Interview with Marie Nejame Freije
Is Part Of
Broome County Oral History Project
Interview with: Mrs. Marie Nejame Freije
Interviewed by: Nettie Politylo
Dates of interviews: 6 March 1978 and 6 April 1978
[Interview #1: 6 March 1978]
Nettie: This is Nettie Politylo, interviewer, talking to Marie Freije of 60 Mathews St., Binghamton, NY, on March 6, 1978. Marie, do you want to start telling me about your recollections of your life when you came from Lebanon?
Marie: OK—I was born in Lebanon and we lived most of our life in Egypt, and the winters, we spent our winters in Egypt and in the summer in Lebanon, up until and then we were caught in Lebanon during the First World War and we were spending our summer there. And from there, we spent the, spent the four years in Lebanon and in Arabia. We had to go to Arabia to get away from the war, that's from the Turks-dominated Lebanon. That's when my brother, Fred, was with Lawrence of Arabia who worked for the King of Arabia. And we finally came to Egypt before the war ended—four months before—and that's where I went to school—in French schools—private schools, and in 1922 we came to this country. I was 15 years old, entered schools here. We lived in Syracuse, where I attended high school and College of Music—that was a major in music. In 1932 we came to Binghamton, therefore I consider Binghamton my hometown, but I enjoyed life here in the community. In 1938, my brother and I went into business—opened up a ladies dress shop specializing in bridals in Johnson City. We carried the store for 38 years, enjoyed the many friends, the customers who I've made a lot of friends with.
I belong to many clubs and do a lot volunteer work, Business and Professional Women's Clubs for, that's in Triple Cities, Johnson City Catholic Daughters, Civic Club, Our Ladies of Lebanon Club, American Civic Association, and was also President of Business and Professional Club and President, twice, Ladies of Lebanon Club. I have enjoyed being active in the community, made many, many, many friends. In 1972, I closed my business and went to Lebanon on two trips. It was very enjoyable because I never knew Lebanon too well, which is my mother country. Because we—little girls didn't travel too much at that time, so we would spend the summer months there and winter months in Egypt, as I said before. Therefore, it was a new experience for me, and I think it was the most beautiful country. It makes you feel sad that what has happened to it during the past three years.
Now, I was married in 1970 to Louis Frieje, and we've been very, very happy, and I still meet a lot of my friends. I belong, still, to all of the clubs. It is most enjoyable that part of my life and my business was making friends. Now, I don't know what else you’d like to know. I—
Nettie: Marie, did your husband have a business of his own?
Marie: Yes, he had but is retired.
Nettie: What type of business did he have?
Marie: He was in the restaurant business.
Nettie: What restaurant was that?
Marie: Freije Grill on Clinton St. That's where all his brothers had their businesses—Freije Electric, Freije Wall and Paint Store—and they have all retired, of course, and they are enjoying life very, very much.
At the present time, there's something—may be of interest to you, being that we have no children, either him or I—we sponsored my husband's grandnephew from Lebanon to come here and live with us and put him through school. He came in 1976, December of '76. In 1977—January, we put him through Broome Tech, where he is a student now, studying Electric Technology and Computer and English. He will graduate in two years. In 1977 he had met a lovely Lebanese girl, who is a Lab Technician at Lourdes Hospital, and were married and living with us. They are a delightful couple. It is good to have young people around the house because I have always loved children—my nieces and nephews are like my own children. We are a very closely knit family—both the Freijes and my family by the name of Nejame. My brother, my younger brother who was in business, and his family is still running the business in Johnson City—which is called Hi-Fi Record and Tape Shop. They have had it for about 40 years, also. My brother is deceased, therefore, the children are running the business and have been very successful also, very well known through the area.
Nettie: Oh, that sounds very interesting and I think that was very nice of you to sponsor someone like that, to make someone happy plus yourself.
Marie: We're delighted to do that.
Nettie: Marie, why don't you tell me more about the store—go into the store—I think it was fascinating.
