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The snows of Sannin, Lebanon, on a quieter morning [Pierre Tristam, ©2000]

From the Archives
Turning Lebanese: A Family Story

[The New York Times published this piece as an OpEd in 1982. I’d been out of Lebanon for three years and failing miserably at forgetting. I remember reading this piece then then, clipping it, savoring it, typing it over and sending it to my grandmother in Lebanon. There’s never been a better time to revive it, now that so many Lebanese have been made to feel like such strangers in their own]

In the summer of 1977, I visited a tiny village on Mount Lebanon fragrant with the scent of mint and roses, and wondered why my grandmother had never wanted to come back, not even for a visit. Seventeen years earlier, her children had offered to buy her a plane ticket, and when she firmly declined it the matter was dropped. Yet every spring she asked to be driven to a wide field a few miles from her home in Adena, Ohio, where a slender stream sprang out of the hillside. There she picked mint and held up the sprigs for her children to smell. “Mit al-Lubnan,” (“like Lebanon”), she said. She wondered at the sheep in America, with their truncated tails, and told her children about the sheep with large, fluffy tails that grazed on the slopes of Mount Lebanon. My father found her a picture of one in an encyclopedia entry under “ Syria.” She was content to look at that.

When thousands of Syrian-Lebanese arrived in this country at the turn of the century, as she had, and were referred to as “Turks” because their passports bore the stamp of the Ottoman Empire, the irony was lost on their new countrymen. My grandmother believed that if a Turk walked into her kitchen the food would spoil. She said that when the Ottoman tax collectors came to her village the blood ran in the streets. Her happiest memories seemed to be of cooking for the cardinal, whose ample larder filled her with awe. Though Lebanon was proclaimed an independent republic by the time her family could afford a plane ticket in 1960, she seemed to doubt a fundamental change in the country she remembered. “In Lebanon,” she told us, circling her stomach with her hands, “only the bishops are fat.”

There were so many versions of Lebanon told by the relatives who visited my grandmother’s house. I heard that Lebanon was really part of Syria; that Lebanon was not Arab at all but Phoenician, that Lebanon was only a mountain, but the most beautiful mountain on earth. I heard that the reason the family came first to the West Virginia side of the Ohio River was that the people of Mount Lebanon always look to settle with water in front and hills behind - escape and sanctuary, necessary to the ahl-al-jebal (people of the mountain), which they had remained since the seventh century when their ancestors fled the Orontes River Valley and persecution by other Christians and Islamic tribes. But by 1960, my grandmother had long ago left both hills and water. When the 1908 flood in Wheeling, W. Va., took two of her children’s lives, she moved with her husband across the river and inland to Adena. When her son chose to marry a Protestant, she told her new daughter-in-law: “Ma’alesh. It doesn’t matter. There is only one God, the same God, for everyone.”

I arrived in Lebanon with little knowledge of the country save what my grandmother had told me. I recognized the smells and tastes of the country because of her kitchen; I recognized the rooms in the houses filled with long couches and settees from her living room, arranged to be welcoming to guests. What I did not recognize was the appropriate answer to the question from my hosts, shopkeepers and friendly students at the American University of Beirut: What are you? I’m an American, half-Lebanese. But what are you? Your religion? Your rite? Your village? Your family? Without answers, I was a stranger there.

There was everything and nothing of what I expected in Lebanon. After a civil war with roots in seventh century fears and 20 th century politics, few Lebanese felt safe looking beyond the tangle of clans and religions for the answer to what are you? “I am against my brother,” says a village proverb, “my brother and I are against my cousin; my cousin, my brother and I are against the stranger.”

Years ago, when my grandmother was offered her ticket to Lebanon, I had begged her to go and take me with her. It was so hard not to persist: She danced the dabke at weddings; she blessed our leavetakings in Arabic. Why would a Lebanese not want to go back for a visit? Her answer was to take me on the front porch with my school notebook and pencil. We sat on the long divan and she wrote down the numbers 1 to 10, saying each out loud, holding up the right number of fingers. We went on with the lessons she hoped would help her, at the age of 72, to count and make change in English. She was the stranger, too.

Barbara Bedway won the Pushcart Prize in fiction for her short story, "Death and Lebanon," and won the 2006 Radius of Arab American Writers award for "The Hungers of the World." She is a contributing editor at Editor and Publisher, where she wrote about the American media's cleansing of the Iraq war's more graphic images.

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Barbara's OpEd as it appeared in the Times in 1982, post-clipping

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