Preamble ~ Coming to here
Rewritten diary entry, May 1994 Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Graduation in one month. I get to leave this place that isn’t mine—that won’t let me officially belong. The place that tells me I am sinful for not covering myself. Where I liked Alexandra when I was seven, a girl liking a girl, and I haven’t had a friend yet that I could giggle with about her. There are only the books I’m not allowed to read that my parents leave unlocked for me. The voices and ideas in all those pages show me that I can come from an ocean of stories, treading in open waters and vistas with no clothes. To breathe in the words I choose, to sink beneath their surface where things really happen.
Another continent entirely. That should do.
Letter to a childhood friend, April 1995 University of Miami, Florida
Over here, men rollerblade holding hands wearing nothing but matching rainbow-coloured Speedos and pet chameleons around their necks. Over here, my roommate’s car gets smashed into twice in one week. Over here, classes take place on boats and I can read 1920s women’s literature. Over here, people have no images of where I am from. Over here, I don’t know how to tell any of my stories using any of my words. So over here, I learn about beer, which tastes acerbic and needs its edges rounded by weed. Over there, my parents do not understand why I can no longer speak with them. I can only grouch and bawl.
Piece of a rejected submission, May 1997 Downtown Montréal, Canada
How is there still snow on the ground? Nature is relentless here. I honestly thought my pee would freeze in this first outrageous winter. I still feel so apart in
this box with people walking above me and below. Space and people crammed here, fortified against weather. And why is there only ever one bathroom no matter the size of the apartment?! I hear whispers in the walls, and can almost discern words in the humming electricity, branching all around me. I know they aren’t real, but they clamour. My hair, shorn in a moment of not wanting to recognize myself as an Arab daughter anymore, is growing back. Humans resume responding to me as a non-hazardous female.
The days get longer and my weight evaporates. I miss studying on a boat. I choose a class on atmospheric weather systems, another on underwater cartography, and an intensive summer course on Dante’s Divine Comedy. They put me twenty credits over the requirement for my degree. The university transfer was to stay with my younger brother who was denied the U.S. student visa I had already obtained. He is male, with that nationality. So, only a little bit more of this freezing cold, for a Canadian passport.
Preamble to doctoral thesis, May 2007 Ouareau river, Rawdon, Canada
I was thirteen when we first went to Beirut. Chaos, military, loud voices off the plane, pushing, bustling, undisguised hum of fear and expectancy: crowds coming home. I’m shoulder-to-shoulder with my younger brother. Both of us eyes wide open. Moving sluggishly in the crowd.
The people look decorated. High frequency excitement. Post-war (not quite though). A despaired performance of belonging to counteract the guilt of leaving and thriving, of having chosen not to stay.
We look to our parents for cues. Dad is joyous. We’ve never seen him like this before. He inhabits his skin, his space, his country. He has no fear. He is home. He is playful, birth language bubbling unrestrained out of him. I don’t know this man but I already love him more than the dad who works twelve-hour shifts for us in a desert not our own.
Maman is tiny, her blond hair is below my shoulder level. She is ambivalent. Her eyes dart from finding the man she married years ago to us, lost and unsure. Her banter is edged with ...? She’s jittery around all the different guards. She’s trying to centre the family and it’s hard. The military is aggressively playful. Provocative.
Some welcome the crowd home, making sure they understand who is in charge now. Others are unashamedly resentful. They scare me. I stay close to my brother. I forget who picked us up out of the chaotic confusion of the airport’s exit. I can’t look around, I’m so jolted by the lack of lanes, cars driving on pavements, up one-way streets, mopeds in between, cars honking incessantly, crude insults shattering my father’s conversation, military checkpoints every few minutes, car swerving, dust, brother sunk in the middle seat. Maman looks out of the window. Her face is set in a mask of stone. Teeth clenched grimly, eyes melting. I look out, I turn by my window, to see what she sees.
Even now, the words don’t come. I think lightning split me, I think I dissociated. I can’t find that feeling but I remember the images. Everything was broken and crumbling. Everything. Bullet-ridden walls. Fallen-over statues, leaking fountains, shattered pavements, torn walls. The sky was a blue-blue, soft clouds tearing at the opacity of it. This is where we are from?
