Childhood Memories from East and West (Part 2)

Growing up in the 1960s among the brown rolling hills of the San Francisco Bay Area was cheery and carefree; lots of sunshine, infused with drives up Mount Diablo atop the backseat of my dad’s convertible MGB sports car, trips into San Francisco to stroll the lush gardens of Golden Gate Park, and four square at the end of our neighborhood cul-de-sac.  Halfway around the world in Jordan, Bishara, the youngest of six siblings, appreciated time spent with his devoted mother and cherished nephew, Haldoun, and an eclectic collection of family pets, despite pining for his father under contract in Saudi Arabia.  Peaceful days in rustic Mafraq, though, were interrupted by a terrifying hail of bombs that fell during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, which found Bishara and his family huddled together in the middle of the bathroom convinced the end was near.  The warm embrace of his mother provided little comfort for nine year-old Bishara against the barrage of missiles targeting his country.

My own experience of war was through our black and white TV screen, observing the carnage of Vietnam’s battlefields as my parents watched the nightly news, and discerning only that something momentous and formidable was unfolding in a far-off land.  I knew, instinctively, I was shielded from this horror by distance and my ever watchful parents, and viewed the events more like an illusory scene from a play or movie trailer.

Bishara’s real, “life and death,” scare was followed by three brief years of relative calm during which he visited friends to watch wrestling on TV or scoured the nearby desert for edible mushrooms for the evening meal before the Palestinians (PLO) began clashing with the Jordanian government in 1970 in what came to be known as “Black September.”  Bishara’s school classes, along with those throughout Jordan, were cancelled for the month as demonstrations, shootings and general chaos ensued across the country resulting in thousands being killed over a one year period.  Bishara, not fully comprehending the ramifications of the situation, was both relieved over not having to go to school, but scared to his core over the possibility of his home being hit by rockets.  Although the effects of the Civil War were not as intense in Mafraq as in other Jordanian towns, Bishara’s family was under constant fear that the Jordanian army might invade their city, which was under Palestinian militia control.  As a result, Bishara and his family remained largely isolated in their home, playing cards, glued to the radio, and praying for a good outcome.  By the summer of July 1971, acrimony and bloodshed were superseded by the ouster of Palestinian combatants from Jordan to Lebanon, comparative peace, and the return of Bishara’s dear father.

Bishara’s most exciting days were Fridays when his father allowed him and his two older brothers to watch a cowboy movie at the town’s theatre every other week; the three brothers, merry with anticipation, walked a mile to the “male only” movie showings.  Cowboy flicks led to European and American movies of other genres, and to the notion that the world was larger than the confines of Mafraq, and a developing interest in probing other regions.  The quandary in Bishara’s young mind, however, was how he could leave his beloved mother behind.

My domain was widened when as a young teen my family moved from sunny, mellow California to a university town in the southeast, a sort of culture shock for me and my three siblings who had to transition from a more permissive and progressive environment to one permeated with palpable and staid southern hospitality and racial diversity.  Circumspect and reserved, the life shift required patience, grit, and a bit of hurt.  I remained, however, academic and a straight shooter; a girl with a small circle of friends, who envied the popular girls.  On weekends, I watched “American Bandstand,” and loved music, in general, a passion instilled in me by my dad who was hip and introduced me to The Beatles and Ravi Shankar in my younger days.  I savored the hours spent in my bedroom anticipating that special song coming over the airwaves, my tape recorder in hand, and finger hovering over the red record button.

At age 15, Bishara left a Christian middle school for Mafraq Secondary Boys’ School, a larger establishment comprised of nearly one hundred percent Muslim students.  Bishara, somewhat wary, wondered how he would get along with his new classmates.  A couple of months later, his uneasiness vanished, as Bishara relished participating in school sports, including basketball and soccer, with his new Muslim schoolmates, spawning strong attachments with his fellow athletes.  Several of his long-time friends wondered about Bishara’s behavior and questioned why he became sudden buddies with the Muslim kids.  Unaffected by this concern, Bishara knew he was simply expanding his “friend base.”  This revelation bolstered Bishara’s realization that he needed to study abroad after high school to advance his knowledge of the greater community outside of Mafraq.

