At the Feet of My Teachers

I

MY intellectual history began in the school of my uncle, my mother’s first and favorite cousin, Priest Michael, of the Holy and Apostolic Greek Orthodox Church. I could not have been much more than three years old when my mother led me to sit at the feet of the priest of my people and receive instruction. The ‘Child Mind,’ ‘School Age,’ ‘Adolescence,’ and the many other psychological zones were unknown to my people. I could say ‘papa’ and ‘mamma,’ and many other words at the age of three, and according to my parents’ ideas I might just as well be saying the letters of the alphabet.

At that time the men who could read and write in El-Shweir were extremely few. Certain parish priests established what might be called reading circles for the purpose of fitting some of the youth of the parish with sufficient knowledge of reading to assist the priest at the mass. The course consisted of the alphabet, the Book of Psalms, writing, and a short exercise in mental arithmetic.

My recollections of my uncle’s school are dim and meagre. His house consisted of two rooms, one of which was the schoolroom. Besides the door this room had one window, which had wooden shutters and no glass. It was opened when the weather permitted.

The pupils, who numbered about twenty-five, sat on the straw mats on the floor with their legs crossed under them. In compliance with good manners, we took our shoes from off our feet upon entering the room, just outside the threshold in summer and just inside in winter. In the days of Moses that was done as a sign of reverence for holy places, as he did it before the ‘burning bush’; and, as in ancient Syria every family had a household god, the shoes had to be removed from the feet upon entering the house in deference to the family god. The habit survives in the land ‘ unto this day ’ as a social grace.

But in my uncle’s schoolroom another enterprise went hand in hand with education. Oriental parish priests, of whatever communion, marry, as did the priests of Israel. My uncle had a large family and a small income. Therefore, in order to keep the wolf from the door he betook himself to weaving cloth, on a hand-loom which stood in the schoolroom. The clerical weaver, with flowing hair, luxurious beard, and ample black garb, sat on the edge of the ‘loom-pit,’ dug in the floor to accommodate the treadles. He devoted his feet to the treadles, his hands to the shuttle, his eyes to the web, and his ears and tongue to the pupils. At significant moments he would come into living touch with his disciples through a long stick which lay conveniently near his hand.

The only reliable memory I have of my student life in my uncle’s school is that he was more interesting to me as a weaver than as an educator. When he was not looking at me, I was looking at him. That is all.

The second year of my school life found me in more auspicious circumstances. The foreign mission schools were far better equipped than the priests’ schools. Therefore, as soon as the English missionaries opened a school in our part of the town, my uncle was compelled to give up his vocation as an educator and devote all his time to his loom and his clerical duties.

The new Angleez — English — school held out for me many compelling charms. I was told that there were benches in the schoolroom, a table that had a drawer in it, an iron stove, and a ‘striking’ clock! The teacher built fire inside the stove, and a long pipe carried the smoke out of the room. The clock ‘told’ the time. At two o’clock it struck two; at three, three, and so on. The reputation of the teacher was very satisfactory to the parents. He was a severe disciplinarian. ‘He made the hairs of the pupils’ heads stand on end from fear.’ In a country where the authority of both Church and State inspired fear rather than confidence, this qualification won for the teacher the profound confidence of the people.

At about the age of four I was sent to the Angleez school. It was situated in one of the best residences in the town. The schoolroom was large and had two windows. The inventive genius of the English taught the native teacher in charge to put white muslin screens in the windows during the winter season, as substitutes for glass. Each boy had to bring a piece of wood or charcoal every morning to feed the wondrous stove. The clock —a world of mysteries beyond mysteries — told the time. The drawer in the teacher’s table seemed an inexhaustible source of dazzling wonders. Fancy pencils, glossy writing paper, chalks, new, clean little books — all from Beyrout — issued forth from it and enchanted my vision. A large Bible, the first I had seen, rested on the table. There were benches for the older pupils to sit not on, but at. They sat on the floor and rested their books and elbows on the benches. We, the little ones, had no supports for either our backs, books, or elbows. In a little corner close by the teacher stood an assortment of sticks — light, medium, and extra heavy — which he used with discrimination, according to the ages of the pupils, excepting when in a fit of anger he applied the wrong stick to the right boy. Girls also were permitted to come to the school, but only a few of them attended.

