She stood alone in the foyer half hidden by an urn filled with bushy flowering red jasmine. The flowers had been gathered that morning to delight the parents who had come for the recitation. She sighed, filled with inexplicable longing, and fingered the ragged paper in her hand on which was scribbled Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”
The proper recitation of poetry was important at FGS and once a month the parents came to listen.
“For crying out loud,” said Margaret, “everyone goes fast asleep at these things. The Muslims are indifferent because we never include their poets. The English poets say very little about the afterlife which is as important to them as this vale of tears.”
On an evening just like this, after Nadia had recited all seven stanzas of Tennyson’s “Sir Galahad,” her grandmother kissed her cheek and muttered into the air, “Reap the wind and harvest nothing.” Her way of saying Nadia spent time on activities with no lasting benefits.
Miss Smythe said if they hoped to sit for the matriculation exams they must be well read. They must know the great literature of the world. “The great literature of the world,” shrieked Margaret,” . . . “is either crying over spilled milk or making too much of everything. Life is very simple, really.”
“You can make fun of it because you’re English,” offered Nadia wisely. “For us it’s something to admire.”
Now from her safe nook in the foyer, Nadia could hear the boys finishing their recitation. That meant the girls would begin. She would have to take her place in the auditorium. “ ‘Ah love . . . Ah, love . . . Ah love . . .’ “ - she spoke with exaggerated emotion – “ ‘ let us be true to one another for the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, So various . . . so? . . . beautiful . . . so new, Hath really . . . hath really’ . . . ooh what does it bloody have?”
“It ‘hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,’ “ came an unequivocal deeply masculine answer from the other side of the foliage.
She sucked in her breath, bit down on her offending lips and waited. To be heard using that word! She knew that “bloody” while it sounded harmless to her, was quite coarse to the English. An eternity was perceived but only several seconds passed. Her mouth felt dry as a gully. “ ‘Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain . . .’ “ the voice now had an urgency. He was trying to get her to continue, to answer with the next poetic line.
She unclenched her jaw and let go of her lips. “ ‘And we are here as on a darkling plain,’ “ she said timidly without any of the expression the line demanded, “ ‘Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where . . .’” What came next?
“ ‘Where ignorant armies clash by night,’ “ came the resonant answer.
It was no voice she recognized. Was it a parent? Perhaps an intruder! She began to tiptoe away hoping to reach the door of the auditorium – from which she should not have strayed – without facing . . . him. She felt an incriminating awkwardness in every step.
“You stumbled on ‘ . . . so various, so beautiful, so new,’ etc. That’s where your problem begins.” The voice reached out and stopped her in midflight.
“Yes,” she acknowledged, still facing away. That’s where your problem begins.
“Well? Don’t you need to learn it? Come here. It isn’t as if you’ve got a week.”
“No.” She turned to face a tall, slim man elegantly dressed in a flat woven tweed cut in a smart, shaped style. His brown hair was parted to the side neatly and brushed back, exposing his face in a daring way – like the men who posed in the motor car advertisements whose hair (and their caution, she surmised) was driven back by the wind making them appear headed toward inevitable danger. It was a confident face with a strong but appropriate Roman nose, pale eyes and a wide mouth that was twitching, trying to contain a smile. She tipped her face up to him, crimson and unsure. Hoping for the best. “I beg your pardon?”
“Not at all. I beg yours. You came to practice your lines in privacy and now I’ve thrown you off. It’s hardly fair.” Again his mouth curved upward. What was the appropriate response? Her fervent wish was not to appear stupid. Right then, his lighthearted expression changed to one of concern. “Why so worried?” he asked. “Haven’t got the lines tucked in memory?” He gave her a reassuring smile – a smile that seemed too extravagant for a girl her age. “You’re in luck. I happen to be an expert on ‘Dover Beach.’ Come . . . give it another try . . . ‘Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light.’ Come on, repeat after me . . .” He crooked his finger as if to charm the words out of her.
“ ‘Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,’ “ she repeated unconvincingly. She looked around the hall, at her hands, at the patterned floor and then again at his face.
“Think of it as J L L . . . or to make it more personal, Jack Loves Linda . . . joy, love, light . . . ‘ followed by that tragic tale, Charles Pines for Penelope. C P P . . . ‘Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.’ “ His face was serious as a priest.
