By Carol Yost
In the early fall of 1955, when I had just turned 10, my family went to Syria on a grant under a 1948 law called the Smith-Mundt Act, or the U. S. Information and Educational Exchange Act. It was designated “an act to promote the better understanding of the United States among the peoples of the world and to strengthen cooperative international relations.” This included educational activities. My father, an English professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, had applied and received a grant to teach English at the Syrian University in Damascus.
It was exciting for my brother and me. We went from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to New York, and stayed briefly with my mother’s sister Marian at her New York apartment. Then we traveled to Damascus, first on the SS Independence to Turkey, a very pleasant way to travel, and then on the SS Samsun, with less comfortable accommodations.
Our family had spent seven years in Tallahassee, and my brother and I had been asthmatic semi-invalids there. Mother tutored us at home while following our course subjects at school. My brother, George Yost III, made many model airplanes and ships meticulously assembled from kits, and they were kept in large glass cabinets. Once my classmates sent me a big sheet of paper on which they’d written their best wishes, made drawings and signed their names. I realized I couldn’t remember any of them because I hadn’t been in classes much. After Mother had taken us to the Delaware Water Gap for a summer, and we were suddenly no longer bedridden—for example, she saw me rowing a boat upstream—she had assertively told Dad that we weren’t going back to Tallahassee. Just a year before our trip to Syria, she saved us by following her parents to where they’d moved in retirement, to Albuquerque. They’d gotten a nice big house for us to live in, where the climate freed us from being bedridden. Our father had had to stay at his Tallahassee teaching job. He had applied for a position at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, but when he learned a close friend was also applying, he withdrew his application. We stayed with my mother’s parents in Albuquerque.
Ten days before we left for Syria, our beloved parakeet died of a terrible and mysterious illness that left his legs paralyzed for the terrifying last minutes of his life. This haunted me. Many years later, I tried to put it into poetry. One stanza was:
Oh, how could we journey
So long on the wave,
And leave you, so little,
Alone in your grave?
When in Syria, I carved simple images of a parakeet into the low mud walls of the school playground.
Not long after our arrival, my grandparents wrote us that our dog, Blackie, had been so despondent she wouldn’t eat and hid under the bed. My grandparents had her put to sleep. That was another heartbreaking loss for our trip, sad to think of to this day.
Our lodging had been arranged in advance, and when our Damascus landlord knew we were coming, he relandscaped the garden at the back of the building where we were to occupy the first floor. It was a beautiful, geometrical, European-style garden with a hexagonal fountain. We soon had a charming British neighbor living across the hall, and we enjoyed his company. We had a French-speaking maid. The landlord’s daughters, about my age, were excited to meet an American, and they practiced their English on me. I regret that I was a little snob of a 10-year-old and made fun of their efforts. I made few attempts to learn Arabic, which wasn’t taught at my English-speaking school, but the landlord’s daughters could have taught me, and that would have been good for them and for me.
Every morning, as we ate breakfast, about 15 huge stray cats gathered on the wall that bordered our garden. They were waiting for us to put out our garbage so they could have their breakfast, too.
My brother and I went to a school that was held in a large apartment. It was taught in English according to the British Calvert system. My mother said it was secret and illegal, but it was the only way we could go to an English-speaking school. At first there was no fifth grade for me, and I was briefly put into a sixth grade class. Then another American fifth-grader, Philip Funkhauser, arrived, and they used a couple of portable blackboards to wall off a little corner of the large room used as an assembly hall, and we had a teacher. There we spent the day except for lunch and so on. Philip was fun, with a good sense of humor, and for a while I had a crush on him.
For a time I took a French class—I think that might have been part of the sixth-grade phase of my education—but I didn’t take well to learning another language, and my parents hired a private French tutor for me for a while. My mother remembered me saying I wished the French had been born dumb so that I wouldn’t have to learn their language.
I think it was in Damascus that I took dance classes and participated in a dance recital my teacher presented. I was in a piece called, I think, “The Dance of the Skeletons.” My fellow dancers and I wore black leotards that had the general outline of skeletal bones painted on them with fluorescent paint, and black masks similarly painted as skulls. The lights went out and the music came on with us dancing as skeletons. I didn’t know my steps very well, and what was worse, my mask kept falling off my face. I held it on with one hand and tried to dance, but I was obviously getting the dance all wrong. My father, in the audience, heard someone say, “Her face is falling off.” I cried afterwards, but people tried to comfort me.
My brother and I also took piano lessons and were in a recital that went much better, although I don’t think I thought much about the music beyond just getting the notes right.
