It was a snowy Wednesday February 5th in 1948 when Rob and Jessie Meinke’s first child, a boy, was finally born at 5:20 pm after a long night and day’s labor. The high for the day was only 34 degrees and it had showered snow all day.
Rob and Jess had gotten to West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park late in the evening of the 4th. They were living at 741 N Long Avenue, Jessie’s family home in Chicago, just a mile from West Suburban hospital. Jessie was a month and a half away from turning 21 and Rob had turned 25 a month earlier.
And so there I was. A noisy baby. With hair (which hasn’t lasted). The first of the second generation of the Mackenzie line in the US and the second of the Meinkes third US generation.
Upstairs on Long Avenue lived my Uncle John Mackenzie and his wife, Aunt Verba. They had married in September 1942, a few short weeks before my grandmother Margaret Maclennan Mackenzie died of breast cancer and sepsis.
It wasn’t long before I was moving around. That hasn’t changed: since February 5th 1948, I’ve lived in 23 different homes in the US, England, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. From 1969 to 1988, I actually spent 17 years living in the Middle East.
I’ve been: a church painter on the Navajo reservation at Nazlini in Arizona; a student for more years than I care to remember; a graduate student in theology and in linguistics; a researcher for the Palestine Research Center; a teacher of English as both a second language and as a foreign language; a management trainer; a treasury manager in a Kuwaiti bank; an instructor of colloquial Arabic and culture; a night desk clerk at a somewhat raunchy Red Roof Inn; a mid-career US foreign service specialist; manager of an Arabic software company’s US office; a resident in the Kuwaiti desert; finance and administration director for a cancer support organization; founder of two LGBTQ nonprofit organizations; and a volunteer docent and museum staff person.
My given name is Mark William Meinke. I have been called “Marky” in the family, but mostly Mark. As well as assorted names that are often represented by asterisks! And the occasional “Hey you!”
Yet for some reason, people outside the family often seem to think I must be “Mike”, maybe because it seems to go with the vowels in “Meinke”. Unfortunately in our family that name was already taken by my cousin Mike, born the same year as me. Most recently, on a listing for my 50th college reunion’s memoir of my summer of 1969, the link to continue the story read “continue reading Mike’s story online”. After 70 some years, I guess I should be used to this.
At grade school in Clarendon Hills, Illinois by second grade teacher, Mrs. Loomis, called me Mike Marky for an entire year and then did it again when I had her in sixth grade at the Prospect School. My brother Gary had even worse luck because he also had Mrs Loomis who called him “Mike Marky’s brother”. If that doesn’t ruin a sibling relationship, not much else will.
Of course my youngest brother had it even worse. Steve was often called Gary by his uncles and aunts and cousins and other people. They did look a bit alike (they both had that Pictish look of the Mackenzies, my mother’s family). But it aggravated Steve to be so often addressed as “Gary”.
When I became a Muslim in 1973, I took the name “Musa’ab” in honor of the early Muslim ambassador Musa’ab ibn Umayr. Luckily that wasnt often confused with anyone else. I then became Musa’ab Meinke.
When I returned to the States and began studying and practicing Soto Zen Buddhism, I adopted the name Issan, in honor of San Francisco’s Issan Dorsey who founded the Zen hospice there. No confusion there, either!
When I was very much younger, I had headaches. Bad headaches. Migraines! As a kid in grade school, I would sometimes have to go and sit in a darkened room and wait for it to pass. Aspirin and other analgesics didn’t help. Then, in high school, I saw a doctor who identified the worst of the headaches as migraines and educated me about controlling them. He taught me to watch for the pre-migraine ‘aura’ of feeling heightened sensitivity to sound and light. He also told me that I should give up coffee and chocolate because they were triggers.
THAT didn’t happen. Coffee and chocolate are two of my favorite addictions! No way was I going to stop revelling in those.
As I moved on into college and graduate studies, the migraines continued. They finally tapered off in my early 40s though I haven’t a clue why. When I lived in Kuwait I had some really stupendous migraines that I dealt with by lying in freezing cold water in a bathtub with the lights off. Earlier in Cairo I had to take cold showers since there was no bathtub. The dark and the coldness would usually wind down a migraine peak after a couple of hours. But of course, the migraines lasted a couple of days, waxing and waning in a process I knew but didn’t understand.
But along the way a weird thing happened. I somehow acquired the ability to help others with headaches by massaging away their headaches. Initially, I just ran my hands alongside the temples of their heads until their headaches dissipated. Unfortunately, I also ended up acquiring the other person’s headache. Luckily these didn’t turn into migraines and I could deal with them by taking aspirin and other analgesics.
