“Your eyes took me back to the days that have gone”
Weekends begin on Thursday in the Arab World. Friday, the day of gathering at the mosque, is the heart of the weekend. So, Thursday evening is known as Leilat Al-Joma’a, Friday’s eve, and marks the beginning of time with friends, family, and football.
Thursday nights (Leilat al-Joma’a) in Cairo in the early 1970s were always special. No one needed tickets to a concert. Every week, from October to June, the Egyptian state radio station, Sawt Al-Qahira (the Voice of Cairo) broadcast Um Kulsoum, the real voice of Egypt, who sang for 50 years and was such a feature of Egyptian life that many Egyptians had never lived a day without Um Kulsoum. Love affairs and marriages were themed by her songs. The best poets wrote lyrics which she turned into music. The best composers wrote music to carry those lyrics.
Every Thursday night, radios across Cairo, across Egypt, and across the Arab World were tuned to the same station for a broadcast of a single song, lasting up to 90 minutes. On the first Thursday of the month the broadcast was of a live concert. Other weeks Sawt Al-Qahira broadcast a recorded concert.
Um Kulsoum, known as Kawkib Al-Sharq (the Star of the East) was and is an institution. Intensely patriotic, romantic, pan-Arab, and fervently Muslim she could easily have swayed politics and brought down governments, but she didn’t. When she died on February 3, 1975, the Arab world stopped in mourning. Special flights to Cairo were laid on for her funeral and the mass of mourners outnumbered those for Gamal Abdalnasser’s funeral four and a half years earlier. It was one of those “where were you when…?” events.
So, on Thursday afternoons, finished with teaching and studying at the American University in Cairo, I set out walking across Cairo towards the old medieval center of El-Mouski, the Khan el-Khalili, and the Darb el-Ahmar to spend the weekend with my friends Amin, Farrag, and Yousef at the fish shop in the tentmakers market area, drinking tea, playing backgammon, and just hanging out. Farrag and Amin made a living as hash dealers, that was how I first met them. But they had become good friends, and since they didn’t speak any English, my colloquial Arabic was growing by leaps and bounds. And so on Thursday evening, we settled down with a goza,the homemade waterpipe created out of an old DDT can, a brazier of hot coals, and the necessary to get in the right frame of mind for Thursday night with Ulm Kulsoum.
As the time neared ten o’clock, radio stations across the city all tuned to Sawt Al-Qahira in anticipation of Um Kulsoum’s concert. No one needed to sit by a radio since all radios were on the same station, windows were open, and the streets of the old city were filled with the VOICE. And as the first strains of the orchestral introduction began voices were hushed, conversations paused, and the click clack of backgammon pieces silenced.
It was time. And then there she was singing with those incredibly long-held notes and that tremendous vibrato: “Raja’ouni ‘ainaiyik …”
And we were held enthralled for the next hour and a half. It was a great way to practice my Arabic.
The high school youth group at Community Presbyterian Church in Clarendon Hills, Illinois headed for a month-long work camp to do repairs and basic maintenance on a chapel at Nazlini, AZ and run a summer Bible school. Nazlini is about halfway between the Presbyterian mission at Ganado and the ancient ruins of Canyon de Chelly, all in northeastern Arizona. And it’s where I first fell in love with deserts!
The group drove out from Illinois, via Tulsa, leaving on July 4th and arriving July 7th. Heat and red dust seemed to be the ambient features of the environment. Our group set up tents, created a kitchen, and camped for the next few weeks next to the frame church on the hill above the Nazlini Chapter House (the Navajo nation is divided into chapters). There was an outhouse and rattlesnakes; we learned to check for them before heading to the outhouse and to check under the seat inside for spiders and the occasional tarantula. At one point we rescued an occupant of the outhouse whose exit was blocked by a rattler.
For some reason, I was one of the ones elected (Presbyterians after all are the “elect”) to work on the roof and paint the steeple (this was in my pre-acrophobia days!). Did a pretty good job but some joker removed the ladder as I was coming off the roof and I fell the 20 feet to the ground, only injuring my pride and the jeans I was wearing. Church groups aren’t any kinder than other groups, I guess.
We spent a lot of time working on the chapel but also visiting the Petrified Forest, the Painted Desert and Canyon De Chelly. On the 14th we took a trip to Chinle, one of the larger towns on the reservation at the entrance to Canyon de Chelly.
