Date: Sun, 11 May 1997 09:12:16 -0700
From: William Webster-Garman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: ACS Alumni Association <email@example.com>
Cc: John R Garman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Our Housekeeper Amal
Our Housekeeper Amal
Borre's posting of the Christian Science Monitor article about domestic
help in Beirut reminded me of our own housekeeper there, and how different
her situation was from those described in the piece.
After we arived in Beirut in September 1968, we lived for several weeks at
the Phoenica Hotel, waiting for our furniture and belongings to arrive via
air freight as my mother hunted the urban coastline, looking for a suitable
I've always admired her choice-- a new, marble floored, 4 bedroom, 3 1/2
bathroom apartment on the 3rd floor of the just-built Al Yamama building
(still standing in early 1997) directly overlooking the ACS campus, which
offered a sweeping view of the Mediterranean. The place had two large
living rooms, a huge dining room, a den, servant's quarters, a utility room
with additional WC and bathing facilities, and a gigantic kitchen. There
was an outdoor terrace and 3 additional balconies. My parents forbade us to
tell anyone what the rent was ($2,000 a month, a rather extravagent amount
then), but we were, of course, all delighted when we moved in.
The question of a housekeeper had arisen even before we left the States. My
mother had been told that they were extremely inexpensive and in plentiful
supply, but once in Beirut, after apprising the situation, she wasn't
happy. It turned out that the usual "cheap" housekeeping labor typically
came in the form of a 13 or 14 year old Syrian girl whose father would come
in from Damascus every month or so to pick up her pay. She would speak only
arabic, have no education, and this, combined with the fact that my twin
sister and I were also 14 years old, generated in my wise mother's head
visions of all manner of potential problems, jealousies, and other
complications. This wouldn't work at all for her.
After giving it some thought, she came up with some basic criteria: Whoever
they hired had to speak French (preferably no English so my sister and I
would be forced to communicate with her (<<en francais>>), have a high
school education, and come from a reasonably respectable family. And there
would be no paychecks handed over to erstwhile fathers!
As my mother began asking around with these basic qualifications in mind,
the initial reaction was that she was out of her mind. "It will be so
expensive to find a girl like that," was the typical reply, "when I can get
you a nice 12 year old Syrian girl from As Suwayda! She can start tomorrow!
Why pay so much?!"
However, my mother being generally strong willed, and particularly resolute
and Pennsylvania Dutch about this, persevered and promptly found a young
Lebanese woman in her early 20s, who had a high school baccalaureate, spoke
only Arabic and French, and came from a Christian family up in the
mountains. Her name was Amal. Predictably, my sister and I were promptly
forbidden to tell anyone what Amal was paid every month: It was around 3
times the going rate for adolescent housekeepers from Syria. She was to
have a day off each week, which was also unusual. After being assured that
there were no small children in the household, Amal took the job and
installed herself in the servant's area.
My parents had a very busy social life in Beirut, and most evenings, Amal
would serve dinner to my sister and me in the large kitchen in back of the
apartment. My mother had shown her a few basic American dishes, and one
that Amal really excelled at was fried chicken, which for awhile Martha and
I seemed to be getting every other night. The first 30 times or so, it
tasted great. One day, several months later, I arrived home from ACS and
asked my mother what Amal would be giving us for dinner.
"Fried chicken!" she replied cheerfully.
"But dear, I thought you LOVED fried chicken!!!" was my mother's astonished
"I used to! But I've had it so many times in the last few months I can't
stand it anymore!" I whined as only a hungry 14 year old boy can.
Her brow wrinkled momentarily, and then she looked up and said, "Oh my! I'm
sorry! I'll have her make something else for you tonight!"
To this day, I loathe the sight and smell of fried chicken.
Amal was great, and her Lebanese French was very good. In 4 months, with
the help of Miss Zehfuss' French I class down at ACS (more than one young
French scholar endured a crush on Miss Zehfuss), I went from absolutely
zero ability in the language to a decent vocabulary and complete,
acceptably parsed sentences. My mother was quietly pleased at how she had
set my sister and me on the path to bilingual achievement.
