Born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, to Armenian parents, multilingual Berdjouhi Esmerian writes only in English, because “English is my favorite.” Some of her stories have appeared in anthologies published by Writers and Books in Rochester, NY, and she has co-authored with three friends the memoir According to Us.
She arrived in the United States at the age of 30 in 1963 with a degree in Education from the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Even though she had taught English in Cairo and Beirut, the path of her life took her into a career at a law book publishing company in Rochester, from where she retired thirty years later.
Now she writes her life experiences of growing up in the Middle East during many historical events there to bring personal perspective to the younger generation in her family.
In the early 1960’s, I went to Lebanon as a graduate student at the American University of Beirut. I was in my late twenties and living at Bustani Hall, the residence on campus for graduate women students. I met a young woman who was also from Alexandria, Egypt, like me, and we became fast friends, especially when we found out that we had been flower girls at the wedding of my parents’ upstairs tenants. Her name was Isabelle, and she was about one year older than me but unlike me, she was not a student. She was a refugee and somehow had managed to get herself accepted to reside in the building. She had no identity papers.
Lebanon in those days seemed peaceful on the surface but everyone carried city-issued ID cards stating one’s citizenship, occupation, and reason for being in Lebanon. Many non-Arab Egyptians went there hoping to get a Lebanese citizenship or a passage to the United States or any other country that would take them in through various programs that had been created by the United Nations and these foreign countries. These were not the typical refugees of the early nineteen hundreds—they were all people of means, educated, capable of starting their own businesses, and most of them had had their personal fortunes smuggled out of Egypt (at a high cost, of course). Egyptian politics of the early 1960’s was veering toward Russian-style socialism. Our comfortable, westernized lifestyle had been turned upside down after the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956.
One Sunday afternoon Isabelle and I decided to go for frog legs. There was a famous restaurant in the Beka’a Valley, past the mountains about two hours’ drive by bus. I was bored, had no homework, and wanted something different to do.
About two in the afternoon we went downtown and got on the bus. As I remember, it was a very beautiful spring afternoon, and the weather got cooler, cleaner, and crisper as the bus wandered through the winding roads on the mountains. From time to time the bus would stop to either drop off some passengers or pick up new ones as we went through the beautiful villages with their stone houses and the famous cedar trees. The restaurant we were planning to go to had become famous for its frog legs. The tables were arranged about a small brook, gurgling along and adding to the unique atmosphere. I’d never had them before and was very excited, because this was the ultimate, newest, in-thing to do—to go to the town of Zahleh and eat frog legs.
Dinner was everything I had expected. The frog legs were delicious, crispy, and we had a wonderfully relaxing afternoon and early evening. Still, we decided not to dilly dally and started our return trip before sundown. Lebanon in 1963 was no place for two young women to be out late by themselves in these far locations away from Beirut.
Shortly after we started, the bus was stopped by a couple of men on the road. They came on board with rifles hanging from their shoulders and started asking the passengers to produce their ID cards for inspection.
“I guess I’ll spend the night in prison,” Isabelle said.
“Don’t worry. I won’t produce my papers either so that if you are taken to prison, they’ll have to take me as well. You won’t be alone.”
We had a couple of magazines we were reading. It suddenly occurred to me that we were women after all and chances were that these people would treat us as not very important. They were not going to consider us dangerous. Gambling on this culture, I quietly told Isabelle, “We’ll continue looking at these magazines together as though there is something very important we are discussing. We’ll pay no attention to them and pretend that we will not be expected to produce any papers.”
The two men slowly reached our row of seats and without even a glance at us passed to the row behind. We continued being our “unimportant feminine sex” until they left the bus, and we started to breathe. The bus continued to Beirut without any further stops.
We never ate frog legs again in the Beka’a Valley.