AMEEN ALWAN INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
CUE NUMBER: 070110_01
00:00 – Ameen Alwan: Okay, this is Little Syria, and the Meyer Lemon (?)…
Yasmine Alwan (YA): (Gives instructions)
AA: Just a second…Look at that, look at that. Oh there it goes. Anything else?…Muneef did not want to come out to California. So that big apartment on Amity and Clinton, we were on the fourth floor…It was…
YA: …Could we start at the beginning of your life…?
AA: I was born, I was a tiny little mite, like this…[YA laughs]…Oh, what a tiny mite I was! And I grew into a big mite! And then the parents got mite poisoning, and I was worried ‘cause I loved my mom and dad! [Laughter]…[YA says something inaudible]
Ready? Is that better? Okay. My life started – Actually, I think when I was born, though the anti-abortionists would say it started in my father and mother’s, well you know what – and therefore we should not talk about that. But I will! In any case…
We were living in Brooklyn. We had a big apartment on the fourth floor and on either side of the stairwell four flights up there was one apartment on one side, one on the other.
YA: This was on Amity Street?
AA: Yeah, Amity and Clinton. And when we were coming to California Muneef did not want to come. In (?) room there was this very big dining table. It was large. And Muneef cut the legs off and shortened it, which seemed like a sacrilege to me. And so it’s kinda like, would be about, I don’t know, two or three feet across the floor.
YA: So whoever is listening to this won’t know who Muneef is…
AA: Muneef was my oldest brother. And we had issues. For instance, I guess – we were living in another house – he was (?), you know they arrive all the new brothers and stuff (?). And sometimes my father and mother were going out in the evening. It took me a while to figure this out. He would move the cloth forward so we would get thrown into bed much earlier.
YA: Who is we…?
AA: Oh, my younger brother and I, Richie and I. Yeah It took us a while to figure this thing out. [Laughs]
YA: How old were you?…
AA: I don’t know, maybe 8 or 7 or something like that, maybe as little as 6. And when uh, how’d that go?…Then later…You know, I was a spoiled kid. [YA: You were?] Yeah.
YA: What makes you say that?
AA: I can give you some examples. [Coughs]…Next to my parent’s bed was a, what do you call it, an armory (armoire) – a piece of furniture against the wall that you could put clothes in. And what I would do sometimes, I would get up, get as high up as I could get, grabbing onto the armoire and jump on the bed. Of course you know that could have caused problems.
One time, maybe it was Rich and I, I don’t know (we were) 6 and 4 something of the sort, and the other house across the street where we used to live – I think it was called 166 Amity (?) – downstairs – we had maybe like, 2 floors, and downstairs there was a Persian rug, rectangular pattern with a border around the edge, and sometimes Richie and I would get on our knees, and one would start at one end and one would, pointing in the other direction would crawl on that border and then we would reach each other, we’d hit each other as much as we could and then we’d pass and kept on going.
YA: And how old were you then?
AA: I don’t know about 6-ish, 7. Also, also at the side of the rug there was a – what was it called? – a bureau with drawers, furniture, you know, clothes and stuff. And of course we were, I was a very nosy kid. What did I find in one of the drawers? The second drawer, I pulled it out, and there was a photograph like this of my mother. Naked! Pubic hair and everything! Sweet mamma! [Laughter]…And of course I didn’t even think of resisting the temptation – “Look, look! Look what I found! Hahaha! You!”
And about this time Errol Flynn was very famous and he had been involved in some sort of stuff with an older woman. And this had been all in the news and (every)thing.
So needless to say that photographs no longer exists, except in my memory!
YA: What could’ve been the story of that photograph?
AA: My father wanted – Ha ha ha – a naked picture, and maybe he borrowed a camera or maybe he had someone do it for him, I don’t know. I mean I could never ask – I’d say, “Papa how come you’ve got this photograph of mamma? How did it come about? Papa!” No no no.
YA: Well that’s real interesting…
AA: Of course it is.
YA: How did she react when you found it?…
AA: With horror! With horror!…So, one day, on a different day, Richie and I had been going around the thing, you know – Bruh, bruh, bruh, bruh – and we met. And then my mother said, “Get dressed. It’s time for us to go to the pastry store.” [YA: How old was he…?]…Well…Gosh…Over there, that photograph – Muneef I think, was 4 and that was ’22, so, it was a good while…after that, you know.
YA: So you were like, 6 and he was 10 maybe?…MA: Probably older…YA: You were 10?…MA: No, about this time, no…Give me a Kleenex…[chatter]…Okay.
