“Hunger, so you cook, so you can eat.”
An Oral History
My father is a man of many words. Whether he’s telling a joke, sharing bits of wisdom, or simply stating his love for our family, he has a way with words that is truly moving for anyone willing to listen. When I started this project, I knew that he would be the best choice to interview for the oral history. Our relationship is one of a kind, and I always have been and always will be “daddy’s little girl.”
It wasn’t until I began to make a list of questions that I realized how little I knew about his life growing up. Although I am extremely close with his side of the family, and the annual Lebanese conventions have created even more ties, we have never really talked about his experiences in a full Lebanese household as a kid, or how his personal experiences have made him into the man he is today. And with that, I decided on the focus for the interview. I had the facts. I knew a few stories. But I didn’t have a personal account into the meaning and impact that the Lebanese heritage had on our family. Once I had decided on the direction for my oral history, the questions began to fly out of me, almost as if they had been patiently waiting at the surface to be answered.
Sunday morning, as I sat on the front porch of my house with a steaming cup of coffee in hand, I called my dad, asking what would be a good time for us to do the interview. He said, “Well, there’s no time like the present!” And that was that. I went inside, grabbed my laptop, sat back down on the front porch rocking chair, and set up the recording software. We ended up talking for about fifteen minutes before actually starting the interview, and just as I was about to hit the record button, my dad asked how detailed and thorough he needed to be. I told him that if he didn’t give me nice, long answers, then he could forget about me coming home for Easter. Kidding. Sort of. And then I settled into my chair, rocking back and forth, ready to dig even deeper into my fascinating, Lebanese family story.
Lauren Gawey (L): Dad, hello? Alright we are being recorded.
Brad Gawey (B): Okay! Recorded by who?
L: An app, so I hope this works.
B: Yeah me too, because if not, you’re gonna have to remember everything I say.
L: Alright, here goes nothing. So, how is OKC? Was the mid-winter Lebanese convention a big hit?
B: It was huge, they say supposedly — they were talking in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at our cousins wedding, Melissa Rolfsen’s wedding — that it was the best mid-winter convention ever.
L: Wow, does that make you feel proud since you’re the big president?
B: Well, I’m just the president of our local club, there were two guys who actually did most of the work with the convention. I was just one of the guys that helped out. But they did the majority, I can’t take credit for that.
L: Okay, let’s bring it back. What was it like growing up?
B: What do you mean? Like in general?
L: Haha okay, what was it like growing up in a Lebanese household? Was it any different than normal?
B: Yeah, I think growing up in a Lebanese household was a lot different. The main difference is that its all centered around the family. The family is a very important deal, like not only your immediate family, but your relatives; you’re always visiting people. Also, anytime you grow up in a Lebanese family, a lot of the family life is centered around the meals. You know, the big prepared meals, whether its, you know, the Sunday meals or whatever. But anyway, when family gets together, cousins, there’s always a huge thing of food. It seems like with Lebanese families, everyone is tight and close, but it all centers around the food and the traditions. And I think that’s what makes it different.
L: What were Tata and Jiddi like as parents?
B: Well Jiddi worked hard — he was a dentist — he worked very hard everyday. He’d come home at night very tired. If you crossed him, you didn’t cross him very often, because he didn’t find it very amusing. I mean, it was hard to get him upset, but when he did get upset, it was not a pretty sight. Tata stayed at home, your typical stay at home mom. With all those kids, five kids, everyday when we got home from school, she would have dinner prepared and she would clean the house and did all the stuff. Typical stay at home wife that would fix food for all of us. Between dad, four boys, and Cathy, a lot of food was consumed in that house and that was her deal to organize all that.
L: Does your family have any special sayings or expressions that y’all used to say? Like how mom’s grandma always says “Foo da public!”
B: Haha! Special sayings…. No none that I can really think of.
L: How did y’all celebrate holidays growing up and which ones do you think were the most important? Any special traditions that came with them?
B: Well other than the Lebanese conventions that we went to as children, the holidays were pretty much the same. You know, the holidays are very important in the family, I mean, everything was a big event. Christmas, Easter, all the religious holidays, being Lebanese and Catholic, we celebrated all the holidays. The Lebanese stuff was mainly celebrated by getting together with the family at the holidays; the cousins and everybody would get together, but the main celebrations with the dancing and the dabking would all happen at the conventions every year.
