JAMILA: JOURNEY TO AWARENESS

Mississippi River from Lover’s Leap in Hannibal, MO. October 2009 – © J. E. Clark

I was 20 years old when I moved to California with my husband. In the aftermath of the 1973 Mississippi River flood, we had left our hometown of Hannibal, Missouri and all we had ever known.

A rural community, Hannibal and the surrounding counties had been devastated  by the raging waters of the mighty Mississippi in the worst flooding ever recorded in the history of the river. Although we lived high on a hill outside of the flood plain, we still had occasion to travel near areas that were underwater. One afternoon I took a walk down Collier Street to see what was happening. There I met friends who were sandbagging a factory. Its wall was about to collapse and they were trying to shore it up. The offices of the school district’s bus barn were also being evacuated. It was only a few short minutes before  I was put to work filling sandbags and helping move furniture to awaiting trucks. It felt good to help.

Over the years, my memories of the 1973 flood have melded into snapshots. We had water everywhere. The river had hit flood stage in March and it kept raining for months until the deluge finally stopped sometime in June or July. Every inch of rain brought the river up a foot. That was a spring filled with many storms which kept the river very high.

In a normal year, our annual average rainfall was 39 – 40 inches. By the middle of August, we had already had over 69 inches.

I remember feeling relief  at the arrival of the National Guard. We weren’t alone in the fight.

It became very surrealistic to watch the highways out of town gradually disappear under the flood waters until only the west-bound US 24/36 was left. It felt strangely frightening to watch one’s town slowly become a peninsula out in the middle of the river.

As the days and weeks at flood stage continued, one by one, the levees broke until the river was almost eleven miles wide where it was normally just a mile.

I would learn much later that the 1973 flood caused over $350 million in damages in the area and killed 30 people.

When the Motorola plant was sold to a Japanese company the next year, my husband lost his job. The jobs that were  available in town and the surrounding area were mostly low-paying factory jobs. We couldn’t live on the $2.00 an hour they offered, even as economical as we were being. At $4160 a year before taxes, that would have given us less than $3500 to live on. Stark realities for a young family. Even with what little I was able to make, we were in very dire straits. So he applied for and got a job working for the government. Some months later, we were off to California and school.

JOURNEY INTO UNFAMILIAR LANDS

At the end of December 1974, we packed our 1971 Mustang with our remaining possessions and started West. It was an interesting trip. We stayed overnight in Sedalia, Missouri, then traveled the next day through Oklahoma. Once we reached Tulsa, I was in uncharted territory. I had never been that far west before in my life. We continued on to Oklahoma City where I learned about hydroplaning.

An interesting quirk about my sojourn in driver’s training during high school was that no matter what the weather was during the week, by 4:00 PM on Tuesday, there was always dry pavement. So I managed to pass the class and go on to get my learner’s permit four years later before I ever drove in anything other than optimal conditions. Even though I had been driving tractors on my uncle’s farm since I was 9, I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 20. So I had been a licensed driver for only seven months when I found myself driving down the interstate in Oklahoma City in the rain right before rush hour. I was petrified, . . . especially when I started to lose control every time the car hit 38 – 39 mph . . . in the far left-hand lane.

Somehow, I made it over to the far right, some three lanes over, and was able to exit onto a side road which led to a state park. Having been on the road since 3:00 AM, we needed to rest. Pulling into the park, the winding, rock-walled road went down into a canyon. Once there, we thought it might be a good idea to check the weather reports on the radio. It turned out to be very fortunate that we did. A huge snow storm was coming. They were not sure how big it was, but if we had stayed at the park, we would have been stranded for days and no one would have known to look for us there. Back on the road we went, fatigue and all. It would be two more days before I would see a bed.

We made our way through Oklahoma into the Texas Panhandle, hitting snow at Amarillo. When I called the Dept. of Public Safety (DPS), they told me I would have to find an alternate route as all the roads were closed west of Amarillo . So we pulled into a parking lot and I took a look at the route that I had very carefully laid out with my well-traveled aunt several months earlier. I had absolutely no idea where I was or what I was doing, but gave it a “best guess” on reworking about 60% of the route. I might as well have been charting my way through the steppes of Central Asia for all I knew.

If everything west was closed, then the only choice was to turn south where we promptly hit the infamous Texas fog. I was driving. Again. It was so thick that the only people insane enough to still be on the road were me, my husband and the trucker in front  of us, all creeping down the interstate. The only thing I could see were his tail lights. Everything else was white. Off to the sides of the roads were catch ponds, but we couldn’t see them. All were deep enough for a car to disappear into in the fog without a trace. It took an eternity to reach Lubbock, 124 miles away, where we finally were able to get out of the fog.

