“Imaginary Homelands”—Lebanese American Prose

By Evelyn Shakir

I take my title from an essay by Salman Rushdie, in which he reflects on the need many expatriates, exiles, and just plain emigrants feel to look over their shoulder at the land that they have left behind and that now seems lost to them. And, if they’re writers, to try to recreate it in the literature they produce. But Rushdie issues a warning:  “We will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost.” Instead, “we will create fictions, not actual cities or villages but invisible ones, imaginary homelands.”

Thus Rushdie admits that in his novel, “Midnight’s Children,” he created an India that is “a version and no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions.”  

Of course, versions of the homeland are not whimsical; they are shaped by circumstance and serve a purpose. Rushdie confesses to a very human motive. Perhaps his version of India, he says, is the only India to which he is willing to admit he belongs. Admit to whom? Mostly, I should think, to himself, but likely also to a Western audience that may harbor distorted preconceptions about India and Indians, just as they may about any group that seems distant from their own experience. (In the same essay, Rushdie tells the story of an Englishman who asks why he objects to being called a WOG.) It would be no surprise, then, if immigrant writers (such as Rushdie), consciously or unconsciously, construct homelands that take their readers’ preconceptions into account.

Among Arab-American writers, Gibran Kahlil Gibran comes to mind. Gibran, of course, belonged to the first wave of Lebanese immigration that began around 1880 and continued into the 1920s. These were years that pretty much coincided with the height of what has been called American Orientalism. In fashion (harem pants), in marketing (Camel and Fatima cigarettes), in films (“The Sheikh” and “The Thief of Bagdhad”), in popular music (Irving Berlin’s “In My Harem”) in fine art (paintings by Sargent and others), things Oriental were all the vogue.

In response to this, and encouraged by his early Yankee patrons (one of whom had taken to lounging at home in Bedouin outfit while puffing on a water pipe), Gibran self-consciously marketed himself as a representative of the mysterious East. That was his homeland. Not so much the East of hashish and harems but rather a land of mystics and prophets. Occasionally, he seems to have gone even further, claiming that he was of Indian ancestry (presumably because of India’s association with swamis and spirituality). In that claim, we have the ultimate, bold-faced construction of an imaginary homeland.   

Though Gibran’s self-inventions served him well in terms of popular success, if adopted by the community as a whole, they would not have won friends. It’s one thing to copy favorite passages of the “Prophet” into a diary; it’s another to have an oddly-attired truth teller living next door. With increasing frequency, both politicians and scholars were making the argument that exotic strangers from the East — whether Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or “Syrian” — could never be assimilated into American society and, as their numbers grew, would eventually undermine American institutions and corrupt American character.  

In the face of this political agitation, it was in the immigrants’ best interests to render themselves less alien. To that end, the most useful formula was the equation of homeland and Holy Land. There was standing to be gained by reinforcing the immigrants’ connection with the terrain in which Western values were presumably rooted, especially if that terrain was drained of its exoticism and pruned of the prophetic tone and Orientalist flourishes cultivated by Gibran. As portrayed by sober Lebanese Protestants, the homeland was sacred, yes, but down to earth, familiar and unthreatening as a Sunday School coloring book.  

To claim the Holy Land as a place of origin required an adjustment that, to some extent, would have taken place in any case. In America, the sense of home inevitably expanded to include all those who spoke the same language, ate the same food, had the same customs, told the same stories. For Arab immigrants, differences between villages, or even between Damascus and Mount Lebanon, paled in comparison to differences between Lebanese/Syrians and, say, Anglos. And Americans, themselves, of course, usually lumped all Arabic-speaking strangers together and even had trouble distinguishing them from Turks.

But expansion in the definition of home was also consistent with the desire of Lebanese/Syrians to claim the Holy Land. For that to happen, the boundaries of home had to be imaginatively redrawn to encompass all of Greater Syria and especially Palestine. In 1929, Rahme Haydar (a native of Baalbek) introduced her people as “Syrians or as they are sometimes called Palestinians,” thus making the two labels congruent and collapsing any distinction between them. With home defined in those terms, the immigrants could more easily pronounce the Christ one of their own. As Abraham Rihbany wrote, “Whatever else Jesus was, as regards his modes of thought and life and his method of teaching, he was a Syrian of the Syrians.”  