AA: In any case, that apartment on Clinton and Amity, you know it was 4 flights up so my mother and my father and us got a lot of, you know, exercise, especially my mother. At one point…
YA: Wait, so she said “Get dressed…”
AA: Yeah. Because she said, “We’re gonna go to the pastry store, and then shopping.” And Richie and I had done this damn thing just then, you know, the slugging (?)…And so, okay, we go get dressed and we went to the pastry store and Uncle Mahmoud says to us two kids, very young – He says, um – maybe my mother had said something to him about what we were doing – the slugging. And Uncle Mahmoud said, “Yeah I heard about it over the radio.” And so us kids said, how the hell could he hear it over the radio? But he must have! He knows about it! So we believed him.
YA: Did you continue to do it?…
AA: I can’t remember. We must have I guess. I don’t know. Then uh, my mother got money from the store and we went shopping at Abraham & Strauss, and stuff like that – which department stores on Fulton Street no longer exist. Well we went shopping, because mainly we ate Syrian food. That’s what we ate. And then shopping – My mother would buy us a hotdog, and we’re not used to having hotdogs! And so I would – a piece of paper wrapping of it – Like you’d (?) wrap it and put it in my pocket so it would last as long as possible. Now of course you couldn’t get me to eat a hotdog. (Laughs) But that’s what I’d want (?).
And because in Brooklyn – Muneef did not want to go into the pastry store, and he thought…
YA: why not?
AA: Because my uncle, and I guess my mother – It’s peasants! – ‘cause they were in this business, you know, making pastry. Peasants! He wasn’t going to do that!
YA: What was he going to do?
AA: I’ll tell you…When Muneef he married Susan…
YA: Can you tell the listener a little about Susan?
AA: Well Susan was his first wife. He married three times. I liked her. In fact I saw her, I don’t know, four, five years ago.
Let’s back up a bit…Susan’s father, from Lithuania, started at a brokerage firm as an office boy. And Susan said at that time you could rise up in the brokerage firm to a responsible position. Eventually he became a member of the Stock Exchange, which is a very expensive and high up spot. When he found out, going back, that Muneef had gotten involved with Susan he very much disapproved. Very much!
YA: How do you know?
AA: Well I’ll tell you the story. He was arrogant. He told Muneef, he said, “I’d like you to come to my office.” – the Stock Exchange office. And then he said to Muneef, “Listen Arab! How much do you want to leave my daughter alone?” Muneef was shocked, because we came from a wealthy family. And Muneef didn’t say anything. He just got up and walked out.
Much later, when he and Susan got married. Muneef, you know, Susan’s father finally put this past – and he gave them enough money for them to buy the house in (?) – which is a big house. At one point while this is all going on – we got the house – I was sitting in the living room in that big chair by the sewing machine, and I saw Muneef pacing off in the distance, the length of the living room. And I knew damn well what he was doing – “Is my house bigger than Papa’s house?!” I don’t know whether…So…
Anyway, Susan and I became good friends. She…I don’t know. She was a person who had 3 unhappy marriages. This was number one. Anyway…
YA: can we go back to when you were on Amity Street?
AA: Let me finish this…They had a…Essentially the house was one giant room space downstairs for bedrooms and stuff, and a tiny kitchen. And I wanted to learn how to dance. And so she was showing me some steps in this tiny kitchen, and who should come in? Muneef! And there was a surprised, offended look on his face, like, “What the fuck are they doing?” You know, you couldn’t explain it.
YA: How old were you?
AA: Oh, in the twenties, something like that…
[Talk about going back to Amity Street]
AA: Well, Amity Street was not too long, maybe five, six, seven blocks at that. One of it ended in the East River. Right next to it was Long Island College Hospital – like a teaching hospital. And two of my brothers were born there – Muneef and Richard. And it ended at – What the hell was that damn street at the other end? [YA: Court?]…Court I think. Yeah. And the story was – Well, Winston Churchill’s mother was American. And the story was that she had been born on Amity Street, but we never knew exactly where, and it wasn’t a long street. And by World War I Winston Churchill was already maybe 30-ish, or whatever and had a responsible position in the navy – So on Amity Street across was where we lived earlier, where we found the photograph itself – 166 Amity Street. And us kids (movement) liked to play in the street. We’d play stickball. You’d use a broomstick cut off as a bat, and the drainage covers would be the bases, you know, home, first, duh, duh, duh. And so we loved to do that.
One day we were playing, and the bat – the broom handle – flew out of my hands! And there was some guy walking by on the sidewalk and it went right through his legs and he never noticed! Schoo, choo, choo!
And at the corner of Amity and Clinton was this big house, owned by a family who were in dry goods, you know, clothing, stuff to do with material. And there was a girl living there, very pretty. And she came from this expensive family, you know, but sometimes, once in a while, like us kids would be playing in the street. We’d fire a ball against the steps, and hitting it that way and then dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. Sometimes she would get bored, and this attractive, maybe like, teenager, would come out and play with us peasants! And of course I had a crush on her! But you know, nothing coming from that. Her name was either Georgette or Georgina.
YA: So she would play baseball?
AA: It wasn’t baseball…Used a tennis ball, hit it against something, tried to get the top of the step, like that, and then used it for sewer covers as bases.
