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South Lebanon, 1928

 

In the spring of 1928, Mohammad Ali Salem stood on a hill overlooking the small farming village of Safina, South Lebanon, staring out into the distance. Mohammad was a curious boy, not so bright by outward appearances, but he had a big imagination and as he stood above the surrounding fields he imagined he was seeing things.

It was a gusty day. The clouds had rolled in and when Mohammad looked up to the sky from the mud brick houses of the village below, a vision came to him. He would swear by Allah that he saw a big iron boat floating directly overhead. And above the boat, peeking between the clouds was a bright shining star beaming like a miniature sun.

Mohammad was only 11 years old, but for the rest of his life he would remember that day and he would swear that a voice in his head – and not his voice, either – told him that life was short and that his destiny lay elsewhere.

Safina meant ‘ship’ in Arabic. The village was located in a part of the world once known as the ‘cross-roads of civilization’ and legend had it that the area was once rich in beech wood trees. The trees were sought-after by the Romans and the logs were harvested and sent down the ancient river that ran past the village to the Mediterranean coast to be turned into centurion ships. But the river had long since gone and now Safina was just a poor farming village made up of mud brick huts and stables surrounded by rocky, green tobacco fields.

The region was overseen by French plantation owners – plantations the locales slaved in for next to nothing. Over the centuries, invaders and occupiers had come and gone – Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Turks – and defeat had been engrained in the minds of the people. They had been shackled by destiny and accepting of an inevitable fate, and now it was the turn of the French to run roughshod over Lebanon; to take as much as they could from the land and the labor of the people.

As for Mohammad, though, his fate was yet to be determined. He was sort of husky for his age and he had a clumsy quality about himself. He looked a little older than he was, and in some ways he was older. Times were hard in his village. He had four older brothers and four younger sisters and his family, like most others in Safina, always seemed to be struggling to make ends meet.

But, though Mohammad had never been anywhere else, something about the state of things in his village seemed a little off to him. He wondered what these occupiers, the French, were up to; he wondered about the menacing soldiers with their rifles and their big puffy uniforms who lived in the ancient stone garrison at the edge of town. Why was his village constantly occupied by others? The people were smart and industrious, and they were friendly and warm.

“But they were ruled by a bad star,” Mohammad’s father, also named Mohammad, would quietly answer whenever his son asked about such things.

“You see, everyone has a star that rules their life,” his father would explain. “And every family and village and nation has a star, too.”

Mohammad would stare at his father and nod his head whenever the man talked about the stars. He didn’t quite understand but he watched his father’s eyes, and listened.

“Unfortunately our star is not a very good one,” the man would conclude with a forlorn smile and a pat on the head.

‘But, did it have to be that way?’ Mohammad wondered.

Before the French arrived, the Turks occupied Lebanon for hundreds of years. The Turks could never get enough tobacco and under their rule the area around Safina had become tobacco country. The plants were cultivated and dried nearby then taken by rail to the port of Sidon about 25 miles away. There the bails were loaded on ships and sent to ports in Turkey and Egypt to be made into cigarettes and rolled into cigars. Sometimes the tobacco was mixed with narcotics and sent off to ports in Europe.

But, after the French took over Lebanon at the end of the World War I – their part of the bargain for ending up on the right side of the conflict – the supply routes changed. Ship after ship docked in the port of Sidon, but they no longer came from Izmir and Alexandria. They were French and Italian, now, and almost all of the tobacco was shipped to Marseilles and other points west.

The Turks were brutal rulers, to be sure. They had looted the countryside and confiscated the land through crippling taxes, and the villagers were glad to see them go. But, under the French occupation Safina had suffered an even worse fate. The people had become even more impoverished and men like Mohammad’s father – those who had seen both – longed once again for the good times that never really were.

But, there was no going back.

