216 Chapters
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2. Faces

Elsa Marston Indiana University Press ePub

A STORY FROM SYRIA

 

Shifting uneasily on the velvet-cushioned divan, Suhayl surveyed the grand reception room. This was his first visit to the Turkish bath, a treat from his father. Upon his arrival he had been awed by the ancient building with its floors of colored tiles, the marble fountain, and peacocks painted on the walls—almost like a palace, he thought, where wonderful things might happen. As for the bath part, in some mysterious inner chambers he’d taken a good hot shower and then gotten dressed quickly, while his father went through the whole process: thumping massage, thorough scrubbing, and a final dip in cool water.

Now the time had come to talk. Suhayl shot a furtive glance at his father. Even now, he tried to hold on to a few wisps of hope. Maybe … maybe Papa would say he was coming home. In spite of the anger that had simmered inside Suhayl for months, he still longed for those days when they’d been a family, when his father and mother had both been there for him.

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7. Honor

Elsa Marston Indiana University Press ePub

A STORY FROM JORDAN

 

Yasmine speaks …

I was not exactly thrilled when the biology teacher teamed me up with Wafa Ar-Rahman. We’d be working in pairs, she said, when we started cutting things up—a learning experience I really did not look forward to one bit. And now I had to do it with Wafa. Not that she was obnoxious or stupid, but she was new in school, and so conservative and quiet and shy that she really sort of stuck out.

When I got home, I told my mother that my biology partner would be this girl Wafa, whom I could hardly even see, she was so covered up by her hijab. “She wears her head scarf over her eyebrows, and she doesn’t say a thing. She’ll be so boring, Mum,” I moaned. “I’ll hate that class.”

But my mother was the wrong person to complain to. She was a hard-hitting investigative journalist, and she saw opportunities for social change and noble struggle in practically everything. She was so good at her job, in fact, that she’d won a special fellowship to study in London the previous year, and we’d all spent six glorious months there.

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1. Santa Claus in Baghdad

Elsa Marston Indiana University Press ePub

A STORY FROM IRAQ (2000)

 

Amal listened gloomily to the little speech that Mr. Kareem had prepared. He spoke in a halting fashion, almost as though he were making an apology, but clearly he was as happy as a bird.

“And I know,” he concluded, “that my students will greet their new teacher with respect and helpfulness, and will show how well Mr. Kareem has taught them about our glorious literary heritage.” He laughed awkwardly at his little joke, and some of the girls responded with polite smiles.

A shy bachelor, Mr. Kareem inspired more respect than affection among his students. Many complained of his tough assignments and rigorous grading, although Amal thought he was quite fair. In any case, no one could deny that Mr. Kareem taught with competence and, in his stammering way, enthusiasm. He loved the works of the old poets and tried valiantly to convey to his students the richness of Arabic literature.

Another teacher leaving us, thought Amal. How many—four this fall?

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5. In Line

Elsa Marston Indiana University Press ePub

A STORY FROM EGYPT

 

Halfway home from school, on a lovely clear day in December, I did something really daring. I decided to change my route. Not much, of course, because my mother knew exactly how long it took me to get home and she would be waiting. I just thought it would be nice to walk along the canal a bit and pretend it was the Nile. That’s how it happened I ran into Fayza.

I’d noticed her in class. You could hardly not notice her, even in a classroom as packed with people as ours. She always raised her hand to answer the teacher’s questions—she even asked good questions of her own! What’s more, she was a lot smarter than most of the boys and wasn’t afraid to let them know it. So I’d begun to think I’d like to get to know her. But how? Most people still acted as if I were from Mars, or someplace even farther away, and they couldn’t figure me out. I was afraid Fayza might feel that way, too.

Well, I would try, at least.

Fayza was standing at the edge of the canal, holding a big bunch of flowers—roses so bedraggled they looked as though the flower seller had given them to her for free. But what made me curious was the way she was staring down at the canal. I stopped near her to see what she was looking at. It was a donkey, dead, lying there in the water.

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8. The Plan

Elsa Marston Indiana University Press ePub

A STORY FROM A PALESTINIAN REFUGEE CAMP IN LEBANON

 

The moment the new art teacher walked into Rami’s classroom, he and every other boy bounced up straight in their seats. With her cheerful smile and green eyes, her shiny brown hair and pink smock that said “You Gotta Have Art,” she looked like all the flowers of springtime.

“We are very fortunate, boys,” announced the principal in his best speech-making Arabic, “to have Miss Nuha Trabulsi to teach you art for the rest of the term. Of course, she has to go to other schools in the camp as well, and therefore she can come here only one day a week, on Thursday. But she will make you learn many things about art—how to draw and how to paint, and maybe other things.” He glanced at Miss Trabulsi for confirmation.

She smiled. “Definitely,” she said.

Rami thought, only one hour a week? And he’d have to share Miss Trabulsi with more than a thousand other boys?

Others might have been discouraged by such odds, but not Rami. After one good look at Miss Trabulsi, he decided on his life’s mission—for the next three months, at least.