Over time, I discovered that I didn’t have to actually put my hands on a person with a headache. I could achieve the same relief by moving my hands back and forth alongside their temples without touching the head, a process taht might go on for a quarter or half an hour. In fact, this non-touching method didn’t seem to transfer the headaches to me either.
When I moved back to the States in my 40s, my migraines dwindled and so did my role i relieving others of their headaches. I don’t know whether I can still do it but I haven’t tried it for twenty years or so. The last person I did the headache relief for was my late partner Ed Norris.
Ed Norris died about 8:45 am on Thursday April 3rd 1997, a beautiful bright spring morning.
I had been upstairs in the bathroom getting the water and towels ready for bathing Ed before going to work when his mother Miss Addie called loudly from his bedside in the living room. I scrambled down the stairs and found her bending over Ed from whom a rattling sound came with his breathing. “He’s going”, she said. We stood on opposite sides of Ed holding his hands and recited the Lord’s Prayer. I told him it was okay for him to go and both Miss Addie and I started crying. And then he was gone.
We made the necessary calls and then Miss Addie and I both folded in on ourselves in a silent mourning. Mrs Snowden from next door came over to be with Miss Addie and Glen Conrad, a friend and CNA who had looked after Ed periodically, came by to be with me. Our visiting nurse came over shortly before the men from the Stewart funeral home came for Ed.
In the summer of 1996, Ed had fallen on the stairs at the offices of the DC Public Schools and had ever since had a sore back. For the longest time those two events were connected in his mind and mine. He had had massages and accupuncture and repeated visits to physical therapy and nothing seemed to alleviate the discomfort.
We were in the fifth year of our relationship, living in Ed’s house on 18th Street NE in DC. Ed was the first man I had met who made me want to spend the rest of my life with him. We had met in 1991 at Mr P’s, a gay bar on P St near DuPont Circle in DC. In midsummer I moved in with him. Our February birthdays were only three days apart and we clicked in many ways. The year 1996 had seen a great deepening of our relationship.
By the autumn of 1996, the back issue clearly wasn’t going away or getting better. Ed’s doctor finally decided to send him for xrays. Over Thanksgiving Ed was just worn out (being principal of a school in DC will do that) so we had a quiet meal at home with just his Mom and her husband Ike Garland. About the beginning of December, I think, the xray analysis came home with Ed. It mentioned bone lesions on his spine and his pelvis (where he’d also been having pain). It didn’t take much research to figure out that this was the effect of late stage cancer.
His doctor scheduled Ed for exploratory surgery at George Washington University Hospital on January 30th. That morning, the three of us were up very early and at the hospital in time to hurry up and wait. Finally, Ed was wheeled down the hallway, leaving us at the door to the operating theatre. We waited hours and hours. Finally, we saw him wheeled out and into the recovery room. His surgeon came up to Miss Addie and I and escorted us into a small office.
The news was devastating.
Ed’s liver was 80% consumed by the cancer, which they thought had originated in the bladder, but they weren’t sure. It didn’t matter. The prognosis was that he had about 30 days to get his affairs in order. There were no recommendations for any further treatment, no chemo or radiation. The cancer was metastatic and had already compromised his colon, a large section of which had been removed and replaced with an ostomy near his navel and adjacent to the entry wound for the exploratory surgery. The extent of the GW Hospital support for us was an “I’m very sorry.” from the doctor.
So we entered on a 64 day slice of misery.
Ed had agreed beforehand that medical students could be allowed to follow his treatment and be briefed on his illness, so he was moved into a single room at the hospital, through which trooped daily a series of medical students and physicians who discussed his “case”.
At first after the surgery, Ed was so groggy and weak that he was largely inert. I arranged with the hospital to be able to spend the night in his room in case he needed anything, sleeping in a chair or on the floor. It was as much for me as for him since I wanted to be near him. At the end of the first week, during which we held a lackluster 53rd birthday party for Ed, he was much more alert.
When the visitors came, he would usually turn towards the wall so he wouldn’t have to see the students staring at him. I remember one time his oncologist came by with a gaggle of students and began talking about Ed’s case. The oncologist made a remark about “they” and “these people”, clearly referencing Ed’s race, and Ed rolled over and looked at the group and said “I’m not dead yet and you don’t get to talk about me as if I’m a lab specimen or not here. Now get out of here!” The oncologist protested and Ed’s voice increased in volume but with the same message. And they left. I was so proud of him! At that point he needed every victory, no matter how small.