Marie: The gown shop—my gown shop, of course, after 21 years I gave up the bridals and went into sportswear—mainly as the sportswear business was flourishing and that was the thing to do. Besides, after my brother passed away in 1959—ah 1947, I beg your pardon—it was, you know, I have to run the business all alone, and of course, it was difficult to work nights and days, also. So, I turned it into a sportswear business and I loved it very much. I finally was getting a little too old to run it anymore. (Laughing). I'm 70 years old now—so I thought it was time to relax and pay attention to my music and to my wonderful husband, and we've done some traveling, of course.
We went twice to Lebanon since I was married, in 1970 and 1972. We were going back to Lebanon in 1974 and the war broke, so that took care of that. And—but—really—due to my—in regards to my business, thank God, we had a very successful business and as I see my customers, now, all over the Triple Cities when I meet them on the streets, markets, and in clubs which I am still very active, they—I'm almost ashamed to say it, but they do miss my store very much.
Nettie: Yes, we all do, Marie.
Marie: I certainly made many hundreds of friends, and in fact it, just about two weeks ago I had my, as a guest here, my first bride whom I outfitted—very, very first one. When I got married she sent me a prayer, in a picture—framed picture which I have in my kitchen, and I see her every morning, noon, and night. (Laughing). And she visited me last—two weeks ago, and we had a very good time altogether—reminiscence over friends and over old times and what have you.
Nettie: Sounds interesting—Marie—I’m sorry—pardon me.
Marie: When I came here, not knowing that we were to remain here in this country, and so—after I went to school—and we all loved it here, and my mother, father, and my three brothers—I'm the only girl and the youngest in the family—imagine me, 70 years old, the youngest in the family. (Laughing). So, but, my intention was to be a concert pianist, turned out to be in business. (Laughing).
Nettie: In business—you did very well.
Nettie: We do miss you!
Marie: But I still love my music. I follow it up—have time to practice—
Nettie: Something you love—
Marie: Yes, yes, I do!
Nettie: Marie, will you tell me about the Lebanese people—their culture, traditions, maybe some foods?
Marie: Well, yes, now, that's something of great interest—were that now—when I got married, I didn't know a thing about cooking—(Laughing)—because I never had the time for it, but since then I have became a gourmet cook—even in Arabic—in our Lebanese food—and I love it. Of course, now, you know they—the last few years, they’ve been talking so much about—[door bell rings]. That's all right.
Nettie: Marie, we'll continue now.
Marie: As I started to tell you before—the last few years they—been talking about health foods and health food stores opening up—even the markets are starting to carry health foods. Our Lebanese people—the culture—we’ve been raised on health foods since we were children, and we still do. Take, for instance, your wheat germ—that, they sell today and tell you how to do it—your lentils—it's all health food stores—health foods—and yogurt, which has become very popular, they are talking so much about it as being very healthy. This is something that we have lived on—all our life. Our bread is made with the health—what you call flour—is very healthy food. We—the Lebanese cook mostly at home rather than go out to eat, because we have such variety. Now, at our table you'll find three kinds of olives, two different kinds of cheeses that we make out of the yogurt—we make the hard cheese that looks like the American cream cheese, for instance, but a little bit tarty—we have oil on the side with it, our cheese, which I learned to make myself, and all this—so—all our preserves, jams—we make ourselves—and in our food you have, in one dish you could have a balanced meal. You have your sauté meat, which we use mostly lamb rather than beef—we use very little beef—except for roasts, you know—and have your meat—your vegetable—could be okra, could be asparagus, could be peas or beans, and with tomato sauce—that's your main dish, and cooked rice—on the side—not boiled—but it’s cooked so that it would have a flavor to it, you know—butter—and—so—and a salad. Therefore, you have a balanced meal right there, you see—but no Lebanese table is complete unless you have your olives and cheese on the table after you have your regular meal. That, you'll find that practically in every Lebanese home. And we have a tremendous variety of dishes—tremendous. I don't think you will find that in a, really, many European or American dishes—great variety. As I said before, it's all health food.