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4. The Olive Grove

Elsa Marston Indiana University Press ePub

A STORY FROM PALESTINE

 

Hustling along behind the other boys, Mujahhid stooped to grab a stone, then quickly caught up. About halfway across the open square they stopped. Right next to the military checkpoint was a two-story stone house that the Israelis had taken over. The boys could see the olive-drab helmets of soldiers behind sandbags on the flat rooftop.

“Take that, you dogs!” Mujahhid shouted in Arabic, hurling the stone toward them. “Get out of Bethlehem—it’s our town!”

Shouting with every throw, he then flung whatever he could get his hands on … chunks of plaster, pebbles, concrete rubble, worn bricks from the older streets. The soldiers, of course, had every other kind of missile—bullets, stun grenades, tear gas, shells. Today they weren’t firing, though, not yet. The boys grew bolder and started making dashes to throw from closer range.

You can get near enough to see faces, thought Mujahhid, but not what’s in their eyes. Anyway, they’re all the same … they all hate us. Even the young guys, just three or four years older than us, hard as their rifles.

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3. The Hand of Fatima

Elsa Marston Indiana University Press ePub

A STORY FROM LEBANON

 

Aneesi paused outside the dining room. She had spent the long, hot summer morning helping Sitt Zeina prepare a lavish lunch, had waited on the guests without a single slip, and had just finished clearing the dessert dishes. She was tired and hungry, and her plastic sandals chafed from so much running back and forth. All she wanted right now was to sit down in the kitchen and enjoy the leftovers.

But something had caught her attention. Holding the silver serving plates still half full of pastries, she lingered in the hallway to listen.

Sitt Zeina was telling her husband, in no uncertain terms, “We must have that garden wall repaired, Yusuf. You know, where the old fig tree is pushing it over. You’ve put it off long enough, and costs are going up every day. Besides, there’s a lot more we should do with the garden.”

Before Dr. Jubeili could answer, one of the guests broke in with a laugh. “What are you thinking of, Zeina? Big ideas for the Jubeili estate?”

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6. Scenes in a Roman Theater

Elsa Marston Indiana University Press ePub

A STORY FROM TUNISIA

 

With a sigh, Hedi plunked himself down on a stone seat in the Roman theater. As the last of the afternoon’s tourists straggled off and disappeared among the ancient walls, he stared dully at the grand view of the ruins and the green hills of the Tunisian countryside beyond.

He hadn’t done very well today. Only one hat sold. His mother would be disappointed, and he wouldn’t blame her … having to make those hats every night after her day’s labor in the fields, weaving straw till her fingers were sore. Tomorrow he’d try harder. Midwinter break from school gave him a few days to earn money, and he couldn’t waste the chance.

It’d be so much better, Hedi often thought, if he could be a guide, more interesting and more money. Once in a while he did manage to latch on to a friendly couple and show them a few sights … the temple, the theater, the baths and marketplace—and best of all, the communal toilet where twelve people could sit at a time. That always got a laugh, and Hedi would get a few small coins. But that was all. A real guide had to be older and know a lot more.

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37. Without Bounds

Robert B. Ray Indiana University Press ePub

I desire to speak somewhere without bounds. (218)

This mysterious remark, appearing in Walden’s great “Conclusion,” evokes Thoreau’s regular employment as the village surveyor. His book seems designed to enable our own staking out of things, coming complete with tools (compasses, rulers, dividers) and measurements: the number of rods separating Thoreau’s cabin from the railroad tracks, the exact distance from his site to Concord, the width and depth of the pond, the acreage of neighboring farms and lakes. In “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” Thoreau makes punning use of his occupation by declaring “I have thus surveyed the country on every side within a dozen miles of where I live,” including, in yet another pun, “each farmer’s premises” (58). Quoting Cowper’s “Verses Supposed to Be Written by Alexander Selkirk” (Defoe’s model for Robinson Crusoe), Thoreau even supplies his own italics: “I am monarch of all I survey” (59).

Since Thoreau so often earned his living by marking his neighbors’ property lines, what are we to make of his “desire to speak somewhere without bounds”? The wish resembles another Thoreauvian longing, also characteristically expressed in spatial terms: “I love a broad margin to my life” (79). The two remarks remind us that Thoreau seemed to experience almost every kind of externally imposed rule, custom, or schedule as an occasion for claustrophobia. In Emerson’s words, “He was a protestant à l’outrance.” Some of Walden’s best critics have argued that this reflexive resistance extended to language itself, which, indeed, he often treated as something that gets in the way of living: “It is not easy to write in a journal what interests us at any time,” he once observed, “because to write it is not what interests us.” Andrew Delbanco goes further, describing Thoreau as “ultimately a despiser of culture.” “What Thoreau discovered,” Delbanco continues, “was that language itself … made him feel dead because it subjected him to the worn and degraded inventions of other minds.” Some evidence supports this position. In an 1857 letter, Thoreau seems to anticipate Flaubert’s dread of merely reproducing the banalities catalogued in his Dictionary of Received Ideas:

