Emir Fakhr-al-Din (1572–April 13, 1635): a Druze prince and an early leader of the Emirate of Chouf, a self-governed area under the Ottoman Empire between the 17th and 19th centuries. His period was characterized by economic and cultural prosperity, and he fought other Lebanese families to unite the people of Lebanon and seek independence from the Ottoman Empire. He is considered by some to be the first “Man of Lebanon” to seek the sovereignty of modern-day Lebanon.
The following work of fiction is based on the true story of why my Grandfather emigrated to America.
(If you missed it, click here for Part 1)
“Papa, how do you spell ‘puhlitikul priz’ner?” Saiad asked, his pencil poised in the air above the paper. The once-clean page was now filled with words intermingled with smudges of lead matching the black spots on my son’s hand. After writing furiously for a time, he now sat breathless in anticipation. Saiad always had loved a good story.
“And why would you need to know something like that? Are you hoping to become one?” Watfy asked, as she stepped into the kitchen. She looked down at Saiad with raised eyebrows, awaiting his answer. The twinkle in her eye betrayed her delight in her eldest son, undermining her effort to look stern. Saiad looked up, and furrowing his brow in mock suspicion said, “Were you spying on us, Mama?” Laughter broke out of both of them then.
As always, my wife’s black hair was pulled back into a tight bun, accentuating her high cheekbones and large, round eyes. With a wave I motioned her to me, and, placing my hand on her extended abdomen, said, “Any day now, yes?” I flashed her a boyish grin and the weight of 51 years seemed to fall away from me. What man would not be proud to bear 7 children, and with such a beautiful wife? Shaking her head, she batted my hand away, stepped over to the stove and began cooking the thick, dark brew that made American coffee taste thin. How did she do it? Nine months pregnant, with 6 children already to care for, yet she never seemed tired.
I looked at her straight back, strong shoulders, and delicate neckline and wondered again how such a lovely girl had willingly left her home – at 16! – to marry someone more than twice her age whom she’d never even met. “Saiad wants to know why I left Lebanon,” I said, shrugging. “Maybe you should tell him why you left, too.”
“Well, now, that’s a tale worth telling,” she said, turning to Saiad with a grin of her own. “But where to start?”
“At the beginning, Mama,” Saiad exclaimed. “I want to know everything!“
Watfy’s accent was even thicker than mine. After 15 years in America, she still had not mastered the English language. I had begun to think she didn’t mean to. In some way I did not understand she used the language of her homeland to stay connected to the roots she had left behind. It was a stubborn defiance so characteristic of her, almost as if to say, “I left my home to be with you, but I will not abandon what I was or who I am.” Her defiance carried with it implications about what I had abandoned in the quest to leave my past behind. At least, in her mind, too much of the man she had heard about in stories at home did not seem to live in reality here.
I married a proud woman, no doubt about that. Watfy never let me forget that she had the good sense to marry into a royal line. She didn’t seem to understand that no matter how ancient or powerful my lineage had been in Lebanon, it meant little to nothing today, here in small-town Virginia.
~ ~ ~
The news hit hard. “You mean he’s dead?” Papa asked. His deep voice carried an angry undertone as dark emotions boiled up to the surface. The messenger only looked down at the floor and nodded faintly, fearful to be the bearer of such news. “My nephew, dead?! Who do these people think they are?!” Papa roared.
The setting sun sent streams of light through the narrow window slits, casting long, broken shadows of my father’s sharp features onto the wall behind him. His prominent nose only seemed to grow larger when he was angry. The inevitable had happened. My cousin’s recklessness had finally been rewarded with his death. Despite Papa’s display of anger, everyone had known this day would come. The cycle of vengeance between the clans vying for power had been carried on for centuries. There was no way to stop it now … or was there?
“Papa,” I began, tentatively, “what if we make a show of outrage, then demand restitution of some kind? Perhaps a piece of fertile land? What better way to display our right to rule than to put an end to this senseless violence? Besides, imagine what the clans could do united rather than divided.“
“What are you talking about, Ahmed? You know how this works, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!’ There is no other way. Find out who did this and kill him.” Papa waved us away dismissively. You always knew when a conversation with my father was over. Papa never questioned the obedience of his sons; he didn’t even look up to see if I left when dismissed. It was assumed that as head of the Family his every command would be obeyed, and even at 25 I would not have dared to defy him openly. “But I am not a killer,” I thought. “There has to be another way, and I will find it.”
The chosen day was hot, almost stifling. Even in the shade I was sweating under my silk robes. I likely would have been sweating even had there been a cool breeze. My heart was racing. The plan was in place, and I knew it was a good one. Still, I could not stop myself from going over and over it in my mind.
Malik spent every Saturday in his parents’ home and left just after evening prayers. An ambush would be simple. I would follow him until we were out of earshot of the neighbors; his path always took him through the small olive grove on the eastern side of the village. The grove would be deserted on a Saturday night.
Blushing, I remembered the last time I had met Lutfiyah there. Almost 3 months ago, yet it seemed like yesterday. I could still smell the spiced oils she had combed through her hair. I wonder what she would say if she knew I was going to our little grove for revenge instead of love.
Focus! I chided myself back to the present. Once I had given Malik a good beating, I could make my way through the little village of Barouk and be back home before dawn. I would have to deal with Papa, then, of course. Maybe he will believe that I left Malik for dead; surely Malik’s family would know I spared his life. Perhaps we would be able to negotiate a truce, in time. But I had already made up my mind. I would not become a murderer, not even for my family’s honor.
~ ~ ~
“Did you know your papa is a famous man in Lebanon? Where I come from, his name is known in every village for miles around,” my wife declared.
“Really? What did you do, Papa? Were you an explorer? An inventor? Maybe you had riches like a Sultan!” Saiad turned to look at me, dark eyes alight with dreams of the great person he imagined he was seeing for the first time.
The shame in my eyes as I turned away from him was not lost on Watfy. “How can you feel shame for defending your family’s honor? Only a coward would have run from his duty, Ahmed. You did not run,” she said quietly in her native tongue, so that Saiad had to struggle to hear and keep up. “Didn’t run? Run from what, Papa?” he said.
“Your papa would have you believe that he acted dishonorably,” she said, speaking in heavily-accented English once again. “But in the region where we grew up, he is a legend. His family displays a mallet on the wall in their home to proclaim your Papa’s commitment to justice,” she said with obvious pride.
Finding it easier to argue with her in my native Arabic, I said, “What kind of justice does it proclaim, Watfy? Did Malik’s death bring my cousin back to life – NO! Vengeance has no power to restore. ‘An eye for an eye’ only leaves two men blind!” The scraping of the chair legs as I rose from the table could not cover the frustration in my voice. “I want to celebrate life in this family, not death. And where would you be today if I had suffered the same fate and met my end at the hands of Malik’s family champion – ‘a tooth for a tooth’?” The screen door slammed for the second time that night as I stalked out into the darkness.
Taking a deep breath, I looked up and watched the moon slowly rise over the little brick home sheltering my beloved family. What would I do if someone ever took the life of one of my children? My wife? I know what I would do – I had done it before. And my fierce protectiveness had absolutely nothing to do with ‘family honor’.