My mind wandered and I was only half paying attention to the teacher. I usually found the fourth grade boring, often playing with a gold necklace I had that was normally tied in knots. I would sit and untangle it or I would draw pictures of people being carried about by propeller blades to their backs. If I could manage it, I propped a book behind the textbook, reading while listening to the teacher drone on about something or other.
Today she was speaking about how about what a wonderful country was America. She spoke about how lucky we all were to be born here. It was the fifties in and all of the teachers had signed a loyalty oath. McCarthy (Joseph that was) was extremely powerful and foreigners were not well received. People were pulled from their home, in the middle of the night, on suspicion of being communists. This was the big word of the day.
Often the school day was interrupted with sirens. We children were taught to curl up in a ball under our desks and to wait for the all clear. Even at home, I learned to hide in the closet. I did it because teacher said so. I would race to the closet, hide in the back, behind my mother’s clothes and wait for the all clear. As I remember, the television, the movies were all filled with propaganda about how dangerous the communists were to our great country.
On this day, as the teacher continued to speak, my mind wandered until I heard her say, “All Americans are superior to those born in foreign countries.” My mind became sharp and alert. What was she talking about? My parents were born in a foreign country. Did this mean I was superior to my parents? Only one way to find out. The teacher knew all. I would ask.
I raised my hand. As I raised my hand waiting calmly for her to recognize me. Well, maybe not so calmly as I remember my hand being quite excited. “Teacher, my parents were born in a foreign country. Does this mean I am superior to them?”
The Teacher looked at me and, ever so calmly turned to me and said, “Yes, it does. You are superior to your parents, because you were born here and they were not.”
Later that day, when I arrived home, I remember telling my mother about what the teacher had said. I do not remember her reaction. However, I do remember her not being very impressed by the teacher’s response. My patents had learned a long time ago, to never question authority. I do not believe they questioned it then either. However, I do remember my mother being very proud of her Phoenician/ Lebanese ancestry. The words used for white people, for Americans, were not flattering. Perhaps that day when I came home she did not say anything negative but I often remember hearing phrases like “Americans, they do not even know who their own parents are.”
I have many stories from my years overseas, but I thought I would share an essential experience from my past that shaped my future. It shaped my self-understanding, my flexibility, and my ability to be nonjudgmental.
As I thought about the nature of forgiveness I thought about my own struggles with this. Many years ago when I first thought about the necessity of forgiving the abuse I experienced, I thought I needed to forget it. Sheer willpower did not work so I simply ignored the pain. Little did I realize it was growing strong within me and expressing itself as anger and defensiveness towards the world? At one point during a group healing session, when I was in graduate school, I was able to cry. The crying went beyond simple tears but became what Oprah has referred to as the “ugly cry”. Given I rarely cry on the outside, and prior to this, never in front of anyone, this was an unusual breakthrough for me. The process of healing began. It was after this experience understanding began. I was able to understand why my mother did what she did. I thought about what it would mean if I had been married at fifteen to a man twenty years my senior; someone I did not meet until the day I was married. In fact, she did meet him once, and her reaction was “she pitied the woman who married him, because he had a flat head. In the day my father was born, they tied babies to boards so their backs would be straight, but it made their heads flat. I wondered what I would be like if I was taken from the homeland I deeply loved, and forced to live in a country I hated. I wondered what my own anger level would be. Through understanding, came compassion. I was once told I could not have forgiven my mother because I still speak about what happened. I realized many years ago that although I have forgiven my mother, I have not forgotten what happened. The difference is, it no longer has a hold on my emotions. If something happens in my life now that triggers a past memory, I can recognize it and move on.
However, the biggest accomplishment is the ability to forgive myself my own anger, and my own feelings of hatred or vengeance. This is the harder journey. It is easier to understand, to feel compassion for someone else, whether my mother, a friend or someone else who has wronged me than it is for myself. Part of this is pride, part of this is feeling how can I forgive myself, as I am not worthy of my own forgiveness. It is said, before we judge we need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I believe before we judge we need to see clearly the shoes we use for walking.
Forgiveness comes from compassion that comes from understanding, which comes from experience. There is a saying; one of the four agreements, expressed by Don Miquel Ruiz, is to never take anything personally, as nothing that is done to you is meant for you.
“Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of misunderstanding.” Don Miquel Ruiz
Strange is it not. Hard not to take it personally when someone is beating you with a belt, or a wooden spoon, or telling you how much she hates you. It feels very personal at the time. However, I remember my mother saying to me, in the middle of one of these sessions: “I do this to you because you are strong. You can take it.”
And it wasn’t me she was beating or berating. She was beating the father who beat her. She was beating the father and Uncle who married her off at a ridiculous young age. She was beating herself for her powerlessness to speak or to have a say in her life. And she was beating the mother who could not protect her. And most of all, she was beating my own father who brought her to this land, separating her from her home, her family, and most of all from the boy she loved. My father, before he died, asked my mother’s forgiveness for this, as he realized she was too young.
I learned to forgive her, and through this forgiveness, I learned understanding and compassion for myself. I learned to forgive myself. The beatings stopped when I was about thirteen. They stopped the day she chased me up the stairs, and I turned on the stairs to her, and said, “If you come up one more stair, I will knock you backwards down the steps.” I did not care if I killed her. I had become cold inside. Consequences did not matter. I only wanted her to stop. On that day she turned to emotional abuse. I learned how to listen, and not listen. I paid her words no heed, but they still hurt, and this was another path for forgiveness.