My first and second year in this school carried me through a small primer, a book of Bible stories called The Bright Light for the Little Boy, a few memory lessons in the Presbyterian catechism, and introduced me to the art of writing. The deepest impression which my teacher made upon me in those days, as a teacher and not as a disciplinarian, was through his conducting of the devotional service which took place at the beginning of every school day. I loved to hear and see him read the Scripture lesson. I felt his prayers reverently. It was inspiring to me to hear his opening sentence; one which he very frequently used was, ‘O Thou Lord God Almighty, who art over all! ’ The impression made upon me at those services must have been strong and pleasant, because the whole scene remains with me a clear and delightful memory. I really longed to be like my teacher: to read the Bible with such power and dignity, and to address God in prayer.

That was the first touch of idealism my soul ever felt — the first incentive to aspiration, the first glimpse I had of my higher self as reflected in the strong man who stood before me in the attitude of prayer.

The clearest and most unpleasant memory I have of that teacher, as a disciplinarian, is of a punishment he inflicted upon me which almost proved fatal to both of us. From my present point of view I consider that act to have been most cruel. I do not remember the offense for which my teacher decreed that I be locked up in the schoolroom alone, all night — a child not yet six. The pupils filed out of the room; the teacher, casting a last grim look at me, locked the door and departed. Horrible silence, disturbed only by the now oppressive ticking of the clock, filled the entire building. The shadows began to deepen. My eyes were fastened upon the clock, when an ugly, hairy, black spider sallied forth from some unknown crack, crawled up to the clock, encircled it a few times and retired behind it. I was rigid with fear. I had not enough life to cry. It grew dark; the shadows of death engulfed my soul. Presently I heard steps outside and the voice of my mother. Wondering why I had not come home when it was so late, she had gone out to seek me. Having learned of my plight from the other children, she went to the teacher and asked him to go down to the school without a moment’s delay and release me. In what manner she addressed him I was not in a position to know. He instantly obeyed, and I was given my freedom. The next day I fell ill. My father was not at home. My cousins and uncles and second cousins heard of what had happened. Their boy was seriously ill, and the teacher was the cause. If the boy should die, then life for life! The teacher must die also. So was the teacher told by one of my uncles who spoke in clear accents. Poor teacher! Twice a day did he visit me during that illness, bringing me many presents of things he knew I most longed to have. His gifts and caresses restored me to health, and, consequently, assured him of peace and length of days for himself.

The last event I remember of my school career in El-Shweir was the coming of the English missionary — the khawaja himself—to inspect our school. This was a gala day. The khawaja was to give prizes to deserving pupils. My teacher, partly because I was a ‘bright boy’ and partly because of my recent illness, which he was supposed to have caused, had taught me the Beatitudes by heart that I might repeat them on that occasion and perchance get a prize. The khawaja was the first man I had seen dressed in effrenjee — European costume. The native dress for men was the shirwal — ample bloomers — and the man in pantaloons was a great curiosity. I repeated the Beatitudes in the august presence of the khawaja and many of the parents and the school, and to my unspeakable delight received a penknife for a prize.

II

About this time, when I was six years old, my parents decided to move from El-Shweir to a town called Betater, situated about thirty miles to the south on the western slopes of Mount Lebanon. My father had been in charge for some years of all the building operations of a Frenchman who had a large silk-spinning factory in that town, and it was natural for him to desire to have his family with him.

To depart from one’s kindred in Syria has always been a painful operation, from the time of the patriarch Abraham. The thought of being buried ‘in the land of the stranger’ is to a Syrian especially hard to bear. But if the sepulchre of our fathers was not in Betater, our church — the Greek Orthodox — was there to give us spiritual kinsmen, and to give our bodies burial in its consecrated ground.

On a bright spring morning, late in April, I was awakened from sleep at early dawn. Coming out to the yard, I saw three mules and a donkey standing on the east side of the house. Two of the mules were heavily laden with our clothes-chests, bedding, and other movable furniture. The third mule was made ready for my mother and my baby sister to ride on, and the donkey was likewise fitted for my sister, next older, and my brother, next younger than myself, and me.

Was it possible that I was to have such a long donkey-ride? The very earth under my feet vibrated with joy. It was not at all painful to leave one’s kindred if by so doing one might have such a ride!