At Lubbock, we left the interstate and cut across on US 62 to US 180 headed to Carlsbad, New Mexico. As long as we were in Texas, we didn’t seem to have any problems, but 11 miles out of Carlsbad, we blew the side out of one of our back tires. The road didn’t have any shoulders, so we pulled off into what we thought was dirt. It wasn’t. Our tire jack, which was fine in the Midwest, sank further into the sand with the sound of every ratchet. We stood there, looking at each other, surrounded by rushing traffic, oil wells and a landscape that was as foreign to us as Mars. It was early afternoon in the mountains with a strong, cold wind moving in. We had no knowledge of local weather or terrain, so we did not understand the looming danger.

A pickup truck pulled out of a side road, drove up the highway a piece, then doubled back to park behind us. We had no idea what to think. Turned out he worked in the oil field across the fence from where we were parked. He had been working at a rig over a mile away and had seen the whole thing when we blew out the tire. Knowing we would not have the right kind of jack, he had come to help us change the tire. I was dumbstruck that anybody would have been watching, much less that they could actually see us over a mile away. We changed the tire, thanked the nice man and were on our way into Carlsbad to buy a tire that we really did not have money for, but had to get.

Once in Carlsbad, we rang up the local federal offices and they recommended a reputable shop where we could get a tire without getting ripped off. A couple of hours later, we were on our way. But it was getting really cold.

Continuing on US 180, we crossed into another world. We were in the desert where there were almost no people and none of the marks of civilisation we were accustomed to seeing. No rest stops. No comfort stations. No restaurants. No towns.  No telephones. No cops. Nothing. And the only water to be had was trucked in a once a week. Did such places still exist?

It was 180 miles from Carlsbad to El Paso through the Guadalupe Pass. There were two small settlements consisting of a gas station and convenience-grocery store in the same building. In order to reach them, we had to travel 60 miles from Carlsbad to the first one, then 60 miles through the Guadalupe Pass to reach the second one, then 60 more miles to El Paso. If you got stranded or something happened, you were at the mercy of the desert. I was very enthusiastic about seeing El Paso.

It was like traversing the moon. No matter where we looked in any direction, all we saw was rock and sand. I didn’t know anything about the desert, but I knew it wasn’t safe for us to be there, especially at night. I wasn’t at all comfortable with the route, but it was the only way to get to El Paso where we could pick up Interstate 10 to California. What wasn’t desert was mountains.

We continued west, managing to hit El Paso just as the Sun Bowl was getting out. The interstate there was six lanes wide in both directions, had a number of spans above oil fields and hugged the side of the mountain.  It was like driving a giant scallop in the sand. I was transfixed and terrified at the same time. I had never seen that many cars in my life. Fortunately, I wasn’t driving.

It seemed like New Mexico went on forever. By nightfall, it was beginning to snow, so we took a room in Deming. We would be there for two and a half days. When we left, there was 9 inches of snow on the ground. There were only two snow plows in the entire state and they were deployed in the north. Every road in the state was shut down due to the snow  and cars littered everywhere. The behemoth of a snow storm that we had been trying to outrun since Oklahoma City had glazed over everything from Flagstaff, Arizona to Chicago, Illinois under two and a half inches of ice, followed by a blanket of snow that extended deep into Sonora, Mexico. It was impossible for us to have escaped.

We had lost nearly two days in New Mexico and needed to push for the remainder of the trip in order to be in Northern California by the beginning of the semester. Leaving New Mexico, we made our way into Arizona, taking us through Tucson. As we passed Davis-Monthan AFB, a jet took off from the runway parallel to the highway. For a few brief seconds we were traveling side by side. A passionate lover of military aircraft, it was a breath-taking experience. It looked as though I could have almost reached out and touched the plane.

Turning north out of Tucson, we traveled in the mountains for a while and then came out into the Valley of the Sun. As far as eye could see to the east horizon and the west horizon were the lights of Phoenix, Arizona. I had never seen such a sight in my life. I would have been more afraid if I could have wrapped my mind around what I was seeing., but I could not. I was sure that we could get hopelessly lost in a place so big. So overwhelmed was I that some months later when we moved to Texas, I routed us through Gila Bend and totally avoided the Phoenix metroplex. It never occurred to me that over three decades later I would call it home.

