My Path from Middle East to Midwest Has Lots of Stepping Stones

Article excerpt

My Path From Middle East to Midwest Has Lots of Stepping Stones

By Marilyn Raschka

They placed their bets. Friends in Lebanon wagered I would last six weeks in mellow small-town Midwestern America after living 25 years in bad big-city Beirut. Now, six months later and well settled into "Mellowtown," America, I wish I could collect on those wagers.

It's not that my friends in Beirut don't know me. It's just that they don't know how fate follows me around like a shadow. Let this story be a lesson to them all.

First of all, in the nomenclature department, I confess to living 19 miles from Lebanon. Lebanon, Wisconsin is a city divided into Old Lebanon and New Lebanon, not by sectarian political rivalry but by the coming of the railroad in the last century. That was when the younger, more entrepreneurial types packed up and moved a mile up the road to establish a new community that could feed into and off of the iron horse. Today the communities do have a "sectarian" rivalry. Their two Lutheran churches are from two different synods.

The two tiny burgs share a post office. It is from there that I occasionally mail letters to friends in the original Lebanon--often post cards of cows that bear hand-canceled proof that the card was mailed from Lebanon. The postmaster knows me and when I can't drive down to do the mailings we have an agreement that I bulk mail him my letters and he takes it from there.

Wisconsin's greatest gift to American culture (other than cheese curds and the Green Bay Packers) is the Friday night fish fry. This tradition is faithfully observed in Lebanon at a locally famous restaurant called Home Plate Inn.

Two constant cronies, nicknamed Norm and Cliff after the tavern regulars in the TV series "Cheers," have their designated spots at the bar. They and the bartender greet me with great warmth and announce to all who are gathered for a bit of cheer, "Here's the lady from the real Lebanon." Then sound effects and gestures follow that are more reminiscent of an encounter between Al Capone and Chicago's finest than life in Beirut during its less than finest days. But the spirit is there and the welcome is always warm.

In the down category was learning of the business failure of two Lebanese-born Palestinians who ran one of the best family restaurants in town. When I was home in 1993 and 1994 the business still flourished and I would spend hours "talking Lebanon" with the two.

But again fate showed its happy face one night, just after I had moved into an apartment in Hartford. Realizing I had nothing to drink or eat, I walked to a nearby gas station-cum-convenience store. As I was sorting through the various percentages of milk--a cultural challenge with which I still struggle--I heard the person in charge talking to a customer. His non-native accent sounded very familiar.

A Familiar Accent

With milk and other essentials in hand I went to the counter and said, "If you don't mind my asking, what is your native language?"

"'I'm from Palestine." came the proud answer.

Fawzi's father, whom I was to meet in the coming days, is from a West Bank town near Ramallah. Fawzi and his brother were born and raised in Abu Dhabi.

I see them every day, either to get gas or do some photocopying or just to say hello. When I run out of burghul (bulgur wheat) or sumac, an important spice in Lebanese cooking, I go to the Brothers Two and it's arranged.

When I first got home in April, I took a trip down to Chicago to see friends, very special friends for whom I arranged the adoption of a Lebanese child in 1989.

The now six-year-old's kindergarten class at the University of Chicago's Lab School was busy with a project that the parents wanted me to see. …

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