Neighbors and friends stood around weeping and lamenting our departure. My mother, with streaming eyes, assured them that our sojourn in the ‘strange country’ would be short, and that by Allah’s2 will our return to our kindred was assured. Presently our neighbor’s wife, casting a bewildered look skyward above the oak trees, crossed herself and in solemn accents said, ‘God cast thee off, you evil presence! Off at the beginning of this momentous day!’ She spat in the direction of the evil object ; so did all those present, making the sign of the cross. It was a crow! The black navigator of the air was very gay on that spring morning, regardless of all solemn abjuration and vigorous spitting. But he was, nevertheless, a decidedly evil omen at the beginning of a journey. This had been proved a thousand times. Presently one of the men said, ‘I see another! ’ ‘ Kheir, kheir! ’ (good, good!) exclaimed the others. The crows, when traveling in pairs, brought no evil on those who saw them. They neutralized each other.

During all that time, however, my eyes were fixed on the donkey. His charms were enough to neutralize the evil of a thousand and one crows. Every movement of his ears carved a line in my heart. Life certainly became worth the living when my cousin turned around and said, ‘Abraham, come; come on the donkey’s back.’ I do not believe I weighed more than ten ounces when I was being transferred from the ground to the cushioned back of the donkey. I floated in the ether. Amidst sobs and tears and ‘Ma’essalamy’ (go in safety), ‘Allah be with you,’ ‘May no evil touch you,’ ‘Send back good news with the muleteer,’ and so forth, the muleteer, after invoking the Holy Name, called, ‘Dah, dah!’ The mules, tossing their heads in the air, proceeded on their way; so did my donkey, to whose back I was tied with a rope to keep me from falling when he went up and down hills.

Miles of pine trees stretched along our way. Rough, rocky roads followed the slopes of the hills, dipping into deep valleys and climbing again to high summits. The world appeared to me delightfully new and immeasurably large. We arrived at our destination about dusk. The rope with which I had been tied to the donkey’s back had entered into such intimate relations with my legs that when I dismounted I found them utterly unavailable for use. I was carried into the house, most deservedly.

Betater was inhabited by Christians and Druses, who were in the majority and the ruling class, and some Mohammedans. The Christians represented the Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Maronite churches. As usual, they lived at war with one another and united as ‘Christians’ only when attacked by the Druses. The clannish feuds also existed within the various sects. We, however, were ‘strangers,’ and, having no clan of our own in the town, were immune from attacks by any and all of the clans because of our weakness. ‘Thou shalt not oppress a stranger’ is a command which is universally observed in Syria. However, we were free to side with our fellow Greek Orthodox, as they were expected to defend us. My father, however, would participate in no fight. But in Betater we had a clan of Druse Shiekhs who were the noblemen and rulers of the community. The common people ‘belonged’ to the Shiekhs. Each Shiekh was the ‘lord protector’ of a certain number of families. As in El-Shweir we had no aristocracy of any kind, it was very strange to me that our family should ‘belong’ to a superior personage.

My father was known in the community as the Master (builder). Our family was designated as the Master’s family, and I was addressed as ‘Abraham, the Master’s son,’ just as ‘Joshua ’ had been known as ‘the son of Nun.’ We were often called ‘shweiriah,’ from our birthplace, and in accordance with the ancient Syrian custom, as, ‘ David, son of Jesse, the Bethlehemite.’

The Shiekhs were to me a new human species. Their costly garments of choice Oriental fabrics, their richly inlaid swords and thoroughbred Arabian horses, were the visions of a new world for me.

I was carefully taught the etiquette of life among such dignitaries. When saluting a Shiekh I was to kiss his hand and call him ‘My Lord.’ I was not to engage in conversation in the presence of a Shiekh without first having his permission. Coming into an assembly where a Shiekh was, I could not sit down until he had commanded me to do so. To these and other social graces I applied myself diligently.

It was among those Shiekhs that I first heard men swear by their heads. Swearing by one’s head is an ancient Oriental custom, peculiar to aristocrats and inappropriately imitated at times by the common people. It always betrays such arrogance and haughtiness as to show why Jesus said, ‘Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.’ There also I first arrived at the realization that the priest was holier than myself; the Shiekh nobler. Why? It was a holy mystery. The priest explained it to me a few times thus: The Gospel said, ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers — the powers that be are ordained of God.’ So the priests and aristocrats were those ‘ higher powers.’ The explanation always seemed to me to be simple, authoritative, and fully satisfactory.

