Salah became famous in his ability as a child to improvise a proper Arabic speech before even learning how to read and write the language! He never shied away, when asked, from giving an ad hoc speech at any occasion.
I remember a funny occurrence of our childhood, when along with my brother and our nanny, who considerably contributed to our upbringing, were to spend a day at her family’s house in their village. We rode the bus, got there, walked a fair distance on a dirt road and continued on narrow trails between vegetables fields and trees. When we arrived, we sat on handcrafted wooden benches covered with multi colored fabrics worn by the times. We were on the house patio. The pergola that covered it was made of tree trunks . An old vine full of green leaves had managed its way between the branches and was densely filled with grape clusters.
Our nanny asked her niece Looloo who was four years old at the time: Which one of the two boys you would want to marry when you grow-up? Bachir or Salah? Looloo answered without any hesitation: Salah! So she asked her again: Why wouldn’t you marry Bachir? She answered in a childish accent where some of the letters were chewed: Bachir was burned by the Sun! She was referring to my rather darker skin complexions.
Salah continued going to school studying his required lessons and always maintained a lead in his Arabic language class where he was way ahead of all his classmates; he was not only interested in learning Arabic’s letters and to read the words, he wanted to write the words and sentences that were in his mind! He paid little attention to grammatical and linguistic rules! He did not find the need to learn about something he was already good at without studying?
My brother and I quarrelled a lot when we were young. I was hot tempered, like any other boy my age, while he had peaceful manners! When the disagreements intensified, we took the matters to our parents! However, he would always win with the help of his argument style.
When he reached the age of six, a sharp dispute arose between my father, who was the youngest among his brothers, and my uncle Chaheen, who was the eldest! The reason was that my father was counting on the support of his brother Chaheen, when he got the acceptance to join a great political list of candidates running for Parliament seats. When he found out that his brother did not support him he withdrew his candidacy! That resulted in a big dispute between the brothers. During that dispute, my uncle sent letters to my father explaining his position and my father answered each one of them in his distinguished literary style to the dismay of uncle Chaheen! He used to read the letters to us with his well-known voice and special speech skills, while Salah listened carefully to every word!
As soon as he started to read easily, he discovered a great love for reading books, especially Arabic ones. While I was spending money on food, drinks and clothes, Salah was spending all of his money on buying books! We lived in downtown Beirut on a parallel street to the book store street near the Lazarieh building. The owner of the Arts Book store was a friend of my father, and Salah visited the place several times a week to check if he had received any new book worth reading! As soon as he bought a book, he devoured its pages at lightning speed and would finish reading it in a few hours
He would sometimes read me his favorite passages. I still remember the excerpts he read to me from “Al-Sitt Aminah” by Naguib Mahfouz: She did not know the color of her husband’s eyes even after tens of marriage years; she never dared raise her eyes to his face while in his presence, out of fear and respect.
When Salah turned twelve, he started suffering from seasonal coughs that would start early in the month of October and persist throughout the winter and spring to end only at the beginning of summer! Doctors considered that he suffered from allergy and prescribed to him various types of medications some were cortisone based but none of them worked!
Therefore, out of fear of disturbing the rest of the students with his coughs, he was not able to attend class. My parents then decided that he would leave the city and live in our farmhouse located at the outskirts of Wadi al-Zeina village, hoping that fresh air would suit him and help alleviate his symptoms.
In addition to self-studying from home, he surrounded himself with many books of different topics. He also took on some farm activities, such as vaccinating chickens, caring for sick cows and dealing with veterinarians! Since cows can’t inform us of what is hurting them, it is important to interpret their symptoms. It was difficult back in the days to find a good and efficient veterinarian! Salah discovered that some of those who pretended to be Veterinarians never went to a college, some did not even know how to read and write. As such, they referred to the drugs by their colors: the yellow, the green or the blue medicine. He also used to receive daily visits from our retired relatives whom he befriended. The youngest one was 70 years old! They used to get seated in the garden, play backgammon. He was behaving with them as if they were his peers. They discussed all kind of topics! He had the amazing ability of levelling the conversation with each person based on his intellect and area of interest or expertise. The age difference was clearly evident to any outsider but for Salah and his visitors, it wasn’t even noticed.
As the years went by, Salah continued his home self- education at the farmhouse and with the time passing unfortunately our elderly relative’s health was deteriorating. After practicing giving injections to cows and chicken, he started giving the prescribed medical injections to our elderly relatives due to the scarcity of nurses in our rural area.
Salah took a genuine interest in the wellbeing of the elderly and that continued throughout the years!
After our family permanently moved to the farmhouse, my parents got Salah a small car which he used to transport those who needed to go to hospitals or visit doctors. He made sure, whenever possible, to be next to those close to him until the last moments of their lives!
But about Salah’s relationships with children it will be the subject of another article!