Traveling around Damascus and the surrounding country was exciting. We saw ancient Roman ruins and stone-lined Roman roads with carriage tracks deeply set into them. We admired the beautiful clothing worn by the Syrian people, and bought souvenir trinkets wherever we went. My mother, with her Leica M3, took many pictures. We went into the Souk Hamidiyah (a famous old marketplace) in Damascus, which bore the battle scars of history, including the former French occupation and before. It had a very high roof under which many vendors sold their colorful wares. We learned they offered three prices—the highest for Americans, lower prices for the English and French, and the lowest of all for Syrians and Armenians. My father, George Yost Jr., found he could, at times, get lower prices by speaking French. He could speak and write in nine languages.
We continued to celebrate traditional American holidays. For Halloween, American parents took their kids to their friends’ homes for trick-or-treat. I can’t remember what costumes my brother and I devised for ourselves.
We traveled to the Arab side of a divided Jerusalem and saw beautiful old buildings and ruins from different stages of history. We were in the Garden of Gethsemane with the 12 ancient olive trees, and I found it hard to comprehend that we were standing right where Jesus and his apostles kept watch the night before he was captured. We visited the Dome of the Rock. We were on Strait Street, where St. Paul had his sudden conversion, and saw the tops of the old arches just above the road where there were modern shops. We were told that the original road of St. Paul was 14 feet lower than the present one. We went to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. We also visited Jericho, which turned out to be mainly a huge earthen pit in the sides of which were innumerable little slips of paper indicating which historical period was represented by each stratum.
We all had, unfortunately, a snobbish attitude at times. One hot night, as we were all sitting around the fountain with our British neighbor, the air suddenly was filled with the loud broadcast of a speech by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and although we didn’t know Arabic we knew it was about the crisis involving Israel and the Palestinians; it had profoundly affected everybody in that part of the world. But it disturbed our peace, as all windows were open in the heat and all radios were blasting the speech. Our British neighbor ran into his apartment and broadcast on his own radio transmitter at a frequency that jammed the airwaves and suddenly cut off the speech for some distance around. All was quiet again, and we went back to sitting with our feet on the fountain, having our own conversations. Now I’m appalled at our selfishness. We were guests in our neighbors’ country.
Shortly after our arrival, my mother, a writer, wrote a short children’s story about Arab children and a “rully tully donkey.” It was published in Jack and Jill, a children’s magazine, while we were in Syria. Although Mother had very early seen her life’s work as writing short stories, and would spend decades at her typewriter hammering out short stories and submitting them, reading popular magazines to see what was selling, taking writing courses, carefully crafting sentences even in conversation, and expressing the hope of large success and even of winning the Pulitzer Prize, the donkey story was the only one she ever saw published. Ambitious and hard-driven until cancer took over her last years, she never gave up hope. I would like to thank both my parents, though, for their love of the English language, which has encouraged me as a writer. Something she wrote years later, that I still treasure, is her description of my cousin Skip’s death at age 25 after his truck overturned. What happened, and our family’s reaction, were unforgettable.
In Syria we met many Palestinian refugees who had been forced to flee the Israeli occupation of their land in the great upheaval that had begun only a few years before. We kept hearing of violence against the Palestinian people who would have wanted peace with the Jews and who wished only that the Israeli leaders had allowed them to stay.
I’m so sorry for what the Syrians are enduring now. I hope the war ends very soon. One of the places we visited was the beautiful old city of Aleppo, which I understand now has been utterly devastated.
After the academic year was over, shortly before we would have returned to the United States, my father came home excitedly announcing that he had just gotten an extension to teach another year. My mother had utterly surprising news for him: we were being evacuated to Beirut, Lebanon. English Prime Minster Anthony Eden had bombed the Suez Canal, and the United States, fearing a war in the region, had ordered the evacuation of all American women and children in the Middle East to Beirut, while the fathers stayed behind. We didn’t know it, but we were never to be together as a family again.
That night, my mother, brother and I rode in a flying boxcar, as it was called, 19 minutes over the mountains to Beirut. After staying for a while in a rundown Plaza Hotel, we got a penthouse apartment with a terrace balcony and a lovely view of the city. Across the street were the beautiful grounds of the British embassy. We shared the apartment with Mildred Teasley, an American diplomat for the U. S. operations mission who had become a very close friend. We had met her at the Plaza.
The night of the Fourth of July, my mother and I watched from the balcony far across Beirut to see tiny dots of colored light rise above the skyline. Someone was shooting off fireworks. Again and again, up they went, three dots at a time. Somehow it meant a great deal to my mother.
