“Alphabet Virtues”, by Hanna A. Saadeh

Alphabet Virtues

The Maid

 “Instead of a slave trade, we now have a maid trade,” I protested.

“Don’t be an American fool.  Tryba took good care of your mother.”

“But my mother has died and Tryba needs to return home to her people.”

“She has been your mother’s maid for forty years.  She has become one of us and we have become her people.  Remember Ruth?”

“Who’s Ruth?”

“ ‘Entreat me not to leave thee… for whither thou goest, I will go…thy people shall be my people…’ quoth Ruth to Naomi.”

“That’s a 3500-year-old, out-of-context quote.  Ruth of Moab, after her husband died, wanted to leave her homeland behind and return with her mother-in-law to Judah.  Tryba has never married, has no mother-in-law, and does need to return to her own homeland.”

“Tryba does not want to return to her homeland.  She can stay with us and take care of your Lebanese house while you take care of your American patients.  You can afford $350 per month.”

*

This conversation with my 88-year-old aunt took place in 2016 in my Lebanese hometown, Amioun, just a week after we had buried my centenarian mother.  After my mother’s death, my aunt became the matriarch of our family, the oldest living member of my parents’ generation, and the only one who still clung indelibly to the ethos and pathos of that era.

However, having lived 45 years in America, my own pathos and ethos had migrated from East to West, from emotional to practical, and from communal to individual.

“I need to have a conversation with Tryba,” I countered.

“Go ahead; tell her that after forty years of service to your mother, you are going to evict her, deport her, repatriate her to a land she left at the age twenty-five, a land that only lives in her memory.”

“But she’s still in contact with her family and friends and they would love to have her back.  She will return with all her saved money and would forge a new life among her people.  Here she will age alone whereas if she ages among her people, they will take good care of her.”

“Take good care of her?  I hate to disappoint you, doctor.  She no longer has family because they have all died.  Her aging, schoolteacher friends are the only ones she occasionally calls.  How can you be sure she would be able to find people to take good care of her?”

“Because she would be able to pay for good care.  In Ruracolit, she would be a woman of means with forty years of savings, all in dollars.”

“Why don’t you come back then and forge a new life among us?  Your forty-five-years-of-savings are also in dollars and you too would be able to pay for good care here.”

*

Tryba came to us from an aboriginal community in Ruracolit, a country in the Central Drylands that has little food or work to offer.  Young aboriginal women were contracted to work as live-in maids in Lebanese homes.  Some were well treated and became members of the families they served.  Others were abused in every imaginable way, their passports were confiscated, and under the yoke of their housemistresses, endured Sisyphean labors.

Had Tryba remained in Ruracolit, her monthly teacher’s salary would have been about $50 whereas my mother paid her $350 per month and also took care of all her expenses.  That was a contract Tryba could not afford to forfeit.

Returning home that evening with dissonant opinions vying for my favor, Tryba met me at the door with melancholy smile, for she still was grieving the death of her mistress and companion, my mother.

“I have dinner ready, Sir,” she intoned, pointing to the dining room.

“Good; I’m hungry.  How about you?”

“I’ve been waiting for you.”

“It must feel different to have dinner with me instead of my mother.”

“In Ruracolit, we celebrate the dead by sharing life with their progeny.  Dining with you, Sir, would assuage my grief.”

When Tryba pronounced the word grief, her countenance glowed with joy.  This emotional counterpoint summoned a bemused expression to my face.  While still gazing at her gleaming visage, I recalled my mother’s words, “Tryba never loses her joy no matter what happens.”

*

At dinner, I asked Tryba if she misses Ruracolit.

“No, Sir, I don’t,” she affirmed with a resigned sigh.  “I no longer belong to Ruracolit.  Forty years of absence have changed me.  I have no children, my parents have died, my relatives would not recognize me, my students are all grown and gone, and the schoolteachers who taught with me have died or retired.  No one is waiting for me in Ruracolit.”

“How would you occupy yourself here, now that my mother is gone?”

“I would take care of yours and your aunt’s houses and help your aging aunt with her chores.  I can be her companion just like I was your mother’s.”

*

I slept with thorns that night and when I awakened, Tryba had breakfast ready.

“Oh, you must have forgotten,” I teased.

“Forgotten what, Sir?”

“Forgotten that I don’t eat breakfast.”

“Oh, no.  I do remember how you used to sip on coffee while your mother ate.”

“So why did you prepare breakfast then?”

“Because it’s easier to talk while we eat.”

“Talk about what?”

“Talk about my situation.  I know you prefer that I return to Ruracolit.  Your aunt and I have talked…”

“I have changed my mind, Tryba.”

“You mean you’d like me to stay?”

“Yes.  This house would never be the same without you.”

“That makes me very happy, Sir.  But, now that your mother is gone, would you still visit us once a year?”

“Of course, dear.  Parts of my heart still live here.”