About the middle of February, the hospital transferred Ed to the Washington Home and Hospice on upper Wisconsin Avenue. What a nightmare that place was. At the hospital, the staff were always busy but usually efficient and helpful. At the Washington Home, most of the staff were West African nurses and nurse’s aides and markedly unfriendly. Ed and I were “out” and the staff didn’t approve. Nor did the Matron. As I had at the hospital, I often spent the night sleeping on the floor in Ed’s room in case he needed anything. After about two weeks, the Washington Home moved Ed to another ward saying he had been put in the wrong section. The move didn’t improve Ed’s treatment by the staff.
Miss Addie and I took turns being with Ed at the Home. I was, of course, still working and had a daily 45 to 60 minute drive from DC to work five days a week. So, Miss Addie stayed with Ed during the daytime and went home when I got to the Home after my day at work. She dealt with the daytime indignities and I dealt with the nighttime ones. As I drove back and forth between work and Ed, I often was overwhelmed with misery and sadness. I couldn’t believe how quickly we had descended into this misery and I frequently dissolved into tears as I drove. But that venting of my misery while I was alone in the car meant that I was better able to deal with the face-to-face crises and to be cheerier and more useful when I was with Ed. I did go home to our house in Brookland occasionally to change clothes and get things that Ed might need. But neither Miss Addie nor I wanted to leave Ed alone to face the challenges of the Home alone.
Neither of us knew much about the medical side of his care and we depended exclusively on GW Hospital and the Home to manage such things. Mistake! After about five weeks at the Home Ed begged to go home to Brookland. He couldn’t take any more of Washington Home’s treatment.
So we arranged for a hospital bed in the living room, a commode and a bed pan, and all of the bits and pieces we would need for caring for him there. The Home arranged for a visiting nurse to be scheduled for regular visits and I called on a friend, Glenn, who was a certified nurses’s assistant to come by regularly and help, at Miss Addie’s expense. Miss Addie let Ed’s son and ex-wife in Pennsylvania know that he was ill and going to be moved home (they hadn’t come by at either the hospital or the Home). And one day in mid-March, we moved Ed home. It was too expensive to move him by ambulance so I just put him in my car and drove home. The visiting nurse came by the next day.
And her visit was a revelation. She did the usual tests and set up a schedule and then she took a look at Ed’s catheter and asked in an outraged voice why no one had changed the tubing. Miss Addie and I hadn’t paid the catheter any mind but the nurse pointed out how cloudy the tube was because of the mold growing in it. It occured to me then, that I had never noticed the tube being changed during the five or so weeks we had been at the Washington Home. Well, it was changed that very day by the nurse. She also took samples for testing and tested Ed as well. The upshot was that he was septic, because of the dirty catheter tubing!
We had brought Ed home about the end of the second week of March and his decline over the next three weeks was steady. He would rouse and be conversational for a while and then peter out and fall asleep. We tried watching videos at night a couple of times but he just couldn’t concentrate and would fall asleep. One day, when colleagues from his job had dropped by Ed was being his usual garrulous self and insisted on having Kentucky Fried Chicken, though he was mostly on liquids by then. So I went out and drove across NE DC to get him a three piece meal. He really couldn’t eat it but he could taste it and that was all he wanted!
By the end of March he had lost so much weight that he was emaciated and some visitors wondered whether he had AIDS. But it was the cancer eating him up.
On the last Sunday of March he and Miss Addie decided that he should have a priest come and give him the last rites. He had been largely comatose until the priest began reciting the Lord’s Prayer and Ed joined in vocally.
And then, Thursday morning, April 3rd, he was gone — thanks to the cancer and the sepsis. And I was alone with a big empty house.
I’d only been in Egypt a little over three months when I saw that the new Patriarch of Alexandria was going to be consecrated head of the Coptic Church, 117th successor to St Mark, gospel writer and head of the Christian Church in first century Egypt.
So, of course I planned to go.
Since I was so new to Egypt I asked some of my students (as a Teaching Fellow, I taught English Language classes in the university) and other colleagues who put me in touch with the offices of the Coptic church in Cairo. I went along to their offices, passport and Harvard Divinity School ID in hand, to request a ticket for the event. It took a bit of persuading but the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) ID did the job and I received a ticket for the installation of Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa and Pope of the Coptic Church, in succession from Saint Mark who was said to have created the Egyptian church in 55 AD. I’m afraid I might have stretched things a bit when I said I was representing Harvard University’s Divinity School at the event, but so far as I knew I was the only person present from HDS
The service began at mid-morning November 14, 1971 at the brand new Cathedral of Saint Mark in the Abassiya district of Cairo. Two years earlier I had been travelling amongst the Orthodox Christian monasteries of Athos Greece and had sat through several services, usually involving lots of chanting and incense. So I felt fairly confident of what to expect.
