I look through the corridor from front to back, doors to boarders’ rooms open to one side, the staircase ascending the other.
I walk to the back, look through the corridor to the front door, climb the rotten and severely listing stairs, peer out at the lonely city.
Though I long for specifics, all I think now is that everything has happened within the radius of my sight, everything, and that of that everything, veritably nothing remains.
“My grandfather owned two buildings, side by side,” Amal says. In the empty lot toward the river, a similar woodframe vernacular house once stood: 723, which, in earlier years, only two or three residents called home. One night, lost among immeasurable other sad darkness, lost and gone, 1979, a tenant dropped a lit cigarette, ignited a fire that turned the grand old wooden home to kindling, filled the sky with what of all that history and life the fire reduced to black plumes racing into atmospheric currents that circumnavigated the earth.
Oh!, Amal says, “My grandfather was devastated! Devastated!”
In Folio Weekly’s annual “Best of Jax” issue, readers often voted the Camel Riders her parents sold the city’s best.
In August 2012, a New York Times headline called the Camel Rider “A Taste of Jacksonville, Tucked into a Pita.” It’s not unusual that Jacksonville newcomers assumed “Camel Rider” an ethnic slur, but The Times’ lede contextualized the phrase this way:
“There are subs. There are heroes. There are hoagies, po’ boys and grinders. And in this port city, which has the country’s 10th largest Arab population, there are Camel Riders.”
In Katherine Cohen’s brilliant 1986 master’s thesis, “Immigrant Jacksonville: A Profile of Immigrant Groups in Jacksonville, Florida, 1890-1920,” she points out that nearly 10 percent of Jacksonville’s “foreign-born white population” in 1920 was Syrian, while the “original Arabic community in Jacksonville” comprised Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Jordanians, and Palestinians.
Jacksonville’s Deep-South Middle-East immigrants succeeded by not being black in Jim Crow days, ducking their heads politically, and opening groceries, slaughterhouses, restaurants, and real estate agencies across the city.
The Camel Rider sandwich, now served by Arabic restaurants across the South, originated in 1965 or 1972, depending on your source, at The Sheik, an Arabic sandwich franchise that began at 18th and Main Street. The Sheik’s original Camel Rider included ham, salami, bologna, lettuce, onion, tomato, and Cheddar or American or Swiss cheese.
Said John T. Edge of the Times, “Tabbouleh, served on the side, is as traditional in Jacksonville as potato salad is elsewhere.”
A faded note tucked into a window frame on the door says, “Mrs. Helen [Hala’s Anglicized nickname] and Mr. George are retiring after 37 years of business. Thank you to all of our loyal customers for your support and allowing us to serve you. We will miss you all! God Bless You.”
I circumnavigate Sam Al Hasan’s hotel, the old Homelike and Avon Apartments. I try to count its sides, three or four times, but somehow fail and fail again. I can no more count walls than I can dial long-dead phone numbers. Long walls bow inward. The old inn still makes the most of its odd triangle. I count five sides, then seven, then six.
How fitting! This rambling accumulation of a house defied shape before it was built, stood at odds to the shapes of its streets, then introduced to the American South the Middle East.
No wonder this old house recalls for Amal her grandfather. This scorching Sunday afternoon, this ghostly persistent global caravanserai sags and leans, groans and creaks around me, and I feel I’ve come to tea with a wisdom that knows the ancient world about us in a way I will never achieve.
The soul of this house is old, its time differs from ours, and it peers at the monstrous parking garage across Edison not with disdain, nor even sadness, but with an understanding patience achieved by long persistence, a long view that feels almost omniscient.
Soon it will be as though all had never been.
So, all that’s not now must once have existed.
And did so. Right here.
Where Sam Al Hasan made a home for his family 6500 miles from home.
Article by Tim Gilmore of Jax Psycho Geo. Tim Gilmore is the author of Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity (2016), Central Georgia Schizophrenia (2016), The Mad Atlas of Virginia King (2015), Ghost Story / Love Song (2015), In Search of Eartha White (2014), The Ocean Highway at Night (2014), Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic (2013), Doors in the Light and the Water: The Life and Collected Work of Empty Boat (2013), This Kind of City: Ghost Stories and Psychological Landscapes (2012) and Ghost Compost: Strange Little Stories, illustrated by Nick Dunkenstein (2013). He is the creator of Jax Psycho Geo (www.jaxpsychogeo.com). His two volumes of poetry are Horoscopes for Goblins: Poems, 2006-2009 and Flights of Crows: Poems, 2002-2006. His audio poetry album Waiting in the Lost Rooms is available at https://eat-magazine.bandcamp.com/album/waiting-in-the-lost-rooms. He teaches at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He is the organizer of the Jax by Jax literary arts festival. www.jaxbyjax.com