An American in Fassuta

       “Our village is built on the ruins of the Crusader castle of Fassove, which was built on the ruins of Mifshata, the Jewish village that had been settled after the destruction of the Second Temple …” from Arabesques by Anton Shammas

Just a few kilometers south of the Lebanese border, in Israel’s Upper Galilee, is a Christian Arab village called Fassuta. Most of the approximately 3,000 inhabitants are Melkite (Greek) Catholics. Close to the center of the village is the church, dedicated to Mar Elias (St. Elijah).  Mar Elias is the patron saint of many of the villagers, others regard St. George (Mar Jiryis) as their patron saint. There is no rivalry; the church also has a large painting of St. George and the Dragon on one of the walls. The Crusader castle dates from the 10th century. 

Arabesques is the second of its kind, a novel written in Hebrew by an Arab author. Published in Israel in 1986, it became a best seller in Israel. The English translation, published in 1988, was on the New York Times list as one of the best books of that year. Arabesques is an intriguing mix of autobiography and fiction, much of which takes place in and around Fassuta, where Anton Shammas was born and raised and a place I am fortunate to have visited many times.

I got to know Fassuta while living in Israel in the eighties through my friend, Maryam Rashid Khoury, her husband Milad Nazeem Khoury and their two, later three, children. (Arabs use their father’s first name as their middle name.) When I first met Maryam and Milad, they were known as Abu and Im Sabrina (their daughter’s name). When their son Rifaat was born several months later, they became Abu and Im Rifaat. Adults with children are traditionally addressed by friends and relatives as Im (mother of) and Abu (father of) the name of their eldest son. If there are no sons, then the eldest daughter’s name is used. 

Like most Arabs in Israel, their schooling was primarily in Arabic, with Hebrew as a second language and English a third. Maryam used Hebrew if she went to Haifa or the Jewish town of Nahariyya for shopping or business, whereas Milad spoke it all the time at his job with a construction company in Haifa; neither of them spoke much English. In Fassuta, people speak Arabic, so I did my best trying to communicate in it (if not always successfully). At the time I met Maryam, I was living in Jerusalem where I had picked up some Arabic from Palestinian friends and acquaintances in Ramallah and El-Bireh (two West Bank towns not far from the city).  Maryam was happy that I wanted to speak Arabic, so between her, her family and their many relatives, being in Fassuta was as close to total immersion as it gets.

Maryam had two sisters and three brothers, all who lived in the village. There had been a fourth brother who had drowned at the beach in Haifa when he was in his teens. As for Milad, he had four brothers and four sisters, or maybe it was five brothers and three sisters, and lots of nieces and nephews.

Maryam was the consummate sitt al-bayt (homemaker - literally “Lady of the House”).  Each week, she baked several dozen round loaves of pita bread (khubz) outside in a tin-domed wood oven. She pickled large jars of turnips, cauliflower, and cucumbers and made yogurt which she poured into cheese cloth to make a creamy yogurt cheese called lebaneh. Lebaneh is usually drizzled with olive oil and eaten for breakfast with pita, tomato, cucumber, olives and sometimes an egg fried in olive oil as well. The olive oil used there was and is local, made from olives grown in Fassuta, and pressed into oil at a nearby village with an electric olive press. Before 1970, Fassuta still used its stone press, operated by a horse. In his book, Shammas mentions this press and how  “…the sweating horse plods in timeless circles around the stone press beam, which crushes and squeezes the olives as its shaft is pulled around the upright axle set into the hole in the center of the understone…” 

Maryam was a few years my junior, but to me she seemed more like an older sister who considered it her duty to keep me out of trouble. As she (and I) quickly discovered, I had a propensity for getting into awkward situations, mostly due to cultural misunderstandings and/or linguistic mishaps. I felt she was overly cautious at times, but truth be told, her wariness was not without foundation.
   
On one of my early visits to Fassuta, I met a relative of hers about my age who was there for a few days visiting his family. When I mentioned that I lived in Jerusalem, he told me that he also lived there and suggested I call him sometime. I was not interested in calling him and thought no more about it.  A day or two later, Maryam and I were visiting her parents, Abu and Im Selim (Selim being Maryam’s oldest brother). We were having a pleasant time when this relative showed up. He told me he was returning to Jerusalem and wanted to give me his phone number. Having no intention of calling him but not wanting to seem rude, I took the slip of paper he handed me and put it in my sweater pocket. That would have been the end of it were it not for the fact that Maryam’s mother saw this and told Maryam. 

After the guy left, Maryam asked what he had given me. Just his phone number, I told her, thinking it was no big deal (was I ever wrong!). Maryam held out her hand and asked me to give it to her. I took the slip of paper out of my pocket and meekly handed it over, feeling like a little kid caught taking something that I should not have. Maryam threw it into the fire of the small wood stove heating the room, and then Abu Selim gave me a Dutch uncle talk in Arabic. Actually it was more of a surrogate father talk, the gist of which I understood; in Fassuta he was my father, and therefore responsible for my behavior. Accepting the guy’s phone number did not reflect well on my moral standards and could result in my getting a bad reputation. (As I learned later on, Abu Selim also had a “talk” with the young man in question.)

