I am the Hyphen

15 November, 2020

The writer in Italy (Photo courtesy Sarah Mills)

The writer in Italy (Pho­to cour­tesy Sarah Mills)

Sarah Mills

My mater­nal grand­moth­er was the rea­son I began speak­ing in Ara­bic. I spent the first six­teen years of my life in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia before mov­ing to Italy. School was in Eng­lish, as was the greater part of my social life. I spoke in Eng­lish with my father, who was born and bred in the Los Ange­les area, his own Nor­we­gian her­itage present in traces, in an affin­i­ty for the Min­neso­ta Vikings, on old Amer­i­can­iza­tion cer­tifi­cates and mono­chrome pho­tographs of boys in knicker­bock­ers and women in wide-brimmed, flower-fes­tooned hats, on post­cards and Christ­mas cards from the 1940s, wish­ing rel­a­tives a ‘God Jul!’ There was lit­tle of my Euro­pean ances­try in our house, only in sto­ries of tobac­co fields in Greece, of dis­tant rel­a­tives in Ger­many and Lillehammer. 

There is noth­ing moth-eat­en or far-removed, how­ev­er, about the oth­er half of my iden­ti­ty, that which is unequiv­o­cal­ly Arab. My moth­er’s Lebanese con­tri­bu­tion to my patch­work dom­i­nates, its col­ors bold and con­spic­u­ous, in con­trast with the more mut­ed shades of a her­itage I did not feel ful­ly con­nect­ed to, that, while dear to me, was always sev­er­al degrees removed. Lebanon, by com­par­i­son, was imme­di­ate and per­va­sive in the way it came to take up space with­in me, and as I grew old­er, I knew that I want­ed to bridge every gap that dis­tanced me from it, begin­ning with the lan­guage gap that pre­vent­ed my grand­moth­er and I from com­mu­ni­cat­ing as flu­id­ly as I would have liked. It was thus that I forced myself to string togeth­er what lit­tle Ara­bic I had picked up over the years and use it in speak­ing with her.

Teta was the teth­er to my ulti­mate sense of con­ti­nu­ity. As life shift­ed around me, as I left one coun­try for anoth­er, exchanged child­hood for ado­les­cence and then for adult­hood, as friend­ships dis­solved and oth­ers formed, she remained a con­stant, remind­ing me that I came from some­where. She was born in Beirut, short­ly after the cre­ation of the State of Greater Lebanon. She lived through the Bat­tle of Beirut in 1941, the 1958 cri­sis, the Civ­il War. She had want­ed to study Eng­lish, but the will of her male rel­a­tives pre­vailed, and she pur­sued a dif­fer­ent path instead, becom­ing a for­mi­da­ble seamstress. 

She had always vis­it­ed us in Cal­i­for­nia, where my par­ents met. My fond­est child­hood mem­o­ries involve her, my moth­er and my aunt (who also came from Lebanon to live with us) mak­ing tabouleh, stuffed zuc­chi­ni and grape leaves, as I lis­tened in on their easy chat­ter, pick­ing up frag­ments of Ara­bic, absorb­ing it into my skin, for­ev­er asso­ci­at­ing it with that warm kitchen glow. In car rides to and from school, cas­settes played Fairuz, Umm Kalthum, Cheb Mami, Khaled, Amr Diab, Kadim Al Sahir, rein­forc­ing my love for the lan­guage and, by exten­sion, the region that spoke its many, var­ied dialects, shap­ing my inter­ests for the future: I would become fas­ci­nat­ed with, and deeply trou­bled by, that part of the world, which con­tained such vast rich­ness and had con­tributed so pro­found­ly to the entire human lega­cy, but which was plagued by dev­as­tat­ing, relent­less conflict. 

When my fam­i­ly and I moved to Italy, Teta’s air­plane trips became mer­ci­ful­ly short­er, and she vis­it­ed us even more often. She was an unfail­ing smile, a col­lec­tion of sto­ries about rel­a­tives and places in Lebanon that she infused with famil­iar­i­ty even though they were unknown to me. She always brought gifts for us in her lug­gage: cof­fee with car­damom, khubz mark­ouk, zaatar, bakla­va. We played cards togeth­er. I was named for her.

“Home is not where you were born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease.”

I mea­sure my life before and after her. Naguib Mah­fouz famous­ly said, “Home is not where you were born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease.” Before her pass­ing in 2017, home was the size of her lug­gage, the sound it made when it rolled through our door, the smell it gave off when we opened it. After­ward, a wide chasm yawned where my sense of secu­ri­ty once was, and I found myself dis­placed. I left the small Ital­ian town I had moved to, where I felt things came to stag­nate and where most every­one seemed to know each oth­er and only know me in virtue of my oth­er­ness, imag­in­ing that my unease was owing all to the fact that I had­n’t assim­i­lat­ed. Italy was, is, beau­ti­ful, but no roots had formed to hold me in place to its soil. I under­stood and spoke the lan­guage, but I stood on its side­lines in con­ver­sa­tions. Its tra­di­tions, its fixed meal­times and sched­ules, its multi­gen­er­a­tional fam­i­lies, its deep famil­iar­i­ty and ease with itself all felt like supreme self-assured­ness to my inse­cu­ri­ty — almost an insult. In a coun­try with such a strong cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, my mixed her­itage and my for­eign­ness seemed like a disadvantage. 