Down below in the cellar of that big house was the custodian and his family – may have been German – You know, I knew them and sometimes we’d talk (?) for a little bit. That house across the street – 166 Amity, right next to all that stuff, where we lived for a number of years – On the top floor was a family called Giamatta, and a wife, and I think he had a daughter. Sometimes I remember him coming down the steps in the morning in the winter with a heavy overcoat. He was overweight and he was walking off going to work. In the wintertime, when there’s lots of snow – Us kids would love to play in the snow – And when the street cleaners cleaned it, you know, there would be a mound of snow – a bank of snow – maybe like, two or three feet high on either side of the street. And we would use that, and we’d throw snowballs at each other. Once in a while one of us would cheat, and (make?) a snowball, put a piece of ice inside and then throw it at another person. Pshoo!
YA: Do you remember anyone else you played with?
AA: Yeah! Further down the street, on the same side as the house on Amity, was a family, a Greek family…The father had an undertaker place a couple blocks away, whatever. And the father, I remember was always dressed in a very formal suit, and the family lived in the basement I think. We sometimes played together. One time…What’s his name? I can’t think right now. We had gone to Prospect Park together. I think they were originally Lithuanian. And he was running on the ice. What the hell happened? He slipped! Bang! He went down and hit his head against the ice. Uhh! It was awful, but he got himself up and he was okay. Yeah.
Down at the end of the block, that same side was what in that time(s) was called a candy store. What they did was sell little pieces of candy for a penny. Like this…Where they have a sheet of paper on which drops of colored sugar candy were pasted on. We (?) by that. And I remember the guy – old man – (?) wore a shop jacket down to right here. And the elementary school was on the other side of the street, across (?).
The kids during lunch break would go down there and he would sell them a cigarette for a penny. Whew!
01:33:00:16: CUE #070110_02
At that time New York…
YA: What time was that?
AA: 50’s, 40’s. Broadway was vibrant. There were a number of 4, 5, 6, whatever, playwrights who did plays. They were not musicals – (?) stuff here for tourists. And they were well reviewed, and they’d been living during that. One was this playwright…did a play about…Joan of Arc. It’s called “Joan of Lorraine.” And who should play in it but Ingrid Bergman, who at that time was very, very popular. And she was doing a play in New York, “Joan of Lorraine.” And at that time tickets, the very top of the balcony, I don’t know, cost a dollar twenty. Cheap. I had a ticket for Saturday. At the store I would take boxes of pastry all tied up together to the post office and mail them. And at the store my father wanted me to do that on Saturday. I said, “But I got tickets to the play this afternoon!” They said, “We don’t care. We don’t care!” So what did I do? I ran out of the store and started running towards Clinton Street to escape. And who should chase after me? My older brother, who caught me, back of my neck, and brought me back! So there went “Joan of Lorraine!” I had to take the stuff to the frickin’ post office!
Anyways…As I said…
01:36:14:07: CUE #070110_03
Like right now, Broadway is mainly gigantic musicals, which draw tourists and run for 17 years, I don’t know what, but at that time it was a vibrant audience for serious plays, drama, this that and the other. For instance, around that time Marlon Brando was playing in Manhattan in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He played this character, Kowalski. And he was, you know, he kinda put his fingerprints on that role and no one else could kinda do it the way he did it. But he had a contract saying he had to stay there for the run of the play however the play lasted. And he disliked doing the same thing every day, but that’s what he had to do.
One day Mr. Karl Malden was in there playing one of the secondary characters. And one day in between when they were needed inside, they went to stand outside on the sidewalk to cool off, and a guy walks by and says, “Is the play any good?” and Marlon Brando says to him, “Why don’t you buy a $1.20 ticket and see for yourself?” …
My father’s (?)…At that time Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire, and there was a great fear that if you got drafted into the Ottoman army there was a good chance you would not come back alive. And so my father talked about this with his father and they decided, yeah, it was a worry; issue. So my father and his father talked about it, and my father’s father said, “Yes, I agree with you, but I want you to promise that no matter what you will take care of the rest of the family.” My father said “Yes.”
So came to this country, and at that time there was an area in Lower Manhattan, which, that neighborhood was Syrians, Americans, and (?). And they all got together well, you know. They got along well. And my father got a job at a chain restaurant in Manhattan called Schrafft’s, which for all I know may still be in existence.
They found out he could make baklava. And they said to him, “We’ll give you a raise and you teach us how to do it.” My father thought, “No, “ because once they found out how to do it they could get rid of him and have lower paid help make it. So, that’s how he wound up with this place in Lower Manhattan, Washington Street where (?) the pastries.
And then I forget whether the city or the state wanted to build a tunnel, which needed that area, part of that area….
YA: Wasn’t that Robert Moses?…
AA: I forget. It may have been a little before his time. I forget. I forget. And they needed that area for the entrance to the tunnel. So…
YA: Do you know anything about the store before the tunnel came into the picture?