So as to make it clear, Maryam told me in Hebrew what her father had said, and I tried to explain that I had no intention of actually calling the guy. Maryam could not understand this. If I did not want to see him, why would I accept his number? I think most American women understand the situation, and no doubt, some guys too. Accepting someone’s phone number does not necessarily mean you are interested in them, right?  To Maryam, this just did not make sense. But to be sure we understood each other, she took me to see Hanan, one of her sisters-in-law on Milad’s side. Hanan had gone to the Schmidt-Schule in Jerusalem, a Catholic girls’ school, run by German nuns, where German was part of the curriculum. When we first met, Hanan discovered she could speak German with me since I knew Yiddish. German and Yiddish are different languages, but have enough commonalities to make communication possible. After Maryam told Hanan about the incident, Hanan gave me the “lecture” in German. To clarify that I understood the situation, I promised them both that I would be careful in the future, and not create another “scandal.” However, Maryam felt it was still wise to keep me on a short leash.

One afternoon, as a result of cabin fever from being indoors a few days due to the weather, I wanted to go out and take a walk.  Maryam wasn’t able to accompany me then and was hesitant to let me out alone. I assured her that I would not go far and would come back soon.

I walked down the road to where it curved and one could look out over the countryside. It was a beautiful area, hills with olive trees, and in recent years has been billed the “Tuscany of Israel” to attract tourism.  I was admiring the scenery when two elderly ladies came walking by. “Marhaba,” I greeted them. They returned the greeting and one of them asked me what I was looking at. I wanted to say I was looking at the scenery, but not knowing the word in Arabic, I used the word for “land.” They nodded and commented about how lovely it was, I agreed, we said good bye and the ladies went on their way. 

About a week later, Jiryis Khoury, a family friend who had once been Maryam and Milad’s school principal and spoke English very well, dropped by. I heard him speaking with Maryam and Milad and my ears perked up when my name was mentioned. He was talking quickly but I understood enough to know it was about my encounter with the two elderly ladies.  Uh-oh, I thought to myself, now what did I do? 

Seeing me, Jiryis announced in English, “It seems that you’re becoming quite well known here in the village.  Did you know that your father is from Fassuta?”  That sure was news to me.  I looked at him in disbelief. “You’re kidding”, I said. 

“No, I’m not,” he replied. “From what I’ve been told, you were standing by the road when Im Ghassan and Im Bassam (I don’t recall their real names, but it is better than referring to them as “Im So &So” and “Im So & So”) saw you.  Im Bassam asked what you were looking at, and you replied that you were looking at the land.” I told him I had used the word for land because I did not know how to say scenery.

He explained that the ladies had taken my use of the word “land” quite literally and started a rumor which, in the course of a week, had spread through the village. The ladies either knew or found out that I was American, and when I told them that I was looking at the “land” and spoke with them in Arabic, they came to the conclusion that my father was from Fassuta and owned some land there. As the story went, he had immigrated to the U.S., married an American, (i.e., my mother) and I was there to see my “land.” Milad and I thought it was pretty funny, and I could tell Maryam was very relieved that I wasn’t again implicated in some scandalous activity.

One day, Abla, who was married to one of Maryam’s brothers invited Maryam and me to her home for lunch. She had made a large bowl of tabbouli which she put on the patio table along with green olives and leaves of romaine lettuce. We used the lettuce to scoop up the tabbouleh which was full of parsley along with bulgur wheat, olive oil, lemon juice and cinnamon. At some point in our conversation, one of them mentioned a relative of Maryam’s I had recently met who was in an advanced stage of pregnancy.  Using a word I had heard from time to time, but had never actually vocalized, I commented to Maryam “She’s the pregnant lady we saw the other day, right?”

There was no reply. Maryam was frowning and Abla looked puzzled. 

Something wasn’t right, I thought.  But that woman was (very) obviously about to have a baby.

“Why do you say that?” Maryam asked, somewhat indignantly. 

WHY? Why am I saying that she’s pregnant?  Is she really asking me that?  What was going on here?  While these thoughts were running through my head, Maryam and Abla sat silently, clearly waiting for my answer.  Not knowing what else to say I held my hands a few inches away from my stomach, and asked tentatively, “But isn’t she… ?”

“Ah, HEBLA!”  they both exclaimed, and started to laugh. (Hebla mean “pregnant” in Palestinian Arabic.)

Yeah, that’s what I said, I thought to myself.  So why the attitude...?

 “That’s what I said”, I told Maryam.

Maryam, with a wide grin, shook her head.  “No, that’s not what you said.”  Switching to Hebrew, she explained that what I actually said was “habla”, meaning “crazy” or “silly.” 

Oh.  Wow. No wonder she had been giving me the stink eye!  I put my face in my hands and started to laugh with them. It’s amazing what a difference one vowel can make.

The novel referred to is Arabesques by Anton Shammas (Harper & Row) 1988
                                     
- Elka R. Frankel,   West Windsor Branch

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