Cover image for The boy from the Tower of the Moon
The boy from the Tower of the Moon
Accawi, Anwar F.
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Publication Information:
Boston : Beacon Press, [1999]

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178 pages ; 22 cm
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CT1919.L48 A253 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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An eloquent personal narrative of a Lebanese boyhood.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Bustling, "obscenely poor," disease-ridden, Magdaluna ("Tower of the Moon") is a Lebanese village where everybody is related to everybody else by blood or marriage. The town's petty scandals, bitter feuds, oral traditions and colorful characters provide grist for Accawi's bittersweet memoir, a series of essays told with sprightly humor and imbued with the ironic wisdom of a mature man looking back on youthful na‹vet‚. By age five, the precocious narrator realizes that grownups are fickle, cruel, often amoral. The narrative is loosely structured around "learning moments," or "steps" on the metaphorical "pyramid" of personal identity that Accawi erects skyward: the death of a beloved raccoon, the village's very first radio in 1947, his discovery of the written word and so forth. The strongest piece deals with his deeply religious, Presbyterian, no-nonsense grandmother, whose faith was sorely tested by the cancer that left her paralyzed from the waist down. While Accawi's father is a distant figure, his tough Syrian mother, illiterate but wise, steels him to face life's challenges. The wide-eyed narrator nostalgically evokes visits to the village by itinerant Gypsies, a Turkish bear trainer, a Moroccan medicine man. But emigration and the advent of cars and telephones fueled the village's slow, agonizing death and, after the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Muslim soldiers razed the hamlet. Throughout, Accawi, who now teaches at the English Language Insitute in Knoxville, Tenn., spins lyrical, magical stories, vividly charting a boy's awakening to the mysteries of death, life, grief, sex and God. (May) FYI: A portion of this book appeared in Best American Essays 1998. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

YA-Accawi lived in the remote Lebanese mountain village of Magdaluna just after World War II. In each short, evocative chapter, he describes the simple pleasures of his life-tasting the first pressing from the olive harvest, hearing the village smithy call to neighbors across the valley, or the joy of being sent to the store for cigarettes by the men playing cards. He expresses the feeling of total loss when his first pet was killed and the horror of watching his beloved grandmother die of cancer. He remembers the ecstasy of touching a girl for the first time. But, perhaps, the most interesting chapters to teens immersed in modern technology will be his vivid descriptions of the first time he and the villagers heard a gramophone, saw and tasted ice, talked on the telephone, or rode in a car. The author clearly portrays the feelings of both awe and consternation as he experimented with these new inventions, and he explains how they changed his village from an insulated, self-sufficient community to a loosely knit group of commuting consumers interested in a never-ending supply of convenient goods, and who fled for the big city or America as soon as they possibly could. A brief epilogue describes his return to Lebanon and the terror of the country's civil war. Teens will enjoy this short, easy-to-read memoir of a rich, rural existence in a bygone time.-Jane Drabkin, Chinn Park Regional Library, Prince William, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Anwar My name is Anwar. I am the son of Fuad, the son of Hassan, the son of Abdullah, the son of Suleiman, the son of Andrawos the Sac Rouge. I am a descendant of the French Knights Templars, who fought the Moslems for the Cup of Christ and for the Holy Land. I was raised in the rugged mountains of South Lebanon over half a century ago. I am a pyramid builder.     I have been building a pyramid since I became aware that I was here, in this world, on this planet. That was in 1947, when I was five. It seemed the right thing to do.     The pyramid that I have been building is like nothing known to man. And although I have been working on it for fifty years, it is far from finished. But incomplete as it is now, it already stands taller than the Smoky Mountains and more massive than the Hindu Kush. However, when it is finally finished, its diamond tip will pierce heaven itself and shine among its brightest stars, my final destination.     I have been building my pyramid with my own two hands, but with the help of two hardworking slaves, Fate and her half brother, Happenstance. They quarry the boulders, large and small, and they deliver them to me. I cut them and polish them to perfection, one block at a time. Then I lay them down, stone next to stone, tier upon tier. Each stone stands for an event, each tier a year.     