Young Mohammad’s mother was a somber woman who rarely spoke, Mohammad would always remember. Each morning before sunrise she rose and started a fire in a dusty stove pit to boil water. His father and four older brothers soon woke as the athan – the Muslim call to prayer – was heard from the nearby mosques. His brother’s washed up with warm water from the stove and dressed for a day in the fields that ringed the village. There were dates and beans and old bread for breakfast, and sometimes mangos and oranges.

Mohammad’s father was a frail old man, slowed-up by a debilitating childhood disease, and he was unable to work in the fields. To help support his family he tended to a small fruit cart that he stocked each morning then pushed to the market in the center of town. Mohammad often went with his father, taking along a shoe shine kit, sometimes finding one of the bureaucrats that worked in the processing plants or a government employee to take a shine. But mostly Mohammad stuck with his father, peddling fruit and listening to the man’s stories about the past.

“Have you heard the story of the seventh Khalif of Baghdad, Mohammad?” his father was fond of asking.

Of course, he’d heard the story – probably fifty times already. But sitting behind the fruit cart Mohammad would smile and lift his head as his father opened a brown leather-bound book and began to read.

“On a wind-swept northern plain in the ancient land of Mesopotamia,” the old man would begin in a way that captivated the boy, “- the ancestral home of our holy prophet Ibrahim and his sons Isaac and Ishmael – the roar of a single lion broke the silence of early morning, and the people of the land woke to the birth of a beneficent king . . .”

Mohammad’s father was unique in a certain way. He was one of the few people in the village who could read and write, and inside the tiny, crowded shack in which the Salem family lived Mohammad’s father possessed something that he swore was worth all the gold and silver in the world – a small trove of leather bound books. There was one about flowers and plants from England, and another on the Arabic Language from Egypt that he got from a relative. There was a thick volume on gasoline engine repair with mechanical drawings of engine parts that fascinated Mohammad’s father, and an old tome on the history of Baghdad from the time of ancient Mesopotamia until the end of the Eastern Muslim Empire.

But, of course, resting in a special place high above all the others, bound in silky green fabric with pages edged in gold leaf, was his most cherished of cherished possessions. It was a special rendition of the Holy Koran – the book of the Muslim faithful – hand written in beautiful block calligraphy and stamped with the seal of the Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II.

Mohammad remembered his father telling him about the Turkish Janissary who had given it to him. Back when the Turks were in charge, Mohammad’s father once worked in the kitchen at the ancient stone garrison at the edge of the village. One day he and some of the other villagers who worked there, Christians and Muslims both, were ordered to stand at attention in the grand foyer. They thought they were doomed because the Turkish officers were never very friendly and rumor had it that the Turks were laying waste to Lebanon before turning it over to the French. But as they stood in the foyer the Turkish commander entered with a stack of books.

“By the grace of our glorious leader,” the commander began, “we wish to thank you for your service to the Empire.”

Mohammad’s father and the others had heard that World War I ended a while ago, but he didn’t really know what that meant for him and the village of Safina – and he didn’t know, until that very day, that it would be his last day at the garrison. One thing he did know, however, was that the moment the Turkish Janissary handed him the green leather-bound Koran his life changed forever. Something about being handed that book was empowering, and for the first time ever he felt important.

From this Turkish Koran, Mohammad’s father learned to read the Arabic alphabet. He practiced everyday and soon he did little else. And from the day he received that special book he never went anywhere without it. And later, as his health began to deteriorate, he devoted even more time to his studies; reading the Koran and his other books cover to cover, time after time.

Every morning as the old man got ready to roll out his fruit cart and make his way to the market he grabbed his Koran and another book from his collection. And as he sat in the market place behind his modest cart, he read out loud – sometimes to his young son and sometimes to others who stopped to listen.

He read so much that sometimes young Mohammad wondered if his father should be reading from his books or selling fruit – after all money was tight and times were tough in the Salem household. Mohammad looked around the market. Other merchants seemed to be selling spices and fruit and meat and vegetables hand over fist. But, though shoppers were often interested in stories, business was always slow for Mohammad and his distracted father. Sometimes they didn’t even make enough to cover the cost of the fruit they bought from the farmers.