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9. Drummer

Robert B. Ray Indiana University Press ePub

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps because it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. (219)

Thoreau has always managed to provoke distinguished writers to criticism. Exasperated by Thoreau’s preachy austerity, Hawthorne complained that “one feels ashamed to have any money, or a house to live in, or so much as two coats to wear.” A disappointed Emerson characterized the man assumed to be his best friend as difficult to like, reflexively contentious, and without ambition or literary talent. Three years after Thoreau’s death, James Russell Lowell emphasized his humorlessness and egoism and proposed that his books should have been shorter: “He registers the state of his personal thermometer thirteen times a day.” Henry James found the effect of Thoreau’s work diminished by “eccentricity” and observed that “it is only at his best that he is readable.” Robert Louis Stevenson called him a “prig” and a “skulker” and objected to his self-indulgent remoteness from even his friends: “A man who must separate himself from his neighbors’ habits in order to be happy, is in much the same case with one who requires to take opium for the same purpose.”

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13. Full of Hope

Robert B. Ray Indiana University Press ePub

In “Spring,” Walden’s penultimate chapter, Thoreau describes his sudden awareness that winter was finally over:

The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis which all things proclaim. It is seemingly instantaneous at last. Suddenly an influx of light filled my house, though the evening was at hand, and the clouds of winter still overhung it, and the eaves were dripping with sleety rain. I looked out the window, and lo! where yesterday was cold gray ice there lay the transparent pond already calm and full of hope as on a summer evening. (209)

We can imagine this moment as a film scene, with Thoreau at his window and a point-of-view shot revealing what he sees. The Walden passage provides the visual details: the abrupt “influx of light,” the overhanging clouds and still-dripping eaves, the pond liberated from its ice. But how does a writer show us that something is “full of hope”?

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15. Good and Evil

Robert B. Ray Indiana University Press ePub

Here are two passages, one from Thoreau and one from Nietzsche:

The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing, it is very likely to be my good behavior. (10)

What preserves the species.—The strongest and most evil spirits have so far done the most to advance humanity: again and again they relumed the passions that were going to sleep—all ordered society puts the passions to sleep—and they reawakened again and again the sense of comparison, of contradiction, of the pleasure of what is new, daring, untried; they compelled men to pit opinion against opinion, model against model. Usually by force of arms, by toppling boundary markers, by violating pieties.… In every teacher and preacher of what is new we encounter the same “wickedness.” … What is new, however, is always evil, being that which wants to conquer and overthrow the old boundary markers and the old pieties; and only what is old is good.

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20. Leaving Walden

Robert B. Ray Indiana University Press ePub

Walden’s celebration of Thoreau’s glorious twenty-six months in the woods leaves almost all of its readers with a stark question: why did he choose to leave? The book’s “Conclusion,” of course, offers one explanation, but its laconic offhandness has never proved very satisfying:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. (217)

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there”—what could that sentence mean? In “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” Thoreau had already spelled out his reason for going to the pond: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach” (65). With its senses of care, consideration, and unhurriedness, deliberately does a lot of work in that passage, endowing Thoreau’s move to the woods with the aura of an existential choice. As he set about finishing Walden, Thoreau had certainly come to recognize that choice as the decisive one of his life, the one that had given him the most immediate happiness and prompted the writing that would establish his reputation.

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28. Question

Robert B. Ray Indiana University Press ePub

After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what—how—when—where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seem to say, Forward! Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask. (189)

This lovely, mysterious passage, both as hushed and as brazen as a cold-bright winter day, suggests an alternative to the standard image of Thoreau the spiritual explorer who, after the Elysian Fields of Walden Pond, would watch his own imaginative powers steadily diminish. Sherman Paul, who most eloquently diagnoses this melancholy position, observes that “after Walden … his Journals became increasingly a repository of scientific facts.… Where once he had told how the summer felt to him, he now merely recorded the temperature.” For Paul, “the considerable barrenness of these Journals” attests to Thoreau’s inability to recapture the “extended ecstasy” of the woods, those “rare intervals” he had described in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, when “we rise above the necessity of virtue into an unchangeable morning light, in which we have only to live right on and breathe the ambrosial air” (Week, 369).

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35. Unexplorable

Robert B. Ray Indiana University Press ePub

We need the tonic of wildness.… At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things. we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of Nature.… We need to witness out own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we can never wander. (213)

This stirring passage, an inspiration for the twentieth century’s deep ecology movement, suggests Thoreau’s ambivalence toward science. Although he corresponded regularly with Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz and joined the Boston Society of Natural History in 1850, Thoreau was always more interested in describing and classifying phenomena than in explaining them. If he did not adopt Wordsworth’s repudiation of science (“We murder to dissect” [Lyrical Ballads, “The Tables Turned,” l. 28]), he was perfectly capable of describing “the eye of science” as “barren” (J, 1 November 1851) and of declaring “I begin to see … objects only when I leave off understanding them” (J, 14 February 1851).

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