My pyramid is so big, and building it has taken me so long because it represents something very, very large. It stands for the story of the life of my mind--a story that began many years ago in a village called Magdaluna, that is to say, the Tower of the Moon. Chapter Two Antar The tower of the moon, my first home, stood like a watchtower upon a hill overlooking the Abulyabis River in the west and the mountains of Joun in the east. It was a very small village, the home of about a hundred people, and as far as the inhabitants of the village were concerned, there was nothing beyond the river in the west or the mountains in the east. If there was anything out there, it was too far to matter. The village had everything it could possibly need: a midwife, a farrier, a carpenter, a teacher, a shoemaker, a weaver, a vineyard keeper, and a barber who pulled our bad teeth, set our broken bones, healed us with his leeches, and bled us with his straight razor to cure our diseases.     The villagers lived off the terraced land that they had carved out of the steep hillsides. Some of them had cows, some had goats or sheep or chickens, but all of them, like my family, tended their long, narrow fields and tilled the land. And the land was kind. It yielded wheat and corn and apricots and quinces and pomegranates in abundance. There were also plenty of almonds, plums, carob, lava beans, grapes, and figs, both black and white. We ate the fruit of the earth either fresh or preserved. And we ate well. There were no hungry children in Magdaluna.     In those days the village had to be self-sufficient to survive. There was no other alternative. We did not know of any. But as close as Magdaluna came to being a self-contained microcosm, it still needed some things that it could not produce. Salt, for one thing, had to be brought up from Sidon on the coast on donkeys or mules, or the backs of lean, wide-nostriled men who were browned to a crisp by the sun. The village also needed kerosene for its tin lamps, and, on special occasions, such as All Saints Day, the village had to have fish. Abu Fareed, the owner of the only dikkan , saw to that.     From beyond the river he brought back, in two wooden boxes strapped to the back of his gray donkey, plenty of needle-nosed Sultan Ibrahim and Boory fish that he traded for sheepskins, olive oil, carob molasses, and almonds.     In the summer Abu Fareed came by every other Saturday. On those days the whole village smelled of frying fish. It was a good smell--the smell of home.     Also in the summer, a caravan of outsiders slowly threaded its way through the village. They seemed always to emerge from the mist that lay like piles of white wool on the blue mountains in the east and disappear in the foggy haze beyond the river in the west. The first to show up early in the summer were the Gypsies. They would pitch their black and brown goat-hair tents on the threshing floor, and for two weeks, they entertained the village with their music and their magic. The old, toothless, wise-eyed women read our palms and sold us sweet dreams and visions of a golden future, and the old men told us stories about heroes of old and made gold caps for our teeth. The brown Gypsy boys and girls foraged for food by begging or gleaning the fields after they were harvested.     It was a lot of fun when the Gypsies came to Magdaluna, but it was an uneasy fun because our mothers told us horror stories about them. They warned us to be careful because Gypsies were known to steal little kids to raise as their own and teach them how to beg or pick pockets or to sell them as slaves in faraway places from which the children could never find their way back home. So when the Gypsy train came to my village, I kept one fascinated eye on them and one watchful eye on Mary, my baby sister.     After the Gypsies struck their tents and left, a man from the land of Ajam (Persia) showed up with a huge box strapped securely to his back. We, the village kids, called it the show box. The show box had three dark, round holes in its front and three wooden legs to stand on. For two eggs, or a loaf of bread, or a pocketful of almonds, the bearded foreign man would let me and the other kids look through the holes at colorful pictures of handsome princes on horseback, delicate princesses in opulent harems, and scimitar-wielding villains in black flowing abas. While I peered through the hole, with my hands on either side of my face to block out the light, the Ajami chanted his tales to us. I did not understand a word he was saying, but I knew exactly what the stories were about.     The man from the land of Ajam did not stay as long as the Gypsies did. In two or three days he moved on and, like the Gypsies, vanished in the fog that sat upon the Abulyabis River all summer long.     As soon as he was gone, the little club-foot, whom we called the Turk, showed up with his huge Russian bear. The bear was brown and had long black claws and a big metal ring in its snout. I can remember to this day how my face hurt and my eyes teared every time the Turk pulled the chain attached to the ring in order to make the bear obey him.     The show always started with the Turk playing his daff (tambourine). He played and sang until a large crowd gathered around him and his bear. Then he shook a long stick above the bear's head and told it to do tricks. He told it to walk on its hind legs like an old man, and the bear stood up, growled, and walked around just like an old man. The man then pulled the chain and commanded the bear to knead dough the way an old woman does, and the bear obeyed immediately. It sat down on its haunches and began to imitate an old woman kneading dough with her fists. The bear also danced and stood on its head. The last thing it did was to clap its paws and bare its long yellow teeth as if it were smiling. At this point, some of the villagers would start to walk away because they knew that the show was over and the Turk would be passing his turban around. I did not like that about my people. They wanted to enjoy the show without giving the man or his hardworking bear anything. So I gave him every piaster that I had made running errands for my father and my mother or that I had managed to wriggle out of Teta Im Fuad, my grandmother.     