On the shelf in my study is a small, olive notebook dating from the 1930s, deep brown around the edges, its linen boards and Navy emblem shiny from handling and age. On the inside cover is a name, Rosalie Abraham, and her address, written over and over again in fountain ink as if to be sure there would be no mistake as to the rightful owner. In fact there was a second owner, Lillie Mae, Rosalie's younger sister and my grandmother, who told me in her later years that Aunt Rosalie always was the selfish type.
The notebook over which these two sisters fought, or perhaps one gave it to the other more gracefully than I imagine, was a prayer book of sorts, filled with hand-written Arabic versions of the psalms and prayers necessary for services at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was a teaching tool. No other Arabic texts had been available to serve the sizable number of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants and their children during the Depression. I know little more than this except that all the Abraham children shared the book. They learned from it the Arabic alphabet, could greet and pray like their parents and grandparents, and communicated intermittently with relatives in the Old Country, and then later, not at all.
This last vestige of Arabic school is all my family retains of the language, of the ability and effort to communicate in the tongue that was native to our first generation immigrants and then slowly faded with the successive deaths of my elders. Their children were not taught to speak the language, weren't encouraged or discouraged either way to learn, but at least Aunt Rosalie, after she wrested it finally from my grandmother, kept the notebook. Now I have it. My mother, who took after Aunt Rosalie, wrested it back when she died.
Like my mother, I can't read what is in that notebook. But I want to more than anything else in the world. I tell myself over and over again that learning Arabic would be a good way to honor my Lebanese heritage, and to challenge the cultural assimilation with which second-wave Arab immigrants charge people like me and the generations before me who seemingly were unsuccessful in passing on all they knew of Arab culture.
I have had, at least, other ways of identifying with that ethnic heritage. Family photos from the Old Country and from the new. Innumerable crocheted runners and doilies, famous in Lebanese households. A little gold jewelry passed on through the years. Semolina and bulghur spilling over in the cupboard. Crème bleach in the medicine chest that I use to hide my facial hair. Even my boyfriend is Lebanese-American. But fundamentally lacking has always been the unique marker, the unequivocal connector for those who identify as Arab. While I've studied the Arabic alphabet and can say a phrase or two, I feel, for complicated reasons, both condemned and embarrassed by my lack of facility in the language, short of kitchen-speak and some words that are better left unsaid.
I often wonder whose failure it is, or whether it's a failure at all.
At nearly forty I finally gather the courage to enroll in a rudimentary Arabic course offered by my local community college, taught one evening each week in a classroom at my high school alma mater. There are ten others in my class. A curious teenager. A young woman from Pakistan. The wife of my high school debate coach. A truck driver and an engineer. A businessman doing work in Dubai. We are all here for different reasons: for fun, work, religious study, or to satisfy linguistic curiosity. I'm here to learn about my family.
Our instructor, Sahar, is from Egypt. She tells us that she teaches Arabic, and also English as a Second Language, because she wants to do something to bring people together. She wants to narrow the void through language. She first teaches us about the vowels. She says there are six: three long, three short. They look like this:
Some are written as tiny marks above or below a letter, while others appear within a word itself. Either way they are matters of time as well as articulation. A short vowel might be one beat, while a long one, worth two. One must be careful, says Sahar, because misinterpreting the vowels in an Arabic word can lead a non-native speaker to pronounce an entirely different word, an easy mistake to make since Arabic vowels are rarely seen in print except in holy books and some newspapers. For example, it would be easy for a novice reader to interpret the Arabic word for boy, pronounced waleed, as a word which describes a very fertile woman, or waluud.
English, she says, is much easier to learn. Everything is out in the open. The vowels are seen in print. There are largely consistent rules. Few words are likely to be confused. Pare and pear. Here and hear. Context - knowing the language and also its connection to culture and to the speaker - is much more important in Arabic. Not only are vowels often missing on a page, but the way people communicate differs tremendously within the confines of the very same alphabet and a basic set of grammar rules. Arab people have adapted their language from region to region, and often according to past or present occupier. A woman in Beirut can speak quite differently from one in Baghdad, just as an American man from Biloxi can sound vastly unlike one from the Bronx.
It will come to you, says Sahar, but no one in the class believes her.
I've been told that cultural assimilation is akin to some kind of suffering, that something insidious is being wrought from the assimilator, as if the assimilator has no control or reason, would object to this forcible molding if only she knew. The suffering, they say, is made worse by codependence, brought on by the abusive demands of American culture, or southern culture, or white culture. All three.
In this way I might be considered sorely assimilated. I speak only English, and with a southern accent. I was baptized Presbyterian, confirmed Episcopalian, and then lost religion altogether. I married someone who isn't Lebanese, and then I divorced him. I listen to bluegrass and Johnny Cash. I shop at big box stores, eat terribly fatty foods, and idolize male basketball players. I am ill-read. I make for an excellent American.