It’s hot. My panic begins to well and I start to feel nauseous as the car continues its unrhythmic motion. My pants stick to my legs. My breathing gets shallower. I keep looking, my hands fidgeting in my lap.
The walls are all a sun-kissed yellow, mustard yellow, aged-white yellow; pockmarked with bullets, jagged black holes, ripped façades, no frontage the insides exposed unwillingly; walls with forged metal balconies clinging to the contours, waiting to jump away.
I feel the world slide inside me
There is no ground. It is literally broken There will never be a ground again
I forget to breathe. I feel wet all over
There are no sounds or words in this memory
People are everywhere. Rummaging, talking, pushing. Carts in the street. Mattresses in building holes. Muslim coverings and not. Beautiful plants tended in the ruins. Laundry undulating in the dust. We arrive.
We arrive to my dad’s cousin’s house. Small and clean. We eat on a rooftop garden made of salvaged bricks, barrels, buckets, and a tarp. We sit on crates and stools and a homemade hammock. I am only conscious of my father’s joy and
emotion. Nothing else. And my anguish, rising, at the loss he has chosen to keep us safe.
We are driven to my grandmother’s house, where my father was born. I remember fruits, ripe and fresh, sold on the pavement. It is a torn house, bullet paths and ricochets on the inner walls, but the outer walls are standing. I know this place. He’s never talked about it before, but I remember the ladder and the two bedrooms for parents and four kids. I even know where to point to where my father slept. How do I know this? The world is shattering, cutting me.
I find out years later that it wasn’t my first time in this place, that Dad had taken me there when I was three, during a ceasefire. Just the two of us. My parents look for the photographs that were hidden before leaving. They’re all gone. I’ve only ever seen a handful of black and white pictures of my parents’ childhood.
Sound comes back.
I don’t remember getting on the plane to Beirut or the days before that. I don’t remember how we got to the hotel. But I remember feeling the crumbling as we enter our sanitized hotel rooms overlooking living destruction. I remember the sobbing starting, but not ending.
Maman baleful at my dad.
My dad stoic yet lost.
My brother small, more scared of my crying than of Beirut.
Later that night (or another night much later?) overhearing my parents talking. Maman is worried about me. Very worried. She talks about seeing a psychiatrist or a therapist.
My dad refuses. I sense through the walls the feeling of “This is her story, her people.”
I was mute for three days.
I remember the silence and the wet.
Eyes open, tired, sleepless.
The insomnia and waves of mood were there before and stayed for a long time after.
Much later, back in the country we were living in, I am taken to see a specialist of some kind, to whom I tell very little. I don’t have the words. He suggests “activity,” something I can get wrapped up in. I ask for paints. Night arrives, and
sleep doesn’t. This time, I get up and unpack my new paints, and begin to paint on my bedroom wall. I paint for hours through the night—an underwater scene replete with orcas, starfish, dolphins, seahorses, coral reefs. A calm descends with each stroke as I cover the wall I can see from my bed with a softer world.
I have learned that it takes practice to shift the focus from the visible to how meaning unfolds, to listen to what lies beneath actions and behaviours, and that silent or inarticulate immigrant teenagers carry worlds and worlds within them, well beyond linear explanations. I did graduate in marine biology, exploring an underwater world with no walls to fragment. Yet, I am a therapist offering clay and paint to immigrant youth as the ground of their selves and worlds slips and tears.
A memory from August 2012 Pully, Switzerland
Tell me a story.
How you met Papi. How you came to live in Switzerland. How I fell asleep in the tree. What it was like growing up on the coast of Syria with the pecan trees. The Paris trip on which you bought the Dior clutch purse and green silk dress that brings out the jade in your eyes.
Ooooooh wait. Tell me again about the time Papi took the high-speed train to France one afternoon just to buy an ice cream and wander on the Champs-Élysées. That cone cost him six hundred francs. I like that story.
Once Û-pon a tay-méh.
Shared giggles at my grandmother’s English opening. She switches back to French.
He was supposed to be on his way to present at a conference, and then someone at the airport told him about a casino event—I can’t remember if it was a private table of roulette or blackjack. In any case, he switched his plane ticket and headed to Switzerland. And he won the boarding school by the lake. Do you remember that school? We ran it for a few years until he lost it—also at the tables.