Now in regards to our way of living—mode of living—we are very—Lebanese people are a very close-knit together—very friendly and really very highly educated. You never hear of any Lebanese, whether in this town or any town, that has gone wrong—that has gone to jail, that has done any destructiveness or anything—you hardly hear anything like that—good law-abiding citizens, and very friendly and very active. Most of the Lebanese people in this town, especially, in the area, are in business and are successful and have a good name—I'll vouch for that. Wherever you go, it really is the same thing—there—the ladies are very cooperative and friendly and take good care of themselves and their families—they dress very well.
Nettie: Marie, you are a very good example of what you are saying.
Marie: Thank you. Anything else you'd like to know?
Nettie: Well, do you have any other recollections you would like to tell me?
Marie: Well, you might like to have a little idea how we spent our years in Arabia—during the First World War.
Nettie: That would be interesting.
Marie: Excuse me, as I said before, we were in Lebanon and we couldn't get out because they closed the Mediterranean Sea, so we had to stay there. My uncle, that is my mothers's brother, who was a general in the, then Syrian Army, at the time. Because after the First World War Syria and Lebanon were divided—see—and so we—he sent us to Arabia—not Saudi Arabia—this Arabia is another section beyond Syria, and of course, I was only about six years old at the time, and over there, in Arabia, the Sheiks happen to be very dear friends of my uncle in Egypt, who was the Secretary of the Sudan. You hear a lot about Sudan these days—Sudan at the time was under the, both Egypt and Sudan was under the English government, and my uncle was Secretary to the Sirdar, like a governor—the government—you know—Sirdar, they call it. He was a very prominent man—in fact, was decorated by the Queen Victoria. And from there, my brother, Fred, who was only seventeen years old at the time, and my younger brother, Arthur, and my mother and I, we were there for three years. Through these Sheiks, my brother Fred, who was working for the Emir Faisal in the—means “Prince”—Faisal of Arabia, who later became King of a—ah—ah—Arabia (Iraq), and he was working with Lawrence of Arabia and was decorated by Emir Faisal, and through him we were able to get to Egypt on an English boat—English war boat—we—ah— Did you ever see the Lawrence of Arabia movie?
Nettie: Yes, I did.
Marie: Well, that's us—there. (Laughing). Yeah—that experience, I have pictures and see—but I forgot this part—where we're leaving Arabia—we went on camel back for nine days. The year before, I take this back, the year before, my brother Fred took my young brother, Arthur, too, and put him in school in Egypt and he came back. The following year, Mother and I and Fred we went to—we're going back to Egypt, and we stayed at Faisal’s in the Aqaba area—that's another part of the picture where—and we went on camel’s back for nine days and nine nights and he had, he was coming back—see, to Arabia to take the soldiers—we had 600 camels and 900 soldiers—and we—day before we're to arrive in Aqaba—where Emir Faisal was—he—we—had outlaws hitting us with a—that's which called machine—caravan—with sub-machine guns, and I was riding the dromedary—I made my brother valet, must as well call them valet, pulling them on the camel—you know—make him walk—and I went on dromedary—that's the one—the hump—you know—dromedary, and because where I was before—I was riding on the camel with my mother—made like a tent—see—my mother on one side and me on the other. You know how little girls, they get—(Laughing)—as flat as I was—I get fidgety—I wanted to drive by the dromedary so as we were riding, and these sub-machines came at us—the bullet just passed my face and he grabbed me and threw me down—luckily we were going down into a little valley—which is unusual in a desert, you know—and of course, of all crew came out with machine guns, and they—we escaped those outlaws, and then that night we were in tents and they're going to kidnap me—see, they had me dressed as a boy—and in fact, later on, King Faisal presented me with a dagger, which I still have, yet. And my brother, too, he took his own dagger, which only carried by royalty, was put here on display in Binghamton and Johnson City when we first came here—was written up in the Press. It was a really beautiful thing, which my nephew has now—Fred's son in New York. And it was really quite, quite an ordeal, to—well—especially after I saw the Lawrence of Arabia, I said, "Dear, if only my brother was here."
Nettie: To see that—
Marie: To see that, you know, he died but we had quite a fascinating life.
Nettie: I think it is—what should I say, “exciting”? It was very exciting.
