my grandfather would let me hold his MAS-36 and say, “Someday I will let you use it.” But I never did. My first shot at age 11 was from a double-barrel shotgun that my grandfather had given to my brother Michel, who was four years older, and more sober and levelheaded beyond his years. It was our first hunting trip. Michel told me to stand properly and hold the butt firmly against my shoulder and said something vague about recoil. A large bird perched on an oak tree looked disdainfully at the Melhem boys. I pulled the trigger and landed on my back on the stony ground, cursing gun and bird and trying to hide a wounded pride.
It was the summer of 1961, the first after our father, Youssef, passed at age 46 following a massive heart attack he suffered while visiting his mother, Martha Sassine, in mountainous Qatlabeh, one of the neighborhoods of Qubayyat. That was the summer of lamentations for the Melhem family. In those bleak days the love of my grandmother Martha and Michel’s patience helped me survive the severe migraine attacks that would seize me after bouts of uncontrollable crying on long walks in the fields, trailing behind Martha, who would sob while asking her departed son: Why did you go and leave me behind?
For me and Michel, spending summers with Sitti (“Grandma”) Martha in her primitive house, with no running water or electricity, and sharing the decrepit structure with a sheep on windy nights was a treat, a chance to escape our crowded apartment in a low-income neighborhood outside Beirut. Martha would give us her “bed” — a thin mattress on a wooden frame — and sleep on the floor. Every summer she would get us a puppy to play with, a small sheep to fatten and plenty of chickens for the fresh eggs we consumed at dawn with abandon. We occasionally visited Jiddi (“Grandpa”) Habib in a larger neighborhood of Qubayyat but preferred the high country with Sitti Martha.
I followed Michel everywhere, imitating even his likes and dislikes. Michel was the most gentle of eight Melhem siblings and taught me to love words and novels and seek temporary refuge in my imagination, where I would build medieval castles and joust with my enemies or ride horses in the American West with guns blazing. We shared a bed, a bath and our first cigarette. I would wear his old clothes as hand-me-downs. I never had more than one pair of shoes before America. I would part company with my shoes only when the soles of my feet would greet the hot asphalt.
We read the same books. Classical Arabic fiction like “The Arabian Nights” and modern works by Kahlil Gibran, whom I found insufferable after age 17. We read Arabic translations of European and American novels including many poor translations — Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” Hugo’s “Les Misérables” — but we were more impressed by “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which we read after we watched the 1939 movie. We read “The Mother” by Maxim Gorky, but I did not finish it. Perhaps it was a bad novel or a poor translation from Russian. We fought over “Gone With the Wind” after watching the movie. I am happy to report that we never cared for Clark Gable. That was my first exposure to fiction on the American Civil War, which would become one of my “three American passions,” as Rudaina would say, when I began my American life, along with blues music and horseback riding Western style. I admired classical Arab poetry about the exquisite beauty, speed and high-strung nature of Arabian horses. I became infatuated with horses galloping in Monument Valley and the Southwest in movies directed by John Ford, Howard Hawks, Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah.
In 1994 Michel died at age 48 following open heart surgery. I felt most of my youth had perished with him. Barely a day passes that I don’t think of him. For some loved ones there can be no “closure”; this is as true for Michel, who died almost 30 years ago, as for my wife, who died just two years ago. We mourn because we want to remember; we remember because we want to continue to love.
It was Sunday after Communion when I returned with my grandfather Habib to his old stone house where his second wife, Fidda, had prepared a small feast of alluring colors and aromas. He invited two neighbors to break bread with him and savor his Arak. I sat next to my grandfather but became bored as a heated argument broke out. I nibbled restlessly before a deep voice commanded: “Richard, come, ya jiddi’ (in old Lebanon adults imitate how the children call them, and I called him Jiddi Habib). My heart sank. I saw him pour a glass of white Arak and motion to me to come closer, then give it to me proudly in front of his companions: “Drink habibi.” I hated Arak as I do now and could never tolerate the smell of anise. But I understood the scheme. Habib Nader was showing off his grandson’s mettle, and I could not besmirch the family’s honor. I took a big sip and swallowed the poison without wincing. My grandfather grinned at his friends while extending his hands toward me, declaring his approval and affection for the son of his beloved eldest daughter, Mariana, for upholding the family tradition.
I never saw Martha Sassine wearing anything but black, as if her life was an uninterrupted requiem. She had lost her husband and her daughter during the Great War in a horrific famine, partly man made and partly the work of a locust infestation. More than 200,000 died in Mount Lebanon. Historians argue whether the main reason for the famine was a French maritime blockade of food imports into Beirut and other Levant ports or the decision by Jamal Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Syria known as “al Saffah” (the butcher), to stop importing grain and other essentials to Lebanon while confiscating wheat and livestock from Mount Lebanon to feed his forces. Clearly the Allies and Ottomans had weaponized food supplies. Wealthy Lebanese merchant families hoarded what little food was left. Giving this tragedy a Biblical element, the locust invasion devastated the fertile Mount Lebanon.