I loved seeing that bear every summer, and I hated to see it go, but my pleasure was tainted with the pain that I felt in my gut when I saw the bear suffer, and the hate that filled my heart for the club-foot Turk, who was cruel to his animal. I was happy to see that obscene man leave.     As soon as the Turk and his bear were gone, the tinner and his boy would show up, and all the women in the village brought their brass pots to him to have them tinned. I loved watching the ritual.     First the tinner's boy put ashes and sand into the pot, then stepped into it and began to twist his bottom this way and that. With his blackened feet, he put a shine on the inside of the pot. Then he emptied it, wiped it clean with a rag, and handed it to his father, who had been heating a tin rod in a pan over a hot fire. As soon as the tin had melted, the tinner poured it into the pot and smeared it all over the inside with a dirty cotton wad in his hand. Next he plunged the pot in a trough full of cold water. The pot hissed and sizzled until there was no heat left in it anymore. Then the tinner pulled the pot out of the water. It came out shining like a silver sun. By Allah, that was magic, alchemy at its very best. And I couldn't get enough of it. I remember squatting by the tinner and his son for hours on end, watching them transform dull-looking old pots into shiny new ones.     Once, in the summer of 1949, the tinner let me pump his bellows while he melted the tin. I was delighted because he let me do it, but my mama found out, and she told me never to do that again. When I asked her why, she said that it was beneath us to do that kind of work. I did not know what she meant by that. All I knew was that it was fun, and I wished my father had been a tinner, too, so that I could blow his bellows and make magic with him all day long.     The last one in this parade of strangers to go through Magdaluna was the giant Moroccan medicine man. He always came in the month of Elul (September), just before the first autumn shower fell. He rode a huge black horse that had red tassels dangling from its saddle and blue beads (for protection from the evil eye) sewn to its reins and harness leather.     As soon as the Moroccan showed up, the whole village flocked around him to buy from him ointments for their psoriasis and boils. He also sold tree bark and herbs for colic and stomach ulcers. Some of the women, who were despised by their husbands and mothers-in-law because they could not bear children, especially male children, begged the shaman for mandrake roots to help them get pregnant. The old folk also bought from him yellowish bottles full of camphor that they rubbed on their knees, elbows, and other joints to ease the aches and pains of arthritis and old age.     When the Moroccan medicine man and his huge horse were gone, summer was officially over. After him came the first fall rain that washed away the dust of the long, hot summer. Then school would start again.     That was the way it was for as far back as anyone could remember, until the summer of 1947, the year before I started first grade in Ustaz (Master) Butros's one-room schoolhouse in the front yard of the Presbyterian church behind our house.     That summer, an old man wearing a red embroidered vest, black, baggy pants, and a red tarboush (fez) with a long black tassel, showed up, in the village square by Im Yussef's olive press, with a raccoon tied to the end of a leather thong. Nobody in the village had ever seen this man or his raccoon before.     The stranger stood in the middle of the square, and then he whipped a double-reed pipe out of his back pocket and began to play an old song called Aladal'ona . He was loud and he was good, and in no time at all everyone in the village came to see this new thing. Some of the villagers who were working in their fields came with baskets full of cucumbers and tomatoes hanging from the crooks of their arms.     When a large crowd had gathered around the old man, he clapped his hands above his head and sang the battle scene from the story of Antar, the beloved Bedouin hero who fought many battles and won countless victories against powerful enemy tribes single-handedly. When the song was over, everybody whooped and whistled and cheered. Then, the old man lifted his right hand and waved at the crowd. The raccoon, whose name was Antar, too, followed suit immediately. He stood up on his hind legs and waved his little black paws at us just as his master had done. The crowd roared with laughter. The old man made a circle in the air with his index finger and the raccoon did a somersault. The old man scratched his belly and the raccoon scratched his belly too. There was more wild laughter and oohs and ahs from the crowd. The man twirled around like a dervish and the raccoon rolled over, once, twice, three times. The man clapped his hands and the raccoon dropped to the ground like a rag. He lay there, flat on his back, arms stretched out, motionless. He would not move a muscle.     The old man slowly looked around at the people standing in a tight circle around him and said, "All right, folks, if you want to see Antar rise from the dead, you've got to give him something. Come on, generous people. Give Antar something if you want him to live again." Many five- and ten-piaster pieces were thrown at Antar, but he would not budge. He stayed dead until the old man snapped his fingers and said, "All right, Antar Bin Shaddad, hero of old, you can get up now."     