Marie: Yes—yeah—yeah, but—The reason we came here, my brother Fred, who was, after the war—when we were in Egypt already—he was working for the French Embassy, through my uncle who was a doctor. He was in politics a lot, so he got him a job at the French Embassy. But what happened, we had to escape here, and because the King's entourage—they were all Muslims, and he was the only Christian amongst them, so—of course—there was that jealousy—they were after him—after his neck—that, for my uncle sent him over here, because my brother and my dad were here, see. My brother—was—my oldest brother was at Columbia University, and so—ah—we came here—we had to escape from these people who were after him—you know—so that when they came here for a year or so—maybe they'll, you know, forget all about him, and then my younger brother—we put him in school, so—went, let's see, on 1918-1922, and they were here—and the, so we thought we'd come, my mother and I, would come here—my aunts and uncles did not want us to come here at all. She said, “Even if I die on the boat, I want to go and see my children and bring them back, and my husband." So, we finally came in 1922, and we stayed here and we liked it very much that we never went back, our family was here.
Nettie: Marie, that was exciting.
Marie: See, my father came here before the war—because he came to visit his brother—he had his business here. He was a cabinet maker in Lebanon, and he came—his business was still going on—he came to visit his brother—then the war broke, so he didn't go back, and he stayed here throughout the whole war, then I didn't know my father until I came to this country, now my oldest brother— So it was an quite exciting life—a wonderful life together.
Nettie: Guess so—
Marie: Wonderful life together. We are a closely knit family—we all live together—we—
Nettie: I thought the Lebanese were that way. I think it is very nice.
Marie: Like the young lady from Harpur was interviewing me about the—our people—especially our old people. She said—I said, “We don't throw out our old people—we take care of them.” I said my mother was 92 years old, and my sister-in-law and I took care of her. None of our Lebanese people put our old people in nursing homes or forget about them—they always live with one of the children, they are well taken care of, which is something we are proud of—it is our background—we can't help it.
Nettie: I think if some of our children, some of our people took heed on people like that—maybe they would turn their life around and make nice things, different for the elderly.
Marie: Sure, they must remember that they, they're gonna be old someday. How would they like to be thrown out any old way in a nursing home or private home of some sort? Because, well, it just isn't right—that’s all, the fact that we’ll all get old, what’s going to happen to us.
Nettie: You have to think ahead, too.
Marie: This way your children would know how your grandparents were taken care of, and maybe they would learn a thing or two and just pass down the generations. Yes, that's something our generation of foreign extraction should never forget, their culture of their heritage.
Nettie: I agree with you.
Marie: They should be proud of it. There's a book written by Ted Roosevelt, and one of the passages is, "If you were not—uh—uh—this—you could only make a good American citizen if you don't forget your heritage.”
Nettie: That's very nice.
Marie: That's, we loved this country—that's why we remained here, and you can't beat this country anywhere in the world, but we still love our country, too. And we're proud to say we're Lebanese. You could be proud to say your own background from which your parents came from, should never forget it. Believe me, I think the American people—we're all American now, but outside of the Indians, naturally, they respect us more now because they understand us more, the world is getting smaller, you know, so—they appreciate the various cultures of the different nationalities of their background, you know, and all of us should be very proud of it and not be ashamed of.
Nettie: I know I am.
Marie: We make good citizens, even though we were not born here, we abide by the law, I'm sure all foreign extraction people do—so people are very interested. (Laughing).
Nettie: Is that all you want to tell me? Is there anything you want to add to that?
Marie: Well, let me see now. All I can say, I'm a little sorry I'm not a little younger so I could go back into business—
Nettie: That's right—I know what you mean. And start all over again.
Marie: Thank God I have my health, have my good husband, my comfortable home. I love my music, and I still am active in all the clubs and help people and everything else. Our Lebanese club is a small club, but active in the community, we hold a dance in the Fall always—and the proceeds go to St. Jude's Hospital for the children—retarded children, and then we hold a card party in the spring—that's for our scholarship fund—we give the three high schools and any student that school feels needs it—you know—give three, three scholarships—that's about it—you know.