My paternal uncle and aunt had moved to California in the 1950s, so I was looking forward to our arrival with great expectation. I felt dwarfed by the sheer size of the land and overwhelmed by the number of people who lived in the Southwest and West Coast. But I was sure California was going to be an incredible experience, as, indeed, it was.

We stayed on Interstate 10 on into Southern California, passing through the mountains and the desert in a sand storm. Never having seen the power of a sand storm, it was both an interesting and frightening at the same time. Driving behind the mountains, we were sheltered from the wind. However, each time we would come out from behind the mountains, the cross-winds would push us across two of the three lanes of traffic toward the other side of the highway, several hundred feet below us. Having always been afraid of heights, I was not impressed. The very thought made me nauseous. Of course, I was driving again.

The descent from Joshua Tree into Indio was breath-taking. We were getting closer to Los Angeles and its infamous Turnpike. A quick check of the map showed that if we continued our current route, we would hit LA during the morning rush hour. I certainly wasn’t going to do that driving and my husband didn’t think it would be a good idea either. So, once again, I had to re-route the trip. We decided to go up Interstate 5 into the San Joaquin Valley. Nothing prepared me for the view from The Grapevine. It is still one of the most marvelous sights I have ever seen. The hills around Paso Robles are also splendid.

Finally, at the last possible moment, we arrived at our destination: Monterey, California. My living room window had an unobstructed view of Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz on the other side. Months earlier, my aunt had told me that when she got home to Sacramento, she was going to put a big stick in her garage. If I dared to say I didn’t like Monterey, she was going to come down and use it on me. And she didn’t drive. I was never in any danger; I fell in love with Monterey and the Pacific Ocean from the first moment I saw it, in spite of the fact I was less than two miles from the San Andreas fault. (In October 1989, the epicenter of the Loma Prieta earthquake was only about 22 miles from our apartment.) To this day, I would rather live in Monterey than anywhere else in the country.

It didn’t take me any time at all to discover Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove and become a beach bum. I loved it! The 52 degree F water was definitely a little on the cold side, but it is a breath-taking place to live.

MEETING THE WORLD

Once we got settled, it was time to go to work. Already a semester into the Arabic class, my husband brought home an old reel-to-reel tape recorder and his books. He needed someone to listen to the tapes and see if he pronounced the words exactly like they were on the tape. Sounded simple enough. Then he opened the books.

I had studied Spanish in high school, but this was an entirely different ball game. Arabic was supposed to be one of the hardest courses at the school, second only to Russian. He began to teach me the alphabet. Unlike English, Arabic has three characters for each of the 28 letters, depending on where it falls in the word: initial, medial and final. While they look similar, they are not exactly the same. The diacritical marks, or vowels, are not  part of the alphabet letters counted.

Our apartment took on an interesting appearance as small slips of paper were taped to all of the different objects in the rooms. Half of the time we spoke English, the other half we spoke Arabic. I took to it like I had been born to it. By the middle of the second semester, I had caught up with the class, covering the class material taught to date in six weeks. I had no understanding of the significance of what I had done. My husband asked for help and I had done what I had asked. That was all I knew.

It did not take long for me to become acquainted with the other students and the professors. They came from all over the globe. Our next door neighbour was from Japan. I was invited to share in a Japanese dinner with their classmates from Venezuela. My husband’s professor was from Aswan, Egypt; his wife was from Mexico. Other friends from Cuba introduced me to Cuban coffee, still one of my favourites.

Word spread of how I quickly I had caught up with the class in Arabic. Having missed the beginning of the term, I could not join the class, but three of the professors were willing to tutor me during their time between classes. I was pleased that they would do that for me. I understand better now how unusual that was. So with the necessary faculty approval, I began my studies with Said Ragab from Cairo, Said Hamza from Bagdad and Said Asfoor from Beirut. Every student had to have an Arabic name. The department co-chair, Said Daoud gave me a serious look and pronounced that I was to be Jamila, meaning beautiful or camel. It is a name I still wear proudly over 35 years later.

TOUCHING THE HEART

Learning a foreign language is always challenging, even more so when the letters and culture are vastly different from one’s own. It was no different for me.

I studied in an immersion environment. Well over half of the language I heard every single day for months was Arabic.  During this time, I absorbed not just the sounds, but the culture as well. Our cultural focus was on Egypt. Other classes focused on the cultures of other countries. We ate the food and learned some of the customs. It was a heady experience.

I made friends with many of the professors and students. I was “straight off the farm.” Some of the professors found it intriguing that I could be so new to the international community, yet do so well. There was a lot of conversation and good-natured kidding about my being a rube. It embarrassed me to death, but fueled the fire for me to learn more.

