Childhood Memories from East and West

While my husband, Bishara, and I share many of the same tenets in life, such as “be good to yourself and your fellow man,” we grew up half a world apart under widely differing circumstances.  My life began mid-century near coastal California in John Steinbeck territory – Salinas, California, while Bishara, a native of Lebanon, was introduced to the world by a midwife at his family home in Mafraq, Jordan, in one of the most politically unstable regions on the globe.

As a young family, we moved several times within the San Francisco Bay Area in the span of 12 years, from Salinas to San Jose, Berkeley, Lafayette, and, ultimately, Walnut Creek.  My childhood was spent dashing through sprinklers, romping with neighbor friends and cousins, skiing in Lake Tahoe, and dancing to The Beatles and “The ‘In’ Crowd.”  Annual summer trips to my mom’s indigenous Browning, Montana on Blackfeet Indian tribal land punctuated with blurs of color, buckskin and eagle feathers at Pow Wow ceremonies, as well as treks into adjacent Glacier National Park, became a regular and memorable event.  My first memory at two years old is of my family on the outskirts of tiny Browning maneuvering across railroad tracks to enter the home of my aunt (mom’s elder, and treasured, sister), and feeling both mystified and enchanted to be in the company of my three older cousins.

A world away, Bishara’s older sister, Wedad, 18 years his senior, was getting married and Bishara at four years-old noticed his mother and sister crying while Wedad stood at the alter in a beautiful white lace gown.  A somewhat baffling response in the eyes of a young boy.  Bishara, the youngest of six children, and, as such, often the recipient of sibling drubbings, was sensitive, soulful, and, by his own account, a nerd.  Often left behind by his older siblings on weekends, Bishara felt comfort and fulfillment in the company of his mother, the twosome frequently spending time together in the back courtyard of their stone home beneath the olive and berry trees, chattering away about everything while Bishara peeled mandarin oranges for his kindhearted mother.

Although sweet, shy, and reflective, as the eldest of four children, I took a certain satisfaction in playfully trouncing my three siblings, on occasion, in my younger years.  A kind child who, nonetheless, wanted to establish her natural dominance in the family structure as the first born, I had an innate sense of justice and of not wanting to be taken advantage of by the outside world.  Another early memory reveals me as a five year-old walking the short distance between my grandmother’s modest home in Browning to my aunt’s house down the street, my parents shadowing me in their car.  Within minutes, stones hurtled down at me from the windows of a neighboring home.  Initially taken aback by this onslaught by mischievous kids, I impulsively collected rocks from the street and vigorously lobbed them back at my assailants, to my parents’ unspoken gratification.

Just as my first sibling, and only sister, arrived engulfed in my adoration and constant companionship, Bishara’s nephew, Khaldoun, was born to Wedad when Bishara was just five years-old.  Being relatively close in age and location with Khaldoun growing up in a Jordanian town approximately two hours away by car from Mafraq, Bishara played often with Khaldoun and developed a deep-seated brotherly affection for his first nephew.  Joy-filled visits from Khaldoun left Bishara feeling melancholy and disheartened when Wedad and Khaldoun left at the end of a weekend following days spent engaged in hide and seek, tag, and friendly wrestling.

At around 8 years-old, Bishara said goodbye to his father who was travelling from Mafraq to Tabuk, Saudi Arabia to pursue a long-term employment opportunity; one of Bishara’s saddest days.  A world away my father was travelling home from a short stint in Japan as an Air Force reservist with a surprise gift for me – a two-wheel bike.  As Israeli warplanes bombarded Mafraq a year later during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Bishara and his family hid in a 16 square foot bathroom with Bishara convinced that his mother had corralled them into the tiny quarters, so they could die together in close proximity.  Meanwhile, one of my paramount concerns was learning to ride the bicycle from my Dad, and experiencing challenges  braking while navigating down a steep hill; I sustained a mere knot on my forehead as Dad lunged in front of my bike to minimize the impact of crashing into bike racks at the bottom of the incline.

Bikes and pets are prominent features of American life, and for a short time as a child, we had a German Shepard that would regularly jump our backyard fence, follow me to school and steal the kids’ lunches, or hurdle over other fences and end up in someone’s pool.  While this pooch was ultimately rehoused, Bishara had a menagerie of pets while growing up, unusual in the Arab region, including a monkey, dog, chickens, deer, rabbits, and ducks, all kept in the back courtyard.  As a younger child, Bishara indulged in playing with the rabbits, which were raised along with the chickens, and ducks for later consumption, a fact that now produces misgivings in Bishara.  The monkey, Saada, arrived from Saudi Arabia in a truck, a gift from Bishara’s father to the family, and became a close companion to Bishara.  Bishara taught the monkey how to peel bananas, play catch, and even considered marriage to this attentive and shrewd primate.

