Friday, December 3, 2010

Walking the walk

Once upon a time in the summer of 1982 I discovered a straight path from Baghdad Station all the way to where Villat and Sleymaneih streets meet in a delta kind of way in Aleppo city. I started my very first job at the age of 8. I remember going to that car repair shop every morning with my tiny little steps that seemed to take forever. It was a hot summer and the Villat building entrances were my refuge from the blazing sun for 10 seconds with the shade and humidity they provided. The walk to and from work didn't take a full summer. I think I might have gotten fired because I was petting the cat they had a little more than paying attention to how a car was being repaired. Well, I didn't have to worry about it because I didn't have a social security number back then and it certainly didn't go on my record. (Did I mention that they didn't pay me unemployment too?) And that's how and when my story with walking started.

The following summer my walk took a different direction. I walked to Mnshiyeh through Azizieh to learn how to make outdoors business signs. I walked to the shop twice every day since all shops in Aleppo close for a lunch break for 2 to 3 hours. The walk was not too bad, I took shelter from the sun in the shades of the crowded tall buildings. However, instead of employing the early signs of sketching talent I showed within the sign business, I learned how to make coffee and mop the floors. When I finally gave up on the fairy to appear and change my fate like Cinderella, I stood up for myself and told dad that I didn't want to step a foot in that workshop again. Well, school had started by then, so dad didn't have much of a choice left.

Then the summer after, we extended the walk a bit longer. Dad insisted on making a man of me, so he had a plan; no lazy summers for Tony, no swimming pools, no hanging out or waking up at noon. I complained at the beginning of every summer. Never learned my lesson; complaints are heard only by God. So the next walk was to Baron street. Well I thought I'd be working at the Baron hotel and get to understand what Agatha Christie wrote about in there, but to my disappointment, it was at a car spare parts shop, that was a 25 minute walk from our apartment.

Enough about car and car businesses, this is about walking. And the fact that we never owned a car since dad moved us from Venezuela to Syria in 1974, made me wonder why he wanted me to work and learn about cars. The summer after, cars were off topic, I got employed at a make-up store that belonged to the girlfriend of my cousin (look at that random pattern). The walk was 25 minutes and yet again it was 4 times a day. I spent close to 2 hours on the road walking to Jabriyeh six days a week wondering as an 11 year old boy, where the world ended. I didn't believe that the globe was round, I thought there would be walls at one point. And as much as curiosity kills the cat, my walks left me with no more curiosity. Aleppo introduced itself to me every summer, with a farther, longer and stranger walk

After two more summers of working here and there, dad found me a career path for my high school summers (buy one get three, whether you like it or not). That career path was called "Hanin" which means "Nostalgia". I wasn't sure what the relationship was between the underwear produced under that brand name and the name itself. I could only imagine what kind of nostalgia certain people would feel when they wear their underwear (or someone Else's in that case). Anyway, Hanin took the country by storm. Within a few years it became # 1 selling underwear in Syria, thanks to my contribution of course. The first two summers, I had to walk 35 to 40 minutes to get to an area that seemed foreign to me at the time, it was called Souk Alhal. But I didn't mind since I worked one shift from 8:30 to 4:30. However when I finished my baccalaureate year, Dad and the owner who happened to be our neighbor, broke the news to me; I had the privilege to work in a basement in Suleimaneyeh and learn from the smartest, shrewdest, most talented engineer/business man/corporate president in the world (well, that was my dad's opinion of him, not mine). That time though, from 8AM to 8PM. I had 45 minute lunch breaks which I spent 30 minutes of, walking back and forth to my place to eat lunch with my family in 15 minutes. After 4 months I manned up and made my voice heard. I didn't want to work there anymore.

NOOOOOO Problem, the plastic factory was waiting for me. The factory was in Alaarkoob; an industrial area on the way to the airport that I had never heard of before I turned 17. Oh boy that was something I had nightmares about long after I quit. The walk again was 40 minutes, but one shift; 6 AM to 3 PM. I hated waking up before daylight and walking to work on those freezing depressing winter mornings. But what I hated more was, seeing how the workers were getting hit by the owner; fully grown men quitting one after the other till I became the exclusive worker, employee, slave, you name it, at that factory. I thought to myself that it was a matter of time before I get slapped on the face or pushed against a wall. Funny enough, I was referred to work there by a priest.

After six months, and out of fear and desperation, I planned my next plot. A plot that turned out to be one of the best moves I have ever made in my life. I secretly got an interview for a job at an industrial consulting company (AKA INCOCO) in the seven lakes area; a downtown where most of the government offices operate from. I got the job and I had the burden of breaking the news to the plastic factory surgeon, I mean owner. I remember standing at a distance from him trying to give him the keys and trying to avoid his anger and violence. He snatched the keys and said those words that I don't think I'll ever forget "Go wherever the hell you want to go, you think work would not go on without you?" I looked around and thought to myself "Ummm, no, I am your last employee dude, unless those machines know how to operate themselves, you got no work". But I remember how the length of that 40 minute walk turned into a 10 minute run. I was flying with so much joy. I, for the very first time, had chosen the walk myself. And it was a great choice that lasted 7 years. Had I not immigrated to the US, I could very much still be walking and working there today.

Tarek Oubari, my boss, changed my life. He believed in me more than I believed in myself. He trusted me with more than I thought I could handle. I walked happily every morning for 20 minutes to go to work at a company that got so much potential. Within couple of years I was in charge of a tiny little spare part department at age 20. Then I was sent as a translator for training courses that were held in English in Germany and Italy. Mr. Ouabri was so generous with me and allowed me to take time off every year till I finished my BA degree in Literature. I walked to INCOCO knowing that it was the right walk for me, my feet were not walking me to work, it was my heart. I learned so much and I made friends that, 18 years later, are still my good friends despite of the distance between us. Mr. Oubari helped me shape my life through what he saw in me. I don't think I would have the confidence to walk ahead to the unknown without his contribution in my life.

I came to Los Angeles in 2000. And no I didn't walk to LA, but I still walk in LA; a city that is not exactly meant for walking (well, that's a blog by itself)

One thing I know is that my achievements are pretty ordinary and that I'm not the first man who sought the destination of his walks far away from home, and I'm certainly not the last. Still, I'm bewildered by every step I took, every mile I walked, every new area I wandered through, every kind of work I had to work and every personality I worked for. I'm also amazed by the people I met, the places I visited, the knowledge I acquired, the music I heard, the food I ate and the cultures I got accustomed to. Sometimes I look back and feel that I spent half of my life walking, then I look at the future and smile, because as I breathe in, I feel that I want to spend the rest of my life walking, discovering what's beyond the tall walls by the end of the earth. I stumbled and fell so many times, but I got up and walked on, I'm not tired, they were all stepping stones. Today I'm walking with bigger steps than the 8 year old boy who was hiding from the scorching sun, yet with the same curiosity and passion for life and knowledge in his heart. I pray that I'll be able to enjoy all kinds of walks of life for the rest of my life. And I'm still walking ...