On that day I learned never to judge another person. I saw within myself the capacity for murder. I had dreams of murdering my whole family. I saw myself with the knife, the knife with the blood of everyone in my family on it.
Through this experience I came to realize the connectedness of all life. I realized we were all capable of murder, given the right circumstances. Neale Donald Walsch states there is no need for forgiveness, as there is no right or wrong. We all see the world according to the reality we experience. We all play our part. We are all one. We all participate in the creation of reality. I once, may years ago, told a college class that no dictator, i.e. Hitler, could exist, unless he existed within the people. Jung referred to this as our Shadow side. It is the part of us we refuse to face because it is so painful. But this refusal leads to its dominance of our actions. It is only when we face the shadow we can change it, work with it, and make gold out of it. I use the analogy of being in a dark roomful of rattlesnakes. It is only when the light is turned on, that we can learn how to move around and avoid them.
Forgiveness is more for ourselves, than for the other person. It actually matters little whether someone else forgives us, if we can truly forgive ourselves. It takes considerable energy to block forgiveness and this keeps us from advancing spiritually. As long as we refuse forgiveness, we refuse our true nature, which is Compassion, with a capital “C”, a Divine essence.
We cannot control another’s response; we can only control our own response to another’s behavior towards us. And know it or not, justified or not (this is not the question here), we are all engaged in a dance. It is often extremely difficult to understand the dance we engage in, because our vision, our perception is limited, but there is a dance. And I need to forgive myself, my part in this dance. I need never to see the other person again, if I so choose but I need not to allow my own lack of forgiveness to be the poison apple within my soul. I bring peace within myself when I can forgive both the other person and myself.
There is the story of a healer who worked in the Philippines in a hospital for the mentally ill. He practiced a type of healing where he never talked with the patient but was seen to take the file of the patient and to hold it. He was heard to say, “I am sorry, please forgive me, I love you.” He understood the part we each play in the other’s pain. He prayed this prayer constantly. Within some months the hospital was empty. The patients had all been healed of their illness. He recognizes the oneness of all creation. We are intertwined and, like it or not we are all one. This is not a truth for convenience or when it suits us. It is a Truth that when we accept it, and recognize it brings inner Peace and Healing.
Brain wave studies have shown a remarkable change in the brain through forgiveness. Forgiveness brings us into the Alpha wave stage, which is the wavelength of meditators. It can also achieve Delta stage, achieved by only the most advanced of meditators. The state of self-forgiveness and compassion for self and others brings a change that moves outward to others.
“Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”
Next week The Unfolding Self with your host, Dr. Anna K presents Dawn Curtis.
Dawn is a full time therapeutic yoga teacher (E-RYT 500) with 25 years of yoga experience, with experience in private yoga yoga sessions and group classes in Washington/Metro area, and is the proprietress of East Meets West Yoga Center. Dawn’s therapeutic background includes Yoga of Recovery, Trauma Sensitive Yoga, Yoga for Depression & Anxiety, Therapeutic Yoga for Seniors through Duke Integrative Medicine, Yoga of the Heart (Cardiac and Cancer) Therapeutic Yoga, and is a certified Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist. Dawn is currently continuing her direction of yoga therapy studies with Comprehensive Yoga Therapy with the YogaLife Institute in PA.
Dawn has been leading Yoga Teacher Trainings since 2010 and co-leads the 200 and 500 hour, and prenatal Teacher Trainings (RPYT) at East Meets West Yoga Center. Dawn is a member of Yoga Alliance (YA), KRI, IAYT, and NAMA.
Mark your calendars for 29 November at 11 AM on www.bbmglobalnetwork.com
This Tuesday at 11AM EST, Judy Higgins, author of The Lady will be a guest on “The Unfolding Self” brought to you through the BBMglobalnetwork.com and Tune-In radio. The Lady was a finalist in the 2012 Amazon Breakout Contest. Ms. Higgins did not decide to start writing until she finished her first career as a children’s librarian. Ms. Higgins will share with us how she cam not write this novel, and what she plans to do next. Don’t forget to join us.
Join us at http://www.bbmglobalnetwork.com at 11am EST. Click on “Listen Live” See you there
If someone tries to convince you to do something against your better judgment — DON’T DO IT… Even if they sweet-talk you, telling you it is not a problem, and, of course, no one will be upset with you. DON’T DO IT!!!. It is likely they are amused at your gullibility, and definitely enjoying the prospect of taking advantage of it.
I had an incident, such as this, shortly after I arrived in Kuwait. The year was 1993, two years after the end of the first Gulf War. The country still had minimal exposure to westerners. We went with the wife of our sponsor to a section of the market in Kuwait known as the women’s market. There we bought long black gowns, voluminous sort of dresses, which completely covered our clothes from neck to knees, and our arms down to the wrists. We also bought face coverings, and headscarves. When I say “we”, I mean a female colleague, and myself. I met this colleague for the first time in Boston and travelled with her to Kuwait. I was to find she had as much sense as I did – which, was not much.