Unfortunately I hadn’t done any research on what to expect at a papal enthronement but I should have had a bigger breakfast and definitely should have brought some water with me. I walked from the Ramses Train Station up to the cathedral, through the masses of people around the cathedral and found my way inside the gates. The place was mobbed. But being an obvious foreigner made such things easier and I smiled a lot.
Inside I showed my invitation and was escorted rhrough the crowds to a seat inside the cathedral, well to the front. Obviously flouting Harvard Divinity School brought one some perks! As with most public events, this one did not start on time and it wasn’t until after noon that the service got underway. It turned out that we had been waiting for the prime minister of Egypt, Mahmoud Fawzi and his entourage to arrive. They finally arrived and took seats directly in front of me. In fact, my students at the American University in Cairo saw me on the evening news seated obliquely behind the prime minister’s right shoulder.
Once the service began, large groups of Coptic church dignitaries proceeded down the main aisle, just to my right, and up into the chancel of the cathedral. The procession was accompanied by loud chanting in Coptic, derived from the language of the ancient Egyptians. And there was lots and lots and lots of incense. Like many orthodox services it was almost hallucinatory with the mix of rhythmic sounds and the clouds of incense.
Finally His Holiness Shenouda the Third came down the aisle and went up into the chancel. I had no idea what was happening since I spoke not a word of Coptic but one of my seat mates very kindly gave me ongoing summaries of the proceedings. However, after four hours of the celebration my bladder and stomach were both complaining. My body wanted food and drink.
Unfortunately, a papal enthronement is not something you can just get up and leave when you want to do so. Apart from the fact that the thousands of other spectators would have wondered who I was to walk out on His Holiness, it was a long hot (it is still in the 80s in Cairo in mid-November) and smoky walk back up the aisle to the exit.
I have to admit it was fascinating. And I do love incense. Copts use the same flavors of incense that mosques use so these odors had become familiar to me. Of course I was secrety impressed with myself, never having attended a papal enthronement before.
To my great good luck, His Excellency the Prime Minister of Egypt, after those four hours, had also had enough and decided to leave. At a low point in the service, the entire prime ministerial entourage rose and headed off to the side to one of the side exits. It was a crowd of police and government staff, and one lone American who had also risen and tagged along at the back of the Prime Minister’s crowd.
Today you would never be able to do that but in 1971 it was still possible. I explained to a couple of the Egyptians ahead of me that I was tired and needed to go. They agreed and told me how wonderful it was that I had attended.
So, finally, I was free and headed for the first men’s room I could find and then to a street vendor to get a cola and something to eat. I got home in time for one of Hussein’s hot meals and a cool evening on the balcony of may apartment overlooking the jacaranda tree and the yard of the girls school below.
To say I’ve never been comfortable around water is an overstatement. I like it in a glass with ice or coming out of a shower head. And I do like being near a beach, hearing the waves, and feeling the breeze but actually being in the water? No, I don’t think so!
My parents weren’t swimmers and neither am I. My youngest brother Steve swims and scuba dives and my sister is perfectly happy in the water. My brother Gary was more comfortable on the water fishing, but he could manage in the water, too. My mother’s cousin, Nina MacLeod, married a man who taught swimming and was a gifted swimmer, Paul KInsey. He gave me free swimming lessons at a pool in Willow Springs in the 1950s but nothing he could do would make me comfortable in the water. The damage was already done.
The first time I nearly drowned was my first year in the Boy Scouts when at summer camp in Wisconsin staff asked whether I could swim. They disbelieved me when I said no. I suppose they thought I was being lazy and wanted to just sit around with the nonswimmers. It was truth; I had no idea what to do in the water. They took me out to the end of the pier at the camp and said “Swim!” before chucking me into the lake.
I sank like the proverbial stone. I had no idea what to do (I was only 11 or so) and ended up sitting on the bottom of the lake leaking air bubbles. When they realized I wasn’t coming up, they stuck a long pole in the water for me to grab but that didn’t happen because it was nowhere near me. Luckily someone jumped in and hauled me out before the bubbles coming out of my mouth stopped. The head of the camp then called my father to let him know that they had nearly killed me!
To this day, I have strong memories of seeing the pole moving around out of my reach and being unable to get to it. Those are the kinds of memories that come back when you have a fever.
Unfortunately swimming is part of the Boy Scout curriculum and I spent years as a second class Scout because I couldn’t pass the first class Scout swimming test. I got to be the troop scribe, earned merit badges in subjects like forestry and tracking, but was still only a second class scout.