It started raining on the way back, a driving rain that filled the washes and arroyos. Along the road back to Nazlini we came upon Charlie, a Navajo man who commuted daily between Nazlini and Chinle. We were mostly in the back of Jim Cavanugh’s pickup truck, with a raised roof over the truck bed and a hinged upswinging door over the tailgate.
As is usual on the reservation, we stopped to get Charlie out of the rain and give him a ride back to Nazlini. I opened the upswinging door for him to clamber in. He thought I was holding it up and I thought he was but in fact, once he got in no one was and it swung down with my hand still up in its hinge space. The downswing cut right through my left thumb, down to the bone and left me in shock but still articulate enough to put my hand out the side window and show Jim the bloody mess. As someone wrote in the account of the trip “The next thing you know he was bleeding all over the place, accompanied by flashes of lightning and peels of thunder.” Someone in the back with me grabbed a bucket, put ice in it and jammed my hand down in the ice while Charlie put a tourniquet on my wrist.
At Nazlini, everyone except me jumped out and Lou, one of our group, got in and drove me to the new mission hospital at Ganado where they sewed my thumb, hanging by a thread of skin, back on. Luckily the bone wasn’t crushed. They gave me a lot of painkillers and a sedative and a paperback novel to read and put me in a room with a bed. All I remember of that night was that there was ONE MISERABLE mosquito in there. To this day, when I have a fever, I often dream of a buzzing sound of one mosquito. I tried all night to catch that thing and all night it eluded me. The sedative never had a chance to work. And I never did sleep. I would curl up under the blanket until it got too hot and then emerge only to find the mosquito waiting for me. It would buzz directly at me and I would swing with my good right hand and never connect. I really hated that mosquito that night. And it was a VERY LONG NIGHT.
But the good doctors of Ganado saved my thumb, which to this day is punier and more withered looking than its mate on the right hand.
That trip also exposed me to the intolerance of Christians. On our way back to Illinois, we drove north out of Arizona, stopped at the Grand Canyon and then crossed into Utah. In Utah, we stopped at a local hospital to have the stitches removed brom my thumb but when the hospital learned we weren’t Mormons, they refused to help us. It wasn’t until we got to Salt Lake City that we found a doctor who would remove the stitches.
Arriving at Paris Orly in early June, a bunch of Macalester College students bussed into the airline bus station and arranged to stay at a pension on Rue Madame (in Stein and Toklas territory). No one knew where that was. It turned out I was the only one who spoke French so I led a caravan of students on foot with their suitcases through the streets until we found the pension. That started a pattern of translating and guiding that was to last through 20 years residence in the Middle East.
I was on my way to Beirut funded by a grant for my senior honor thesis on American missionary efforts to support education in the Middle East, especially in the Levant. Dr Armajani, for whom I served as student assistant, was my mentor and intercessor with the college administration and, after I got to Beirut and enrolled at the American University of Beirut (AUB), he managed the change of honors thesis topic to the origins of the Palestinian liberation organizations including the Palestine Liberation Organization. He also arranged for me to spend the first semester of my senior year and Interim at AUB adding courses on Middle Eastern history.
But meanwhile back in Paris, my French skills led to my guiding groups from the pension to the tourist sites around the city before I boarded the train at the Gare de l’Est for the trip to Istanbul.
That was a journey. Somehow I didn’t get the memo that said get on the train car labelled for your destination. I just got on at the back of the train and then discovered that at each stop, as that car was taken off the train, I had to move up a car or two, until I actually ended up in the Istanbul car. It was a long (4 days) trip but after we left Budapest it got a little riotous as our compartment became home to Bulgarian party members with a large supply of “potato wine” (aka vodka) with which they inebriated the whole compartment. Arrived finally in Istanbul, a bit sodden with potato wine, I booked a flight to Beirut and left for my summer residence with the Itani family, courtesy of fellow Macite Amal Itani, in the Ghberi suburb of Beirut. I signed on at American University of Beirut and found rooms in Ras Beirut with an Afghani and a Jordanian roommate.