My brother and I attended school at the American school in Beirut. Again, we toured the country a bit and saw more beautiful Roman ruins, including Baalbek, where there are stagings of operas and concerts every year.
In the apartment we listened to Ethel Merman with the original Broadway cast of Call Me Madam. We played that record over and over. My mother and I loved to sing the duet “You’re Just in Love” from that show. Mildred had told us about Ethel Merman, and told us, too, about Marlene Dietrich. We also loved a 45 rpm record of “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town).” Mother went around the apartment singing “Thirteen Men (and Only One Woman in Town).” I saw her skipping rope on the balcony one day and exclaimed, “Mommy, you look like a young girl again!” She was about 45 then.
Once, after saying goodbye to me at the elevator door as I left for school, the door to the apartment slammed shut and my mother was locked out. She wore just her nightgown, bathrobe and slippers. She banged and banged on the door and hollered, but Mildred was sound asleep. Mother went downstairs and walked across the street, still in her nightwear of course, and got a Lebanese gas station attendant to call the apartment. The phone rang and rang, but Mildred slept on. Finally a young man got up onto the roof, jumped down to the terrace balcony, walked through the apartment and opened the door. At last Frances Yost made herself a cup of coffee and sank into her chair out on the balcony, collecting herself and greatly relieved, looking out onto the city richly blessed with sunlight. Her cup just faintly tapped the rim of the saucer as she lifted the cup to her lips. Out of a bedroom at the back there was a sleepy, impish but subterranean, annoyed little growl that grew into a yell: “Who’s having coffee and not giving me any?” Mother told that story many times.
I collected different species of live snails, some quite unusual, and kept them in coffee cans with lettuce to eat. I checked out books about snails from the local library.
While we were at the Plaza Hotel, one evening I found my mother lying on her bed crying. She had decided she could no longer be married to my father, and she was about to take the first steps toward a divorce, though I didn’t learn of this until a bit later. She did try for a reconciliation, but my father said it wouldn’t work. Dad sent her Christmas gifts of a shawl and earrings that she said were not attractive and which she would never wear. Later, in the apartment one evening, I saw her on the terrace balcony with tears coming down her face. Her lips were moving. Deeply religious, she was praying. This was heartbreaking for all of us, but my parents had fought for years. Our temporary separation in Beirut made it a little easier, but I think it still changed us all. I’d had good times with Dad, but for a long time I was angry at him. My mother later said she felt she hadn’t cared about him deeply enough, this tall and handsome, Princeton-educated, scholarly man. And years later, only weeks before he died, my father exclaimed to his wife of the time, “I wish I’d been kinder to Frances!” I respect them both for saying these things.
Finally, after some months in Beirut, my brother joined our father in accordance with an agreement my parents had worked out (I stayed with Mother), and when Dad’s time in Syria was over they returned to Tallahassee together via ports in Europe. By then my brother had outgrown his asthmatic reaction to the climate. We corresponded, and I think I still have his postcards.
My mother and I joined Mildred, following her reassignment to Bangkok, Thailand, after we’d been in Beirut eight or nine months. Mildred had left us perhaps a couple of months earlier. I wrote her letters from Beirut, and in one I described how the tide came up on the beach, and how the waves never seemed exactly the same from day to day. One day they crashed onto the shore dramatically; the next they might come in caressingly, peacefully, covering the sand in an endless multitude of bubbles like an enormous shawl of richly textured lace and ruffles.
In the same way that she had assertively told Dad that we weren’t going back to Tallahassee, Frances Elizabeth Palmer Yost telegrammed Mildred saying we were coming and bringing the delightful little convertible she’d left with us; Mildred had named the car Lapsy, for “collapsible,” because of its collapsible roof, which was a novelty at the time. Mother’s telegram read: “Carol, Lapsy, I coming arrive 1st [of the coming month].” Surprised, but undoubtedly pleased, Mildred rushed out and got a lovely little two-story teak house for us to live in.
Shortly after our arrival in Bangkok, I saw on TV a report of violence in Beirut. That was the start of a terrible and tragic strife that tore Lebanon apart for years, and the Beirut that will always live in my memory is no more, though it is being rebuilt at last.
After seven or eight months in Bangkok, when Mildred went back to the U. S. on vacation, my mother decided it was time for us to go home. We returned to Albuquerque. I’d been overseas for about two and a half years. It seems so far away in time now, almost like a dream, but I was there, it was real. Yes, it happened. I’m grateful for all of it, even when it was difficult. I am very fortunate indeed.