Friday, December 29, 2006

Lis Thomas, A Syrian Peddler

Fading tattoos of camels, St. Sophia and minarets adorned the left arm of Louis “Lis” Thomas and captured the rapt attention of five year old Tom Jeffries, as he sat listening to Lis tell his tales so strange and wonderful.

Tom Jeffries with his kid brother. John.

Lis was a stooped, swarthy, thin man of medium height, with a hooked nose with flaring nostrils set in a wide face, smelling of strong tobacco, road dirt and sweat. He was spotted coming up the railroad tracks, hunched under the weight of his sixty pound pack of goods by members of the Henline family who were lounging on the front porch under a majestic elm tree.

Departing the cindery tracks and carefully stepping across the foot bridge over Oil Creek, Lis quickened his steps as he came closer to the inviting shade of the porch and the tall elm tree. It was summer and he had walked a long way that day and he needed the rest and the chance to sell a few goods. The Henline family were the inlaws of his deceased older brother, Mike Thomas, who also came to America as a peddler from his native Syria , and Lis considered them friends.

Lis was an intriguing sight for Tom, who, although half afraid, was anxious to look at the Syrian peddler and listen to his strange voice, full of funny pronunciations of common words. After exchanging greetings and talking awhile with Opal, Clora and Heater, Lis, dragging on his Camel cigarette, talked of the merits of Turkish blended tobacco but wide-eyed young Tom, not interested in this adult matter, was dying for the chance to look into the large pack of goods resting beside the porch.

Lis Thomas was born in that portion of the Middle East known as Syria , but under the rule of the Sultan of Turkey. Today we call this area Lebanon, a land of Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and Druze, and full of as much violence as there is religion. The family of Lis Thomas was Maronite Christian, a minority in a mostly Muslim country and the frequent target of deadly violence by the hated Turks and the equally despised Muslims. Violence was not all one-sided in this part of the world, and blood feuds and vendettas were daily occurrences. It was long reported by family members that the murder of a revered uncle of Lis and Mike Thomas had brought them to America on the trail of the knife wielding murderer. Failing in their quest to avenge their uncle’s death because the assailant had returned to Syria while the avengers were on their way to America, the Thomas brothers found the opportunities of America too inviting to risk the return to Syria to exact revenge. But these were things Lis Thomas did not reveal to the ears of young Tom, nor the women, but only to the men folk of the Henline family.

Lis, in his peculiar speech, explained his tattoos to Tom, who was eager to hear the tale of the camels, and about the minarets, and St. Sophias. Those same icons Tom could see on the package of cigarettes Lis twirled in his large fingered hand. Tom thought how exciting it was to have someone this exotic to talk to him, as if he were a grown man. He would dream of camels, of minarets and of St Sophias tonight.

Comment 1 Donna Gloff
Costumes to the left were worn by Maronite Christians in Lebanon in the late 1800s about the time the Thomas brothers were leaving their homeland.

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