The second and third times I almost drowned were also in the Scouts, during swimming tests in a swimming pool at the local YMCA. The first time I took the test, I nearly drowned my friend John Reed who was swimming next to me. As I started sinking, I grabbed him and took him down with me. The next time, I swam along the wall which I grabbed when I began panicking. The Boy Scouts finally gave up and said “okay, you passed” just to get me to a first class badge. I think my father, a former scoutmaster, may have had something to do with that,
Ironically, I spent thirteen years on the shores of the Persian Gulf. In Kuwait, where I lived and worked for 13 years, I was never far from the Gulf and spent a lot of time sitting in the sand. Not surprisingly, I didn’t go in the water much, but I did learn how to float and paddle about a bit and gained some confidence around water. Nonetheless I always thought in the back of my mind that water was the enemy. That’s probably one of the reasons I like deserts and mountains and being on land. I have never wanted to water ski or do laps in a pool. I am an accomplished beach sitter.
In Kuwait, I often led groups of friends out of town and down the coast to a pretty but usually deserted bit of beach at Ras Jalaya. While they frolicked in the water, I worked on my sun tan.
Salmiyya, where I lived for twelve years, had its own beach area. Actually when I first arrived in 1973, it was a jumble of dunes and rocks just being developed into a sea front road and gentrified for the incoming hordes of foreigners flocking to the oil rich Gulf States.
Once I had developed acrophobia, in 1988 in Australia, I managed in my mind to combine fear of heights with fear of water, making bridges a hazard, too. On my frequent trips between Virginia and southern Pennsylvania on Interstate 95 there is a bridge over the Susquehanna, the Tydings bridge, with low sides and a high drop into the river that unnerves me! And that combined with a line from a horror film that suggested the water was hungry. Now there’s a thought that ruins vcacations and discourages cruises.
The 1974 crop of English language teachers brought Sarah, Michelle and Sonia Briggs to Kuwait University’s College of Commerce in August 1974. Most of the Briggs were human. Sonia wasn’t. John Briggs joined the family a bit later in the year.
Sonia was a long-haired collie. Absolutely beautiful, gentle, trusting and very mellow. For a fur person whose ancestors were familiar with the cooler climate of Highland Scotland, Kuwait must have been a shock. It was about 120 degrees Fahrenheit when the Briggs family arrived. Sonia had been held up at Heathrow before being loaded on the flight to Kuwait and arrived with an infection of some sort. Sarah and Michelle had refused to leave the UK without her and had delayed for a day to travel with her.
Somewhere along the way Sonia had developed a skin infection. When Sarah, Michelle and Sonia got into Kuwait, they discovered no one at the university to help them, so the College of Commerce (where Sarah would be working with me) called me and I came and got them. We took Sonia to a vet and got Sarah and Michelle to a hotel. Sonia came home to my flat on the west side of Salmiya, the suburb of Kuwait City where I was living.
John Briggs showed up in Kuwait shortly after and Sonia settled uncomplainingly into her life on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Sarah and John found an apartment in Salmiya as well.
Dogs are not held in very high esteem by some urban Arabs, though desert Arabs find them very useful for herding. In Islamic practice, dogs aren’t considered to be very clean and a worshipper has to perform ritual ablutions before praying if they have been handling a dog. In the Kuwait airport, Sarah reported, some of the viewers thought Sonia must be a pet lion. When she came to live with me, my friends at first thought she was a wolf.
It didn’t take long, though, before everyone wanted to take the Sonia for a walk, or feed her, or sit with her, or just pet her. She was the perfect ice-breaker. I had lived in my area of Salmiya for over a year and knew hardly anyone but with al-dhib at my side, I was pursued by local kids and their parents and everyone wanted to talk. It was great for practicing the local dialect of Arabic! I hated to give her back — especially since she reminded me so much of my own Buffy with whom I had grown up back in northern Illinois.
Sonia was a consummate traveller and very social. I spent a lot of time in the desert, having gotten to know some of the Beni Murra, who lived on the Saudi border in southern Kuwait. I had my own tent, British military style with high walls and a roof which laced into the walls, which I lugged around in my un-airconditioned car and used when I went to the desert on a weekend, or camped out with the Murra during the spring weather.
John and Sarah soon got their own tent and went camping. And, of course, Sonia went with them. Someone had to chaperone the humans!
The Briggs often went camping with me and even down to Al-Wafra where the Murra lived and Sonia was always a part of the camping crew. She would sit guard in front of the Briggs’ tent.
