Where the phrase came from, I don't know. It probably originated in French, then was appropriated by Arab acrobats like me. In my early days, "Arab" and "acrobat" were synonymous.
"Alley-oop" is not an order, it's a battle cry. The tried-and-true acrobat may slumber tranquilly through earsplitting screams of "Help!", "Fire!", and "Save my child!", yet the mere echo of "Alley-oop!" will zip him to his feet before he's awake.
Although I have graduated from earning my livelihood by my own handsprings and pyramids, this command still sends a tingle through my veins, still alerts my muscles. With an "Alley-oop!" I tumbled through a full thousand cities, towns and villages, from Saskatoon to Halifax, Tampico to Nogales, from Brussels to Vienna to Marseilles. My hands and feet thumped the dirt of almost every hamlet in America.
My earliest acrobatic recollections are tumbling through the streets of the little country of Lebanon (then a part of Syria), where, more than anywhere else, the practice of springing and whirling is cherished; virtually a national sport.
The stony streets of Lebanon, the beginning of my storyÃ¤
"Line up! On your feet! Alley-oop!"
The story of one's life ought to begin with the date of birth. Born in Broumana, Lebanon, of a poor family, my birth date was unrecorded. A family's first son (I was the third of four boys) created a stir; the rest were lucky to get names.
Some old papers of my Uncle Ameen, of whom you will hear more, confirmed my christening date to be February 4, 1896. Barring the unusual, my birth occurred shortly before. Since nobody knew how long any baby would last, and living in a population one-third Mohammedan, one-third Jewish, and one-third Christian, parents christened their children quickly. If the baby died, they wanted no doubt in the Lord's mind which heaven it should enter.
The practice was apparently justified, since our family's fifth didn't survive the first day. At three and a half, I experienced my first and undoubtedly greatest tragedy when the little boy took my mother with him.
Living without a mother anywhere is tough. Where survival depends on luck and help from someone (like a mother) who loves you, it is worse.
My father and grandmother fed us when they could. My grandmother sometimes skipped eating so the young had food. My father may have done the same thing. We saw so little of him, it is hard to say.
We were ragamuffins. Third in line to get wearables, originating with my big brother, Saleem, by the way of the next oldest, Nahim, my garments barely resembled clothing. If I ruined a shirt or pants before they reached Michel, the baby, I received an easy-to-remember beating. I took more punishment than Nahim, because the clothes were in worse shape when I acquired them. Furthermore, I attracted fights; an added detriment to my wardrobe.
Trouble and I were companions; I created it, horned in on it, or was roped into it.
One day -- I was five and half years old and not yet at school -- I saw Shaheen, my cousin, slightly older than me, behind my house.
A row of stone huts, (ours included), bordered the road across from the schoolhouse. In order to shed rainwater toward the fields behind, away from the dirt road in front, the roofs slanted sharply and the eaves dropped within six feet of the ground. Shaheen busily tossed stones onto one of the slanted roofs.
"Hello, Puabla," he called. Puabla is an Arabic nickname for George. "I'm throwing stones on the roof. Come help me."
The stones rolled along the sloping roof, but not enough to fall off. Soon he climbed onto the roof, tugging me behind.
"Help me put the stones in little piles," Shaheen said.
I did, after which he revealed his big secret.
"I'm going to get someone," he whispered.
The school bell began to ring. We crept to the front edge. Before I could take a good look, Shaheen yelled, jumped up and aimed a stone at a trio of kids. He scored a direct hit. I don't know if he hit the one he wanted, or if he cared. In five seconds, a schoolyard full of children returned his fire, hurling stones, lumps of dirt, anything they could find.
We had the advantage of surprise, the protection of the slanting roof. Shaheen threw rocks as fast as he could pick them up. Naturally, I joined him in the assault; not the best marksman in the world, but with so many kids grouped together, hitting a few.
Soon my "partner" (by this time I couldn't dissolve the partnership if I wanted to) exhausted the stones, leaped from the roof, and without looking, waiting or worrying, disappeared into the bushes. I ran to the edge of the roof and looked down. Six feet -- - higher than the side of a mountain. Shaheen, bigger than I, had been practicing that leap. A bare three and a half feet tall, I trembled. The voices in the schoolyard, swelling toward me in a roar of victory, made up my mind.