AA: I don’t know. I don’t think he had started to bring his brothers over. I think it was a bit later when he moved down to Atlantic Avenue.
YA: That was just him alone in the store in Manhattan?
AA: Yeah I think so. I’m not positive, but I think so. Anyway, when he moved down to…Atlantic Avenue he started bringing the brothers across.
YA: So he must have done that early.
AA: Yeah. Like, I remember my Uncle Malouf told me when he closed the store that it had been in existence 50 years. I don’t know who was the first brother he brought across. It could have been Mahmoud or it could’ve been Uncle Fowad (?). Maybe Uncle Malouf, I don’t know. And as I told you before…
YA: Did he go back to Syria each time to bring them over?
AA: No. No. He’d pay for passage then meet them, and bring ‘em to Brooklyn, and arrange for living quarters, money and trading, to learn how to do a trade.
YA: Did they want to come?
AA: I think most of them wanted to come. Except, I don’t know the story about Fowad. I don’t know.
YA: And did they all live together?
AA: No. I think they had separate places.
YA: Did they get along?
AA: Except Fowad. But Fowad, I never knew Fowad to work in the store. You could ask at the Sahadi’s or something, cause five years ago, or whatever, when I was in Brooklyn, they said he was the best (?) – Fowad. As I told you earlier he had a shiny scar mark over here. And I would sometimes see him walking down Atlantic Avenue past the store I think with a walking stick. And I don’t know how he got that scar. Maybe Sahadi might know. Maybe he and my father got into a fight and my father maybe whacked him with a hot pan. Don’t know!! But Sahadi may know.
YA: Was you father temperamental?
AA: Let’s put it this way: [YA: Uh uh!] My father was someone you did not cross. You did not cross my father, because you could get in trouble.
YA: What kind of trouble?
AA: Ask Uncle Fowad…So I don’t know. My father was very (?) when he was younger – Very authoritative and very strict. And in general you did things his way or else.
YA: Or else, in your case what did that mean? Or else what, for you?
AA: Well for instance what I said about the tickets “Joan of Lorraine,” it meant fuck the play and go take the pastry to the post office. But later on, skip ahead.
As I said we didn’t want to go in the store. And I did not want to go in the store. I wanted to be educated, and number two, I did not want to be under my father’s thumb. Of course my father was not happy about all this.
YA: Sounds like he had a pretty big thumb!
AA: (laughs) Extensive! Anyways…
YA: What about Richie?
AA: Richie was still younger. Richie was still younger. So, he decided to pay for college. So I started at NYU. And my first year, my first semester, this that and the other, did not do well. And in middle of school (?), I started a foreign language – Italian, since it was an Italian neighborhood. Mrs. DiCardo, I always remember her. She was pretty. (She) Had fingernails, short finger nails painted very red. But we didn’t learn much grammar! And we certainly did not learn grammar in English classes. So I transferred to Boy’s High. Uch!! You know, as I said so at that time (?) during the second year of Italian without an understanding of what came before, it was like building a second floor over a nonexistent first.
I remember my teacher, Mr. LaGuardia, always angry, always ready to fly off the handle. He had a big flock of white hair. And at that time in New York the academic classes at the end of the year, you took the regents exam. And Mr. LaGuardia was afraid cause I had done so badly that I would fail that and it would reflect on him. So Mr. LaGuardia said – took me over, he said, “Come here I want you. If you don’t take the regents exam, instead of giving you a 65, I’ll give you a 70.” I said, “Fine!” So I kicked (?) it. And then when it came to the end of the school year for him to give me a grade he forgot and gave me a 65. So I went to him and said, “Mr. LaGuardia, blah blah blah, you don’t blah blah blah…” He said, “Yeah. Yeah. Don’t worry. I’ll fix it.” Which he did.
YA: What was the consequence of not taking the regents?
AA: Well, if I flunked it, it would have reflected on him and his teaching.
YA: But what about you? What did it mean that you didn’t take it?
AA: It didn’t mean fuckin’ shit! But it meant this – Because I‘d done badly in a foreign language I decided to take Spanish. And by that time I’d learned the grammar. I remember in this Spanish class, the first Spanish class I took there was a middle aged guy – I don’t know, 30ish, whatever – from Cuba. And I remember him saying once, “When I first learned English, I wanted to say something in English, but Spanish was my native language. It was first in my mind, say it in Spanish, then translate it and say it in English.”
That was part of my experience also. I finally reached a point where I did have to make that transition. It would just come out directly. And with the gist (?) of that I got interested translating later on (?) and things of that sort. So it was important.
