Archive for October, 2009

Sisterly Love

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009


In 1979, I was born in Peoria, Illinois and my father had a favorite song. The lyrics went like this, “Oh Mandy, you came and you gave without taking…” (you can hear it here: mandy). My father’s fondness for the song inspired the choice name of his firstborn. That is, until my parents realized then their firstborn would share her name with her uncle’s dog – another Mandy. Any sentimentality or romantic fervor for the name became inconsequential as long as that dog had what became my runner-up name. Deliberation became urgent, until another sentimentality occurred to my parents – why don’t they name their little girl after the person who set them up? My father’s sister, Sr. Rima.

At that time, nuns in Lebanon had the utmost respect of the community, for they were of the few trusted entities that served its members in times of serious need.  Although sternly and conservatively, they ran the “best” schools and held the convent doors open through every war or “event.” Now, even while clamping to the convent doors in their high heels, you hear people complain about how “pampered” and picky the nuns are. How mean they are in class. And how the nuns “only like the best food.” These words spoken by men and women who have at least one maid in the house serving them glasses of water and crystal dripping from their ceilings. However, I say if they are a little pampered with good food, cleanliness, or favors, I don’t see that as a huge payment for their sacrifices.  Anyway, this specific class of people claims, “at the nuns” it remains better than elsewhere.

stainedglassplantsNuns have a bad reputation. But, I have been a visitor to their home, the convent, on several occasions. You will not leave without a pleasant meal and peaceful surroundings. You will hear stories from wise faces and they will listen to your problems. And thoughtfully respond. They will give you their best because that is what is selfless. The small joys in life, they relish. They are each other’s family, and so is anyone who walks in. My Polish-American uncle stayed with his wife (my aunt) at the convent in Deir al Amaar during his first visit to Lebanon. They served him endless glasses of Almaza and arak while surrounded by the beauty of the Chouf. He vowed to retire there.

Though unlike the ruler-snapping nuns of Lebanon of the past, Sr. Marguerite and Sr. Bernarda and company held the podiums of my Holy Family grade school classrooms in Peoria, Illinois. I know their wrath, but I also know their kindness and their teaching skills, which though “old school,” are also indelible. As a teacher, I am personally on the other end of the spectrum of pedagogical practices; though, that doesn’t mean they are not doing something well. I am convinced that the nuns’ harshness was a result of their determination to instill discipline, values, and service — things they are always weighing and considering. Being in the company of my aunt in different contexts has been evidence of this dichotomy. While a few people who have been taught by her have admitted to me how mean she was in the classroom, outside of the classroom she is talking to my cousins and I about our love lives, asking sincere questions and keeping judgments aside. And small things – Most recently, while in the U.S., I helped her pick out a shopping cart of crayons, Elmer’s glue, and pencils for the students. They were all 10 cents each, (“Thank goodness the economy sucks sale”) and she was intent on piling them into her suitcase so that the parents could buy inexpensive supplies for their children.


Sr. Rima knew since she was a sixteen-year-old in Tyre that she wanted nothing to do with marriage. Instead, she was sure about becoming a nun. One day her sister secretly informed her that a young man had asked her parents to see her. This is when she knew it was time to reveal the calling that she felt. Her family’s reaction was stingy. Her mother scolded while her father tried to dissuade her. Even her eldest brother cut off their weekly trips to the cinema, which was a luxury at the time. But that was no price to pay for her. It was disheartening that her parents were less than supportive of her wishes, but it was mainly because they thought they would never see her. She had heard the calling – and faithfully left for France where she entered the St. Joseph convent. Upon her return, her family accepted and stood proud.

In the seventies, the convent would attract around five women per year. Before that, around twenty, twenty-five. Today, she claims they are lucky to get two. We can speculate the reasons for this decline in interest – increased opportunity for women, multiplication of other distractions, declining trust in religion, and the list may go on. But what you would never guess is that, inexplicably, there are more and more women entering their studies at the convent and then realizing that they would rather be completely cloistered, in what they call a habbis (jail) or a cloister. In these places, one is completely committed to prayer and can only see her family once every few years, through a small barred window. The question this phenomenon begs is why are more and more of these God-seeking women preferring to commit to a solitary life? Nonetheless, it is the convent’s duty to help the young women discover their callings. If they notice that she is “sad” or uncomfortable in the atmosphere of the convent, they have a serious talk.

