Beirut shirtmaker was a cut above the rest

Twenty-four years ago, I took up a teaching post at the American University of Beirut. I lived at the Mayflower Hotel, situated, as it still is, in the block between Makdissi and Sidani streets, in a top-floor room.

The lift only worked when the government electricity was on, which back then was about eight hours a day. Climbing the 10 floors at least once a day was good exercise, but I decided that my new life needed an equally new look.

Across the road from the hotel was Azzam, a shirtmaker, who I passed. The interior tableau was always the same: shirtmaker would be cutting or sewing, while a petite blonde would sit, chain smoking on a stool at an ironing board. Everyday I wanted to go in and discuss collars and cuffs and fabric but felt inhibited by my poor Arabic.

My aunt, with whom I dined several times a week, came to the rescue, teaching me how to ask for “a poplin shirt with a cutaway collar, double cuffs and no breast pocket, thank you very much”.

Still, it took me a few days to summon up the nerve to go inside. The trouble was that, never having seen any customers being fitted, I was worried that I had got it all wrong. That despite the blocks of material and the evident tailoring, he didn’t actually make shirts, that somehow I had got it all wrong and that he was a dry cleaner that did alterations.

Then one day, the chain-smoking blonde motioned me to come in. “When are you going to buy a shirt?” she asked in French. “I see you all the time. You want a shirt, don’t you?” The man I presumed was Mr Azzam was already moving towards me, stepping out from behind his table, his tape measure hanging ominously round his pudgy neck like a stethoscope.

I was determined to put my aunt’s Arabic to good use, but before I could say anything, he raised his arms and let out a long low bellow from the back of his throat. Clutching his chest with both hands and then making a Popeye-like bicep clench, signalled to his sister that I was a strong man.

So Mr Azzam was mute and the blonde, as it turned out, was his loyal sister, who wasted no time with the questions: Had I just arrived in the country? Yes. Where did I work? American University of Beirut. Ah, a doctor? I protested, flattered by the sudden elevation of simple language teacher to full-on lecturer, but my protestations were clearly too feeble. From that moment on I was “Dr Michael”.

Mr Azzam – “Azzam, Beirut” sat proudly on the label in light-blue print on a white background – didn’t have poplin in the colour I wanted, so I opted for a pleasing mid-blue, end-on-end weave, and despite his very debilitating handicap, we were able to discuss details, such as collars and cuffs. I insisted on a cutaway. He relayed this with a loud bellow to his sister who dutifully made a note, before, with a tone that verged on compassion, telling me it was very English. My choice of double cuffs warranted a nod of approval, but my decision not have the shirt monogrammed, which would have smacked a little too much of my father’s generation, only reinforced her opinion that I wasn’t making the best of my purchase, which, by the way, cost a princely $30.

A file was duly opened and my measurements recorded. Mr Azzam (I never knew if that was his first or family name) made me five more shirts over the next two years, including the one I wore on the day I got married. I heard he died a few years ago, and am ashamed to say that all his shirts were eventually given to charity when I began to pile on the kilos. But what he did do was make a young man in a new country on a modest $600 a month, living in a tiny room on the top floor of a hotel with a lift that rarely worked, feel like a prince.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.

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