Book 4-Unit 5
Anwar F. Accawi
1.When I was growing up in Magdaluna, a small Lebanese village in the terraced,
rocky mountains east of Sidon, time didn't mean much to anybody, except maybe to those who were dying. In those days, there was no real need for a calendar or a watch to keep track of the hours, days, months, and years. We knew what to do and when to do it, just as the Iraqi geese knew when to fly north, driven by the hot wind that blew in from the desert. The only timepiece we had need of then was the sun. It rose and set, and the seasons rolled by and we sowed seed and harvested and ate and played and married our cousins and had babies who got whooping cough and chickenpox—and those children who survived grew up and married their cousins and had babies who got whooping cough and chickenpox.
We lived and loved and toiled and died without ever needing to know what year it was, or even the time of day.
2.It wasn't that we had no system for keeping track of time and of the important
events in our lives. But ours was a natural or, rather, a divine—calendar, because it was framed by acts of God: earthquakes and droughts and floods and locusts and pestilences. Simple as our calendar was, it worked just fine for us.
3.Take, for example, the birth date of Teta Im Khalil, the oldest woman in Magdaluna
and all the surrounding villages. When I asked Grandma, "How old is Teta Im Khalil"
4.Grandma had to think for a moment; then she said, "I've been told that Teta was
born shortly after the big snow that caused the roof on the mayor's house to cave in."
5."And when was that" I asked.
6."Oh, about the time we had the big earthquake that cracked the wall in the east
7.Well, that was enough for me. You couldn't be more accurate than that, now, could
8.And that's the way it was in our little village for as far back as anybody could
remember. One of the most unusual of the dates was when a whirlwind struck during which fish and oranges fell from the sky. Incredible as it may sound, the story of the fish and oranges was true, because men who would not lie even to save their own souls told and retold that story until it was incorporated into Magdaluna's calendar.
9.The year of the fish-bearing whirlpool was not the last remarkable year. Many
others followed in which strange and wonderful things happened. There was, for instance, the year of the drought, when the heavens were shut for months and the spring from which the entire village got its drinking water slowed to a trickle. The spring was about a mile from the village, in a ravine that opened at one end into a small, flat clearing covered with fine gray dust and hard, marble-sized goat droppings. In the year of the drought, that little clearing was always packed full of noisy kids with big brown eyes and sticky hands, and their mothers—sinewy, overworked young women with cracked, brown heels. The children ran around playing tag or hide-and-seek while the women talked, shooed flies, and awaited their turns to fill up their jars with drinking water to bring home to their napping men and wet babies. There were days when we had to wait from sunup until late afternoon just to fill a small clay jar with precious, cool water.
10.Sometimes, amid the long wait and the heat and the flies and the smell of goat
dung, tempers flared, and the younger women, anxious about their babies, argued
over whose turn it was to fill up her jar. And sometimes the arguments escalated into full-blown, knockdown-dragout fights; the women would grab each other by the hair and curse and scream and spit and call each other names that made my ears tingle. We little brown boys who went with our mothers to fetch water loved these fights, because we got to see the women's legs and their colored panties as they grappled and rolled around in the dust. Once in a while, we got lucky and saw much more, because some of the women wore nothing at all under their long dresses. God, how I used to look forward to those fights. I remember the rush, the excitement, the sun dancing on the dust clouds as a dress ripped and
a young white breast was revealed, then quickly hidden. In my calendar, that
year of drought will always be one of the best years of my childhood.
11.But, in another way, the year of the drought was also one of the worst of my
life, because that was the year that Abu Raja, the retired cook, decided it was time Magdaluna got its own telephone. Every civilized village needed a telephone, he said, and Magdaluna was not going to get anywhere until it had one. A telephone would link us with the outside world. A few men—like the retired Turkish-army drill sergeant, and the vineyard keeper—did all they could to talk Abu Raja out of having a telephone brought to the village. But they were outshouted and ignored and finally shunned by the other villagers for resisting progress and trying to keep a good thing from coming to Magdaluna.
12.One warm day in early fall, many of the villagers were out in their fields
repairing walls or gathering wood for the winter when the shout went out that the telephone-company truck had arrived at Abu Raja's dikkan, or country store.
When the truck came into view, everybody dropped what they were doing and ran to Abu Raja's house to see what was happening.
13.It did not take long for the whole village to assemble at Abu Raja's dikkan.
Some of the rich villagers walked right into the store and stood at the elbows
of the two important-looking men from the telephone company, who proceeded with utmost gravity, like priests at Communion, to wire up the telephone. The poorer villagers stood outside and listened carefully to the details relayed to them by the not-so-poor people who stood in the doorway and could see inside.
14."The bald man is cutting the blue wire," someone said.