Nettie: Marie, that was very interesting, and I want to thank you very much for the interview.
Marie: I want to thank you for asking me. I hope it's worth your while.
Nettie: I'm sure it is.
[Interview #2: 6 April 1978]
Nettie: This is Nettie Politylo, interviewer, talking to Marie Freije of 60 Matthews St., Binghamton, NY, on April 6, 1978. Marie, we will go back to the interview you had the last time, and tell me more about the camel trip you took across the desert in nine days and nights.
Marie: I'll be glad to—try to recollect everything that we went through. To begin with, we were living in the—what they call the Arabian Mountains, and my brother, Fred, who was at the time 18 years old, and that he joined the First World War, and he was associated with Prince Faisal of Arabia, who later became King of Iraq. The Prince sent him to the mountains to fetch about 1000 soldiers, but they were pro-French and they were fighting against the Turks. My brother was taking my mother and I back to Egypt where we lived—so, my mother and I traveled along with the caravan of 600 camels and about 1100 soldiers, most of them, naturally, on foot. The trip to Aqaba, where Faisal was, took us nine days and nine nights through the Arabian desert. Now we, my mother and I rode the camel. They built a basket—big basket on top of the camel for us to lay in and they had a cover (net) to protect us from the sun and the sand. Fortunately, we did not come across any sandstorms at that time of the year—so, and—we were at times running short of water, as there was very little water in the desert—just what come across probably two or three oases where there would be a pond of water, dirty water with scum and what we to—mother would use her veil—thin veil—put it over the water so we could drink from it—take water and carry it ’til the next stop that we will find another oasis. On the way, about two days before we reached Aqaba, we came across outlaws that are in the distance. They started shooting on us with submachine guns, but fortunately we—that was about the first time that we were down in the valley, because usually the sand—I mean—the desert is all flat—mostly, and the whole caravan started to go down—before that—I wanted to ride the dromedary, which, it would be a young camel—which is the one hump. I made my brother's valet go down so I could ride his dromedary. I was about six years old—six and a half—and—so was riding it—that's when the outlaw was shooting at us, and the bullet just about passed my ear. He grabbed me and got me down—if that hit me, I would not be here to tell the story. So, we went down and then the great big horde of men, Arabs, went up with machine guns, singing and hollering and they started shooting back at them—so, when the outlaws—so that—we are overpowering them, they took off but we have to be on the cover all the way to hold up the train—you might say—so that night we arrived at this Sheik's domain—in the desert. They lived in the tents there. This Sheik is under the governorship of the Prince, so we were treated royally, and they gave my mother, I, and our maid a tent by ourselves, and they had guards. So, when the guards were not there during the evening—now before going to sleep, the maid was combing my hair, which was way down to my hips, and then one of the Arab boys started to peek through the tent and one would tell the other, "Didn't I tell you this was a girl, and it's not a boy?” because they had me dressed as a boy to be disguised, because it wasn't safe for a white girl to be dressed in a dress, and below the ear and stood it top of the head—(supposedly hair) would kidnap her—so the maid heard them—and she ran out to my brother's tent and told him. So, the Sheik got hold of these boys, tied them up, and he put other guards around our tent for the night. The next day we traveled one full day to reach Aqaba, and we arrived and the Prince had accommodations for the women—meaning, my mother and I, and our maid who’d take care of us. We were there one week. My brother was commended by Prince Faisal for doing such a fine job and accumulating all these soldiers to be—he took the—dagger, which only royalty wear, which was solid gold, dagger with all precious stones—and put it on my brother's waist. We still have this dagger, which is very beautiful. As a matter of fact, the Prince gave me a dagger—black onyx, like with mother of pearl, and I was dressed with this Arab-like costume until we reached Egypt. It really was quite an experience.
Oh, I forgot to tell you, after we were attacked by these captives, by the outlaws, we ran across another attack—and this time was a boa (constrictor)—these huge snakes that stands up, all black, stands up in the air—it—well—it just could kill anybody—in the path, stand up like a pole, you know, and the men then shot with—several men shot with submachine guns and killed her. That was another bad, very bad and horrifying experience, that's why I’m afraid of snakes all my life, due to that experience.