L: Sounds like us now. Anyway, who cooked when you were a boy? Tata or Jiddi?
B: Well, interestingly, Tata cooked most of the meals during the week. I mean every night there would be dinner on the table. Back then, you never ate out really. Every now and then you’d get pizza or something for your birthday, but every meal was eaten in the house. She would prepare those. But on the weekends, dad would do (kinda like I do) hasty bake chickens, shish kabobs, he would do all kinds of food on the grill. He cooked a lot. A lot of Lebanese men cook.
L: Did they ever let you cook with them?
B: I kinda helped dad grill a little bit, and sometimes I would watch mom cook. I had some interest in it, but most of the time I wasn’t really participating, I was just eating.
L: Do you know whose parents they got the recipes from?
B: I think most of the recipes came from my mom’s mom. There may have been a few recipes that came from my dad’s mom, but a lot of them were mom’s mom. Dad cooked though. He would do a lot of Lebanese dishes, kibbeh nayyeh, m’judrah, which is the lentils, and those were probably recipes that came from his side of the family. So I think it was a combination of both, actually, since they both came from Lebanese families.
L: How often was Lebanese family over at your house? And do you think you were closer to Jiddi or Tata’s family?
B: Well, we were really close to both. Jiddi’s family was all from Oklahoma, which is where we grew up, but mom’s family was much bigger and they were all in Louisiana. We were really close with all of them, we travelled there at least twice a year and saw everybody. Mom grew up with 10 brothers and sisters, so there was a lot of kids from them. Dad had 3 sisters and a brother, but they were all in Oklahoma, so we got to see a lot more of them. But mom’s side of the family had a lot more younger kids that were our age, so we got to be a lot closer to all of them.
L: What did you learn about the Lebanese culture when you were younger? Did they teach you different traditions and stuff, or was it more just the food?
B: I think you would learn the traditions more when we went to Lebanese conventions. It’s where we’d learn the dances, the dabke. At home, in our day to day lives, it was more Lebanese food that was the culture we learned there. Because we were Catholic, which wasn’t specific for Lebanese people, but that’s just what we were, so that wasn’t really a Lebanese convention, but more just the food at home and then the other traditions at the conventions.
L: Alright, so what stories have your parents or aunts and uncles told you about your grandparents or other distant ancestors? Any stories that specifically stick out?
B: Oh, I would have to think about that, because if they did say anything it’s been a looong time since that all was talked about. I think it was more dad’s side of the family that would talk about how when they came over from Lebanon, they had a grocery and a wholesale liquor company. But when dad’s dad got ill, he went back to Lebanon and took the family with him for two or three years, and when they came back the business was gone with the partner he started the business with. He had taken the business so that was a pretty interesting story. And then on my mom’s side, you know like most of the Lebs, my mom’s dad ran a little store. I remember as kids, we used to love to go to his store, because he had gum and candy and he would just give it to us. That was always kinda neat. It was a little bitty store, not much. I have no idea how they survived and how they supported everybody.
L: So, I think you’d find it interesting that whenever I read this memoir about a young Syrian man travelling from Lebanon to Drumright, Oklahoma, where Jiddi’s dad and his family initially lived, they talked about all the dry goods and convenience stores being owned by Syrian-Lebanese owners. Makes me wonder if one of those was Sam’s store?
B: Oh yeah, absolutely. Because he was one of the original guys to show up in Drumright. Had a family there.
L: What did you want to be when you were a kid? Were you always on the medical path with Jiddi being a dentist, or did you have another dream?
B: No, I kinda always planned on being a dentist like Jiddi. But then, he said that he thought medicine was better, and since its basically the same curriculum in college, instead of applying to dental school, I decided to apply to medical school. I went that route. But yeah, I was originally planning on being a dentist like him. I was probably the only one of the four boys in the family that even had any interest in anything to do with healthcare. So the dentistry went away. It ended with Jiddi. When he finished, there was nobody to take over his practice. I went to medical school, and the brothers all did different things.
L: Didn’t he have the dental practice with his brother, John?
B: Yeah, they shared a dental office. For all those years.
L: Alright, so do you have a favorite memory from living in Tulsa when you were younger? Anything that stands out?
