Thursday, June 30, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

Civility and the size of calves


 Congressman Steve King’s recent comments are confounding. You know, his statement about the “dreamers” having “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” It is so strange that you begin wondering if there is a play within the play. Without a doubt, to believe that bad people are identifiable by their calf size would certainly keep our streets safe from all those exercise fanatics in Des Moines. But really? Are we missing the end game in all this chicanery? Is King a pawn being used as a feint, or is he just a reflection of the lack of civility in all of us? Got me. But does poor behavior have to be the last word?

Let me tell you a story.

joes1Marwan Gazali is from Hollywood. He is an actor — a fairly successful actor. Stints on popular TV shows and roles in movies make up his resume. He has an agent. He has a manager. And he’s on a roll. People want him. You can see why from this headshot from the movie “Excelsior.” (And, by the way, when was the last photo taken of you in armor?)

Gazali comes from a large family out of Lebanon. Beirut, to be exact. His dad, now deceased for three years, was a cop. His mom’s job was to feed and manage their eight children. Gazali had a different dream than his parents. He wanted to act.

“Acting? I want to do it not for fame, not for name, not for money… It’s my passion,” he says.

Gazali speaks with intensity. Not surprising. He began acting by age 6 when he starred in a kid’s program in Beirut. During this same time, there was a civil war in Lebanon. He and his childhood buddies, instead of collecting Pokemon cards, collected ammunition found on the streets of Beirut.

“The shells just got bigger as time went on,” Gazali says somberly.

At 18, he applied to be an airline steward for Emirates Airline. There was a small catch, however, as he’d never flown on an airplane. When asked in the interview whether he would be frightened to fly, he responded: “Look around you. I’m from Beirut. I was born here. What worse is going to happen on an airplane?” And so he became a steward.

Eventually, Gazali ended up in Hollywood. He hustled, he did any kind of work, he lived in dumps and he sacrificed. After roles in some short films, he was eventually noticed. Success at last. He became a full-fledged actor. A dream accomplished.

See, a nice story with a nice ending.

joes2I wind my way into the depths of the suburbs on a dry and hot August day. The sun-burnt grass and singing cicadas dominate the senses. I knock on a flower-decorated door and am ushered into the shadows of the interior. There is much gesturing and retreating by an older woman named Toufica as she maneuvers me onto a back porch. No English is spoken. I am gently deposited in a chair after both my cheeks are patted and kissed.

Gazali appears. He is in Des Moines for the summer. After his father’s death in Beirut, his mother and a sister came to Des Moines. Why? Because his family was here to care for them. Brother Jay, amongst other jobs, runs Gazali’s, a wonderful restaurant in the Drake neighborhood. And brother Mario (along with his singing Irish wife) runs Open Sesame, the wonderful restaurant in the East Village. They take care of their mom and sister with the help of other family members. It’s complicated. Ju Ju, the sister, needs special attention and recently broke a bone in her knee. The family responsibilities are heavy and just got heavier. So Gazali came home to help.

joes3Toufica, Gazali’s mom, comes and goes from the back porch. Each time with food. Each time apologizing in broken English for the intrusion. Fruit and yoghurt. Cherries. A special tea. More kisses for me. More gentle pats on my cheeks. Ju Ju appears. Her involuntary verbal interruptions are met with hugs and reassurances from her brother. She sits as close as possible to Gazali. This part is not complicated. And the fact that Gazali is frequently cast in Hollywood as a Jesus figure blurs my perception.

My visit is over. I prepare to leave. Apparently, this is not the end. Toufica slips me a small gift, food is bagged and placed in my other hand, and I am told to fetch my wife for lunch with Jay at his restaurant. Are you kidding? I’ve worked for the government for 31 years. We don’t do gifts. Toufica smiles with a look that does not concede any ground. Lunch it is.

What can I say about all this? Immigrants. From Beirut. Right here in Des Moines. Unfortunately, I was so amazed by their kindness, their hospitality, their caring for each other, and their love, I totally forgot to check the size of their calves.                 

I’d better go back for another visit. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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