01:52:04:20: CUE #070110_04
AA: I told you about the fact that when Arthur Miller, during the depression, he’d gone to the University of Michigan, studied drama, written some things, some plays. I think he’d done one more before, maybe two more, before “Death of a Salesman.” And “Death of a Salesman” had been directed on Broadway by Elia Kazan, who was a great director. I think his name was “Gadget” (?), because he could fix problems like it was a gadget (?). Later he got into a lot of trouble, about politics. But in any case…And at that time new plays opened out of town for tryouts, this that and the other. Occasionally they never made it to New York. And they opened the play out of town and then they came to New York. Opening night’s all sold out. And at that time lots and lots of people went to plays, not because they were musicals but because they were interested in something serious, this that and the other. And so…and there’s some Yiddish qualities translated in the play.
The play opened and the audience was silent. Silent! And the cast and Kazan didn’t know what the fuck to think. Then one of the cast members – you could see a hand part the curtain a little bit to look out at the audience – And what did that person see? The audience was in tears! In tears! And then they opened the curtain, and tumultuous applause, and then they knew they had a hit.
The woman who played the salesman’s wife was a very good actress. And one of the lines at the end of the play, maybe the very end of the play was that – holding up either like, the play, the salesman goes to the cellar and attached a tube to where lots of stuff came out, like you know, like planning suicide, and that way…but trying to hide it so that the family could get the insurance. You know like pulling it to avoid, and throwing away the uh…
At the end of the play – what’s her name? – the wife, holds up the tube like this, and her last line in the play is, “Attention must be paid.” Like to a person, like that. Blams (?)…She was up in (?) in some of his other plays – a very careful actress.
01:56:10:07: CUE #070110_05
YA: I know there was some interest in what exactly did your father sell in his store and what are your memories of the store.
AA: Of course…[Clears throat]…They made “Baklava” (?), and of course they had marble, a giant table, maybe from there, I don’t know, a big thing, maybe like, from here…
YA: How many feet is that?
AA: Maybe, I don’t know, 8 to 10 feet wide, with this long dowel (?), which you know, the dough was forced out and molded rolled out back & forth, back & forth, back & forth. So it was all very thin, very thin.
YA: Where did he get his ingredients?…
AA: That kind of stuff was just flour and stuff. You could get it anywhere. That wasn’t hard. And then with the baklava, cause it was made with thin layers, [clears throat] I remember once standing by him in the back [clears throat], a round tray like this, he would lay the layers down to what was about this much, then say, use the pistachio nuts, put the pistachio nuts on, put about that much, would cover it, this round tray. Then with one hand he’d hold the tray, in the other hand a big knife, and rotate it without stopping and cut, cut cut, cut, cut, cut, cut till they’d finish. And except for the pieces near the crust, near the edge, they all came out diamonds. I thought that was amazing.
YA: Did he like eating pastry?…
AA: I don’t know. I don’t imagine sitting around eating a lot of pastry. Then when it came time to make what they called Bourva (?), which had very thin strings of dough – The head mad (?) metal, kinda cupped like this and 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (?) for the (?) mount – a hedricanic (?) oven, And on it’s own was this very big tray, and while someone was rotating the oven, someone was letting the dough come out. They’d rotate what they were…(?) 2 feet long (?)…And then they had this stuff, this dough, which was thin, thin, I mean like…
AA: Yeah, but of course, baked. And then they would use that to make (?). They didn’t even cook it completely it was so good. It was so soft. You can imagine it. And someone would put it out onto a tray. Someone would put on a stuffing, you know, nuts, ground nuts, and then finally they’d wind up in circles. [Coughs] And then they’d give it a final baking. And that was called “Bournwa” And when it came out they’d put it in trays and certain (?) things.
Then on Saturdays Aldit (?) started one side, a bit toward the cross the street direction, steps went down. And there was a bakery down there. And during the weekdays they made pita. Saturdays they’d make the pita while it was still, like really (?) cooked, paste on it, paste on it, paste on it, paste on it, lost of sesame seeds. Lots of sesame seeds! And sometimes my uncles would send me down there to get it on Saturday morning when it was fresh.
YA: Why only Saturday?
AA: It was a special day, you know. They were closed Sunday, and it would’ve been too much trouble, and I guess they could be sure there would be a lot of demand for it, so they came once a week.
I remember going down there and getting it, a sack, whatever, and it seemed like the back of that damn fucking bakery downstairs was scary…(?)…and the baker and his sons were all covered in white and their hair with flour. Then I would bring it, I guess in a sack, because…It was called “kaak” (?). I’d bring it up and – the very back room, which was big – on a crate, which, I don’t know, something came in, you know, like, this. They’d put that big round tray, like that, so it was balanced. And I think, it was with my father and I, we’d sit around it and eat the fresh kaak (?) with cheese, and maybe with, uh, maybe coffee or something like that. And it was really, REALLY delicious! Uh! And then that was done. That was the end of kaak for the week.
YA: Did you like pastry?