After buying these things, we went back to out sponsor’s home for refreshment. We began to speak about meeting our boss, the next day, at the airport, along with another colleague. Mona, the wife of our Kuwaiti sponsor, began to speak of how funny it would be if we dressed as Arab women in the outfits we bought. Thinking this was a really bad idea I said “no”. I was thinking it would be insulting, and we could get into trouble. Mona decided it was a great idea, as did my colleague. Before I knew it, I was talked into the idea, and a plan took shape for us to go to the airport dressed as Moslem women. Since Mona was Kuwaiti, we made the mistaken assumption she had our best interests at heart.
The following day we were set to go. At the time, we had a Kuwaiti driver since we did not know how to find our way around Kuwait. The driving was also very dangerous. No one had told our driver about our plan. He came out of the elevator, he looked at the two of us, and backed into the elevator. He refused to go down in the elevator with us. We had to descend separately. This should have been a HUGE clue. But, by now, we were so invested in our plan there was no turning back.
When we arrived at the airport our driver acted differently. Never the friendliest of fellows, he became completely aloof. He walked in front of us by at least twenty paces. We had to struggle to keep up. It was eerie. I suddenly felt invisible. When we walked towards a group of men, I suddenly felt like Moses parting the seas. The group separated to let us pass, never looking at us it then closed behind us as we passed. It was all done by instinct and peripheral vision.
When we arrived inside the airport, he found a bench for us to sit down, and then disappeared. We sat at one end. At the other end were two men. Shortly after we arrived, both men got up and left. Women took their places, on the bench. They asked what time it was. Suddenly my basic Arabic was woefully inadequate to the task. One woman grabbed my arm and examined my watch. I tried to speak to them, explaining our husbands did not allow us to speak in public. The women became more insistent. I grabbed my colleague suggesting we go over and stand against the wall where people were waiting for the plane to disembark.
I realized we were beginning to attract some attention. We were standing against the wall surrounded by women. One of them tried to pull away my face covering. At this point I became nervous, as I had no idea how these women would react to two westerners pretending to be Moslems. I was unsure I could explain it was a joke to trick my colleague, and suddenly, it was no longer funny. Fortunately for us a kindly Bedouin women looked at me and smiled. She basically defended us against the women beginning to surround us.
At this point, I saw our colleagues from the United States, coming through the doors. AND, I realized we had another problem. How would they recognize us! I called to them, they turned, saw two women dressed, and covered in black. They turned back around, and kept walking. We found out later, they had received very strict instructions not to talk to women who were completely covered as we were. They were told it could cause serious complications, possibly an international incident. I could tell from the way they were both looking around, that they were searching for us. Not finding us in the crowd, they started to leave.
Since I had no other choice, I ran to catch up with them, and in the process broke away from the group of women. My colleague followed. I could feel the stares, and imagine the comments of the people. They were watching two women totally covered from head to foot in black chase after two white men in the airport. To say we caused a scandal is an understatement. When we reached our colleagues, they refused to acknowledge us. They refused to look at us. I finally ripped off the face covering, and the robe. We left the airport rather quickly. Once we were safely in the car, we could talk, and laugh about it. However, it was a scary experience. I have had people try to convince me to do this again, and I most emphatically have refused. My angel of mercy might not be there the next time.
These photos were taken by Stephanie McGehee after the invasion of Kuwait. The last oil wells were capped just prior to my arrival in 1993. In a weird and frightening way, these fires were beautiful, and seemed to have a life of their own. The reflection you see is a lake, but not of water, it is oil.
Here are some of my memories from that time.
I went to Kuwait in 1993, right after the Gulf War. I still remember my first impressions in the airport. Everything was WHITE – seriously white. The person who met us was dressed in white, except for his very shiny black shoes hidden by his long white robes. It was so white it was unnerving. When we went to get into the car with our greeter, my companion and I both tried to get into the back seat. I remember him turning to say in near perfect English, “I do not bite, one of you can get into the front.” I immediately did so. Later, I learned he was the nephew of our employer, one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Even so, everything outside was white. The sand, the buildings – white against blue skies. AND it was HOT. It was August, and the desert heat created waves. The air shimmered with the heat. It felt a bit like walking into an open oven. Everything was air-conditioned. Cars were especially made to support heavy-duty air conditioning units. It was not unusual to find cars in the parking lots with motors running, and the air-conditioning going; the doors locked. Just by briefly walking outside jewelry, such as earrings, and bracelets became hot against the skin.
Prior to this trip, I had never been on an airplane. We had just traveled close to 27 hours on a trans-Atlantic flight from Boston, MA to Kuwait City, Kuwait with a layover in London. We were placed in economy class in the middle row of the center. I had just come from Vermont, and I definitely felt like a country hick. The plane was big, and crowded. Only those who know nothing about planes, allow themselves to be put in the center of the middle aisle. Movement was near impossible and, I have removed sardines easier from a can, than removing my body from the seat to stand up.
We were tired, and I was emotionally spent. I was hoping they would take us to a hotel room. Instead, being a good host, we were taken to his home. The house was marble. The walls were concrete and the floors were marble. He had a large undisciplined Irish Setter that spent its time running, or rather sliding across the floors. We were generously treated to some wonderful Kuwaiti/Arab treats, and extended conversation. Many, many, and even more questions were asked about our role in Kuwait. What did we know about learning disabilities? How did we plan to set up a school? From where did we expect to draw students? My head was spinning, and soon I had to beg to be allowed to return to our rooms. I could no longer remember my name, let alone what I was doing here.