Famine soon brought dysentery, cholera, malaria, typhus, tuberculosis and influenza among a population with no healthcare system. Fragments of memoirs by religious authorities and foreign travelers as well as reports by spies, diplomats and even the American media revealed harrowing scenes of emaciated people foraging for food like animals; uncollected corpses on roads; and people eating cats, dogs and rodents. There were even credible accounts of cannibalism. In the Land of Aching Hearts, it was the time “When Mothers Ate Their Children,” according to historian Najwa al-Qattan. Most areas in Greater Syria were decimated by the Great Famine, but Mount Lebanon was especially hard hit because of mismanagement, Ottoman predations, hoarding, corruption and the destruction of the silk trade, the region’s economic engine. One piercing fictional account I read at 16 or 17 years old was the landmark novel “al-Raghif” (A Loaf of Bread) (1939) by Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad. It was the first Arab novel about the First World War and the Great Famine as well as the first serious literary attempt to capture its hellish nature but also the collective will of those who refused to perish and still embraced life, however fleeing or brittle.
Martha Sassine lost her husband, Elias, during the forced Ottoman mobilization system during the Great War, when tens of thousands of mostly Christian men were recruited in Bilad al-Sham (made up of postwar Syria, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel and Jordan) and marched to Anatolia in slave labor battalions to fix dilapidated Ottoman infrastructures. According to Sitti Martha, one day the soldiers came searching for able-bodied men in the village; Jiddi Elias could not disappear in time in the thick forests around Qatlabeh. What happened after remained hazy and fragmentary. Little is known about what happened to my paternal grandfather in his forced exile, other than anecdotal accounts of how some of his compatriots died of diseases. Others were killed trying to escape their bondage. One day, Elias returned to the village, but I never learned how he survived the long journey back home. Sitti Martha said he was weak and frail, ravaged by diseases caught after months of tossing soldiers’ corpses onto crowded train cars. He would die a few weeks after arrival. My father had no recollection of his own.
I still hear Martha sobbing behind me, telling me that “those monstrous Turks killed your grandfather” while combing my long hair. The years never lessened her sorrows. She would weep for her husband as if he had just died. I worshiped her, and her enemies became mine. (It took me years, and a revelatory visit to Istanbul, to overcome my animus toward things Ottoman and Turkish.) She had a face whose beauty even wrinkles brought about by death, famine and the solitude of mountain life could not hide. She wore her white hair in braids and I liked their contrast with her black clothes. She would always say I looked like my father at my age. All the Melhem siblings loved Sitti Martha. However, our mother, Mariana, was civil but cold toward her and correctly suspected that I shared family secrets with the old matriarch, including unabashed gossip that did not spare her.
My father was a reserved but gentle man, not given to embellishment, boisterous tongue-lashing or piercing curses. That was Mariana’s specialty. When she would get angry at one of us, for understandable reasons from crowding to poverty, she would angrily curse two or three names before reaching the right one and exclaiming, “Damn, there are so many of you,” and cackling. She had a rich thesaurus of merciless curses and phrases, and we often wondered how she had acquired such education. We often reminisce about her standing firing a burst of insults, realize she may have gone too far, and then lift her arms and look toward the heavens, belting out: “God, to you only we kneel.” Then she would immediately resume her cursing as if no segue to God had occurred.
In her very rare moments of introspection, she would apologize for her temper, dwelling on a harsh life since age 42, when she lost her husband, who had left only a retired sergeant’s meager pension to eight children, the youngest of whom was 3 years old. Mariana never forgave me when I began using Hisham, instead of Richard, the name she gave me, as my byline and during television appearances. It was my attempt at sparing my family the backlash toward my controversial political views when the Lebanon war began. For the family, Hisham belongs to the public and Richard belongs to them, as it should be. Ironically, I have always liked Anglo-Saxon names.
My father, melancholic and laconic, never mentioned the tragic exile and death of his father. I often wondered about my life trajectory had he lived another 10 or 20 years or long enough to meet Rudaina or know my son Omar and daughter Nadia, and how he would relate to our American lives. I told my children very little about my father, but I believe I retold the story of my grandfather Elias as narrated to me by Sitti Martha. One night, reflecting on the lives of my grandfather, my father and my life as one continuum, three generations of Melhem men sharing the 20th century, with my 50-year life in America being longer and freer than either man’s whole life, I was struck for the first time by a stunning simple fact that eluded me for decades. My father was the only link between me and my grandfather Elias, a young man and slave laborer in a foreign land during the First World War. I still feel rage, even physical pain, whenever I think of the three of us on that continuum, wondering how am I supposed to relate to my grandfather Elias.