Sr. Rima has been an active nun in several areas of Lebanon, and even in Jordan for a short time. As she says, they are put “where they are needed.” At the beginning of the civil war, she was stationed in Tyre where she and the convent tirelessly distributed food aid, and where she witnessed such episodes as a mass of people throw milk “donated” from Israel into the sea. And in Beirut where people would come for shelter and then destroy the furniture inside. She served in Saida, after the war, when the convent represented the few Christians who remained. And now she is in charge in Deir el Amar, near the Chouf where most of the children get aid for matriculation, thanks to the convent’s determination and the occasional check that “comes from God.”

Despite her serving Lebanon for thirty years, without government aid (a religious NGO, if you want), she still could not receive the Lebanese passport, for her father was Palestinian and of course, her mother’s Lebanese passport was of no use to her under Lebanon’s archaic, unjust, and sexist government law. Ironically, two years ago the French granted her a passport in gratitude of the many years she had served St. Joseph. I see this as just another example of Lebanese politics’ purported fighting for the cause, doing what is right, and in the meantime punishing everything in its way – in essence, making everything WORSE. Perhaps our government officials (and the region’s) could learn a few things about service, righteousness, and fairness from the women behind these walls.


There is a St. Joseph convent in Beirut. It stands at a corner, nondescript, between a gas station and Hariri’s new schools. The building’s visage is littered with menacing bullet holes from the war days of past. But when you enter off the noisy and impatient streets of Beirut, and ring the bell, you are buzzed in without question. No armed guard stands next to the heavy metal door that  shuts behind;  you only hear the high voices of children singing inside and feel a cool breeze touch your cheek, and a small promising feeling of peace and love.

st joseph

Solitude and el SaaHa

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009


Since 1991, when my family and I took our first trip back to Lebanon following the “end” of the war, every immigrant Lebanese family or friend we know has seized each opportunity to return to their beloved homeland where the mystery, as many call it, of this land and its beauty begins to unfold as soon as the plane hovers over Beirut. Even I, as a twelve-year-old, thought “I’m home” as the wheels of the 757 hit the runway of the airport before it was “Rafik Hariri.”

And then you wind along the sea coast, passing fruit stands and palm trees until you climb the mountain where your family lives, and those who didn’t meet you at the airport rush down from the balcony where they’ve been keeping watch. The neighbors stand on adjacent balconies and smile broadly. Your family reaches you, breathes you in, and kisses you ardently while greeting you with high-pitched voices. People rhythmically mill about the streets and you see them gathered in the saaHa looking on to see what the commotion is all about.

In the meantime, your immigrant parents and others you know have kept mostly to Lebanese circles in their respective American cities. The Turkish coffee steadily bubbles. Lebanese satellite burns the television. Children are tethered to prevent them from becoming too “American.”  And the longing for the warm embrace of community and sensory stimulation and chaos back home persists, though morphs. Over time, life in America becomes comfortable with heeded Rules of the Road, uninterrupted electricity, straight lines, customer service, relative stability, and, most importantly, the choice of solitude. The latter simultaneously becomes a comfort from the lack of anonymity and privacy especially characteristic of the village, and reason to complain, “Everyone keeps to himself in America! Our neighbors are strangers! Americans…”

Returning home becomes a vacation, in which the travelers wear their newest clothes and regularly announce how this or that is done in America. They become irritated with the driving, the smells, the lack of amenities. But they revel in the liveliness and warmth of the little country by the Mediterranean where they grew up, and sigh with mixed feelings upon coming back to their American home that they must get back to “the routine.”


I have been a resident of the Hamra district for two years now, where it seems there is anything but routine. As a Chicagoan as well, I compare Hamra to Wicker Park. Concentrated with hipsters, artists, intellectuals, old money, and yuppies, it is a neighborhood consistently updating its face with new chains and cozy pubs and demolition of old relic buildings and businesses. It comprises one of the most mixed populations in Lebanon and caters to that with anything from a brothel to a Dunkin Donuts coffee.  I entered Hamra as a stranger, meeting individuals at this party or that pub. Eventually, with Facebook and social events, I found that a surprising number of my separate acquaintances and friends know each other or live in the same building or worked with each other, or made out, or whatever.  The common thread? Hamra.

Before my friend left Lebanon for Northwestern U. last month, she whimsically recounted the vendors and “street” people who were distinct characters of the Hamra she had been a resident of for several years. We considered the web of people that living and playing in Hamra, spins. It is true that Hamra is a central space for people from all over Beirut and Lebanon and the world to integrate as well as to navigate Lebanon, even if it is a just a square, without disarming yourself of your beliefs, personality, or your radical forms of expression.  Nonetheless, my friend’s conclusion was firm: “Hamra is incestuous.” Leaving the saaHa for  Evanston, Illinois was a necessary, though temporary, change.