“ ‘Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,’ “ she repeated and then continued. “ ‘And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.’ “ She looked away to the side to briefly escape his gaze for he was hanging on her words mouthing them with her as if she were a toddler. “I’ve got to go now.” Yet she stood still waiting for his dismissal.
“There you are,” he said with kindness. “It was just a stumble. You’ll do fine.”
She ran down the corridor but then slowed down, aware of the clatter of her shoes. At the door of the hall, she looked back. He stood perfectly still, framed by the burning red bush, his tweed-clad arms comfortably across his chest, the corner of his lip hiked up in a smile. His eyes held fast on her retreating form. She smiled both thrilled and embarrassed that he was still looking at her.
Samir stepped into the foyer, expecting to find it empty. He had been reprieved from listening to the girls’ poetry in order to arrange the seating in the parlor for the tea social that was to follow. The well-dressed man at the end of the hall caught his attention first. Then, in a moment of devilish serendipity, he saw his cousin Nadia turn to bestow on this stranger an irresistible smile of such tenderness that it jarred Samir. Her face in that subdued light seemed as fragile as the mist that rolled in before dawn and hovered magically before it delivered itself to the thirsty foliage. The irony of the moment wasn’t lost on Samir. Had Sammy George not omitted four lines from “Annabel Lee,” crassly curtailing Poe’s lament for his beloved, the scene would have gone un-witnessed. He had stepped into the hall seconds too early and now that exchange of private smiles took hold of his imagination and made him restless. He had the uneasy feeling that he had apprehended something that was as yet unknown to the participants.
Jasmine had just begun “Geist’s Grave,” when Nadia took her seat. “ ‘That liquid melancholy eye’” – Jasmine was being overly dramatic in her recitation, as if she were auditioning to be in films – “ ‘From whose pathetic, soul-fed springs seemed surging the Virgilian cry. The sense of tears in mortal things . . .’ “ At this point, Jasmine, moved by her own words, began to weep. There was a great deal of embarrassed shifting by the audience and Jasmine’s mother cried out emotionally, “It’s all right habibty,” a gaffe that sealed Jasmine’s fate at FGS.
“What’s she crying about?” hissed Margaret to Nadia. “Geist was Arnold’s dog. That bloody poem is about his dog. That girl’s balmy, I swear. She’s an idiot. Now, look,” she rolled her eyes heavenward in disgust, “Miss Smythe has told her to sit down. She doesn’t have to finish so I guess, I’m up . . .” Margaret passed through the row of knees with resignation and then proceeded to give a flawless rendition of Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper,” sweetly dedicating it “to the hardy women of Palestine,” that forever endeared her to half the audience. Nadia was so surprised she forgot to go next. “Your turn, Mademoiselle,” said Margaret archly.
She stood and faced the row of parents and noticed her father dressed in an unfamiliar European suit, tugging and picking at his jacket as if trying to make it as long and comfortable as his familiar aba. Why couldn’t he stop arranging it and be still? His neighbors were staring at him. She cleared her throat meaningfully and began her recitation. Midway through when she had gained some confidence, she dared to search the rows for the man in the foyer and found him standing at the back. Their eyes met. He smiled encouragement, as if she were his special project and made a little flourish with his hand in salute. Her heart reacted. A handsome man’s attention was something so new and unexpected. She returned to her seat feeling elated.
Of all the dainty tasks learned at Friends pouring tea from the ornate silver urn engaged her imagination most. She had watched Miss Smythe’s delicate New England wrist dip and bend pouring a perfect arc of dark liquid without concern and with a confident smile on her lips as if she was eager to give her guests not only tea but also all the goodness that was inside her. “Eating should entail spiritual sustenance, too,” Miss Smythe told them. “Food should be given gracefully, generously. But certainly our Arabic girls don’t have to be told such things. They have made a religion of hospitality.” Tonight Nadia was one of the girls chosen to pour and she sat in the seat of command surrounded by nested cups, little pincers for sugar and lemon at her fingertips. A deputy paired the cups with saucers and handed them up. She poured and held the cup a moment in the air while inquiring with a smile, “Lemon? Sugar?” This was the ceremony that satisfied her soul.
“Got scullery duty, eh?” Margaret sneered coming up from behind and digging her fingers into Nadia’s shoulders.
“Three sugars, please,” demanded a voice from above. The voice was familiar. Before she looked up she knew it was her poetry coach.
“Two will do,” Margaret grabbed the cup from Nadia, plopped two cubes into it with her fingers and handed it to the man. “Too much sugar rots the teeth,” she said sternly.
Nadia’s first thought was: Oh, Margaret will interest him now with her brashness.
The man smiled indulgently. “Margaret,” he said, “you were superb tonight.” He looked down at Nadia. “And you pulled yourself out quite handily, too, although I would guess your interests lie in something other than poetry.” His candor was a surprise but not deflating. He made her sound vastly more interesting than a scholar of poetry.
Margaret went to stand between them. “Nadia,” she said with mischief in her eyes, “this cheeky man is Victor Madden, my father.”
“How do you do.” He had extended his hand and she had no choice but to let him have hers but the news fell like a bomb. The room blurred. Margaret’s father! It was one of those awful awkward moments when one’s expectations are so wrongly placed that the spirit falls with a thud. He had been her special encounter, an event to play with in her mind. And now . . . Margaret’s father! She had wanted him known only to her and now . . . the whole thing was spoiled. As if it were Margaret’s fault she had a father Nadia had an instant desire to put great distance between herself and her friend. The Black Sea would have been about right.
The tea drinkers had dwindled and she excused herself awkwardly unwilling to look at his face. She went in search of Nadeem who was standing by himself, his hands crossed in front of him turning a black fedora around and around. He walked to a chair but before sitting pulled out his trousers like a man accustomed to dealing with the loose skirt of the aba. Nadia felt a stab of tenderness and loyalty. He had worn the suit only to please her.
He rose to greet her and she kissed him. Usually she chastised him for making no attempt to mingle with the other parents but tonight she said nothing. She noticed with some dismay that she had grown slightly taller than he.
“Baba, it’s all right if you wear your regular clothes. You looked so uncomfortable in that suit.” She tried not to sound critical unwilling to make him the victim of her sudden black mood.
“Was it so obvious? I tried to sit still but it’s extremely itchy.”
“No, it wasn’t obvious,” she lied. “It’s just a surprise to see you in a suit. You didn’t have to come tonight. You’d have been asleep by now.” The programs began at a time when her parents were usually ready for bed. “How’s Mama?”
“Mama’s fine. She wanted to sleep early tonight.” He looked down at his feet with interest, not used to seeing them when wearing his usual long robe. He looked up again and his face was serious. “Mama’s not fine. Khalil and Hanna are finally going to America. She cries about it every night.”
“They always say they’re going but then they don’t. What would they do in America, anyway?”
“Butross’ son is doing well there. He travels door-to-door in the better neighborhoods taking orders for linens. It’s quite a business. Now he’s going to open a shop in a town where the rich Americans go to escape the cold winters. The town is called Palm Beach and it’s directly on the Atlantic Ocean. The sea is right there, so they say. It comes right to the edge of the yards of those large houses. Can you imagine? The vast ocean coming right up to your house?”
“Khalil might go,” she said thoughtfully, “but Hanna would never leave you.”
“I want him to leave us,” said Nadeem. “It’s no good for him to stay behind.”
“Baba! What a thing to say.”
“I say it because I love him. It’s strange. Hanna seems independent because he doesn’t say much but he is the most attached to us. He needs to make his way in the world. Not to stay with us. Anyway,” – he sighed and smiled lovingly at his daughter – “we still have you. After June you’ll be home for the summer.”
“Baba. I want to sit for the Matriculation Exams. Perhaps I’ll stay here and be tutored so I can take them next year.” She knew he wasn’t expecting to hear this but it was a relief to say it.
“Why habibty? You’ll be graduating next year. You’ll be finished with school.”
“Miss Smythe says I could pass them and she wants to enter my name. She says it would give me a feeling of accomplishment for my hard work even if I don’t go to the university.”
“The university.” He echoed her last word with a melancholy look in his eyes.
“If I passed I could be accepted to the sophomore class at the University of Beirut. Even though I don’t attend, I’ll know that I could have gone. Samir Saleh is sitting for the London Exams. He’s going to a university abroad. He had to stay here an extra year to be ready but that’s because the boys’ school had to start anew after the war and didn’t have a full staff.”
“Is that so? Samir is going abroad?” He raised his eyebrows with mild surprise but his heart wasn’t in the subject. “I think your mother will be happy to have you home again. With the boys gone, the house will seem too quiet.”