I had found this position by accident. Recently, I had finished a position created in hell. It was as a coordinator for the State of Vermont’s therapeutic foster care program in Southeastern Vermont. I had come to the realization that trying to put band-aids on bleeding jugular veins, which were the children in the system, was more than I could handle. So I quit, and there I was, sitting in the library when I came across an ad in the Boston Globe advertising for people to start a school in Kuwait. It was a small ad, about 6 lines in small type. They needed a school psychologist. It was 1993, two years after the first Gulf War. I always wanted to visit the Arab world, so I figured “Why not?” and off I went. And here I was, exhausted.
Our benefactor taking pity on my colleague and I called a driver to take us to our lodging. I, at least, expected a room with a decent bed and shower. We found ourselves at what looked like temporary housing shelter. It was a lot filled with mobile units. We were shown one of them, and told we would have to carry our own luggage. Our driver explained he had had a heart attack and, therefore, could not lift anything. I dragged my duffel bags to the housing unit. Looking around, I saw a metal shack reminding me of a trailer I once had for living quarters. When I turned the water on, it was black. When I went to take a shower, it was necessary to let the water run for about ten minutes before it came clear of what looked like black sludge. Apparently these buildings had been unoccupied since the invasion of Iraq, and the taps unused.
At least there was a fridge and drinking water. We came to discover, our driver had been given plenty of money to find us a decent hotel. He decided we were only teachers, who would not know any better, and found us this converted construction camp. He pocketed the rest of the money. When we opened the door in the morning, we were confronted with a white expanse of the finest sand I had ever seen. The sun reflected off this blazing expanse, blinding my eyes. The white sand flowed seamlessly into the bluest water making up the Gulf of Arabia, once known as the Persian Gulf.
Our driver came to take us to our new apartments. These were in an old building on the outskirts of Kuwait City. Surrounding the buildings was sand, endless expanses of sand. Now, gentle reader, remember I came from Vermont, the land of Green Mountains —- endless green mountains. The floors of this building were marble, and the rooms large with floor to ceiling windows. It was an old building from before the Iraqi invasion in 1991. The building had been refurbished, and we were among the first ones in there. It was close to the Gulf. The building in front, with a sea view, had been shot through from when the Iraqi came down the coastal road. There were large holes from where the tank shells had struck the building.
A new woman came to meet us at the apartments. She was the Aunt of our employer, and was totally shocked to learn we preferred to stay in these apartments, rather than the hotel where we were the night before. She felt they were not clean enough to house us. It was many months before she learned what the Driver had done. We did not think to tell her why we wanted to move. We thought she had approved where we were taken. We never thought the Driver would steal.
This was my introduction to Kuwait. It is probably a good thing I was dazed from traveling, and not completely aware of my surroundings. If I had been, I probably would have gotten on the next plane out of town.
It was dusty, always dusty and it was worse in the sand storms. These storms would come like snow blizzards, except they were made of sand. Just like in a snow blizzard, it was almost impossible to see the road. We could not drive, as the roads were slippery. And leaving your car outside was a bad idea for after the storm passed much of the paint on the car was gone – sand blasted away.
It was a land of extremes. Even its people are caught in these extremes. One of the biggest mistakes people make about the Middle East is to think that because the people were becoming, and wanting to be modernized that they were westernized. The two are not the same; they are not even equivalent, and while the Middle East did rapidly become modernized, it did not become westernized. They maintained their traditions while updating homes, and buildings, and cars, and technology.
When we arrived in Kuwait in 1993, its people were still becoming used to what it meant to have oil money. There were super highways, recently built, three lanes to a side but still a novelty. If, while driving the roads, you saw someone you wanted to talk to, you pulled up beside them, honked and rolling down your window, you carried on a conversation with the traffic backing up behind you. I say “he” as the vast majority of drivers were male. In those days, women were a rare sight on the road.
Often cars did not use lights at night because they feared the battery would wear out. One particular night stands out in my memory. I was driving quite fast on the road home. The roads were new, and made fantastic speedways. I realized there were cars coming up particularly fast behind me, and quickly pulled over into the slower lane to the right. I suddenly realized there was a dark shape directly in front of me. Putting on the brakes, I rolled to a stop just as I came to the rear of a cement truck, with no taillights and moving quite slowly at about half my speed. I remain grateful that I took note of the dark shape, and slowed in time to avoid a major collision.
Speeding was a common sport among the young. Racing on these highways was often seen. I would look in my rear view mirror and see cars coming at me quite fast with rapidly blinking lights. When this happened, it was best to remain in my lane and not move. To try to move out of the way of the approaching car was suicidal at best. The cars were moving too fast to make a correction. The drivers counted on my not moving from the lane I was in. The cars, when they passed, were moving fast enough to cause my car to rock from the vibration of the speed.
In an attempt to stop this behavior, the police came up with a unique plan. Any cars, in an accident, were left on the side of the road for all to see. I saw cars bent in unique shapes, I would have thought impossible if I had not see them with my own eyes. Young Kuwaiti men felt it a right of passage to totally wreck the first car they were given. More often than not, they ended in the hospital in a coma. Many died, but they were not deterred. I heard stories of cars becoming airborne from speed, and I saw the results.
We had come to found a school for children with learning difficulties. We were the first of its kind in the Middle East and this proved to be an amazing experience. We started with one child. When I left eleven years later we had 156 students, and we had assisted in starting a school in Qatar as well. The school became part of the Qatar Foundation. Both schools are still operating. Little did I know I would stay in the Middle East for fourteen years, and then go on to remain overseas for an additional 7 years, in Africa.
At that time, there were four of us who came to start the school. Two would leave the first year and two of us would go on to remain. The building we moved into for the school was being renovated. It was a home with bullet holes through it. When you were inside you could see the outside. Workmanship was completely, and totally done by hand. There were no construction machines. Electricians tested whether an electrical socket was viable by sticking a light bulb with wires attached into an outlet. If it lit up, then it worked. The only problem was we blew out computers before it dawned on us, you could not tell which was the ground wire in this manner. Since the electricity was 220v, this proved very hazardous to out electrical equipment like printers. I thought it would make a large noise when this happened but it does not. One plugs in a printer and it goes “thhpt” and that is it. It no longer works. There is no fanfare, just a small innocuous sound that signaled the loss of a 500 usd piece of equipment.
We found out also, this equipment is not discarded, you find someone to repair it. We found a fellow from India who was amazing as he could repair anything, and he did. He repaired printers and computers for us and his price was fair, except for one small thing. He liked liquor, which was interesting as Kuwait was a dry country, and mostly his price was bottles of liquor, which we learned to smuggle into the country with amazing ease. I can now admit this, as we are no longer there.
We not only learned how to smuggle in liquor, we learned how to make our own wine. When we went to the grocery store to buy ingredients the clerks would tell you what you were lacking. There was one major store we used called the Sultan Center. It was the first store to cater to Westerners, and it became a major chain in Kuwait. At the time, there were only two or three stores, small by Western standards, but adored by us expatriates. When anything arrived like “After Eight Mints” the word would go out and we would all rush to buy before they ran out. When we bought Rabina by the case, for making wine, the clerks would tell us how much sugar we needed. We would make our wine and then share the best bottles with others. And the wine was good – we were creative.
We also had friends, who made their own gin, flavored liquors, and anything else made form pure grain alcohol. Computer cleaner was used, as was medical grade alcohol. It was possible to legally bring these items into the country. Obviously, they were not always used for their intended purpose. But, these items had to be seriously diluted as the proof was far more than was safe to ingest. But put juniper berries with some computer cleaner, and the gin was quite good. The British were superb at alcohol innovation.
All luggage was searched by hand at the airport. We learned to wrap bottles in aluminum foil to deceive the x-ray machines. The other trick was to put it in flat water bottles, called a platypus. These did not show up on x-rays and held about a fifth of alcohol. Some ex-patriots, traveling with children, would make them cry as they were going through customs. This would cause the customs agents to push them on through the line. There were all kind of tricks developed for getting liquor through. And, of course, one could always just buy it on the black market in Kuwait
Tanks were everywhere. It was 1993 when we arrived, right after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Tanks were left littered on the streets, and there were many buildings with HUGE gaping holes left by tank fire. The tanks were used as landmarks. You drive out the desert road, and at marker 51 you will see a tank on the left side of the road. You turn left on the road right after the tank, and it will take you to the chalets. Kuwaitis had their homes in the city, and their chalets on the water outside of town. So much had been destroyed during the war, so very much.
After the invasion, Kuwaitis and ex-patriots alike returned to find their homes looted, jewelry stolen, and terrible destruction. The Iraqi, apparently, were overwhelmed at the amount of wealth in Kuwait. Understandably, they looted the gold markets, and the homes.
Gold markets were an amazing site. There were large market areas, with shop after shop filled with gold. It was all open to the streets and nothing was guarded. My friends and I kept thinking, that if this was in the US, there would be armed guards everywhere. We hardly ever saw even security guards in the area. At night, iron gates were pulled across the front of the store and locked. We did hear of thefts, but these were rare. I personally, did have thefts occur. But these were crimes of opportunity, happening because of my own foolishness in not locking away valuable jewelry.
The Gulf was amazingly beautiful. We were often invited to spend the day with the friends we had made. We would travel an hour’s ride to get into the desert to the chalets. The water was exquisite, and we would walk along the beach amazed at the whiteness of the sand, and the contrasting blue of the sea.. The Gulf was moody. It changed color according to the mood of the day. I drove along the Gulf to get to work and each day it changed color. Our days were filled with adventure. We climbed the tanks we found in the desert, and we explored. We did not know the tanks had residual radioactivity in them. We found this out —- later.
My colleague who loved to crawl over the tanks would later contract prostate cancer and die from it. We never really knew whether or not this might have been from playing on these tanks. Many children, both in Kuwait and Iraq, had birth defects. Many died. Many who lived had serious health issues. Asthma was a HUGE problem. During the Gulf War it rained fine oil sediment. The fires in the fields were so thick. Anyone with breathing issues experienced serious difficulty. We had arrived shortly after the last oil fire was put out but the air was still thick with particulate matter, causing considerable difficulty for children.
The concept of Arab hospitality was not an idle one.
We traveled up the mountains to the home of my cousins in Amyoun. It is a beautiful little village. The old part of town has very narrow streets. If you stood in the middle of the road, you could touch the houses on both sides. The houses are made of stone. They look like they were carved from stone. The interiors of the homes are stone as are the floors. The roads are steep, and wind through this small area giving character and grace to the village. My favorite activity of the day was to rise early in the morning, and walk the streets. The towns were close together, so it was an easy walk to go from Amyoun, my father’s town, to Couspah, my mother’s town. It must be clearly stated that Couspah was known for its ice cream. It was truly a gift.
My father’s home is located across from a steep cliff. Although it is not in the old part of town, it is still old. It is a large home with tall, long windows, and floors of stone and walls of concrete. My aunt lived here by herself for many years. When I met her, she was around 95 years of age. Her posture was erect and her back straight. She never married, and neither did her brother, who shared the home until his death in the mid 1950’s. He was a heavy smoker, and that is what most likely killed him. The home has been taken over now by squatters. Apparently, in order to get them out we have to pay for them to leave. Lebanese law has its peculiarities. People who left Lebanon are seen as wealthy because we live in America or Argentina or Brazil, etc. Those who stayed seem to feel entitled to compensation from those who left. It is a strange entanglement leaving one wondering about the trustworthiness of relatives.
The cliff across from the house is known as the Hermit’s Cliff. It is riddled with caves on the shear side. There was a Church on the top of the cliff. The hermits would go into the caves to live out their lives. They could see out but never left the cave. Apparently food was lowered to them. There is a large flat space in front of the cliff. Each year there is a Festival of Olives celebrated, where a queen is crowned. I went with my cousins to this festivity. As I sat there, I stared up at the Hermit Cliff, and imagined I could see them staring out watching the scantily clad young ladies competing for the title of most beautiful. The juxtaposition of the two was almost overwhelming. The scantily clad men sitting in caves above, devoting their whole lives to finding God, against the scantily clad girls below devoting their young lives to the Goddess of Beauty or Lust, depending upon your perspective.
One memory from my first visit stands out very distinctly. So many of the houses were in rubble from repeated bombings during the civil war. The house next to my cousins’ had half walls, almost no roof nor floors. It was a two- story building, where in one corner was a relatively intact room. A number of Syrian laborers lived in that second story room. They reached the room by climbing broken stairs, and then walking some narrow beams to this area, where they were camping. I could only guess how bad conditions were in Syria, if this was considered a step up for them.
We had just finished lunch in my cousin’s kitchen. She was a wonderful cook, and had gone out of her way, while I was there, to make the foods I loved. After we finished, my cousin’s husband took the plastic bag filled with garbage from where it was tied to the kitchen faucet. He walked with the bag out onto the porch where I was standing. He then walked to the edge of the second floor balcony, and began to swing the bag faster and faster. When it reached just the perfect arc, he let it go, and it flew smoothly into the house next door. It landed on a pile of garbage on the floor. Seeing me staring, he said, “Don’t worry. We burn the garbage each month. I thought about those people I had seen walking in the rafters, and how they were living above a garbage heap infested with rats and wild cats. And then I was told, “What can you expect? There are no garbage collections. Seventeen years of civil war did this.”
One of the wonderful memories I have, from this visit is taking long rides through the countryside. My cousin’s husband took us for drives, and we explored the area. We stopped whenever something looked interesting. One time we stopped in the Druze area, far up in the hills. The Druze have an interesting religion, hard to define, and not easily categorize. They are not Moslem or Christian, and maintain silence about specifics. We stopped at a home, a small concrete house. It was clean and neat, but bare. He invited us to share coffee, and we did while the men discussed where we were, and obtained directions to the next place.
We were soon on our way, and soon we stopped again. We were traveling through a small village. All of the inhabitants were in the streets in what looked like a procession. Before my comprehension caught up with the situation, my two cousins were out of the car and talking to whomever they could find. Soon, they returned to tell us, this was a funeral procession for a young man who had committed suicide. They had found out the age, the family history, and why, most likely, the young man took his life. These women would have made fantastic detectives. I sat in the back seat, marveling. I wondered what would happen in the United States, if I had acted similarly. These experiences demonstrated to me the close communication between strangers, and how they were bonded together.
I wondered how, in a country where total strangers could invite me for coffee, open up about the suicide of one of their young in the village, the people could then divide into forty-seven different factions during a civil war, with the result of brother killing brother. Within my own family, one cousin bombed the home of another.
Lebanon is an amazing land of contradictions. The greatest export from Lebanon is its people. We have moved all over the world. The Turkish occupation, the extreme poverty combined with incredibly high prices, and the constant instability of the region, has force the people to leave. We are everywhere from Argentina to Senegal. We are known as chameleons and blend easily into our adopted countries, often making major contributions. At one time, it was known as the “Paris of the Middle East.” The people are proud of their fluency in French, preferring to speak French than Arabic.
The Lebanese women are known for their beauty. It is not so much their beauty, as their incredible ability for fashion and dress. Once, on another visit to Lebanon, I was in the South of Lebanon at a party sponsored by the sister of the then President of the country. The women were dressed in exceptionally tight clothes, and very expensive ones. One woman was dressed in a pants suit costing 1500 dollars. I was told she would wear it once; President Hariri’s sister had bought it for her.
Once, when I asked my cousin why the young women wear such incredibly tight clothes, I was told, “how else do you expect them to attract a man?” In a country that demanded a woman be a virgin on her wedding night, I fear that she might obtain more than she bargained for.
Much of the behavior I observed was a result of the extreme poverty in Lebanon. It was not unusual for a family to select the daughter considered the most beautiful, and spend all of its resources on her. The living room of the house was outfitted in the best of furniture, while the family slept on mattresses on floors. The girl was dressed in the best to ensure a man with money would want her. The man, once married, was then expected to support the rest of the family. There was a joke circulating at the time “What is the first thing a Lebanese woman looks for in a man?” Answer: “The size of his wallet.” The women are indeed very practical.
