Tuesday, September 3, 2013

My Syrian Grandfather

Here is my Syrian grandfather and his family, in the early part of the twentieth century. I don't know whether they had left Syria, yet. My grandfather Charles is the young man on the far left, in the back row. I have always been enamored of the woman on the right's wasp waist. I believe she might be my Aunt Hafeezah, remembered for her plastic-covered furniture, dusty hard candies and wet kisses. My grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1907. I am told that he was very handsome, then, so handsome that as a lifeguard on Coney Island, he was picked to be an extra in a Valentino film. He died when I was sixteen, so my memories of him are not clouded. He smoked unfiltered cigarettes-- a lot -- even after lung cancer and the removal of part of his lung. He had strong and often angry views, would holler about them with his children (my mother and my aunts and uncle). He was loud, cursed in Arabic (in fact, the only Arabic word I know is shit, pronounced a guttural cutta). He pushed meat through a meat grinder attached to the kitchen table, grew eggplants and string beans in a backyard garden and called me Rosalita because I looked like the other side, my father, the Italian Catholic who married his youngest daughter.

This is a picture of my Mississippi grandmother and her family. My grandmother, Ida Mae, is the little one in the front, shielding her eyes from the sun. She grew up on a cotton farm in the Delta. All of her brothers had Biblical names, and I believe the baby in her mother's arms is my Aunt Bessy Lucille who married a man named Artie when they were around fourteen years old. Aunt Bessy and Uncle Artie were married for nearly seventy years, I think, and I remember they were always holding hands. My grandmother died when I was around 38 years old and she was 92. She was tall and graceful, soft-spoken and dear, the definition of a lady. She told us stories in her soft southern accent, stories of growing up in the south, how she was bitten by a snake, how her brother cut the spot, sucked the blood out and then ran through the fields to get her father. She had pale blue eyes, suffered from macular degeneration in her old age, had a tinkly, gentle laugh.

So, this man

met this girl

when he was a traveling salesman, peddling lingerie in the south. He married my grandmother when she was eighteen years old and took her back to Brooklyn, where she lived with him and his mother, at first. Ida Mae learned how to speak Arabic, cook Arabic food and then raised five children in a tiny brownstone in Brooklyn. When I asked her many years later why she'd married Grandpa when she was so young, she told me Well, honey, he was tall, dark and foreign.

I'm telling you this story now because I can't get them out of my mind these days, particularly as I watch and listen and read about the conflagration in Syria. I am one-quarter Syrian. That quarter is from the city of Homs which has been in the news of late as one of the tinder boxes of the civil war there. My grandfather Charles was a Christian Arab who fled persecution with his family more than a century ago, and he never let us forget whose side he was on, barking his views from the Barcalounger he seemed to be reclined in for my entire childhood. Israel, Palestine, Jews, Muslims, Christians -- these were words I heard over and over on those weekends my cousins and I ran through the house and outside to the garden, or sat and colored while our grandmother shaped raw lamb into kibbeh and our aunts and uncle argued.

I don't know what to think about the whole thing other than it's a fucking (there's really no other word) tragedy of a colossal scale. Pure madness. All of it. I can't say I feel comforted to see President Obama sitting grimly next to John McCain as they collude on how to persuade our legislature to vote that we strike Syria. I can't say that I agree with them. I don't see the sense of bombing as punishment. I can't say I feel neutral, either, when I read of hundreds of thousands of people brutally murdered, citizens of one country killing one other barbarically and millions displaced, wandering.

I remember the fighting and yelling in my own extended family, though, over what seems like the same old shit.

Pure madness. All of it.

I don't know if I have any relatives in Syria, but I imagine someone whose blood and genes I share is running around there, throwing rocks or bombs or fleeing with her children to neighboring countries or even receiving the gas meant to kill from her own government.

I don't know what to think.

(Arabic for shit)


  1. Shit, indeed. It is tragic and sad and incomprehensible.

  2. Sometimes that word, in any language, feels like the only response. I am sad and bewildered by this, too. Thank you for writing it.

    And "well, honey, he was tall, dark and foreign" made me smile out loud. Love it.

  3. This is powerful. The image of everyone in that house arguing the same things out over and over again- there really is no ending, is there?
    I don't understand. I do not get any of it. I have no solid ground of fact from which to stand.
    As your grandmother's people might have said, "I don't have a dog in this fight."
    But of course, I do, as do we all. Our country may bomb another country. That's our dog.
    As I said the other day, I am scared. Scared as shit.

  4. It is amazing that most of us in this country can trace our roots back to another part of the world where the US has been involved in some nasty war or other. My great grandmother's family fled from persecution in the Ukraine in 1901 and, while I never recall her speaking of it, her reaction was to take in each and every stray (person or animal) who needed shelter and feed them until the day she died at the age of 91.

  5. Alhamdulillah!

    I love to read your posts, Elizabeth.

  6. Once again our stories are alike, I can relate to a similar family blending of cultures and countries. My mother was one of seven children born to native Albanians who left their country in search of a better life. They brought my great grandmother with them. She never learned to speak much English but communicated better than anyone. Passionate discussions, lots of laughter and an abundance of flavorful dishes is what I remember most about family get togethers....I have more cousins, aunts, uncles, great uncles (etc) than I can count. I can speak NO Alabanian with the exception of "eat shit" or "your head is made out of wood".

    My father, on the other hand, was a WASP and native New Englander. His family roots go back to the Puritans who settled here for religious reasons from England. Family events with my grandparents, Ma and Pa were strained conversations (after church) and bad, boiled food! I have no idea what my mother and father ever had in common?

    Like you, I am at a loss to understand how bombs, missile strikes and more potentially dead citizens will stop the killing and end the violence in Syria.

  7. Your sons look like your grandfather.

    As for Syria, there will be no good answers, only death and pain I'm thinking. And as always, children will suffer the most.

  8. Thank you for sharing your family's story. I loved reading it and seeing the photographs. I can just imagine their chemistry, enough to cause her to run off to the north with a foreign Yankee (I wonder how that went over down on the farm). So romantic, and yet, not an easy transition!

    When you write about your family's Syrian roots, what is happening in Syria becomes much more than a news story about a place I can't imagine, people I've never met, a culture I don't know anything about. It becomes current, living, real and even more terrible. I don't know why we haven't learned from all of the wars that have taken place, even in the 20th century, but we haven't. Why not? Why ever not?

    Then I think about the conflicts in my own life ("the troubles"), and in my own family, and I realize that human beings can be so fallible, so passionate, blind, intolerant and impatient that we just break down and throw things. Pema Chodron writes about throwing things in anger, and it always makes me laugh when I read it, because it's so real, so human - but if we don't stop ourselves, we end up throwing bullets and bombs. And in that case, how are we behaving differently from the ones we are trying to stop?

  9. Dear, god. I wish I knew the answer.

    As a Quaker my religious and personal beliefs are that of Peace. Peace is one of our core beliefs. And yet, there are times when I am confused and scared. But isn't that what bullies want for us? To be confused and scared? To worry about walking from one place to another? To fear speaking our minds and showing our differences?

    Violence is always wrong and non-violence is always right, and yet...

  10. I have very mixed feelings about what, if anything, should be done regarding the situation in Syria. The only arabic word I know is the same one you know!! I learned this from my Lebanese brother-in-law. I thought he was saying "cracker". He explained that he wasn't.


  11. It's a giant pile of steaming shit to which a fan is about to be added. Why people cannot see what is going to come of this from ten thousand miles away is beyond me.

  12. Thank you for these words and photos, Elizabeth. And you're right--it's pure madness.

  13. I love the meditation on your grandparents. How wonderful that they found each other. I can't possibly sum up my feelings on Syria here. They are similar to yours, and you've done it so well.

  14. I don't know what to think either. I can't help but think that any military action we take will only make things worse. We'll kill civilians, we'll add fire to the flames. And what's the endgame? Even if Assad lost power, who would replace him?

    The story of your family is fascinating. It must have been mind-blowing for your grandmother to go from her Mississippi family to Brooklyn, married to a Syrian Christian. What an amazing life change!

  15. You are a damned good writer, you know that? And God bless your grandma for being so gutsy. I don't know what to make of it either. It's so screwed up for so many generations that even if they can get rid of Assad they're still in a mess. Ugh.

  16. It is indeed pure madness....I think the only that will stop any of it is to bring all of our people home and stop all foreign aid. We think of foreign aid as helping the "people" but really it lines the pockets of dictators and continues this madness.

  17. I had a similar childhood. My ancestors are from Lebanon and I remember endless Sundays at my great-grandmother's house with all the men arguing in Arabic about everything going on in the Middle East (while we feasted on kibbeh and grape leaves and hummus). One of my uncles was a diplomat. His office in West LA was repeatedly bombed. And yet I grew up thinking they were all crazy... They are all gone now -- those men and my dear sweet aunts and beautiful Nanny. And I have no better idea now than I did then what any of the fighting is about.

    Beautiful post.

  18. I didn't know about your Syrian roots.

  19. sorry - had to get away, I thought I'd come back to add that here in Europe we don't agree with the course of action that your Nobel Prize president is supporting.

  20. Different families, different arguments, different countries... "same old shit." I believe we'll get through this shit just as we've gotten through shit in the past. And then we'll have a break before the "same old shit" starts all over again. {sigh}

  21. and we are all so related - they are related - and it's a small cramped world we share - there are no answers to this shit

  22. I enjoyed seeing your family photos and reading about your grandparents. Your grandmother's answer to why she married your grandfather was great.

    I wish the Powers that Be could just step back, think about what they are about to do, and then just not do it. There must be a better way.



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