Authors who mined this trope of home as Holy Land were most often Protestant converts who had honed their narrative skills by telling their personal stories in front of Rotary Clubs and other middle-America civic groups (which meant they had learned, face to face, what played well with American audiences). I am thinking not only of Rihbany whose autobiography (1911) reports that, at his birth, family and friends brought presents “as did the Wise Men of old”; and not only of Haydar who speaks casually of “my Biblical ancestors” and traces her family name to the Book of Genesis; but also of Layya Barakat  who pettishly reminds readers of her autobiography (1912) that “it was from my country that the missionaries of the cross went to your heathen ancestors and Christianized them and made you what you are today.”

But even as immigrant autobiographers reveled in their status as descendants of the earliest Christians, they did not hesitate to dissect the ills they had left behind — poverty, ignorance, bigotry, lack of opportunity, war, and political oppression. One or all of these they claim to have escaped through emigration. So, although in their writing home may be the Holy Land, America is the Promised Land. In other words, their writing belongs to that once-popular (now quaint) genre of immigrant autobiography that has been labeled “the cult of gratitude.” Even Layyah Barakat, for all her disparagement of Americans’ heathen ancestors, describes her passage to America in chapters consecutively titled — “Deliverance from Egypt,” “From Egypt to Canaan,” and finally “In the Land of Promise.”

Others, of course, sounded a more skeptical note. In his novel “The Book of Khaled” (1911), Ameen Rihani irreverently describes America as “the paradise of the Oriental imagination,” less a scriptural reference than an ironic inversion of the Orientalist notion of the East as the paradise, sexual and luxurious, of the Western imagination. Sadly, for Khaled, America turns out to be no paradise at all, although he does find sex freely offered. Disillusioned, he returns home, to a place which falls equally short of Eden.

By the 1960s, Arab-American literature, now in the hands of second-generation writers, is so scant that one hesitates to generalize. Still, a shift in rhetoric and purpose can be detected. For instance, as imagined by Vance Bourjaily, and Eugene Paul Nassar, Lebanon may remain a blessed land but one with religious reference mostly washed away. Instead it has become a secular icon of sanity and bedrock morality and, as such, an implicit rebuke to American society. The homeland is now an instrument for making clear what troubles these writers about the United States, primarily glorification of the individual at the expense of human connection.    

In “Confessions of a Spent Youth” (1960), Bourjaily tells the story of U.S.D. Quincy (clearly to be identified with the author). Quincy, whose father and grandmother emigrated from Lebanon, grew up far-removed from the ethnic community and with little curiosity about his heritage. Eventually, however, fate directs him to Kabb Elias, his parents’ birthplace. There he sees girls on the roof of a house, “silhouetted against the sky, wearing dark, biblical robes and grinding wheat on flat stones.” But it is not biblical association that ultimately seduces him. Rather, it is the strong sense of family and personal coherence he finds, until, in a total reversal of the “cult of gratitude,” he laments his grandmother’s emigration to America, an uprooting that has deprived him of home and left him — unlike his cousins in Kabb Elias — “a fractional man on the face of the earth — uselessly complicated and discontent.”  

Eugene Paul Nassar pays similar tribute to his parents’ homeland and culture. “East Utica” (written mostly in the 60s) is a stunningly lyrical account of growing up in a mixed, but closely-knit, Italian and Lebanese neighborhood of Utica, NY. The narrative — actually an extended prose poem — provides ample evidence that the farther removed from the homeland, the greater the likelihood of losing one’s moral and psychological bearings. By the second or third generation, symptoms of decay are evident — too many families disintegrating, too many lonely old people left on their own, the peasant values that sustained and enriched human connections in danger of being plowed under. At a culminating moment in the book, Nassar (like Quincy) visits his parents’ hometown in Lebanon, in his case Zahle, and is enchanted by its people. He wonders, “What did they know that he did not? They were in tune with a harmony, these people, his people, who danced in the gorgeous evening.”