While Bishara dreamed of expanding his horizons, I co-piloted a single engine plane at age 16 with my dad as pilot ferrying my sister, two brothers, and mother from our hometown in the southeast to California, Washington, and Montana.  I was humbled and gratified to reach the Guadalupe Pass at my calculated time as we sailed over Texas.  Otherwise, life was fairly predictable, and although the smaller moments produced the utmost satisfaction, a restlessness within implored me to connect to a deeper and wider reality.  This sense was magnified when Oma, my German grandmother, moved across the U.S. to be closer to her son and his family.  Oma’s travel stories brought the broader world into her quaint one-bedroom apartment only a couple of miles from our home.  My more treasured times as a high school senior involved leaving school early, walking the short distance to Oma’s apartment and having a homemade German meal while we watched “The Guiding Light” and talked of Oma’s European travels.

As Bishara neared grade 12, he could not wait to finish high school and move on.  But to what and to where?  Bishara felt it much harder to stay in Jordan, and the general region, than to pivot to the unknown.  His mother was his world and the only soul with whom Bishara’s could share his thoughts.  Bishara was happiest when he watched his mother iron his father’s clothes as he sat two feet away doing his homework, or when he silently slipped into his mother’s room during an afternoon nap, and listened to her snore as he pored over the books.  Who’s going to cook for you, and who are you going to watch cooking for you, Bishara’s mother would lament.  “My advice for you, son, is to remove these thoughts from your head.” She would convince Bishara for a day, but he soon had the feeling that his mother was talking from an emotional perspective only, and Bishara knew, in his gut, he must follow his inner voice.

This voice, and the Civil War in Lebanon, led Bishara to surreptitiously leave Lebanon, where he settled with his family following high school, for Western Europe, via Syria, at age 18.  Bishara eventually journeyed to the United States where he was drawn to a college education and a young woman originally from the Bay Area, who he ultimately married.  And she, wanting to fulfill her own fantasies of experiencing faraway cultures, persuaded him to leave a comfortable suburban life in the U.S. and travel back to the intriguing and beguiling world of the Arab Gulf. . . .



Childhood Memories from East and West (Part 1)

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.”

Pic of Michele

Pic of Bishara

Wonders of Spain: Andalusia

Spain, although a common destination and residence for retired Brits, due primarily to proximity and economical lifestyle, is barely on the radar for vacationing Americans.  Preferring instead the glitz and glamour of Paris, Prague’s medieval origins and design, and the charm of Rome and Venice, American travel to Europe tends to focus on the time-tested, conventional locations.

In the late 1990s, my husband and I were fortunate to travel to Spain, spending time in the north, Madrid and festive Barcelona, as well as the Andalusian region in the south, including the Mediterranean city of Malaga, captivating and historically rich Granada, and the Flamenco municipal of Seville.  More recently the draw to Spain was reconnecting with expatriate British friends from the Gulf region who had retired and relocated to the Costa Blanca (“white coast”) of Spain.  Flying into Madrid airport, and making our way through immigration where we were simply waved through, and baggage claim, I peeked over a glass barrier and contemplated a sunlit cafe below with travellers languishing amongst oversized green potted plants and stylish black and white tiles, sipping café con leches, and knew this would be a satisfying trip.


Toledo, Spain

Renting the prevailing manual and miniscule economy car at the Avis counter and driving along the cobblestone alleyways of the old walled-in city of Toledo our first afternoon in Spain reinforced the perception that this would be a relaxed holiday.  Spain is more “old world” Europe with a heavy dose of Eastern world influence in the form of Arabic architecture, way of life, and language.  Toledo, itself, is characterized as a “City of Three Cultures, due to the historical blending of peoples from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths, although the Spanish Inquisition reversed this tolerance for a period of time.  In present day, the Arab impact remains palpable in this medieval town, with the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, formerly a mosque, retaining the Moorish style from an ancient time, and the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo (World Heritage designation) constructed on the site of the Grand Mosque.  Toledo has also been called “the soul of Spain,” and during multiple visits to the Cathedral of Saint Mary, including a self-guided tour and Holy Thursday Mass, and a procession of religious devotion through the narrow streets, a profound sense of connectedness to a deeper and higher spiritual plane claimed me; a particularly poignant time, as our dearest friend would lose her battle to pancreatic cancer during our Toledo visit.  The loss of our treasured friend colored much of the remainder of our trip.


