During a recent telephone conversation with my older son about my recollections of President Kennedy’s tragic death, he observed the following: “While my generation is familiar with President Kennedy’s assassination through books, newscasts, and documentaries, unlike you, I don’t have a personal experience and frame of reference for these events in the same manner that the 9/11 experience has given me and my generation.” How true! The tendency to frame historic and personal experiences through the lens of “before,” “during,” and “after” an event is a unique ocular device through which the admixture of active personal eyewitness and communal poignant experiences are structured so as to narrow the focus from a macro to a micro perspective. This perspective allows the individual to be an active participant at the front and center of a momentous historic event — thus giving credence to the notion that a collective catastrophe could transform individuals and nations.
Before (the Great Depression, war, fire); During the (Great Depression, storm, flood), and After (the tornado, massive lay-offs, forest fires) are framing devices that prompt people to start a conversation with the following: “I remember when,” “I was on my way to,” “I was in the middle of” and a myriad other Chaucerian prologues to personal narratives that set the tone for what follows. I have no doubt that today, Friday, November 22, 2013, millions of people around the world will pause to say “I was …… when I heard that President Kennedy was assassinated fifty years ago today.”
In addition to its being Lebanon’s Independence Day and my birthday, the events of 22, November, 1963, and a world away from the U.S., have had an enduring impact on my life.
In January of this year my colleagues at the university honored me by selecting me to deliver the annual April Last Lecture, one of two campus bi-weekly forums that afford the faculty the opportunity to pursue an across-the-academic-disciplines dialogue in a scholarly sacra conversazione di sapienza that, in the words of St. Denis’ Abbot Suger, sheds lux nova in the best definition of the word. These forums affirm Socrates’ statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Coming at the end of a forty year career, I decided that, instead of a scholarly lecture, I would draw on the magic that started at an early age, a magic that unfolded itself between the covers of books, and about early childhood and adolescent experiences that have left an indelible mark on my life — experiences that helped shape my character and served as a trajectory for a lifetime of a love affair with books. Drawing on the famous English Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, the longest autobiographical poem in the English language, and written in collaboration with his closest friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poem is about the author’s intellectual growth as a poet. 40 years in the making and published posthumously in 1850, Wordsworth’s Magnum Opus conversational poem is a kaleidoscopic circular journey to early childhood experiences where Past and Present are recaptured and blended in a montage of reminiscences that give credence to the notion that we are the sum of our cumulative vita activa and vita contemplativa, a kind of Blakeian ascendance to higher innocence. Wordsworth zeroes in on vivid personal and life-changing childhood, coming of age, and adult personal transformative reminiscences which he aptly labels The Spots of Time. Childhood and adult experiences that punctuate our lives are recaptured, taken out of the deep sub conscious, juxtaposed, and fused into a web of an intellectually seasoned conscious present.
“There are in our existence spots of time/ That with distinct pre-eminence retain/ a renovating virtue …” (Prelude)
“Such moments, worthy of all gratitude/ Are scattered everywhere, taking their date/ From our first childhood/ As far as Memory can look back” (Prelude)
“We see into the life of things” (Tintern Abbey)
While the first half of the lecture drew on some landmark transformative spots of time from my early childhood in Jerusalem, Palestine, the second half, in the form of an epistolary, drew on my adolescent and teenage years in Beirut, Lebanon. The inspiration for what follows came from Caspar David Friedrich’s painting under the title Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.