Nadia remained silent. Her mother was eager to have her home and she was eager to stay at school. She looked longingly around the room. Miss Smythe poised and confident, floated from group to group. Miss Bailey, comfortably stout, had hold of the girls who had no visitors. The Muslim parents quietly took note of the mannerisms of the English who were now in charge of their government. They called it a protectorate and they wanted to see how they would be protected. Two Italians stood in the center, proud and alone. She loved this ordered world – every hour had its own rhythm. She felt at home here because she was accepted.
“What’s wrong? You have such a troubled look on your face? What is it?”
“Nothing, Baba. How’s Gala? Is she getting exercise? I’ll be able to ride her myself soon.”
“Yes,” said her father but he seemed to have shrunk into his jacket. She realized that it sounded as if all she had to look forward to was riding Gala. Then she remembered who had given her Gala and her heart ached for her father. There were times when she felt older and wiser than her parents. As if she knew things they were too innocent to understand. It was such a lonely feeling. “Come,” she said putting her arm protectively through his, “I want you to meet Margaret before you leave. She introduced me to her father and now I want to introduce her to mine.”
A quick survey of the room showed no trace of Margaret and her father. Nadia was about to look for them in the hall when Samir approached.
“Ami.” He bowed his head slightly toward Nadeem. “Hello, Nadia.”
Why is his tone peeved she wondered idly but was more occupied with finding her friend. “Have you seen Margaret?”
“Yes. She and a man just pulled out now in a loud car.”
“That was her father,” said Nadia and her voice showed her disappointment. “I didn’t realize she was leaving with him.”
“Well, don’t look so dejected,” he said and again there was that scornful reproach. “She’ll be back.”
After a moment of awkward silence, Nadeem spoke. “You’re going to the University of London?” he asked
“If I pass the exams,” said Samir.
“To study what?”
“Economics? But you have your father’s business. Why not learn about your father’s business interests?”
“But I will, ami. That’s part of economics.”
Samir was being overly gracious to her father and . . . cranky to her. There was another side to Samir Saleh. He was capable of a certain detachment that could be cowering if it was directed at you. He looked through people more than at them and could wither the fainthearted with a cool disinterest that chilled the heart. She felt it now.
“You have to go to London to learn about your father’s business?” asked Nadeem with a rueful laugh. “Why not just ask your father.”
“It’s my father’s wish that I go,” said Samir.
“I see. It’s your father’s wish to send you away and it’s my wish to bring Nadia home but she wants to try the exams, too. She doesn’t want to come home.”
At that moment her spirits began to collapse. She kissed her father affectionately and embraced him. “Baba, it’s late. Thank you for coming but I know you would have been in bed long ago. Say hello to the boys. I love you. I love Mama.”
“All right habibty.” He was about to put the fedora on his head but reconsidered and kept in his hand. He walked to the door, turned back again to have one last sight of his daughter and walked out into the darkness.
“You’re going to take the Matriculation Exams?” Samir asked and she couldn’t decide whether he was genuinely surprised or making fun of her.
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing if it will be for some use.”
“You feel I won’t put it to use?”
“Women in our clan have never worked and none that I know of has ever attended a university.” He stated it as simple fact yet he felt that she had disappointed him in some way.
“And does that mean none ever should? Perhaps I’ll be first.”
“Perhaps,” he said softly.
Still feeling wounded from her gaffe over Victor Madden, she let down her guard. “I envy you going to London. Going home is . . . well, it’s a letdown. I always seem to disappoint my parents’ expectations.”
“You don’t want to settle down?” he asked gently.
“Not right away. There’s so much more I want to experience. Your sister’s not married.” She challenged him with her eyes. “Julia strikes me as having good sense.”
“Sorry to disappoint you but I’m quite sure Julia will be engaged this summer.”
“Oh.” She was at a loss.
“You can marry and still have good sense,” he said with a little mirthless laugh. “Do your parents agree with your modern view? They don’t mind if you don’t marry?”
“It hasn’t come up.”
“And yourself?” She couldn’t control the sarcasm. “What fortunate girl will have the honor of marrying Samir? Every mother in Tamleh has spent her house money on lamps for El Khalil for the miracle of having you choose their daughter.” She was referring to the old superstitious custom of leaving candles and food at the tomb of the prophet in the hopes of gaining impossible favors.
“Really?” He smiled and traced a pattern on the floor with his shoe. “And is your mother lighting a candle as well?”
“Who knows? Perhaps she is.” She couldn’t help smiling. “Wouldn’t that be ironic?”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s precisely what it would be.”