Mona Halaby is my closest girlhood friend. Her father and mother emigrated from Beirut in the 1960s. Mona grew up as my neighbor and has become like a sister to me. Her mother and father speak Arabic, but they never taught Mona the language. Mona grew up 100% American, perhaps—one might argue—nowadays she is even more “American” than I am. She studied Broadcast Journalism at Arizona State University then moved back to Chicago to work as a producer for the Jerry Springer show. I studied Literature, Writing, and Chinese language; I do not even own a television. Mona and I grew up delighted by our differences: she listened to Motley Crew; I listened to R.E.M.; she liked parties; I liked practicing piano; she liked the prank call; I liked the ding-dong ditch. We both liked boys.
Eventually, the daytime TV job gave Mona way too much stress, so she quit. She will marry a man named R.T. next spring. R.T. was raised Catholic, and at their engagement party he and I had a long discussion about his interest in convincing Mona to send their children to Catholic school. Mona went to public school, as did I, and her family is thoroughly secularized. R.T. and Mona have challenges ahead of them, but that only keeps a marriage interesting.
Mona still has relatives back in Lebanon, and I am concerned about their well-being. I am reading Elias Khoury’s novel Gate of the Sun to help me comprehend the magnitude of the ordeal and to gain more of a sense of humanity.
I was reading this powerful interview with Elias Khoury that discusses an astonishing moment in Gate of the Sun—the story about the boy who cried for pita-bread. That story made me think of a childhood memory (though my memoy is much less horrific). When we were very young, Mona and I were taken on outings with our mothers. Her mom and my mom used to love driving around town on long summer afternoons so that they could shop at garage sales. In the car, Mona and I would play and laugh; when we got hungry and started to get on our mothers’ nerves, Mona’s mom would open a knapsack and cheer us up by giving us circular slices of pita-bread. Mona loved the bread because it is what she ate with hummus at home. I loved the bread because it was round, different from the square slices that my mom buttered for me at home. Mona and I were girls with our own pita-bread story. Here's a simple riddle: I'm shuddering; why?