Besides appreciating the company of his troupe of animals, Bishara played “cowboys” with neighborhood playmates, index fingers or sticks serving as guns; rolled atop, or inside, truck tires down neighborhood streets; and on the weekend attacked kids from rival blocks with stones.  Bishara was skilled at this latter pursuit, being a good aim, and a daring collaborator by zig-zagging between incoming rocks when assailing his opponents.

Summer visits to Ein Eible in Bishara’s native Lebanon to see his relatives were particularly happy days.  Bishara spent time with his grandfather, and once a week borrowed his donkey to go to the family farm and fields to pick figs and grapes, which Bishara brought home in baskets.  Bishara also took walks through the town with his brothers or alone, expressly admiring the beautiful young town girls.  The special times in my life also included occasions spent with extended family, in particular, British and Montana cousins, and my German grandmother, Oma, my father’s mother who eventually became a full-time resident of a nearby California city.  In the summertime, my siblings and I spent many a weekend at Oma’s apartment complex with an interior courtyard containing a pool, palm trees, and amiable neighbors.  Oma had a beautiful accent, wonderful spirit, and was colorful in dress and outlook.  Outfitted in a red flowered bathing suit and gold fringed bathing cap, Oma danced with my siblings and me, in turn, in the shallow end of her apartment pool.  And pool dancing was always followed by sweet iced coffee with milk and ice cream on top, served poolside.  Oma taught me the love of life and travel.

An emphasis on diversity and the broader world were not only apparent in my grandmother’s worldview and everyday life, but in the actions of my father.  I was most excited, when as an elementary school student, my Dad organized having a Kenyan man from Berkeley’s International Student Center come and speak to my class.  Attired in traditional garb, the young Kenyan man gave a fascinating and eye-opening presentation on life in Kenya.

In our prepubescent years, Bishara and I both felt our own budding romances.  At around age 10, Bruce, a classmate, regularly selected me as a square dancing partner in PE, a secret thrill, as this was the first time I was noticed by a boy.  This freckle-faced chap had the gumption to present me with a ring before our relocation from one Bay Area town to another.  In my young mind, I was mightily impressed with the courage and straightforwardness of this boy.  Bishara’s introduction to “puppy love” was quite different.  Living in a more restrictive society where genders were often separated, Bishara and his friends were reduced to jotting down love notes on bits of paper, which were crumpled and hurled at their particular love interest.  Bishara was in serious trouble when someone complained about him and his buddies following a group of girls to school, with the boys ultimately being arrested and taken to the police department for interrogation.  The police officers ultimately took pity on the boys following the arrival of their parents.

Little did I know that 15 years later I would meet, and develop an intimate relationship with, a near-felon, nor did Bishara realize he would rendezvous with a western woman and the “American Dream.”

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Pic of Bishara

The “Lebanese Look”

“Look at those tight pants, the eye makeup, and long curly hair!”  My husband, Bishara, could hardly contain himself as we walked along the wide and well-traveled corridor of the main wing of King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh.  “She must be Lebanese,” he continued.  Although decidedly less observant than my husband, I angled my eyes in the young woman’s direction and nodded my head, “Yes, she really does look Lebanese.”  Because I knew he just had to know, I mumbled under my breath, “Let’s go find out!”  We picked up our pace and were soon alongside the young woman, and her two companions.  “Hello,” I started, “we saw you walking with your friends and had the feeling you might be Lebanese.”  The woman idled towards me, looked me directly in the eyes, and with a hint of exasperation disclosed, “Yes, I’m Saudi on my father’s side, and Lebanese on my mother’s side.  How did you know?”

Haifa Wehbe (Singer & Model) – The “Lebanese Look” [Wikipedia]

Bishara’s brow wrinkled ever so slightly.  A native Lebanese, himself, Bishara definitely knew the “Lebanese look.”  However, this was a curious fusion of lineages; one side representing the traditional Arab world where women are required to wear abayes and headscarves, and the other characterized by a more contemporary lifestyle shaped by western influences.  Although the flying time between Riyadh and Beirut is only two and a half hours, the proximity of these two capital cities belies unusually disparate ways of life and customs.

My husband and I had lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia as expatriates for several years (from 2000 to 2004), and while I was the one who felt compelled to explore this enigmatic land and was rewarded with a phenomenal and life-changing experience, it became apparent the Kingdom was the most conservative of the more traditional Gulf nations.  Although the unwritten dress code on the King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) grounds (where I worked as an Economist and Bishara as a Civil Engineer), and in the Diplomatic Quarter, where many of the embassies were located, and where we lived, was somewhat more relaxed for females due to the large numbers of western expatriates, Saudi women were expected to be arrayed in a black abaye, including a face covering, niqab, when in public.  Women, in general, were prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia, and limited to employment in three sectors – academia, hospitals, and banks.