Antar opened his eyes, raised his head a little, and surveyed the crowd. Then he stood up straight, chattering like a monkey. The crowd went wild. They clapped and cheered and whistled again, louder than before. I too jumped up and down and clapped my hands when Antar stood up. My heart swelled with joy at his resurrection. The widow Farha took a fat cucumber out of her basket and handed it to the raccoon. He grabbed it with both hands and started to eat it. He held the cucumber with both hands just like a little kid would. As he ate, small bits and pieces of cucumber fell out of his mouth on his chest. He brushed them off with his little hand.     Many remarks came from the crowd.     Someone said, "What a clever animal! I swear, by Allah, he's got more sense than Abu Jameel's twins."     Another shouted, "I have never seen anything like this in my whole life, have you?" and "By the Holy Virgin, isn't this raccoon something? Why, he is almost human, like us."     I was standing next to Abu Sameer, the lute player, and I heard him say to the old man, "Your Antar is as fat as a groundhog. You must feed him well. Is it for sale?"     The old man said, "Yes, sir, he is. He sure is. I am getting too old to keep him, and my son wants me to give it up, retire, and take it easy. He's for sale."     "What will you take for it?" asked Abu Sameer.     "Twenty-five papers (liras) and a basket of dried figs. Not a piaster less."     "No figs," said Abu Sameer. "Forget the figs. Twenty-five liras is all you're going to get for your animal. Take it or leave it."     "No figs? No figs, you say?"     "That's right. That's what I said. No figs. That's the deal. Take it or leave it. What do you say?"     "Well, all right then. Damn the figs. You've got yourself a deal, Ya Sayyed (Mister)."     Abu Sameer took his money bag out, loosened the string, and carefully counted out twenty-five liras, wetting his thumb with his tongue every now and then to make sure that no bills were stuck together. When he was finished, he handed the wad of wrinkled money to the old man. The old man took the money, counted it again himself, and stuck it in his vest pocket. Then he handed the leash over to Abu Sameer. The two men, facing each other, put their hands over their hearts, bowed a little, and shook hands. The deal was done. Antar had a new master now. He belonged to Abu Sameer.     I was so happy I could not stand it. Abu Sameer lived only two houses away from ours, and the idea that he was going to keep the raccoon and I would get to see him and play with him every day thrilled me beyond measure. It was more than anything that I could have ever hoped for. It was better than Christmas.     The show was over, and the crowd began to slowly disperse, except for a few kids who clustered behind Abu Sameer and his raccoon. They followed them all the way up the hill to Abu Sameer's house.     At the gate Abu Sameer turned around and waved us off. He told us to scat. It was time for us to go home. Then he slammed the heavy iron gate shut behind him and walked up the steps to his house. Antar followed, chattering at his heels. Then they were gone.     I ran home to tell my mother about the raccoon. I described to her in detail what he looked like and what he did. I told her about Antar's little bright eyes and the black circles around them. I also told her about his ringed tail and his little black fingers and how he held the cucumber with them when he ate. She was amazed. Every time I told her about something Antar did, she would say, "How do you like that?" and, "Isn't that something?" I also told her that I was very happy Abu Sameer had bought Antar from the old man. She was happy too, and she told me that I could take cucumbers and corn to feed him, with Abu Sameer's permission, of course. Then Mother gave me my assrounieh (snack) which was fig preserves and almond slivers rolled up in marquq (a large wheat tortilla).     After I had my snack, I went back to the village square to play. There were some other kids there: Hani and his cousin Sami; Habeeb and his cousin Kameel, the goatherd's son; and Naseem, the carpenter's nephew. We played with tops and marbles the rest of the afternoon, and we talked about the old man and his raccoon. Hani, who loved to clown around all the time and do impressions of everybody in the village, especially Master Butros, the teacher, and Abu Ameer, the snitch, started to ape the old man and Antar. Then Naseem handed Hani a short stick, which he pretended was a cucumber, and Hani started to eat it the way Antar did. We laughed and laughed until our sides hurt.     It was starting to get dark, and I was getting hungry. It was time to go home.     I took the gravel footpath between our house and the Presbyterian cemetery. The footpath went right by our kitchen window and, as I walked by it, I smelled the delicious aroma of meat frying. Suddenly I was ravenous. It felt so good to be coming home to such a smell and the promise of good eating. It had been a great day. First there was the raccoon show, then marbles and tops games, and now supper that smelled out of this world.     I ran into the kitchen. Mother was standing at the stove, humming, and meat was frying in the pan.     I said, "Um. That smells great, Mama. It smells so good. Will it be much longer? Is it done yet? Can I have some?"     Mother turned around, smiled, and said, "Almost. But first, you wash your hands, you hear?"     I ran to the deck above the cistern where we kept a washbasin in the summer. I wet my hands, wiped them on the seat of my pants, and ran back into the kitchen. Mama was taking a plate out of the cupboard. She walked over to the stove and scooped a pile of fried meat from the pan, put it on the plate, and set it down on the table, right under my nose.     She said, "Here you are. Sahtain, Einy (Eat it in good health, light of my eyes).     I stuck my fork in a fat chunk and brought it to my nose. The aroma was irresistible; I filled my lungs with it. Then I popped the piece of meat into my mouth. It was juicy and tender. Easy to chew. Easy to swallow.     I was forking another bite when Mama said, "You know what they say about raccoon meat, don't you? They say it is good for growing boys like you. It strengthens the heart and purifies the liver."     "Oh, yeah? I didn't know that. But why are you telling this, Mama? Why?"     "Because that's what you are eating, son. Our neighbor, Abu Sameer, was kind enough to send us some of the meat from the raccoon he butchered this afternoon. You know, the one you told me about. It was very neighborly of him to do that, don't you think?"     When I heard my mother say that, I felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach by a mule. I tried to stand up straight, but I couldn't. The pain in my guts would not let me. I clutched my belly with both hands and started to run. I did not know where I was going, but I had to run. I couldn't stand still. I ran around and around in the kitchen screaming, "Oh, God, no. No, no, no. He didn't. Oh, Jesus, you didn't. How could you, Mama, how could you? Dear God, no. He killed Antar and you cooked him. He cut his throat and you fried him. I can't believe you would do such a thing. How could you do that? How could you?"     I ran into the old kitchen cabinet that stood in the corner and slammed the door shut behind me. In the dark, inside the cabinet, I banged my head against the wall and chanted, "I do not want to eat raccoon meat. I will not eat Antar. Please do not make me eat him, please." I chanted my dirge over and over again. Outside, my mother was saying something to me. I knew she was talking to me because I heard her call my name, but it was only meaningless chatter. It made no sense. I could not understand a word she was saying, and I kept up my chant.     Then she yanked the door of the cabinet open and grabbed me by the shoulders. I did not want her to touch me, but she was strong, and she dragged me out, kicking and screaming, and hugged me tight and held me there against her. I was heaving and sniffling and she was wiping my face with her apron and kissing me on the head and patting my cheek. Then she wet a rag with cold water and wiped my face with it. It felt cool and refreshing against my skin. Slowly I began to calm down, but I could not stop shivering. My face and my hands felt hot, as if they were on fire.     Mother gave me a drink of cold water and carried me to the east room. She lay me down on the hard couch and covered me with a heavy comforter, but I still felt cold and shaky. She sat next to me on the couch and held my hand and stroked my face until I quieted down a little. Suddenly I was very tired and sleepy. She sang to me, and I started to drift off. But just before I went out, I opened my eyes, looked up at her face in the darkening room, and said, "He had a name." She said, "I know, Habeebi (beloved). I know. Now you go to sleep, my boy. Close your eyes and go to sleep." I did.     But when I woke up the next morning, nothing was the same as before. Sometime during the night everything was turned upside-down, and as sleep gave way to consciousness it began to dawn on me that my world, my home, was not a safe place anymore. There were people around me who were not what they seemed. They were cruel beyond anything I could possibly have imagined. That thought scared me, but what really terrified me was that not only were they heartless, they were insane. They had to be to do what they did. There was no other explanation. My God, how could anybody do what that man did to Antar and not be a lunatic? How could my mother do what she did and not be mad? Suddenly I was in terror because I realized that I was among adults who were capable of doing anything -- horrible things -- and not seeing anything wrong with it. But the scariest thing about it was that they had the power; they were in control, and I was totally at their mercy. I was a helpless kid, not even five yet, and there were crazy cannibals around me.     These thoughts did not only terrorize me, but they also made me feel dirty. Something inside me, something perfect and clean, like a red ruby, had been smashed to pieces. I did not know that I'd had it until it was gone. That morning I realized that a bridge had been burned behind me. My Eden was a thing of the past. I was exiled from Paradise forever. I could almost see the angel guarding its gate with a flaming sword.     The day after Antar was butchered, I knew I could no longer be a kid.     Because Antar came to The Tower of the Moon and died in it that summer, I placed for him in my monument a huge, white stone. I laid it in the first tier, which stood for 1947. However, Antar's stone was not the largest or the most important in that year. Many more strange and wonderful things happened and many more smooth stones were laid down to make 1947 the foundation of the pyramid that is my life. Copyright © 1999 Anwar F. Accawi. All rights reserved.