Thoughts on being Lebanese-American
The circumstances of being Lebanese-American are not new for me. After all, I have been all my life. It has meant knowing what hummus and tabbouleh were long before those foods came in little tubs at the grocery store. It meant having a uni-brow and a mustache by my 12th birthday. And it meant people assumed I didn’t eat pork.
And now it means friends near and far checking in as another tragedy strikes a little, vibrant country, the size of Vermont, with Mediterranean beaches, olive groves and ski slopes, suffering from corruption, sectarianism, and an economy in free fall. Demonstrators have taken to the streets multiple times, crying for justice, crying for the garbage to be picked up, crying for a change in their government and crying to be kept safe.
The Lebanese diaspora has placed some three times the number of Lebanese living in Lebanon outside as far away as Australia, Africa, North and Latin America. Currently Lebanon, with no social welfare, holds more refugees than any other country in the world, nearly a quarter of its population.
My parents are the real deal. My dad’s family is Lebanese, but circumstances (another story) landed them in Egypt, where he was born and lived until he was 17. My mom grew up in Beirut and summered in a quaint, ancient mountain village. Her first time out of the country was as a 20-year-old bride moving to America (1960s Vermont, no less) with no English skills and a suitcase full of Paris-inspired clothes.
When my sister and I were little, we were taught how to belly dance and were encouraged to perform every time people visited. At weddings we also joined hands in a kind of kick line to do the depkeh. I wrote a report for school and argued that belly dancing was a mispronunciation of “beledi” or country dancing. I wanted to represent our culture without the stereotypes of shrouded and/or nearly naked women.
However in recent years, the developments in the Middle East have put Lebanon and its neighbors into the minds of people who previously had no concept of its even being a country and not just a town in New Hampshire. As lovely as it is to have people know where my parents come from, it is discouraging to have them believe it is a war-torn desert country. It is, of course, mentioned in the Bible, as in “cedars of Lebanon.”
Psalms 92:12 (and elsewhere) “The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree. He will grow like a cedar in Lebanon.”
Some remembered Beirut was considered “the Paris of the Middle East” before civil war destroyed its high rises and were familiar with the film, “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.” But, overall, when asked my heritage, I enjoyed letting people guess, “Italian?” “Greek?” “Native American?” “Spanish?” “Indian?” “Jewish?” because it made me feel mysterious. When, at last, I would say Lebanese, the majority had no idea what that was. Granted, I grew up in a region almost entirely populated by people of either Irish or French Canadian heritage excepting the Polish descendants in a nearby mining community.
Just an hour north of where I grew up, Montreal was teeming with Lebanese who had fled the civil war. Many of these were cousins of mine and they opened restaurants which could employ more cousins as they emigrated.
In Canada, ethnic neighborhoods with grocery stores, churches, mosques and culture classes and festivals kept these families connected to their heritage and traditions. Arabic was spoken, intermingled with French and English. Arabic music blared from kitchens and car stereos.
Meanwhile, back in Plattsburgh, I was completely assimilated, wearing Sperry Top Siders and bright pink LaCoste with the collar turned up, listening to Rick Springfield and REM and U2, The Cure and Flock of Seagulls. Speaking English and only breaking out my “kitchen Arabic,” when visiting relatives where my mispronunciations and incorrect use of tense and gender made most smile and some laugh out loud.
I wanted to identify with being Lebanese but rejected the traditional roles of men and women. I never took to cooking. My mother was an incredible cook and made homemade pita bread, yogurt and ground her own meat. I knew I couldn’t marry a Lebanese man and spend hours stuffing grape leaves, lining my eyes with kohl and baking baklava.
My parents had a “traditional” marriage with my father working long hours at the hospital and my mom being responsible for the house, my sister and me and most of the cooking. However, my dad had been raised by a strong grandmother after his mother succumbed to typhoid at 28. He was expected to clean up after himself and knew how to cook and sew. In our home, he kept his own bathroom spotless, polished the kitchen sink and scoured pots and pans after dinner parties. My mother informed us this was NOT typical for Middle Eastern men.
Today, I am in a quandary. I am envious of correspondents based in Beirut to report on the news pouring out of Syria and Iraq. I regret not honing my language (not to mention, cooking) skills. I wonder who I am.
In a small town in the Adirondacks, I appear exotic, one of a handful of women with black hair and olive skin. But, I feel like a cheat, getting by on token “foreign-ess” when I have barely kept traditions alive. Yes, I was married by a Maronite priest (an Eastern sect of Roman Catholicism with Saint Maron of Lebanon as a patron saint) to a WASP, Matheist (White Anglo Saxon Protestant Can Trace His Family Back to The Mayflower Methodist Atheist).
Yes, I have brass coffee services and little inlaid tables and boxes in my house. And, yes, I can break out Arabic phrases for everything from asking for a variety of food and drink, to congratulating you on nearly any achievement and/or holiday. But, when asked if I am passing this knowledge onto my children, the answer is, “no.” Because if I was lost in a small city one hour from an international hub of multiculturalism, my children are further removed, living in a community where roots are for trees and Mount Lebanon has been replaced by Mount Marcy.
(Marie-Anne Azar Ward lives in Jay.)