Cathedral of St. Mary of Toledo


St. Mary’s Cathedral


Devotional Procession

Our stay at Toledo’s Hotel Santa Isabel – small, clean, inexpensive, and comfortable – located in the heart of the old district, and bordering a convent and the majestic Cathedral of Saint Mary buttressed the theme of an uncomplicated foray through the Iberian Peninsula.  Most everything is on a smaller scale in Toledo, and much of greater Spain with thin roads, diminutive shops and eateries, however, a significant fundamental, and seemingly unconscious, emphasis on living fully is pervasive.


Hotel Santa Isabel (Toledo, Spain)


Hotel’s Rooftop Terrace View (St. Mary’s Cathedral on left)

Breakfast, our first morning, saw us sampling our first café con leche of the trip along with freshly squeezed orange juice, hearty apples, kiwis, and traditional ham and cheese on bread; a server with gruff edges and intentions to ensure we were satisfied guests, at the ready.

Trips to the neighboring convent where craftsmen worked earnestly at shaping classically embellished  Spanish jewelry, the “feet washing” ceremony at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Thursday evening, and animated family-owned cafes cramped along slender stony streets cast a light and sublime tone over our Toledo visit.


Alleyways of Toledo


Our drive from Toledo to Costa Blanco, Spain’s Mediterranean coast, highly populated with transplanted English and Europeans, ushered us through a small town just outside Toledo where we were approached by a cheery, wobbly patron in a pub who had imbibed one too many, but who was nonetheless only too happy to assist this funny-speaking lost couple with directions to the city of Valencia by way of Tomelloso.  An impromptu Good Friday lunch along the way allowed us to “people watch” the smartly dressed town residents savoring substantial meals and family and friends.

A stopover in Javea, a medium-sized town on the Mediterranean within the province of Alicante, abounding with contemporary cafes and fashionable retail establishments found us meeting up with our long-time British friends.  Rekindling our expatriate friendship and connection to Spain developed so many years before, we wholly appreciated drives along the coastline and through the lush and granite topped Alicante Mountains, including the beautiful homes perched along hillsides near Moraira, reminding us of Sausalito, California; the loud and raucous street festival adjacent to the Javean Catholic church that carries strong ties to the townspeople; and unfettered open air seaside dancing with all ages entertained by a lone singer crooning Spanish tunes.


Javea, Spain


Street Market of Javea


Moraira, Spain


Alicante Mountains

From the pleasing and slow-paced lifestyle of Costa Blanca, we drove nearly four and a half hours in a southerly direction to reach the celebrated Andalusian city of Granada where Bishara spent a transformative several months in his late teens fleeing the civil war in Lebanon.  Although we were told the popular Pájaro Loco (“Crazy Bird”) bar frequented by Bishara and his Spanish compatriots in those early days had closed some years ago, we thoroughly enjoyed this aesthetic Moorish city set alongside the striking Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Our accommodations, Five Senses, modern and moderately priced, was just steps away from  a square holding the historic and imposing Catedral Granada, Placeta de Castillejos and Plaza Isabel La Catolica.  Wandering further along stone alleys, we entered the Albayzin district steeped in a Medieval Arab past, and encountered colorful ceramic dishware and ornamented lanterns in Arabic-themed shops and sedu-style seating filled with sheesha smoking clientele lolling in comfy cafes.


Granada, Spain (Albayzin District)



Alhambra Palace





Our visit to Andalusia granted us the delight of binging on Gazpacho soup originating in the region, and observing the dedication and professionalism of Spanish waiters at established eateries.  We were struck by a particular visit to Carmela restaurant, near our hotel, where the chaos of a filled restaurant rocking with conversation, laughter, and special food requests was met with utter aplomb, efficiency, and cordiality by devoted waiters apparently more on a career track than filling a provisional employment need.  Even off highway dining spots, linked to service stations, are many and varied, with white tablecloths, cloth napkins and formally attired waiters available at higher-end venues, the occasional chess players and spectators huddled at a corner table.