15."He is sticking the wire into the hole in the bottom of the black box," someone
16."The telephone man with the mustache is connecting two pieces of wire. Now he
is twisting the ends together," a third voice chimed in.
17.Because I was small, I wriggled my way through the dense forest of legs to get
a firsthand look at the action. Breathless, I watched as the men in blue put
together a black machine that supposedly would make it possible to talk with uncles, aunts, and cousins who lived more than two days' ride away.
18.It was shortly after sunset when the man with the mustache announced that the
telephone was ready to use. He explained that all Abu Raja had to do was lift the receiver, turn the crank on the black box a few times, and wait for an operator to take his call. Abu Raja grabbed the receiver and turned the crank forcefully.
Within moments, he was talking with his brother in Beirut. He didn't even have to raise his voice or shout to be heard.
19.And the telephone, as it turned out, was bad news. With its coming, the face
of the village began to change. One of the fast effects was the shifting of the village's center. Before the telephone's arrival, the men of the village used to gather regularly at the house of Im Kaleem, a short, middle-aged widow with jet-black hair and a raspy voice that could be heard all over the village, even when she was only whispering. She was a devout Catholic and also the village whore. The men met at her house to argue about politics and drink coffee and play cards or backgammon. Im Kaleem was not a true prostitute, however, because
she did not charge for her services—not even for the coffee and tea that she served the men. She did not need the money; her son, who was overseas in Africa, sent her money regularly. Im Kaleem loved all the men she entertained, and they loved her, every one of them. In a way, she was married to all the men in the village. Everybody knew it but nobody objected. Actually I suspect the women did not mind their husbands'visits to Im Kaleem. Oh, they wrung their hands and complained to one another about their men's unfaithfulness, but secretly they were relieved, because Im Kaleem took some of the pressure off them and kept the men out of their hair while they attended to their endless chores. Im Kaleem was also a kind of confessor and troubleshooter, talking sense to those men who were having family problems, especially the younger ones.
20.Before the telephone came to Magdaluna, Im Kaleem's house was bustling at just
about any time of day, especially at night, when the loud voices of the men talking, laughing, and arguing could be heard in the street below—a reassuring, homey sound. Her house was an island of comfort, an oasis for the weary village men, exhausted from having so little to do.
21.But it wasn't long before many of those men—the younger ones especially—started
spending more of their days and evenings at Abu Raja's dikkan. There, they would eat and drink and talk and play checkers and backgammon, and then lean their chairs back against the wall—the signal that they were ready to toss back and forth, like a ball, the latest rumors going around the village. And they were always looking up from their games and drinks and talk to glance at the phone in the corner, as if expecting it to ring any minute and bring news that would change their lives and deliver them from their aimless existence. In the meantime, they smoked cheap, hand-rolled cigarettes, dug dirt out from under their fingernails with big pocketknives, and drank lukewarm sodas that they called Kacula, Seffen-Ub, and Bebsi.
22.The telephone was also bad news for me personally. It took away my lucrative
business—a source of much-needed income. Before, I used to hang around Im Kaleem's courtyard and play marbles with the other kids, waiting for some man to call down from a window and ask me to run to the store for cigarettes or liquor, or to deliver a message to his wife, such as what he wanted for supper. There was always something in it for me: a ten or even a twenty-five-piaster piece.
On a good day, I ran nine or ten of those errands, which assured a steady supply of marbles that I usually lost to other boys. But as the days went by fewer and fewer men came to Im Kaleem's, and more and more congregated at Abu Raja's to wait by the telephone. In the evenings, the laughter and noise of the men trailed off and finally stopped.
23.At Abu Raja's dikkan, the calls did eventually come, as expected, and men and
women started leaving the village the way a hailstorm begins: first one, then two, then bunches.
24.The army took them. Jobs in the cities lured them. And ships and airplanes carried
them to such faraway places as Australia and Brazil and New Zealand. My friend Kameel, his cousin Habeeb, and their cousins and my cousins all went away to become ditch diggers and mechanics and butcher-shop boys and deli owners who wore dirty aprons sixteen hours a day, all looking for a better life than the one they had left behind. Within a year, only the sick, the old, and the maimed were left in the village. Magdaluna became a skeleton of its former self, desolate and forsaken, like the tombs, a place to get away from.
25.Finally, the telephone took my family away, too. My father got a call from an
old army buddy who told him that an oil company in southern Lebanon was hiring interpreters and instructors. My father applied for a job and got it, and we moved to Sidon, where I went to a Presbyterian missionary school and graduated in 1962. Three years later, having won a scholarship, I left Lebanon for the
United States. Like the others who left Magdaluna before me, I am still looking for that better life. (2121 words)