In May 2015, the Brookings Institution and other research centers held a conference on the centenary of the Ottoman Empire’s genocide against the Armenians and other legacies of World War I. I was on a panel that tried to connect the horrors of the distant past to the calamities unfolding in 2015 in the former Ottoman lands of the Levant and Iraq. Its title was self-explanatory: “2015 and Its Horrors: A Century After 1915.” I was recruited because I had written a piece called “The Twilight of Middle Eastern Christianity.” I have always been intrigued by the power of entrenched collective memories, so I tackled this thorny issue by fusing my family history, upbringing in Beirut and the apparent unraveling of the brittle political order that emerged from the wreckage of the Great War.
I compared the desert death marches in 1915 involving Armenians, Assyrians and Yezidis to the similar ones of 2015. The victims a century later were also Christians, Assyrians and Yazidis. I talked about my grandfather Elias’s exile and death and my old hostility toward the Turks and how I finally exorcized my own demons and escaped my trap, stressing that liberating myself from collective memories had taken a long time.
I spoke of persistent collective memories among societies and groups that have been subjected to brutal atrocities and systematic mass killing. We sometimes see echoes in how different communities commemorate their collective memories. The Shia commemorate the brutal killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at Karbala, Iraq, in 680 as if the tragedy occurred yesterday. Their reenactments of the battle are extremely passionate. My observations of the reenactment of American Civil War battles show dramatically different attitudes among Confederate soldiers, who lost the war, and victorious Union soldiers. The Southerners see reenactment as cathartic, as precious heritage. Northerners see reenactment as a hobby or sport. I remember how parents of Armenian children I knew in Beirut would pass the stories of their grandfathers’ heroic struggles against the Turks, each telling elevating the stories higher in collective consciousness. Later on in America, Jewish friends would relay the collective pain of centuries of inquisitions and pogroms followed ultimately by the Holocaust.
However, there is a very dark side to the persistence of collective memories, particularly cultural or national myths. Myths are constantly rewritten. Just as there is revisionist history, there is revisionist mythology. That’s exactly how Slobodan Milošević approached the Battle of Kosovo in June 1389 between Serbian and invading Ottoman armies that ultimately prevailed. Milošević transformed a grim milestone in Serbian history into a national mythology and tool of mobilizing the Serbs in his wars against the Muslims of the former Yugoslavia, as if fighting the very descendants of those Ottoman victimizers of more than 600 years ago.
In a later article I noted that in the Levant, Iraq and the broader Middle East, there are communities who see themselves as marginalized and as victims of authoritarianism, discrimination, sectarianism and other disenfranchisement. Many have elevated their victimhood highest in an imaginary hierarchy of pain. The collective pain of the community and memories around it are sometimes the stuff of mythology. The motto is: My pain is more genuine and nobler than yours.
Is there such a thing as an aristocracy of pain? I have always wondered. I ended my article quoting Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist assassinated in 2007. The words were directed at Turks and Armenians, but they are true for all the region’s people and more relevant than ever: “Come, let us first understand each other. Come, let us first respect each other’s pain. Come, let us first let one another live.”
The first Americans I met were the Marines. On July 15, 1958, hundreds of U.S. Marines landed on the beaches of Beirut. They did not storm any fortification, and no hostile force fired at them. They were greeted by curious, mostly happy onlookers, enterprising vendors eager to sell them American cigarettes, familiar nonalcoholic beverages and Lebanese food, and scores of children clamoring for candy, chewing gum and chocolate. I was one of those children. I was barely eight-and-a-half years old.
The first American combat mission in the Middle East since the Second World War was never meant to be. Lebanon was in its first, low-intensity civil war. Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, trying to renew his term unconstitutionally, had requested U.S. help. A charismatic and ambitious man who brought Lebanon into the region’s American camp, he enjoyed considerable Christian support but was opposed by Muslims including a coalition of leftists and Arab nationalists inspired by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Arab nationalist movement. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower said that Chamoun had requested American military intervention to stop “civil strife actively fomented by Soviet and Cairo broadcasts.”
Lebanon’s strife was a domestic issue and the Soviet Union was a marginal player. The U.S. intervention was the first application of the so-called Eisenhower Doctrine compelling U.S. military intervention to help friendly regimes threatened by the Soviet Union. However, the real reason for sending the Marines was a military coup in Baghdad, Iraq, on July 14, the day before the deployment. King Faisal II, a key member of the Baghdad Pact, the alliance designed to deter communist influence in the Middle East, had been brutally murdered and his monarchy overthrown. This shocked the U.S. and its allies and raised serious fear for the future of Jordan, which was federated with Iraq. Following the Iraqi coup, Britain dispatched some 3,500 troops to Jordan on July 17, after an urgent request by its leader, King Hussein.
