|Dad and me in Caracas 1957/8
As I have mentioned elsewhere, my dad was born over 84 years ago in Brooklyn, NY, to Lebanese-Syrian immigrant parents. Unfortunately, I am completely ignorant of my Arab ancestry and heritage, do not speak the language, never been in the Middle East, did not really know my paternal grandparents (my father's father died before I was born and my grandmother when I was still a toddler in Venezuela), and know next to nothing about the family tree. All I consciously carry of this heritage is a love for Lebanese food of the kind that accompanied all holiday gatherings at the Brooklyn home of my uncle Floyd and aunt Beatrice 'Beattie' Holway. The contrast with the centrality in my life of my Spanish family and heritage is striking. Although I never gave this more than a passing thought when younger, in recent years I have come to rue this silence and absence, the roots and trunk of a family tree sunk in a mysterious, almost exotic darkness.
Sometimes a distant flash of lightning has briefly pierced that darkness. I recall a night 20 years ago, when my aunt Beattie was visiting us in Spain from Brooklyn just a few months after our daughter Isabel was born. One quiet stay-at-home night in our small apartment in downtown Madrid, my aunt gathered Isabel up in her arms from her crib and began cooing her to sleep with a Lebanese lullaby sung in Arabic. I felt spellbound by the unknown music, as if witnessing the arc of time pass above me from lost generations of the past to the daughter child who in those days seemed nothing less than the gurgling, diapered concentration of my life's hopes and dreams. The moment still glows warmly in my memory, which searches itself futilely for the hushed hum of a tune I never learned and words I could not understand. That quiet night, the cooing arc, the way Beattie cradled my daughter in her arms, Isabel gurgling off to sleep are all so vivid in my mind — how is it that the music and words are nowhere to be found?
Some years later, at a surprise 80th birthday party for my aunt Beattie, I met George Selim, a scholar, researcher and translator of Arab-American poetry. He explained to me that his connection with the family was that he had done extensive research into a Syrian poet in my family's past who had lived in New York as a member of what he termed the Syrian-Lebanese diaspora in New York. The story piqued my interest but I pursued it no further and even forgot the name of the poet.
|Grape Leaves: A Century of
A bit of google research has allowed me to find the following poem by Jamil B. Holway, translated by George Dimitri Selim, the family friend I met at my aunt's birthday. It is called Throbbings (note that 'Zaynab' is a popular name for women in Arabic).
Zaynab complained against me
to the judge of love.
"He has sly eyes," she told him,
"which roam around me
to devour my beauty.
Judge of love!
I am not safe anymore.
"I think his eyes are two bees
raiding the honey
which sweetens my lips.
I see them as two eagles
hovering in space,
descending to snatch me.
I think, and from my fear,
I think strange things.
God knows how much I suffer from my thoughts.
"He invaded me with his eyes
and, as if this were not enough,
he tried to lower my standing among people.
Hypocritically, he said
that I have stolen my beauty from the universe,
and that it was not created naturally in me.
That I have plundered the morning for a face,
the dusk for hair,
uniting both in me.
That from the gardens
I have stolen the flowers for cheeks
—my cheeks are rosy.
That I have covered my neck with pure snow,
and that my eyes are tinted with narcissus.
"When my voice enchanted him
he denied it, and said:
'It's a nightingale singing in the garden.'
With sword-like glances I struck him,
he said, and in his deep-red blood
I dyed my finger tips
and in his poems he chanted alluding to me.
So people said:
'His meanings are necklaces of pearls.'
Lord of verdicts!
Administer your justice between us.
Enough of his straying in love.
I've had enough!"
When the time of complaint was over,
the judge asked me:
"What is your answer,
you who are so passionately in love?"
"I find ... that I am a criminal.
My insanity may not be deferred.
She has dispossessed me
of mind and heart."
From the book Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry
Published by Interlink Books, 2000; edited by Gregory Orfalea and Sharif Elmusa
I offer these 'throbbings' from the accused heart of an Arab-American poet in hopeful solidarity with the dramatic and inspiring stirrings we have been seeing these days on the Arab street.
As a soundtrack for these musings, I will leave you with the quartet led by percussion great Chico Hamilton, with a very young Larry Coryell playing his original composition "Larry of Arabia", from the 1966 album The Dealer: