I grew up in Lebanon, first in a small village in the countryside and later in the coastal city of Sidon, where my family had moved so that my father could work for the Arabian American Oil Company, or Aramco. The Saudi petroleum giant needed English-speaking Arabs to work in its training center, where American engineers and heavy-equipment operators came to learn about Arab customs, culture, and traditions. My father, educated by Presbyterian missionaries, spoke excellent English and got a job as a lecturer. The training center was like a little America, and it was there that I was introduced to such magical foods as M&Ms, hot dogs, and coconut cream pie. For a while we lived well on my father’s salary and the bounty from the center.
Aramco also needed locals to ferry employees around and run errands, and my father was assigned the task of picking competent and dependable drivers. One of the men he hired, Saeed Abu Karam, became his close friend. Saeed had a handlebar mustache and was a Druze — a sort of Muslim Unitarian. Though Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol, Saeed was not especially religious, and he and my father would get together and consume a potent beverage called “arrack.” Neither man cared much for politics. Saeed would say that all politicians were crooks who used religion to gain power, and he and my father would clink their glasses and drink to that. I will always remember the two of them reeking of arrack as they roasted lamb kabobs over a charcoal fire on our apartment’s veranda.
In the winter of 1958, when I was fourteen, a civil war almost broke out in Lebanon. On one side were Christians who supported the president and wanted the country to maintain its close ties with the United States. On the other side were Muslims who were pressuring the government to join the short-lived United Arab Republic, along with Egypt and Syria. The Lebanese army, made up of both Christians and Muslims, refused to take sides for fear of losing half its troops to desertion.
Sidon became a dangerous place. People could commit murder without fear of arrest, and anyone who harbored a grudge felt free to settle it with bullets and grenades. Pedestrians were shot from rooftops with high-powered rifles. A childless widower living by himself a couple of blocks from us stuck his head out of his third-story apartment window, and someone drilled him from across an orange grove in full bloom. For a couple of days the old man’s body hung there, half in and half out of the window, before a neighbor dragged it in.
It was risky to leave the house, even to go to the grocery store or to pick up a prescription for a sick child. The Aramco training center shut down, cutting off our father’s income and our access to American goods. People stayed indoors, avoided windows, and ate what they had laid up in their pantries. At first they shared food with their neighbors — a cup of sugar, a loaf of bread, a bag of salt — but as the fighting dragged on and supplies became scarce, people stopped asking to borrow ingredients, because the promise to return the favor when times were better was beginning to sound empty.
My family, in particular, was in danger. We were the wrong religion (Presbyterian) for our neighborhood, and my father had a reputation as a Darwinist. To many of our neighbors, Christians and Muslims alike, his belief that humans had evolved from monkeys was blasphemy, and he was careful not to show his face in public. Nor would he send me or my siblings out to run errands. (The twins, Mona and Moneer, were only nine, and my sister Mary was eleven.) Mother couldn’t leave the house by herself; in Lebanon in the fifties a wife would go out alone to take care of business only if her husband was dead or crippled. Our rice, sugar, and butter eventually ran out. Then the last, shriveled potatoes disappeared from the bin. While there was still some flour left, Mother made doughy patties, which we smothered with margarine, sprinkled with salt, and ate steaming hot. They made our bellies feel full so we could sleep through the night despite the shrill whistle of snipers’ bullets.
Some evenings, when sleep did not come, my thoughts would drift back to the village in the southern hills where I’d spent my early childhood. In the countryside there had always been figs and apricots on the trees, grapes on the vines, vats of olives and olive oil in the kitchen, and chickens that laid plenty of eggs in the yard. Even when we had no money and nothing in the cupboard, Mother could take her sharp kitchen knife and her bamboo basket and go walking in the fields. When she came back, she would have greens and roots and bulbs and berries and leaves. She would slice, dice, stir, season, and fry, and we’d eat our fill and thank God (as Grandma instructed) and pat our bellies in satisfaction.
The city was a hard place to be hungry. Even before the fighting had broken out, everything we’d eaten had been bought at the store. Sometimes I thought of Sidon as a beautiful woman lying in a coma on the Mediterranean coast, kept alive by life support. The roads ran in and out of her like tubes, bringing in food from the farms and villages to sustain her and carrying out refuse to keep her from drowning in her own waste.
By the time the crisis entered its sixth month, my parents were growing scared. As inventive as Mother was in the kitchen, there was nothing left for her to work with: only some overused frying oil, salt, and mustard. The days felt longer, and the evenings were quieter. The games we played by candlelight were no longer fun. We stopped laughing.
One evening we were sitting in the living room listening to the radio in the dark, Mother crying softly, when a knock came at the door. We jumped from our seats and looked at each other. Who could it be? Had the Muslim rebels finally come for us in our own home? The knock came again, louder than before. Then a familiar voice called out my father’s name: “Fuad, open up, will you? It’s Saeed. Let me in.”
My father turned on the light and flung open the door. And there was Saeed Abu Karam, my father’s old friend, doubled over with his hands on his knees, panting. A huge burlap sack rested between his feet. “Give me a hand,” he said. He and my father lifted the sack and deposited it in Mother’s kitchen. It was a fifty-pound bag of the biggest, healthiest potatoes I had ever seen.
Saeed Abu Karam would not stay to eat or even have a cup of tea with us, though Mother and Father begged him to. He said he had other deliveries to make. We never found out how he had managed to avoid the gunfire in his pickup truck and bring us this portion of his harvest from high up in the hills. Maybe he knew somebody who knew somebody who had given him protection to travel.
Mother went to work washing and peeling and slicing the potatoes, all the while humming to herself. The oil was already heating in a pan on the hot plate. Within minutes the house was filled with the sweet aroma of frying spuds. Lord, what a beautiful smell! If the grace of God has an odor to it, it would be that of potatoes cooking in hot olive oil on a summer evening.
My sister and I set the table: six plates and a jar of mustard. When the first batch of fries was done, Mother placed a pile on each of our plates, serving herself last. We picked the potatoes up and dipped their tips in the mustard. The fries were so hot they burned our fingers, and we had to blow through our mouths and wave our hands in front of them to keep our tongues from being seared. We laughed as we ate and told jokes for the first time in a long while. Three helpings later, we went to bed with full bellies. Sleep came easily.
Sometime in the middle of the night I got up to go to the bathroom and had to pass through the kitchen. On my way I glanced at the big burlap bag of potatoes in the corner, and the wonderful feeling of fullness came over me again.
The crisis ended before we reached the bottom of that sack. In July 1958 U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in the Sixth Fleet. His bombers filled the heavens over Lebanon with thunderous noise that shook both the windows and the resolve of the Muslim rebels. The fighting ceased as abruptly as it had started. The government was in control again, and people could go out into the street and resume their lives, but the country would never be the same.
Hard times continued for my family. My father lost his job for good when Aramco decided not to reopen its training center. It wasn’t easy to live in Sidon without money, but going back to the village would have been an admission of failure, and my father was too proud for that. So we stayed in the city, where I went to high school and got a scholarship to attend college in faraway North Carolina.
We never saw Saeed Abu Karam again. We heard that he’d died of a heart attack on his farm.
Of all the ways potatoes can be cooked and eaten — baked, boiled, mashed, pureed, hashed — my favorite will always be fried.
Today I live in the United States, where I married, raised children, and am now retired after thirty years of teaching English as a second language at the University of Tennessee. When my kids were small, I wasn’t comfortable displaying affection toward them, and I found it hard to reveal what was in my heart. Instead, when they were unhappy or sick, I would say, “Hey, how about some french fries? They’ll make you feel better. I promise.”
I don’t think they ever realized what potatoes meant to me, even after they knew my story. But my first granddaughter, Lele, understood. She was in third grade when I told her of that tumultuous time in my youth and the kindness of Saeed Abu Karam. After that, if she was sad or troubled and I offered to make her some french fries, she would smile and say, “I love you, too.”