The saaHa in a village is the town square, a public space for all. I know from visiting my grandparents as a teenager, the saaHa in the village is where you stroll arm-in-arm with a cousin and make eyes at the pubescent boys. And where the boys shoot off fireworks. Whenever there is an event – wedding, funeral, elections – you can see the heads of men and women scattered in groups in the saaHa. It’s the daily meeting point, where you can count on something happening or/and someone you know. It’s about finding an open space.

I know a man who locates the saaHa in his roadwork of memories of the Lebanon he left in the ‘80s, as the meeting point for his emotional happiness.  He raised his children in America and married them off and bought homes and retired. Still, he doesn’t use English and he insists that back home one can lead a “life.” He remembers how he was surrounded and his family protected by the company of his village. And he sighs and sighs and all of his thoughts are Libnan, Libnan. Yet, he sold his house and his land in Lebanon and unwittingly committed to the solitude of a suburb in America.


The film Amreeka, which played at last week’s international film festival in Beirut, narrates a story about a Palestinian woman and her son who immigrate to the U.S.  It is funny, touching and quite authentic. I highly recommend seeing it, unless you’re squeamish about the immigrant experience :) .  It starts playing in the U.S. soon…

The Bright Tattered Layers of Yore

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

The following is chapter 14 of the book Chicago, by Alaa Al Aswany. The setting is the University of Illinois in Chicago and the characters are Egyptian immigrants. Vividly, what is revealed here are the irrational and even ill emotions, actions, and reasoning that arise when one is stuck between “proper” and true love, affection, or desire. Furthermore, it is heartbreaking to see how love’s challenges induce self-aggrandizement while blaming and hating the other! Which reminds me of what my Arabic instructor said to me once, “Don’t fall in love in the Middle East. It only leads to pain.”

This chapter reveals the internal conflict of an Egyptian man, Tariq, whose self-worth is rooted in his family name, his prestigious university, and his chauvinism. It makes him crazy that the object of his affection, Shaymaa, became upset with him because he ignored her indirect though obvious plea for a promise of love and marriage. Shaymaa’s self-worth is rooted in her propriety, “sit bayt” skills (woman of the house), and her reputation and dignity as a decent, clean woman. Though she is sharp with Tariq, she plays the conservative coquette like an actress on a stage.

They both come from conservative religious families and their spending so much time together torments Shaymaa: it may be interpreted by him as “proof that she was loose.” And so, her attempts of knocking out an “I love you” from him and reminding him, “Islam encourages love so long as it doesn’t lead to sin” only produces a sigh and change of subject – an unwillingness to communicate. So she grabs her things and leaves. And this is where this chapter picks up.

The issues here are representative of the layers of extremely traditional crapola that lie tattered and worn betwixt our newfangled modern threads — all across the Middle East. Tariq and Shaymaa are two extremely orthodox people who are navigating their way in very fresh freedom. Though some of us are Tariq and Shaymaa, some of us are way past Tariq and Shaymaa, while some of us are in the hardest place — somewhere in the middle. No matter, Tariq and Shaymaa haunt us all.



The Olive Harvest

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

olives“Stand still! Ok, look at me…” my aunt aims her new red Samsung digital camera at me, as I stand in the olive tree.

“Who would think you would come from America to pick olives!” We’re going to send this to your mom in America!” She thrusts a freshly broken olive branch into my hand.

I balance on the thickness of this hundred-year-old tree, holding the branch like the Statue of Liberty’s torch. I peer down through the branches and the skinny leaves into the camera and pose. Through the branches, I can see teta as she sits and gathers the olives that have built up in piles on the tarp with her big hands, chipped bronze nail polish. Her legs spread before her in a V. Squirming beside her are my three kid-cousins who shovel through bags of potato chips that they just bought with grandma’s liras.

They are not humored by the olive picking; they find it “boring.” We bribe them to pick out the good olives that are mixing with the bad ones on the blue tarp. Five-thousand liras per bucket! And so they scurry and fill and then find a shortcut by filling their bucket from the already picked buckets full of the good olives. They are savvy. In the end, we give them their fees. After all, they are only kids looking for a bit of entertainment. My uncle stands on the ladder and furiously rakes bunches of olives from the branches with his hands. He softly disciplines the kids from time to time.


My uncle’s wife works on her own at a small tree. She too is small at no more than five feet and one hundred pounds. Her face flushes a deep red, but she says nothing. I almost forget she is there. She is good with her tiny hands, but only has been able to prove it within the confines of a village. Her beauty shop, which was stationed near the steep road up the mountain, was closed after the July 2006 war with Israel. It wasn’t hit or anything. But, it wasn’t time for waxes or facials, or her favorite – skin peels. But though the war was a practical and timely excuse, this wasn’t all. The collapse of such endeavors is not only because of war, as many Lebanese (and those who know Lebanese) often take comfort in sweepingly claiming. Other things happen. The villagers see you talking to the next- door barbershop owner, taking breaks and laughing. Your clients complain too much and tell you how to do your job. “No, no, the eyeliner should be thicker.” These things can break you if you are too weak. When you know that you cannot possibly change people’s minds and you feel as though the village has a grip on who you can be, well then you close up shop and go home.