AA: I did but I never was used to pigging out. Also on Saturday we made something special called “wamneh (?)” in a big kettle, like I said…It was balls of uncooked dough, and they’d…so some of it got cooked about with cream and maybe some oil (?). And then, also on Saturday they would make almost like…pancakes like this. And then I’d help and my uncles would do it too. They would be stuffed with pistachios, walnuts, or some with cream, and then we’d flip them over, we used to take it like this, and then we’d fry it a little bit, out, and that was a special treat they sold on Saturday.
YA: …So it sounds like you did work at the store. [AA: Yeah. Yeah.] What else did you do besides….post office…?
AA: Post office. Yeah. That was about it.
YA: Did your brothers do anything else?…
AA: Richie was too young.
YA: And Muneef never did?…
AA: He didn’t like it, no.
YA: Muneef made pastry when he got older…
AA: Wait. Let me finish. One day during all this time, it was during the Depression – A man came in. He said he was hungry, could he have something to eat. I think he was like something you picture in those…”I didn’t want bread, I want pastry!” Anyways, he said, “I’m hungry. Could I have something to eat?” My father said yes. My father got some pastry and wrapped it in wax paper, which impressed me. Like he was not gonna just say, “Here take this and get out.” He wrapped it in wax paper, sorta nice and neat. Maybe (?), put it in a bag and told the guy, “Here.” The guy said thank you and left. So I was impressed with that.
YA: Do you remember anybody who used to come to the store?
YA: Yeah, anybody else?
AA: Not too well, cause I was a kid. No I don’t remember…It seemed like there were tables in front, tables, with tables and chairs. That’s (?) with customers. They sat down and ordered something, and I’d take a glass of water, and put it in front of the customers, and maybe when their order was ready I’d deliver it to the table. That was about it.
YA: Did you like being in the store?
AA: It didn’t bother me, except if I wanted to do something else. You know. I didn’t care.
Across the street on Atlantic Avenue it was paved with these cobble stones, almost like bricks, but not quite, and down the middle of the street, I guess in two ways, trolley car tracks. The eldest brother, Farras (?) as a kid went out there, was fucking around, and got his foot caught in one of the tracks. And the train couldn’t stop completely in time, and it broke his bone. [YA: It must have been painful.] Right. And because he didn’t have a mother, didn’t have a family, so to speak, he didn’t tell nobody [YA: you didn’t tell your father?…AA: No.] …until it was too late. And the doctor said the bone had healed that way, and he couldn’t break it and fix that. Too late! So his life got screwed because of that.
YA: Well, how big was his limp?
AA: It wasn’t awful, but it was noticeable. But also it was like he was a disaster (?).
YA: How so?
AA: It made him very crabby and unhappy. Later on…Oh! He married one American. They both went to Syria. Damascus, I think. And when he was in the shower – Shoo, choo, choo, shoo – he had a heart attack and died. The whole life screwed up. He had a family, this that and the other, a mother with a nervous (?). Also his mother wouldn’t let him play around in the street like that.
YA: So he came over when he was really young.
AA: Yeah. He was the last one. Last one. I never liked him because he was so crabby, but of course he had his reasons. He had his reasons.
YA: And why did Mahmoud close the store?
AA: Well, it had been open for 50 years, and I guess he felt he was getting old, and it could be too much for him, cause he was there just by himself. He had to do everything – the baking, the selling, the waiting on customers. Hani, was very young, like this, like the store, wanted to go into business, but was too young. And Louis Hemsey (?) who worked the store as a helper, uneducated – Mahmoud had the fantasy of him taking things over. A fantasy! One time he took Louis with him to Damascus, brought him back, and Louis, because he was uneducated, knew he’d never run the store. He could never learn how to do everything and (?), and they’d all say, he just knew he couldn’t do it.
So, Mahmoud finally closed the store. Louis had been unhappy at this point, he’d been married, had a couple daughters in New Jersey. And he said, “Well I could do New Jersey, I don’t know anybody there.” And he lived on Court Street not that far from the store. So what did he do? He became a (?) truck driver, and did that I guess till he retired. Louis Hemsey, at Sahadis they knew him, but I don’t think anyone’s interested. He may still be around for all I know, but I lost contact with him. I don’t have his address. Just Sahadi, whatever it was, Oriental, knew of him.
Across the street was an apartment. There was a friend there, my age, Philip Hitti (?)…Philip Hitti. They were poor. His uncle, at Princeton, was a very well known scholar – and [wrote] a number of books. But there was not much re-connection there.
At that time on Pacific Street I was going to the elementary school. There, I think…Oh! One day, on the second floor above the bottom floor, which was, you know, first above the entry (?)…Up above that was a big rectangular room. And you could roll the wall doors back, like this, so that it would be one gigantic room. One day (?) we were gonna do a play. We all had parts.
YA: What was your part?
AA: I can’t remember. What I do remember was, no matter what you part was, no matter what your part was, you came dressed in your best clothes whether it fit the part or not. And poor Phil Hitti didn’t have any kind of best clothes. He just had to come the way he came.
