Growing up, I can recall my mother and her sister constantly arguing in a foreign tongue. I never understood what was said. I often associated Arabic with disagreement; the consonants sounded harsher to me. In some ways, it was easier too, one less argument to be involved in, implicated, perhaps.
Because of skin and name, there was always that inevitable question: where are you from? Even in youth, I remember constantly navigating where to start, knowing the desired answer, but refusing to give that up until the end. Somehow too Arab to be American, yet too American to be Arab. Not quite a distant heritage, a very real phantom.
I remember returning to my mother’s roots, to my own roots, yet still lacking the language to access it. Without language one is always a tourist, even in the country of your heritage—a foreigner with the passport of privilege.
It’s recently, I’ve learned that in Lebanese law, the father is the one to pass on nationality. Even if desired, my mother couldn’t gift me that passport with the cedar so prominent. That gift that can feel like such a curse to some. Those relatives with only a cedar imprinted book to their name, the exasperation it can bring.
My mother was the only one of her family to leave Lebanon permanently. It’s but one in a long list of her rebellions. I wonder now if part of my inability to speak the language stems from another of my mother’s rebellions—her absence during those early years when one traditionally learns their mother’s tongue. There being too much left unsaid upon her return to pick up a new language.
Perhaps those arguments of my mother and her sister were in part over me and my sister. Those years my mother was absent, my aunt stepping in. I’m sure this only added to the list of grievances—siblings that always seemed at war. A civil war so intense undoubtedly leaves marks for generations to come. All of this trauma of a family, of an individual, that gets filtered down to the next. Even a name, my own included, can bear witness to that. A war steeped in religion where the wrong-sounding name would get you killed. Secular names for the next generation.
A state of limbo, a migrant of sorts. Others far more than myself.