Cal­i­for­nia loomed, offer­ing, if noth­ing else, anoth­er escape in search of an elu­sive idea of home I mis­tak­en­ly thought I could run away to, rather than cre­ate for myself. It was when I stood out­side my child­hood house, a new col­or of paint on its pan­els, a new fam­i­ly inside, that I real­ized I would nev­er be able to walk up to its front door and find myself back in time. The land­marks of my old city were all the same, more or less, but the peo­ple I loved most were a con­ti­nent away. There was noth­ing keep­ing me in Cal­i­for­nia, either. I had come full cir­cle, and the poet­ic irony of that was not lost on me. It had been a nec­es­sary jour­ney, nev­er­the­less. If I had not made so many attempts at escape, I might nev­er have under­stood Mah­fouz. I found myself back in Italy one very ordi­nary day, won­der­ing, with new eyes, how it was that I could have ever want­ed to leave its invit­ing trat­to­rie, its cob­ble­stones, its stone pines, its sun­set swarms of star­lings, the mon­u­ments that nev­er failed to slow my steps as I passed them, as strik­ing as they were the first time I laid eyes on them. And yet, despite all these epipha­nies, one thing would remain unchanged: my sense of home is still firm­ly root­ed in a part of my iden­ti­ty that is indeed asso­ci­at­ed with a place — Lebanon. 

I car­ry Lebanon around in my heart like a secret. Lit­tle about me gives it away. Lebanese moth­ers can­not con­fer cit­i­zen­ship to their chil­dren. My last name is my father’s and his father’s, the Angli­cized prod­uct of US bor­der con­trol, which stripped away the Nor­we­gian from it as it stripped away the dis­tin­guish­ing, eth­nic char­ac­ter of count­less immi­grant sur­names, homog­e­niz­ing them into the great melt­ing pot. My fea­tures are ambigu­ous; I am white-pass­ing. Where are you from? I make them guess. I’ve so far been told I am Argen­tin­ian, French, Moldovan, Greek (they got that last one right; I’m an eighth Greek on my dad’s side). It is only when I say what I am that peo­ple say, Ah, yes, I see it now, def­i­nite­ly. West­ern men have fetishized me for it on more than one occa­sion, and I almost want to revert to the effac­ing I’m Amer­i­can. Almost. That I can hide or take out my Arab­ness at will has shel­tered me from the worst of racism, though post‑9/11 school bul­lies made me squirm in my seat when they ulu­lat­ed or cracked jokes about Allah, a word that fea­tured so fre­quent­ly in con­ver­sa­tions at home, a word that my grand­moth­er so often pro­nounced. Allah yehmi­ki, Sub­hanal­lah, Masha’al­lah, Allah yer­hamo.

Women form the first line of defense in Lebanon's revolutionary protests late last year

Women form the first line of defense in Lebanon’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary protests late last year

Do I Have a Choice?

I am Arab in every way that mat­ters — in the humor I respond to, in the food that reminds me of uncon­di­tion­al love, in the music that recalls step­ping into Arab-owned shops in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia for maj­douli cheese and hal­va, in the sub­jects that inspire the bulk of my writ­ing, in the way I relate to writ­ers from the across the Mid­dle East, in the his­to­ry that is mine, that scat­tered my rel­a­tives across the world, where they alter­nate between relief at not liv­ing in Lebanon any­more and painful nos­tal­gia for the same rea­son. I am Lebanese in the joy and hope I felt at see­ing the Octo­ber protests; in the immea­sur­able grief I felt in see­ing emp­ty fridges, in learn­ing of the new exo­dus of peo­ple who would also end up in an ever-grow­ing dias­po­ra, forced to choose between stay­ing in their home­land or feed­ing their fam­i­lies; in the deep regret I felt to hear of the groves and orchards my fam­i­ly in Lebanon sold. That land is our old world, made just a lit­tle bit small­er, one more life­line tying us to it snapped. With the explo­sion of the port of Beirut, the pan­dem­ic, the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, that world has shrunk to one close rel­a­tive in Beirut and our phone calls with him, punc­tu­at­ed by sighs and always end­ing on the same note. Yal­la, when all this is over with, we are wait­ing for you, we tell him. But I always imag­ine myself buy­ing a tick­et for Lebanon first, return­ing to our gar­den with the per­sim­mon and pome­gran­ate trees, our old stone foun­tain where my moth­er and her sib­lings cooled water­mel­ons under its stream dur­ing the hot summers. 

