(Published in Dovetail, Fall 2007.)
A Jewish Student, a Catholic Priest, a Bicycle,
and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
by Susan Hart Hellman
In 1956 twelve-year-old Elio Zarmati, son of Italian and French Jewish parents, prayed “O God, King of the Jews, Sultan of the Muslims, Emperor of the Christians, let me spend the summer here at home in Cairo with Papa instead of going to that Jesuit summer camp.”
Although Elio’s “Nona” (grandmother) and “Tante” (aunt) had left Egypt after the Suez war, and the withdrawal of the Israel, French, and British troops in its aftermath, the government had stalled Elio’s father’s exit visa.
Elio would have to return to school in Egypt, but the French schools, like the one he’d previously attended, had been closed or converted to state schools so educational choices were few. With the options being expensive home-tutoring, or Jesuit school, Elio found himself enrolled at the Jesuits’ Collège des Frères, one of three religious schools the new regime permitted to offer French language education because they were under Vatican jurisdiction, not the French government.
But it was summer, so Elio was sent to Father També’s summer school camp in part to become acclimated to Jesuit life. Noticing the crucifixes on the walls of the camp huts, Elio exclaimed to his father “I don’t know the first thing about Jesus Christ! I don’t belong here, Papa.” He’d also noticed boys playing soccer, riding bikes, and swimming, and he knew even less about sports. His idea of fun was reading, and he recalled the sale of his late ‘Nono’s’ (grandfather) library after ‘Nona’ had fled to France. To Elio, its dismantling paralleled the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem. Even at 12, he’d witnessed the destruction of families and nations, and it had taken Nono’s books to get him through.
Elio’s thoughts were interrupted by a man in sportswear with goatee and long sideburns. The only clue that this was Father També was the white neckline of his sweatshirt, apparently the clerical collar sports model.
While Elio’s athletics concerns were intensified by this attire, his father had other concerns. “Father També,” he asked, “. . . about religion?”
The priest said the school had 20 Catholic boys, 4 Muslims, 3 Copts, 2 Maronite Christians, and, yes, there was another Jew. All practiced their own religions. “We just teach them to respect one another’s faiths and to believe in One Almighty God.” Elio’s father was relieved, but not Elio. “Thirty other ‘inmates,’” he thought; all of them playing sports.”
But when Elio and his father entered Father També’s study, Elio discovered hope: the bookshelves overflowed with volumes in numerous languages, and Elio saw his cherished Zola, Hugo, and Dumas. But he removed a book with a name he didn’t know, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “Like to read?” Father També asked.
Elio’s father interjected. “That’s all he likes to do.”
Seeing Elio frown at the book, the priest asked if he had heard of Sherlock Holmes.
“That will change. We encourage our boys to read, read, read. English, French, Italian, Arabic, we don’t care as long as you read and learn.” The priest took the book from Elio and said, “In due time.”
‘Due time’ came after dinner around a campfire at the beach when Father També opened that book, The Hound of the Baskerville: a tale of Sherlock Holmes, and began to read.
* * * Returning to camp, Elio listened as Father També described Doyle’s life and works, and Elio compared the stories to his father’s readings about kings and queens, pharaohs and prophets, gods and goddesses, and tales from ancient Egypt and Biblical lands. Books had sustained Elio through the wars, revolutions, separation, and fears, and now they would get him through school camp too. Here in this confusing school, this confusing world, in books he once more found a friend, Sherlock Holmes, and Elio smiled through every dream.
But dreams became nightmares when another side of Father També arose, a fanatical sports persona, expecting every boy to excel at every game! With no athletic prowess whatsoever, Elio’s life again grew dim. And, sports just didn’t make sense. “If the ball has done me no harm, why should I kick it?” he asked.
Father També assured him they would discuss the matter later, but he seemed to understand. “The French system of education is abysmally limited——all study and no play, but we Jesuits believe a good body is essential too. But what upsets me,” he continued “is you reject everything except literature.” Then he tacked on a lethal question: “And why do you so dislike playing ball?” “I don’t know.” Elio froze. He did know, and he would have to explain. With one weak eye, by the time he saw a ball it was gone. Father També smiled and explained that many great men had disabilities. “It propelled them to excellence.” Then he asked if Elio was afraid to fail.
Feeling insulted, Elio exclaimed. “I fear nothing!”
“Only fools fear nothing,” Father També warned, and he relayed how Arthur Conan Doyle had braved working on a whaling ship to research whaling and camaraderie among the men.
Then the priest offered a proposition: Elio could skip athletic games if he learned to ride a bike.” A handshake sealed the deal. But even with training wheels, Elio found cycling daunting. He leaned from side to side as the bicycle wobbled, and when the training wheels were removed, in front of God, and, even worse, Father També, Elio was on his own. He prayed. “God of the Jews, God of the Christians, God of the Muslims, please end this misery! Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, please, please, make me ride this infernal machine so this misery will end! He lurched, faltered, staggered, and muttered more prayers to any god he thought would listen. Once finally down the road, he turned around and prayed again: Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, please, please, let me do it again, let me ride this infernal machine back without breaking my neck or making a fool of myself. Finally he made it back. As the summer drew to a close, Father També announced the final book. “It’s one of finest literary creations by one of the greatest writers in the world,” he explained. Then he pulled a black patch over one eye.
“Treasure Island!” Elio yelled.
“By Robert Louis Stevenson,” the priest added, “A contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle.”
As Father També read about buried treasure, Elio realized that he had made the characters — Long John Silver and the rest — live as never before.
But the priest had also made Doyle’s and Stevenson’s intent in writing come to life: so that years later, a boy who loved literature more than life, could listen to their stories by a campfire, read by a priest who loved literature as much as he loved the Lord. The morning after Treasure Island was completed, Elio boarded the Cairo bus. “The summer was over,” Elio said. “And so was the happiest season of my life.”