B: Well, I mean when I think back to the memories of living in Tulsa, we had a creek that ran behind our house called “Little Joe Creek.” I can’t even imagine, to this day allowing this, but we would take off as little kids in the creek and walk for miles. Just right in it, as far as we could walk in the creek in either direction. We’d catch tadpoles, snakes, fish, whatever; all in this little creek. Mom had no idea where we were or what we were doing. Obviously, it was the era well before cell phones or anything. But we were just gone. Gone from morning until dark. Just up and down the creek for miles, just doing whatever we wanted to do. We’d come home filthy dirty and, well, it was no big deal. Nobody really cared. With four boys, I guess its hard to keep track of them all.
L: Did you ever know your grandparents and if you did, what were they like? Were they able to speak English?
B: Uh yeah, they spoke English. I never knew my dad’s dad, Sam Gawey. I don’t know what year he died, but I think it was either before I was born or like right after I was born. But I knew dad’s mom a little bit. Not much. We would visit her in Bristow, and I remember they had some kind of concrete, I don’t know exactly what it was, couldn’t have been much more around than 4 feet. It was like an elevated concrete thing that they would fill with water and we would swim in that thing. A four foot concrete hole. And that was in Bristow, Oklahoma. Interestingly enough, the brick roads in Bristow, Oklahoma that are there today, supposedly, Jiddi helped lay those bricks on those streets in Bristow. I’ll take you and show you sometime. And then mom’s parents, you know Joe and Mamu, yeah, I knew Mamu really well. I mean, she was around for a long time when we were growing up, and that’s where we always stayed when we went to Oakdale, Mamu’s house. And her husband Joe, he was pretty old when we were kids, and I can’t remember exactly when he passed away, but we kinda sorta knew him. He was a quiet man. A little man. Mamu was a big woman. She had like 10 or 12 kids, I don’t know.
L: Did they speak Arabic?
B: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Both of my grandparents, obviously, spoke fluent Arabic because they’re from there. Dad spoke Arabic, mom never figured out how to speak it. She’d be able to understand a little bit, but she could never speak it.
L: Alright, let’s see. Did Jiddi ever talk about being the first generation to go to high school, and college? Or what about serving in WWII?
B: No, not really. I do regret not talking to him more about, you know, all the goings on. I mean, I know particularly about the military service — I thought that was pretty cool. But as for being the first, you know, he went to dental school in Loyola, New Orleans, because back then, Oklahoma didn’t have a dental school. So, they had to go somewhere else if they wanted to go to dental school. Yeah, but he spent some time in the military, he was in New Guinea. I remember he was telling us stories about being in New Guinea. But he was a dentist at the time, and so he wasn’t on the front line, fortunately. So he didn’t get shot at and stuff, he just got to do his thing. But yeah, he went to Loyola in New Orleans.
L: Isn’t that crazy? Because all the records show that both Sam and Hadla didn’t go past 4th grade.
B: Wow, that’s amazing.
L: I know, so he was the first one, literally, the first generation to go to high school, college, and dental school. So, was Jiddi just really smart or what?
B: Oh yeah, Jiddi was very smart. Very, very smart guy. Because, yeah, you couldn’t get, I mean, you can’t advance like that at that day and age unless you’re pretty smart. He had to get through dental school and military and all the things he did. But he was very meticulous. Very organized. Everything he did was, I mean, very neat, like his handwriting was perfect. Very, very organized. Just a really neat person. That’s how he was such a good dentist, because he was exact in everything he did.
L: Wow, that’s incredible, I wish I could’ve talked to him more and gotten to know him better.
B: Yeah, I remember one interesting story. He did have, I can’t remember if it was a Model A, but it was one of the original automobiles. And I guess he needed some money or something, and some guys were passing through Bristow on the way to Chicago, and they bought his car for something like twenty five dollars. That was kinda a lot back then. Bought his car and gave him some money so he could get out and go to dental school, I guess.
L: Twenty five dollars to go to dental school?
B: Haha, I don’t know. Every little bit helps, you know, every little bit helps. He wasn’t the best business man, I guess, if he sold his car for only twenty five dollars.
L: Okay, so did Jiddi serve in World War II with his dad and brother? And was that ever something that y’all talked about?
B: Wait did John, Albert, and Sam serve? Together? In World War II?
L: Well, there’s a World War II registration card for Sam that says his job description is the beer business, and we know that Jiddi and John were in the military, so yeah. Together. World War II. *see footnote about Old Man’s Draft*
B: Hmm, well I would imagine for Sam, he was too old, but maybe so. But I don’t know, at his age, because I mean, he was pretty old.