One year – It happened all the time – my father made up a box of pastry, he (?) a bunch of them wrapped up and said, “Here, give that to your teacher.” So I did. I gave that to her. She said, “Thank you.”
YA: Isn’t there that story of like, World War II, the film canisters or something?…
AA: There were metal canisters to hold film originally, things like that, and my father…used to buy those, clean them and then put wax paper in them and then pastry, and used to ship them away, so instead of getting film, they were getting pastry.
And at the store for packages that were too big for the post office, there was Railway Express. And the guy, if we wanted him to stop, we got this red sign that just said, “Railway Express” and we’d hang it by the front of the store, and the guy then knew, the driver knew to stop and pick up stuff. So he would do that.
Also during the war, during the war, my father and uncles, the second room in back had a big machine, like that, big, I think, wooden circular bucket, big thing. And they’d put ice on the outside, and they would use that, spin it, to make ice cream.
During the war too there was a large (?) Italian man who delivered the ice. There was then actually, men went around delivering ice. And of course they would throw that into…(?) and um…
YA: Where was the ice made?
AA: Factory. There was one in Pasadena, near the freeway. Factory. It closed down.
In any case, he was very proud of Mussolini. The war too, and he would brag about how much he liked Mussolini. “Mussolini, Mussolini!”
AA: It just seemed strange, but I, and my uncles just shrugged our shoulders. I mean, like, “Mussolini, okay!” Like Mussolini! So…
YA: If you had to pick one moment that you felt most connected to your father from your entire life, what would it be?
AA: I don’t know. One important moment was when I screwed my up first semester at NYU. I told him, “I have to go to Sunday school. I need such and such amount of money.” My father wrote a check. If he hadn’t written that check my life would have been different, different! So, I did well in Sunday school and here I am. I remember there was one guy in that group who did not do well, and so we two took turns going in front of this committee to know what the results were. And they just all knew they would not keep him at NYU. And the poor guy said, “Would you give me a recommendation?” And they said, “Yes.” [Chuckle] This guy flunked out, but yeah! I don’t know what they would say, but they said yes.
At NYU then, the following year, I had a woman, a speech teacher, who was attractive, about 30, red jacket and pink pants. Now I had to give an address (?) and she would do the speech thing with me.
Another teacher I had during that time…was Marshall Lewis Rosenthal. He was about 35, scholar, about 35. Yeah, about 35, he had a PhD. And he let me in (?). And sometimes I’d talk about, you know, what I’d do on the assignment, like (?) sitting in the dark and writing the assignment out as best I could in the dark, and then writing it up in a legible way and reading it to him. And he was very encouraging. Marshall Lewis Rosenthal.
YA: You wrote your assignment in the dark…
AA: I was living in the dark. I don’t know. [YA: Laughs]…But he was very pleasant and as I said about 35-ish, something, and was Jewish.
02:23:43:02: CUE #070110_06
Later he became…wrote scholarly books. I think he became an expert on Yeats. I’m not sure anymore, but he had a wonderful academic career afterwards. Very good guy.
YA: What was so good about him?
AA: He was very encouraging and willing to listen to all this strangeness, and commented in a way that wasn’t sarcastic or anything like that.
YA: What was so strange?
AA: Well, some of the things I was doing like doing the assignments in the dark, Vvvvrrsh…then coming over and then reading it to him. I’m like what…Marshall Lewis Rosenthal…I think it wasn’t too long ago that he died. You know, he’d be well known enough to his cause to be in an obituary in the New York Times.
So I was lucky with some of the teachers that I had.
YA: How did your parents respond to your school stuff?
AA: Indifferent…It was…Something from another world that knocked (?) them, it didn’t interest them. They’d say, you know, like, “Bring your report card out.” And all my mother’d do was signed it and that was the end of her involvement.
YA: Was there a particularly strong memory of your mother that stands out?
AA: Hysterical. She was not happy. Not happy.
YA: Was she always like that?
AA: I remember mostly that way. Like, if you dropped a dish, “You did it on purpose!” Stuff like that.
YA: Yeah. I remember that too! [Laugh]
AA: Whose to say?
YA: And yet you were more connected to her than your dad
AA: [I] had indifference (?) for my dad because he spent such long hours in the store. My dad would come home at night, tired, he’d sit in one of those big couches, put a chair, feet up on it, wearing slippers or whatever. And in the evening there was a very conservative radio program here. Fifteen minutes (?). My father-in-law though was very Republican, and my father would listen to him.
YA: Did you and you dad ever talk politics?
AA: Not really. Except about Palestine once, his rights. I was not interested in Palestine and he was offended by that, but aside from that, no.
YA: Lauren mentions the prayer rug and the Koran…?
AA: I never remember the Koran. Look, essentially my parents were not religious. They would say they believed in God, but that was about it. You know. They were not reading the Koran or anything of the sort.
YA: Which means that you were not raised in any way that was religious…[AA: No, nah. No. No.]…Did your mother have friends?
