I grew up and still live in the upstate New York City of Utica, on the East side, which is largely an Italian American neighborhood intermingled with a small percentage of Lebanese Americans. The “Americans,” as we called them, lived on the other side of town and were largely unknown to the children of East Utica. Our community was a wonderful place to grow up, and it provided a most happy childhood. The life, the culture, which I absorbed was to a great extent that of Mount Lebanon of, say, 1910, although that which is common to Mediterranean peasant culture allowed things Italian to blend easily into that culture.
My father was a mill worker, eventually a foreman in a plaster mill; very hard work with few rewards. I was younger than my two brothers by 9 and 13 years; I looked up to them, and as often as I could I followed them around after school. And when my father finally arrived home from work, I would follow him around, too. It often seemed to me that I was not really separate from my father and my brothers, but a part of them. In the evening, if my father and my mother, both of whom I worshipped, did not visit the homes of other Lebanese or have visitors to our home, I would walk with my father to the Arabic coffee house or Ah’we, to watch the men play pinochle and to wait for the many treats they would offer me. These constant rounds of visiting, of having visitors, the streets teeming with immigrants, the constant sidewalk, stoop and porch conversations, and the many hours at the kitchen table listening to the stories, to the vivid imaginations of my parents and those of their generation, to their values and their humor, all of this flowed into my spirit as the spring flows into the branch or the vine. I never felt that I was only a little child meant to play with other little children, although that was all right too. I was first of all a part of a family, part of my father and my mother and my brothers and part of a vital neighborhood...
The vision of life that flowed into me from home and neighborhood in East Utica was one that personalized and humanized nature, the universe and God in terms of the Lebanese family, its garden, and its mountain village. The Father ideally rules the family, but only in the context of the worship of the Mother.
Grandparents have the dual respect earned through parentage and age. The family and the clan stand together in the village; one village tells tales about the other, one region about the other. Dogs, vegetables, fruit trees, and all natural phenomena are seen in terms of brothers, sisters, cousins.
God is seen now as village patriarch, now as neighborhood visitor, even at times as village jokester; he appreciates laughter, the well-told tale, the well-made arak. One weeds the garden and prunes the vine not out of hated obligation, but out of love of the lettuce leaf and the grape. The apricot tree thirsts for the water of the spring that the villager brings to the garden plot, and the villager’s thirst is quenched by both the apricot and the spring. And this relationship symbolizes the ideal relationships that should obtain between brothers, cousins, neighbors, and strangers.
Such an ideal vision was, of course, not always maintained in reality in most Lebanese-American homes, and only rarely in many others. But in comparison to the fragmented family and neighborhood life that we often find now in America, the strength and joy in the early Lebanese family life was a miracle.
I remember discussions around the family supper table between my parents and my two brothers that, as a whole, were worth more than a college education. And I remember evening gatherings of friends, which we called sahrahs, where, together with the smoking of the arkelee, the sharing of the pistachio nuts and the Turkish coffee, the maza and the arak would emanate the most delicious comic stories and tales. Those stories, as told in the delightful idiom and in that exquisite Arabic language of our parents and their generation, ring in my ear constantly, and they have a true ring, the laughter real-laughter... I recall one tale in particular, one of an old widow lady in the old country whose sons, those ackroots, neglected their mother. And of how the old lady’s kindly and clever neighbor took the widow’s olive crock, painted it gold, relieved herself in it often in the outhouse, and then buried it. She spread the rumor that the crock was full of treasure, and, quite suddenly, the old lady’s sons and daughter-in-laws became doting and took wonderful care of her till she died. The village lawyer, and mayor, and priest then all demanded, together with the children, a part of the treasure in the crock, and of course they all got their rightful share...
We sons and daughters of the early immigrants are also the recipients of a sensitivity to language and a poetization of life. I remember one of those evening gatherings when the discussion came round to what beauty really is. And I have never forgotten some of the answers:
“Beauty is spring water gushing from the rock,” says Yusef Elasmar, “and the good man’s thirst quenched.” “The apricot tree in flower and the wind through it,” says my father. “A young girl’s pomegranate cheeks and almond eyes, that’s what beauty is,” says Abdullah. “The Quoddous of the mass,” says Father Bschara, “I can never keep from crying.”
Yusef el-Asmar was our scholar and formal poet. He would recite Arabic verse at banquets, weddings, funerals, and all church occasions, and was deeply respected by our people. Abdullah Maroon peddled bananas, but was famous throughout the Arab communities of the United States as an improvisational poet, a singer of Ataba. Father Bschara was a Melkite priest renowned for his good humor, his beautiful voice, and his enormous appetite. . .