The Marine encampment overlooked Beirut, barely a few kilometers from where we lived. One hot day, I joined my sister Claude and some neighborhood children trekking uphill toward it, driven by stories about the Marines’ generosity. No physical obstacles would keep us from the candy or chocolate bars we so craved. The Marines were in a friendly environment, and there was no need to ask for goodies. They handed them out in abundance. Our English must have impressed the Americans, who laughed as we addressed them: “Haloo” and ‘“tank you.” One Marine I remember for his generosity toward my sister; he talked to her while giving her candy and other goodies I had never seen before. One young Lebanese told us that “he says she reminds him of his daughter in America.” We left with pockets full of sweets and our hands clutching canned food. I don’t recall how long our return took us, but I vaguely remember a stern mother receiving her exhausted children.
Little did I know that this would be the first and only peaceful Marine mission I would see in my childhood and that the missions ahead would not resemble a tourist excursion. I would watch these from the comfort of Washington, D.C., and Virginia, and they would haunt me for forever. No one saw that first uneventful landing in Beirut as a tragic beginning of U.S. entanglement in inconclusive wars and that would test America’s resolve and humble its ambitions. At times American leaders looked as if they were sleepwalking toward war; small-time men thinking of themselves as men of history and destiny. These same men were susceptible to manipulation by more cunning adversaries and perfidious allies, looking to drag the U.S. deeper into their conflicts, an act later played out in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The next Marine deployment to Lebanon, on Aug. 25, 1982, was a sleepwalk toward war. Some 800 landed in Beirut as “peacekeepers” to protect the perimeter around Beirut International Airport and facilitate and oversee the withdrawal of Palestinian fighters from Lebanon, after invading Israeli forces encircled the capital. They were supposed to remain for a month alongside French and Italian forces. But after the Palestinians left on Sept. 10, the Marines were withdrawn early, because the astute U.S. special envoy to Lebanon, Philip C. Habib, wanted to avoid mission creep. A few days later, however, Lebanese President-elect Bachir Gemayel was assassinated. Israeli troops invaded West Beirut in violation of promises to U.S. diplomats that it would stay out of West Beirut after the Palestinian fighters’ departure. Israel then provided logistical support for their Christian Phalangist militia allies to enter the Palestinian Sabra and Shatila refugee camps on Sept. 16. They proceeded for two full days to systematically massacre at least 1,000 Palestinian civilians.
The enormous embarrassment and guilt felt by the United States, which failed in its commitment to guarantee the safety of Palestinian civilians in Lebanon after PLO forces withdrew, led the Reagan administration to send the Marines back to Beirut. But this time, the mission was broader but ill-defined. The Marines, according to U.S. President Ronald Reagan, would enable the Lebanese government “to restore full sovereignty over its capital, the essential precondition for extending its control over the entire country.” He added that they would stay “for a limited period of time.”
Over the following months the United States began to gradually but unconsciously act as an ally of a Lebanese government that was a belligerent in a civil war against other Lebanese factions supported by Syria, Iran and the Soviet Union. Reagan’s strong statement of support for the Lebanese government and army encouraged the government to take a hard line against domestic opponents. Promises by Washington to deter Soviet intervention echoed Eisenhower’s exaggerated view of Soviet designs on Lebanon. Lebanese officials tried to drag the U.S. further into a civil strife in which U.S. interests were limited and finally turned U.S. forces into a party to the war. This set America on a trajectory toward calamity on Oct 23, 1983, when the Marines would suffer the highest casualties in a single day since Iwo Jima in World War II: A suicide truck bomber killed 241 U.S. servicemen in their Beirut barracks.
American politicians dragged the reluctant Marines into an absurd fight, against ephemeral enemies and alongside dubious allies. Some developments were surreal. The U.S. would repeatedly call on the Battleship USS New Jersey, the last in its class, to respond to attacks on the Marines. Built in 1942, the New Jersey ended its long fighting career in Lebanon after displaying the massive firepower of its 16-inch guns in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Watching from Washington, the mammoth shells landing in the Shouf Mountains echoed Joseph Conrad’s novella “The Heart of Darkness.” Conrad came across a report that “made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent.” What could be more absurd? The shelling of the Shouf Mountains by the New Jersey’s guns achieved nothing. Like the African continent, these mountains, standing since time immemorial and traversed over millennia by uncountable armies, barely felt the impact of the New Jersey’s mighty shells.
When I began my career as a journalist in Washington in the early 1980s, I saw my mission as interpreting America with all its majesty, exceptionalism, rich paradoxes, foibles, parochialism and dysfunction for Arabic readers, viewers and listeners. Later on, in lectures and in English writings, I tried to explain to my fellow Americans not only the Arabs’ yearnings for genuine self-determination after centuries of foreign occupation, marginalization and oppression by local rulers but also how their past keeps suffocating them, the bonds of religious dogma and yes, how like the Americans they suffer from persistent parochialism and dysfunction.
There were moments where I felt unable to say anything meaningful to Americans or Arabs: the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the ensuing horrors, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the terra incognita America thrust itself into. On the third day after 9/11, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably, feeling totally impotent. This is the time of the assassins, I thought, when people like me, mere wordsmiths, fade away. Rudaina, always there as the North Star, knew better.
