Non-Fiction: “James Dean’s Blue Jeans”, by Dr. Hanna Saadeh

When early adolescence sent its testosterone emissaries into my unsuspecting brain, I found myself transmuted within a short period of time to a self-aware, girl-gazing stripling.  My hair, my clothes, my mannerisms, and how the girls perceived me dominated my preteen mind.  Life was all about style and popularity in 1958, which is the year blue jeans, began to adorn the elegant Lebanese youth.  I was twelve then; James Dean had died three years earlier; Elvis Presley, the Rock & Roll monarch, was inducted into the US Army as U.S. private #53310761; and I wanted blue jeans more than anything else in the world.  The problem was how to convince my austere mother—who had no idea who James Dean and Elvis Presley were— that I was ready for my first pair.

As soon as the summer vacation began, I started my campaign by inviting Ziad—my classmate who was the first in school to don a pair of Levi’s jeans—to play.  It was crucial for my mother, who thought that pressed pants were the only outfit becoming of tidy youth, to see that blue jeans possessed a charm of their own.  My hopes, however, were dashed upon the unyielding rocks of tradition when, after Ziad left, she told me that his un-pressed blue pants made him look like he had no mother.  That was when I realized that I had some serious convincing to do.

At dinner, it was mother who gave me my best idea.  Sitting around the table with my two brothers and me, she announced that in the morning she was planning to go to school to pick up our grades and have a talk with our teachers.  It was at that most propitious moment that I inquired, “And if our grades are good, are you going to reward us with something?”

“I’ll reward whoever makes the honor list,” came her brisk answer.

“And what would that reward be?”  I quizzed with a sly mind.

“I’ll let each of you choose his own reward, as long as it’s reasonable and affordable.”

“Can we tell you now what rewards we would like?”  I pleaded as I looked at my two younger brothers, hoping to solicit their participation.

“No.”  She blurted.  “Think about it real hard tonight, write down what reward you would like on a piece of paper, and stuff it inside an envelope.  Tomorrow, at lunch, I will tell you who made the honor list and then you can hand me your envelopes for consideration.”

“So, there’s no guarantee that what we write will be granted?”  I asked with a melancholy drone.

“As I said,” she firmly replied, “it has to be reasonable and affordable for me to consider it.”

After dinner, my brothers and I had a serious meeting.  Being the eldest, I hoped to influence their choices in order to further mine.

“How about if we all choose blue jeans for our rewards?”  I enticed, hoping that, faced with three similar requests, my mother would have trouble declining.

“I’m not going to make the honor list,” said my younger brother Nadir, “so why should I bother choosing?”

“Because, knowing mother, she would want to know what you chose, anyway,” I explained.

“I don’t see the point,” he insisted.  “I’m not going to make the honor list and I’m not going to scribble anything down.”

I looked to Samir, my youngest brother, for support but he was only nine and wanted a new bicycle to replace his old one.  “My chances are meager,” I thought, but still I wrote down: “A pair of Levi’s blue jeans,” stuffed the paper inside an envelope, and tucked it underneath my pillow.

Lunch was tense with trepidation and the ambiance grew tenser as time snailed among the plates du jour across the dining table.  My mother deliberately avoided the subject of grades and the three of us were reticent about broaching the topic.  It was only when we had finished eating that she coughed, pulled our grades out of her purse, handed them to each of us with a smile, and said, “May I have your envelopes, please.”

As my youngest brother and I handed her our envelopes, Nadir excused himself, ran to his room, and hastily returned with his own envelope, which, judging by the little time it took him to produce, had to have been written the night before.  Opening one envelope at a time, my mother eyed each of us in silence and then, after what seemed like a long, smoldering pause, she spoke.

“I have only one reasonable request at hand,” Nadir’s.  He wants a volleyball and that’s fine.  But Samir, you want a new bicycle while your old bicycle is still in good condition?  I don’t see the point; you can wait another year, right?”