I received your card earlier today and was overwhelmed with a flood of memories. Upon looking at Friedrich’s painting, the first recollection that came to mind was Acker Bill’s Stranger on the Shore, as ever a moving melancholic yet soothing piece of music that could ever be piped through a clarinet’s mouthpiece. You see, in 1959 my family was forced to leave Jerusalem; we moved to Beirut, Lebanon, and lived in a second story apartment on Bliss Street, at the end of the tramline, by the historic Beirut Lighthouse, and only two blocks from the American University of Beirut. A spacious balcony at the back overlooked the beautiful azure-blue Mediterranean Sea. I was fourteen years old at the time, and my Palestinian dialect set me apart from the rest of my classmates. Teen-aged and stateless, my twin brother and I struggled to find our niche in Beiruti society, a society that was rich in heritage, seeped in history and culture, and a citizenry enriched by an amalgamation of ethnic groups whose religious, linguistic, and ethnic diversity made for a wonderful pluralistic crucible in which I was to plod through the rites of passage, a passage that saw me traverse from youth to adulthood. I joined the Beirut Sea Scout troop # 2, and our headquarters were located on a beach front property directly across from the American Embassy at the end of the beautiful coastal Beirut Corniche. Knowing full well that my future in Lebanon looked bleak and greatly inspired by the election of a young and dynamic American President, From 1961 through 1965 1would frequently look at the US Embassy and fantasize about the day I would walk through the large doors to apply for a student visa to study in America, a land I’d heard, read and dreamed about, and a land whose vibrancy and idealism were exemplified by John F. Kennedy and his beautiful and genteel wife Jacqueline. What Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise baptistry doors are to pilgrims, the large glass doors to the embassy were my personal “Gates to Paradise.”
During the summers of 1962, 1963, and 1964 I embarked on an ambitious journey that would see me spend hours at the American University of Beirut’s library, the USIA (United States Information Agency), and the British Council. The latter is a cultural center that reeked with the musty yet good smell of thousands of books, many of which paid homage to the British Empire and its sordid history of colonial rule that celebrates Rule Britannia, Britannia Rule the Waves. The AUB library was rich in books, historic maps, artifacts, and art exhibits; the USIA was rich in magazines, journals, encyclopedias, biographies of Great Americans, and it was also the place where I cut my teeth on Zane Grey, James Fenimore Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Irving, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Little did I know at the time that the USIA was also a CIA front for disseminating anti-communist propaganda. And how ironic it is that some 30 years later that same agency would commission me to write four articles.
Given the choice between books and Drones, I had rather see us export the former because it represents true American exceptionalism. And because they kill, maim and uproot millions of innocent civilians, wars of choice and drones are antithetical to true American values. And aren’t the lives of Iraqi, Afghani, Pakistani, Libyan, Yemeni, and Palestinian children as precious to their parents as Jenna, Barbara, Chelsea, Malia and Sasha’s are to theirs? And don’t these parents grieve for their dead children and loved ones as we do? Are they, perchance, children of a lesser God?
During these three summers I would spend hours curled up with a book on our veranda divan; for a backdrop I had a beautiful seascape some 3/4 of a mile from my perch, a seascape that, from my vantage point, morphed, as the weather dictated, from placidity to playfulness and, on windy days, to tantalizing white-frothed impasto crests that only Poseidon and Van Gogh could conspire to create. There were also the hourly V-shaped water drawings left by the rudders of the sailboats and ships that made their way into Beirut’s harbor much like their Phoenician, Carthaginian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman predecessors.
Randall, all of this to say the following: While the painting depicts a man in a solitary setting, who, perhaps feels like a stranger staring into a horizon of dislocation and uncertainty, the scene took me back to the three summers of my life when I would listen, over and over again, to the melancholic melodies of Acker Bill’s Stranger on the Shore, melodies that tantalized and sharpened my senses with their gentle and soothing echoes. And, for delight, I would pore through and get lost between the covers of multitudes of books whose pages took me to a rich world beyond my physical reach, a make believe world whose inexhaustible richness and vivacity is as exciting today as it was – 55 years ago. I frequently visit these precious Spots of Time, these precious moments that afforded me the escape from the complexities and uncertainties of adolescence and were the catalyst that gave me a purpose and set my compass on due north. Simply put, I fell in love with that which is between the covers, of a book that is; I fell in love with the beauty, cadence, music, and rhythm of the written word and its magic-like effect to transpose me through time and place. These precious hours lovingly spent between the covers were yet another furnace and anvil on which my literary, aesthetic, and intellectual sustenance were forged and hammered. To draw on Milton’s poemas, these were the LaLegros and Il Pensoros of that segment of my life.
REWIND to 22, November, 1963. While my twin brother and I were celebrating our 18th Birthday with friends, listening to the BBC’s Top Twenty, including the Beatles, Paul Anka, and fancying the Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka dot Bikini and all that these words and dots conjured, the radio went silent, and a morose dial tone much like the ones I would hear in my younger days in war- time Palestine, screeched across the airwaves and, with Big Ben pounding in the background and in a grave tone, the BBC announced to the world that President John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead in Dallas, Texas, at 7:00 p.m. Greenwich time.
