Author Archives: simonesays

A Multi-Layered American – Part I



A friend, who is herself a hyphenated American, recently asked me: Do you think of yourself as Jewish, Russian or French and which comes first?  As I think about it, I am tempted to reply: The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.  Actually, I do have those three strata below the American identity, and I am  glad for the opportunity to unearth and untangle them.

Being Jewish is the foundation. It comes from long ago and far away and is actually part of a person’s DNA. It is a way of experiencing and viewing the world. It means being tolerant and self-deprecating, appreciating justice, respecting fairness, and seeing the funny aspects of life. It can be expressed in a shrug or a hand gesture which is immediately recognizable. It also means appreciating the richness of the Yiddish language even if you can’t speak it yourself. A character in a Woody Allen film is asked about his religion. He replies: “I was born into the Jewish persuasion but I converted to narcissism.”

My parents were not observant Jews, so in my case Jewishness was stripped of synagogue attendance and of the archaic and obsolete dietary laws and of the nonsensical interdictions about doing any work  on the Sabbath: No writing, driving, cooking, shopping etc.  I am glad that no one forced those ridiculous concepts on me because it has left me free to evolve my own philosophy and conduct of life.

But Judaism is much more than a religious practice.  It is an identity and membership in a tribe, and being Jewish has always been an important part of me.

Next time:  The Russian layer



Beirut – Part III—The Mountains


Before we depart for the mountains of Lebanon, here are two people you should meet.

–There is my brother Dorian who is 6 years younger than me. He is part of all these excursions, but because he is a boy and much younger, his life does not intersect very much with mine.

–There is a maid named Zahieh  who spends the day with us and goes home every evening to her Muslim husband. Her life does intersect a lot with mine. We communicate in a pseudo-Arabic lingo all our own. It has the structure and intonation of Arabic but with words of our own making. No self respecting Lebanese citizen would recognize it as his own tongue.

And now for the fabled resort towns overlooking Beirut.  The closest ones are less than an hour away. One of them is called Beit Meri and boasts of a “Grand Hotel.” A Grand Hotel is a typical get-away destination, which offers far more than a bed for the night. It has extensive grounds, tennis courts, swimming pools, billiards rooms and other amusements. It is like a stationary cruise ship.

We eat lunch in a spacious dining room. Two rows of servers with huge platters are lined by the doors like a corps de ballet. At some inaudible signal they quickly scatter around the room delivering an abundant and delicious meal.  In the afternoon a good size band plays light classical music in between dance numbers. My favorite is the tango, for which the lights turn red. Tea and goodies are served. Everything is designed for the pursuit of pleasure.

Further up,  there were other resort villages called Broumanna,  Dhour el Chweir and Hamanna.   I recall a season when we rented a house in Hammana. During this visit, all of us were coughing and wheezing with whooping cough. Even Zahieh and the cat Miki had caught it and were quarantined with us.

Dhour el Chweir was the farthest away of the resorts, on the road to Damascus. The air there was fragrant and bracing. All of us children played in the forest and collected pine cones which we smashed with stones and emptied of their tasty pine nuts.

All around us were remains of the region’s past, a real archaeological paradise, layers and layers of history piled on top of each other, from Neanderthals to Phoenicians , Romans, Crusaders and Muslims. The mountains were also dotted with monasteries perched on high summits. I don’t remember any visits to any of those sights. What kinds of boors we were to be so dismissive of these civilizations?

Two explanations come to mind. Locals are often afflicted with surroundings blindness. A person could be living all his/her life in the 13th arrondissement in Paris and never think to venture to see the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysees.  The second explanation concerns my wandering parents who were forced out of Russia and into moving from place to place and probably had a surfeit of traveling.

A long time ago I read a book by Aldous Huxley called “Usually Destroyed” In it he muses about cultures being annihilated and supplanted by other ones. He says: “Perpetual perishing is also perpetual creation.”

And so we come to the end of my life in Beirut. Maybe Beirut too will be reborn as has happened to other civilizations in the past. Usually destroyed but just as usually rebuilt.



Growing Up In Beirut – Part II


Lebanon Beachfront

In Beirut we lived in a neighborhood called Ashrafieh. According to Wikitravel it is an “old and charming district.” I remember it as a perfectly ordinary place. I walked to school at The Lycee Francais which was close by.  School hours were 8-12 and 2-4 which meant that I also walked home for lunch, the big meal of day, eaten punctually at 1 o’clock.

The hours between 12 and 2 were “sacred” just like in Europe, and no one in their right mind would dream of disturbing you during those hours, mostly because everyone else was also occupied in eating or resting. My parents often took a siesta after lunch.

Our street was called Abdel Wahab al Englizi. It means Abdel Wahab the Englishman. Who he was  and why  he merited having a street named after him remains a mystery to me.  The street  is also described as one of the most beautiful in Beirut. Again I only saw it as a plain cul-de-sac at the end of which stood our three-story apartment building.

The apartment had a big “salon” adjoined by a roomy dining room and surrounded by 3 bedrooms.  The bathroom had a bathtub and water heater and the toilet was in a separate little room.  The kitchen was spacious and communicated with the dining room through a little window where dishes could be passed through.

There was no central heating and the winter months were quite cold, so we used small electric heaters in the rooms.  Sometimes at night we ironed our sheets before jumping into bed.

When I came home from school I often found a note tacked to the front door saying: “The key is at the Mussor’s family.” There was no such family. Mussor means refuse in Russian, so the message was: “The key is under the garbage can.”

My father had a green Ford which he used for work and for family outings on Sundays. The beach was at some distance from the city so during the week I went to the “Etablissements de Bain” (Bathing Facilities) where you could rent a cabin and bathe in a perfectly calm sea. It was there that I taught myself to swim using a rope which stretched from shallow to deep water toward a raft where you could rest and sun yourself. (Getting a tan was quite the rage in those days).

On weekends we sometimes drove to the beach outside town and I cannot help getting teary-eyed just remembering the incredibly limpid water where you could see each grain of sand under your feet and feel your whole body relaxing. I do not even want to think about what it must look like now.

Waters of Lebanon

The heat and humidity in summer in Beirut were quite intolerable and everybody who could leave town retreated to the nearby resort villages. An hour’s drive through ascending winding roads transported you to places where the air was dry and smelled of pine trees and where you could still see the city at your feet. Sometimes we stayed at a hotel but more often we rented a house for the summer. Because of his work my father joined us on Saturday afternoons and drove back early Monday morning.

Lebanon Beach Today

Next time, more on resort towns in the mountains.

Editor’s note: We’ve had a few technical glitches with the blog recently so if you notice anything that isn’t right, know that we are working on all of this.


Growing Up In Beirut – Part I









I lived in Beirut, Lebanon for 10 years between the ages of 7 and 17, those formative years when personhood is being built. When I left at the beginning of World War II, life was about to change drastically, both for me and for the country. I never returned.

Those days are gone forever. Everything I knew has been erased by years of conflict, civil war, the birth of religious dogmatism and terrorism, and its attending chaos and hatreds. The whole Middle East has exploded and Beirut has not been spared.

Are my recollections tinted by nostalgia for those Golden Years? Of course they are.

This is what I remember. I remember a sparkling and tranquil indigo blue sea bordered by a sunny esplanade and many fashionable hotels. I remember a public square called “Place des Canons.” I remember at least four movie houses called Roxy, Empire, Majestic and Rialto where we went to watch classic French and American films on Saturday mornings. Some of the films were serials continued on the following week. Such was the case for “Les Miserables.” Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert and Cosette were played by the best French actors. American films were all dubbed, so Gary Cooper, Loretta Young and Clark Gable all spoke perfect French.

Beirut in the 1930’s

I remember streetcars crisscrossing the whole city and the conductor ding-ding-dinging to clear the way of cars and pedestrians. I remember a policeman perched on a pedestal at an intersection gesticulating and shouting: “Tarraverrrsez” when it was pedestrian crossing time.

Lebanon in those days was ruled by the French under a Mandate given to them by the League of Nations. Before that it had been a part of the Ottoman Empire.
Many foreigners like us lived in Beirut in relative harmony and mutual tolerance: Russian emigres, Armenians, Turks, Jews and other mixed race people.

The native population was divided into Muslims and Christians (Maronites.) Both tended towards secularism and their relative religions were more an attribute like curly or straight hair, blue or brown eyes than a sword to brandish. Everyone wanted only to be “modern.” Even my father’s engineering business was called: “La Technique Moderne.” Women were stylish and fashion conscious. The city had many hair salons and nail parlors.

Muslim women wore thin transparent veils which added mystery to their appearance. Nobody in those days had ever heard of garments called niqabs, hijabs or burkas. Had any women in such attire been seen promenading on the Corniche the sight would have been as jarring as crows at a wedding.

Those peaceful, easy-going days are gone forever. Now I can only remember them, perhaps even embellishing them in my mind.

The Golden Age of the Detective Story


The 1920’s and 1930’s were the golden age of the detective story. Many of the authors were British and it was a genre in which women excelled: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh were some of the most famous ones. Their detectives were Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Roderic Allen and others. Because of the affinity of the British for clever dilletantes, they tended to create amateur sleuths
whose skills were: knowledge of human nature, psychological insight and shrewd observation. The authors also loved to use misdirection, distraction, and legerdemain to impede the reader’s progress to the solution.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Because detective story writing is such a huge topic I have imposed restrictions and limits to the areas I am going to cover. Excluded from this presentation will be the many professional police crime solvers. Also absent will be the hard-boiled gum shoes created by American authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Those private eyes dealt with professional crime occurring in the streets of big cities.

So I am left with the “cozy” aspect of the genre which features certain settings such as the country manor, local hotel, and the rural village, and characters such as the village spinster, country vicar or local doctor. A favorite ploy of this kind of story telling is the “locked room mystery.” You are supposed to figure how a seemingly impossible murder did in fact occur. Since these were constructed as games or puzzles, the reader was actively encouraged to participate and the authors were supposed to facilitate his/her way by observing certain rules.

These were the 10 rules (slightly simplified here) which the London-based Detective Club came up with in 1930. Some will seem bizarre or dated:

1. The criminal must be mentioned early but cannot be someone whose thoughts we have been allowed to follow.
2. No supernatural agencies.
3. No more than one secret room or passage.
4. No esoteric poison or complicated appliance.
5. No Chinaman.(?)
Did they mean: no deus ex machina?
6. No accident must help the detective.
7. The detective cannot be the criminal.
8. The detective cannot hide clues from the reader.
9. The slightly-below-average-intelligence side kick (Captain Hastings?) must not hide his thoughts.
10. No twins or doubles.


Almost from the beginning some rules were transgressed, and much else has evolved too. There has been a shift towards merging the detective story with the mainstream novel and the detective tale has become a “crime story.” Authors like Ruth Rendell, P.D. James and George Simenon, though still dealing with murders, have inched closer to the psychological drama of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. As they have done so, the stories have gotten longer.

The who, when and how have become incidental and the “why” took central stage. Often we know who committed the crime but go on reading because we need to discover what set him/her off, we need to understand the passion , terror, humiliation which resulted in this final action,. Simenon’s Inspector Maigret practically crawls into the skin of the murderer to feel what he felt. Ruth Rendell plunges into the family history, fears, insecurities and delusions of her characters and P.D.James probes deeply into the passions and unhappiness of her heroes. Their stories become deeper psychological studies.

The lines are now truly blurred and and that is probably a good development.