On the other hand, I can list many behavioral characteristics largely associated with southern Americans that I always have attributed to my Arab heritage. I am self-effacing and extraordinarily polite. I have a profound appreciation for the connections between place, food, and self. I at once abhor and exhibit drama. I respect my elders, love my family unconditionally, and gossip about certain members brutally. I cook twice as much food as is necessary for any one meal. I rarely say no to a person in need. I take in stray animals and put up guests I do not know. I have been known to be self-righteous, and deeply, deeply provincial.
The cultural lines blur in other ways. I took up a hobby recently, coiling baskets from pine needles, a tradition that in the United States is associated most often with southern people, including the Gullah of the South Carolina Low Country, a number of native tribes, and Confederate white ladies suffering the blockades. The craft - like language - made its way from people to people, perhaps first for its utility and then also its beauty. I gather needles from under three longleaf pine trees in my back yard. Coiling the baskets came naturally to me, like the most natural thing in the world.
I gave one of my first baskets to Sitto, my boyfriend's grandmother, who is from Karoun, Lebanon. Sitto reminds me in every way of my own grandmother, from her small stature and long face to the significant stubbornness she exhibits at her advanced age. At 95 she still has sharp memories of her youth and the suffering her family endured in the Old Country during the first World War. When I gave her the basket, she cried out in the most startling way.
Aiyni, she said. Apple of my eye. My mother made baskets just like these. How could I possibly have known, she asked, just how much she missed them?
There are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet. Sahar tells us that they are often taught in families - the ones that look kind of the same are put all together in one room, like these:
The first letter we learn is daal, د, pronounced with a long vowel, worth two beats. Daaaal. D.
Sahar explains that some letters are connectors. They are very nice and hold hands with letters on either side of them when written. But some letters are only kind of nice. They may reach back to the preceding letter but not to the one after it. They don't want to hold hands. These are called non-connectors. Daal is a non-connector. It is only kind of nice. When written, Daal connects seamlessly to the letter that proceeds it then abruptly lets go, lets the other letters follow it and complete the word, but without fully connecting to it. Just like that last Arabic speaker in my family, the one who spoke to her mother in Arabic, and to me in English only.
I say it aloud, with the class.
I am completely unrecognizable as a woman of Arab descent, unless you count a dark mole near my eye as mildly reminiscent of the Mediterranean. My hair is mousy and frizzy, my skin pasty, and my limbs a little freckly. When faced with multiple check-boxes I am likely to mark the one next to white, but I am wholly uncomfortable with racial classification, and with boxes. I'd prefer to identify as multi-ethnic and nod to my diverse influences, some more overwhelming and specific than others: southern American, English, Irish, French, Arab, Lebanese, Christian. These days I mostly consider myself a southerner, and Arab-American.
People respond across a broad spectrum when I tell them this. Arabs, including many in my own family, often remind me that the Lebanese stake their claim as descendants of Phoenicians whom, by all accounts, would check off white, like me. White people look at me hard and point to that mole at the corner of my eye. An African-American colleague flat out laughed at me one particularly humid day. That explains the hair, she said. You've got some black in you.
My friend Amy is half Lebanese and half Italian, and so we can relate. While I lament the fate of an almost-blonde, she covets the more favorable and 'classic' Arab features of her cousins. Large almond eyes, dark hair and eyebrows, olive skin tones, that Semitic nose. My own cousins, most of whom are less than half of anything, are a mix of swarthy and blonde, petite and not very so. Put us all in a room together and the resemblances to our elders are clear. Set us each apart, and they seem to fade.
Until I find the website.
Kaftoun is the northern Lebanese village where my great-grandfather John Abraham was born. He was not the only one to leave it, many others did, and they landed in Mississippi and other places in the U.S., or Australia, or Brazil, also Europe. But in the end it became hard to communicate and the scattered generations rarely overlapped abroad, much less back in the Old Country. When I was younger and had time for it, travel was banned from the U.S. to Lebanon. When the ban was finally lifted, travel was beyond my monetary means. Political tempers have continued to flare, and as I write Americans are once again being evacuated from the latest violence. Even if I could make my way to Kaftoun, who would I know to call when I arrived?
Herein lies the power of the internet. I don't know why I searched for Kaftoun, and I don't know what I expected to find, but there it was -
A site designed and hosted by a local artist with a last name I recognize as that of distant cousins. The site is in English, available in translation in other languages, and connects the reader to just about everything Kaftouni and Lebanese. Village maps. Satellite images of the town. A telephone directory. Essays written by local residents and not-so-local ones. Weather reports. Tourist information. Cultural links. One can even read the latest horoscopes.