She also went along for beach trips, despite the heat and humidity. The Persian Gulf was often tepid in summer as the brutal heat of the Arabian Peninsula beat down. Sonia would sometimes sit under the Briggs’ little canopy but more likely she would be out wanding around and wondering, looking at what was going on. She wasn’t likely to get in the water too often but she would go down to the water’s edge.
On those beach trips to Ras Jalaya, we always made sure there was plenty of water for Sonia — and the rest of us. We would cook out or bring our food ready-to-go. One of the few bits of home I could find in local stores in the early 1970s was Sara Lee chocolate cake, which I would throw in a cooler and drag to the beach to serve up after lunch, melting frosting and all. It seemed fitting since Sarah’s given name was Sarah Lee, and of course I loved anything chocolate.
Sonia’s biggest adventure was probably her trip in the summer of 1975, when she and John took a wooden dhow across the Persian Gulf to Iran (in the days of the Shah, before the revolution) and then drove across western Asia and into Turkey. Sarah and Michelle had gone back to the States for a visit and when done flew to Paris and took the Orient Express toIstanbul. From there they made their way to Izmir where they met Sonia and John in front of the police station and then drove south to Bodrum where they camped in an apricot and fig grove. As Sarah remembers “John had discovered an idyllic camping spot … where Sonia had free rein … as did Michelle who got to know the young Turkish kids.” John and Sonia had to drive back to Abadan in Iran to get back to Kuwait. Sarah and Michelle flew back to Kuwait.
When they moved back to the US, the Briggs rented a house in southern Indiana, lnUnionville northeast of Bloomington, where Sonia had woods and fields and streams and squirrels and all the things that an aging collie could want. In 1977, I moved to Indianapolis for a year and spent many a weekend down at the house in Unionville visiting Sonia and her family. By then, Erica had been born and the family was now five!
We landed in Cairo late in the afternoon on a steamy late August day in 1971. The new class of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Fellows was in Egypt. We were whisked through passport and customs and got on the American University in Cairo (AUC) bus and headed into the city to be dropped off at our new homes. It had been a long flight from JFK airport and an even longer day.
The good news was that I was back in the Arab World with a two year fellowship and plans for an MA in TEFL. I had left the Arab World in late January 1970 and after a disappointing year at Harvard Divinity School was glad to be back where I felt at home.
The bus meandered across downtown Cairo dropping off Fellows at their new homes. Of course mine was the last so I arrived just as it was getting really dark and walked into my one bedroom apartment only to discover that there was supper on the table and Hussein, the Egyptian assigned to help and watch over me while I was an AUC employee, waiting to see what I needed before he headed off home. I knew the building was on Yousef El-Guindi Street but the university hadn’t given us maps and it was dark so I skipped supper, said goodbye to Hussein, and went to bed.
And the next morning, I got up and thought I would take a walk around the area: I like familiarizing myself with whatever area I happen to be in. Unfortunately my Arabic wasn’t very proficient yet so most of the street signs (where there were any) and shop signs were pretty meaningless to me. So I turned right out of the building entrance (I was in a third floor apartment with a balcony overlooking a girls high school and a really beautiful jacaranda tree) and set off down the busy street. It turned out there was a bustling open air vegetable market just behind my street, the Bab El-Luq market.
I walked down through the market area and turned right and walked about two blocks and found myself at the entrance to the AUC campus, which wasn’t open (it was the weekend) and in front of the campus a huge traffic circle, Midan El-Tahrir. I could see that my new home was going to make it very easy to get to class and to sleep in until almost too late because it was only a block and a half to the campus entrance.
So I walked along the front of the campus next to the Midan and at the next street turned right. I walked along with increasing unease because I thought I must be getting close to home but I wasn’t sure. The problem was that I had just charged out the front door of my building and turned right without ever really looking at the building or its surroundings, sooooo … I really didn’t know what I was looking for or where what I was looking for might be.
I stopped on a corner [Start] and asked a young Egyptian (who turned out to be named Hussein and who worked for the makwagi, launderer, in my building) to show me where 7 Yousef El-Guindi Street [red X] was using all the Arabic at my command. Hussein said sure he’d show me, so we walked straight along the street, turned right at the next corner, walked past the vegetable market which I had already seen. We turned right at the next street and walked a block and turned right and walked three-quarters of the way down the street and the kid said “You’re home.” [End] I looked up and there on the corner was the place where I first asked the kid to show me where I lived. He had walked me in a rectangle and brought me almost back to where we had begun. I gave him a healthy tip for his trouble and for my lesson in paying attention!
Boy did I feel stupid. But I really knew where I lived now. And I learned to really check out where I was starting from when I went for walks. It’s a practice that has proven invaluable over the years.