Our village.

Our village.

But home is where you will find the villagers living in earshot. The ones who know what your mother’s grandmother said fifty years ago. The ones who wish you diplomas and marriage and a home, and kids soon after. The ones who know the sound of your car engine. The ones who altogether mourn the loss of a fellow villager. The ones who will gawk at that short skirt you’re wearing while selling you a bag of bread. The ones who know when your menstrual cycle should begin (remember, earshot – no joke!). The ones who make you feel safe that there will always be an eye on your kids, wherever they are playing in the village. The ones who make your life a reality TV show with all their watching and gossiping. The ones you can love and hate. The ones who are so much a part of your history, your blood. They’re the ones who are draped around their family’s olive trees, adjacent to your family’s lot where your grandfather soon arrives in his energetic way.

Three months ago, jido quit smoking five packs a day although he was energetic then too. My grandmother asked him if he had eaten and handed him a manouche. It is startling – this mundane exchange – for I have not seen them communicate directly for a year. The olives go everywhere as I pull and pick. She hands him a manouche with cheese. And I see him smile. She is shy. I remember years ago when he said, “Your grandmother is the best,” and she had smiled coyly and held her head up as she served us the usual lavish meal. It has been awhile, but here under the zietouni, the silence is broken.

I would like to read: Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers – a new book…Review

High Places: Part II

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

The following week, my mom took us all to the Sears Tower, now called the Willis Tower in Chicago, Illinois – yet another high place to peek out from. But, it was September 12 and all I could think about was a terrorist attack on the “tallest building in the Western Hemisphere” and how my grandmother would only have one daughter left. My paranoia reminded me of a new book I recently flipped through called The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner (Review). The book’s introduction explains how after September 11, 2001, people stopped flying, fearing apparently that the previously unimagined episode of 9/11 would now happen all the time– trusting their gut before their head. So the following year, people took the roads instead where they crashed their cars, according to statistics, an additional 1600 times.


Chicago streets from top of Willis Tower


A foot above. This new glass case juts out above Chicago.

Things have changed since the time immediately following the infamous disaster. This year to Beirut alone, as of June, almost 800,000 visitors hopped in planes and by the end of the year the forecast stands at around 2,000,000. Some things have stayed the same – Israeli fighter jets were never deterred. They make their visits in Lebanon’s airspace, regularly breaking the sound barrier (google: “Israel breaks sound barrier over Lebanon”). The first time I experienced the breaking of the sound barrier was when I was 20 years old (1999). It was during the summer when I came to visit my grandparents in Ain el Delb, my mother’s home village, just East of Saida. It was a regular moment of life when the sound of thunder at a million watts roared across the tops of our homes. I was a pure virgin to war and its reverberations, so my instinct was to hit the floor where I crawled aimlessly. When it ended after a few seconds, I hobbled to the kitchen to drink water to wash down the scare. My uncle came in laughing at me. When it happened again, again I hit the floor. My grandparents and aunts seemed also undaunted, reacting as simply as if they had turned on the TV at full volume. It was just another regular moment.

One can compare these regular moments to the regular moments of caution that have ensued following that one infamous moment on American soil. Immediately following, Americans were made aware through constant media coverage that their security was in shambles. Still, 8 years after the fact, at O’Hare airport one will be cautioned through the PA system of the “terror alert level” – usually at ORANGE. (What does ORANGE mean? Well, for explanation, I highly recommend the following piece at McSweeney’s.) Where once people stopped taking planes, now they react by not budging from their newspaper article, continuing to roll their luggage along without a twitch, and boarding their flights. I always wonder what measures the “terror alert level” and why the wonderful colors of the rainbow must be molested so. But, most importantly, these regular messages have come to be a cruel actuality just the same as an Israeli fighter jet illegally and threateningly occupying their neighbor’s airspace. And though it seems everyone is desensitized, the reality is not so. As my friend Lina says while pumping her hands near her belly to describe, the roar of the breaking of the sound barrier, like a mnemonic device, stirs the gut-wrenching feelings born in wartime – even though it does not appear so. For, keeping those feelings shoved deep down, closer to the ground, is the choicest strategy toward a regular life.


Beirut corniche.