And then there is the village gallery, featuring photo collections arranged into slideshows by date or subject matter. Several weddings. A freshman prom. Summer vacation snapshots. The olive harvest. Flora and fauna of the area. Village residents and family members from far away places can contribute their collections, and many have, from pictures dating from the forties, to the sixties, to the disco years of the 1970s, and so on.
I stare at these photos nearly every single day. I eat them up. They are like gold. From them I can learn about the lives of the descendants of my own people. They are my people. If not family, they are friends and neighbors, teachers and shopkeepers, bankers and insurance agents, students and artists. They don't all look familiar, but some of them do, including the brunettes, and yes, a few blondes. There is my third cousin Maya, and my great-great-great uncle Philip. There is the professor that my mother always told me about. In some of the photos I am sure I see people who don't even live in Kaftoun - my Uncle Dickie, my Aunt Violet, my cousin Jill. I think I see my brother, and my second cousin Kate. Yes, I am sure of it. They are all there in Kaftoun.
In physiology, the word assimilation refers to the process the body uses to convert nutriments into living tissue. Perhaps this best describes the truth of the matter, whether for immigrants, exiles, first or third generations. We cast our nets, pull in what we can, take what we need to feed our souls whether from one culture or another. Some things we cast back into the sea. Some things we crave but never find in our nets, and so we substitute, call it a trade, take and give, simultaneously.
It strikes me that this is what I am doing on the nights I have Arabic class. I am both absorbing and nurturing aspects of two cultures that are equally important to me.
On my way to class each week I pull into the Shop n' Go for a snack and I always get the same thing: a Little Debby and a Coke. One woman's assimilation, I tell myself, is simply another's guilty pleasure. My mother dropped those blessed southern cakes in my lunch bag every day. My Lebanese grandmother always served us Coke in eight ounce glass bottles. These same women taught me to love and cook plenty of other comfort foods. Collard greens, grits, and Rhubarb pie. Fried kibbeh, grape leaves, and spinach fatayer. Baklawa filled with sweet Mississippi pecans. They gave me a taste for the distinctly southern and the distinctly Arab, and for that which is made better when it is a blend of both. It is how those women raised me, and I don't just mean the food.
Today Sahar writes a new word on the board. Umi. Mother. She explains that this is the standard Arabic word, but there is also another, more colloquial way to address one's mother, at least in her native country. She thinks it is a derivation of the way the English-or maybe the Italians, or the French, or some other occupier, some time ago-addressed their own mothers. The word inserted itself into the Arabic language and it just plain stuck. We all write it down in our notepads:
The word is instantly recognizable to me, and I don't need to be fluent to read it. It is perhaps the most important word in the Southern American lexicon, and in my family.
Assimilation in linguistic terms is the process by which one sound becomes similar to an adjacent sound, facilitating pronunciation. In Arabic, definite articles are often the fade-outs. Il and Al often are absorbed by the nouns they modify, both in sound and to some degree in written form. For example, al salaam, which means peace, becomes assalaam.
The word impossible in English would be pronounced inpossible if not for assimilation. In the same way, in the South, you all becomes y'all, at least the way I see it.
Every speaker, no matter her language, tends to cut corners this way. Somehow humans innately accept communication as less about language than what is being said, about connecting temporally and emotionally with someone else. We are willing to send our messages in whatever way is made easiest, because what the heart feels at the moment is the prevailing force. Our tongues find their own way. Some might argue that the purity of language is compromised by assimilation, just as it is by adaptive use of slang or modified foreign words, like mama.
Sahar tells us of the movement in her home country to require that only standard Arabic be spoken in the schools. Just as the French language has its protectors, so has Arabic. Language and culture are inextricably tied, she says. Once you break them apart, everything else follows.
I am not so convinced.
For our last class Sahar takes us to a Lebanese grocery, where we handle various goods and learn to pronounce their Arabic names. She tells us about dishes that might be made with cardamom, thyme, sesame, sour cherry seed. Like the Arabic language, certain spices and ingredients are adapted from country to country. How an Egyptian might use a certain bean might differ from the family recipe in Jordan. Foods used for religious celebrations vary by faith and in significance.
I find myself chiming in from time to time, explaining the unfamiliar shape of Lebanese pickled cucumbers, the uses of thick yogurt called labne, and why mahmool, or filled semolina cookies, are served at Easter.
I feel flattered when Sahar asks me to explain zataar, a delicious amalgam of spice, because she does not have the English words.
Bethany Chaney received a 2007 North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship award to begin work on a book-length version of Learning the Alphabet. She is trying her best to finish it this year. Her work has been published by Al Jadid: A Review and Record of Arab Culture and Arts, Northeastern Magazine, and New Ventures in Philanthropy. A graduate of the University of North Carolina and Northeastern University, Chaney is a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. She lives in Carrboro, North Carolina with her partner, Chris, and two patient cats.