Nettie: Are there many snakes like that out in the desert?
Marie: No, not too much, but those that are there are huge and deadly—they're deadly, yes, very much so.
Nettie: Marie, when you were going across the desert, you slept in the tent. How about the others?
Marie: They slept just on the sand—yes, oh yes, sitting up, sleeping any way they can find a little comfort—you call it comfort.
Nettie: What did you say that you had for food?
Marie: Food, they had to prepare, ’cause we had bread and cheese and hard-boiled eggs and other—some wheat germ that is cooked—you know—that you can eat cold, you know, with bread to last it for nine days. We were lucky to have enough food and water so that we didn't really starve or died of thirst—yes—we survived that—and then from there we went on an English boat—you know, to Alexandria, Egypt. We got—arrived there four months before the war ended. We stayed there ‘til 1922, when we came to this country.
Nettie: Marie, at one time you told me you took a trip with someone to Egypt, and I think it would be interesting to know about Egypt, plus telling us about Pyramids there.
Marie: Oh yes, I made my first trip back to Egypt and Lebanon in 1964, and my uncle was a doctor there—he took us all over, of course. I was a young girl when I left there, about fourteen years old, when I left Egypt to come to this country. It was a new experience again for me. Naturally, we went to the Pyramids and they're really something to see. It was beautiful, I got our pictures there.
Nettie: Marie, how would, say, the height of a pyramid would be, according to a—maybe a building around here?
Marie: Perhaps, if I can recollect , it could be something like to be probably, to be forty stories, that the highest one, then you have the middle one, then you have the small one, then you have the—then you—the middle one, the only one that has the tombs inside, where some of the Pharaohs and Princes and Queens are buried there—you have guards to take you in—is—rather frightening, I never went in—really—‘cause— (Laughing).
They are all man-made—as you know—in those—you, the Pharaohs—thousands of people died building it, and they carry all these stone on their backs all the way up, many of them would fall or get killed.
Nettie: They say they are made so perfect, is that right?
Marie: Well, perfect for those days, yes—they are not made putting with cement with each other, just—
Nettie: Isn't there anything else you want to tell us, or experiences you can tell us—
Marie: They had beautiful museums there that are really beautiful to see, and the mosques—Mohammed mosques that are very beautiful. The walls are—at least of couple of them that were there were made of alabaster—all the chandeliers are gold filigree, and this is another thing, when anybody has to go into the mosque you cannot go with your shoes—you take your shoes outside and the guard gives you linen slippers to tie on your feet to go in and see the mosque.
Nettie: That's what they call their Holy Place, isn't it?
Nettie: I think at one time you told me something, the Pyramids—about a certain record that was made.
Marie: Oh yes, yes—they have—this is something that the Frenchman invented and wrote the book and developed a record—also, it is what they call "Light and Sound." It is done at night, because they—it's done in French, English, and Arabic at different nights—they have chairs like a theater, you know, and there's the commenter who commentates, you know—the narrator, I should say—and the light would be thrown on the, let's say, on the Sphinx, say, for an instance, and the voice would come out from the Sphinx and they would tell the history of Egypt and the Pharaohs and Queens, etc. It was beautiful—very beautiful. In fact they were thinking—it was written up here in the U.S. papers that they were trying to see if they could do it on Washington, D.C., but it never went through. It was something to see—fascinating—very interesting—they are talking about the certain one of the Pyramids, and then the light would go on and the sound would come out, as if it was coming from inside. It was beautiful.
Nettie: I don't recall anything else. Marie, do you have anything else to tell us?
Marie: No, I just wish that my brother was living at when they made the picture of Lawrence of Arabia, because him and Lawrence were together with King Faisal—they worked with King Faisal. Did you ever see the movie?
Nettie: Yes, I did, Marie.
Marie: Well I lived it—I lived it again—because that was, we were mixed up in it—you know. (Laughing).
Nettie: To you—it’s more interesting since you lived it than it, more than it would be to us. Well, Marie, I appreciate you telling us more about this. Thank you very much.
Marie: Thank you too.