My relationship to Lebanon is the relationship of a son to a war torn mother who has, under the heavy struggles of war, forgotten that her son even exists, but when he shows up, she hugs him unaware, with empty attention, while gazing to the fires and bombs in the horizon.
I was born a year after the country’s civil war has started, and grew up to the loud broadcasting of the news over the square TV with the distorted pictures of blood and destruction and very serious newscast sound. We received the newspaper daily to the house, and the big headlines were always negative news from Lebanon or Palestine.
There was always war. The modern history of Lebanon is a sequence of small battles and wars among everyone. The number of battles is almost equal to the number of possible combinations between all factions. Yet, we visited Lebanon almost every year in the summer.
My father is from Sour, called in English Tyre. Sour is a peninsula on the Mediterranean. Sun rises from the sea to greet the sailing fishermen every morning, and sets in the sea from the other side flickering its golden rays on the big arch of the ruins of its fort and old roman city, and greeting its farmers returning home after a hard day of work. Sour is a magical city, with kind people, and educated, smart, and religiously diverse inhabitants. Sour was mentioned in the bible 12 times, and is one of the oldest cities in history.
My mother is from Bintjbail, a city in the Mountains of Amel in South Lebanon, 300 meters above ground, embedded in the beautiful valleys of olive, fig, and almond trees, and orchards of grapes and tobacco.
When we went to Lebanon in the summer, it was only 2 hours away from Abu Dhabi airport. Dubai airport did not exist at that time, and when it was found, it wasn’t that popular yet. There was one airport in UAE, which was Abu Dhabi. I still remember the smell of humidity, sea salt, and the sweat of my father mixed with the finest French colognes. When we get to Lebanon, it was always hectic. The beeping, the chaos, the worry, the fear, the warmth, the multiple military presence, and the complication of everything, mixed with the complications of people.
Depends what year we visit, there would be different portraits in the airport, celebrating different personalities, and there would be a different uniform dressed forces. Also, it will make a difference in the number of check points, and their kind.
From the Syrian army, to the Syrian secret service, to the Lebanese Army, to Hezbollah, to Amal Party, to Alansar (who are fans of Jamal Abdulnasser), or Palestinians, to Lebanon Southern Army (the traitors), to the Israeli army. That is if you are going south. If you are going north, or up to the mountains, or down to Baalbak and the valley, there will be a different sequence of militias and armies, in a country that you can cross from North to South in about 4 hours if unobstructed.
I remember in one of the trips, we had to stop by 17 check points in a trip that is supposed to be 45 minutes from the airport to Sour. Every checkpoint has its own inclinations and questions. Some were on “our side”, others we were weary about their questions. Some needed a bribe, and others needed to search the bags.
At the end we settled with my family. My paternal grand mother was always the warm chest that received us. Charafeddines are very emotional family, and the amount of emotions shown to us in reception was over whelming.
Random boys playing on Korneich would gather around me and my brother, Hamoudi, and ask questions about America. Their eyes flickered with excitement.
“Did you see Michael Jackson?!”
“How are the girls there?!”
“Did you meet Rambo?!”
Going to America was not a common thing if you live in UAE in the 80’s. If you live in Khor Fakkan, that makes it even more unbelievable.
My mother would shop for most of our clothes from America. We dressed in American fashion most of the time. My mother is from the Bazzi family, from the city of Bintjbail in South Lebanon. Bintjbailers form the majority of immigrants from Lebanon in the Detroit area. Now they form the majority of Dearborn to an extent that you can call Dearborn a second Bintjbail.
The first Bazzi to immigrate to Dearborn did so in the late 1800’s. I didn’t know the story till I asked my uncle, Khattar, couple years ago. The reason I wanted to know is that of a racist Border Patrol Office at the Ambassador Bridge Canada-USA entry point. Here is the story:
I was crossing the border coming back from Canada with my wife and kids, coming back from Toronto. The Border Patrol Officer asked me how I got my citizenship since I wasn’t born in the U.S.
“I got it through my mother”
“And how did your mother get it?”
“She got it through her mother”, I said. I was waiting for the racist punch line.
“And how did she get it”
“I don’t know,” I said, and here it came:
“You see, it is like a rolling snowball”!
As far as I know, a rolling snowball has a negative connotation. It describes a negative event, not a positive one. The last thing I want to do as an Arab American, Muslim American, dark-bearded, Dearborn-living, UAE-born, citizen is to argue with a Border Patrol white officer with a blond mustache, and blue eyes, while his President is Trump. so I didn’t say anything. I am just waiting to pass in peace back to my country. The only government that gives me a hard time in passing is my government. The problem is, I can’t call the embassy when the border patrol officers are the harassers.
What I really wanted to reply is to ask him “How about you? How did you get your citizenship?”
And if he says I was born here, I would ask him how about your parents, and keep asking him till we find the immigrant grandparent, then I would say: “You see, it is a snowball effect”.
