Jounieh, Lebanon. 2017.
“Are you scared?”
My brother and I poke fun at my dad as he takes one hesitant step, then another into the cable car. Dad removes his baseball cap, ducking his head to fold his formidable frame of six feet and a few inches into this pantry-sized space. The cable car wobbles from side to side as he settles into the bench across from Mark and me.
Dad puts on a brave face, insists “Nah! I ain’t afraid,” but I can see creases of worry pulling down the edges of his smile. His discomfort with traveling from sea-level to the peak of a mountain in a metal box pulled along a string is understandable. I don’t think he has been on a cable car more than twice before this occasion. Unlike my father, my brother and I are seasoned cable car passengers. We would go for a cable car ride every year while visiting my mother’s family in Caracas. My father stayed back in Michigan for most of these extended summer vacations, preferring the familiarity of the midwest to Latin America. And, of course, there is the fact that he and my mother had divorced by the time I was six years old.
Mark holds his phone in front of him and swivels in his seat to capture a panoramic photo of the view. “I’m glad we finally decided to come to Lebanon,” he says. My brother, father, and I: We are tourists in this country we have heard so many stories about, the protagonists of which include my paternal and maternal grandparents, great-grandparents, extended relations of both present and past. My father was born in Detroit to a Lebanese-American mother, Martha, and a Lebanese father, Arif. Though Arif may have intended to show his son the country where he came from, the country where most of his relatives remained, he didn’t get around to doing so before passing away.
My mother is also of Lebanese heritage but was born in Venezuela. Her mother, Mariam, and father, Hassan, left Lebanon in the early fifties to settle in Caracas and open a clothing shop. With the closest relatives from both sides of my family dispersed across North and South America, not Lebanon, my parents found little reason to take their children (or themselves) on a thirteen-hour journey across one ocean and two seas. This is our first time visiting what Lebanese-Americans from my community call “the old country,” sometimes with a heavy dose of nostalgia, other times with a disparaging tone.
The loud clang of metal awakens me from my reverie, as staff loads the last of the passengers and swing the doors of the cable cars shut. We are set into motion shortly afterward. The Mediterranean glitters like gemstones behind us, sapphire and turquoise, pushing up against white buildings with burnt orange rooftops. We rise upon a gentle slope of forest green. Staring out the window, the fear in my father’s eyes is replaced with the glistening of wonder.
Livonia, Michigan, United States. 1995.
My dad is filming a home video. I stand in the middle of the kitchen, relishing the glory of being somewhere between two and three years old. In my hands is a plastic white tub of labneh. The lid is off; I seize the opportunity to dip my whole hand into the tub. I pull my hand out, covered in dairy goodness. I funnel the scoop of labneh into my mouth.
My dad asks, in English, “What are you doing sweetheart!?”
I shrug my shoulders at him, make big eyes that ask, What do you mean? There is labneh all over the lower half of my face. Some on my clothes too, as I absentmindedly pull on the edges of my Lion King pullover. He tries again, doing his best to elicit a response for the camera.
“Sweetheart, what are you eating?”
I respond in Spanish with a delighted squeal: “¡Queso!” I refuse to answer him in English, and I am unaware that this food from my heritage has an Arabic name.
Chicago, Illinois, United States. 2012.
I decide to learn Arabic when I arrive at university, eager to pour myself into studies. The script is beautiful and maybe it will allow me to communicate with my Sito in her mother tongue one day. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I try to motivate myself as I skim through the course books frantically. I wonder how my brain will learn the sounds associated with each unfamiliar shape. The lines begin on the right side of the page and loop gracefully to the left. We start on what looks like the back cover, the pages fanning out to the left and the spine of the book on the right. Everything is upside down. In class, our teacher asks us seemingly simple questions. Where are you from? But I have a hard time answering this in English, let alone Arabic.