I remember he called me after a few days of no news. “Germaine! Pack the bags and bring the girls, we’re moving to Switzerland.” I told him he was crazy and that I’d had enough. But two months later, civil war broke out in Lebanon. Your mother had met your dad, so I packed the bags, grabbed your aunts, and moved.
Once upon a time. In Arabic: there once was, or there was not; a woman who fell in love with a uniform and a man who married her against his family’s wishes. And her daughter, my mother, did the same. There once was, there will continue to be, a family myth grown polished and beautiful with the telling. Bestowing the ability to risk and indulge on all the grandchildren.
They died two months after our giggling, my grandparents. Each one of us had just passed through from Lebanon, Canada, Singapore, England, Germany. Bella got ill first, and asked us to let her go. When I called him, right after, Papi told me that my grandmother always gets the dinner table ready first, then she calls for him. He asked me not to be angry or sad, and was gone that night, in his sleep. I will learn to entrust all those I have lost to their tables.
Stilled after a phone chat with my mother, May 2009 Montréal, Canada / Broummana, Lebanon
We are dancing on the palm of the devil’s hand, she chirps. Kaff el shaitan. That’s the saying. Kaff, meaning the palm of a hand, or a slap. And kafa. Enough. Just had enough. Of being away from home, so my parents moved back after thirty years. They landed in the airport that was bombed in 2006—just one day after my mother had travelled. That airport. My dad’s company did the signage after the damage, pointing the way to go. The signs are superfluous because it’s not a big airport and you can just follow the crowd, pressing you on to passport control.
So many emails to my love, August 2016–June 2017 Broummana, Lebanon
A year in my parents’ country, in Lebanon, by their side, as they age. It isn’t Berlin, but the centre here also has a dividing line, a green one, between east and
west. The arbitrariness of boundaries and dividers is emphasized here, and I am peacock-proud of my driving competency in downtown Beirut, where traffic lanes and lights and one-way signs remain a hypothetical suggestion rather than an imperative.
The village I live in has a main road and an eastern road. We are on the sunny side, up the winding road from where my parents met forty-five years ago, across a different kind of dividing line, across religions. There are also lots of squiggly side streets. They’re long, and the houses don’t have numbers on them, so they go by building or family name—but you must locate them in relation to a known site (like the hotel in front of our building that was bigger than the Ritz in its heyday and my grandfather used to love having high tea there). The grocer knows whose daughter I am, and the guy at the car wash won’t let me pay for the service because he comes from the same region in Syria as my grandparents. If you send me a postcard, you must include my father’s name in the address.
Broummana is organically bound by where the local pines grow. Those are the trees I see outside of my window. They are particular when it comes to climate and water, and given the number of mountain ranges and shifts in altitude, there is a high variety in climate (sun, fog, soil, rain). Everything here exists in micro-climates. They can change drastically in just a few kilometres. This micro-climate is echoed by micro-regions and neighbourhoods, and of course micro-pockets of religions, and micro-attitudes at times. Topography becomes culture and gets echoed on bodies criss-crossing the fault lines.
I find these surface traces echoing in my bellyaches and in the restlessness of my hands. Fingers vociferously ripping—a relentless gestural telling. I’ve been seeing specialists since I was five years old: homeopath, psychologist, osteopath, acupuncturist, and then bioenergetics, yoga, and EMDR . . . nothing’s changed. My ragged hands, wearing gold, are part of a cultural practice. To decoratively build over the ruins, to dance over where it hurts the most. That concert I took you to at the forum. It was built over a massacred refugee camp. To forget, how dare we, this accusation coming from the outside. How dare we drink and dance in high heels on forgotten graves? But no one has forgotten. Every few steps, every street marked with its own name, own flavour, own history, own tribe. Only shared in the telling, in the asking. And when you get the name wrong, when you incorrectly say the neighbouring street’s name instead, you are swiftly and firmly corrected. Because
things happened here that didn’t happen in the other place. And the names, those are words you cannot get wrong. And fingers-wrists-arms, they twitch and tell and dance ceaselessly. No one has forgotten.