When I came back, I thought to myself, “How did my Grandmother get her citizenship?” So I decided to ask my uncle, and he told me the story that goes all the way back to 1870’s when the first Bazzi left Bintjbail and came to New York, then to Detroit. It turned out that we had veterans from World War I and World War II in the family, and that our family probably had deeper roots in the US than the blond mustached officer.
My maternal grandparents, Yousef Saleem Bazzi and Mariam Mohamad Saeed Bazzi had 6 girls and 3 boys. 2 of my aunts and two of my uncles were living in the US at that time along with my grandmother. We would visit and stay with my grandmother during different years.
My earliest recollection of such a visit, I was probably 7 or 8 years old. I remember the old bags, now called retro, with their so boxy feel and heavy exterior. I remember my father’s 80’s black mustache. I also remember the long trip in the smoking section of airplanes. Yes! Smoking section! Airplanes had smoking sections were people smoked in the airplane, and the ashtrays were attached to the arm handles. I remember getting sick in the airplane. We travelled mostly on British airways, and we stopped at Heathrow for few hours.
I don’t remember pleasant traveling experience to the USA. I mean the journey itself. My parents were always stressed, always over packed (just like most arabs), and seemed confused. They didn’t speak good English, and any change to the itinerary would throw them off. We mostly travelled with my mother, and my father followed, or left earlier.
My mom stresses out very easily over anything pretty much. I feel she is stressed by default. I don’t even recall her not stressed. The memory of her being stressed overwhelms everything else. I mean, it wasn’t all inherent or internal. Many of what stresses her out was out of her control, and due to dealing with all the non-expectancies of life, ill preparation, or lack of responsibility of others.
My maternal grandmother, Mariam, Im Fouad [mother of Fouad], is a wise well-read strong woman. She immigrated in the early 70’s to the U.S. with her younger daughters and sons, and established a life out of nothing, with no English, and no money. I am not very sure about the details, but I know that my grandfather has married a second wife while married to her, and that was the end of their relationship. Very soon, she found a way to flee the war torn region, and the dysfunctionality of the family, and start a new life in a new continent from scratch.
This time, which was the first trip to America I can recall, my father travelled with us at the same time, and we arrived to Detroit Metro Airport, where several relatives are waiting for us at the door of the gate. My mom hasn’t seen her family for years, and we pretty much didn’t know my grandma, aunts and uncles in America. Rare expensive phone calls were made, with poor quality, shouting across the line to make the other hear you, and then sending back and forth cassettes with voice recordings were the only ways of communciation. We gathered around the cassette player to hear my grandma or aunts speaking to us, in a one way, severely delayed, messages, but full of love and emotions. The reception in the airport was tearful, passionate, and dramatic.
My grandmother lived in a small second floor apartment of a small house in Detroit, above my great aunt (her sister Im Hassan). I think it was a two bedroom apartment. They gave us one bedroom to sleep in that barely fit a queen bed, and everyone else slept in the other room. I woke up to my mom’s unpacking the bags, and distributing gifts.
It was Detroit in the 70’s. Muscle cars, Holkogin and WWE wrestling, Michael Jackson, Madonna, the birth of Pop, and Detroit was devastated by the civil riots that took place in the 60’s. One of my uncles worked in a gas station while studying mechanical engineering, and the other worked as a security guard, guarding various locations as needed. My aunts worked in restaurants and went to school. It was a simple happy life. We became friends with some of the Arab kids in the neighborhood, and spent ourtime running around the neighborhood. But at night, it became dangerous, and we needed to be in doors before sunset.
Often the streets at night filled with cars with loud music, and African American guys and girls danced in the streets. Gunshots were familiar, and fights were random and frequent. Me and my brother Hamoudi were too innocent and young to understand racial divisions, tensions, racism, crime, and other American signature dishes. We just played with everyone, and took our dimes and nickels to the liquor store to buy delicious American candy.
Our relatives took us to parks, Niagara Falls, to Houston once, to california another, but I don’t remember out of these trips anything but exhaustion. Playing in the neighborhood with friends were more memorable, and eating pizza delivered by my aunt’s fiance was the most delicious meal ever.
Everytime we would visit America again in few years, my aunts and uncles would be older, more well off and established, and everyone in newer houses. America would be a little changed. Eventually, by the late 80’s, everyone was living in Dearborn, mostly white city at that time, with nice cars, degrees, few kids running around, and professions. My grandmother remained the rock around which everyone gathered and she unified the family and brought wisdom and stability to the group.
Abu Mohamad was the Natoor (guard) of the bank over which we lived and where my father worked as a bank manager. He stayed there for the afternoon and all night guarding the bank. In a village like Khorfakhan, that is pretty much the most boring job. I had lived in Khorfakhan for 6 years, never hearing police sirens once. There was literally no crime. As my dad was friends with the head of police, he came to our house occasionally. He was a very obese Emirati man, with a great sense of humor. I always thought as a child to myself: how is he going to run after a robber with his obesity?! I later understood that the chance of that was almost none.
