Wednesday, June 3, 2015

My Big, Fat Lebanese Wedding: Cold Feet Again


   ( 5/4/11)) Each morning as I walked down Broadway to reach the subway station, I stopped at a little hole-in-the-wall storefront that sold cigarettes, snacks and magazines. I had to get several packs of Doublemint gum (throw in some Juicy Fruit too, please) to satisfy my oral fixation, or I wouldn't be able to get any work done. I chew, therefore I think.
    The proprietor was a dark and handsome young man from Beirut, who had recently arrived in New York to study architecture. He always handed me a rose with my little bag of gum.  He was gallant and poetic in his flirtation. He wore Armani suits and a Cartier watch. He looked like the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, and had that same insouciant pout that one often sees in French "ladies' men."  Within a couple of months, we would be engaged.
    Samir seemed to do everything with a flourish -- as if he were a dancer, or a toreador -- whether it was lighting a cigarette, hailing a taxi or serving a meal. He was only 20 years old, a year younger than I, but he treated women with such accomplished stylishness and chivalry that you would think he had been at it for decades.
    His romantic impulses had an urgency and ardency about them that were very sweet, although in an older man they would have been obnoxious. He was a beautiful boy -- like someone who could have posed for the statue David, with his physical grace and offhand sensuality.
     The men I was dating were years -- and in some cases many years -- older than Samir. I gently rebuffed his advances, but we became good friends and spent a lot of time together. Our hangout was a classy Middle Eastern restaurant owned by his brother-in-law, Mansoor. It was on Broadway and had a glass-enclosed "sidewalk cafe," so we could sit there for hours watching New York go by, eating everything we wanted for free.
    To me, that is like a dream come true. Hummus and baba ganoush with warm pita bread, tabouli salad, baked kibbe, felafel, roasted vegetables, stuffed grape leaves, Greek yoghurt with cucumber and mint, olives, dried fruits and nuts, Arak ( a tummy-soothing liqueur) and thick Turkish coffee with a cardamom seed at the bottom. For dessert there was a very light cheesecake, a rosewater-flavored custard and Halvah, a sesame-sugar candy coated in chocolate.
    Samir told me all about living through the ongoing civil war in Lebanon. He and his family would sit out on the balcony after dinner and watch the action, like it was a TV show. But it had gotten to be too much.
Restaurant Divo, London
    One of my favorite parts of our friendship was helping Samir with his English. He was always asking me to define words for him, and I enjoyed it so much -- using the word in sentences, explaining the nuanced differences among similar words, and instructing him in words that meant the opposite -- that for many years afterward, I had dreams about giving these "language lessons" to a whole parade of young foreign men.
    Samir's little smoke shop did so well that he rented two more storefronts and hired recent Lebanese immigrants to run them.
tobacco sales
He also began working in the restaurant several nights a week after an experienced waiter got deported.
    Samir was debonair and flamboyant, presenting each dish as if it were a surprise-party gift. He wore black slacks and a white shirt with black-edged ruffles. He was a gracious showman, whose expertise, discretion, regard for protocol and effortless juggling made him seem not like a mere server but rather like a very high-class performer, who vastly outshone his relatively ordinary customers. Between the tips he was earning and his income from the three cigarette shops, he lost interest -- for a few years, anyway -- in pursuing architecture.
     I was welcomed day and night in the restaurant as if I were a family member. I spent long afternoons and some evenings sitting at the "head table," where the owner, Mansoor,  held court while smoking, drinking, and grazing through the endless platters of lavish food that were placed on the table.

    At first, the Middle Eastern music that played constantly in the background was very grating to me, with its dissonant vocal gyrations and unfamiliar rhythms. Within a few weeks, though, I grew to love it. Several times since then, I have found that music which initially left me cold -- Asian music is another example -- won me over after only a brief exposure.
    At night, various celebrities came to the restaurant for dinner, and the pretty-boy anchormen were there every evening between local newscasts, sitting with us at Mansoor's  table, griping -- not very convincingly -- about all the precious airtime they were forced to waste on "crap stories."
     Mansoor was very kind to me -- overly flattering and deferential, in fact -- but he was a rather brutish, corpulent, bigoted man with a Godfather-ish menace just beneath the surface. He kept his beautiful wife, Adira -- Samir's sister --  hidden away, upstairs, almost all the time. Samir took me up to see her a few times, and I always felt that she was "a bird in a gilded cage," surrounded by gaudy but expensive decor, all dressed up, all by herself. She was sweet and gentle and sad.
    Samir's older brother, Talal, worked as the chef in the restaurant, but he was also, he told me, a "highly trained butcher."
    "That's disgusting," I said, with my usual tact. I proceeded to launch into an anti-meat rant.
    "Butchering animal is an art. I am very proud," Talal said, without rancor. "Please come in the morning and I will show you the respect, the beauty of my work. The lamb will be here 5:30. When finished, I will make for you brain salad. It is delicacy."