After my father died, I dropped out of school to work full time. I have worked nonstop since I was 11 years old. My toil took me from a child laborer at a dingy shoe factory in a poor Armenian neighborhood suburb of Beirut, to shining the floors at Sears in the Philadelphia suburbs, to the grueling and dangerous assembly lines at a Zenith television factory in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, making thick and heavy picture tubes. My Lansdale experience, beginning in 1973, was important socially, jolting me violently into America’s race cauldron that still boiled following race riots and political violence of the late 1960s. For the first time I noticed my existence as a “Caucasian” working with Black men claiming to be followers of the Muslim “Prophet” Elijah Muhammad. Most of us carried knives; some kept handguns in their parked cars. After an altercation with a certain “Calvin” from the Caribbean, “Big John,” our work station leader, with whom I became friends after he discovered that “the white dude is cool and he understands our problems and loves black music,” brought me a steel bar fitted with a heavy head that looked like a medieval mace. Only once did I come close to using it.
Lansdale scarred me and almost blinded me. Trying to dislodge a stuck assembly line by force, I tore the muscles protecting the intestines, causing a severe hernia. I lived with my pain for 18 months, as I had no health insurance. We had quotas to meet on the assembly lines, so speed was key to keeping your job, usually at the expense of safety. We used a cocktail of fluids including hot water, acid, alkalis and other chemicals to clean the picture tubes. I once let my guard down and a splash of poisonous potion hit my face, somehow penetrating the protective mandatory glasses I wore. The pain was searing; but fear of losing sight enraged me. Luckily, the damage was limited to the eyebrow and the eyelid, forcing me to endure a painful, temporary blindness. Long before I learned what the “work ethic” meant, I made sure to do my best, be it hauling shoe boxes, cleaning a floor to mirror shine, chasing the assembly line, writing an article or preparing for an interview, because my name would be on it.
My father’s death threw me and Michel out of school, and forced our mother to send our three younger sisters Wadad, Claude and Helen to a Catholic charity boarding school. The bonds between Michel, my sisters and I grew stronger. My older sister Mounira, who left us in 1967 to marry and move to Nigeria, gave me an appreciation of Arabic music. One of my fondest young memories was listening to her lush voice singing perfectly the songs of the great Arab Divas like Umm Kulthum, Asmahan and Fairuz. I became the defender of the Melhem sisterhood, which put me on a collision course with our older brother Mounir, a generous and caring man but one who felt the traditional right to impose social restrictions on his younger sisters. We came close to trading blows twice, but the sisterhood’s rights were upheld. The eldest, Elie, the wittiest in the family, stayed out of his siblings’ affairs for better or worse.
Child labor, poverty and crowding did not make my childhood miserable. I had loving siblings and friends; I had my poetry and prose. I consumed American music and cinema voraciously. In my late teens, I was in love with a girl whose beauty and wild spirit only poetry could capture. So, when my closest friend, Samir Naimy, began thinking of going to the United States to study, I was conflicted. I was infatuated with American popular culture, but there were many people I loved in Beirut, and I was not about to leave them. Besides, I could not afford America.
I always associated Samir with American music and cinema. As someone who needed music in my daily life, not owning a turntable or LP collection was embarrassing and frustrating. Samir’s family could afford a turntable, and he could afford the LPs —mostly rock-and-roll as well as rhythm and blues, with some classical. Three or even five nights a week we would listen to music or watch dubbed American movies. We loved Elvis Presley and Ray Charles, and the Motown sound was big in the late 1960s: The Four Tops, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder. And we listened repeatedly to Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” There were the Beatles of course, but I was drawn more to the Rolling Stones and the Animals. Years later I discovered I was actually enjoying covers of old blues songs by the bluesmen who would make blues music a great passion of my American life.
When Samir bought Creedence Clearwater Revival’s albums “Cosmo’s Factory” and “Pendulum,” we spent hours binge listening to their distinct sound and John Fogerty’s gritty voice. We loved “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” even though we did not understand most of the lyrics. I still get goosebumps when I listen to most of that discography, and occasionally when driving alone I would call Samir to reminisce.
In September 2017 we decided to explore the majesty of the American West. Months earlier Rudaina had begun her chemotherapy sessions for stage 4 breast cancer. Before her diagnosis she had planned with her family the ultimate train trip in western Canada. After that trip, she would describe road trips as “Richard’s Civil War Tour.” They took us from the battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam to Richmond. There were long trips to Oaxaca, Mexico, and the American West that fell to her loving brother Bassam and his partner Peter Seiger, two experienced world travelers. The drive from Las Vegas to the national parks at Zion and Bryce Canyon seemed like a heavenly trek to a red universe with jagged cliffs left unfinished by giant hands and primordial virgin forests traversed by narrow, winding, unending roads, and blue skies meeting mountains chiseled in strange forms as if they were meant to be giant abstract sculptures standing sentinels for eternity. What makes the majesty of the American West almost transcendental is that it is suffused with a sense of the sublime. Rudaina was entranced.
