Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Nazareth

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Nazareth

Article excerpt

The Center for Middle East Studies swiftly opened doors for me. During my first fiili year at Texas, the Center hosted a group of visiting Egyptian dignitaries: the President of al-Azhar University and leading poets, writers, and intellectuals. I was delighted to be their guide and chauffeur. When I visited Egypt soon after, they more than returned the favor. Poets, writers, literary critics, visual artists, and political cartoonists invited me to participate in their cultural life. Proudly, I soon added writing and publishing in Arabic (from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Iraq) to my accomplishments in that language.

In the Arab world, what I wrote was actually read. In an Arab country I visited, I would be met by someone eager to discuss my latest contribution to an Egyptian periodical. I soon figured out that one reason was pervasive political censorship. When politics cannot be expressed openly, it seeps into poetry and the other arts, which are all the more eagerly scanned for political implications.

I invited the Palestinian writer and head of the Israeli Communist Party, Emile Habiby, to come to Austin and deliver a lecture. Habiby was an amazing writer, and in my opinion one of the top novelists in the Arab world. When he arrived in Austin, he wanted to stay with us. I offered him a hotel room, but he refused, so he slept on our living room couch. When we awoke the next morning, he was sitting wide awake and reading Italo Calvino, having pulled one of his novels off a living room shelf. I was astonished. He loved Calvino, reading aloud to us the opening as an example of a great beginning to a literary work.

Emile Habiby stole my heart. He was an amazingly magnetic individual, and he reminded me a lot of my father. I considered it a blessing that he shared our modest apartment.

A few years later, I visited Emile in Israel (we took the bus across the Sinai from Egypt). He told me that I had relatives in Nazareth-that there was a Malti family established there. After some hesitation, I asked Emile to make the contact for me. The last time I saw Emile was many years later in Haifa in 1995, and I was shocked at how he looked. He was emaciated and explained to me that he had cancer. He wanted me to understand that he had the best medical services Israel could provide, but that the cancer could not be cured. I told him how much he meant to me, and he told me to go to Nazareth to see my relatives. He called them from his office to tell them we were on the way.

Allen and I headed for Nazareth, after having called my cousins there who gave us directions to meet them. The car driving us would stop on a certain street corner, and my cousin's husband would be there awaiting us. We did as we were told, and the next thing I knew, we were being led to a home, newly built by my cousin's husband, who was a carpenter named Joseph.

"No," I wanted to say. "This can't be. A carpenter named Joseph who lives in Nazareth?" But life has ways of twisting your mind around. We entered the house and met my cousin's family. We could not stop talking as the television was playing a video of Majda al-Rumi singing. I adore Majda al-Rumi and told them so. They informed me that she was a cousin and, hence, by marriage a cousin of mine as well. I was having trouble adjusting to what felt so much like being back in Lebanon. Icons and religious medals were everywhere, as well as a plaque on the wall that explained in French that this family was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

I was awakened from my reverie by a knock on the door. Joseph the carpenter went to open it, and it was my cousin's sister with her mother. Allen and I stood up, with me attached to my cane. I looked at the two women standing in the doorway. The older of the two also held a cane.

This older woman stared at me with sharp eyes and asked me in Arabic:

"Nerves or muscles?"

"Nerves," I replied in Arabic.

"Then you truly are a Malti," she said to me in Arabic, this time with an enormous smile. …

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