I said earlier in speaking of that village culture of our parents’ generation that they humanized and personalized nature, and I never tired of listening to their idioms in bringing nature to life as relatives. For instance, my mother speaking of our apple tree:
“He’s a smart guy, this tree. He gives apples one year and he takes it easy one year. He says ‘If I come too much, just like relatives, you may use me poorly. If you wait for me, you will treat me well.’”
My mother to my father concerning our pear and plum trees:
“Ya Mike, our uncle the pear has been giving rich beautiful fruit without a spot for the thirty-three years we have been married. And all we do for him is bless him and fill the bushels. And the plum next to him is weak and we take the worms from his roots every year but he does not recover.”
And my father’s answer:
“Ya Mintaha, some bear and some do not bear; some live long and well, and some are weak and quick to die. Nobody knows what is in the mind of the good God.”
And that good God Himself was treated with the utmost familiarity by those early Lebanese that I knew (“God is fresh,” my mother used to say, “that he never gave me a daughter.”) And His earthly servants, the Lebanese clergy, whether Maronite, Melkite, or Roum, were treated in the same way. My mother especially loved to tease the Khwarni. And her favorite, that giant of a man, the Melkite priest Father Bschara, was her perfect match in his immense vitality, as he would visit our house reguraly. I wrote the following vignette, typical of a morning’s visit in which my mother regaled me with tales of days long ao:
“Ya Mintaha, bless me my child, what have you got in the icebox or stove this morning: I’m shaking so that I could almost fall down.”
“Ya Father of mine, watch out, the floor will break and the walls fall in on us. Do not worry; there is enough to fill a corner of your stomach. What then is bothering your head?”
“To the fires with the faith of woman: Few there are, Mintaha, with sense like you; remember that you are a Kassouf girl. Ya, my God, before mass this morning came a young lady who shall be nameless from a village that deserves to be nameless, of a family that will always be nameless if such is their upbringing. And this – let us call her ‘lady’–, lady wanted to confess and so we went into the confessional box.”
“Bless me Father, I would like to invite you for a very nice breakfast at my house after mass. I have a lovely stuffed chicken which I know you favor.”
“Thank you, my daughter, for your gracious invitation, but your sins, my lamb.”
“And I have all the sweets, Bitlawa, Khriebe, Ladyfingers, done in the style of Zahle, your hometown, and dough already rising so to have hot bread from the oven.”
“Forget the oven, my dear. This is a confessional, not a kitchen. Have you no sins besides the one you are now committing?”
“0 Father, don’t say it. It is no sin to eat a nice breakfast after mass. Do come over. I have homemade olives and cheese, and nice china cups, and gold forks from the old country.”
“May God damn the old country if it produces more cucumbers like you! Go home my child, and eat your breakfast, and think of your sins; the devil take you!”
“You are a master of language, ya Father Bschara. Could anyone have responded more elegantly?”
“Don’t speak to me, Mintaha, my niece, of style. I have another woman who comes to church each morning for the choir. She must have had her training in the nightclubs of Beirut. She wants to sing the mass as if she were groaning for a boyfriend. Ya, God damn the modern style: Where now is that good mountain cheese and the olives in the Zahle style?”
“Your mind changes subjects with great rapidity O Archbishop Bschara.”
And I do believe that there was more genuine religion in the two of them, Father Bschara and my mother, than might be found in many monasteries. My mother used to say that it was not the one who beat her breast in the front pew of the church that would enter heaven, but the one who says her prayers alone in bed at night, asking God’s protection for her children and her husband. And Father Bschara would always smile and agree with her, because, he would say, she was from Zahle.. .
Our parents always feared, perhaps with good reason, that America, with all its blessings, would crush the family and obliterate the past. It is the burden of all of us here to live with and to cope with this fear, to try to achieve difficult balance, to pass on to our children the best of two cultures, one old and one new.
In one chapter of my book “Wind of the Land,” I visit for the first time my parent’s village, Zahle. The title of the book derives from an old folk song of greeting that one of my relatives in Zahle sang to me upon our encounter:
We died, and are born again
From this wind of our land
I sing for you at evening
Here in the shade and shadow
Your sun shines on me now
And out of a grave my bones are risen
When you leave the day darkens
My heart sinks and dies
You had gone, and are come again
Welcome to you, and more than welcome
0, my loved one...
We died, and are born again
From this wind of our land
This family feeling, this intense loyalty and sense of belonging, this poetization of life and love, is the best of what our parents brought with them from the Near East before World War I. They brought to America a rich and wonderful ethical life, a gentleness, a warm humor, a love of the local, a sense of place and a sense of identity, a respect for learning and a love of fruit trees and vegetable gardens. It is a wonderful heritage, and, inshallah, one worth preserving.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no.53, (Fall 2005)
Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid