A Lebanon My Mother Never Saw

July 29, 2006
Juliette Kayyem

The Boston Globe
My mother said farewell to Lebanon when she was young. Her family decided to leave their small home in the north near Tripoli. When I would visit the site years later, it had been converted to a parking space -- not a parking lot, but a space.
America, to my mother's family, was kind. Her mother divorced a cruel man, and raised nine children successfully. They came at a time when it did not matter to remain Lebanese; my mother swiftly became American in all things, except her choice in a husband, my father, who was also a son of Lebanese immigrants. Lebanon, to my parents, remained in the background, a nation torn apart by civil war, long gone from their consciousness.
The family first settled in Kentucky and for years celebrated the Kentucky Derby with fanfare in their new homes in Encino, Calif. -- a mass of Arab immigrants mimicking a cultural icon of their new land. This was their new identity. And only rarely would the old creep up. Once, when visiting my sitto -- grandmother -- then 90 and barely walking, I accidentally hit the alarm system in the house. Almost immediately she appeared with immigration papers in a Ziploc baggie, ready to show any arriving private security guard that, indeed, she was legitimate, not a burglar, that she belonged.
The myth of this America was so strong that, until last year, we had all believed that the family had arrived via Ellis Island. It was a fact, not even questioned until one curious cousin determined that the clan arrived through New York, but long after the island was closed. It did not matter; how we got here mattered less than that we stayed.
It was, years later, my work in national security and counterterrorism that sometimes brought Lebanon home to my mother. There was the outrage at my finally successful attempts to get a security clearance. Having to verify that indeed my aunts and uncles were born in Lebanon was difficult; that two of the nine were born in Cuba en route only made matters worse to an FBI clearance system wary of Beirut and Havana. We had lived as Americans; the onerous security check seemed to question that. And seemed to put in some perspective that there was, through me, a history well before America.
Perhaps it was also peace in Lebanon, and her getting older, that made visiting Lebanon seem more important to my mother as the country seemingly bounced back from the devastation it had once embraced. She could visit, see the parking space, and understand -- as I had during my travels -- where she began. To understand the Lebanon she had long forgotten.
It is a trip that she will not make; perhaps she never will. The Lebanon we see is the Lebanon we remember, the one we don't visit.
For my mother, this summer began not with war, but with a naming. My third child, a son, was to be named in a Jewish ceremony and raised, like my husband and other children, in the Jewish faith. The Arabs and Jews converged in Massachusetts. The ceremony itself was uneventful in most respects. Had I known my Old Testament better, perhaps Jeremiah would not be his name, as the Jeremiah of the Bible could be slightly negative and even sometimes delusional. Jeremiah, however, is also -- as the song goes -- a good friend of mine.
And perhaps it is Jeremiah that will be the better memory of this summer, when centuries-old battles flare again in the Middle East. The poet Delmore Schwartz once wrote of a Jeremiah, Jeremiah Dickson, who, like us, lived in Cambridge: A ``true-blue American, For he was a little boy who understood America . . . knowing immediately the intimacy of truth and comedy, knowing intuitively how a sense of humor was a necessity, for one and for all who live in America." When Schwartz's Jeremiah is asked to choose between a chocolate sundae and a banana split, he rejects the "either-or" of the Europeans. "Both: I will have them both!!! Declared this true-blue American." And he did.
Perhaps my Jeremiah will get both, the bar mitzvah and the Lebanese cedars. Perhaps that is what it means to be an American; the Arab and the Jew, the Lebanon and the Israel. We will take them -- both. My mother will probably not return to her land. Perhaps the legacy of Schwartz's Jeremiah -- "the infinite belief in infinite hope -- of Columbus, Barnum, Edison and Jeremiah Dickson" -- is where she will have to settle.

Juliette Kayyem is lecturer of public policy at the Kennedy School and a former member of the National Commission on Terrorism.


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