“Which parts?”

“Those deep, invisible parts, which sustain me.”

“What parts do you mean, Sir?”

“My seventy-year-old roots.”

Tryba’s eyes beamed like distant lights in a soft night and her lips quivered with unsaid words as she attempted to respond but couldn’t.  I took a bite of my manoushi (thyme pizza) and waited until her face cleared its blush.

“Then I shall wait for you, Sir, just like your mother used to wait for you.  All year she would count the months, then the weeks, then the days, then the hours, and then the minutes.  Your yearly visits kept her alive.  She lit a candle for you every morning and, on her knees, prayed for your return.  She loved seeing you live in the house she built for you.  What for you was a vacation, to her was a pilgrimage.”

*

The week before I returned to the US, Tryba and I had several dinners.

“Tryba,” I quipped.  “What is your opinion of the Lebanese?”

“In Ruracolit, we are taught from childhood not to form strong opinions about other people.”

“But why?  Forming opinions is a natural thing.”

“That’s exactly why.  Forming strong opinions is also the most dangerous thing that we can do.  It leads us to judge with hubris, and hubris, Sir, deludes us to think that we are the better ones when we are not.  Strong opinions separate us into feuding groups, spark conflicts, incite violence, stifle goodwill, and take away our peace of mind.  They make us look down on, dislike, or even hate those who look or think differently.”

“Did you learn all that in school?”  I asked, unable to hide my astonishment.

“Ruracolit’s children are taught to beware of their minds because minds often mislead with strong opinions.”

“Since opinions are but the expressions of beliefs, were you also taught to beware of beliefs?”

“We were taught that beliefs are very grave matters, and we were cautioned not to believe anything without careful consideration, which included collecting evidence against our beliefs.  Then we are supposed to discuss the pros and cons with our families, friends, teachers, and elders, and be ready to change our mindsets when evidence changes.”

Tryba stunned me with her primal insights.  I knew that she had taught school, but I still wanted to make sure that her advanced ideas were also her people’s ideas.

“Tryba,” I asked.  “Have you ever heard of the nineteenth century romantic poet, John Keats?”

“We have poets in Ruracolit, but I am not familiar with Keats.”

“As a very young man, John Keats said, ‘The only means of strengthening one’s intelligence is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.’ ”

“Had John Keats ever visited Ruracolit?”

“I know he hadn’t.”

“How come he thinks like he’s one of us?”

“Because romantic poets judge life with love.”

“That’s the first commandment they teach us in Ruracolit.  ‘Let love of others be the judge of your opinions about others.’

Then, venturing into the philosophy of enlightenment, I asked Tryba if she had heard of the philosopher, Emmanuel Kant.

“Emmanuel?  That’s in the Bible, no?”

“He’s a German philosopher.”

“We did not study philosophy in school.”

“Your culture, which is more than three thousand years older than Emmanuel Kant, predates what this great philosopher said.”

“What did this great Emmanuel say?”

“He said, ‘Dare to know.  Have the courage to use your own understanding.  That’s the enlightenment’s motto.’ ”

*

My conversations with Tryba grew and I began looking forward to our dinners together.  Her native wisdom was refreshing in a world where hate grows like wildfires.

“What else were you taught in school?”  I asked the next day.

“We were taught that when our minds generate negative thoughts, we were not to believe our thoughts because most negative thoughts have negative consequences.”

“And how about positive thoughts?”

“We were taught to only believe the positive thoughts that come to us from Love’s Seven Commandments, not the positive thoughts that come to us from desperate desires because desires can lead us astray.”

“And what are Love’s Seven Commandments?”

Let love of others be the judge of your opinions about others.  Always espouse an attitude of gratitude.  Insist on joy.  Find beauty in life.  Care for earth as you would your own home.  Protect earth’s creatures as you would your own children.  Enjoy nature’s escort from birth till death.”

“Did you teach these commandments in school?”

“Oh, no.  These commandments were only taught at home.  In school, we taught the Alphabet Virtues.”

I did not try to hide the confused expression that overtook my face when I heard Tryba, with a sparkling smile, pronounce the words Alphabet Virtues.  Unwittingly, I suspended my loaded fork in midair, then, putting it back on my plate, I asked, “What on earth are Alphabet Virtues?”

Tryba grinned, took in a deep breath, and with the fluency of a child, proudly recited the Alphabet Virtues:

 ‘Be — artistic, beautiful, cheerful, diligent, empathetic, forgiving, generous, healthy, industrious, just, kind, loving, moderate, natural, orderly, peaceful, quiet, respectful, simple, thankful, understanding, valiant, worthy, xenophilic, youthful, and zealous.’ ”

Intrigued, I asked, “How could you remember all that?”

“I follow the alphabetical order.  All virtues are adjectives, and all adjectives must begin with a letter.  This ancient tradition of Ruracolit, memorized by all school children, is perpetually modernized as new virtues are added onto the already used letters.”