The most recent Lebanese civil war, begun in 1975, seemed to be peetering out and my friend Abbas in Beirut and his sister Um Hassan, whom I looked out for in Kuwait, both thought it was a safe time to go to Beirut. So did I. It was over the Eid al-Adha celebration in late August 1985. And Um Hassan wanted me to take some gifts to her family there, so I went.
Sixteen years earlier I had lived and studied in Beirut. Abbas and I had become friends and I had seen him again and again on trips as I led groups of friends on my tours of the Levant (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey) while I lived in Egypt and my first tour in Kuwait (1973-1976). He was good company and a good guide to Beirut’s nightlife in sometimes troubled times. He lived in the old family home in the Mazra’a (farms) section of central Beirut. Through him I got to know and become a friend of his friend Marwan.
Getting through passport and customs at the airport was easier than I expected. Lebanon was trying to win back the summer visitors who had been an important stream of income for the country. Americans were pretty rare in Lebanon, especially after the bombing of the US Marine barracks and the US embassy in Beirut in 1983, but I was staying with Lebanese in the heart of the Sunni area of central and western Beirut. Abbas and Marwan met me at the airport and we set off for an entertaining holiday in the city’s nightspots.
I was staying in the old Alieh house that was Abbas’s home, an old Lebanese home with rooms built around a central courtyard. In the heat of the day we sat in the courtyard under the shade of trees or the roofed open walkway that fronted the rooms around the yard.
The civil war was ten years old and areas of Beirut lay in ruins. My old friends and hosts the Itanis no longer lived in Ghberi. That section of Beirut’s suburbs had been ruined by recurrent shelling by the Christian Falange, Israeli forces, and by the Shi-ite Amal group. It was close to the airport which had also been a recurrent target. Their home had been destroyed and I had no idea where the Itanis now were. They had always had strong ties to Tyre, south of Beirut and may have gone there but that area was totally out of consideration as a place I could go.
The civil war was the fruit of Lebanon’s sectarian divisions, enshrined in the constitution which stipulated which political positions each sect would get. The divisions were further exacerbated by the presence of thousands of Palestinian refugees living in refugee camps around the country. Having been created by the French government following the First World War, Lebanon was a compromise state envisioned with a precarious political balance. It worked sometimes; other times it didn’t.
In Kuwait, where I lived, the news of Lebanon seemed banal and relatively peaceful considering the upheavals of the early 1980s when Israeli invasion, the growth of Amal and Hezbollah, and the frequent assasinations of political leaders. In the Middle East, we were accustomed to wars and rumors of wars.
Most people made a clear distinction between national politics and citizens of a country. In a region where the people rarely had a real choice as to who governed them, ordinary citizens were rarely blamed for government policies or actions. I had travelled without problems in the summer of 1969 in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan just after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when the US government was loathed by Arabs and their governments.
So, safely arrived in Beirut and with my wanderings circumscribed by Abbas and Marwan, we spent most of our time in Ras Beirut and Hamra at restaurants and clubs. I did go back to American University of Beirut for a visit. There were armed men all over the city but they didn’t bother us. We were in the part of Beirut controlled by the Mourabitoun group. The main road from Ras Beirut to where I was staying was the Corniche Al-Mazra’a. One side of it was Mourabitoun territory. The other side was Shi’ite Amal territory.
The night before I was to head back to Kuwait we went out to dinner and clubs until late. On the way back we heard shooting, not unusual in Beirut, but it was at a distance. But … as we came down Corniche Al-Mazra’a towards home, we could see the exchanges of gunfire flying back and forth over the road — and over our heads as we headed home. Abbas pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. In a quick discussion, it was decided to abandon the car and sprint for home.
Abbas and Marwan thought I would be safer in the car and less visibly a foreigner. They got out and prepared to run for it. I said I wasn’t staying alone in the car with bullets flying overhead. I had dramatic visions of a bullet hitting the gas tank, so as they sped off down a side street, I clambered out and took off after them. Marwan looked around, saw me, and yelled in Arabic “Run like you want to live!” And I did.
We ran a series of zigzag connecting streets. Bullets were flying overhead but the farther we got from the main road the quieter it was. We all made it home and collapsed in the courtyard of Abbas’s house. And had another quick drink before heading to bed and trying to sleep.
The next morning we headed to the airport, which was much less friendly and much more heavily guarded than it had been a few days earlier when I’d arrived.
And that was the last time I saw Beirut or Mazra’a or Marwan. Abbas did make it to Kuwait on a visit after that. And four years later I was back in the States!