This is not unusual in the world. I have heard of similar situations in Thailand, Philippines, and in other countries in desperate straights.
Traditionally, I do not wear make-up. I do not enjoy the feeling on my skin, and I tend to lick off the lipstick. Given I am concerned about how many chemicals I consume, I prefer other forms of poison. One woman, I made friends with, looked at me one day. She looked at the way I was dressed, and then said, “I think it is wonderful you do not care how you look.” She could not understand why I was upset. Also, the women keep themselves very thin. The fact I do not was repeatedly remarked upon. The women may appear to be concerned with appearances more than anything else. The concern for how one looks was definitely absorbed by my mother. I fear she experienced great frustration in trying to get me to care. I give her credit for trying, and that, my friends, is a story for another time.
Lebanon, my Lebanon. Still in spite of it all, it is a land of amazing beauty. It is most known for its cedar trees, the Cedars of Lebanon, renowned since Biblical times. My cousin’s husband took me to see the trees. I had always heard about these amazing trees. I was told you could see them as far as you could look. I came from Vermont. I was expecting large expanses of trees like I experienced there. As we drove higher and higher up the mountain, I became increasingly excited as I looked forward to seeing these splendid trees. When we were almost there, my cousin’s husband said, “Look, see the Cedars are there.” I looked; I saw nothing. “Where?” I asked. “There,” he replied. “Aren’t they beautiful.” He was growing impatient with me. He and I were not getting along. Once he found out I have a fear of heights, he found it very funny to drive as close as he could to the edge of the road. The mountains are indeed very high, and there are no guardrails with very steep slopes at the edge. I did not find him funny.
Finally we reached the area he was pointing too. There was one very large and ancient tree surrounded by a fence. During the civil war the trees were sacrificed to keep warm and, they were sacrificed to make objects for tourists. Thousands of years these trees had stood. They had formed the masts on Roman ships. The wood was prized because insects did not like it. The trees were ancient when Christ walked the earth. The mountains had been covered in them. In less than fifty years, Lebanon had gone from the Cedars of Lebanon to the Cedar of Lebanon. My homeland was making me seriously depressed. Fortunately, there are plans to reseed the trees before they are totally lost.
To this day, I am not sure what I expected to see the first time I flew into Lebanon. My Mother always said
“Lebanon, my Lebanon. The Mediterranean waters are blue, blue (with an emphasis on a long drawn out blu-u-ue). The countryside beautiful; the city of Beirut, like something from a dream.” It always gave me the image of a Disney production, and at the very least, I expected to see Tinkerbell flying around the city waving her magic wand. But that is not what happened, nor is it what I saw,
My mother saw it as a magical, fairy kingdom. She left there when she was fifteen, after she was married to my father. She remembers Lebanon this way because it was where she was the happiest. She told me wonderful stories of how, as a child, she roamed the hills behind her house, She would ride a donkey through the orchards filled with lemon, and tangerine trees. From her hillside, she could see the Mediterranean, and she would sit there for long hours staring. When I visited her home, I went up the hill behind her family home. Yes, there was an old Roman ruin there. When I sat upon it, I could see the Mediterranean off in the distance, and it was a beautiful blue.
When I arrived in Beirut it was not the beauty I expected. The first place my guide took me was to the Green Line in the center of town. This is where different factions fought with each other. One side was on one side of the road, the other, on the other side and, they shot at each other. This was during the civil war in Lebanon that took place from 1975 to 1990. I visited in 1995. Very little had been done to repair the damage. The Green Line road was criss-crossed with electrical wires, like a giant, ill formed spider’s web made by a very drunk spider. Everyone had electricity but no one paid for it.
The buildings were largely bombed out shells. People lived in them. Two or three stories of buildings with gaping holes, and minimal plumbing were seen. What must it have been like for these people who had lived together in peace for so many years. Lebanon was a land where Moslems, Orthodox, and Eastern Rite Catholics lived in peace for many years. Together, with the help of the French, a land rich in heritage and architecture was built. But beneath the surface simmered tribal hatreds breaking out in 1975 in a civil war basically destroying the country.
Lebanon is a land approximately 120 miles long and 60 miles wide. It is known for its beautiful mountains and incredible location on the Mediterranean. At the height of the Civil War, there were approximately 47 different factions. My mother did not think it amusing when I said, this would give each faction less than a square mile to control. Hyperbole, yes, but pretty much true.
Brother turned against brother. My cousin had her house bombed by another cousin, who had joined another faction. My friend tells the story of a man who had two sons. Each night they left the family home, and went to fight – each for a different party. One night the father took a gun, and killed them both. He could not endure the thought they might meet in battle and one forced to kill the other. It was a gruesome and bloody time, and here I was staring at the remains.
I was raised to be very proud of my heritage. In many ways, I considered myself more Lebanese than American. I was soon to find out this was not reciprocated.
