Former mayor shares ‘Tales from Middle East’

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Many Canyon Lakers may think they know everything there is to know about Mary Craton after the 12 years she served on City Council (2002 to 2014), along with other clubs and groups to which she contributed her extensive talents.

But after recently going through a thick folder of letters from her mother, written from Lebanon in the 1950s, Mary reveals a saga from her life few have heard. After sharing some of this history with author and The Friday Flyer columnist Ken Cable, who encouraged her to share it with The Friday Flyer readers, Mary agreed to send a series of vignettes she calls “Tales from the Middle East – Circa 1950s.”

Here are the first four vignettes in that series, written in Mary’s own words.

Background: In 1952, my father (aka Daddy, Popper) took a position with a company that certifies the amount and type of oil on a ship after it is loaded. (It better have that when the ship gets to where it’s going!) My father was posted to Sidon, Lebanon, a small city about 40 miles south of Beirut. Oil was piped from Saudi Arabia and loaded onto ships there. He also traveled to terminals in northern Lebanon (Tripoli) and Syria (Bonais – in the news recently re ISIS.)

In 1954, when I graduated from high school, my mother joined him. I went to live with my best friend Charlotte, and her family – thus my love for Italian cooking. I was headed off for nursing school in the fall.

These small vignettes are from my memory and from letters my mother wrote to me. She wrote me two to three type-written letters every week for four years. I have them all.

Vignette 1 – Surprise Seatmate

I remember watching my mother from the large windows of the departure area – that was when visitors were allowed to go to the gate. She crossed the tarmac (no gateways, in fact, no commercial jets) with her peppy, perky walk, all dressed up in hat and heels – yes, everyone dressed up to fly in those days – to the waiting Pan Am plane.

She was seated in first class next to a very distinguished-looking gentleman. Mother noted that the stewardesses were fussing over him. After they took off, mother, in that flirty way of hers, asked the gentleman if he had ever flown before. He smiled and said yes he had. The stewardesses cracked up.  He was Charles Lindbergh!

Vignette 2 – Living

My parents’ house was located on the outskirts of Sidon. It was quite nice, though not very large.  There was a large picture window in the dining room. Electricity was frequently out. Outside was a stream, beyond that a large field. This is where the Bedouins from the mountains spent the winter. Beyond that was a large Palestinian refugee camp.

The people in the refugee camp lived in abject poverty, even though some – like doctors, lawyers, etc. – were well educated. Why? Because the government of Lebanon would not let them work! There was a brand new, never opened hospital in the camp. Apparently, the powers-that-be thought it would be over-run.

My parents had a very active social life. The employees of Aramco and Tapline were from every nation. Mother always said the women were so much more sophisticated than she as they were all world-traveled. (My mother was a business woman and quite sophisticated, thank you very much.)

Also, mother was forever fund-raising for the poor. Tapline had a golf course on the property – but it was full of rocks. If you’ve ever been in that area, you’ll know what I mean. My parents and friends had weekly “rock-picking” parties to improve the course. They also built a clubhouse: The Zahrani Country Club.

Eating: All meat, except lamb, was imported. Locally grown vegetables had to be washed in laundry detergent as the fertilizer used was human waste. Mother often complained about the price of imported goods. Imagine: a box of corn flakes cost 75 cents!

It took my parents two years to get a telephone – and, after getting it, a long time to get connected, approximately 20 minutes. My parents were unable to return to the U.S. for my brother’s wedding (uprisings), so they called. They had to go to Beirut to place the call, and it took hours.

Clothing:  Most clothes were home-made, made by a seamstress or shipped from home. I remember my sister and I mailing mother bras.

Vignette 3 – Customs

Sometimes, in a split second, you have to make a decision about what is the right thing to do. In my last vignette, I mentioned the stream running behind my parents’ home. The Bedouin women who camped in the adjoining field frequently came to the stream to bathe, wash their hair and clothes, and just play. In the water, they wore only a light shift and would remove their head coverings.

One day, my father was watching them through the large picture window in the dining room. The women saw him, screamed and pulled their shifts up over their heads. Heads covered, bottoms bare –  decisions. Of course, my father immediately left his viewing spot.

Dining with Muslims: My parents were often asked to dinner at friends’ homes, some of whom were Muslim. The men and women entered the home through different doors. They also ate in separate dining rooms. The custom was that you could only eat with one hand – the other was used for “unclean” purposes.

That was fun, especially since each person received their own chicken – whole! Imagine trying to disassemble and eat a whole chicken with one hand! Another custom was that the guest of honor was given the piéce de résistance: the lamb’s eye. My father said he just closed his eyes and swallowed!Yummy!

Coffee: The coffee served was what we know as Turkish coffee. It was very thick and bitter. It was served everywhere you went – businesses, shops in the souks, people’s homes. My mother was used to it, but I could not get it down. So this is what we did: Mother would drink hers quickly. I would pretend to drink mine, taking the tiniest of sips, and when no one was looking, we switched cups!  There is no way you could refuse the coffee. It would be an insult.

When King Saud of Saudi Arabia visited Sidon, all the women were ordered to stay inside their homes.

Vignette 4 – Shoot-em Ups

Under my parents’ house was a large store room. They allowed an old Palestinian woman to live there. It was better than anything she would have in the refugee camp. I’m also sure my mother saw to it that she had plenty to eat.

One day the Palestinians went on a rampage – I think it had something to do with elections. Anyway, they were shooting guns in the air, heading toward my parents’ house, which stood between them and the city. This old lady came out from under the house and yelled, “You get away from here! This is Mr. Norman’s house and he is a good man!” The Red Sea parted and they circled around the house, not touching a thing.

On another occasion, my father needed something from the hardware store in the souk. He jumped in the car (he had a driver, but usually chose to drive himself). When he returned home, his servant, Suliemann, ran out of the house yelling, “Mr. Norman, Mr. Norman, what did you do?’

Daddy looked at him blankly and said he had just gone to the souk. “Mr. Norman, they are fighting down there! Rebels are in the souk and the army is outside and they are shooting at each other!”

“No, not now,” my father said. “It was very quiet when I was there.”

“Mr. Norman, the rebels just sent word to the house. They stopped fighting while you shopped. But they told me, if you go back, they’ll have to shoot you!”

To be continued . . .

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