Every year when I was a child my Father’s family of origin would gather together on Christmas Day to celebrate. Part of our celebration always included a retelling of Papa’s (my paternal grandfather) coming to America. As a child, my *Fambly’s Story made its mark on me, especially since I never knew any of my grandparents – all I had of them were the stories.
*Fambly – The First Generation’s distinctive name for themselves and their progeny is believed to have originated as a typo in a letter passed around between the siblings (true story). To this day, ‘Fambly’ embodies the closeness, love, and commitment to one another we all share.
The following work of fiction is based on the true story of why my Grandfather emigrated to America.
~ ~ ~
“It is well past your bedtime, Saiad, we can talk more about this tomorrow,” I said. The evening air had cooled along with my temper. As Saiad gathered together his paper and pencils, Watfy looked at me questioningly. Your shame shames us all, her eyes seemed to accuse. She only said, “You know I am proud of you, don’t you, Ahmed? The whole Fambly is proud of you!”
You don’t understand; how could you? I thought. The kitchen seemed to fall away as the memories took hold.
~ ~ ~
I knew every mark on every wall of my prison cell by heart. My life had been reduced to nothing more than the surrounding stone and the memory of what I had done. Even if I had the will to forget, Malik’s family would not let me – each year on the anniversary of his murder, I was taken to an open area of the prison and beaten while they watched and mourned. The next day my mother and brother were allowed in for their yearly visit to bring me news, fresh clothing, and to dress my wounds.
As a kind of self-made penance, it became my habit to spend the days before my beating remembering the deeds that ended my freedom, all the while asking Allah for forgiveness. I knew Malik’s family would never forgive or forget. So, I remembered everything, beginning with the look of contempt on Malik’s face when he saw me in the grove. He knew what I had been sent there to do. “Malik,” I began, “this night need not end in death. It must look like I tried to kill you, but I do not want to do that.”
“Sure you don’t,” Malik sneered. “Since when can the word of a Fakhr-al-din be trusted? Come on, Ahmed, I am not afraid of you. Tonight will be your end, not mine!” Despite his smaller stature, Malik had proven stronger and more resourceful than I planned, but he made the mistake of carrying a weapon. By the time I wrested the mallet from him, I was bruised and bloody enough to know that I needed to make the next swing count. I aimed for his already-injured left shoulder hoping to take the fight out of him. Expecting a blow to the head, Malik ducked. A sickening crunch accompanied the impact, and suddenly blood was everywhere. Malik’s still body lay before me and I knew it was really over.
My flight through the mountain village was even shorter than the fight had been. Malik’s brother discovered me as I crawled between the needles of my cedar grove hiding place. The trial had been a sham. Families for miles around had known what Malik had done to my cousin, Youssef. No witnesses were needed to convict me of a crime everyone had expected me to commit, the bloody mallet was evidence enough. My mother had cried, but my father’s smiling face I would never forget. His pride in my actions haunts my dreams.
Today was the day. It would be the 4th beating in as many years. Each year before, the guards arrived before sunrise; none offered me food or water, only pain. Today my captors were late – hours late. Just as I began to hope I might be overlooked this year – perhaps Allah had forgiven me at last – I heard footsteps approaching my cell. Someone was calling my name. At first, I didn’t recognize the voice. Had they changed my guards again? Wait, was that – ? Could it possibly be my brother’s voice I heard?
“George! Is that you?” I whispered as loud as I dared through the small hole in the door to my cell. “What are you doing here?” The next thing I knew someone jimmied the lock and the door to my cell swung open. There before me stood George with Papa and my Uncle.
“You are free,” Papa simply said.
“What?!” I shouted. “That’s not possible, the guards -“
“The guards are gone, vanished into the night,” Papa assured me. “There has been a coup. Chouff is ours once more.”
~ ~ ~
Saiad shook his head, eyes wide in disbelief. “They let you go, just like that?” he said.
“Not ‘just like that’,” I began, “but yes, I was free … for the moment.”
Watfy tried then, “It is hard for you to understand, Saiad. You did not grow up in Lebanon. It is a different world, not like America. 2 or 3 families fight over who will run an entire region. When they fight, people die. When people die, others take revenge. It is all we have ever known,” she said with a sigh.
“What about the police, the government? Congress?” Saiad asked. I shook my head. “Well, if people always take revenge, how did you survive, Papa?”
“I would not had I stayed,” I said. “That is why I came to America. It took about a year to make arrangements to leave, and going was hard, but I did not want to live my whole life looking over my shoulder for an assassin who would one day come. I was safe as long as I was in prison; once they could not hold me, my life was forfeit.”
“Mama, did you come to America with Papa? What was it like riding a boat all the way across the Atlantic Ocean?” Saiad asked, looking at Watfy in expectation of another long, interesting story.
“No, Saiad, I met your father many years after he left Lebanon, but I knew the stories about him since I was a young child. I told you, where I come from, your papa is a hero! But he is right, it is late. I think the story of how we met will keep for another day.”
Giving Saiad my sternest look, I took a breath to scold him, then stopped. I suddenly realized how quiet the house had become. “Children, where are you hiding?” I said softly.
Slowly, one by one, 6 children filed into the kitchen. Watfy smiled as she stood, hands on hips. “And what are you all doing down here? Evelyn, everyone was to be in bed one hour ago,” she scolded playfully.
“I know, Mama. Everyone’s ready for bed. We just couldn’t help listening to Papa’s story. He tells tales of such adventure!” Evelyn exclaimed.
Reaching my arms out to pull Idell and Fred onto my lap, I asked, “Do you want to know the greatest adventure of my life?” I waited until I saw 6 little heads nod. “You!” And planting a kiss on each one, I ordered, “Now off to bed!”