In the absence of a foreign school in Betater I resumed my studies under the Maronite priest. Our own priest kept no school. But my mother disliked the Maronites very much. Her reason for this was that they did not baptize in the right way; that in making the sign of the cross they touched the left shoulder before the right, and were the slaves of the Pope of Rome who shaved all his face.3 Therefore when, the second year after our arrival in Betater, an American mission school was opened in the town, I was immediately transferred to it.

Both Protestants and Maronites were in error, but the Protestants were better teachers. In this school I stayed two years. I read a large part of the Bible, advanced in arithmetic up to ‘long division,’ had a few lessons in geography, and was supposed to have become efficient enough to write a letter. This, however, I always dreaded when called upon to do it by my father. It was not the business part of the letter which I dreaded, because that was dictated to me; but I had to write the ‘preface,’ a chapter of fulsome salaams and laudatory phrases, extolling the recipient, without which a letter was little short of an insult. Again, I had to ascertain ‘the day of the month’ which, in the entire absence of calendars, was known only to a few select minds. When the question, ‘How much of the month is it?’ was put to me, my face reddened with incredible swiftness. And when I was ridiculed by the men present for my inexcusable ignorance, being a ‘schoolboy,’ my mother would come to the rescue by telling those men that they themselves did not know how much of the month it was, and they were of much larger dimensions than I was. I was often sent to the priest to ask him what day of the month it was. He usually counted on his fingers from the last saint’s day, according to the Eastern calendar, and I ran home with the information lest I should forget it on the way.

When I was nine years old, it happened one day that my teacher punished me rather severely. I grabbed my books and ran to where my father was working, crying bitterly. Of course I told my father that the teacher was absolutely merciless. He seemed very much distressed and concluded that I had had enough schooling anyway, and that it was time that I exchanged books for tools and began learning my father’s trade. It was so ordered, and at the age of nine I began my career as a stone-mason.

III

Let now the story of my industrial evolution bide its time. The story of my earliest religious faith and life should have precedence.

In the absence of anything to the contrary, I have a reason to assume that my first Christian ancestors were among the converts of Paul and Barnabas in the ancient see of Antioch, and that a Christian ancestry spanning nineteen centuries lies behind me. Within the fold of the ancient Greek Orthodox Church I first learned to lisp the names of God, Christ, the Church, and the Gospel. Mary, the ‘Mother of God,’ and a host of saints also claimed my affectionate reverence. I was taught by my parents, more by example than precept, and most conscientiously, to observe the ordinances of my church.

And here I wish to speak of the church of my fathers and my childhood and youth, not according to my present knowledge of it as a student of church history, but as I knew it as a common worshiper, and as it is known to the large majority of its adherents all over the world.

To go to mass and to believe that my church was the one and only true church were my first lessons in the faith. No pews are allowed in the Eastern churches. The people stand with folded arms during the entire service. Two small groups of readers or singers, one to the right, the other to the left of the altar, assist the priest at the mass. When at church I always stood by the reading desk, where I had a good view of the priest. At one time I was accorded the honor of reading the Epistle, which preceded the reading of the Gospel at the mass. I could not have been much more than eight years old at the time. One of the good old men taught me for about two weeks how to intone the Apostolic lines. The Epistle was from St. Paul and began with the word, ‘Brethren.’ When the solemn moment arrived, I was beckoned to stand before the anastasis — a partition which screens the altar from the congregation — immediately in front of the Royal Gate, through which only the priest is permitted to pass. My normal consciousness lasted until I reached the appointed spot and uttered the word, ‘Brethren.’ Then all was darkness. I could hear a hollow, sepulchral voice issuing from somewhere. I woke up again by the reader’s desk. My father reached down and kissed me. The singer put his hand on my head and whispered, ‘Bright boy! ’ That restored my soul.

An event which occurred about this time and which burned itself deeply into my memory, was a fight which took place in the church during mass. It is the custom in the Greek Church for a layman to lead the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. An elderly man of a certain clan had been in the habit of leading in the Lord’s Prayer for years. Certain men of another clan thought that old Sallume had enjoyed that honor long enough and concluded to wrest it from him. On one Sunday morning, as Sallume began to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, a man of the opposing clan began to repeat the same at the reading desk on the left.