Despite the inex­tri­ca­ble Arab part of my whole, I feel some­times as though I can hard­ly lay claim to being Arab at all. I can only get by in bro­ken Lev­an­tine dialect. I can bare­ly read or write in Ara­bic. I would nev­er know it as some­one who was born and raised there, as social media jokes about dias­po­ra kids often remind­ed me — jokes that almost always belied some resent­ment, as though those of us in the dias­po­ra were guilty of hav­ing aban­doned our coun­tries of ori­gin, as though we were less wor­thy of a title des­ig­nat­ing us Lebanese. When I am in Lebanon, I am the Amer­i­can cousin, niece, friend. In just a cou­ple of years, I will have lived in Italy as long as I did in Cal­i­for­nia, but I feel nei­ther Ital­ian nor Cal­i­forn­ian, and when I am asked how far Wood­land Hills is from Thou­sand Oaks or from San­ta Mon­i­ca, I real­ly can’t say. But I do under­stand the dis­tinct dialect of a small, moun­tain­ous town in cen­tral Italy, and I can dis­tin­guish between the accents of Rome, Milan, and Naples. 

Much has been writ­ten on iden­ti­ty; it would seem that a cri­sis relat­ed to it is latent in all of us. There is some­thing about being “so far from tribe and fire,” to bor­row a phrase from Danusha Laméris, that pre­dis­pos­es a per­son of mixed her­itage, who has known many homes and none at all, to expe­ri­ence that cri­sis in an imme­di­ate and acute way. When most every­one clings to some mark­er of iden­ti­ty or anoth­er, what does it mean for some­one of mixed her­itage when adopt­ing these mark­ers feels disin­gen­u­ous, when favor­ing one over the oth­er seems arbi­trary to observers, when oth­ers who share that mark­er with her do not see her as one of them? I have spent too much time ago­niz­ing over these ques­tions and per­haps will do so yet again, when­ev­er I have to ask some­one to slow down or repeat some­thing he or she has said in a lan­guage I feel I should have mas­tered by now and ought to hard­ly have an accent in anymore. 

Amin Maalouf wrote: “Iden­ti­ty can­not be com­part­men­tal­ized. It can­not be split into halves or thirds, nor have any clear­ly defined set of bound­aries. I do not have sev­er­al iden­ti­ties, I only have one, made of all the ele­ments that have shaped its unique pro­por­tions.” Revis­it­ing this has led me to won­der whether crises of iden­ti­ty are not the prod­uct of our own attempts to reduce our world, to whit­tle it down into a per­fect par­a­digm of what we think ‘authen­tic’ should be, so we can rep­re­sent it, reflect it in some pure, dis­tilled form. But how is that dif­fer­ent than pro­ject­ing our most stereo­typed idea of it? To claim and assert iden­ti­ty, we must be able to acknowl­edge its mul­ti­plic­i­ty, its messi­ness, its flu­id­i­ty, the sum of the expe­ri­ences that have mold­ed it into its cur­rent form, always sub­ject to evolve but no less ground­ed in objec­tive, shared real­i­ty. A child of the world is a bridge between its islands, and I have cho­sen to see myself as such rather than as an incom­plete ver­sion of any one part of the aggregate.

In a world with porous bor­ders, in which the lan­guages we speak, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the tech­nol­o­gy we use all have shared ori­gins, why not cel­e­brate our mosa­ic iden­ti­ties with­out cas­ti­gat­ing our­selves as imposters?

“I am the hyphen, the dis­tance between Lebanese and Amer­i­can,” I wrote in a poem (“Ink & Oil” 2019). Although I once placed much of the blame on that hyphen for the feel­ings of home­less­ness I have writ­ten about here, I now see an abun­dance of poten­tial there­in — poten­tial to con­struct mean­ing, to rec­on­cile one side of that hyphen to the oth­er. This essay is, in large part, a trib­ute to one of the most influ­en­tial peo­ple in my life, the woman who helped shape my char­ac­ter into what it is today. But it is also an ode to the mosa­ic iden­ti­ty — to imper­fect accents, to fusion din­ner spreads, to het­eroge­nous ori­gins, to bor­row­ing expres­sions from dif­fer­ent lan­guages to suit spe­cif­ic con­texts, to poet­ry vers­es in both Ara­bic and Eng­lish, to sit­ting in qui­et con­tem­pla­tion of com­mu­ni­ties that we might nev­er ful­ly blend into, but also to the defi­ant asser­tion of our right to a place at the table where all things con­cern­ing our iden­ti­ty are dis­cussed. “Write down! I am an Arab,” wrote Mah­moud Dar­wish, chan­nel­ing his fury at the mil­i­tary law and bureau­cra­cy that had come to dom­i­nate every aspect of Pales­tin­ian life when he was grow­ing up. When so much of what defines the Arab expe­ri­ence in mod­ern his­to­ry — and the lit­er­a­ture inspired from it — has been dis­place­ment, evic­tion, the search for a new home and a long­ing for the old one, a reck­on­ing with iden­ti­ty is woven into the very fab­ric of that expe­ri­ence. This is my hum­ble con­tri­bu­tion to that tradition.

Arab AmericansBeirutLebanonWriting and literature

Sarah AlKahly-Mills is a Lebanese-American writer. Her fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays have appeared in publications including Litro Magazine, Ink and Oil, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Michigan Quarterly Review, PopMatters, Al-Fanar Media, Middle East Eye, and various university journals.

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