L: Okay, I’ll look into it. So did Jiddi and Tata ever go back and visit Lebanon?
B: Yeah, they took one or two trips to Lebanon.
L: Did they want to go more? Was it just too inconvenient?
B: Yeah, I mean its a long ways. But yeah, back in the day, they still had a lot of family there, and that was, apparently Lebanon was spectacular. I mean, just beautiful. Mom said you could walk up and down the streets, and you know like how they have all these booths, where nowadays they just sell junk around here, well back then in Lebanon there would be just gold everywhere. Booths of gold bracelets, all those bangles that she has, it was all over. Gold lining the streets. And you could buy all of this stuff. It was apparently just beautiful. No fighting, nothing going on, and just very, very nice. A lot of family, and they could see people they knew. Yeah, they took a nice trip over to Beirut and Lebanon, more than once, I think twice.
L: You want to go visit Lebanon, right? To visit and see what it’s like?
B: Yeah, I’ve never been. I’d like to go visit, absolutely. Go see the homeland. But I don’t think we have a whole lot of family still there. So that’s kinda a little bit different. Maybe some distant cousins, but most everybody in the family has left during all the wars and all the fighting.
L: So, what do you think it would be like if Sam ended up keeping the company with Zeak Naifeh? Do you think that Jiddi would’ve become a dentist or you become a doctor? Or would y’all have just stayed and worked for the family business?
B: Well, depends. If it was as lucrative as it seems, I probably would’ve just gone into the family biz. Sold booze and lived the high life. Haha, but it’s hard to say, I mean it’s such a, I never knew of any business, it’s hard to say what we would’ve done.
L: Okay, and why did you choose to go to New Orleans for medical school?
B: Yeah, well you know, all of my mom’s family is from Louisiana and so, we grew up going to Louisiana, and I had cousins that were in medical school at LSU and I had a cousin that was teaching there, so there was just a lot of family ties. And I was kinda ready to leave Oklahoma. I had done high school and college there, and so it was time to move on. You know, the idea of going to medical school in New Orleans was a little more attractive than where I had been. Because I had been in Oklahoma already for so long.
L: Did Tata or Jiddi ever push you towards marrying a Lebanese woman or did they not really care?
B: That was probably their desire. I think in every Lebanese, full Lebanese family, the mom and dad want their child to marry a Leb. But uh, haha, that didn’t really work out. They did encourage it. That’s why, that was the concept of these Lebanese conventions. Not only to learn a little heritage, but also to find you a good Lebanese woman. But, you know, you can’t predict who you’re gonna fall in love with, baby. You can’t predict it.
L: True. When you went to Belize, who were you visiting? What’s our connection there?
B: That was all dad’s side of the family. Some cousins that were, I would say, kinda distant cousins, but yet maybe — well, maybe not that distant. Actually probably 2nd and 3rd cousins. A lot of the family that immigrated from Lebanon settled there, and one of the families is really well-off. They own some lumbar companies; they own resorts. And there’s actually a street there that is kinda like the old pronunciation of Gawey, called “Aweh.” Yeah, there’s a street that’s named that in Belize. It’s named after the family.
L: Would you say that your parenting style is more like Jiddi or Tata?
B: Probably more like Tata. I don’t know. Maybe it’s more of a combination. Your mom might think that I really don’t do a whole lot of parenting at all, haha but I think that — yeah, she takes full credit for all of your successes. Yeah. But I think it’s probably a combination.
L: How have the recipes that have been passed down to you changed over the years? Have any ingredients been changed or are there any certain foods that are specifically passed down that you know of?
B: I kinda follow mom — mom’s got her recipes that she wrote down — and that’s kinda nice. I’ve got her recipes and I’ve pretty much learned from her actual recipes. Now, one thing I’ve kinda tweaked is, you know, I don’t follow a lot of recipes when I make stuff. I just kinda work my way through it. But you know they may have used more lamb back in the day, ground lamb, whereas now we use more ground beef. And like with tabouli, instead of the wheat, I’ll use quinoa because I just like it being a little healthier than wheat. So modifications to the recipes have occurred through the years that kinda reflect that. But overall, that’s the beauty of it, they pretty much stay the same. The flavors and all the stuff, the seasonings, very, very similar to the way they’ve always been done. But yeah, like I said, they’ve evolved with some of the different things that are available to us. So you know laban, well we buy it now, we buy the Greek yogurt. Well that was unheard of back then; they made theirs. They made their laban. And that’s something that mom still does today. Oh yeah, she still makes her own laban. And they used to make their own cerean bread. They wouldn’t go out and buy it, they’d make it. All the old grandmothers knew how to make the bread — thin, thin bread. So those kinds of things have changed through the years. You can buy a lot of that stuff now. And they picked their grape leaves instead of buying them out of jars.