I landed with a terrific jolt. If the earth hadn't been soft from the rain, I might have broken a bone. I jumped to my feet and beat it to the woods.
A speedy runner, I soon overtook Shaheen. We hid in a thicket, hearing the tumult gradually fade. They'd given up the chase. Even so, I began to cry. I could feel the sting of my father's hand.
Shaheen cried too. Always in trouble, this time he had gone too far and he knew it. His father didn't pay attention to him even when he was bad, which was most of the time. After listening to the priest who ran the school, Shaheen's father, one of the strongest men in Lebanon, would usually explode. Only four-feet-four and toothless, he could dispose of any two normal men in hand combat.
Shaheen's agility usually kept him safe from his muscle-bound father. But once or twice he'd caught him, when he really wanted to, and Shaheen had never forgotten the results.
We didn't dare to go home. When night came, as it soon did, we were so hungry we had no choice. We crept first to Shaheen's house and peered inside. His father lay back in a wooden chair near the only light. He grumbled to himself, then slammed the table with his fist.
"That Shaheen!" he growled. "I'll kill him."
Shaheen seized my arm and dragged me through the night to my own house. I tiptoed to the window and looked in. My grandmother wept.
"Don't hurt him," she pleaded. "He's just a baby." My father sat silent, making me shiver.
Shaheen tugged me toward the woods, but I wouldn't go. I peered through the window again. When I turned, Shaheen had disappeared. (He showed up two days later at his house. His father hit him twice, once with each hand, leaving him against the wall, unconscious. Three days later, he managed to crawl from the house.)
I shivered by the window. After my father went to bed, my grandmother blew out the candle and walked toward her tiny room. I hadn't felt the darkness until she snuffed the light. I didn't care about my father, the priest, or anybody but my grandmother. I ran through the door, not stopping until I bumped into her, nearly knocking her down.
"Puabla!" she cried, pulling me close to her. "Are you all right?"
Momentarily, I was. In seconds, I doubted so, as my father filled the doorway.
"Give me the boy," he said.
My grandmother didn't say a word.
"Give him to me."
"No," she finally whispered.
"My mother," he answered slowly, "you are an old woman and I do not want to hurt you, but I am going to punish my son."
Grandmother should have held her ground. That's one whipping I might have avoided.
"No," she said. "Not until he has eaten."
"Very well. After that, you return to your room and out of sight."
My father spun away. My heart sank and my appetite vanished.
What a compromise! My five year old body for a few scraps of food. I ran for the door. It was locked. With one big arm, he grabbed me, with the other he hit me, inflicting my body with the next-to-the-worst beating I got in the old country.
The worst came two years later, nearly starting a revolution. Again, my father played the heavy. This time, he saved my life.
The Near East, in those days, was dominated by Turkey. With three religious groups in almost every community and each group antagonistic toward the others, the pot always boiled. The few available Turks did little to settle disputes. When they did act, they supported the Mohammedans.
Seven years old, I had begun my brief schooling. Children competed for the privilege of going to the well to fill the priest's braak, a long-necked jug, wide at the bottom, with a tiny spout on one side and a little handle on the other. One drank from a braak by holding it in the air and aiming the stream of water from the spout into the open mouth. All of us mastered the art at an early age. No one ever drank from glasses.
A fairly good student, on occasion I was chosen by the priest to go to the well to fill his little braak. One day, as I came to the well, a Mohammedan girl approached with a big braak under one arm and another, almost as big, under the other.
The well was fed through one small stream. I raced her. She won, forcing me to wait. I picked up a few pebbles and tossed them aimlessly.
"Hurry up!" I called. "Besides, you're on our side of the well." Not that it mattered, with only one spigot.
"Be quiet," she said, poking her tongue at me.
When she had filled the big jug, I pushed in to fill my little one.
"Wait till I'm through," she snapped, giving me a shove. Being about nine, she sent me flying. The priest's braak popped out of my hands and crashed to the ground.
Horrified, I stared at the broken pieces. The priest's face flashed into my mind. I could feel my humiliation, his wrath, the snap of his sharp switch. I looked at the Mohammedan girl, lowered my head and charged. A second later, she sprawled on the ground, groaning and holding her stomach. I jumped on her. rabbed nearby stones by the handful and piled them on top of her. I covered everything but her face. Throwing weeds over her face, I picked up her full braak and sped away.
I crept into the schoolroom, placed the braak on the priest's table, and walked to my bench. The priest stopped talking, picked up the jug, drinking deeply.
"Puabla," he said, "I see my braak doubled its size."
I nodded, looking proudly at the other kids.
"Does this happen every time you go for water?" he asked, in a sharper tone.
I nodded yes then shook my head no. The other kids snickered.
"Quiet!" the priest commanded. "Puabla, come here."
I went. "Tell me what you did," he said.
"I..." -- zing! His switch stung my legs. That was for nothing. Wait till he heard the story.
I stammered that a Mohammedan girl at the well had broken his braak and I made her give me one of hers. The switch snapped at my legs again.
"Is this true?"
"Yes," I insisted. It was, as far as it went. He smiled at me, then sent me to my bench.
Not for long. A strange noise grew in the distance. Soon, a shouting mob of Mohammedans, led by fifteen men with clubs, stormed to the schoolhouse door.
"Where is George, the son of Joseph?" shouted the leader.
The priest barred the way. "Why do you want George?" he asked.
"Keep out of this, Christian priest!"
"Why do you want him?" the priest insisted.
"Ha!" the Mohammedan spat, a wicked gleam in his eyes. "We are going to kill him."
Kill me! I tried to swallow, then to disappear into the wall behind me.
"If you don't turn him over," the leader added, "we'll kill every child in this schoolhouse!"
As killing was common practice, wholesale massacre no rarity, these Mohammedans meant business. The priest would gladly hand me over if he believed it would end the matter.
He started to speak, perhaps to seek such assurances, when my father burst through the back door, leaping on the table.
Casting his arms in the air, he shouted, "Hold, I am Joseph, father of George. What has my son done?"
The leader's dark face curled into an evil smile, happy to report what George, son of Joseph, had done. He described how I entombed his daughter in a rock pile, how she might now be dead if someone had not unpiled her, heaping indignity on his family, on the Mohammedans in general, and on the Great Prophet himself. He ended by announcing that they were going to kill me -- and maybe my father, too. They might wipe out all the Christians in the village!
As the men moved forward, my father raised his hand. They hesitated enough for him to look straight at me.
"My son, is this true?" he demanded.
I stood up, slowly. "Father, IÃ¤" I began.
"Silence!" he roared.
No one heard or cared about my futile words, "She was on our side of the well."
He turned to the Mohammedans. "Neighbors," he said. My father actually called them neighbors! (If Joseph, father of George, had possessed plaguing powers, there would be no Mohammedans left in the world!) "Good neighbors," he continued, "I can plainly see that my cur of a son has done you an unforgivable injustice. I, his father, demand the privilege of killing him."
I jumped. First they were going to kill me. Now him! I often feared he might slaughter me with one of his whippings, never deliberately. I glanced at the back door to make a fast run for my life. To my dismay, my father, my newest enemy, luckily blocked my escape, or the Mohammedans would have finished the matter.
My father seized me, carried me in front of the table, and lifted me high above his head. For a moment, I had the best view in the room. I saw terrified school kids, happily angry Mohammedans, and the priest, who had retired to as neutral a corner as he could find.
Crash! -- I hit the floor. Pain lashed through me as I absorbed two heavy kicks. My last conscious sounds were the eager jeers of the Mohammedans, satisfied with my apparent death. My grandmother burst into the room, screaming. She ran out of the back door, carrying my corpse home. The Mohammedans, certain that justice had been served, returned to their third of the town.
My father did not want to kill me, if he could avoid it, but make it look convincing. He performed an extraordinary job, for it took a month to repair me.