Sallume was greatly exasperated. Addressing both the Almighty and his saucy opponent, Sallume’s wrathful version of the Prayer was thus: ‘Our Father ’ — (‘ Hush up, you wretch ’) — ‘Hallowed be’ — (‘It is my heritage from my fathers, you dog’) — ‘thy name.’ (‘I will tread on your neck. Curse your entire clan,’ and so on). The other man was no milder in his devotional language, and they met in combat in front of the Royal Gate. The men of their respective clans rushed forward from all parts of the church, and the fight became general. It was at that point of the mass when the priest was repeating what are called ‘the mystic words,’ and, according to his holy orders, he could not look back upon the congregation, even though the church were deluged with blood. But soon after he was done with the mystic rite, he pulled off his sacred robes from him, grabbed a heavy staff4 and cleared the church. The fighting continued outside the building until the Turkish soldiers arrived.

The feasts and festivals of the Greek church filled my boyish heart with delight, so spectacular and so full of mystery were they. The Syrian churches do not make much of Christmas because originally it was not an Oriental holiday. New Year’s, or ‘ Good-Morning Day,’ as the Syrians call it, was the day when we exchanged presents and indulged in much gayety. But what was of absorbing interest to me as a boy, aside from the few coppers and sugar-plums that I got for presents, was the offering I carried to the fountain, early on New Year’s morning. My older sisters went with their jars to carry water for the household, and I went with them. We brought with us a few handfuls of wheat and cereals and cast them reverently into the water, saying ‘Good-morning, fountain! Bless and increase our grain!’ So did we ignorantly practice the modes of worship of our remote Oriental ancestors, who poured their gifts to Astarte into the streams of Syria ages before Christianity was born. And who are you, child of but yesterday, to say it was all empty superstition?

But what was all that compared to the feast of Epiphany, which we celebrated in commemoration of the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, twelve days after Christmas? It is known to the people as El-Gitas —dipping in water. I was taught to believe, and most joyously did believe, that the rivers and fountains of the entire world became suddenly holy about sunset on the eve of Epiphany. Wild beasts left not their dens the entire night, and were all rendered harmless as doves, because the Christ was on his way to the Jordan. The trees ‘knelt’ before the passing Saviour, with the exception of the mulberry and the fig, which saucily remained standing. It was explained to me in this connection that the mulberry tree was too proud to kneel because it produced silk, and the fig tree had a grudge against the Master because he once cursed it. And how I would go out on that blessed night and peer into the darkness to see a ‘kneeling’ tree! But I was always told that only a saint could see such things.

‘Baptizing’ the sacred yeast was a delight to me. At every baking the Syrian housewife saves out a small lump of dough for a ‘leaven’ for the next baking. But at the last baking before Epiphany no leaven is saved. A new leaven, miraculously raised at this time, provided the yeast for the coming year. My mother would mix a small quantity of dough, just in cold water, and no yeast whatever, tie it up in a piece of white cloth and give it to me to hang up in a tree that ‘knelt.’ For three mornings I carried the yeast to the fountain, immersed it three times, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, repeating the chant of my church: —

‘By Thy baptism, O Lord, in the river Jordan was made clear the adoration of the Holy Trinity. The voice of the Father witnessed to Thee, calling Thee the beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove also witnessed to Thee. O Thou who hast appeared and enlightened the world, Thou Christ-God, glory be to Thee!’

The yeast hung in the tree for three days, then was taken into the house, and behold a miracle! The dough was raised without yeast! Did not my remote un-Christian ancestors so manifest their devotion when their sacred trees hung with votive gifts?

The Easter festival stands greatest among the festivals of the Greek church. Our priest often said that the picture of the Virgin looked very sad on Good Friday and smiled on Easter. On Good Friday I flew over the hills to gather wild flowers with which the cross was covered in a little coffin, in commemoration of the burial of Jesus. Soon after midnight, on Saturday, the church-bell pealed the glorious message of the Resurrection. I woke with the words, ‘Christ is risen!’ on my lips. ‘Indeed he is risen!’ was the answer. I kissed my parents’ hands, and we all proceeded to the church to enjoy the glorious Easter ritual.

The supreme moment for me during the Easter mass came when Satan was vanquished by Christ. The entire congregation, following the priest, marched three times around the church, each carrying a lighted taper. Then all marched out of the church, only one man, who represented Satan, remaining inside. He closed the church door and stood close behind it, to prevent the risen Lord from entering into heaven.

The priest who represented Christ approached the door with the multitude behind him and in a most solemn voice chanted the words of the psalmist: ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in!’ The man inside said in a sneering tone, ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ ‘The Lord of Hosts,’ said the priest, ‘he is the King of Glory!’ Thrice was the chant repeated; then the hindering Satan, vanquished, barked like a dog, and the priest forced the door open and marched in with the multitude, chanting, ‘Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered! ’

In those days my mother church was all-sufficient for me. The so-called ‘period of storm and stress’ in religion is unknown to sacramental worship. I was born into my faith; and my faith was ready-made for me. The confessional, fasts, and sacraments of the church met my every need. Reasoning about religion was never known to my forefathers, and I was not supposed to go so far as to indulge in it. But I did, and that early in my youth. Early in my youth I felt the inward urgency to reason, not only within the tenets of my faith, but about and beyond them. But the atmosphere of my early life was not favorable to such modes of thinking. Therefore, my battling with the issues of religion had to be postponed to a later time.

IV

When I was taken out of school, at the age of nine, and put to work with my father, he was at the height of his prosperity. He employed from thirty to fifty men, and was sought from far and near as a builder. The men under his control were classified on religious lines, following the Syrian custom from time immemorial. They numbered so many Druses, so many Greek Orthodox, so many Maronites, and so forth. The common laborer received five piastres (20 cents) a day, and the master mason from twelve to fifteen piastres. My social environment as an industrial worker afforded no strong incentives to progress. From the days of the Pyramids and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to this day no spark has ever disturbed the clod of the laboring masses of the East. Their lot gave no play to the imagination. They knew no common interest, no collective action, no citizenship, no political rights. Their day’s work began at dawn and ended at dusk. The moral atmosphere I breathed among those men did not really blossom with lofty ideals. Owing to the complete segregation of the sexes in the Orient and the absence of education, male society is by no means ‘holy in all manner of conversation.’

Of the hardships of my environment I also had my full share as a boy. The entire lack of machinery doubled the hardships of our work. The long hours of labor and the bad sanitation were a constant menace to both the soul and the body. When our work took us away from our home town, we generally traveled by night, ‘to save time’ and to escape the heat of the day. Sometimes we would travel all night, afoot, carrying our tools and other belongings on our backs. As the Master’s son I was often relieved of carrying tools by the men, but it was hard enough for a tender youth to undergo even the ordinary hardships of such a life.

v

But my industrial career had a brighter side. As the Master’s son I enjoyed privileges which seldom fall to an apprentice. I was second in command over the men, after my father, and for that reason they accorded me the respect which my years did not really merit. The master masons under my father gave me every advantage to learn the trade. At the early age of fourteen I was allowed to ‘mount the wall,’ — to do actual building, — and, at the age of sixteen, I was classed and paid wages as a ‘master.’ I was very thorough, very conscientious in my work, and was, therefore, in great demand. My father was very much pleased with my progress and had no doubt but that I would continue the traditions of the family as a stonemason. But the mysteries of life are so deep and so numerous that, even in a static society such as that into which I was born, no one could tell which direction the current of destiny might take.

Already at the age of fourteen I had become mysteriously discontented with my lot. I had begun to dream, in a very vague way, to be sure, of better things. I distinctly remember that the thought of being a stone-mason all my life, oppressed me at that early age. ‘Am I to be only a toiler all my life?’ was a question which often pressed in my mind for an answer. Life under such conditions seemed to me to possess no permanent significance. My restlessness greatly disturbed my father. To him it was the result of pride and vanity, and nothing else.

It was about this time, I believe, that I first heard of America. The news of that remote and strange country came to me simply as a bit of indifferent knowledge. Some Syrians had gone to America and returned with much money. Money in America was of very little value. But the country was so far away, so difficult of access, that those who reached it must have done so by accident. The American missionaries were known to us as English.

But at the age of fourteen something of much greater significance came into my life. I made the acquaintance of a boy of about my age who was attending an American boarding-school, about ten miles away from our town. Iskander was the only boy of our town who had ever been sent to such a school, and was therefore very conspicuous in the community for his dignity and ‘learning.’