The last decade or so has witnessed a new burgeoning of Arab-American literature, much of it still by Americans of Lebanese descent. Prompted by feminist impulse or by the horror of war or simply by the revisionist spirit of the age, these writers have set about de-mythologizing the homeland. Diana Abu-Jaber, the author of “Arabian Jazz” (1993), is not Lebanese, but her work is instructive. In her novel, a visitor from Jordan tells his American-born cousin, “There is nothing unique or magical about the Middle East. It shares xenophobias and violences with all the rest of the world.” Elmaz Abinader, who is of Lebanese background, suggests a similar attitude. In her 1991 family memoir “Children of the Roojme,” (with key chapters set during World War I) family members turn on one another as they battle starvation and disease. Sexism rears its head in community disparagement of female offspring. (Abu-Jaber goes further. We hear rumors of newborn daughters suffocated when times are hard.) And in the title story of Joseph Geha’s collection “Through and Through” (1990), a Lebanese-American gangster discovers that Lebanon is “a lot like home. A handful of family syndicates run the whole place, with defined territories, bosses, and soldiers.”  

By the time Geha wrote those words, civil war had already ravaged Lebanese society. As it continued its sorry history and Beirut became a synonym for civil chaos and blood feuds, the construction of the homeland as a depository of wisdom and morality became a conceit increasingly difficult to maintain. In Arab American literature, perhaps the most merciless indictment of Lebanese society has come from Rabih Alameddine, a Lebanese ex-patriot, living in the United States. In his brilliant novel “Koolaids: The Art of War” (1998) he describes “bloody corpses, with open eyes” in a town “Expunged.Obliterated.” Alameddine’s originality lies in his book’s fractured structure, appropriate to a society tearing itself apart in civil strife. It lies also in a daring gambit, likening the devastation of war in Lebanon to the scourge of AIDS in the gay community. Thus, he adds a new dimension to the depiction of the homeland, yoking it to a human drama that many Lebanese would recoil from. In the next-to-last passage, the protagonist, who is on his deathbed, rails (as did Rihani) against both Lebanon and the United States. I got my American citizenship and was able to tear up my Lebanese passport. That was great. Then. They are dumb. That’s my problem with Americans. . . . .  America is the birthplace of the Wheel of Fortune and I will never forgive it for that. I’m getting tired. What time is it? I want tea. I want something. . . . I tried so hard to rid myself of anything Lebanese. I hate everything Lebanese. But I never could. It seeps through my entire being.

And then there is Frances Khirallah Noble (with ancestors in Zahle and Douma), who leapfrogs into an earlier, more innocent age and an ancient tradition of story telling. In her short story “Situe” (2000), inexplicable things happen. A child loses her dark hair and years later, re-grows a magnificent blond mane. The girl and her grandmother are connected by an invisible thread — at the instant the girl crosses the threshold of a ship bound for America, the grandmother dies. This is the stuff of folklore and turns home into a land, distant in time and place, where the marvelous (though no longer the biblical) still occurs, and where no claim is laid to historical truth. “Kan ma kan (there was, there was not)” begin the old folk tales.

These proliferating versions of the homeland suggest that Lebanese-American writing is achieving a new artistic maturity, influenced by the times and, in all likelihood, by the large body of ethnic literature — Asian, Latino, and other — that is now so dominant on the American literary scene. Such cross-fertilization is all to the good. At the end of Rushdie’s essay on imaginary homelands, he warns that the most dangerous pitfall for writers would be to construct homelands in the South African sense, bandustans of the imagination. In other words, to adopt a ghetto mentality, forgetting that other groups have experiences similar to our own. We belong, Rushdie reminds us, not just to a particular ethnic ancestry,but to a broader tradition that laps across ethnic boundaries and that grows “out of the culture of transplantation . . . and of examining the ways in which people cope with a new world.”  

That multi-ethnic literature, I’d suggest, is another kind of homeland. At least, if we define home as the place where we find our kin, those with whom we share a history. In the last line of his essay, Rushdie quotes Saul Bellow. “For God’s sake, open the universe a little more!”

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 9, nos. 42/43 Winter/Spring 2003)
Copyright (c) 2003-2010 by Al Jadid


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