“Please tell me more.”

“For example—C also represents: Clean, Contented, Creative, Compassionate, Courteous, Courageous, Calm, Competent, and Circumspect.  E: Ethical, Enlightened.  F: Friendly, Free.  G: Gentle, Good.  H: Humble, Honest.  I: Inquisitive, Imaginative.  J: Joyful.  K: Knowledgeable.  L: Loyal.  M: Merciful, Meek.  O: Open-minded.  P: Powerful, Patient.  R: Reflective, Realistic, Responsible.  S: Studious, Skeptical, Sensitive.  T: Tolerant, Thoughtful, Tactful.  W: Wise.  And on and on, the list grows and grows.

“Year after year, until they graduate, our students delve deeper and deeper, into this growing procession of Alphabet Virtues.  They compete in analyzing the virtues and in discovering new ones.  In the last class, which I taught forty years ago, one of my graduating students discovered a new virtue, which he called Borderless.  He explained that virtues know no Borders because they are universal.  True virtues unite people rather than separate them and being Borderless should be the measure of all true virtues.

“The year before, one of my junior students came up with a new virtue, which he called Brainy.  He elaborated that being Brainy implies not blaming those who behave badly because they are obeying their badly developed brains.  In fact, witnessing bad behavior should remind us to be grateful for having been spared badly behaving brains and should help us feel more empathy for those who have been saddled with badly behaving brains and are thus destined to endure the consequences a life marred by bad behavior.

“One of our older teachers, noting that our students were vigorously competing at becoming exceptional, conceived a new virtue, which he hoped would temper their unhealthy competition.  Be ordinary, he taught.  Ordinary folks are the blood and breath of society, its measure of joy, its future, and its destiny.”

That night, I reflected on our Bible’s Ten Commandments.  Only the third and fourth commandments are positive: “Thou shalt keep the Sabbath Day holy.  Thou shalt honor father and mother.”  The other eight are thou-shalt-not admonitions and none of them teach us how to live.  On the other hand, Tryba’s alphabet teaches virtues to school children, providing them with profound insights on how to live peaceful, meaningful lives.

*

The more I got to know Tryba, the more intrigued I became at her all-encompassing compassion and countless cultural virtues.  I had never asked her about her religion because she seemed to observe our Christian Orthodox rites, accompanied my mother to church on Sundays, and celebrated our religious Holy days as if they were her own.

At our last dinner, she was most eager to serve me my favorite meal, Mujaddara (a lentil and rice dish) and Hindbi (cooked dandelion greens).  I was hesitant about broaching the religion topic until she introduced my favorite meal with this remark.

“With blood-stained hands we eat meat, but with unstained hands we eat plants.”

“Are you vegetarian?”  I ventured.

“It’s part of our religion.  We sanctify sentient life.”

“Tell me more about your religion.”

“We are Earthans.  We believe that God created the vast universe and granted us this very minute Earth to live on.  As temporary tenants, we must live with gratitude on God’s little Earth, keep it tidy, clean, unpolluted, and never desecrate it by killing.”

“How do you worship?”

“We celebrate God’s gift by singing, dancing, exercising, loving each other, finding beauty in nature, promoting the arts, working hard, and staying joyful regardless of circumstances because our virtues leave us no room for sad or bad feelings.”

“How can you choose to stay with us when you have such a rich, righteous culture back home.”

“Because, unlike you, my culture lives in my heart and goes with me wherever I go.”

*

On my way back to Oklahoma, I had enough flying time to reflect on Tryba’s cultural wisdom, inveterate joy, and poignant teachings.  One after one, modern sayings, which upheld Ruracolit’s ancient worldview, scrolled across my mental screen.

“It’s a very ancient saying; But a true and honest thought; That if you become a teacher; By your pupils you’ll be taught,” said Anna in Roger & Hammerstein’s The King and I.

Teaching universal human virtues to impressionable school children is one good way to integrate all human societies into one, globally responsible network.  Teaching universal virtues encourages international cooperation and peace because, as Tryba instructed, human virtues are borderless and wield a uniting rather than a dividing influence.

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops,” said Henry Adams.

Global pollution occurs at five fronts—air, water, land, cyber space, and mental space.  Having the freedom to transmit divisive ideas electronically pollutes the collective mental space, whereas teaching universal virtues unites and enlightens humanity.

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices,” said William James.

We can only think with what we think we know.  And what we think we know is what feeds our biases and formats our opinions.  If we could, instead, think with our universal virtues, we could nurture universal values, which would transform us from self-centered, border-bound societies to open-minded, borderless societies that share collective responsibility for planetary health and peace.

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…  Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” saidJohn Donne.

*

Progress and pollution mate

Let them not decide our fate

Let our joy come quench our thirst

Let our Planet Earth come first

Let’s not let our bubble burst.

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 

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