In the afternoons of UAE, everyone sleeps. The sun becomes scorching hot, heating up the black mountains around it, making the city feel like an oven. The ground becomes so hot, that you can fry an egg on it. You barely can open your eyes. The Tropic of Cancer passes through UAE, which is the closest line to the sun on Earth half of the year. Wecan’t even touch the windows of the house. We used to play me and my brother Hamoudi by getting two pieces of ice cubes from the freezer and pushing them into the window and seeing how fast they would melt. If you were unfortunate enough to forget a plastic toy in the car during that time, mind as well you forget about it, because you will find it a coiled piece of melted plastic.
My parents slept in the afternoon. My brother slept too sometimes. I was left alone to figure out what to do. Remember, at that time, there were no cartoons on the one channel TV, no electronic games, and no internet. We would invent games. One of my favorite games was playing Muslim conquest. I would open my big Atlas and plan “opening” one city after another in the World. I just used my imagination, a towel as a cape, and a stick as a sword. I rode the back of the sofa as a horse and fought with imaginary warriors. That actually strengthened me in geography. It took years of playing this game before I finished the whole Atlas, hence occupying the whole world! I actually kept playing that game all the way till when we immigrated to Windsor. It is a game that grew with me, and there was a day when I thought I have to stop this, otherwise, it becomes some sort of schizophrenia. Not only that, but I had three generations of imaginary princes. Mohamad AlBaqir, then Jaafar AlSadiq, and then Mousa AlKazim. Yes, these were the names of my imaginary Muslim warriors, same as the names of the fifth, sixth, and seventh imams of Ahlulbait. I didn’t know them well at that time, but I got their names from the books we had in our library.
So back in Khorfakan in the mid 80’s, when I got tired of all my imaginary games and had no one to play with, I resorted to going down to Abu Mohamad and chatting with him. He would let us play in the empty bank. We were the children of the Bank manager at the end of the day! So he thought he could not get in trouble for it. Abu Mohamad used to listen to Sheik Abdulhamid Kishk. An Egyptian blind scholar who was one of the best speakers in the 20th-century Islamic world. His lectures were prohibited in UAE, as he was a pillar of the Muslim Brotherhood, but Abu Mohamad had cassettes of Sheik Kishk’s lectures. We would listen to him together, and he would pause and explain to me what the Sheik was saying. I think that was one of the things that shaped my childhood and primed my devotion to Islam and Islamic work later in life.
One of the perks of working as a bank manager at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi for my father was that he received a paid family vacation every year. The bank covers the costs of tickets to our selected destination. Hence, we alternated between Lebanon and America every year, for most of our relatives were in Lebanon and in Dearborn, Michigan.
Since no one in the family remembers when were those travels, I will have to check my mother’s old passport, which I will include in the next chapter.
Between the mountains and the sea, the breeze goes back and forth, alternating in the direction between night and day, elevating some of the torture of the hot perpendicular rays of the sun in the daytime, and the other torture of the high humidity at night.
We played on the Kournish Thursday nights till we were exhausted. We either went back home biking, or we met our parents in whichever house of a family they were spending time with that night.
We would play soccer, build castles, find dead fish, occasionally helping fishermen pulling their nets from the sea, creating obstacle courses with bicycles, throwing stones, discovering new things, attacking abandoned houses after creating myths about them to scare ourselves, eating berries off the best berry trees in the area, and if we met a new boy, we would discover him and it would be a very exciting Thursday night for us. We would gather around him asking him questions, listening to his stories, till there was nothing more to know about him. It was like an initiation to friendship. I experienced that myself moving from one city to another when the students in a new class would gather around me and shower me with questions. In few minutes, you would make 10’s of new friends and few best friends.
If you grew up in UAE at that time, you grew up knowing and loving Sheik Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of UAE, and the ruler of Abu Dhabi, as well as the President of UAE. He was commonly named Baba Zayid because of his fatherly love and figure to all the Emirates. He was one of the wise tribal leaders who is only remembered for his positive accomplishments and kind leadership, true to the Arabic and Islamic issues. UAE was very stable and growing fast during his time.
During that time (1983-1986), there were two major events in the Middle East: The first was the Iraqi-Iranian war which took place just across the Persian Gulf (we called it Arabian Gulf). The second was the Israeli occupation of Lebanon all the way to Beirut and the birth of the Islamic and Lebanese resistance in Lebanon. Both these wars had direct effects on my family and our surroundings.
While playing on the kournish one Wednesday night (because our school had that Thursday off coincidently), I, Hamoudi my brother, and Islam my Egyptian friend, found a little yellow metal container that looked like a fire extinguisher being washed ashore by the dark salty waves. Anything that entered our space, new and different, got all of our attention, having nothing else to entertain ourselves with on that stranded pseudo-island.
It was heavy, and we started playing with it. It had writings in English, and picture instructions that showed a picture of an explosion at the end. I told Islam to throw it away because it seemed dangerous, but we couldn’t resist following the instructions. While implementing the instructions step by step, unlocking the head cover, pulling some strings, up to pressing a red button, we were laughing out loud, thinking that we found a bazooka.