Shocked, confused, bewildered, speechless, and stupefied, our 18th birthday party was soon over and friends quickly dispersed, and for three days flags across Lebanon flew at half mast, and for three days church bells shattered the silence with their dirges in a continuous elegiac cacophony; citizens of all faiths grieved for the loss of such a great American.
And for some reason it was precisely at that moment that I felt as though I had lost my innocence and was ejected into the world of adulthood. And Acker Bill’s Stranger On the Shore melody took on a deeper and more personal meaning.
FAST FORWARD to 5 August 1965. Stateless, I boarded a plane for New York and wound my way by bus to Arkansas. And to this day I am dumfounded that the bus was never stopped at any checkpoint by uzi-toting Israeli soldiers. I survived the turbulent sixties (and I can honestly say that I neither smoked nor inhaled). I saw the Vietnam conflict morph under JFK’s successors into a miserable war, and I religiously watched such icons as Howard K. Smith, Harry Reasoner, Peter Jennings, Frank Reynolds, Chet Huntley, John Chancellor, Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. Unlike today’s sensationalist sycophants, these were professional journalists par excellence.
As for President Kennedy’s accomplishments, to name but three, the Peace Corps, promoting the arts (because of their humanizing value, because art is a subtle instrument that helps develop civic duty and aesthetic values), and the launching of space exploration are stellar accomplishments. And even though he took the initial steps that led to a messy and protracted war in Indo-China and in spite of his human shortcomings, his personal charisma, idealism, vibrancy, and eloquence electrified the world. He was larger than life; he belonged to the whole world, and it is fair to say that people from different climes are likely to say: “You can keep your Bushes, Johnsons, Nixons, Clintons, and Obamas. JFK belongs to us as much as he does to you.”
For a not-so-long while a great man lived in our midst. While today many are asking why did it happen? And who was involved? I dwell on the following: What would the world have been like had the dastardly event of 22, November, 1963, not occurred? I am not a gambling man, but I’ll bet a fortune that the world would have been a much better place.
In a world where images are catalogued in one’s mind and heart to become precious Spots of Time, the following are the iconic images that have been etched in my mind. A young widow, much like Euripides’ Hecuba, maintained her dignity, poise and composure and taught us how to grieve by example. Innocence captured in the image a young child saluting his murdered father. A young girl tenderly embracing her younger brother, and now, full circle, a beautiful grown woman carrying on with her father’s legacy and imbued with her mother’s grace, has just presented her credentials as our Ambassador to Japan. A riderless horse sans its master striding to the somber measured elegiac beat of a drum. A horse-drawn carriage bearing a hero to his final resting place where the flame he lighted burns eternal in the hopes and dreams of millions around the world. A whole nation and citizens of the entire world in utter shock, many of whom are and still wondering. Why?
Postscript: In the summer of 1962 the U.S. Forrestal air craft carrier (and accompanying destroyers) sailed into the Beirut Harbor, dropped her anchor, and floated in majesty and in full view of Beirut and Lebanon’s ante-mountains. While there was no doubt that the 6th Fleet’s visit was intended as a show of military muscle to counter the Soviet Union’s slow advances in the region, in true American-Kennedian spirit, it was on a friendly mission. The aircraft carrier sent its giant launches to the Beirut port to ferry Beirutis to visit the ship. I distinctly remember the launch that eased into Beirut 2 Sea Scout Troop’s dock to load some fifty scouts and their leaders and sail them to the carrier for a special tour of the deck, the belly, the different quarters, and to the commander’s station. In a special ceremony each of us was given a brand new navy hat, mementos that were treasured for a long time.
Tragically, today’s Lebanon is a pawn teetering on the precipice of yet another fractious factional crisis and possible civil war the plans for which are spawned in Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Washington, and Western capitals. And, instead of Kennedy-style goodwill missions to the Eastern Mediterranean, the U.S. 6th Fleet, on Obama’s orders, is poised to launch deadly guided missiles to blow ancient civilizations back to the Stone Age and to kill innocent civilians by the thousands. Tragically, America’s Kennedy is no more.
Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art at private university in Arkansas. He is a writer, a sculptor, a photographer, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.