Chapter 13 - Three Generations Out of the Middle East

The two experiences are represented by a set of hand cymbals.  One experience unfolded in New England, the other a generation later in Westchester County, NY. Study the miniature brass cymbals. They have been etched by different hands and so appear on the surface to be distinctive. But strike them together and listen to the sound they make. They are identical.

Story #1

           We would drive for an hour or two, my father and I, and when we finally pulled into the park grounds the excitement was almost too much for a small boy to bear.
            Screeching fiddles, yelping children, exuberant drums, jabbering adults. The sounds all rose with the fragrant smoke of charcoal and lamb over a scene suggesting a joyous gypsy encampment.
            I had no idea what anyone was saying, but my father swarmed right in, shaking hands, introducing me, smiling and laughing with a gusto unlike his gentle, subdued manner at home.
            The scene was also a little frightening. There was anarchy, if jubilant anarchy, and only my father’s assured behavior and the happiness on the faces of the daring youngsters kept me from bolting and racing back to our car.
            It was what was then called a Syrian picnic, and it would come once or twice a summer, organized by an Eastern Christian church but beckoning any Christian, Muslim, Jew or infidel who wanted to come and savor for an afternoon an abundant helping of Middle Eastern hospitality.
            If my mother, sister and brother were with us, the fact escapes memory. Perhaps the captivation of the picnic and my father’s hand were all the young mind could cope with.
            We returned to the picnic grounds when we could, but every Sunday at 10 in the morning we also gathered around the radio for “The Arabic Hour.” It was the second component of my heritage training. Once again, my father’s delight at hearing the music and the language shone in his eyes and the smiles that lit his face.
           One day, after he had not taken me to a Syrian picnic for a long time, I asked him why. Being Jewish had been a most incidental detail in our trips. No longer. Things had changed. We were still welcome, but he felt events on the other side of the world compelled him to stay away. “At the picnic they’re all gentiles,” he says. He sounds miserable. I weigh it against the memory of his joy arriving at the picnic. I will spend the rest of my life weighing the moment.

Story #2

           My son Edward Salim is five years old, and it is time for him to learn about his heritage. 

           I had been drilling him off and on for a year to count in Arabic and to say thank you and you’re welcome. Shortly before, I had been the beneficiary of a wonderful instructor in Arabic at Westchester (N.Y.) Community College.

           Edward’s Syrian picnic turns out to be a Middle Eastern restaurant in Tarrytown run by a gentle and patient man known as Suleiman. He reminds me of my father when I was very young. Suleiman’s experience with his restaurant is a lesson in being true to thyself.
          He opened his doors to the hostility or indifference of many local people, then tried to ingratiate himself and save his business by offering ham-and-egg breakfasts and white-bread lunches. The tactic failed, and he returned to serving the fine Arabic foods he originally had intended. The restaurant hobbled along, supported by a handful of loyal customers and an enthusiastic band of county Arabs who would descend on weekend evenings. Two laudatory reviews swept new and continuing patronage in. Today Suleiman seems happy, if not overwhelmed, by his success.
          Edward Salim, along with his mother, younger brother and baby sister, is brought to the restaurant.
          “Is this a special occasion?” Edward asks as we enter. He knows it is and faces it with all the delight but none of the fear his father ever knew.
          Edward and the other children are surprisingly fond of the food placed before them — whipped salads of mashed eggplant and chick peas mixed with sesame paste, sprightly seasoned green beans, broiled chopped lamb rolled with bulgur, pilaf, round loaves of fluffy bread.
          The owner and his waiter, a tall, handsome Lebanese, make several trips to the table to hover and take pleasure as the food disappears. In the background from a tape recorder comes the perpetual screeching instruments and throaty groans of popular Arabic music. The sounds dissipate in the cotton rugs hung on the walls depicting dancing girls and desert oases.
          Suleiman returns to ask if his dishes were enjoyed. A Muslim, he conveys a tender persistence that there will be peace with the Jews in the Old World. He is told the evening is a special occasion for Edward, that we all pray for peace, that the food was extraordinary, that Edward has something to say to him. I coach my son in a whisper.
         “Shuk-ran,” Edward says shyly.
         “Ah, shuk-ran, shuk-ran (thank you),” says Suleiman. “Af-wahn!”
         Edward knows that means you’re welcome.
         Suleiman seems to be enjoying the moment as much as my father did wading in among the celebrants at the Syrian picnic.
         “Edward can do something else,” I say. “He can count.”
          The waiter has joined Suleiman. Both are intent on hearing every syllable. Edward, with only a trace of self-consciousness, begins.
         “Wah-hed, ith-nain, tha-la-thah, ahr-baah, khoom-sah…”
          Suleiman is beside himself with pleasure. The waiter is applauding. The daddy is proud to the point of tears. It is the kind of reception I had dearly hoped Edward would receive.
          Suleiman continues the count to 10. Edward echoes the numbers, though haltingly. Suleiman wanting to stretch the joy of the moment, continues to 15. I nod that Edward already had reached his academic summit. Suleiman understands and the visit ends with profuse thanks and praise and promises of reunions.
          Edward Salim, whose moods are normally reflected by wry and subtle tugs at the edge of the mouth or the lift of an eyebrow, beams this night.
          Welcome Edward. Join your father. Welcome to the pride, the beauty, the bewilderment that is your heritage.

Chapter 34 - Blind Date

I never wanted to be the regional sales manager for the famous shirt company. I hope the fellow who gets the job appreciates his spectacular good luck.
            What I know about shirts is that the makers seem to change the collar styles every few years after consulting with the tie people.  The tie people spend most of their time deciding whether to go fat or go thin. I’d been ignoring them both by sticking with Oxford button-downs.
            Yet it was suggested that I might inherit the position of regional sales manager, shirts. It was also hinted that I might find myself in a lovely high-rise apartment, with membership in the adjoining country club. Still other amenities of the good life were inferred by the raising of an eyebrow, a half-smile, lingering pressure during the handshake.
            The incumbent sales manager dangled these rewards the evening I presented myself in his living room for a date with his daughter. His wife was also there, but I couldn’t tell if she were an accomplice.
            The event was a blind date, arranged with fanfare by the wife of the family clergyman, in cahoots with my mother. Credentials of the two daters were swapped, follow-up calls made to say how fortunate I was — and my mother already was humming in anticipation of what she called “settling down.”
            Parents don’t realize that they spook young people with these rituals before they even get a chance to meet. So I arrived, already thoroughly spooked, only to be met by an offer to be set up for the rest of my 20-year-old life. Why, I wondered, was this man ready to give me the shirt off his back?
            His daughter entered the room. She was shy, as I was, and neither beautiful nor homely. A pretty cotton summer dress covered a figure not remarkably fat or skinny and therefore evidently attractive.  How important bodies seemed on a first date, if only to satisfy the imagination, to fire a distant passion. Her arms and face were tanned from hours around the country club pool. Her eyes sent several messages ­­–– tentativeness, warmth, expectation.
            I introduced myself, competing with her father for the floor, and she replied in kind, except her words were slow in coming. It took her several extra seconds to finally say, “I am very pleased to meet you,” rather than uttering the greeting as one extended word.  For all my youthful concerns about conformity, I did not mind Karen’s speech; in fact, it gave her an appealing vulnerability.
            “Karen’s a little slow spitting the words out,” said her father as soon as she finished, “but she has a beautiful mind. Isn’t that right, Gladys?”
            The girl’s mother nodded, and Karen blushed through her tan.
            “Karen happens to be an excellent artist,” her father said. “After the movie and your snack, she’ll take you into her room and show you some of her work.”
            I was by then feeling vague pangs of both pity and lust, which did nothing to reduce the scorn I also felt for Karen’s father. It did not occur to him — worse, it did — that he was demanding his daughter show a strange young man her etchings.
            We went on the date, following the itinerary dictated by the father, the regional sales manager — first to the movies and then to a delicatessen for a Saturday night snack. It was difficult to shake the memory of the deal the father tried to strike, even before his daughter and I were introduced, or the insensitivity and desperation of the parents.  Still, we managed to have a good time.
            Once during the movies, and then again walking in the faint light to the restaurant, we held hands for a while.  When we became self-conscious, we stopped. I became impressed that Karen showed no bitterness toward her father and mother, but talked of them with tolerance and affection, as if to say, in their own way they needed taking care of, too.
            We talked about schools and jobs and vacation spots and sports, and Karen rarely paused or stuttered.  I leaped to the decision that she would enjoy her own apartment, being out on her own.  If she heard in my words condemnation of her parents, she kept it to herself, sweetly letting me know she was fine where she was.
            The evening was coming to an end. I would soon have to escort her home, and I was getting scared. I vowed not to enter her room, as lewdly suggested by her father. I could imagine the parents listening at the wall, shrugging shoulders at silence, nodding pleasurably at sighs.
            At the front door I paused, ready to flee. I also did not want another sales pitch before the night was over. But when the door swung open, the living room was empty and Karen invited me in.
            “I can’t. I’ve got to go. Thank you. I really had a good time.”
            She came close to me. There was nothing tentative or begging about the look in her eyes. It said, “We did have a good time. For a few hours, we meant something to each other. Now kiss me.”
            We kissed. We moved apart.  “You are lovely,” I said. She smiled. I felt doomed and happy, both at the same time.
            “Why won’t you call her up?” my mother kept asking in the following weeks. “You said you had a nice time and all.”
            The best I could tell her, with flippant coldness, was, “Look, I don’t want to sell shirts.”
            What I couldn’t say then, and can say now, is, “I met a girl, Mom, and she was fine, Mom, but she was too much a woman for a kid like me.”