Well, less than a second from us laughing and Islam pressing the red button, it seemed that a year passed. Although much of the details have been blocked in my memory due to the shock, all I remember that there was a big explosion. Lucky enough the bomb was directional and it flew right into the sea before it exploded inside in the ocean and covered the surface of the sea with a huge field of fire, that was meters high.
I also remember that I was running as fast as I can. Islam was running too. Hamoudi was nowhere to be found. Islam’s hand burnt because he was the last person holding the bomb before it went off. We ran about a mile far. Then we looked around us for Hamoudi nowhere to be found. We were looking at the fire. Did something happen to Hamoudi?! And then we see his silhouette with the fire behind him, running towards us. For some reason, Hamoudi pretended that he was dead after the explosion. But when he received no attention because no one was there, he got up and ran towards us.
Hamoudi arrived, and all of us were breathing crazy hard, then we looked at each other, covered with sand, and water (due to the big splash in the ocean of the explosion), we cracked up and started laughing hysterically. We decided to go to the little police office on the Korneich and inform the police.
We went in, and an Emirati police officer with a big belly in front of him was sitting in the airconditioned room watching TV. He probably has never dealt with any situation ever. Khorfakan is a very quiet safe city with a small population. We were little scared of talking to him, but he was smiling and joking with us. We told him that we found something that looked like a fire extinguisher and we played with it, but it exploded. He said he was wondering what was that loud explosion sound. He promptly called more units using his two-way radio.
In few minutes, after people heard the explosion, people gathered at the kournish, as well many police units arrived. We were looking at people talking, making up rumors and theories. Us being in third or fourth grades, could not really tell the people gathered that it was us who found and caused the explosion. The police shut down the kournish, and they combed the whole beach finding multiple of these devices. We later knew that it was dropped from ships carrying weapons to the Persian gulf. Islam went home because he needed some medical attention for his hand. Me and Hamoudi went home and decided not to tell mother so we don’t get a good old Arabic beating for being trouble makers.
When we arrived home, my mom ran to the door and she was shocked and terrified. She hugged us and made sure we were ok. She said that the police called and asked them to bring us to the police station to collect our statements. My father came back, and he was a little angry for us “causing trouble”. If you are a boy in an Arabic house, you never want the police to call home and ask for or about you. It is a tabboo. The police first asked that we go to the hospital to be checked. Then we went to the police station so they would take our statements. My father, being the Manager of National Bank of Abu Dhabi in Khorfakan (basically where all the police salaries are banked), knew everyone, and received so much respect from the police officers. They were cracking jokes about us, and about Lebanese and bombs.
This remained as a single memory that never will be erased. And we were lucky that we survived it. Death brushed our hair on that day. Our lives would have been completly changed if Islam was not pointing the bomb to the sea. The sea saved us.
One of the names that I will never forget. My brother from a different mother. A dark-skinned Alexandrian boy from Egypt with an amazing sense of humor, as it is common among Egyptians. Islam had no siblings, and I was his best friend. His family treated him like I am his brother. I was one of them. The kindness and compassion that his parents overflowed with to me were heartwarming .. one of the things which made me who I am today.
Let me talk to you about al-hanan… an Arabic word that translates to a mix of kindness, love, tenderness, kindliness, care, warm-heartedness, and a million other words that cover every bit and piece of those feelings. It translates as language, but it doesn’t translate as an emotion to the West. This word is not translatable to English because it is not about language. Language is there to symbolize something that exists. The famous Arabic poet, Nizar Qabani expresses his yearning to the hanan in his letter poem Five Letters to My Mother:
I am alone.
The smoke of my cigarette is bored,
and even my seat of me is bored
My sorrows are like flocking birds looking for a grain field in season.
I became acquainted with the women of Europe,
I became acquainted with their tired civilization.
I toured India, and I toured China,
I toured the entire oriental world,
and nowhere I found,
a Lady to comb my golden hair.
A Lady that hides for me in her purse a sugar candy.
A lady that dresses me when I am naked,
and lifts me up when I fall.
Mother: I am that boy who sailed,
and still longes to that sugar candy.
So how come or how can I, Mother,
become a father and never grow up.
From the hanan of my parents, to the overwhelming Charafeddine hanan, rooted deeply in the history of our family from Ahlulbait, the family of the Prophet that has been cloaked with tragedies, and manifested in my Grandmother, to the hanan of the parents of my frirends Islam and Firas, to the hanan of the warm salty beach that carresses the white sand softly, to the hanan of the sounds of Azan jumping playfully on the rocks of the mountains of khrofakhan … to the hanan of the oldmen eyes siting at a cafe bench watching us pass by … we were submerged with Hanan.
