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This book began unexpectedly about ten years ago with the arrival of a childhood narrative in my husband Bob's mailbox in the anthropology department at the University of Texas. "I heard that your wife was doing a book about children in the Middle East," said the accompanying letter. "Maybe she would be interested in my story." I read the account and was both moved and interested. Unfortunately, the book I was working on at the time, Childhood in the Muslim Middle East, was an anthology of social science and historical pieces from scholars in the area. The kind of personal narrative I had received did not fit into such a volume. But I mentioned the piece to several other Middle Eastern friends, and within a month, I had four childhood narratives, all unsolicited, and all very different from each other. I was intrigued enough to start a new project, the book which follows.
Life histories have in recent years been set down and published by anthropologists and folklorists, but these works, though valuable, tend to reflect the scholars' own interests and research rather than that of their subjects. The accounts which follow are different. They were written by the contributors themselves with no guidance from me except as to length, and the events, persons, and landscapes depicted are their choice, not mine.
The thirty-six men and women, recounting their childhood memories here, come from fourteen different countries. My husband, the social/cultural anthropologist Robert Fernea, and I have come to know almost all of them personally during our forty-two years of research and residence in the area. They have trusted me to present the accounts, and I feel honored to do so. As teachers, poets, translators, and musicians, they may be seen as "unrepresentative" of the culture as a whole. Yet they are "representers," and like the wandering bards, minstrels, scholars, dervishes, and storytellers of past ages are carrying messages from one world to another, communicating ideas and feelings to us, a new audience in a strange land. And in the tradition of their own illustrious literary past they are such wonderful storytellers!
The transliteration of terms in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish may surprise some readers. In general, foreign words are defined at their first usage, and then not italicized afterward. Words, titles, and names in common use throughout the Middle East such as Quran, Muhammad, Agha, Hussein, and Faisal are standardized. But spelling of given names of the authors is left as they themselves wished, as, for example, Leila Abouzeid.
Some of the pieces were originally written in Arabic and French; I thank the translators: Amal Chagumoum, Bassam Frangieh, Randa Jarrer, and Aziz Abbassi. Thanks also to Sharon Doerre and Persis Karim, who helped with the editing, and to Virginia Howell, who efficiently and patiently typed and retyped the different versions of the chronicles provided by the authors. Gloria Loomis, my long-time editor, encouraged this project from the beginning; I am grateful for her guidance. Robert Fernea read every word, and, as my severest and most constructive critic, helped shape the accounts and tales into their present form. Thank you once more, Bob.
My earliest recollection is of a thorough fright. My mother had taken me to the park. When we got back home, we saw a large crowd waving their arms and shouting. This was in 1919 during the Egyptian Nationalist Independence Movement; a demonstration was taking place outside the Italian consulate, which was located one floor below us in the same apartment building. We made our way through the crowd, which was very friendly and repeatedly said to my mother, "Don't be afraid." But she obviously was and so was I. To make matters worse, my mother had forgotten to take the apartment keys. I remember her ringing frantically and banging at the door. The demonstrators kept on repeating, "Don't be afraid."
Otherwise, my childhood memories are almost all happy ones, especially after we moved to Heliopolis when I was about four. A small and brand-new satellite suburb of Cairo that had been built in the desert by a Belgian company, Heliopolis was clean, quiet, and healthy.
I had lots of friends, but the closest were four Egyptian Muslim brothers who were about my own age and were neighbors of my grandmother. Their father, a high government official, had studied law and spoke good French. Their mother was typically baladi: a plump, good-looking, simple woman with hardly any education but a very warm and affectionate heart and a vast and commanding array of colorful expressions. Through the eyes of my friends, I began to see Egypt as a rich, generous country to which many foreigners (Syrians, Greeks, Maltese, and others) came in search of bread. At that time, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) was a great hero in Egypt and I remember hearing from my friends how, on the quarterdeck, he had fought off the whole British fleet with his sword.
I also had two American friends, and I remember the elder one telling me: "Muslims don't believe in God; they say, 'there is no God and Muhammad is His Prophet.'" It took me many years to figure out that the American was hearing "no God" rather than "one God."
Thus far, I had grown up on French and Arabic, which was basically Syrian Arabic sprinkled with some Egyptian. With my mother I spoke only French, and continued to do so, most of the time, for the rest of my life; with others, though, I used either language. However, when I was about five, I was sent to a kindergarten run by two English women who taught in English. That moment began my long love affair with the English language. First of all, it gave me something with which to challenge parental authority. Secondly, and more importantly, the English language was the key to the world's greatest treasure house of boys' literature. No one had even thought of adapting the Arabian Nights for children—admittedly, they need a lot of adapting—and it was in English that I first read these wonderful tales. It was only much later that I read them in Arabic.