How I became acquainted with Iskander and how he allowed himself to become the most intimate friend of such a boy as I was, I cannot tell. It was simply destiny. Iskander was a fine penman. He knew much poetry, arithmetic, geography, and English, many things about the Bible, and many other mysteries. He knew a great deal about America, and much about other countries. When he came home for his summer vacation of three months, we practically lived together. Iskander would read poetry to me and teach me words in the classical Arabic. Our conversations covered every phase of thought in which he was interested, and brought me treasures of knowledge. Not infrequently we would stay up the whole night, engaged in such conversations. Here certainly a revolution came into my life. I loved knowledge and craved more of its higher pleasures. Of a truth, as it seemed to me, I was never made to be an ignorant toiler. I was an idealist. But such a life as that of my friend Iskander seemed far beyond me. I never could hope to become so learned as he, and never had the remotest idea of going to school.

My father was glad that the ‘learned’ Iskander was my friend, but he had no patience with ‘the frills of poetry’ for a stone-mason. ‘There is no bread in the foolishness of poetry; tools, tools only can feed our hunger,’ was one of his answers to my pretentious remarks. My good father was right, inasmuch as he knew only of one hunger to feed. At the age of sixteen I became decidedly averse to working at the mason’s trade. My discontent began to beget wickedness in my mind. In the absence of my friend Iskander, at school, I fell into the company of certain idlers who were no more or less than highway robbers. The stories of their adventures greatly fascinated me, and I was in great danger of taking the wrong course in life. My parents were greatly alarmed at this, and strained every effort to ease my difficulties and lead me in the way in which I should go. But the pitiable fact was that neither they nor I had any definite object in view. It was discontent on my part and anxiety on their part, and little or nothing else.

One day one of the wise men of the town, who knew of our predicament, said to my father, ‘Your son is the intimate friend of the “school-boy” Iskander, and I feel certain that if you offered to send your son to the same school which his friend attends, he would go. Try it.’ My father came home, and, in a half-hearted manner, made the suggestion, and, for the moment, we all laughed. School? For me? My mother, who was somewhat more in sympathy with my aspirations, spoke more seriously of the proposition, and I became interested in it. The moment was of supreme importance. It was one of those moments in which there is much more of God than in the ordinary particles of time. It was the gate-way of my destiny, and, most unexpectedly to my parents as to myself, I faced my father and said, ‘I will go to school.’

My decision brought great relief to the whole family, and we all concluded that it was God’s will. But when some of our fellow Greek Orthodox heard of it they urged my father to send me to the clerical school of our bishop and have me fitted for the priesthood, instead of sending me to the heretical Protestant school. That suggestion, of course, proved much more agreeable to my parents. A representative of the bishop resided in the same town, Suk-el-Gharb, in which the American school was situated, and, since it was necessary for us to go to Suk-el-Gharb early in the summer and make arrangements for my entering one of the two schools, my father decided that we should interview the representative of the bishop; which we did. My father was very favorably impressed by what he told us about the school. The 4 holiness of the priestly office’ and the spiritual security and certainty of salvation which ‘the Holy Church of our Fathers’ insured to us weighed very greatly with my father, but not so greatly with me. My friend Iskander was a Protestant, and I could not think that he would be damned for it. Besides, he knew a great deal more than our parish priest did. Of course, I had no thought of becoming a Protestant myself, but I craved more learning than the clerical school of our bishop could give.

Upon leaving the representative of the bishop, I decided that I would not go to the clerical school. Its twenty students looked to me ‘as tame as girls’ — Syrian girls. We proceeded to the home of the American missionary, discussed the matter with him, and, finding that I would be accepted as a student if I came in the autumn, I decided to enter the American school.

When it became known in Betater that I was to forsake my father’s trade and become a ‘scholar,’ the news created a sensation among all classes. It was the ‘talk of the town’ for several days. ‘Just think of it, Abraham, the Master’s son, is going to school, at the advanced age of seventeen!’

(To be continued.)

  1. An account of the author’s earlier years appeared in the November Atlantic.
  2. Allah, the familiar designation for the Deity in the Arabic language, is used by Christians as well as by Mohammedans. — THE AUTHOR.
  3. The reader must remember that the Maronite priests who are subject to Rome cut the hair of their heads but not their beards, but the Greek Orthodox pride themselves on the fact that, after consecration, their priests never shave or cut the hair of their heads, thus conforming strictly to the law of the ‘Nazirite,’ or as Scripture has it, ‘separated unto God.’ Thus when Hannah, the mother of Samuel, asked a ‘man child’ of the Lord she vowed, saying, ‘Then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.’ 1 Sam. 1 : 11. See also Num. 6 : 5.
  4. In the absence of seats in the Greek churches, long T-shaped staves are provided for elderly men, on which they lean forward during mass.