Returning to Las Vegas for our last night, we discovered that John Fogerty would be performing at the Mandalay Bay Hotel. The gods were giving us a powerful sendoff. He was in top shape for a septuagenarian. The audience’s median age was over 65, representing a generation that came of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s. We sang along like a dedicated chorus, and everyone knew the lyrics. People clapped, hollered and cried. Fogerty sang all of CCR’s great standards:” Bad Moon Rising,” “Proud Mary,” “Green River” and “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” But when he sang “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” tears swelled in my eyes, remembering that teenager in Beirut. I looked at Rudaina when he was singing “I went down Virginia, seekin’ shelter from the storm.” We both had tears in our eyes and we hugged. More than 50 years ago, I enjoyed this song in Beirut; now I am watching and listening to John Fogerty not only in America but also as a Virginian. For two hours, Rudaina looked radiant, as if cancer was no longer ravishing her frail body.
Three days later, the Mandalay Bay Hotel was the scene of a horrific slaughter, the kind that has become an American social plague. A man barricaded himself in his 32nd-floor suite, then opened fire on a large crowd attending a music festival below, killing 60 victims and wounding 411; the inevitable stampede raised the number of injured to 867.
When I was 16 or 17 years old I worked at a lawyer’s office doing clerical work: typing, filing and answering the phone. By that time I had dropped out of evening school. Our evenings were divided between Samir’s house — listening to music, playing cards and talking about girls — and attending one of the rundown movie theaters in the poor neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud outside Beirut. Going to the movies was a serious outing. You entered the theater with a falafel or shawarma sandwich in one hand and a soda in the other. Some would smoke; others bought popcorn. The otherworldly bouquet of aroma would overwhelm the senses of any outsider, but as regulars we were immune. This was heaven for tough young males. We talked loudly, cursed freely and fought occasionally. Almost nightly, rats would sweep the floor for bread crumbs and meat, then a voice or several would shout in unison: “Jardoun ya shabab!” (There’s a rat, guys!). On cue we would lift our legs for a few seconds, laughing and cursing, waiting for the fat rodents to pass.
One memorable night I joined Samir and a friend, Michel Daher, to see “Bonnie and Clyde.” We would rarely miss the release of a Western or a gangster movie. We knew the names of the mythical and real characters that inhabited those movies: Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Al Capone and Eliot Ness. As is customary, the young man selling beverages would walk the aisle during the movie with two metal baskets of Pepsi bottles. That night he shuffled for a few feet and then stopped to shout: “Pepsi Ya Shabab.” He repeated himself, but there were no takers. The Shabab were engrossed in the unfolding drama. Another shuffle and another plea, then he heard a murmuring of complaints. By that time he was very near and I could hear him breathing in and belting out: “Pepsi ya shrameet.” Instantly, people whooped, clapped, whistled, shouted and swarmed to pat him on the shoulders and buy his Pepsi. The Shabab went back to their seats laughing and praising the audacity of this tiny man who had just called them whores. “Pepsi Ya Shrameet” became the rallying cry of our little gang.
Because we loved music, we watched musicals like “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot” and particularly “West Side Story”: a musical with New York gangs, beautifully choreographed dances, memorable songs, the gorgeous Natalie Wood and the lusty Rita Moreno, singing “I Like to Be in America.”
In 1985, Reagan invited King Fahd bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia to the White House. In those pre-Oklahoma City bombing and al Qaeda days, journalists could mingle in the White House at such occasions. A background briefing with Saudi and American officials was held for reporters working for Middle Eastern publications. Afterward we stayed in the briefing room, and later we joined the Saudi delegation to the White House proper. We stood watching cabinet members and guests dancing, and I remember Vice President George H.W. Bush looking around, wondering out loud and saying with a laugh, “Where’s Barbara? I lost my wife.”
Reagan began the practice of inviting artists and Hollywood stars to official White House functions. We were ushered out to a huge white tent to attend a soprano recital. Shortly after we were seated, I heard Rita Moreno’s distinct voice. She was sitting directly in front of me, between actress Sigourney Weaver and comedian Joe Piscopo. I immediately remembered the first time I saw her in “West Side Story” singing and dancing. Then I thought how I would have reacted if someone told me then that I would see Rita Moreno, not only in America but at the White House of all places. During a break, I whispered: “Ms. Moreno?” She turned toward me with that lovely smile: “Hi, how are you?” I mumbled something about myself, then proceeded to tell her quickly about where and when I saw her on the screen, including the rundown movie theater, and ended by asking, “Who would have thought I would see you here?” She laughed and said, “Happy to see you here. I guess this is a rendezvous that has been years in the making, and it says something about America that two people like us from different backgrounds and continents would meet at an occasion like this at the White House.”