Lebanon, my dear Lebanon. Land of my mother, and my father. I had heard so many stories growing up, it sometimes felt that is where I lived, in Lebanon. I was raised bi-culturally. We had one culture at home, and one outside the house. At home my parents spoke Arabic to each other and English to us. When my sister was small, the school would not allow her to stay because she could not speak English, and the teacher could not understand her. She could not return to school until she was able to speak English. Not wanting the same thing to happen to me, I was raised able to really understand Arabic but speaking was limited. I never felt part of the culture at school. My friends were limited. I was not accepted. I was often asked why I looked “different.” “You don’t look like the rest of us.” What was that supposed to mean. Once I was told, by a boy I had “bedroom eyes.” I had no clue what he was talking about. Now, I wonder if he knew. We were in the seventh grade, at the time.
All this to say I was really looking forward to being in Lebanon. At last, I had come home. This is the land where I belonged.
I looked around at bombed out buildings with people still living in them. I saw children playing in the middle of the streets, and in between buildings in dirty, muddy water. I wondered about their sanitation system, or lack of it. My friend’s fiancé was driving me, and he took a perverse pleasure in showing me all of the damage done during the civil war. Whenever I asked questions, or was surprised by what I saw, he responded by saying, “What can you expect after seventeen years of civil war?” This was the excuse for everything. There were no garbage pickups, and there had not been for many years. As far as the eye could see until the line on the horizon, was garbage. When I took pictures, I had to raise my camera in order to obtain a picture without garbage.
As we left the city, and started the ride up the mountain to the village where my mother was raised, we suddenly were engulfed with overwhelming traffic. The three lane highway suddenly accommodated five lanes of cars – all beeping and hollering at each other. Khaled, my friend’s fiancé, rolled down the window, and started screaming at another driver across the way. Unfortunately, I understood what he said. It always amazes me the first thing we learn in a foreign language is how to swear. I could not speak Arabic fluently, but I could swear like a trooper. I understood it all, and it was embarrassing.
After we left the city limits and started into the villages, we were confronted with road blocks. I was told not to speak, not to let them know I was American. This happened about every five kilometers. There were conversations, and I, fortunately, was hardly noticed in the back.
I am downsizing or, as I prefer to think of it, releasing my possessions for someone else to love. Although I am influenced by the need to provide financial support for myself to allow me to write, that is not the primary reason. Neale Donald Walsch wrote a book “When everything Changes, Change Everything.” For me, everything is changing, and it is a feeling of needing to catalyze this change.
This process has often been a part of my life. As a child I never owned much; no one did. As I grew, I accumulated things, and then I would either lose them, or give them away. Prior to going overseas in 1993, I sold everything I owned. When I moved to a different country, I often gave things away, and on a few occasions sold items. But now, I have twenty years of accumulation, as like in 1993, I feel a need to make room for changes in my life. To make room for new things; new experiences to take place, is my soul’s need. Through the years as I traveled, I purchased many wonderful rugs, paintings, jewelry, and all manner of things. I had many wonderful items given to me. Each carries a story, and I will share the story of my treasures when the time comes.
Part of me wants to keep everything. No, my mind yells, we cannot sell that. It is special. Don’t you remember sitting in Khaled’s store and speaking of this treasure with him, and sharing tea together with him, and Ron. Both have left for new worlds; new experiences; new dimensions. No, my mind yells, how can you sell that rug? Don’t you remember sitting in Hussein’s store listening to the stories he spoke of the rugs. He wove magical tales with the magical pictures in the rugs. We sat upon piles and piles of rugs. The area felt snug, and truly cozy with the remembrances of centuries. But we must, my soul responds, as it is time to recall these stories in writing, and to relay the lessons of a life well lived. We will have pictures, and as I stare at the pictures, I will dream of past experiences. I will weave my stories like Scherazade in A Thousand and One Nights. She wove her stories to stave off death. She left each story unfinished, and the Shah – hungry for more – would allow her to live another day. Until after a thousand and one nights, he realized he loved her. Her stories were his redemption. What do I stave off with my stories? What do I accomplish with my stories? Will I redeem myself? Will my stories leave you, my reader, hungry for more?
For as I am releasing my goods, I am releasing my mind and its accumulation of lessons learned in this life. It does not matter if no one reads these or cares about them. I do it because my Soul cares, and my Soul needs to experience the rest that comes with resolution. My Soul is releasing much, so it can truly unite with who I am, and truly release the Being within who is struggling to shine through
Sometimes it is so easy to whinge and whine about my life. When I lived in Rwanda a young teacher related this story to me. I thought I would relate it to you as a way of remembering each moment in gratitude. Jean has now come to the United States to live. He graduated form a premier University in Rwanda where he attended on a full government scholarship. These go to very few students. Always at the tope of his class, he is now seeking to attend one of our premier schools and to further advance his career in engineering and technology.
I had recently asked him to tell me this story again and this is what he reported:
The carrying rocks story is from 2004 when I was a senior 4 biochemistry major on summer break. Our daily livelihood depended on the crops we grew. My village faced a long period of drought dating from late 2000’s. We cultivated beans, sorghum, cassava and sweet potatoes yet there was no successful harvest. A friend of mine got me a job at a construction site as a construction worker aid where we had to carry bags of cement, load /unload delivery lorries, do all the mixing, and rebar all with our bare hands. After that, my whole family, including my two sisters 12 and 14 years old at that time, also worked. I was 16. My mother also obtained a job at another school construction site so she could buy a kilo of corn flour to eat at each meal. The most saddest part of this work experience is that we even had to strike in order to get paid because they did not want to pay as after all. We were borrowing food from local stores hoping to pay when we receive our wages.