Then, several months later, our time in California was completed and it was on to the next phase. I did not realise how much of me had grown to love the people, the language and the culture, until I had to leave it behind. I had an unquenchable thirst for Arabic and Middle Eastern cultures. I had no concept how that would shape my life.

THE YELLOW ROSE OF TEXAS

We relocated to San Angelo, Texas for more school. There is nothing anywhere like Texas and Texans. It remains one of my favourite states, second only to California. They are big, bold, brash and some of the funniest people you will find anywhere. I loved it and learned several things during my time there.

Never go anywhere barefoot. There are nasty critters in the grass like scorpions and rattlesnakes. They will bite you if they feel the need.

Texans have a totally different concept of distance. Our insurance agent liked to go to breakfast in Lawton, Oklahoma . . . 248 miles away.

They take their sports seriously and if you live there, you are automatically a fan of the different teams in the state. Your prior loyalties are irrelevant. If you do not understand this, they will graciously explain it to you until you do.

In the Texas-Texas Tech-Texas A & M rivalry, everybody knows that the Aggies are the best. If you do not understand this, they will graciously explain it to you until you do.

Home games are any games that take place within the state. San Angelo had a regular shuttle for the Dallas Cowboys home games at Texas Stadium, 361 miles away. In the rest of the country, our shuttles are buses; in Texas, they use planes.

Texas never signed the peace at the end of the Civil War and still consider themselves to be an independent country.  In the Lone Star State, they are a separate entity entirely. If you do not understand this, they will graciously explain it to you until you do.

If you are stopped by a Dept. of Public Safety officer and he tells you to remain in the car, do not attempt to get out of the car. They do not have a sense of humour. They will draw their weapon if you try and are fully trained in how to use it. If you do not understand this, they will graciously explain it to you until you do.

It’s a big state with lots of open road. However, no matter how good you are, a factory-built 1971 Mustang will usually lose to a Corvette. I know. I tried. More than once. It is still the only car on the road that beat me while I was there.

No matter how well you may think you know what is there, you may be surprised at what you can find. I walked into a  non-descript neighbourhood bookstore one day and found an English translation of the Qu’ran. Today, it sits on a shelf in my living room.

FOLLOWING THE THREAD

In 1976, we moved to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. Our lives revolved around work, chess and friends. Fortunately, most of our friends were chess players and office mates. In 1980, my husband and I divorced. For many reasons, I decided to stay in Maryland. One of the primary considerations was the size of the international community, which is comprised of people from all over the world.

In the 35 years I have lived in Maryland, I have met many people from the international community and forged  some lasting friendships. Our Hispanic community has grown substantially since I have been here, as has our Russian community and several others. But every once in a while, I find myself encountering people from the Middle East, frequently Israel and Egypt. As I have continued to grow in my knowledge and experience, it has always been something of a surprise to Arabs and Muslims that not only am I familiar with the culture and history, but I am called Jamila, a name which is much beloved in the Middle East.

There have been so many conversations over the years. Ordinary ones about life and living, struggles and triumphs. In reality, it has been about building bridges from the worlds in which we were born to the world in which we now find ourselves. Over the years, while most of my friends have been Muslim, some have been Copts, which has been an interesting window on Egypt, especially in light of current events.

BUILDING BRIDGES

It has been a long road, going from a small river town in the Midwest to life in the international community. While at some point, I did say “Yes” to this way of life, I did not choose it; I grew into it. I was drawn to it by a Power that has been impossible to overcome, even if I wanted to, which I don’t.

In recent years, with the growth of terrorism and unrest on the global stage, it has become even more vitally important than it was in the past to learn to step out of our communities and reach across to people from other countries and cultures. It does not have to begin with leaving everything behind and living in some far away country. It begins with forgetting of those things and focusing on the fact we are all human.

When I have not known the language or anything about the culture, it has been basic human experiences that have been the common ground on which we met. We can all understand hunger, thirst, fatigue, pleasure, jubilation, sadness, respect, courtesy, fear. That is the universal language which needs no translator and provides us with enough to build bridges.

I would like to encourage everyone to build bridges to those outside of your community. It begins with a kind word and a smile. Where it goes is any place our vision can take us.

— J. E. Clark / 6 February 2011

FOOTNOTES

1. 1973 – Great Flood of 1973. Causes more than $350 million dollars in damages and kills 30 in the Hannibal area. http://visithannibalmo.com/visit/timeline.shtml
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