This post is intended to be part of Soap Opera Sunday, Brillig and Kate's ongoing series celebrating the melodrama in ordinary lives. I'm not sure whether anyone else is playing this week, but that's okay. I'm used to dancing with myself. Names in the following story have been changed; I don't need operatives from a Middle Eastern nation-state hunting me down. But all the other details are absolutely true.I met Dara in choir our junior year of high school in the early spring of 1982. Sitting next to each other in the alto section, we must have been a study in contrasts: me, busty with extremely short, bleached hair and wearing concert T-shirts and torn Levi's; her, tall, slim, and unfailingly elegant in the latest European fashions. All the girls in choir wanted to be Dara's friend, but English was her distant third language after Arabic and French, and this proved to be quite a barrier when she first arrived.
I had an edge; I'd studied French since third grade, and while far from fluent, didn't mind hacking that beautiful language to bits in the struggle to understand and be understood. It turned out that my year-long course of study and competition in Debate ("Oil Conflicts and Solutions in the Arabian Peninsula") also served me well; no other girl I knew could name all of the United Arab Emirates, for example.
Dara was from Beirut; she had come to California to live with her older brother and her sister-in-law when the Lebanese Civil War escalated in early 1982. She was justifiably heartbroken and terrified about what was going on in her country, and the fact that I could actually find Lebanon on a map made her feel like someone in America sympathized.
The first time I slept over at her house, I asked her what her father did; she replied that he was a minister. I remember thinking, "No wonder she's so strict about her prayers--her father is an imam." I nodded and smiled politely, and we moved onto other topics.
But not many days afterward, when we were in Taco Bell (of all places), a middle-aged woman saw Dara and immediately fell down at her feet, hugging her ankles and moaning. It was the only time I ever saw Dara flustered. She bent down and hissed Arabic into the woman's ear; the woman immediately jumped to her feet and, bowing repeatedly, backed out of the restaurant and fled.
Dara recovered her composure, but once we got back to her house, I asked her what had just happened. She sighed, pulled a big box out of her closet, and gestured for me to open it. Inside were piles of different Arabic magazines with Dara on the covers. "You're a model? That's so cool!" I exclaimed in French. She shook her head, sighed again, and started to explain.
Though Dara was hesitant at first, the details soon came rushing out; I think she was relieved to share her many secrets with someone. It turned out her father wasn't a minister; he was a Minister with a capital 'M,' a member of the Lebanese Presidential Cabinet. Dara's family was an ancient and royal one; she wrote out her very long and exalted title for me in Arabic and in English on a piece of binder paper (I still have it); it included phrases like 'Serene Grace' and 'Princess of Mekka,' and even the ball-point ink on the college-lined surface looked regal.
She had been engaged since birth to the Crown Prince of one of those little countries I'd studied; once she turned 18 and graduated from high school the next year, preparations for their royal wedding would begin. And the final bomb she dropped that afternoon? Her best friend Stephanie, with whom she had had several long and involved telephone conversations in lightning-fast French in my presence, was none other than Princess Stéphanie of Monaco.
I'd been hanging out with a real princess. The Hans Christian Andersen, Grimm, Perrault, and Andrew Lang I'd been reading all my life were scant preparation for this; I was stunned. Dara made me swear not to treat her any differently and not to tell anyone at school. She was enjoying a relatively normal life--minimal and unobtrusive bodyguards, no paparazzi--and she planned to savor it for the next year or so. I agreed, and life went on.
Dara's English improved rapidly as the end of the school year approached. She started spending time with Melanie, another girl from choir. In May, Dara's parents moved to our town (and just in time, too; in June, Israel invaded Lebanon and laid siege to Beirut). Dara's brother had bought and furnished a house for them in preparation for their arrival, and it happened to be next door to Melanie's in an exclusive subdivision on the other side of town from my house.
I didn't mind Melanie, but she actively disliked me, so the three of us didn't do much together that summer. This was fine; I had my weekly Dungeons & Dragons group and a boyfriend whose parents had cable, making near-24-hour worship of the newly minted MTV possible. It never occurred to me that Melanie might try to sabotage me when I was otherwise engaged.
Staying over at Dara's was always a treat. A beautiful swimming pool surrounded by lush flowering shrubs graced the back yard. Gorgeous Persian rugs and paintings covered nearly every surface of the interior. The exotic foods her mother prepared were delicious: flatbread with labneh; shish taouk; and my favorite, lahmadjoun, a pizza-like disk of dough spread with minced, spiced lamb, tomatoes, and onions.
The cold water that came out of their refrigerator dispenser was somehow scented/flavored with roses. And Dara's bed was a marvel: the king-sized waterbed (remember, it was 1982) had a featherbed between the mattress and the Egyptian cotton sheets and was topped with a lofty, silk-covered down comforter. It was the most insanely luxurious thing I'd ever encountered.
Then there was her car. Dara would have preferred something sportier, but her brother maintained that a big American sedan was much safer for her to drive. Consequently, the vehicle in which we cruised around town, blasting cassettes of Dara's beloved Bernard Sauvat, was a huge, swanky boat of a Cadillac.
Even with all these perqs, I loved Dara for herself. I couldn't get enough of her stories of a life so wholly other. She was kind, funny, and interested in more than what went on in the confines of our small Central Valley town. I enjoyed her company, and I think she valued mine. I always listened when she lamented over the latest bombing of her home city. I tried to comfort her when she confessed her worries about the eventuality of marrying someone so much older than she was. She cried in my arms that horrible week in September, when Princess Grace died and Bachir Gemayel was assassinated on the same day.
All this bonding made what happened in November that much less comprehensible to me....
To be continued next week, in fine SOS tradition!