AA: Yeah. She had a very close friend around her age. And sometimes they’d go to Prospect Park and I’d go with them and I’d be playing in the grass, they’d be sitting and talking. They were very close, about the same age. Then she decided she wanted to go back to Syria. So she went back to Syria and that was the end of that friendship. But, moved, to Syria (?). I may have one or two pictures of her, but they were very close friends.
And also, there was another friend, not another friend, a brother, named Aleg (?). Ali was very different from all the rest and she liked him the best. He was a very sensitive guy. And he decided America was not for him and he went back. And soon after that something happened, something happened [that killed him (?)] But he was my mother’s favorite uncle, and very very very different from the rest. Very.
YA: What were the rest like?
AA: [coughs] You know. Business, making pastry, running a living, things like that, and making a life in America, which Ali did not want to do.
YA: Wait, you mean there was a sixth brother?
AA: Ali, Fowad, Mahmoud Said, and then Avi.
YA: So that’s six brothers…
AA: How’d you get six?…[YA: Well, Muneer…] Okay, I wasn’t counting my father. I was counting the oldest brothers. Yeah, sure.
YA: But Ali was your father’s brother.
AA: Yeah. Yeah. As I said, extremely different.
YA: Like you?
AA: I guess so. I don’t know.
YA: So she went to Syria, which is where she had you? [AA: Yeah.]…Do you remember much about the first return to Syria?
AA: Unfortunately I do.
YA: What does that mean?
AA: I did not like it. [YA: Why?] …We were there for about 2 years. The idea was my father still had an interest in the store. He would go to Syria and start a business there. But that never worked out. And meanwhile I was sent to school there – Damascus – which I disliked.
YA: So wait. This was when you returned the second time?
AA: The first time is when I was born, the second time was when I was about 6 or 7, something like that. Yeah. I remember the school. We used to talk in Arabic. And it had thick walls, a window that opened, like I don’t know, in or out, I forget. And on the interior side there was a ledge about this wide. And if you were bad, well that meant you had to go and stand out on that interior ledge for a good while. So I spent my hours on that ledge.
YA: You were bad?
AA: Whatever way. I can’t remember. Then in the summer we went to the mountains. We stayed for the summer. Just like (?)…Then you’d look out and see the desert and the winding road. I remember us standing out there and watching the bus bringing my father, And it was like the old-fashioned bus with the motor in front. Kshh-shh-shh-shh! And then on the cliffside they’d go back and forth, but you couldn’t see. And the place we lived in had two floors, but we just used the bottom floor. At the top, second floor, was unoccupied. There was a woman – a middle aged woman – would come and bake…I think it was called Tanoor – which was this wide, flat, thin pieces of bread like this, that we filled up with stuffing (?). And then she’d bring another one and we had that for breakfast. It tasted very good.
YA: You have good bread memories.
AA: Oh yeah. Then, I think I told you before – My favorite aunt was named Hayyat. In the early 20’s, Hayyat, no one would name a child like this, Hayyat. It means “life.” She liked me a lot and I liked her.
There was a lot…(?)…There was a little girl there…(?) living over there. I was nasty to her. Nasty.
YA: You were just a kid. That’s what kids do.
AA: Well, unpleasant to think of. Anyways, many years later, maybe 20 years later, she was middle aged…
YA: Hayyat or the girl?
AA: Hayyat…She had a son who was going to go to college in Tennessee. They stopped over here at the house for a visit, and she was looking for another life.
YA: She was?
AA: Of course! So, I assume…Of course the son finished college ten thousand years ago, and they went back to Syria. God knows what happened.
YA: How long were you in Syria the second time?
AA: I think about 2 years.
YA: So both times, two years.
AA: Well I don’t remember the first time because I was born, and stuff like that. I don’t remember that (?).
YA: Do you remember the boat ride?
AA: Actually, yeah. For some reason we were going and coming back. The boat had to depart from Boston, go back to Boston. So we boarded (?) a train to Boston, whatever. And Lauren was there to excavate (?) a picture of the boat. On it was written in big letters, “American Export Line.” It gets me because of, uh, Ellis Island. And on the front it had a hold, (?) in which stuff was being shipped, and on the side, stored, a crane, lifted up…maybe the crane was on the dock. And then in the middle part of the boat – and I guess there was (?) in the back – in the middle part of the boat there were staterooms, which is where we stayed.
And I remember sometimes the boat was rocky like this, you know. When it was time for meals, this tall thin guy had this little xylophone, and he’d play a little tune on it, and he’d walk down the aisle till your meal was done. And I was impressed. I remember he was this tall thin guy. He could walk, and keep steady even though the boat was like this now, and he was playing the thing. In the dining room, the tables were tied and bolted to the floor and I don’t know how we managed meals without throwing up.
YA: Can I take a break?
02:39:19:19: END OF INTERVIEW