I Was Syrian, But Then I Wasn't

I was Syrian until I was five years old and then my grandma told me I was no longer Syrian; I was Lebanese. It was 1943 and Lebanon had just achieved independence from the French Mandate of 1923, which determined that Lebanon would be considered part of greater Syria. Lebanon became a republic and was considered the Paris of the Middle East because of its cultural sophistication and its democratic government consisting of both Muslims and Christians.

Lebanon, whose population was roughly 60% Christian and 40% Muslim, was more acceptable to the West than other Middle Eastern nations because of this Christian majority. The custom was to elect a Christian president and a Muslim prime minister, but the Christians held most of the power. In time, the Muslim population outnumbered the Christian and the Muslims wanted a stronger voice in the government.

The creation of Israel in 1948 added a third dimension to the historical often simmering, often exploding tribal, religious and cultural conflicts among peoples, land, and governments. According to Dorothy Drummond, whose book Holy Land, Whose Land? traces the circuitous, arcanely complicated history of the countries of the Near Middle East, the Arab/Semitic peoples had little to say about how and when their land would be divided, little money and little political power. Seemingly interminable war occupied the region during most of the twentieth century and continues into the twenty-first century.

According to Drummond, the disagreements among Christians, Jews, and Muslims never end because of the fundamental question of Jerusalem and its occupation. Jerusalem has become the symbolic flashpoint. Drummond comments that "This is likely to be the toughest dilemma of our new century, one that now figures into the International War on Terrorism. Israelis and Palestinians desperately want an end to violence, but most feel that justice - and the God of their fathers - is on their side" (69).

Lebanon, which was unique historically because it was the only country in the Middle East with a large Christian population and the site of peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims, has been on the periphery of most of the major conflicts, and has tried to remain neutral, but now is inevitably being drawn in because of its geographical proximity to the major parties in the religious and ideological wars and its increasingly Muslim majority. Indeed, throughout the Middle East, Christians are more and more of a minority. Lebanon is still trying, however, to maintain the middle road.

So when Grandma insisted that I identify as Lebanese, not Syrian, she was telling me that I was not a Syrian because Syrians had "a Baathist commitment to socialism, secularism, and Arab unity" although those would not have been her words (Drummond 189). The Lebanese, at least in our vocabulary, were Eastern Rite Catholics, businessmen, and good, hardworking people.

Family and church were the important values, and we were identified by the villages of our ancestors, not by a geographical designation made by foreign powers. We went to church, prayed and lit candles for our loved ones. We danced at haflehs (parties) and ate tabouleh and hummus and cherished our families much more than the "Americans" did. This was the ethos of my childhood. I was Lebanese; my family was from Zahleh, and I was to be proud of it. But Grandma knew and we all learned in time that we were still the same people as our Middle Eastern neighbors, bound by history and culture to the same kind of traditions and behaviors.

What would Grandma say now about her homeland and its neighbors? As the mother of twelve children, she would probably treat all the international squabbling as nonsense and knock some sense into those fighting. She would tell them to behave, get along, and do what they are supposed to do. She would say that they should get back to work and take care of their families and mind their own business. She would hold her arms high above her head and sway and trill in the style of women grieving at funerals, a small, strong woman grieving for her children as did Rachel whose bitter weeping was heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her sons, Rachel who would not be comforted, Rachel whose sons were no more (Jer. 31:15).

Grandma would put the coffee pot on, make some kibbeh and laban, and sfeeha, and talk sternly to them about love and family, hers, of course, always the model and the best. She would go on the pilgrimage to Carey, Ohio, with all the other mothers every August 15, the feast of the Assumption, and command the Virgin Mary to take care of her children and to bless her sons at war and her daughters at home. She would cry at night in sorrow for the world and its recalcitrance. She would go to the back door of her home as usual and feed the beggars who came there because they had heard about her generosity. She would make one of her sons drive her to the shelter so she could feed the hungry there.

If she were here today, she would be crying with me and many others who cannot understand or stand the violence and senseless rhetoric and the hatred and the bitterness of taste in the mouth and the destruction of ancient peoples and cultures in her far away home. She would be wailing and protesting and taking care of the poor and the homeless as she always did. She would be standing at the border so the Syrians, who are still her people, nevertheless, would be welcome to her home as was every human being she ever knew. After all, the Lord told Rachel to stop crying because he would take care of it:

Cease your loud weeping,
Shed no more tears;
For there shall be a reward for your toil,
They shall return from the land of the enemy.
You shall leave descendants after you;
Your sons shall return to their own land. (Jer. 31:16)