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Innerviews: Lebanese bride happily Americanized

Kenny Kemp
Serving slices of her famous hummingbird cake, Nabila Najar of St. Albans talks about learning to cook American food when she arrived in Mullens as a 19-year-old bride from Lebanon. For years, she helped her husband operate Najar's drive-in on U.S. 60.
Kenny Kemp "You can't sit home and say, 'God give me.' ...
Kenny Kemp ... God says, 'If you don't get up and go, honey, ...
Kenny Kemp ... you aren't going to get anywhere.'"
Courtesy photo As a young married woman from Lebanon, Nabila Najar adapted quickly to her new life in West Virginia.
Kenny Kemp This treasured portrait commemorates the marriage of Nabila and Adil Najar in Lebanon in 1950. She always called him by his nickname, Eddie. They were married 54 years before his death seven years ago.
Courtesy photo A snapshot shows the Kenney's drive-in franchise owned by the Najars. The specialty was a 15-cent hamburger dipped in sauce and placed on a bun.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- She oozes old-country charm. She's cheerful, outgoing and quick to laugh, especially at herself. Nabila Najar feels comfortably at home here, far removed from the cautious, wide-eyed bride who arrived from Lebanon in 1951 unable to speak a word of English.

Thrust into everyday life in the bustling coalfield town of Mullens, she used spunk and resourcefulness to make her way as she juggled motherhood and helping her husband at their curb service restaurant.

In 1953, a new opportunity brought them to St. Albans, where they ran a drive-in on U.S. 60 known first as the Drive Under and later as Najar's. It operated until 1977.

She grew to love the country that so intimidated her as a newlywed. Still robust and chatty at 80, she glows with gratitude for her Americanization.

 

"I was born in Bzebdine, Lebanon. My father was a farmer and businessman. We were the only ones in town with our own water. My father dug a well under the mountain. We raised everything we ate. Mom was a hard-working person. I watched her and learned how to cook.

"We went to school at age 5, from 8 to 4 every day. I walked every day to a Catholic school. I stayed in school until the sixth grade. Then I said I'd had enough. We couldn't afford it.

"We were a family of nine. Every morning, one of us would take over the kitchen. Breakfast had to be ready by 9 when they came back from the farm. My father was up at 3:30 in the morning to go to the farm. He had to go like from here to Beckley. He had a mule or a donkey or he walked. There were no cars.

"I wanted to be a doctor. My father, after he dug the well, he had dynamite sticks, and the dynamite exploded and three of his fingers flew out the window. The doctor came. No one would stand with him because it was so gruesome. They called me in, and I stood there, and he said, 'That girl has to be a doctor.' But there was no money.

"My husband, Eddie, was in World War II with Eisenhower. I met him after the war, in 1950. He was looking for a bride. The custom is, men would visit the homes where there were young ladies. We had 14 men come to our house. There were two of us, my sister and me.

"His mother said he was not going back to America without getting married. He was born in Spokane, Wash. His family lived in Mullens. My father-in-law went to Lebanon and got married and came back and had a boy and a girl in Spokane, and they moved to Mullens. His brother was there.

"When his wife died, my father-in-law went back to Lebanon. My Eddie was raised in Lebanon. At 13, his father died. At 19, he enlisted at the embassy. He went to Egypt to Africa to Germany. He served his term and went back to Mullens where four of his cousins had a sandwich shop.

"A guy bought their business. They made a lot of money. Eddie had a '49 Buick. His cousin had a '49 Ford. They put them on a boat and came to Lebanon. The idea was to see their family and get married.

"My aunt's grandson heard them talking: 'Have you been to Bzebdine? My uncle has two beautiful daughters, the most beautiful in all of Lebanon.'

"On June 15, my birthday, I was standing at the door wearing a beautiful crepe dress and high heels, no makeup, my hair down to my shoulders. I ran inside. 'Momma, someone's looking for a bride!' I received them to come into the living room. The custom was, you served lemonade, coffee and then chocolate. We did all that. Eddie was watching me.

"He had his uncle, mother and aunt and another guy with him. The women said to come sit with them. They had to look at you close up. We got engaged in a week and were married in four weeks. That was 1951. We were on the boat 18 days coming over.

"We went to Mullens. My sister met me. She was here five years ahead of me. About three months after we got here, the chief of police said he had a place, Joe's Drive-in, and wanted to sell it. He said 4,000 men came through there every day from the Itmann mine.

"Eddie said we didn't have any money. He said, 'When you make some money, you pay me.'

"On Saturday in Mullens, it was so crowded you couldn't go down the street. We had nice shops. American workers don't look ahead. They spent all their money on weekends, and on Monday, they'd come borrow for lunch from Eddie.

"I was like a blind person thrown in this valley. My husband worked from 8:30 until 2 in the morning. I didn't know anything. I couldn't speak a word of English. French and Arabic, that's all I knew. I had to learn the language, the customs.

"Someone said something about a hot dog. I said, 'They eat hot dogs in this country?' My husband said, 'No, honey, that's a sandwich.'

"I was lucky. There was a grocery store under our first apartment in Mullens. The grocer could speak French. Later on, I would ride a taxi to the store for a quarter and take $20. I would put stuff on the counter and say, 'Is this enough?' When I got over $20, I'd put things back. I managed.

"A woman told Eddie her son had a drive-in here, the Drive Under on Route 60, and wanted to sell it. Eddie came to look at it and said we were going to move to Charleston. Eddie paid him $8,000, all the money he had. In 1953, we came to town and rented a house next door here.

"The guy told Eddie he couldn't take over until Labor Day. School opened, and business was flat. The day my husband walked in, all the help walked out. He called me and asked me to come down.

"I didn't know what to do. I didn't drive until after I was here 11 years. So I would walk across the street and cross the railroad to the drive-in.

"I had never cooked American food. He said a guy wanted an egg sunny side up. I said, 'What's that?' He said to look at the picture on the card. I saw it in the skillet when I cooked it. I was a good learner.

"When you have your own restaurant, you are a dishwasher, the bathroom cleaner, the cook, the person who takes all the complaints and the buyer. That's what I was.

"He bought a franchise from Roanoke called Kenney's. We sold burgers for 15 cents. We'd dip them in sauce and put them on a bun and they were so delicious. We opened one in Dunbar. Know where the fire station is? That building is ours. We bought the property for $25,000 and had a Kenney's there from 1964 until 1975.

"One time, Louis Armstrong was playing in Charleston. No place would feed them. Somebody told them to go to Najar's. It was 1 a.m. My husband had the door closed. But he fixed them 12 rib dinners. They were so grateful. We never turned anybody away from our restaurant.

"In 1970, we switched our place here to Najar's Drive Under. We started inside service, a steakhouse, plus outside. We stayed until 1977. First it was Smiley's and us fighting each other. Then Shoney's came on. Then there was a place on every corner. We got tired of it.

"George Wong came to the store and knocked on the door and said he wanted to put in a Chinese restaurant. We leased it to him for six months and then sold it to him. He had the best food in the world. When Corridor G came in, he moved up there. Our place burned down. There's a video shop there now.

"Life is not a bowl of Jell-O. We worked very hard, and it paid back. We had a good life. You can't sit home and say, 'God give me.' God says, 'If you don't get up and go, honey, you aren't going to get anywhere.'

"I've had the most respect from everyone. I love this country and would do anything for it."

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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