“Let’s meet at Martha’s — we’ll have some kibbee.”
To eat kibbee, a baked ground-lamb dish made with cracked wheat and pine nuts, to break bread together — real Arabic bread — Maurice and I first had to meet.
Maurice Kouguell and I journeyed to Exeter on totally different paths, both forced into exile through war and conflict, both finding hospitality along New Hampshire’s Seacoast, brought together by inspired Lebanese cooking at Martha’s Restaurant in Hampton.
Maurice’s journey was the much more traumatic and difficult. He was raised in Lebanon and educated at the American University of Beirut where Arkadie, his father, had established AUB’s first orchestra and Department of Music. Maurice was forced to flee the Levant in the late 1940s because he was Jewish, and because Lebanon was not a comfortable place for a Jew to be after World War II, when the modern state of Israel was being created and the surrounding Arab states were in turmoil, struggling to cope with new political realities and their newly-won independence from colonial powers.
The future was uncertain.
Hospitality. Radical Hospitality.
Maurice came to Exeter in 2002 via Alexandria (Egypt), Marseille, Paris and New York state. In Exeter, with his artist-wife Kathi and daughter Susan, he established a new home. Weekdays he was psychologist, counselor, and healer. On Sunday afternoons he, a virtuoso violist, calmed the souls of his friends by hosting chamber music in his apartment overlooking the Squamscott.
My path from Beirut to Exeter, and to Maurice, was different — and much less traumatic. I had made a home in Beirut and dreamt I would spend the rest of my professional, if not my whole life, there. Lebanon’s 15-year-long murderous Civil War turned that dream into an unsustainable nightmare.
As recounted to me, Maurice was swimming one day in a local pool and asked someone if they knew where he could get some Arabic food. His companion didn’t know but suggested that Maurice call me — and gave him my number.
“Marhaba,” an unknown voice greeted me in Arabic: Welcome.
Immediately I was welcomed into his journey and home, and together we shared memories of our pasts, our longings — he spoke of visiting Lebanon again, I said I would go with him — and our commonalities. Together with his family we ate food flavored with cumin, za’atar, sumac, allspice and olive oil — and longed for peace and coexistence. Sadly, Maurice, surrounded by his loving family, died in 2008 after a long illness.
Maurice has been on my mind a lot: recently, when walking along the Squamscott River to reach the Powder House, I passed the mills. From an unexpected place I heard some amazingly brilliant piano music — emanating, it turned out, from Jon Sakata’s apartment, where he and his wife Jung Mi Lee, music teacher friends who recently moved to Exeter from Boston, lived.
Jon’s music immediately reminded me of Maurice and Kathi who, a couple of buildings away and a few years past, welcomed me into their lives — where on Sunday afternoons, as sunlight streamed through their windows, music would fill the air and spill out along the river.
And so I thought of Maurice, and hospitality, of how tent flaps remain open to welcome unexpected visitors.
Hospitality. Radical Hospitality.
And I remembered the story a woman told me about a local church that hosted a funeral service for a parishioner — a woman who had grown up in the church and whose last wishes her family was honoring.
She had been married to a Jewish man, and her children had been raised Jewish. After the traditional Christian church service had ended several hundred celebrants gathered in the parish hall to honor the life that had passed. Most of the guests were Jewish, the food was Kosher and all attempts were successfully made to honor the two faith traditions within which the woman had lived.
During the reception, she said, she noticed that two men had stepped outside the group and, standing next to each other, were moving up and down in unison, heads bowed low.
When they came back to the group she approached them and asked them what prayers they had been reciting because their movements were unfamiliar to her as part of the Jewish tradition — and unknown to her as Christian.
They answered they were Muslim, friends of the family, and that they had just completed their afternoon prayers.
New England seacoast, Christian service, Jewish families, Muslim guests.
One late afternoon on an unseasonably warm fall day, as a I sat on a park bench along Exeter’s Swasey Parkway eating what was probably one of my last black raspberry yogurt with chocolate jimmies on a plain cone ice creams of 2013, I watched and photographed a pearly moon rise above the Mills. To the right I could see Maurice’s apartment where Kathi and Maurice had opened their hearts and hearth to me; to the left, closest to the Powder Mill, was where I had heard Jon’s piano.
Today, I’d like to think that Maurice’s music, and the music that follows, flowed into the river and across the Atlantic, through the Straits of Gibraltar and ended up across the Mediterranean, gently lapping along AUB’s private, sandy beach, just below Beirut’s Corniche.
I’d like to think that’s how Maurice got to visit Beirut again.
I’ve been remiss in honoring Maurice and his family. These days, as I struggle with hospitality, identity, art and memory, it seems Maurice is reminding me of the things I have neglected to do, and to honor the so many still left undone tasks that must be confronted.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.