    I was torn between curiosity, revulsion and etiquette, but I agreed to attend the proceedings.
    Talal was very unlike Samir. He was staunch and muscled, very serious and entirely lacking in Samir's vanity. He always wore a clean white T-shirt, jeans and a spotless (initially) apron.
    When I went back to the kitchen and saw the skinned lamb carcass on the large central metal table, I immediately felt weak in the knees. When he got out the big knives, I felt a little blackout coming on.
    "Here, for courage," Talal said, pouring me a shot of Arak. Wow -- it did help.
    Just in time, I came up with the idea to regard the object on the table not as a darling baby animal, but rather to experience the show as if an adroit dismantling of a very complex structure were taking place. And in that context, it was indeed beautiful to witness Talal's skill.
    He showed me that with the proper slice at the perfect juncture, the flesh would simply fall away into the desired "cut" of meat.  Talal handled the shining pink flesh with a sensuality that embarrassed me. His fingers were wet. Everything was opening up and glistening. It was almost like a very gentle, matter-of-fact form of pornography. I had the weirdest feeling that he could hear my thoughts. "Shut up!" I ordered my brain. "You're embarrassing the hell out of me!"
    Sorry, Talal, I can't stay to watch the smashing of the skull and the transformation of the brain into a "salad." But thank you for giving me a very memorable experience. And yes, I respect your art -- just not your medium.
     (Talal would later die of the same cancer that had taken his mother several years ago. It was so sad. He was a great person and a loyal friend.)
     A few weeks later, I was invited to "special dinner" at the restaurant. I got a sense of foreboding as soon as one person after another began toasting me for my "soft heart" and declaring that I was "part of our family."
    Finally, Mansoor left his wife's side (she had finally been granted a night out) and knelt before me.
    "We need for you to marry Samir," he said. "He drop out of school, he needs green card to stay in America. It will be marriage on paper only. Please, Sylvia, we don't want to lose our boy."
    I looked at Samir and he was crying. His cousins and friends gathered around him.
    "Look," Mansoor said, opening a catalog. "I have ordered this rug for you from Persia. It is for thanks. And we will pay you also. Or we will send you and Samir on beautiful trip"
    "You must live together for six months in case immigration comes to see if it is for real," Talal said. "Then you will divorce."
    Samir's sister Adira hurriedly added, "But you will not be made to be wife. You will have your own room."
    I was overwhelmed, with so many eyes on me. I did feel pressured and intimidated, but the logical part of me said, "Why not?" If a sham marriage would enable my dear friend to remain in the country, how could I stand by and watch him be deported? Marriage meant nothing to me. Samir did. I had nothing to lose.
    I told them I would do it under specific conditions: It would be a civil ceremony only, at City Hall. There were to be no gifts, no trips and no payment. This would be an act of friendship. No indebtedness was to be invoked.
  They joyfully set about planning a party at a Middle Eastern nightclub several weeks away, to coincide with my 22nd birthday and the day of our marriage. A belly-dancing extravaganza would be included. I felt a darkness and a sickness gradually enveloping me. Samir sensed it even before I did. I was in a daze. There was dread in my stomach. My head hurt. My feet hurt. I wasn't relating to Samir in my usual warm and lighthearted way.
    All my friends thought I was crazy even to consider this sham marriage, but I didn't care about that. I didn't think it was a crazy thing to do at all. I believed it was the right thing to do, the moral thing to, do for a friend.
   But I lost it. I realized, to my surprise, that I did care about marriage. I also cared about the specter of being "divorced," at any age, but particularly at such a young age. I felt it would taint me somehow. It was a ruse I would not be able to endure, a promise I would have to break, and I felt very ashamed and embarrassed.
    Much to my relief, Samir was able to get a green card anyway, and within less than two years, he was in a bona fide marriage. All these years later, he has been divorced three times and recently returned to Beirut, single once more. He did get his architecture degree, but has chosen to open a lovely restaurant overlooking the city.
    Greetings from a very distant past, my friend.
Nadim Rabah