When I was in high school in our village in the east of the Bekaa Valley, we learned Armenian, English and Arabic. Of all the essays we used to write in these languages, I loved to write in English the most. In the tenth grade, we started to study English literature and have in-class discussions for the first time. I had a new English teacher. He taught in another school too. From day one he not only encouraged me to write but took my essays and stories to his students in his other school to read. I loved his classes and anxiously anticipated them. I knew from a very young age that:
“Book love… is your pass to the greatest, the purest, and the most perfect pleasure that God has prepared for His creatures. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will support you when all other recreations are gone. It will last until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.” Anthony Trollope
So, in that same year, I voraciously read everything that I could lay my hands on. I read English literature, from the classics to Hemingway, Steinbeck and Maugham. I read French literature, specially Simone De Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Camus, Collette, Cocteau, Kafka, Gide, and Balzac. I read Russian literature, from the likes of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Gorky. The list is endless. Even my Arabic teacher used to get me books from his library to read. I read Khalil Gibran, Naguib Mahfouz, Omar Khayyam, and Rumi to name a few. I also read Armenian books but the choice was limited. I read every day. My writing improved and my confidence and knowledge grew. By the time I enrolled in university, I was familiar with countless writers and their works.
In the first year of university, English 201 was a required course for all students, regardless of their majors. As was expected, I loved my English class and my teacher. When after submitting the first assignment the teacher did not return my paper in class, and instead asked me to meet her in her office, I was worried. I thought I must have done something wrong and lost sleep over the matter. On the day of the meeting, I arrived early at her office and waited for her. I was shaking. When she saw me she was all smiles. She offered me a chair and the first thing she asked was “when did you learn to write so well?” I started to relax and breathe normally. The topic of our paper was ‘capital punishment’ and she said she was surprised to read so many quotes from different authors explaining my point on the subject. Then she asked me what I read and this stimulated the bookish part of me; I found my niche. I stayed in her office for a long time conversing with her. Before I left she surprised me with yet another question when she asked,
“Have you ever thought of writing a book? Your own book?”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I was thrilled and I replied that I hadn’t.
“Think about it and if you need anything I am here for you,” she said. Then, on a piece of paper, she wrote a list of other authors that she thought I should read. I said goodbye and she became my first friend on campus. To this day I have kept that piece of paper and I treasure it as I treasure the memory of my meetings with her.
Once, on my way to my math class I thought about what she said. For many days and nights I thought about it real hard. But then I considered the advice of career authors:
“Who would ever think of learning to live out of an English novel?” Anthony Trollope
“Writing is the hardest way of earning a living with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.” William Saroyan
My priorities were different. I had to earn a living and to do so I had to get a job. So I got my degree in mathematics and education and started teaching.
“Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were heading for shore.” Ray Bradbury
Years later when I went to Dubai, leaving war torn Lebanon behind, I realized that there was a whole world out there that I could also be part of. I found out then that I really should have considered taking up that English professor’s offer and tried writing a book. But as William Saroyan wrote:
“It takes a lot of rehearsing for a man to be himself.”
I took every correspondence course I could register for, enrolled in every available writer’s workshop. Eventually I found myself. To this day I can’t help but think with regret about the opportunity I had lost. Then again:
“That I can read and be happy while I am reading, is a great blessing.” Anthony Trollope