Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Preparing the Emigrants

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Preparing the Emigrants

Article excerpt

I did not fully understand when I left Beabdat and Les Soeurs de Besançon that I was making a final departure-that this would be our last summer in Lebanon. Constantine and I were to leave for the United States in August 1959, in time to begin the new school year in America.

A newly-purchased white radio perched high on a shelf greeted me as I entered Aunt Najla's room, transforming the space into a social center for older neighborhood women who sat, legs crossed in the Middle Eastern manner, on the floor of the room, listening to the radio. (Aunt Najla received a weekly written guide advising listeners of available programs.) I could not be certain whether the women were digesting the sounds flying from that strange machine. They exchanged gossip, laughed out loud, drank Turkish coffee prepared by Umm Zahiyya, and indulged in fresh pastry prepared for the occasion. Whenever I entered the room, they would ululate and clap their hands. At first, their actions took me aback. Later, I understood the reason for this joyous behavior.

They were excited about the two Malti children's departure to America. There was no television in the village, but these women knew of its existence in the far-away land to which Costy and I were headed. I cannot possibly count the number of times they asked me to please get on the television in that distant place and speak to them. Of course, I was just as ignorant of television as they were and always agreed to their requests. Whenever I sit in a television studio in the United States, memories of Aunt Najla and her friends in Deir el-Amar beseeching me to speak to them through the magical machine overtake me, and I realize again how naive we all were in our insular mountain environment.

That last summer in Lebanon was so overwhelming that I have trouble remembering it. That last summer in Lebanon became isolated episodes so intense they overwhelm and destroy any other events in their path. That last summer in Lebanon, despite or perhaps because of its intensity, flew by as quickly as the swiftest bird.

Hana took me to the St. Elias Church to obtain the first of many blessings I would receive for the upcoming trip to the United States. I sat on the padded bench across from the desk behind which the Bishop made himself comfortable. He and Hana exchanged small talk as his wife offered his guests hot drinks and pastry. My legs dangled, unable to reach the floor below. I began to move them back and forth, one forward, one back, then one forward, one back-over and over.

The stern voice of the religious authority cut through my reverie: "Fedwa," he began. "You must not do that. It is very bad. Americans never do things like that, and you have to learn how to behave in America." I said nothing but stopped moving my legs. I could not help but wonder about this new country to which we were being shipped.

Back home, I was fed other tales about America. Since Costy and I were the only ones about to enter my uncle Michel's "Paradise on earth," all responsibilities for Costy's safety fell on me.

"Your brother is younger than you. You must take care of him and keep him safe," Aunt Najla told me one day. But telling me once was not enough. She repeated this mantra to me daily, often more than once a day. Then one afternoon, Aunt Najla and her friends began relating stories about what happens to children in America. If a youngster went out alone, I learned, he or she would be kidnapped and sold to unspecified buyers. Some evildoers even stole children to kill them.

One tale made such an impression on me that I remember it to this day. Africans, I learned, were in the habit of kidnapping young children in public places like airports or empty streets, then taking them to hidden locations where they would proceed to cut their bellies open and stuff their abdomens with drugs. This way, drug dealers entering a country were safe, since they would be carrying a child. The storytellers emphasized that somehow the stolen child remained alive during the operation and while transporting the drugs. …

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