Saturday, April 22, 2006

the people of the book

My mother touched the knife blade. The rabbi was in the corner by the crib, muttering. And far away, my father hovered by the TV. There are some things a man can’t watch.

Sam, my mother said. I think it needs more edge.

My Dad tore himself away from the football game and felt the blade. He nodded slowly.

The stone was doubled-wrapped in baggies and paper towels that were held tight by two rubber bands. My father laid out the layers on the counter. He put a drop of oil on the stone and massaged it with his finger.

Hey Irm, he said.

My mother handed him the knife. He laid the edge carefully against the stone and feathered the blade against the silky surface.

My father worked both sides of the blade. Then he flipped the stone over to the finer side. Again the application of oil and the light scraping of steel on stone. Finally he tested the edge. He drew a sheet of paper from the drawer and, with almost no effort, slit it in half.

My mother nodded. The rabbi shrugged.

My father wiped the blade and the stone with an old towel. He then rewrapped the stone in its many layers and stowed it back in the recesses of the closet.

Then they all approached the crib. My little brother was sleeping and making small satisfied noises. He had just been fed and his face was bloated and red. The rabbi took my brother’s lolling head in his hairy hands and pried his jaws open. He started a soft prayer. My brother’s tongue was white with milk and moved forward and back with his uneven breath.

Suddenly, the rabbi ended his dovening. My father turned away. My mother advanced towards the crib, holding the knife high overhead and then brought it down in a gentle chop in the ritual circumcision of the tongue.


Monday, April 03, 2006

the mosque at al vitah

My father always talked about the mosque at Al Vitah.

We would visit it next year -- next year, always next year. And then he was old and walking with a cane and he didn't remember the mosque at Al Vitah. I asked him about it and he seemed on the verge of something, like a light went on, but then he lost it.

He was always a proud man, proud to be from Beirut, proud of his Savile Row suits, but in his last years he escaped all that. He immersed himself in Beethoven. All he wanted to know. Beethoven. Like somehow Beethoven's demonic last harmonies mattered.

He was absorbed in the Diabelli Variations when I asked him about the mosque at Al Vitah. "Listen," he said after his short pause of memory. "Listen to the stupid little theme, and then the way Beethoven blows it apart in the first variation. Now that's inspiration."

I don't remember what was so special about the mosque at Al Vitah. He never really talked about it specifically. It was always in comparison, like when we saw the Chagall windows in the little church in Pocantico Hills, north of New York City. He stood and looked at the stained glass, all of us uncertain about what he would say, this cultured Muslim man in a shrine to Christianity, facing art made by a Jew. Then he nodded. "Nice," he said, "but nothing compared to the mosque at Al Vitah."

He died without ever having been back to the mosque at Al Vitah.

Though I was born in Lebanon, we came here to my father's post at the United Nations when I was scarcely two. So I'm more American than Lebanese. I like McDonald's and Pepsi. Chick peas and tahini were an acquired taste.

Still, as my father lost his mind, and as he turned more and more towards Beethoven, my thoughts turned more and more to the mosque at Al Vitah. I planned a trip as soon as my father's condition stabilized. We would go back to Lebanon the whole family making a pilgrimage. And, of course, we'd see the mosque.

"Count me out," my sister said. "I won't go anywhere with them." My mother, too, in her own way was less than cooperative. "I appreciate the idea," she said, lapsing into French, "but what is there for us to do there?"

Still, I planned. I had a travel agent working out all the details. Nothing threw a monkey wrench into the works -- nothing, that is, except my father's death, an unfortunate aspect of his personal jihad over losing his mind. The doctor couldn't say whether disease had overtaken him or whether he had simply lost the will to fight it. Whatever. I know what I think. I think he gave up that day he could not remember the mosque. It was that simple.

Though none of my family wanted to go, I decided to make the trip to Lebanon as my personal memorial for my father.

But the funny thing was, when I got there, no one knew of any mosque at Al Vitah. Or even a city named Al Vitah.

There was a shrine at Al Vitry, but it was done up new, in garish marble slabs, and could not have been the one my father knew. There was a mosque at Hal Kourtah, a very sacred spot, said to stand where seven martyrs had been burned rather than renounce their faith, but it was 160 miles from Beirut and didn't seem like the kind of place my father would have liked. Dozens of peasants streamed into the squat stone building, leading sheep and goats to have them sanctified, made fruitful, made holy. There was no mark of beauty about the mosque or the ceremony.

This, then, was what I pondered over drinks on the plane home: the miraculous (if I can use that word) disappearance of my father's favorite place, the mosque at Al Vitah.

My sister laughed when I told her.

"Oh, shows you never to believe anything the old goat ever said." She's a modern woman. No veils for her.

My mother wrinkled her already wrinkled upper lip. "He never took me there," she said. "Now let me show you the lovely icon I bought across the street from Bloomingdale's."

I continued to teach -- for that is what I do, teach philosophy (western, mostly, to my father's great shame). Sometimes, in the evenings, I pour myself a scotch, put on the Grosse Fugue, and attempt to discover inspiration.

But of the mosque at Al Vitah, nothing.

I have an idea about it now -- that mosque that exists only as a memory of a memory, my recollection of my father's faulty image -- and it goes like this: we all, every man, every person, have our own mosque at Al Vitah, a place we go to when we need to go to a place that is ours alone.

That was why my father was right to die. When he lost that place, he lost himself.

And that's its true meaning. Each man's mosque at Al Vitah is the only thing worth fighting for. All other battles are pointless. All other wars are unimportant. I am a Western man, steeped in tolerance and multiculturalism, but if someone, anyone--one of my students, for instance--threatened to burn the mosque at Al Vitah, or bomb it, or damage it in any way, I know I would fight to the death. For the mosque at Al Vitah is my jihad and I can never let anything or anyone separate me from that battle.