Amal proved invaluable to my mother in running the apartment. She often
translated from arabic into french for my parents, and because she was
literate we sometimes asked her to read or write arabic notes for us. She
was especially good at writing directions in arabic for taxi drivers. Her
roman lettering was a little clumsy to my eye but her arabic script looked
quite fluid and smooth. My most vivid memory of her linguistic functions is
when a couple of local representatives from the PLO came knocking on the
door one night, offering a 45RPM propaganda record in exchange for a
"donation". They were unarmed and actually quite friendly and polite but
nonetheless we all stood around wordlessly as Amal translated what they
were saying into French for my father. I think he quickly gave them LL10
from his wallet. As they left, one of them turned back, and rather
sheeplishly said something to Amal as she closed the door behind them.
My mother asked her what his parting words were.
"Il dit que c'est un bon chanson," Amal replied, shrugging her shoulders:
The guy had said the song on the record was a good one, hoping to make us
feel better about having paid tribute for it.
Within seconds we were all around the stereo in the den, with Amal
translating the lyrics into French. The "A" side was a rather catchy and
simple march tune, as populist, militaristic march tunes go. It's clearly
in my head as I write this, with a big loud accordian and snare drum
accompaniment and lots of added machine gun effects. I still have that
record, but in this age of CDs haven't heard it in years.
During curfews and government crises, she would translate the arabic radio
broadcasts for my parents.
One afternoon, one of my father's business associates dropped by on some
minor mission. He was a fast talker and a bundle of energy, and after he
left, Amal turned to my mother, crinkled her nose, and said in French,
"He's an Egyptian. Of course that explains everything!"
Amal was completely trustworthy and after a time, my mother would, without
a second thought, send her out with money to run emergency errands and the
like. My parents were very happy with her and after several months, when
she asked, they gave her permission to let a friend drop by for a visit now
and then on a slow afternoon, and they would quietly chat and drink coffee
in the living room.
Amal's cultural perspective caused some amusing incidents. My parents
entertained at the apartment once or twice a month. These were usually
relatively lavish affairs, with catered food and additional help brought
in to serve drinks and so on. On one of these evenings, my mother got it in
mind, at the last minute, to serve the guests brandy ice cream for desert,
and asked Amal to run out and get the ice cream.
The dinner went flawlessly, and when they came out with the desert, my
mother was horrified to see that the brandy ice creams were appearing in
chocolate and strawberry versions as well as the traditional vanilla. Being
my mother, she simply smiled and behaved as if nothing at all was amiss,
but carefully watched the reaction around the table. She was very amused
(and relieved) as everyone happily started trading dishes, testing out all
the different flavours. One preferred strawberry, another chocolate. It was
a total hit. I didn't witness this, as I was probably down at ACS playing
records at Beit Ahwi or something, but within a day my mother had told me
the whole story in vivid detail, laughing all the way through it.
My father was a pipe smoker at that time, and for some reason had decided
that he liked the idea of puffing away on tobacco from a hooka, or water
pipe, on Saturday afternoons as he listened to the BBC from Cyprus,
drinking beer and working at his desk. This became something of a ritual.
Amal would carefully prepare the contraption and bring it to him with a bit
of a flourish, <<Votre pipe, monsieur...>> lighting it for him as the
device began bubbling away. The water would soon turn a disgusting brown
colour and the thing was absolutely vile smelling when he was done with it,
but Amal always smiled pleasantly when he called for it: I'm sure it
secretly amused her.
Someone once took a picture of him smoking it, decked out in an Arab
burnoose. He had the picture put into a simple frame and got a kick out of
conspicuously displaying it on an Egyptian copper serving tray they used as
a coffee table in the den. Sometime later, when he heard that hippies often
smoked Lebanese hash hish in water pipes, the photo and the hookah were
abruptly exiled to a box in a closet.
When the odd moment comes that I think back to my very earliest "real
world" experiences with the French language, I recall those evening
mealtime exchanges with Amal in the kitchen, and the distinctly Lebanese
<<Merci a vous>> she replied when we said <<Merci, Amal!>>.
William Webster-Garman '72