I have one eye on the pines as my cousin, sitting in a farther-away eastern coffee shop, shares her coming to terms with never having learned our mothers’ tongue. Her own trilingual daughter acquiring yet another colony’s words. We both do not speak of our maternal grandparents, whose own country is now struggling to move out of five years of war. We talk of where she might move to next, where her husband’s work might take them. We discuss the pros and cons of her experiences in five countries so far.
When at least four generations have begun in different places, and the pasts you draw on are only partly known or even yours, what horizons do the children carry? I realize that at the periphery there is less traffic, the sights are kaleidoscopic, and you stay close to the exit sign. And no therapies have changed my nighttime imagery.
My friend and I introduce our well-dressed mothers to each other at an Arabic diner downtown. There is aqueous movement across gazes while serving thick coffee and sweets, in the knowing of each other through their children’s sharing. When my mother is asked about living away for thirty years, she shares for the first time the story of my father disappearing for five days. Taken in by a Ministry of Security for questioning, not knowing where he was or what was happening until they dropped him back home to sleep after almost twenty-four hours. How she remained anxious for the next twenty-five years until they moved back. My hands become still as I listen, the nocturnal images begin to coalesce into a contour of some kind.
The other wartime stories, the political ones from before I was born that make for great scripts that get nominated in the category of “International Films,” the ones that begin with a close-up of a white-haired man with a cane and a belly, whose mouth contracts at the world. My father finally shares those at a small gathering for his seventieth birthday. He is honoured to be witnessed by a maternal great-aunt who was harried out of Lebanon along with her six children in the 1980s for her political involvement, only allowed to return a few years ago. I did not know, before this year, that all these are who I am from.
I come to close this story and the ideas crystallize, but when I sit to write, they float away. It happens several times before I realize it. I am left trailing “. . . ” and
with the recurrent need for a manicure. Best to go out for evening drinks under a mountain village sky with friends known since elementary school. So many dovetailings in and out of this country—finally really available to us over the summer.
“We weren’t able to come see my parents until we finally got our British passports.”
“My Dominican passport only cost me $100,000, now I can come and go more easily.”
“They won’t renew my residency papers, it’s a Syrian passport.”
“I’m waiting for my immigration papers, although the lawyer said I should file as a refugee.”
That could have been me.
Frozen pee, protective parental muteness, disastrous intuitive relationships with asocial apocalypse-surviving men, and the unnamed ellipses. They all seem a small price to pay.
Next morning, I’m waiting to have a coffee with my mother. I’m waiting in an internationally located virtual queue that involves both her sisters, a first and a second cousin, and on any given day between two and five long-time friends. Weaving, constantly weaving the everyday telling that binds and keeps close. Her generation has stayed in Europe and around the Mediterranean. For a long time, I maintained the practice of handwritten letters from them, although right now there is no mailbox near my godson in South America. My generation has spread further, and my millennial cousins berate me for my lack of social media. I write long emails instead, the intimacy matters. The singularity of each of these connections is the only real raft.
“Where are you from?” Is almost, but not quite, as queasy as “are you staying or going?” What if we are banyan trees. We only seem to stand among others of our own will. The insomnia and waves of mood remain.
Footnote July 1, 2017 To Geneva Airport, Switzerland
My aunt and I are driving down the steep hills of Lutry. The night before was an electric thunderstorm with hailstones. Lac Léman is sparkling blue against the backdrop of France. The view washed clean. She has been living there for forty years, yet she surprises me by exclaiming: “It’s just so beautiful . . . thank you Papi Toni, but really profoundly, thank you.” For moving some family West on the eve of a war.
Simultaneously with my father taking a bet on undeveloped Eastern desert sands. Teaching us all that home is anywhere your loving and blessings lie.
I’m flying back to Beirut with my cousin and her kids. At the borderman’s desk, the four-year-old asks, “What’s a passport?”
His mother: “It’s a document that confirms that you are who you are.” He doesn’t get it. We smile at each other.
I mutter, “It’s a discriminatory document that delineates the edges of your possible paths.” And she chimes in, as she hustles the kids into line, “And that weighs your value based on whichever piece of earth your ancestors happen to have been born on.”
We look at each other. Floods of sacrifices pass quietly between us. While our eyes are turned away, her son pulls the security lever and stalls the escalator. Now comes rushing back in.