In West Beirut in the 1960s, you could literally walk from a production of a Shakespeare play at a theater at the American University in Beirut (founded in 1866), then stroll to a new small avant-garde theater in the Ain Al Mraiseh neighborhood to see a play written by absurdist Eugène Ionescu (in French) or a political play by Albert Camus. (I liked the production of “Les Justes” in Arabic, because it dealt with issues I studied later: revolutionary violence and terror.) That theater was packed on the first day of Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot,” performed by a great cast in an excellent Arabic translation. In other parts of Beirut, theaters would show the works of Lebanese and Arab authors. Classical French plays were the staple at the Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth (founded in 1875).
When it came to movies, Beirut was an embarrassment of riches. Again, within walking distance theaters would show Elia Kazan’s “Streetcar Named Desire” or John Ford’s “The Searchers.” A few blocks away you could see Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice,” Federico Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits,” François Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim” or Youssef Chahine’s “The Cairo Station.” What commercial movie theater did not provide, the John F. Kennedy Cultural Center and Library, affiliated with the U.S Embassy in Beirut, compensated for: free showings of great American classics by Charlie Chaplin, Orson Wells and others. For poor kids who loved movies and had discriminating taste, a free showing of “Citizen Kane” was thrilling. We attended music recitals and discovered jazz combos. The library provided English and Arabic publications. We enjoyed American “soft power” long before the phrase was coined.
When I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1976, the Willard Hotel just blocks from the White House was boarded up; the area between the White House and Capitol Hill was not safe after 8 p.m., and there was only one movie theater, The Biograph in Georgetown (opened in1967 and closed in 1996), that showed avant-garde or foreign movies. The capital of the American Empire looked like a cultural wasteland compared with my Beirut.
Years later, I would realize that my early exposure to American popular culture, limited as it was, and long before I learned English, saved me from falling into the trap of reflexive anti-Americanism that afflicted many of my generation of Lebanese and Arabs who came of age watching America’s war in Vietnam, its growing tolerance of Israel’s violations of international law in the occupied Palestinian territories and its support of repressive regimes in the Middle East. Even at that age, watching the United States from afar, I sensed instinctively that there is something exceptional about American culture and society, even when it remained vague to me and I could not fully articulate it. Decades after those innocent years, anti-Americanism in some parts of the Middle East would be elevated — even among some of those who studied in American universities or lived in America — into a cultural given, a cult with its self-appointed high priests and profane texts. I spent a lifetime waging battles with those high priests at the crossroads of myth and reality.
Looking back at my 50-year American life, I was saved by the blues of Charlie Patton and Muddy Waters, the movies of John Ford and Martin Scorsese, and the novels of Mark Twain and William Faulkner. These and other artists brought to the fore — in notes, frames and words — America’s epic struggles with its daemons and saints, creating an artistic and cultural inheritance that is the most textured, complex, paradoxical and uplifting in modern human history. Even that young man in Beirut could see vague glimpses of that grandeur.
My last few years in Beirut were dominated by the political and cultural reverberations of the momentous Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. Fifty-five years later, the brittle mansion the Arabs have built is still without a roof and its walls continue to sway under the pressure of civil strife, ethnic and religious cleansing, foreign dominion, rapacious political/financial/religious classes and unbridled autocracies. The famed cities where Arabs in classical and modern times created breakthrough science, vibrant culture and rich art and survived or repelled many an invader have been subdued and suffocated by their indigenous rulers and lie in ruins or marginalized as modern metropolises that once produced knowledge: Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Cairo and Beirut. Today, Arabs inhabiting that area stretching from the Levant to the Indian Ocean find themselves living in the shadows of their more powerful neighbors: Israel, Turkey and Iran, engaged in a ceaseless quest for protection.
The trauma of the 1967 defeat that still haunts many Arabs even today produced in its wake a fleeting moment of soul searching and introspection. As a 17-year-old young man I remember the swift, almost violent swing of the pendulum from the searing suffering of humiliation to the moment Beirut ceased to be the capital of pain and became the capital of critical inquiry, experiencing its intellectual moment. In a few months Arab intellectuals and artists would seek refuge in the only regional sanctuary where they could ask what went wrong, questioning every taboo and dismantling the myths that dominated Arab life and led these defeated societies to their nadir. Shortly, this kind of inquiry became impossible in Cairo, Damascus or Baghdad.
In 1968, I met Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Syria’s most consequential public intellectual in the last half-century, after he published his seminal book “Self-Criticism After the Defeat,” a merciless deconstruction of every facet of Arab life. Published in Beirut, the book argued that only a radical dismantling of the entrenched structures of Arab society and culture, a total rejection of the myths and superstition that support them, could transcend the defeat. It became a milestone in modern Arab intellectual history. In 1969, he published a collection of essays titled “Critique of Religious Thought.” This time al-Azm directly attacked religious dogma, exposing how ruling classes abuse religion to serve their political interests by fostering fatalism and ignorance and questioning the validity of rational thinking. The swift reaction from religious authorities to the “blasphemous” book was ugly and accompanied by pressure to ban the book and haul al-Azm to court. Along with a few other friends, we attended his trial in a show of public solidarity. In a decision that showed that Beirut was still liberal enough and that its cosmopolitanism was still alive, the court did not ban the book and al-Azm was freed after two weeks in jail.