“What’s the purpose of going there all day?” Mohammad remembered his mother scolding his father at night. “Half the time you don’t even come home with any money?”

One day, as Mohammad sat with his father behind the cart in the market, his father was explaining how life is a struggle and how oppression comes from God. He waved the Turkish Koran around as he spoke and glared into Mohammad’s eyes even as customers came and went, looking through the fruit then moving on without buying anything. The stories his father told him were sometimes grim and superstitious; blaming hardship and disaster on invisible things. He seemed to want Mohammad to accept them as predetermined; as a sort of inevitable reality. Mohammad couldn’t help but wonder, though, how much the stars had to do with one’s fate and how much was actually just in people’s heads.

“Papa,” he once asked his father, “if things are so bad, how come people just don’t leave and go where things are better?”

Mohammad smiled in his ever-smiling way and his father just looked at him.

“I mean, even the Koran Kareem says if you are oppressed in the land you should seek peace somewhere else – right? That’s what Abu Issa, from the mosque told us.”

“Abu Issa told you that?” Mohammad’s father asked him, half surprised though he knew as well as anyone what the Koran said.

“Yes, that’s what he said – that the Koran Kareem tells us that oppression is worse than death. So why do we stay? Isn’t the world made to wander in – like birds and fish and rabbits and bears?”

Mohammad was a different kind of kid. He was a little bit weird, though no one in the family ever wanted to say so, yet he had a boldness that his father sometimes marveled over. The old man wasn’t quite sure how to respond to his son’s question, but something gave him reason to pause. It occurred to him that in some strange way the words of his son might somehow hold a special meaning. Maybe the stars wanted him to understand what his son was telling him, he thought. So he stayed quiet.

They sat for a few minutes in silence and even though the market place was bustling with activity, they just stared at one another.

Then Mohammad broke the silence between them.

“Papa, I had a kind of dream the other day,” he said. “I had a dream but I wasn’t sleeping.”

His father seemed startled. “You had a dream but you weren’t sleeping?”

“Yes, I was standing on the hill over the house, and right above the field where mama was working I could see a big black ship. And over the ship there was a bright, shining star.”

“You saw a ship?” the old man finally answered. “And a bright, shining star? In the middle of the day?”

“Yes, I saw a big ship with a black bottom and it was sailing into the harbor – in Sidon. It had my name on it in big white letters. And the star was directly above it – not a bad star, but a good star. A big, bright beautiful star.”

Mohammad’s father straightened up with surprise as his son described the harbor in Sidon and the famous Crusader castle that jutted out into the sea.

‘How could Mohammad know about these things?” the old man wondered. ‘He’d never set foot outside Safina.’

Mohammad’s father chuckled uneasily, but Mohammad just sat silently staring, as if in a trance. And soon his father’s face turned serious again and he looked closer at the boy. Something about his son was different that day. For the first time in his life the man saw something that he hadn’t experienced in a long time. In Mohammad’s smiling face and spirit he saw promise – a sort of far-off hope and promise.

“A ship?” he then replied. “Really? All the way in Sidon? Oh, Mohammad, you must have the best eyes in the world!”

Then he hugged his son around the shoulders and gave him a kiss on the forehead.

“By Allah!” Mohammad’s father stood on top of his chair in the crowded market and yelled. “My son has the best eyes in the whole, entire world!”

 

D.W. Aossey is from Cedar Rapids, Iowa and lives in Southern California. His previous novel, Instruments of the State, was a finalist in the 2010 San Diego Book Awards. He is currently working on his next novel, a sequel to Instruments of the State entitled Casualties of the Truth.

You can find Instruments of the State at the following link: http://www.amazon.com/Instruments-State-D-W-Aossey/dp/1615777571/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346282266&sr=1-1&keywords=instruments+of+the+state

 

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