L: Why do you love to cook so much and what’s your favorite recipe?
B: I like to cook so much because I’m hungry, and it’s the only way I get to eat. So it’s a survival mechanism. Hunger, so you cook, so you can eat. Haha but no, in all seriousness, I enjoy cooking. It’s one of my hobbies, I guess you might say. I enjoy cooking and preparing food. My favorite recipes, I’d probably say, I would throw cabbage rolls up there at the top, my quinoa tabouli up there at the top. So tabouli and cabbage rolls, I would say those are my favorite recipes. I can do them in my sleep now. It doesn’t take me all day to cook, I kinda just do it and be done with it.
L: Okay, switching topics. So, do you think there’s some defining factor why all the men in the family have become so successful? Like is that just a Lebanese thing for men to work hard or what’s your speculation on that?
B: Yeah, I think that you just learn from your parents. And I think you just — I mean, I don’t know why you’re so driven, but it’s just a work ethic you learn from your parents. Because when our family came over from Lebanon, they literally had nothing. And there wasn’t all this welfare and stuff that they just give to people now. It was either you work and learn something — work hard and make a living, or you don’t have anything. And there’s nothing given to you. So they had to work hard for everything they had, and I think just through the generations you see your parents work hard, and then you work hard, and its just kinda cyclical. And maybe there’s something more, innate, you know, just like the Jewish folks — they’re driven, and they want to work, and they want to do well. So maybe its the same kind of thing for Lebanese.
L: How do you think your background has made you into the man you are today? I mean I know you kind of answered that in the last question, but just like the values that you have, how you’re a very religious man, how you’ve stuck to all of the different traditions and culture, and the fact that we go to Lebanese conventions. How do you think all of that has made you into the person you are today?
B: Well, I think you just answered the question, yourself. I think that all of the — I mean, having a heritage that you’re proud of and a religion and strong family values with cousins and brothers and sisters that all stay close and all get together, I think that all of those things combine to make you the kind of person you are. Its a combination of all those factors. Family, religion, tradition, heritage, all those things.
L: Alright closing up here. What do you think is the future of this tradition? And what do you see for the Lebanese culture continuing on through the generations, and how our heritage will be established?
B: Well, I mean that’s the concern. Back in the day, Tata and Jiddi’s era, and the generations before them, well you know, Lebanese married Lebanese. And they had full Lebanese kids. But as the generations proceed on, more Lebanese people are marrying non-Lebanese people, and so the heritage keeps getting more and more diluted, to where now our kids — you know, you guys are half. And then if you marry a non-Lebanese person, which is possible — well, very likely — then your kids will be a fourth. And so what happens is, it keeps getting diluted out, so you’ve really got to work harder to keep the heritage strong. Because there’s not all of these full-blooded Lebanese people that are coming over to keep things going. So throughout the generations, you’re going from full-Lebanese to half-Lebanese, to quarter-Lebanese and so on. I mean, you get Cajuns like your mom and surfer boys like Dr. Scott mixed in there, and next thing you know the heritage starts to slip. But you know, that’s what you get. You get what you ask for. Be careful what you ask for, you may get it, alright? And that’s life.
L: Okay, we’re done! Thank you dad, that was perfect.
B: Alright baby, I love you.
“The Old Man’s Draft”
The Newberry. N.p., 21 July 2012. Web. 5 Apr. 2017.
On April 27, 1942, the Selective Service Act issued a fourth registration, commonly known as the “Old Man’s Draft,” which required men between the ages of 45–64 to register for the draft. Unlike the previous drafts, this was not intended for the old men to fight or actually be drafted into military service. Instead, the government wanted to obtain a conclusive survey of the available manpower on the home front to see if these “old men” had skills that could be used in the war effort. Each registration card asked for standard information, such as birthday, name, employer, and also asked for the physical descriptions of the old men.
So, my dad was right. Sam Gawey, my great-grandfather, was in fact too old to fight, but he registered for the “Old Man’s Draft,” along with many other men his age, to provide an idea of the available manpower at home in the United States.