The north side of our village in the 1950s was still largely undeveloped. We moved into the third house down from Chicago Avenue on the east side of Woodstock St. (a much stolen sign after the 1969 Woodstock festival) in the spring of 1950. The next house after ours was a half block down the street. The weeds, grasses, and trees in between were called “the prairie”. Until the late 1950s, the other side of the street was largely prairie.
When I was still toddling around, my mother would tie me with a rope to the clothes pole while she hung washing to dry behind the garage. She didn’t want me disappearing into the prairie to the south of our yard. Eventually a picket fence hemmed me in and prevented my wandering. However the fence didn’t prevent visitors from the prairie. One, a huge (to three year old me) black snake angled across the yard terrifying me while my Mom was inside gathering another basket of laundry.
The prairie was a great playground for us growing up. In spots, tall ragweed grew and made it easy to hide. There were wildflowers everywhere, especially daisies which grew wild around the town: the heirs of a shipment of grass seed ordered by Mr Middaugh which turned out to be daisies instead of grass and which spread everywhere in the village’s north side!
Even more fun than the prairie spaces was the peat bog which lay between Oxford and Prospect Streets and between Norfolk and Chicago Avenues, a large area of the northside of the village. On the east side was the Prospect Elementary School, bounded on its west side by a swampy area of the bog, a great adventure to those of us walking to school and perilous to shoes and school clothes. The peat bog along Oxford street was more solid and drier and full of ragweed, which made for ‘forts’ for kids and adventurous ‘smoking’ of ragweed stalks when they dried out in the autumn.
An enterprising builder in the 1930s or 1940s had actually built houses on the peatbog, driving piles into the turf and constructing with lots of hope. In the 1950s, we would explore the peatbog and find bits of chimneys, sidewalks to nowhere, and cost off household items. Gilbert Street, south of Chicago Avenue, held three houses, bungalow style, which had survived the bog and seemed to be on solid ground. These are now gone, sacrificed to a new parking lot for the Middle School built on the firmer ground along Chicago Avenue.
We loved exploring the peatbog and in summer built our forts and hid in them pretending we were explorers or pioneers or just errant kids away from home. These forts were where we first smoked cigarettes and looked at pictures we weren’t supposed to see. One summer, running through the peatbog my brother Gary and I stumbled over a pile of bricks, perhaps part of a sunken house, that was firmly and defensively inhabited by a swarm of wasps! Our friend Georgie Pieler got badly stung.
The prairies and the peatbog were a fire hazard, especially in the pre-environmentally conscious days when every household had an incinerator basket in the back of the yard. Ours was out beyond the clothes lines up against the towering lilac bushes (which made great hiding places!). Several summers neighbors would be called out with brooms and blankets and buckets of water to help put out prairie fires along Woodstock street. Once all the lots were sold and houses built prairie fires disappeared from our consciousness and concern.
The peatbog though was hit by lightning one year in the late 1950s and caught fire and, as is the nature of peat fires, smouldered on and on. It wasn’t really until the winter snows that the fire was finally put out.
My family always had a hard time getting to church on time. It was probably because one bathroom for seven people held up progress to the car. And partly because we took a leisurely approach to Sundays. So the Meinkes usually got to Community Presbyterian late, but not real late.
I remember when I gave the sermon on Youth Sunday, my family arrived just as I was shouting “Repent, for the day of the Lord is at hand!”. (I’ve always liked a bit of drama!)
I’ve always been a morning person (or at least until I retired!), so I rose early on Sundays and tried to shepherd my parents and siblings through breakfast and bathroom trips to get everyone ready and off to church. I wasn’t often successful. Sometimes I just set out on my own to walk the mile or so to church with the fervent hope that everyone would show up at church eventuallly.
One spring morning, I set off walking to church, along the cracked and broken sidewalk next to Chicago Avenue, planning to cut through the parking lot at Prospect School and head down to the church at the corner of Norfolk and Prospect.
As I walked along, I was singing hymns to myself, enjoying the sunny weather, the warmth, and the birds. To my right was the peat bog, which filled a large area of the northside of our town: wet, swampy in places, and littered with the ruins of an ill-fated housing development which had sunk into the peat. It was a magical fun place for grade school age kids.
As I walked and sang to myself, I just felt great. It seemed like I was in a golden cloud. It felt warm and comforting and made me happy. As I got closer to the school parking lot I remember singing the doxology and suddenly feeling like I was surrounded by well-being. I felt in touch with God and didn’t really want to emerge from that cloud of God’s love but getting closer to the church it felt like my happy cloud was fading away, too much busy-ness, I guess.
It’s a feeling I’ve tried recapturing for years. One which underscores my conviction that any one of us can have a direct connection to the Divine.