Sunday 23 Oct 2016

Dinner with the Shiek
AJ Robinson

When most people think of an Arab sheik, they think of some multi-billionaire with a dozen wives and oilrigs dotting the landscape of their country. Well, not all sheiks are like that, especially back in the 1940's. In Bizerte, Tunisia, the area had been devastated by years of war. How many goats and camels, you owned, determined your wealth and standing, not oil revenue.

After the Germans fled, the Allies moved in, and with them - my father. He was a Warrant Officer in charge of ordinance (munitions). One day, while walking along one of the cobblestone streets, he chance to meet two teenage Arab boys. Both boys been injured by some unexploded shells they'd been picking up. Among the Arabs, shell casings and shrapnel was quite valuable, it had a currency. Melting the casing, reusing the metal for other useful items was popular. Well, one of the casings the boys had picked up had some gunpowder it in - and it went off! One boy lost two fingers from his right hand, the other got a chunk of flesh torn out of his right calf.

They were scared and covered in blood, when my dad found them. Picking the second boy up in his arms, he carried him - and led the other one - to a nearby first aid station. There a medic patched them up, and then the second boy's father and first boy's uncle showed up.

It turned out he was a local sheik.

In his eyes, and the eyes of his people, my father had done a great service for him - he had saved his son's life. Therefore, he was in my father's debt, and had to repay that debt of honor - or face dishonor in the eyes of his people. As he was not a wealthy man, he did the only thing he could - he invited my father to dinner. His advisors - I suppose you could call them his high viziers - were opposed to it. In their eyes, my father was an infidel, an uncultured American who had no respect for their ways, their food and their culture. Nevertheless, the sheik was adamant - he would honor his debt.

That night, dressed in his best dress uniform, my dad showed up at the sheik's simple home. The sheik spoke a little English and some French, and my dad (naturally) spoke English, but he was also good at French. At the time, he was giving a class in it to all the Allied officers in the area. That might sound strange, but it was part of the program of deception the Allies were waging; they knew that some Arabs were spies for the Germans. If they reported that the Allies were learning French, then maybe the Germans would conclude that they were getting ready to invade the south of France, and not Sicily - the real target. Ah, such trickery they engaged in.

Dinner consisted of pieces of sheep sliced up into little pieces, piled high on a platter and then covered in a sauce. The men sat on Persians rugs around the platter, and reached in with their right hand to get pieces and pop them in their mouths - their right hand. In the Arab world, the right hand was for eating, the left for... ah... bodily functions - it was a matter of cleanliness. Fortunately, my dad was right-handed, and he saw what the others were doing - so he followed along. In fact, he sat on his left hand to make sure he didn't use it by accident. The men were impressed; it seemed the American was not entirely without culture.

Over the course of the meal, every occasionally, one of the men would root around in the pile and find a choice pieces; the heart or kidney or something, and pull it out. Waving it in front of my father's face, he was clear they wanted him to have it. It was both an honor and a test - would he eat their food, and enjoy it? Well, my dad had a cast-iron stomach! The man could eat just about anything. He gobbled the pieces down without a word of complaint. Again, they were impressed.

After dinner, the men, one by one, stood before the sheik - and belched. My dad had no idea what was going on, but the sheik didn't seem insulted, and he figured it had to be some sort of after dinner custom. Well, my dad was also an excellent belcher! When it came his turn, he swallowed a few gulps of air, stood up, and let loose with the biggest belch of the evening.

The sheik sensed the honour.

After that, they relaxed with coffee, and one of the advisors took some pictures with a very nice 35mm camera. My dad complimented the sheik on the camera - and it was his! The camera was a gift from the sheik. He also offhandedly remarked at how nice the rugs were that they'd sat on during dinner. The sheik ordered them rolled up and given to him; again, another gift.

My dad got the drift - anything he liked, he was going to get.

The sheik asked if my dad wanted to meet his wives. He almost said yes, but then realized that - if he complimented one of the women on their beauty - he'd be leaving with a wife! Somehow, he had a feeling his mom and dad would not approve.

Finally, when the evening was done, he was able to say his good-byes, and leave with his gifts. The sheik paid his debt, his honor preserved, and - in a small way - international relations advanced.

Strange the little adventures in life can lead you on.

Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.

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