by Joseph Geha
University of Michigan Press, 2012
285 pages (hardcover)
Kaan makaan. The “Arabic Once upon a time”: perhaps this happened, perhaps it didn’t.
That’s how the uncles in Joseph Geha’s novel tell their coming-to-America stories. Maybe they paid for their passage; maybe they worked it off in a dubious manner. Maybe they had drinks with Al Capone; maybe they just walked past his favorite bar. Whatever the truth was, it was clear they had worked hard to become Americans, and they had high expectations of their sons and nephews. So in Toledo, Ohio, in 1975 (coincidentally, the city and year of my birth), two cousins, Samir and Aboodeh, decide to follow in their predecessors’ footsteps and further develop the family business.
Uncle Waxy and his sister Libby run Tammouz & Sons, the family mortuary, an unassuming building graced with a neon sign that reads “In Time of Need.” As the hearse drivers, it’s common for Sam and Aboodeh to pick up a body at Detroit Metro Airport destined for burial preparation at Tammouz & Sons. Customs officials simply stamp the papers and wave the sealed crates through, anxious to be rid of their morbid cargo.
Which gives Aboodeh an idea: who would check a sealed coffin for contraband? It’s the perfect opportunity to import the premium quality hashish known as “Lebanese Blonde.” The proceeds will let him pay off his odious debts to Aunt Libby, and Sam can save for college. So they make arrangements with distant relatives on the supply side in Lebanon, and celebrate their profitable first shipment.
But their good fortune doesn’t last long. The developing Lebanese civil war soon has the Little Syria community glued to their radios and television sets. A suspicious refugee called Teyib arrives in Toledo and seduces all the aunts and uncles with his incredible cooking. Is he really a cousin? Has he been sent to spy on their operation?
Then something goes awry with a shipment, leaving them in a bad spot with their distributor. Before they can figure out what happened, Uncle Waxy is hospitalized, and Aunt Libby announces she is shutting down the funeral home—and unknowingly shutting down the cousins’ fledgling import business, with no way to pay back what they’ve lost.
Geha’s narrative switches between Sam and Teyib in stark socioeconomic contrast. Weaving in historical places and events, he brings to life a once-dominant immigrant community in Toledo, largely dispersed today. The dramatic conclusion effectively leaves some details up to the reader—kaan makaan!—though the epilogue is too neatly wrapped for my taste. But major and minor characters alike are intimately drawn, welcoming the reader into the Tammouz world like an effusive aunt hosting holiday dinner. And the food!
This is a story of family, of noisy meals, shared memories and emotional debts that tie people to each other for lifetimes. It’s a story of immigration, of the drive to belong to the new country while pining for the old. And it’s a story of survival, of learning when to pursue an opportunity and when to relish, instead, what you already have.