“Oh, no Mom.  My old bicycle has only foot brakes and these are considered unsafe because they cause skidding.  I need the safer model with real hand brakes instead.”

“Who told you all this nonsense?” she queried with suspicion.

“All my classmates have bicycles with hand brakes and they all say that they are so much safer.”

“Hum,” she nodded, ignoring his pathetic argument.  Then, looking at me with raised eyebrows, she asked, “And how about you, Salem?  You want these shabby, un-pressed, blue pants that make you look like you have no mother?  I don’t understand why as you grow older you wish to look shabbier.  It should be the other way around, right?”

I tried to defend my position but to no avail.  Neither my brothers nor my mother could see the merit of my request.  I had to come up with a more convincing argument than “It’s the fashion,” but lunch was over and it was already too late.  I retired to my room, defeated and inconsolable.  I wanted so desperately to look like James Dean or Elvis Presley, but without a pair of Levi’s blue jeans that seemed like an impossible feat.  “How could I impress the girls with my pressed pants,” I pondered while mired in pitiful melancholy.  “They love the American look and that means blue jeans.  Pressed pants and the honor roll make me into a nerd.  Oh, Mother, why can’t you be a bit more modern?”

As the summer dripped like a steaming faucet, we spent our time at the nearby Tripoli beaches, leaving home after lunch and not returning till sundown.  In the evenings, we dined on the cool veranda and listened to the radio.  The Arab world was ablaze with hostilities causing us to feel helpless, without ever understanding what was happening.  Day after day, we listened to news of escalating tensions, which finally burst like an abscess during that one, ominous week of July 1958.  On July 14, the Iraqi revolution overthrew the monarchy, murdered King Faisal II, and dragged his body through the streets of Baghdad.  The very next day, on July 15, in Operation Blue Bat, President Eisenhower landed about 14,000 men in Beirut to quell a revolution fomented by the United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria under the leadership of Jamal Abdul Nasser.  Two days later, on July 17, British paratroopers arrived in Jordan, invited by King Hussein who felt threatened by the new, hostile Iraqi regime.

It was hard for us to understand the significance of these violent transactions, but my mother helped with simplified explanations.  Day after day, after listening to the news, she would comment on the history behind the happenings.  I don’t think that my brothers ever understood much or even cared to understand, but I thought I did.  I vaguely understood that the origin of our turmoil began two years earlier in 1956 when England, France, and Israel, began what became known as the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in an attempt to repossess the Suez Canal, which had been nationalized by Egypt’s Nasser.  That bloody military aggression destabilized the Arab world, cost Egypt a great many lives, and would have all but wrecked the economy of that country were it not for President Dwight Eisenhower, who forced all parties to withdraw, and reestablished peace in the region.  Knowing all that made it easier for me to place the current happenings into context, and also to understand my mother’s ominous sense of alarm.

During one particular bad-news-day, we sat with Mother in pensive silence, more out of respect for her own concern than out of our own appreciation of what was really transpiring.  After a long pause, she took in a deep breath and said, “I’m really concerned about our fate as a tiny Christian oasis in this desert of dissent.”

“Don’t worry, Mom,” I hurriedly reassured.  “Lebanon will always be there for us.”

“I wish I had your faith, Son,” she replied with a headshake.  “You’re far too young to understand and perhaps that’s a good thing.”

Before I had a chance to think of some other comforting comment, the radio broadcasted a new poem by the renowned Said Akl, sung by the equally renowned Fairouz, whose cadenced lines challenged the pervasive hypocrisy of the time.  Powerful music, especially when accompanied by powerful words, can draw tears out of rocks and smiles out of the angry frowns of tenebrous clouds.  We listened with downcast eyes as the piercing words, laced with Byzantine tunes, stole into our weary ears and rained down onto our throbbing hearts.

We are our thoughts, no more

We are what’s on our mind

Like storms we spark and roar

But seem so kind and tame

To souls, all eyes are blind

Pretense is our game.