I never will forget an incident that happened to me when once I went to buy my Mother something from the supermarket. While coming back, I decided to take the side streets among the communal popular old houses. These streets are usually sandy and only lit by the small lamps above the metallic doors. I got a little scared for it was dark. I started running. While I was running, there was a construction metal piece coming out of the ground that hit my feet. It cut me right between my toes. I was bleeding. I dropped the merchandise from the bag. I collected them gently back into the plastic bag while limping on a bleeding foot. In that condition, one of the doors nearby opened. A middle-aged woman came out with thick glasses and Egyptian style hijab. She said: “What is wrong ya Mama?”
The word Mama entered my ears and comforted all my nerves. I didn’t need to speak, and she didn’t wait for an answer after seeing what answered her inquiry. She came to me and looked at my feet, and held my hand and pulled me to her house like a panicking mother. She was talking to me, but I don’t remember what she said anymore. But I remember she gave me a glass of water to drink and she was cleaning my foot from sand and blood, applied antibiotic (red medicine we used to call it), and bandaged it. She offered to call home, but I told her I can just walk home. I left. Never saw her again, nor I know her name. But she gave me another injection of hanan that would last me a lifetime.
The mosque was so close to our house like I mentioned before. Upon hearing from my teacher that praying in the mosque is 24 times better than praying at home, I started rushing to pray in the mosque everytime I hear the Azan. I went to the mosque so much and was the youngest person praying in the mosque, that the Imam visited my father to inquire if there were problems at home that I am fleeing from. My father expressed while laughing that there is nothing wrong at home and that I just loved praying in the mosque.
We learned French and English at the Emirates School in addition to Arabic off course. The French didn’t go well. The teacher gave up and quit. We stopped learning French, but still learned English, rarely used in the U.A.E. at that time.
One of the teachers was really proactive in the school, and she formed the Scholastic Police. She got us hats and scarves. Being the oldest class in the school, and I think I am talking third grade now, we were naturally the Scholastic Police. We were supposed to patrol the school and ensure that students didn’t go to the back of the school during lunch or recess and that they stay in the field. She nominated me as the captain of the police since I was very popular among my class and had good grades, but I refused. I wanted to reserve the right to be a bad boy. Being captian of the police brings too much attention. She appointed Mohamad, a boy whose father is an Emirati Sheik and his mother is a Filipino. Mohamad was the richest kid in school and his father was feared for being a deputy minister so no teacher would get Mohamad mad. Once Mohamad was sick, and we went a field trip to visit his house. It was a huge mansion with unlimited toys. Anyways, soon enough, we were using our positions in the Scholastic Police to allow our friends to go play in the back of the school. Nobody would listen to Captain Mohamad since he really had no real leadership. The whole idea backfired on the teacher, and the Principal canceled the Scholastic Police. We kept the hats and scarves.
I had an Egyptian classmate called Ayman. Ayman went to buy something from the store with his bike, and a car struck him and he died. We were too young the understand the concept of death, and it was pretty much my first experience with it. The school went into mourning. Teachers were crying, and they played Quran in the school for few days. They were monitoring us to see if any of us are traumatized or deeply affected, but we weren’t. Nevertheless, we were under so much pressure to be deeply affected! Sitting in the field listening to Quran while our heads are down, Islam leans towards me and says: “pretend that you are crying”.
I don’t know how to pretend emotions. It is one of my problems I guess. My face shows what I truly feel. This has caused me so much trouble in life, but I like it. Early trouble is better than late trouble. I really don’t feel the tragedy of death, since it is inevitable. What is 100% predictable, cannot be surprising. I have always, and still do feel that way. The only concern I had was that Ayman borrowed my notebook on his last day of school. I was thinking it is impossible to get it back then. I never tried.
We had nothing in Khorfakan but each other, as friends, to keep ourselves busy and entertained. There was no TV, except one channel that played cartoons for a maximum of one hour a day. There were no electronic games. There was not one single swing in the city or slide. Soccer balls were rare. My father bought me one from Dubai. There was no theater, no gym, no soccer fields, no arcades, no parks, no toy stores, no children clubs. There was nothing but the mountains, the ocean, and your friends. Friends became an integral part of seeing and experiencing life. This became a deep characteristic of me. I had a hard time shed it away later on in life.
We would climb the mountain or play at the beach. We would bike to each other’s houses. The city was safe. We would just leave our bikes on the street, and they would never be stolen. We never needed chains. “Muslims don’t steal”. That is what we thought. We thought that stealing, adultery, murder, and paganism were things before Islam. There was so much trust.
Next time I will tell you when we played with the bomb till it went off on the beach!
The bus picks me and my brother Mohammed, who we nicknamed Hamoudi, (as it is commonly done to the name Mohammed in the Arabic world, the most popular name in the world), every day in the morning. As our apartment is on the beach, we wait under its breeze and the mountain view on the other side. I remember the serenity of those mornings when whoever left of the fishermen that are still tidying their boats after the dawn’s auction at the fishermen’s market, are making the settle sounds in the distance along the seagulls.