I grew up in a suburban neighborhood that was in many ways cookie-cutter “American,” with a father that was Michigan born-and-bred yet raised in the most Arab-dense city of all fifty states in the union, and a mother that identified more with being Venezuelan than anything else. My maternal grandmother, Mariam, tended to us while adjusting her hijab and telling us stories about Caracas. She constantly offered pearls of folk wisdom, such as: do not drink water with ice, or else you’ll catch a cold. She would make yogurt at home, heating milk on the stove and pouring it into gallon-sized containers that rested overnight to ferment on the kitchen counter. She would carefully bundle each container in blankets she had pilfered from the living room sofa. Sito’s yogurt was plain and bitter, nothing like the Yoplait Go-Gurts my classmates brought to school.
My paternal grandmother, Martha, would take us out for lunch at Coney Island. She would sip on Coca-Cola throughout her meal. More often than not, she would insist on ending the meal with a big slice of apple pie and two cups of weak filtered coffee. And yet, with similar zeal, she could eat a plate of kibee nayee from one of the Arabic restaurants scattered along Warren Avenue. Before the symptoms of her mental illness became unmanageable, she worked as a secretary for Ford Motor Company. She adored Frank Sinatra for both his musical talent and charm. She tolerated Arabic music at family weddings held at the banquet halls in Dearborn.
I do not yet have the linguistic capacity to explain all this to my Arabic teacher. I can’t even muster a simple: “It’s complicated.” So I end up responding that I am from Detroit. But the teacher knows better when he sees my last name. He eventually corners me into providing an abridged narration of my family history. I learn many new vocabulary words in the process, like immigrant, and move, as in:
My father’s father moved from a small town near Baalbek to Michigan,
Or: My mother’s mother moved from a village called Bint Jbeil to a city called Caracas,
Or: My mother moved from Venezuela to Michigan,
Or: I moved to Chicago.
And: We are a family destined to keep moving.
Beckley, West Virginia, United States, 1929.
On the night of February 22, a baby who will later become my paternal grandmother is born. Her parents, Sam and Fatmeh Allie, hold her close. They swaddle her in blankets and attempt to shield her from the iron grip of winter. She is the first of their children born on American soil. Coincidentally, she is born on the birth date of the nation’s first president. They want to name her after him, but alas, she is a girl. In a moment of inspiration, they settle on naming her after the president’s wife: Martha.
According to the traditions of the Lebanese village along the Syrian border that Sam and Fatmeh came from, this baby girl should take her father’s middle name. Sam and Fatmeh decide to modify this tradition. Martha is indeed given the name of a father. Not her biological one, but the one that is credited with founding the nation in which she is born: Washington.
Back in Lebanon, Sam is from the Smidi family. Here, he worries that people will judge his children if they seem “too foreign.” He has been told that this land is full of opportunities. He wants to ensure his children are well-positioned to grasp them. He changes the family name from Smidi to something more ambiguous, offering only the slightest of nods to their heritage: Allie.
This is how his daughter enters the world with a name that any self-respecting American would covet: Martha Washington Allie.
Amman, Jordan. 2018.
I have been living in Jordan for a year and a half. I speak Arabic pretty well after six years of study, using it at work and with friends. But my accent is terribly confusing to everyone. It is a mix of Lebanese and Jordanian, with the choppiness and the strange word choices of a non-native speaker. Almost every day I am asked to explain myself. Why do you speak like that? Is your name really Andrea? Is it your mom or your dad that is a foreigner? You’re Arab, right?
Detroit, Michigan, United States. 1935.
Life transplants the Allies from the west coast to the midwest. Sam comes for the burgeoning auto industry, led by Ford Motor Company, and the hope that it will help him provide for his children in the midst of the Great Depression. Sam does what he can with his limited education and professional credentials. He ends up peddling goods door-to-door, selling antiques to his new neighbors. Some days, he gets on a truck with other immigrants and they are taken to perform manual labor. He saves enough money to purchase a silver watch. Before he dies, he will pass it on to his grandson, the man who will later become my father.