After the song came another long, reverent pause.  The poem ‘We Are What’s On Our Mind’ pushed Mother into deep thought and none of us dared stir or break the sanctity of her silence.  I kept my gaze to the ground while my two brothers gazed at the orange trees calmly sleeping in our garden.  The morose moment stretched and yawned like a long night on the gates of a cloudy day.  It was her sullen voice that finally cracked our reverie.  She dolefully repeated into the night air the first two lines of the poem, “We are our thoughts, no more / We are what’s on our mind…” and then she looked me in the eye and asked, “What’s on your mind, Son?”

“Blue jeans,” I blurted out and then hastily covered my lips with my hand.

She looked at me with startled eyes and then started laughing uncontrollably until tears rolled down her cheeks.  Not understanding the humor, we were afraid to laugh along.  Instead, we fidgeted in our seats and began to look rather uncomfortable, which made her laugh even harder.  Then, with a big smile over her wet face, she looked at Samir and asked, “And what’s on your mind, Son.”

“A bicycle,” he dutifully answered, which caused Nadir and me to break out with uninhibited laughter.  It was a most merciful catharsis.

The next day, Mother took Samir to the bicycle shop and gave me enough money to go buy my first pair of blue jeans.  When I returned, Samir was already on his new bike riding merrily down the street and Nadir was playing volleyball with his neighborhood friends.  I walked into the house with a smile that I could not conceal and a bag in my hand.  I found Mother in the living room, having afternoon coffee with two of her lady friends.  I kissed her on the cheek, thanked her with a most grateful heart, and then shook the hands of her two friends.

“Let me see it,” she said, as she looked at me with expectation.

I handed her the bag and was surprised when she handed it back to me saying, “Let me see it on you, Silly.”

I went into my room, slipped on my very tight blue jeans, checked my form in the mirror from all four angles, and then pranced back into the living room for the viewing.

“Oh, no, it’s too tight, Son.  You’ll outgrow it in no time.  No, no, go back and get a bigger size.”

Her two lady friends readily agreed.  One said that they would shrink with each wash and the other said that they would look like shorts by next year.  I was outnumbered three to one and was not allowed to argue my point.  I retreated into my room, put the blue jeans back into the bag, and raced to the American Styles shop for a larger size.  When I tried the next size up, it looked baggy and seemed like a poor fit.  I knew in my heart that the girls would snicker at me if they were to see me in them and that I would not dare to wear them before at least another year.  I felt crushed and dizzy with disillusionment until the last two lines of the song began to replay inside my head, “To souls, all eyes are blind / Pretense is our game.”

I went back home with the original blue jeans in the bag, walked into the living room, greeted, went into my bedroom, slipped on the same, tight blue jeans, and then pranced into the living room with a smug smile and paraded.  As I walked back and forth like a model with the three pairs of eyes locked onto me, the song began to play again in my head, “To souls, all eyes are blind / Pretense is our game,” which, for some contorted reason, replaced my smug smile with a wry grin.  It was only after seeing my grin that my mother clapped her hands and triumphantly proclaimed, “Now, that’s a decent pair of pants.”  Immediately, her two lady friends agreed.

Perhaps, that was the most shameless and triumphant moment of my life.  It was also the time when I developed high respect for the power of suggestion and the illusion of presentation.

Rightfully so, in Macbeth, Shakespeare declares that, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,” and in Hamlet that, “The apparel oft proclaims the man.”

Lebanese-born Dr. Hanna Saadeh, MD is both a creative writer and an infectious disease specialist in Oklahoma City, OK. He travelled to the US in 1971 for completing his post graduate medical training. The twenty-year Lebanese Civil War prevented him from returning to his fatherland, thus making Oklahoma his second home, where he has been productive as both physician and writer. Dr. Saadeh has authored five poetry books, four novels, and a collection of short stories.

For more about Dr. Saadeh’s literary works, please visit his website on https://www.hannasaadah.com/ or his amazon page on https://www.amazon.com/Hanna-Saadah/e/B0191XNZ6C%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s