In Turkey, those who feel connected to Islamic culture give their babies Islamic names. Others argue that we should use old Turkic names because we originally came from Central Asia. Another group either makes up their babies' names or uses already made-up ones. My parents made up names for all four of their children. I am named after a submarine. After the Second World War, Turkey purchased three submarines from Germany, a former ally in the First World War. The Turkish government named the submarines BatIray, SaldIray, and YIldIray. In Turkish ay means moon or month, and the verb roots preceding ay (batIr, saldIr, yIldIr) mean to sink, to attack, and to scare, respectively. My father, a customs clerk who had an interest in military things, must have liked the made-up names of the submarines, for he chose to call me YIldIray.
When I was a small boy, we did not have any money to buy toys. But one day we got a big toy without paying any money at all. A Russian plane, low on fuel, made an emergency landing in the sand on our playground. It was such exciting news for a small, sleepy village with a population of several hundred people. As no one in the village had ever seen a plane before, the entire population of Iskefiye came to see the plane in our playground. My father and other town officials arrested the pilot and sent him to Trabzon, but his plane stayed in that sand forever. After the grownups lost interest in the plane, it became the children's favorite toy. We used to jump down from the wings onto the sand, sit on the pilot's seat, and pretend that, unlike the Russian pilot, we were the best pilots in the world.
My mother was illiterate but very intelligent. She was very young when she married, and her first child was born when she was still in her teens. My father was fifteen or even twenty years older than she was. He was a learned man, a grammarian, largely self-educated, who in his younger years taught in a private school. Mustafa Jawad, a well-known linguist and scholar in Baghdad, was a student of his, and my father encouraged him to go to France and study. The Shi'as had their own private schools then, and educated Shi'as felt it was a duty to support those schools and often volunteered their time to teach. My father taught languages, which included German and French as well as Arabic. He was part of the Iraqi nationalist movement against the Ottoman Turks.
What I admired and still think of with admiration about my parents' relationship is that my father raised my illiterate mother to his own intellectual level by reading to her. Early in the marriage, my sisters and brothers told me, Mother complained that my father always had a book in his hand, and so he began reading to her. After we were grown up, they used to sit together in the garden; he would read, she would ask questions, he would explain—they were almost like love birds in their old age. When he died in January, 1954, she said, "I can't survive without your father." Five months later she died.
I have good memories of the food preparation that went on in our house. As children, we all took part in the tasks of drying food and preparing it for the winter. That way we learned about the seasons and what each season produced. My mother instructed Zahra, our maid, to make the yogurt and cheese and ghee from butter, but we all helped in drying the vegetables—okra and lima beans. We had big needles and cotton upholstery thread. We'd string the okra and hang it between the pillars of our courtyard like necklaces. For the beans, we'd tear off the tops of each bean, then split them in half. We'd lay these bean halves on clean straw mats on the roof to dry. Sometimes we did eggplant and even tomatoes.
But what we looked forward to the most was making ma'jun, or tomato paste. No one does it much anymore, but in those days, there were no food factories and each house made its own, which we used for all kinds of things, especially the sauce for marga and also for dolma and many other dishes.
We made ma'jun in late summer when the tomatoes were cheap and ripe. Preparations started at least two weeks before. My father would ask one of his workers to come and collect the tishts, or big tubs, and the trays, and take them to the market to be re-zinced. When they were ready, Father would go to the wholesale vegetable merchants and buy crates full of tomatoes. He would go early in the morning, so when we woke up, the courtyard was full of tomatoes—eight or ten crates of them. Bahija and Mother would put the tomatoes into big strainers and wash them well with the hose before dumping them into the newly-zinced tishts. All the little kids put on old clothes; we washed our hands and everyone helped, boys as well as girls.
The littlest kids would sit around the tishts and pull the green stems out of the tomatoes. When one tisht was done, we got to squeeze the tomatoes and squeeze and squeeze—that was the fun time. Then the older, stronger children would squeeze some more until the peel began to separate from the tomatoes. The next stage was to scoop the tomatoes into strainers and press them through till every drop of juice was out. The leftover skins and seeds were put aside and given to Zahra, who dried them and used them for fuel.
The big boys first carried the trays up to the roof and then carried up buckets of the tomato pulp and juice, filling the trays. Mother would put salt in each one, and then cover each tray with cheesecloth to keep out flies and other insects. The tomatoes were left to dry for three or four days. Every morning Mother would uncover the juice and pulp and stir it up in the hot sun before covering it again with cheesecloth. By the end of the fourth day, the mixture had turned to paste, and the delicious ma'jun was laded into bastoogas, which were big earthenware jars—I remember they had a beautiful turquoise glaze.
Each bastooga was covered with unbleached muslin to keep the air out; the covered bastooga was tied with string and then sealed with gypsum and put in the storeroom for winter. By the time we were finished each summer, we had two or even three enormous bastoogas full of majun.