Continuing through Andalusia for the remainder of our holiday, we made our way to Cadiz via diverse and urban Malaga, birthplace of Pablo Picasso, on the Costa del Sol.  Cadiz, set on the Atlantic Ocean and within close proximity of the Strait of Gilbraltor, is an enchanting labyrinth of slim passageways corralling extensive small and inviting shops and cafes.  Thankfully, we happened upon the reasonably priced Francia y Paris hotel in the charming, and out of the way, Plaza San Francisco.  After the best night’s sleep of our trip, we yearned for our staple veggie omelets rather than the customary and caloric hams, cheeses, and bread.  A nearby restaurant in a large square managed by two men whose informality suggested familial ties pointed out their pre-cooked eggs with potatoes, quiche-style.  Close enough for our tastes, we sat on bar stools at a small round table enjoying our eggs, café con leches, freshly squeezed orange juice, and “local color” as the proprietors and diners chattered away, non-stop, with watchful side glances in our direction likely viewing us as an oddity in this homespun domicile.


Malaga, Spain

dscf0525Mediterranean (Malaga)


Cadiz, Spain





Monument to the Constitution of 1812 (Cadiz)


The highlight of our time in Cadiz was attending a Flamenco performance, endemic to Andalusia, at Cava Bar, a spartan and intimate saloon filled to the brim.  A tapas meal of fresh ham, pork, bread and olives nicely complemented the soulful guitar strumming, vocal harmony, and choral outbursts that accompanied the provocative tapping and angular movements of the vibrant and deliberate dancers.


Flamenco Dancing in Cadiz


Following our rejuvenating time in Cadiz, we drove the short hour and a half distance through plush rolling hills to exquisite Seville.  If for just a few hours, we soaked up the treats of Seville by horse-drawn carriage –  Cathedral of Seville, Giralda Bell Tower, Torre del Oro, Maria Luisa Park, Plaza de Espana, and small bars with singing Spaniards on our way to Cordoba, the former medieval Islamic capital of Spain.


Seville, Spain


Seville Cathedral






Plaza de Espana (Seville)

Cordoba was an unanticipated delight.  A stopover our first morning at a hair salon demonstrated, again, the strong sense of community evident throughout Spain when we met a Cordoban middle-aged lady with her adult daughter having her hair done, and restive rescue dog, all engaging in freewheeling warm and familiar banter with the stylists and other customers – more like the setting of a family home than a salon.  Bishara, of course, took the opportunity to declare how much we loved Spain; the lady proudly declared, “Cordoba is the best city in Spain.”

From the hair salon, we continued to the Guadalquivir River, and past the outdoor cafes stuffed with locals and tourists relishing food, drink, and chuckles, and stopped in the old sector at the site of the magnificent Mezquita de Cordoba (Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba) dating back to 711 AD, an impressive structure containing resplendent candy caned arcades atop marble pillars, intricately carved mosaics, and the ornate mihrab with chapels ensconced throughout.


Cordoba, Spain


Courtyard of Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba


Cathedral-Mosque (Cordoba)



Uncalculated meanderings along the winding paths of Cordoba brought us to prevalent and historic garden courtyards tucked away behind street shops that accommodated appealing cafes and a bounty of greenery and vivid flowers.  A visit to Los Patios, a garden courtyard cafe near the Great Mosque permitted us to not only partake in a deliciously cheesy pizza, but to also view a procession of women attired in elaborate traditional garb of the region escorted by a solemn black-clad marching band on horns and drums.  The cortege was punctuated with breaks of unrestrained revelry – dancing, singing, and drinking – in public squares.  Mesmerized by this cultural exhibition, we succumbed to the spirit of the festivities and swayed and hummed in rapport with our Spanish cohorts.


Los Patios (Cordoba)


Traditional Procession (Cordoba, Spain)





The following day, we reluctantly returned to Madrid for our flight home after a delightful brush with Spanish and Andalusian culture, history, and society, vowing to return in the not-too-distant future.