Updated 3 September 2014…even though I wrote this post in 2011 I think it is more relevant than ever.
The price you pay for a book bears no relation at all to the value of the stories and lessons held within! I found The Arab Mind by Raphael Patai, [a prolific cultural anthropologist] marked down at a sale in a favourite NZ book shop. I believe that, like cats, books find you, you don’t find them. In all my travels I have never seen this book anywhere else. And I found it while writing the final manuscript for Ishtar?
I grew up without knowing my Italian mother as a person. She suffered from severe bipolar disorder with psychotic episodes. So, at ten months old, I was placed in a Catholic Orphanage for the poor, and was visited only by my devoted Lebanese father. His extended family could not find any room in their hearts to love me.
My father often took me to visit his extended family, in the futile hope that their frozen hearts might thaw, but the quiet, prayerful ways of a nun-studded convent does not prepare a young girl well for the noisy and multi-generational home of Middle Eastern immigrants. In their view I was “of another breed”. I escaped Catholicism and “Little Lebanon” as a teenager and never returned. However, you can take the girl out of her Lebanese extended family but you can’t take the Lebanese influence out of the girl, as the familiar cliché goes. I picked up the Aramaic language they spoke and many positive aspects of their lives; great cooks, devotion to family (if you didn’t have a foreign mother that is) but those positives were buried deep in my soul for many years, under all the negatives.
From The Arab Mind by Albert H. Hourani: To be a Levantine is to live in two worlds or more at once, without belonging to either; to be able to go through the external forms which indicate the possession of a certain nationality, religion or culture, without actually possessing it. It is no longer to have a standard of values of one’s own, not to be able to create but only able to imitate; and not even to imitate correctly, since that also needs a certain originality. It is to belong to no community and to possess nothing of one’s own. It reveals itself in lostness, pretentiousness, cynicism and despair.
Arab Mind was such a help in the final stages of writing Whatever Happened To Ishtar? A Passionate Quest to Find Answers for Generations of Defeated Mothers. Many of my Lebanese family’s behaviours suddenly took on new meaning; the hatred they exhibited toward my Italian mother and by association, to me, was the result of thousands of years of cultural prejudice. Necessary in desert and mountain life in sectarian communities where brutal invasion and massacre were a common way of life.
To the Arab, saving face and honour are everything and when your beloved eldest son marries a sharmuta (Aramaic for prostitute-every woman who did not live up to the family’s cultural values was labelled sharmuta) then what can you do but exile from the family the issue of that union! Being the only girl child made it easy for them to make me the scapegoat of all the family’s ills in a foreign country.
In this current era of the ‘Arab Spring’, I recommend you find a copy and read Arab Mind to gain an understanding of how differently we westerners from such very young countries, like Australia and New Zealand, view everyday life. I think the half of my book that dealt with my father’s family was a much kinder book in the end because I read Arab Mind before I sent my re-written manuscript off to the publishers. So many of the events that played out in my childhood took on very different meanings, while suppressed memories re-surfaced. I understood better, what it must have been like for my naive, fifteen year old Lebanese grandmother, from the hills of Bcharre in Lebanon, to marry and follow my grandfather to the other side of the world.
How relevant to the lives of my Lebanese extended family, and by the same token, to the current Arab Spring, are the following quotes in the book:
From author Hisham Sharabi: …There is no turning away from Europe. This generation’s psychological duality, its bilingual, bicultural character are clear manifestations of this fact. It has to judge itself, to choose, and to act in terms of concepts and values rooted not in its own tradition but in a tradition that it has still not fully appropriated.
From Author Halim Barakėt:…We are a people who have lost their identity and their sense of manhood. Each of us is suffering from a split personality, especially in Lebanon. We are Arab and yet our education is in some cases French [my grandfather’s second language was French], in some cases Anglo-Saxon and in others Eastern Mystic. A very strange mixture. We need to go back and search out our roots. We’re all schizophrenic…
I have lived a life in two halves, so I know what Barakėt means about being schizophrenic. Writing Ishtar? helped me to become one person and to discover the wonderful Italian and Lebanese genetic talents buried within me. The young Arabs of today have so many tools to use in ther search for who they are; Facebook, Google, Twitter, blogging, mobile pnones, etc etc. Let’s hope their search for an identity wont take as long as it did my generation.
-Anne Frandi-Coory 3 September 2014