As I reflect back on my memories of the school bus, I wish that our seating was not assigned. We had a bus supervisor, an old Egyptian woman, with a tight scarf and thick glasses, that was mean and ultra-serious. We took the bus about 3 years and didn’t have a chance to make new friends due to the assigned seating, and no talking policy. We talked anyways, but in a low voice, otherwise, we would risk our ears being pulled, the favorite torture method of that teacher. We took that 30 minutes road from Khorfakkan to Fujairah so many times, that we memorized everything. The number of signs on our way, the number of villages we passed through, their names, and how many cars we can spot in them, the Bedouin tents at the bottom of the mountains, always with luxury cars parked next to them. We got to a point where we would pick a color, and count everything that we passed through that had that color. We would get ecstatic if we were allowed to change our seats and sit next to someone else, especially my friends Islam and Firas.
Islam is an Egyptian boy from Alexandria, with a super kind father and mother from Egypt. We met in grade 2 but became friends after a fight on the bus that broke out between me and him. Boys tend to become friends after they fight. It is kind of a settlement of the alpha dominance within a group. Once it gets violent and they realize they are equal, they become friends. I scratched his face by accident with a silver bracelet I was wearing while swinging at him. Remember, we were 7 years old. It showed on his face during all the years I have known him, and he used to call it the deposit of friendship. I and Islam became lifelong friends. You will hear his name often from here out.
I also met Firas in 2nd grade. He is a tall, big built, Syrian boy, father from Homos and mother from Halab (Aleppo). We also became friends after a fight. Both Islam and Firas lived in Khorfakkan, so we took the bus together every morning and afternoon. Here is how I fought with Firas and got to become friends. After the first trip, I wanted to secure a better seat on the way back, so I ran to the bus after school and reserved a seat next to the window all the way on the back. It happened to be Firas’s morning seat. I left my bag on it to reserve it and stepped out. He walked in, removed my bag, and sat on it. I walked in and told him to move his a#$. He wouldn’t. The conversation got heated, and with a large audience, I found myself swinging at Firas. After few minutes of fighting to no avail, the supervisor came, so we had to break it off. Firas continued to sit on that golden seat. The bus moved. Everyone is quiet. In few minutes, Firas taps me on my shoulder and offers me the seat. He has one of the kindest hearts. We became lifelong friends. He lives now in Mississauga, and we do visit occasionally.
I, Firas, and Islam became friends. We lived the next few years in Khorfakan finding adventures together and discovering the corners of this beautiful village. The most common area and perhaps the only area to go out to was the corniche (the corniche is a French name given to a street that faces the beach or a boardwalk at the beach). Along the beautiful cost of the Gulf of Oman, the corniche had restaurants lined up along it, and open areas for children to play.
There were no playgrounds and the open area we’re not done yet it seeming that it was supposed to be completed with planted grass and palm trees but that never happened during our time there. Since Friday is the only day off in UAE (being an Islamic country), people go out on Thursday nights. I and my friends would go out to the corniche on Thursday nights walking and figuring out what we’re gonna do that night. We went with the flow; if there were guys playing soccer we played soccer. We were spontaneous. There were absolutely no activities for children in Khorfakan nor is any playground or sports program to accommodate them. We would meet at the mosque and then we would leave to play with our bicycles or with a soccer ball or find out what to do between the houses.
The Emirates school I went to in the city of Fujairah was an Islamic Elementary little private school. It was a new school and it’s focused on a strong curriculum including Islamic studies and 40 and language was recently established so when I went into it in great too I was basically The highest class in the school we grew up here after year being the oldest children in the school so much responsibility was put on us as a role model’s and as the students who would implement any programs or activities the school came up with.
When the school was first designed and they designed a little prayer area next to every class from the prayer area has a green rug and it was very well lit with large mosaic windows that let the sun in with the spectrum of color that added to the spirituality of such a place. As the school expanded, they converted these prayer areas into other classrooms, and we would pray in another area in the school.
The Emirates School was modern compared to the building of that time. It had a great auditorium, library, a large area in the middle where students would assemble every morning in the Taboor, which literally meant a line of people. Every class would line up from shortest to tallest with their first-hour teacher in front of them, and the school would start with a recitation of Quran, the national anthem, wise word of the day, perhaps a hadeeth (oral tradition of prophet Mohamed), and a word by the Principal.
Most of the teachers were religious, well-educated, middle-class Egyptian women. The expression used in Egypt to describe an older sister is “Abla”. We called the teachers Abla’s. The term is Turkish meaning an older sister. As the Ottoman Empire ruled the Islamic WOrld, Turkish words are common in the Arabic slang.
The school took pride in its Islamic teachings. Our religion class at the elementary level was taught by an Islamic Sheik (scholar) who came to teach us from the Mosque. Sometimes, the bus would take us to the Mosque to learn Qu
ran there. The Sheik was also from Egypt. I feel now that they were all sympathizer if not members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but that is not something strange given that the Muslim Brotherhood was basically the default organization of any Islamic activism in the Islamic world then. Actually all the Islamic movements afterward, Sunni and Shia, have stemmed, by a way or another, from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The word khor in Arabic means a cove … the little extension of water into land, as if the ocean has extended its tongue to lick something off the shore. The word fakkan is the dual form (in Arabic there is singular, plural, and dual forms for each word) of the word fakk which means a jaw. So the word Kharfakkan means the cove of the two jaws, which is what you will see if you look at an Aerial photo of this town.
