|Joined: 10 Jul 2008
| Life's Journey Arrival to Lebanon - Family Motherhood
I vividly remember the details of my arrival to Lebanon. The smell was the first thing that struck me. The air was stuffy and condensed, different from what I had been used to. I was terrified by the sounds at the port of Beirut. In the late 1980's arrival to Lebanon on a boat from Larnaca was an adventure that lasted two days. Hearing the Arabic language for the first time seemed strange to me especially as I heard it being shouted. Lebanese people don't talk, they shout. I have become one of them.
I remember the way up the mountains filled with broken down buildings, broken down roads, and what looked like to me broken down people. It was a day in mid-February in the year 1988, just a few months before I was due to graduate from Cardinal Gibbon High School, the dream of any American child.
Our house stood in the mountains of the Kesserouan, an hour drive from the capital. It felt cold and damp, a world away from sunny Florida. It was odd to come back to the place that had haunted me for so many years. This was the house I had lived in as a young child, a house full of fond childhood memories of a girl picking all the wild daisies in the garden, riding her bicycle, playing with her dog, pretending to sail the high seas in a broken boat at the end of the yard.
The first thing I did upon entering the house was to open the refrigerator. This gives you an idea of where my priorities lay! Inside I found an assortment of local cheeses. There was a bag of Arabic bread on the counter. The keeper had made this gesture to welcome us. I suppose the message got through because to this day, I remember this specific sign of hospitality - an important characteristic of Lebanese people. It certainly helped me to adapt and embrace my new life here.
I was ten years old when we immigrated to the United States. I fell comfortably into the system and over the years studied as any other American kid. I can still remember when my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Eden, asked me to make a Lebanese dish for my classmates. My mother made the traditional tabbouleh and I felt very proud that day walking into the classroom wearing her ‘abayaa - a traditional Lebanese dress.
The years passed. I became an American. An incident in high school during religion class brought the memories and nostalgia I had buried deep inside jarringly back to the surface. The class was discussing current events. The professor mentioned Beirut, Lebanon. A student stood up and said arrogantly, “Why don't they just blow up Beirut to solve the whole Middle East problem!” I was devastated. I realized then that I was not immune to my origins.
I often dreamt of being in Lebanon, only to wake up in the States. The comfortable sense of living in Lebanon, as in one big village, faded with life in the States with its huge population and its large cities.
The Family Restaurant
When I was fifteen, my life changed considerably the day my father, a professional photographer, decided to go into the restaurant business. I vaguely remember him purchasing and painting doors and gathering odds and ends from the house to decorate the restaurant. I worked with him for hours on a blue and gray arabesque mosaic. And then one day, Kebabs & Things opened its doors. It was a family business in the real sense of the word. My father was in charge of the restaurant, my mother handled the accounting matters very diligently, and my sister and I helped in the kitchen and served the customers. Haygas, the chef, a man from Armenian origins, would explain patiently how to make the food and drop a few words about Tina Turner's legs.
My father photographed a mouthwatering platter of Lebanese appetizers to entice customers at the entrance. My mother, sister and I were in charge of seating customers. Communicating with your elders at an early age can be quite intimidating. Regardless, when confronted with such a situation you make the best of it. Every night, practice made perfect; after a while, it became second nature.
On one instance, the food we served in the restaurant seemed to make a group of Middle Eastern men very happy. They were loud, hungry, and visibly enjoying themselves. They asked me if I could play a tape for them. The music was wonderful. As a gesture of friendship, they let us keep it. Linda, Linda, ya Linda… layliyi as-sahara inda…, a popular Lebanese song, became an important aspect of the restaurant's ambiance. I can still remember teaching my friends to belly dance to this tune, barely knowing myself how to move.
The restaurant years were not always easy, but part of growing up. I sometimes wondered why I couldn't be like everyone else. I still recall a long walk home the day I had decided to leave the restaurant business. My father had hired a homeless Lebanese man to help us do the dishes. I was angry because I had to share my tips with this man. I was so upset that I told my father, “I quit!”, and stormed out of the restaurant. The walk home was long, but fruitful, because it made me realize how selfish I was. As soon as I reached home, I called my father and asked him if he wanted me to come back, to which he answered, “Rest today, you will come back tomorrow night.”
On Valentine's Day, I told my father, “Debbie's parents invited me to have dinner in a fancy restaurant, and I have accepted. You'll have to do without me tonight!” I really wanted to go out to a nice restaurant, to be waited on for once instead of waiting on others. Before leaving, I called to confirm that all was going well. My father told me that it was quiet and that he probably would close early. Relieved, I left with a clear conscience. Debbie's parents treated us to an unforgettable evening. While I was having a wonderful time, my father, mother, and sister struggled through the busiest night that the restaurant had ever known. People lingered outside waiting for a table. Everyone was in love and hungry.
My father toyed with the idea of returning to Lebanon for quite a while. I guess a Lebanese person never feels whole anywhere else but in his country. I can understand this now, but at the time my parents' decision to leave the United States bewildered me.
We sold the restaurant to a Spanish man who transformed Kebabs & Things into a Spanish cantina. But can the soul of a restaurant be erased with a mere change of décor?
I shall never forget the going away party held at the restaurant. All our close friends gathered with tasty Lebanese food, nostalgic songs, and dance. For me, it was not a celebration, but one more memory to cherish before we left. The day of our departure had finally arrived. My sister and I cried like we had never cried like we had never cried before. I remember Anna Christina, my mother's friend telling me “Don't leave, stay, if you want to stay, stay!” It was impossible. We were already leaving for the airport now, and nothing could stop us. I saw my friends fading as the car drove away. Their lives continued. Mine was shattered.
My life, which had seemed to be on hold, took a new start when I met Serge. I was eighteen years old, full of dreams and desperation.
I remember myself as an eight year old dreaming of a blond boy with curly hair in the school bus. I married that boy seventeen years later. Serge helped me get an equivalence to continue my studies and enter university.
A couple of months later, war struck again in Lebanon, leaving us confused. Maybe I had to live through a part of the war in order to become a real Lebanese.
A few years later, Serge and I were married in Byblos, at St. John-Marc, a beautiful Roman style church built at the 13th century. For our honeymoon, the obvious destination was the United States. Returning to America was an experience I needed to start my new life, without looking back.
Pregnancy came as a total surprise to us. Ironically that same week, I had been offered the job of a lifetime. The only condition that the company set in my employment package was that I don't get pregnant for the first two years of employment. Needless to say, I didn't take the job.
To this day, I believe that motherhood is my greatest achievement ever. Our son Albert's birth triggered our family to grow fast. In a matter of four years, Albert, Maria, and Sarah were born. Being of a possessive nature, thus wanting to do everything myself, the task I had set for myself was quite demanding and tiresome. The kitchen provided me with an escape. Over time my focus became dough making. I find that making dough is very gratifying. Not only is kneading the dough therapeutic, the process is also so much more than simply mixing ingredients together. Dough is a living organism that needs time to rest before it becomes edible. It needs nurturing and care. The end result proves it.
I often joke with my children telling them that the dough has to sleep, before we can play with it, or cook it. Their show of interest encourages me to teach them more.
Barbara Abdeni Massaad Extract from the book Manoushé - Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery