My mother’s name, Yaqout, means Ruby. Mamma was born in a small village in the mountains overlooking the glittering Mediterranean and the city of Beirut. She was the youngest or 7 children; 2 brothers, 2 sisters, and 2 older step sisters. We never saw the last two much (they are in the middle at the back).
They look pretty darn serious in this photo for some reason, maybe it was the my Dad the cameraman they were suspicious of…lol, in fact my aunts and uncles had a witty sense of humor!
Mamma is to the far left, and in the front middle is Sitti (my sweet grandma). Beloved Uncle Yusef to the right, and Uncle Waji to the left.
Next to Mamma is Eggplant shaped Aunt Souad, the Chicken doctor, and to the far right Aunt Salwa, whom I adored.
Grandfather was a very good cook, and made most of the meals. My grandma, his young bride, took care of the house and the children, and paid the traditional visits to neighbors. He loved her very much.
Mamma learned how to cook from her father. By the time she was 14, she helped make many wonderful dishes.
Baba, (Dad), was born in the same village. His family was friends with Mamma’s family, and he liked Yaqout very much. He used to visit them just to see her. He was about to start law school when he decided to propose.
Well, Baba and Mamma got married. She was 15. They lived with his parents just a few blocks from Mamma’s home. My paternal grandmother was not as happy and light as Mamma’s parents. She was strict and a busy-body.
Grandpa was a merchant and traveled overseas, mostly South America, for months at a time.
Dad at home 1950-ish
Dad graduated top of his class and went on to study law at St. Joseph University in Beirut. After completing his studies, he was approached by a cousin of his to consider a job in the newly formed Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The new country was looking abroad for educated men to help staff their government.
Dad’s Life Takes a Surprising Twist
Dad received an offer for work from the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he was appointed vice-consul, and then consul of the Saudi delegation to Baghdad, Iraq.
Later he would become a member of the Saudi delegation headed by Prince Faisal ibn Abdul Aziz that went to San Francisco in 1945 to participate in the establishment of the United Nations. He was very close to the prince and tutored him in French.
In 1947, he was appointed by His Royal Majesty King Abdul Aziz as the kingdom’s first ambassador and minister plenipotentiary to the United States and the United Nations, then Canada, Mexico, and Cuba as well.
Dad outside the Embassy in D.C.
I am so fortunate to have grown up in what was, and in its beauty still is, the Switzerland of the Middle East. (More on the beauty and uniqueness of Lebanon, a country much misunderstood and caught as a pawn in the Game of others.)
Dad became a roving ambassador for the kingdom during the 1950s, serving as inspector of embassies and foreign missions. In 1960, he became Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. He took early retirement in 1962, when I turned 7.
I don’t remember him clearly in my childhood, just a handful of memories. I do remember sitting at his huge shiny wooden desk with paper and pen, and pretending to write script and sign my name with a flourish.
Mamma Steps Up
With these whirlwind changes that life demanded from Mamma, she had to be a quick study in diplomatic life, with no mentor.
After 2 years abroad, Dad brought Mamma to Saudi Arabia. At my grandmother’s insistence, my sister was left in her care.
Here she was a teenager from a tiny village, but by God’s grace she grew into her role beautifully. She was a gracious hostess and a story-teller with a wonderful sense of humor. Those two traits won her close friendships with the King’s wives and close companions. Among them she stood out as a ray of sunshine; a source of deep domestic knowledge, revolutionary thinking (for a woman) and delightful food and entertainment. She seemed fit right in.
Mamma in traditional Saudi dress 1940′s
This is the late 30’s…in a country where women did not mingle with men, did not go out unattended, and were lucky to know how to read at all. As a high school graduate, Mamma was an exception among these friends. Her ability to learn and mimic their accent brought them much delight.
Then a few years later she and her children were off to Washington D.C. where Dad had supervised the building of the first Saudi Embassy in the U.S. and was ready to welcome them. I wasn’t around for the 7 years they spent in Washington, but we have family movies and photos that document those years.
Mamma had to polish her English, learn to direct a staff and deal with a cook. She was still the head chef and became a capable and skilled hostess. While holding on to her faith and ethics, she integrated as well as she could into life in the West. She shed her head-cover as long as she was here.
They were around for the Truman years and then Eisenhower.
I have letters from Mamie Eisenhower thanking Mamma for gifts of lingerie she brought back from Lebanon, and for skillfully decorated Middle Eastern desserts that President Eisenhower fell in love with at her parties.
Long after Dad retired, I remember visits of the Royal family to our home. The women would congregate with Mamma in one living room, and the men with Dad usually in his library.
The humorous way in which she downplayed their problems, and related stories about people in our village had them laughing for the better part of their visit.
Our Role Model
The world demanded that Mamma Yaqout grow up quickly. She had to be strong-minded, talented, diplomatic with an edge, and soon found herself a sought after friend. Her strong, unshakeable faith in God and a strict moral code would be her pillars throughout her life. Everyone who met her felt the strength she held, and they were drawn to her confidence and unwavering friendship.
She cared deeply about less fortunate people, which was reflected in her extensive charity work; loved children (wound up with 21 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren); and liked to have fun.
Her many skills guaranteed that we were never bored as children. She was always teaching us something…like sewing, cooking, knitting, or painting. She was a pretty good still life artist. After he retired, Dad took up oil painting and was masterful at city scenes.
Mamma ran our large household with a housekeeper and two live-in’s, did all shopping (down to the farms for produce, the butcher in the next village for specific cuts of meat, to Beirut for fabrics and gifts for visitors, jewelry designs to the jeweler for milestone birthdays, and live stock now and then), successfully led a team to initiate the building of a hospital in our town, visited sick women in the village, and worked on her 500-page cookbook. This did not include dinner parties that had her in the kitchen for days. She was also the go-to person when young men in our village needed work!
When I was born in 1955, we were 7 children: 5 girls and 2 boys.
Since my siblings were much older than I was, 2 sisters married Lebanese Americans and lived in the U.S. by the time I was 5 and my oldest brother K went to college in Oklahoma where my oldest sister lived, most of my life was spent with just 2 sisters and 1 brother who was 9 years older than I.
When I was a girl, we lived in a large 4 bedroom flat across from the Seawall in Beirut, while my parents designed and built our home in Aley.
The street where our flat was located in Beirut.
We Build the Family Home
I was around 8 years old when we moved into our new home.
It was a 2-story, L-shaped house made of stone. Upstairs were 6 bedrooms, a sick room with mechanical beds (crazy to think we had that), and the TV room and ironing room. The ironing room led out to an enclosed porch where we played, and where the ton of apples (or pine cones) made their way for us kids to sort. I mean mountains of them!
Downstairs Mamma designed beautiful living rooms and reception areas, and the largest kitchen I have ever been in. The floor was covered in soft-green linoleum, matched by the metal cabinets, and the counters were a swirled pink Formica. A breakfast nook sat apart.
The day living room where our piano lived had black and white marble floors and Dutch teak furniture. Across the foyer were two formal living rooms, an Oriental one that contained furniture, screens and vases from Japan;
and what we called the Gold room which held a painting of the King and was furnished with gold covered chairs.
The house was wrapped in long and wide marble balconies, the one downstairs for entertaining. Dad’s library and a guest room and bath were off the day living room. When Dad’s mom hurt her hip she stayed in that room for a few months.
Upstairs balcony, and our pine-nut laden pine trees.
Our house had a basement where our live-in help had a bedroom. We stored trunks of old stuff and winter clothes in another room where a cabinet full of 16mm movies…the ones on large metal reels, stood. Dad brought a few movies with him from the States and a projector and screen.
When we had family over for movie nights, I made the popcorn and threaded the film. It made me feel like a grown up. I remember watching “Sudan”, “The Thief of Bagdad” and “Jungle Book”, along with “A Sweet Affair” an Arabic film and some of Westerns, which Mamma loved. She was a huge John Wayne fan… go figure!
My #4 sister and I had our own bedrooms. The boys shared a room, but that was only when my older brother came to visit from the U.S. Those two, K and Z, got along most of the time, but they had a history that was hard to overcome.
With 4 years, a sister, and a difference of 25 lbs, between them, traditionally my older brother K got the upper hand. When they were 7 and 3, K would run up to where Z was standing and bump him with his hip, which sent Z flying across the lawn. He’d get up wipe his tears and run after K. This went on for hours with slight variations to the theme!
Their bedroom opened onto the TV room. One morning while I was reading on the sofa, I heard Z say, “Why don’t you pick your clothes up off the floor after you shower?” …No answer.
“Why don’t you put your socks in the hamper after you shower?” …No answer.
“Why don’t you hang the towel up after you shower?”
Then I heard K’s voice say, “Why don’t you shower?” This was the classic interchange and often cracked me up.
Aida and I
I was very close to my sister #2, who was like my second mom. She took care of me much of the time when we returned to Lebanon. I was 7 years old when she got married.
I remember literally sitting on her whenever her fiancé came to visit, so she couldn’t go to the living room. They had to sneak out of the house to go for a drive. I didn’t like him much then, but we became good friends shortly after they wed, and still are.
When I went to middle school in Beirut, I lived with them since it was more convenient than being driven down from the mountains every morning. My nephew was became my playmate, that is when he wasn’t driving me crazy.
We got into trouble now and then, usually because he tattled or messed up my ‘not so well thought out plans’. His version is that I’m the one who got him in trouble! You can judge when I tell you about some of our capers.
Cast of Characters
Dad didn’t like to drive, so he employed drivers, usually one of the men that needed work in our village.
The Indonesian gentleman who had been the driver the Embassy in Washington, sought Dad out in 1969 and asked if he could come work for him. He met and married his Argentinean wife, Blanca, when they both worked at the Embassy. Dad was delighted to have him back. Blanca became our housekeeper and her daughter my close friend. We were just a few months apart in age. They lived in the 2 room cottage off our garage.
A character that figured in many of Mamma’s funny stories was our all around grounds keeper/errand runner Sabir. He was a simple young man that my Aunt knew needed work. He was tall and very skinny, and brought more than a little laughter into our lives!
A favorite family story about Sabir is the time Mamma was cooking for a big dinner, and ran out of shortening. She called Sabir and asked him to run down to the market and get a can of Crisco. Then remembering who she was talking to, she reached for the empty can and gave it to him. “Ask the grocer for one of these.”
Off went Sabir. Fifteen minutes later… not long enough to reach downtown…he was back! He came into the kitchen and asked Mamma,
“Madame did you want the jar empty like this one, or full?”
She gave him one of her oh-so-familiar looks and asked,
“I want it like your head. Is your head empty or full?”
Smiling ear to ear Sabir replied, “Well, full of course!”
“Good, then bring me a full one.”
We all fell apart.
Thank you for joining me down memory lane. See you in Part II! ~ Hoda ♥