Being 7 years old, the memory fails me to remember our first days in Khorfakkan except for the beautiful orange shingles covered villa we moved in that was a couple streets away from the beach. We lived in that villa for few months before the construction of the new Bank building in which our new apartment awaited us.
Khorfakkan was a very small city at that time with no parks. It had one of everything… one vegetables and fish market, one hotel (Holiday Inn at that time), one hospital, one police station, one fire department, one library, one port, one beach, one Lebanese restaurant, and one crazy homeless man who roamed the Corniche [The Dictionary defines Corniche as ‘awindingroadcutintothesideofasteephilloralongthefaceofa coastalcliff’ but it means in modern Arabia the beach board walk because, I guess, there is no Arabic word for that]. It had lots of mosques off course, just like everywhere in the Middle East.
You see in Islam, there is a tremendous reward and incentive for building a mosque. It is narrated that the Prophet said:
“Whoever builds a masjid [mosque] for Allah [God], even if as small as a sandgrouse nest [a type of desert bird], or smaller, Allah builds a house for him in Paradise”,
which kind of guarantees entry into paradise (otherwise Paradise will be a ghost city with so many vacant houses whose owners are burning in hell!). Also, it is one of the few things after a person’s death that keep on paying up rewards to the deceased … at a time, it is perceived, as most needed (read more about the Torture of the Grave – scary music cue).
Also, it is easy to build a mosque in Islam, since it is basically a non-decorated empty room. Actually, according to Islamic law, all a person have to do is name a piece of land as a mosque, and it becomes a mosque till the day of judgement.
Oh ya… and no one is allowed to change a status of a mosque and it is not owned by people once it becomes a mosque. It is owned by God, and we all know that no foreclosure is taking place there! [Waly AlFaqih can change the status of a mosque since he represents God in Shia Islam and the Khalifeh in Sunni Islam]
Add to that a rule in Islam that a person has the right to pick a piece of land that is unused, nor in the way of anyone else, and fix it, and consider it his [This is called in Islamic Jurisprudence Ihya’ Al-Mawat (the Revival of the Dead Earth), and which the UAE government adhered to]… and you end up with an ever increasing number of mosques.
Mosques are community gathering centers. Unlike churches, they are well lit. Conversations are encouraged after prayer, and kids always enjoy running in this empty big, usually well carpeted, well air-conditioned hall. They play tag. Their minds and hearts open with the openness of space. Their imagination flourishes with the lack of external stimulus other than arabesque designs, plant ornamentation, and maybe extravagant chandeliers. Mosques played a big role in my childhood as you will see as we proceed.
The house we moved to in Khorfakkan, was right next to Abu Bakr Mosque … I mean about 5 meters next to the mosque. The speakers of the mosque shaked the house at the time of Azan [vocal call for prayer] five times a day. Unfortunately, the Azan guy had a really bad voice … but it was his job .. as assigned by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in UAE.
You see in UAE, the Sheikh (head of monarchy … equivalent to a king) appoints all the ministers, and the ministers appoint all the positions, down to the Azan guy. All mosques are run by the General Authority of Islamic Affairs And Endowments which is appointed by the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs. No one is allowed to preach or open their mouth in the mosque without approval of the ministry, and don’t waste your time, don’t try to get anything approved … because you will be tainted with conspiracy, and evicted of the country if you are not an expatriot.
But it is a great thing, because it does not allow for all the chaos of Islamic movements, speakers, extremists, and sectarianism. All preachers get the guidelines from the ministry, get their sermons pre approved, and then read it to the people. I think that this is one of the secrets of success of the United Arab Emirates … it is the castration of Islam and the complete deprivation of political involvement of people.
Abu Bakr mosque next to my house had one Friday sermon which I heard over and over again for 6 years. Well, if you live in my house, whether you go to Friday prayer or you don’t, you will hear the sermon. In the bedroom, in the living room, in the shower, or sleeping with two pillows plugging your ear … you will hear the sermon!!! And it is exactly the same sermon, word by word … and I memorized it after hearing it for 1000’s of times.
At anycase, we moved from our house with the red bricks, orange shingled roof, to the house above the bank, next to Abu Bakr Mosque … and we lived there for 6 years! That is from my grade 2 to 7. My sister was born there. It is the city that shaped me forever!
We learnt Islam in schools from Kindergarten. We memorized the short Surahs (chapters of Quran) and recited them like Christmas carols. We heard short stories of the prophets and day dreamed about them. And we studied the Seerah (personal history) of the Prophet at a very young age and it was our bed times stories or in some cases, fantasies.
One of these short stories is the story of prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and how he destroyed the idols of his people during their festival, in which he pretended to be sick to be left behind. Another story was the Prophet (the prophet here forth will mean Prophet Mohamad) destroying the idols surrounding Kaaba after the “Opening of Mecca” (the word opening – fateh in Arabic – is used for Islamic major conquest).
You have to be a son of a United Arab Emirates native male to be considered an Emiraty or to have the UAE citizenship. An Emirati mother won’t do, nor is being born there. It is a tribal society with all the pride and prejudice that come with its definition. Only about 11% of the country’s population are Emiratis. The majority actually (0ver 50%) are a working class South Asian … that is Indian, Pakistani, Bangali, Afghani, and others. We as foreigner Arabs were called “expatriates”. Most Emaratis and expatriates had servants, and so did we. We had a servant whose name was Leila, from Sri Lanka. In my opinion, it was just a modern form of slavery. The abuse of human rights inscripted in the work contracts for those servants is shocking, although the economic value to them is great.
At any case, Leila was a hindu, and I walked to her room with my brother Moe when in Ajman when I was about 7 years old, and found her kneeling down to one of the african antique wood sculptures my mom bought for our living room. She was practicing her religion, but given my little child indoctrination about idol worshipping infidels, and the influence of all the “idol destroying” heroes of my childhood, add to that a lack of education about tolerance, I found it an opportunity to do what Prophet Ibrahim did, and me and my brother Moe attacked the idols and smashed them across the wall, destroying them, and shouting “ALLAHU AKBAAAR”.
Leila cried, probably not because of our blasphemous act, but maybe because she thought she will get in trouble. My parents had a confidential talk with her. But then, we had a good traditional warm from the oven slipper beating (Arabs don’t use grounding as punishment) by our Mom for destroying her living room ornaments.
In 1982-1983, a new branch of National Bank of Abu Dhabi was opening in a small village called Khorfakkan, and my father was promoted to be a branch president and requested to move to it. A very important chapter of my childhood started in this small city surrounded and pushed by mountains into the dark blue of the Gulf of Oman. I was moving to Grade 2, and my brother Moe was entering kindergarten. There were no private schools in Khorfakkan. The closest city with a private school (25 minutes drive) was Fujairah. The tales of two cities unknown to most humans at that time started for me and my brother Moe.
With a look of despair, Jesus looked down at me from his big wooden cross that was
mounted on the wall next to the principal’s office at the Rosary School in Abu Dhabi. That was my first encounter with Christianity. My parents, wanting to give me a better education, enlisted me for Kindergarten in 1980, into a catholic school that was known for its rigorous education. The headmaster was a Lebanese nun, so my parents–being Lebanese themselves–got along really well with her. I don’t recall anything afterwards except bleeding from my ear.
Oh, you want to know about that?! Ok, so at this point, this will turn PG-13, so if you have any children around, stop reading aloud (it would actually be weird if you are doing so!). Here is the story: I did something wrong. I wrote the letter WOW in Arabic from bottom up (Yes! We do have a letter WOW in Arabic, and we also have a letter YAA!!!!, but you will never learn these cool letters because they come after the letters KKHAAA and TDHAAAD and GHghayn so you will probably give up early on in the Arabic alphabet before you get to them). Apparently, there was an international agreement that I missed that resolved to
write the WOW from top to bottom. I was called to the blackboard. I think that was the first public performance in my life. After I finished writing the WOW, the teacher stared at me in anger! She fumed! I couldn’t understand why. It is the first letter of my name, so I was sure I wrote the right letter. – She came up to me and snatched my ear with her fingers, pulled, twisted, and squeezed with the all the might that the Lord Jesus Christ has bestowed upon her. Her fingernail went into my flesh and I bled. Well, now I write my WOW from top to bottom, so well done Sister! My father actually came to school and all I remember is his stance at the door with his black suit and his manly full moustache next to the headmaster, while the teacher apologized to me in front of the class. I don’t know which experience was more traumatizing to me: the public ear-pinching or the public apology of my teacher who will continue to teach me for the rest of the year in humiliation!
As a branch manager of the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, a newly expanding government bank in a newly formed country (1973 was the formation of the United Arab Emirates), my father had to move a lot, accepting promotions and managing new branches.
In 1981, we moved.
Sand and beach … that is what fills my early childhood memories in a place called Ajman. Amidst that canvas of sand and salty beach under the scorching sun, I can barely recall other memories. They are all happy images of playing on the beach between the sand and the sun. I went to the Ajman Model Elementary School in first grade. I recall nothing from the school, except my box of pencils and instruments that had the Arab World map on it.
You see, we were raised with the notion that all of the Arab World was one world which we were the citizens of. We have been submerged into concepts of Pan-Arabism and Islamic identity from childhood, and this was the way in which we perceived the world. This ideal happy vision of one Arab world, with no borders, intertwined itself like a vines over our innocence. Both chattered together once we were at an age that required a passport.
Wait, I have a memory that I think I should not skip: of when I broke the idols and shouted “Allahu Akbar”. Here is the story.