Conversely, in the nearby cosmopolitan city of Beirut, women sport perfectly coiffed hair, fully made-up faces, and pricey nose jobs.  I was definitely taken aback on a visit to Lebanon in 1996, my first trip to the Middle East, when I saw an amalgam of women on the streets of Beirut with colorful headscarves or no headscarves, tight jeans, designer handbags and shoes, erect postures, and determined gaits.  Cafes overlooking the azure Mediterranean Sea were brimming with women, some with male companions and others in collections, many in oversized sunglasses sipping Turkish coffee, chattering, and people watching.  Sheesha, prevalent in Beirut seaside cafes, is often the diversion of choice on weekends and in the evenings, with women going toe-to-toe with their male counterparts on mustering the largest smoke rings.

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Sahbah (Lebanese Singer & Actress)

And Lebanese women may be found in all sectors of employment, from the service sector and retail arena, to the armed forces.  There seem to be no limits for Lebanese women, who are nothing if not bold and direct.  In the early 2000s, Bishara and I were having breakfast in a sweet little café on the outskirts of Beirut, and I had special ordered my favorite – a western omelet, a little known breakfast selection in Bishara’s native country.  As I savored my omelet, I noticed a group of women at a nearby table shooting sideways glances at Bishara and me from time to time, not an uncommon occurrence, as Lebanese women tend to be a very curious lot with a tendency towards flirtation.  When the women, each immaculately dressed and dripping with confidence, paid their check and got up to leave, they sashayed right up to me and just inches away, peered unabashedly at my eggs soaked in bacon, onion, and green pepper as I moved my forkfuls from plate to mouth.  Although I had become conditioned to the audacious ways of Lebanese women having traveled with Bishara to his homeland on many occasions, I was startled by how very upfront and personal these women were being.  “Here would you like a taste,” just sort of slipped out, as I lifted my fork filled with omelet in their direction.  “Oh, no, thank you!” came the swift response, as the women scurried out of the restaurant on their Louboutin heels.

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Mona Abou Hamze – TV Presenter (Sammy Said, “Beauty”)

The confidence and fashion forward nature of Lebanese women is strongly influenced by the inundation of western Europeans into Lebanon in the 1960s and early 1970s for fun-filled holidays; mountain skiing in the winters, and summer days spent lazing by the Mediterranean Sea and shopping, with evenings spent partying at trendy nightclubs.  Before the civil war in the mid-70s, Lebanon was known as the “Switzerland of the East,” and Beirut as the “Paris of the Middle East.”

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Mediterranean Sea (Lebanon)

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Mountain View Outside of Beirut

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The Mediterranean

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Beirut

Lebanese women not only want to look their best, but often feel compelled to help others do the same.  On the trip Bishara and I took to Lebanon in 1996, after a prerequisite feast of grape leaves, molkhia, bamieh, kibbe, moutabel, and falafel, Bishara’s sisters and a couple of neighbor ladies were kind enough to offer to style my hair.  Having coarse and generally unmanageable hair, I jumped at the opportunity.  After washing my hair, I was seated in front of a mirror in one of the bedrooms in Bishara’s old family residence, and out came the hairdryers, hair straighteners, hairsprays, and mousse.  Like professional salon hairstylists, the women effortlessly dried, straightened, fluffed, moussed, and finished off their creation with a heavy mist of hair spray.

Since our plan for later that night was to have an evening out at an exclusive mountain-side restaurant outside of Beirut that featured belly dancing, my styling team decided my new look would not be complete without a heavy dose of eyeliner to create “Cleopatra eyes” with multi-colored eye shadows applied to achieve the ultimate effect.  I had never worn so much makeup in my life, but I had to draw the line when I heard whispers of plucking and shaping my eyebrows – I had always prided myself in maintaining a more “natural look.”  And, of course, my choice of attire was not immune from evaluation and enhancement.  The ladies chose the shortest skirt I had packed, a white flouncy blouse under a black jacket, and a sparkly black and gold scarf.  Like my eyebrows, I would not negotiate on the shoes – no spiked heels.

So, there I was in the middle of the mountainside restaurant, feeling out of place, completely outside my “comfort zone,” yet somehow satisfied (based on Bishara’s reaction) having affected “the Lebanese look.”

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The Feigned “Lebanese Look”

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The Real “Lebanese Look”