Finding solace in the simplest of things.

| Spring 2015

  • Sometimes I thought of Sidon as a beautiful woman lying in a coma on the Mediterranean coast, kept alive by life support. The roads ran in and out of her like tubes, bringing in food from the farms and villages to sustain her and carrying out refuse to keep her from drowning in her own waste.
    Photo by Flickr/Rainii Svensson

I grew up in Lebanon, first in a small village in the countryside and later in the coastal city of Sidon, where my family had moved so that my father could work for the Arabian American Oil Company, or Aramco. The Saudi petroleum giant needed English-speaking Arabs to work in its training center, where American engineers and heavy-equipment operators came to learn about Arab customs, culture, and traditions. My father, educated by Presbyterian missionaries, spoke excellent English and got a job as a lecturer. The training center was like a little America, and it was there that I was introduced to such magical foods as m&ms, hot dogs, and coconut cream pie. For a while we lived well on my father’s salary and the bounty from the center.

Aramco also needed locals to ferry employees around and run errands, and my father was assigned the task of picking competent and dependable drivers. One of the men he hired, Saeed Abu Karam, became his close friend. Saeed had a handlebar mustache and was a Druze—a sort of Muslim Unitarian. Though Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol, Saeed was not especially religious, and he and my father would get together and consume a potent beverage called “arrack.” Neither man cared much for politics. Saeed would say that all politicians were crooks who used religion to gain power, and he and my father would clink their glasses and drink to that. I will always remember the two of them reeking of arrack as they roasted lamb kabobs over a charcoal fire on our apartment’s veranda.

In the winter of 1958, when I was 14, a civil war almost broke out in Lebanon. On one side were Christians who supported the president and wanted the country to maintain its close ties with the United States. On the other side were Muslims who were pressuring the government to join the short-lived United Arab Republic, along with Egypt and Syria. The Lebanese army, made up of both Christians and Muslims, refused to take sides for fear of losing half its troops to desertion.

Sidon became a dangerous place. People could commit murder without fear of arrest, and anyone who harbored a grudge felt free to settle it with bullets and grenades. Pedestrians were shot from rooftops with high-powered rifles. A childless widower living by himself a couple of blocks from us stuck his head out of his third-story apartment window, and someone drilled him from across an orange grove in full bloom. For a couple of days the old man’s body hung there, half in and half out of the window, before a neighbor dragged it in.

It was risky to leave the house, even to go to the grocery store or to pick up a prescription for a sick child. The Aramco training center shut down, cutting off our father’s income and our access to American goods. People stayed indoors, avoided windows, and ate what they had laid up in their pantries. At first they shared food with their neighbors—a cup of sugar, a loaf of bread, a bag of salt—but as the fighting dragged on and supplies became scarce, people stopped asking to borrow ingredients, because the promise to return the favor when times were better was beginning to sound empty.

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