Culture

Behind every great man is a good woman

Review

BEIRUT: Behind every strong man, as innumerable writers have written, there stands a woman. The adage certainly rings true for Elie Salem. In his heartfelt memoir "My American Bride," the Lebanese academic, think-tank founder, university president and former Lebanese foreign minister attributes all his career success to his American wife, Phyllis.

She died after a battle with cancer in 2001, leaving the septuagenarian Salem to grieve with a mind "crowded with stories, ideas and anecdotes." In his preface, the author wavers as to whether their years together are worth writing about, but over the course of the next 280-odd pages he clearly finds solace in recapturing those by-gone days.

The memoir has a geopolitical dimension. The author hopes his story can better Arab-American relations - undermined by Washington's unequivocal support for Israel and further polarized since the second Bush regime launched its "war on terror."

"This is not a good time for Arabs and Americans," Salem writes. "Indeed, a wave of hatred and abject misunderstanding permeates the sphere between them. I write in the hope that it is useful to tell our story, essentially a love story, at such a time."

The fruit of his labor is a tome that illuminates a happy marriage and the key moments in Middle Eastern history that the relationship spanned, often related with a generous peppering of humor and reflective analysis.

Born in 1930 into a strict north Lebanese family, Salem traveled to the US at 21 to pursue a doctorate. His father Adib gave his son stringent orders to go the US, study diligently and return immediately.

Nowhere did love, romance and marriage fit into Adib's vision. Salem nevertheless found himself pursuing a thrilling relationship with Phyllis Sells.

The two were determined to marry, despite Salem's series of laughable blunders with Americans. After arguing over a book, an immigration officer nearly forbade Salem from entering America. Lebanon's ambassador to the US, Charles Malik - a close relative of Salem's - rescued him.

In another mishap, the author's college roommate accused him of being gay after the Lebanese man had slipped his arm around him. Salem's gesture of friendship came to blows and had to be broken up by police. "I assumed Lebanese customs to be universal," he writes, "and for that ignorance I paid dearly."

The author eventually acclimatizes, and his entertaining gaffes become less frequent.

Upon hearing of her relationship with Salem, Phyllis' racist grandmother exclaimed, "An Arab? Then he must be a Muslim, or whatever they call the followers of that impostor from the desert. If he is Arab, he must be black."

Salem's father too was dismayed at the thought of his cherished son marrying an American from a poor family. After "parading" Elie around the marriage circuit for a few months, he finally conceded to his son's wish to marry Phyllis, eventually falling in love with her himself.

Salem serves up anecdotes like the mezze dishes he and Phyllis eat throughout the memoir. One time, when Salem finds himself locked in the Library of Congress overnight, a  panicked Phyllis phones the police, who come storming into the library screaming insults.

Alternatively sad and funny, these snippets make the memoir a pleasing read, and will strike a chord with anyone who enjoys listening to the sentimental recollections of parents and grandparents.

In one particularly interesting passage, Salem recalls his mountain village of Bterram. Between 1939 and 1945, the village and the surrounding Koura district was a key "staging ground for Allied troops to rest, to train, to maneuver and then to ship off to new fronts in Africa and Southern Europe," Salem writes, recalling encounters with the many different nationalities making up the allied force.

"I witnessed one air engagement between British and German warplanes, and raced to the scene where the German plane fell. There was no pilot when I arrived," he says. The young Salem innocently recruits his friends to imitate the war games going on around them, until a land mine blows one boy to pieces.

This scene may have special resonance for Lebanese readers, who still live with the grim threat of unexploded munitions after Israel's 2006 assault on the country left more than half a million scattered across the south.

In relating these tales, Salem's prose sometimes lapses into absent-minded ponderings or rehashings of details the reader need not know about - such as the names and nicknames of Phyllis' relatives. The narrative also occasionally takes unnecessary detours into religion, which sound a trifle out of place for a writer who describes himself as secular. His references to religion sometimes sound too didactic to be digested without wincing.

Salem's career successes, as he concedes, may well have been fewer had it not been for Phyllis. She helped him research and type his PhD thesis, adapt to American ways, make important decisions, and became Lebanon's most passionate champion.

Despite the offer of a promising job with the US State Department, Phyllis put her formal education and career on hold to advance her husband's. Much later, she enjoyed her own success. After stints as a secretary and teacher, she eventually became chief of AMIDEAST, an American non-governmental association dedicated to promoting cooperation between the US and the Middle East.

After leaving AMIDEAST, she lovingly restored a number of traditional Lebanese houses before selling them to friends. In sum, Salem paints an endearing portrait of Phyllis as a lovable, fiercely pro-Arab chain-smoking woman, wholly dedicated to her family and adopted country.

As the family grew, so did the problems of their beloved Lebanon. After Salem became dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Lebanon's political stability quickly disintegrated.

He offers no explanations for Lebanon's descent into conflict, but says while Arabs "learned long ago to live with conflict and to accept that some problems have no solution," he never expected Lebanon's 1975-90 Civil War to rage for so long. Salem recounts horrific stories of the kidnappings and murders of some of his AUB colleagues.

Somehow, Salem fell in with Bashir Gemayel's Phalange militia and, in 1982, was appointed Foreign Minister by Bashir's brother Amin, when he replaced his assassinated brother as president. Curiously, Salem seems eager to distance himself from the Gemayels, despite serving as a close confidante to both and as one of the most important decision-makers during their reign over the country.

Rather than elucidate on his political role during a bloody period of Lebanese history, Salem diverts the readers' attention to the Lebanese political class' juvenile preoccupations with correct attire and mannerisms. Those interested in something more substantive about his political days are advised to refer to Salem's 1995 memoir, "Violence and Diplomacy in Lebanon." Still, it would have been nice for Salem to dedicate a few more pages to this defining moment in his life.

After leaving office, Salem and his friend, former MP and Deputy Premier Issam M. Fares established the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, which remains one of Lebanon's most active and reputable think tanks to this day. "Our government, finding the Center independent and productive, chose to ignore it completely," Salem says, clearly amused. Not accustomed to idleness, he now serves as president of Balamand University.

Salem 's memoir can be read as a meditation on developing US-Arab relations or as a diary through the banal and violent times of modern Middle Eastern history. The memoir can also be enjoyed as a story of an ordinary man's rise to success, or of his life journey in a slowly globalizing and technologically advancing world.

Above all, "My American Bride" should be read as a remarkable illustration of how deeply the roots of love bind, even years after death. For every defining moment in Salem's life, Phyllis was there to offer her support and advice and, in his memoir, Salem honors her memory as best as he knows how. Phyllis would likely look upon this memoir with approval.

Elie A. Salem's memoir "My American Bride," (2008, 280 pages) is published by Quartet Books.

 

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