Meanwhile, Fatmeh tends to the home and childrearing. She is economical with every meal that she cooks. Her kids learn to eat kidneys and other innards with great enthusiasm. Her love is expressed in quiet actions rather than grand gestures: dinner prepared and served on the table at the same time every evening, a handful of change to purchase candy from the corner shop. She never has a bad word to say about anybody. Fatmeh does not know this yet, but her daughter Martha will get married, then divorced right before she has my father. And when Martha is not well enough to care for her son, due to some strange phenomenon the American doctors call mental illness, Fatmeh will take up the responsibility of child rearing. She will teach my father how to make bread at home. Together they will roll dough for spinach and meat pies.
El Avila, Caracas, Venezuela. 2003.
“¡Despiertanse! Wake up! And don’t forget to put on your sweaters. It’s cold up there!”
Mama turns on the light as she delivers her commands. My sister and I are cuddled up with my older cousin, the one whose name my mother liked so much that she gave it to me, too. When my cousin and I are together, everyone in the family calls us by our first and middle names to distinguish us. So for a few weeks out of the year, when my mother and siblings and I take our annual visit to Venezuela, I am transformed from plain old “Andrea” to Andrea Karina. It makes me feel like I have a Spanish alter ego. I like the way the r’s in her name roll off my tongue.
My cousin and sister groan and pull the covers over their heads. I crawl out from the space between them, unbothered that it is six o’clock in the morning during summer vacation. I take up the responsibility of relentlessly annoying my sister until she rises. Rachelle mercilessly drags Andrea Nicole up with her. We pull on fleece zip-ups, jeans, tennis shoes. I splash water on my palms and slick my curls back into a ponytail, as I fruitlessly attempt to smooth my springy baby hairs flat against my scalp.
We are met in the kitchen by my aunts, boy cousins, mother, sito, and little brother, who is still wiping the sleep from his eyes. Dad isn’t here because he and mama have long been divorced by now. Mama ushers us all down the stairs and into separate cars and we take a fifteen-minute drive north. We end up at the base of the station in El Avila. We divide into groups of four and board the cable cars. I try to enjoy the view as we ascend, but I am distracted with anticipation for the treats awaiting us at the mountain’s peak.
Fog envelops us as we stroll around a park nearly two miles above sea level. The air is noticeably cooler up here. It feels like early autumn to my Michigan sensibilities; a little less than warm with a slight chill in the air, nothing that would warrant protective clothing. Kids from my neighborhood would probably play outside in this weather while wearing shorts and sleeveless tops. Yet the Venezuelan children around me are dressed for winter, wrapped in scarves and puffy jackets, their feet tucked into fleece-lined boots. My siblings and I laugh at them for being unaccustomed to any sort of cold. My cousins seek revenge on behalf of their compatriots by laughing at my siblings and me for being gringos, Americans.
I pull on my mother’s hand and lead her toward the cart vendors. She buys us skillet-fried cornbread with gooey white cheese wrapped in aluminum foil, and paper boats of strawberries with freshly whipped cream. We sit at a wooden picnic table and enjoy our impromptu feast. My mother insists that the kachapas she makes are better than the ones sold here. Sito Mariam chuckles and agrees with her daughter. My little cousin wipes away a dollop of whipped cream that has somehow found itself on his nose. The biggest flag in all of the country waves above us: red, yellow, and blue. An arc of eight stars embellishes the blue stripe, 42 fewer than the flag my siblings and I are taught to pledge allegiance to in school.
We can't predict the political drama and economic hardship that will rock this country in later years, sending many of its Venezuelan-Lebanese back to the country their parents and grandparents came from. We are blissfully unaware that this will be the last time we see El Avila for decades, maybe even a lifetime. I will not understand until many years later that I am tied to places that remain largely unknown to me, fragments of memory locked up in cable cars.