In 1969, Adonis, the pen name of Ali Ahmad Said, the greatest modern Arab poet — a Syrian by birth who spent his most productive years in Beirut and whose poetry was translated to more than 20 languages — established the literary journal Mawaqif (“Positions”), which became in a short time the venue for critical thinking and avant-garde literature and art. Adonis’s poems (I have not seen any poet recite poetry as beautifully and enchantingly) and trenchant essays in Mawaqif particularly against cultural dogmas and myths were magnificently evocative and prescient. I was among the lucky few to attend his weekly salon, alongside young and gifted Arab writers and artists who came to Beirut to join the good fight for enlightenment. In early 1971, Adonis edited a special issue of Mawaqif dedicated to young Arab poets. The biggest thrill of my youth was seeing my name in print in Mawaqif, above a few poems Adonis selected and thought worthy of publication. I have never experienced that ecstasy again.
A third Syrian who was prominent in this good fight, playwright Saaddallah Wannous, whose gripping play “An Evening Party for June Fifth,” first published in Mawaqif, then produced to critical and popular acclaim in Beirut, was uncompromising in its criticism of the underlying political and social causes of the defeat.
Many intellectuals and artists from several countries were part of this cultural ferment in Beirut. But al-Azm, Adonis and Wannous cut a large scorched-earth swath into the heart of deep structures that underpin Arab life, toppling the dominant political, cultural and religious deities. I continued to see al-Azm and Adonis in Lebanon, Syria and the United States. I participated in conferences with al-Azm in the U.S. and attended Adonis’s poetry recitals and a few classes when he taught at Georgetown University. The last time I saw al-Azm was at Harvard, about a year before his death. We hugged in silence trying to hold back the tears as if there is no tomorrow for us. I mumbled something about “what have they done to us, ya Sadeq?” to which he replied, “The bastards are killing Syria and everything we fought for.” It was a short, bittersweet meeting.
Only in open, cosmopolitan Beirut could such a movement still strive. Beirut embraced a human mosaic of religious, ethnic and cultural groups. To walk its streets was to hear a Babel of languages; Arabic, French, English, Armenian, Kurdish, Greek and others.
From the second half of the 19th century to the beginning of the second half of the 20th, a vibrant cosmopolitanism had found a home in the bustling port cities of Alexandria and Beirut and the cities of the hinterland, such as Aleppo, Damascus and Baghdad. But the Arab militaries that overthrew the newly independent monarchies of Egypt and Iraq as well as Syria’s bourgeois families, in the name of Arab nationalism, began to dismantle these relatively open, tolerant polities. Atavistic political Islam later ensured their closing. Egypt, Syria and Iraq never recovered from losing their influential communities of Jews, Greeks, Armenians and others who were an integral part of the cosmopolitanism of the Levant. After the 1967 defeat, this liberal era and its cosmopolitan mosaic were things of the past. Only Beirut remained.
That moment of enthusiasm in Beirut began to dissipate in the early 1970s, particularly when Arab autocracies regained the initiative following their relatively better performance against Israel in the 1973 war. By then the Palestinian National Movement, embroiled in domestic Lebanese politics, was in itself another conservative, corrupt Arab polity, unwilling to entertain any introspection.
America beckoned after I was accepted at Villanova University, at the outskirts of Philadelphia. My friend there, George Bitar, assured me I could work and pay my tuition. I was still conflicted, unable to make the decision to leave my family, particularly my younger sisters. I was unhappy at work, and the girl I wrote poetry for was growing tired of my poetry and dreams. The breakup was short, brute and conveyed in two curt sentences: “We are going nowhere,” followed by a quote from my oldest brother Elie, who was friends with her father, which was the coup de grâce: “Even your brother said that you are good for nothing.”
I promised my sisters that I would return to Lebanon, assuming I would stay long enough to graduate. I never wanted to settle in the United States or saw myself as an immigrant; I wanted to learn English above all and see as much as possible of the continent I admired from afar. I used my meager savings to buy a roundtrip ticket and borrowed $1,000 from Michel to keep me afloat for a month until I received my Social Security number and started my toil in America. I knew that this was the first and last payment I would get from my brother. That was a significant amount of money 50 years ago. I told myself that I would rather starve before I would ask for money that was impossible to get.
A mixture of excitement and trepidation overwhelmed me when I flew out of Beirut for the first time in my life. On June 5, 1972, I landed at the Philadelphia International Airport. Three days later, I met Rudaina, who would shelter me for the rest of her life.