The Itanis were wonderful: welcoming, tolerant of my unintentional cultural faux pas, and not all English speakers. French was second language after Arabic, so in the ensuing eight months my French got a true workout. They took me everywhere with them around the country (the family had a nationwide distribution company for fresh produce) and introduced me to the sights and sounds and flavors of Lebanon. They taught me backgammon which I still love and play and got me into the Baalbek music festival. They all loved to eat and led me to memorable meals of Arabic cuisine, chicken baked in olive oil and garlic on the Syrian border, and that delicious cheese sweet kanafa.
At 21 years old, I was a lot less cautious than I am now. 1969 was just two years after the disastrous (for the Arabs) June 1967 war and Americans were not persona grata in many places. On September 1, Syria opened its borders to Americans for the first time since the war and I went for a weekend in Damascus to see the Damascus International Fair. At the border, the passport clerk strongly advised me to speak French in Damascus rather than English, and so avoid any possible unpleasantness. I did, and at the end of three days in Damascus had a splitting headache (French overload?). I also inadvertently ordered fried brains at a Damascus restaurant, having confused “veau” with “cerveau”. I definitely didn’t get veal!
At AUB I met a number of Palestinians and became very interested in their cause, both politically and historically. Studies in the AUB history department shaped some of my inquiries and led me to decide to volunteer as a researcher at the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Research Center in Ras Beirut, then headed by Dr. Anis Sayegh, brother to economist Dr. Yusef Sayegh, a friend of Dr. Armajani. The Middle East and Middle East studies can be a very small world. As it turned out, Dr Yusef Sayegh was the examiner of my honors thesis, The Palestinian Fedayeen: Their Heritage and Their Promise, completed after my return to Macalester in late January 1970. (On a visit to Mac in the 1990s for an Alumni Board meeting, a librarian told me that my thesis had become the most purloined one in their collection. I guess that’s success.)
With the additional time afforded by spending the first semester of senior year in Lebanon, I had the time to do substantial interviewing of Palestinian leaders, particularly of the fedayeen organizations, and with Dr. Anis Sayegh’s help, I embarked on a series of road trips, by the regional service taxis, to interview Kamal Nasr of the PLO and Al-Fateh, Georges Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Nayef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and many of their aides. On some of those road trips, the Palestinian organizations sent along armed guards leaving me feeling both protected and insecure; so much for inconspicuous historical research. In Irbid, in northern Jordan, I spent several visits with family of AUB friends who were active in the Palestinian guerrilla forces, and spent the nights in the local bomb shelters as Israeli forces in the newly conquered Golan Heights shelled Irbid nightly.
Through those travels, I became very familiar with Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as Turkey where I had arrived by train. That experience helped me when, from 1971 to 1973 I studied at American University in Cairo (where I did learn Arabic) and led parties of friends on vacation tours of all four countries.
The late 1960s were years of violence and political turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere and I early discovered the somewhat equivocal position in which politics placed otherwise innocent Americans. In late summer 1969, I took a break from AUB and went back to Istanbul for a visit and then trained to Greece, stopping in Thessaloniki and the monasteries of Athos, and continuing on to Athens. Athos, the Orthodox religous center on a peninsula near Thessaloniki, was restricted to males of species, including farm animals. The monasteries, many of them built during the Byzantine Empire were beautifully decorated with frescos and mosaics, and mostly built on dizzyig cliff edges for protection against marauders. I walked everywhere and ate with the monks for the five days I was in Athos. (The food caught up with me on the bus trip back to Thessaloniki when I developed a horrendous case of diarrhea!)
In Athens, while staying at the youth hostel near Syntagma, a careless clerk left my backpack (containing passport, travelers checks and air ticket back to Beirut) on a counter from which it was stolen. In recompense the hostel gave me free room and board for the ten days I was stranded in Athens.
The US embassy only became helpful about the stolen passport when my father contacted Hubert Humphrey, then a visiting professor at Mac, for help. Those were the days of the colonels’ rule in Greece, when the authorities suspected leftwing plots to overthrow them (as portrayed in Costa-Gravas’ 1969 film Z). The Greek authorities were even less helpful and I spent a very unpleasant day being interrogated by the secret police, bright lights shining directly at me with shadowy interrogators trying to trap me into saying that I was part of a leftwing conspiracy and had given my passport to the underground. Eventually they gave up and authorized my departure.
The Itanis, my wonderful Lebanese family, covered the new plane ticket and wired me funds while I was stranded. They picked me up at the airport and carried me off to their home with the chickens and horses in Ghberi.
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.