Hoover Daily Report

Pilgrims in Beirut, Pumpkin Pie in Manhattan

via Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My first encounter with Thanksgiving was textual, at an American preparatory school that I attended for a couple of years in Beirut. It had not been easy for me to partake of the world of the offspring of urban, Westernized elites. But I had taken to the school an awe for all things American.

From our teachers—and they were the bearers of a missionary outlook, committed to the transmission of a modern education of inquiry and curiosity—we learned about great American men and women and of the founding. We learned of the Pilgrims, the hardship of their winter in 1621, then the Indians extending the settlers a welcome, the feast they shared, the bounty of the land, the giving of thanks for all that.

The Pilgrims and the Indians breaking bread—this was not entirely convincing. It warred with a more powerful American force than that of our teachers: a steady diet of Audie Murphy and Randolph Scott and John Wayne and Gary Cooper. In those Westerns (and we were all addicted to them) the cowboys and the Indians were bitter enemies. It wouldn't be easy to give credence to the tale of the Pilgrims and the Indians; the Apache and Comanche wars were what stuck.

A few years later, I would make my way to America. It was in the early 1960s, I was young, a loner, and had no interest in common meals and no family of my own. I had heard that Thanksgiving meals were always preceded by a prayer, and I had no interest in prayers of any kind. I had my share of Thanksgiving invitations, and I sidestepped them.

The fondness of Thanksgiving, the meaning and the appreciation of the ritual, came slowly. It came with my assimilation into American life, with my marriage, and with the family I would come to acquire. I was not fond of turkey, though I made peace with the stuffing. The gravy, for a man of the Mediterranean, was irredeemable. Pumpkin pie and the cranberry sauce were more to my liking.

But the source of the holiday's appeal was that it made no religious demands, for I had been stripped of all religious devotion. I could not make any connection to Christmas—the commercialism, the music, the carols, were all alien to me. Nor could I partake of the passion for two big gateways into American life: football and baseball. I had grown up on soccer, and the frenzy for these two American attachments left me on the outside, bewildered. It was ultimately two celebrations of great simplicity that appealed to me: Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. They are both, to the core, celebrations of Americanism, great assimilative affirmations.

Americans have always celebrated Thanksgiving, even in the oddest of places—in foxholes in the bleak mountains in the Korean Peninsula, in Vietnam, in the Arabian desert, and in Baghdad. In the bleak winter of 1950, in Korea, a Thanksgiving dinner for the troops had it all: turkey, the trimmings, giblet gravy and cranberry sauce. "The gravy froze first, then the mashed potatoes," one veteran recalled years later in a Marine journal. "The turkey was a little warm in the middle, if you ate real fast."

Four decades later, George Herbert Walker Bush, in anticipation of a war with Saddam Hussein, would get into the "chow line" and have his Thanksgiving dinner with American troops in the desert "at long tables under a camouflage net," as he and Brent Scowcroft tell it in "A World Transformed." His son would make a more dramatic trip in Thanksgiving 2003. He would journey in secrecy from Texas to Baghdad, surprise American troops, and share a meal with them—a trip he describes as "the most thrilling" of his presidency in his new memoir, "Decision Points."

Nowadays, Thanksgiving has woven into it all the changes that have settled upon our country: the high rates of divorce, the separations. Families are torn, and some children are given two Thanksgiving dinners as they shuttle between paternal and maternal families.

For families that have come apart, Thanksgiving is doubtless a melancholic reminder of what has been lost. Still, Americans brave distance and traffic and airport security procedures to make their way to their families. A big, continental country is made smaller on the last Thursday of each November.

And for a good segment of Americans, though decidedly not the majority, Thanksgiving has to make an accommodation with America's wars abroad. In our family, and not for the first year, this Thanksgiving will be marked by the absence of two young men, my twin nephews. Captains in the U.S. Army, one is in Iraq on a second tour of duty, and one is in Afghanistan after a deployment in Iraq. They shall be missed and remembered.

Amid these wars and economic anxiety at home, our country has a lot to be thankful for—and a lot to ponder and worry about at the same time.

Mr. Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, is the author of "The Foreigner's Gift" (Free Press, 2007).