Wednesday, February 23


Dad and me in Caracas 1957/8
I am still mulling and musing the followup to my previous post on olvidium ... In the meantime I thought I would post something different, although perhaps not completely unrelated to that term that I offered as the opposite of memory. We tend to think of remembrance and forgetting as individual processes in our minds, but there is, of course, also collective memory and amnesia. Today I wanted to float up something that has been nearly lost in my family memory, specifically, on my father's side.

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
Arab-American Poetry
Then last October, on a visit to my parents back home in New Jersey, I had lunch with a cousin who is much better versed than I am in Arabic and our Lebanese-Syrian ancestry. I asked about the poet and she told me about Jamil B. Holway, a distant relative of mine as it turns out (a great uncle, once or twice removed). Jamil Holway was born in Damascus, Syria in 1883 and studied at the American University in Beirut before emigrating to the US, where he practiced law, served as an interpreter and examiner for the Immigration Service, and worked for the US Office of War Information during World War II. A contemporary and acquaintance of Khalil Gibran (famous for The Prophet and other works), Elia Abu Madi and other Arab-American poets, he was himself a published and respected poet.

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 said:
"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:


  1. Lorenzo, you have excelled yourself in this post. It resonates so strongly ... with the personal, the political, the past and the present. I am throbbing with delight! The music, the poem and your words are going round and round in my mind and heart. The heritage inspiring some of your own poems is quite evident in Holway's poem and Selim's translation. This is terrific stuff, and I love it.

  2. Your DNA has got to be tingling! As you know, I love the process of digging up one's roots. Interpreter, poet? This sounds very familiar. It's in your blood, my friend. Beautiful post.

  3. A wonderful post, Lorenzo. How excited you must have been to have learned of this relative and that he is a poet, and then to have found one of his poems!

    My background is somewhat like yours, except that the origins are somewhere in Greece. Everything on my father's side is a blank.

  4. so cool that you were able to come upon this...i really enjoyed the poem...playful and vivid in the imagery of love..

  5. How thrilling for you to be able to pick up dropped threads and find such resonance with who you are and what matters to you!

    Based on the one picture I have seen of you, and this one of your father - the resemblance is remarkable. Seems you inherited much more than your physical appearance from your father's bloodline.

    The stylings of the jazz guitar were the perfect accompaniment to this post.

    Have to say I feel humbled when friends share so much of themselves, as you have here.

    I leave imagining the strains of the lullabye sung across generations - seemingly missing yours, but you would not allow it to drop away ... it was/is your thread and you followed it. How rewarding.

  6. This is just too good for words, Lorenzo! Everything makes sense, it seems. The spirals of lives, coming down to you this way. I mean, you eat and love Lebanese food. Isn’t the way to a man’s heart through his stomach? So. You know Arabic already, through the language of the body and heart.

    The connections between you and James B. Holway are remarkable . . . interpreter/translator, poet, and even the vocabulary he crafts his poem with is Lorenzo-esque, as is the tone and humor. Are you sure you didn’t write Throbbings? Seriously!

    The loop from Lorenzo the baby to Isabel the baby through this exciting post just touches me. It is the best of what makes up a person, and how we sometimes neglect, through no fault of our own, a part of our history, but it finds its way to us like a bee to honey. Are those throbbing bees, bees of the invisible?

    The thrilling and throbbing events in the Middle East have tilled our hearts perfectly for this poignant story-connection. And then you top it all off with a bluesy-elephantine-humoresque piece of music.

    You are just too much!

  7. What a touching, moving post. A father's hope in his infant daughter, the feelings of connectedness to the past you don't know much about, and the gifts that have been passed on to you from your ancestors are all fabulous topics in their own right. Your passion form life is obvious.

  8. lorenzo such wealth! such resonant wealth so well-packed with good rich loving insightful words and the antecedent memories that may or may not hover in your dna but here they are. and for a purpose i've no doubt! steven

  9. why do people think god has only one face when there are so many different human ones? there is so much beauty in all cultures, if we could all just live in peace and enjoy the differences. why is that so hard?

  10. That music/lullabye your aunt sang connected you to your past, the one shooting out of your pores, and yet, not known in your everyday life. So good to connect, and understand the stirrings, and then find these gems to share, to appreciate, to pass on to your children.

  11. How fascinating! Some talents run in families... even if the strands of connection aren't that closely woven maybe?

  12. Fantastic entry and to be an acquaintance and contemporary of Gibran..."The Prophet" is my book of resource for any questioning in and about life...It is the one book I would choose to have if I was aloud only one....what an amazing connection to this past....there are no coincidences .....blessings...bkm

  13. Lorenzo:

    We share a little of the past it seems in a colliding universe.... My mother was born in Brooklyn and her parents from Europe resided there. My brother and I lamented from a young age how my mother wanted us to be Americanized and NOT learn the languages -of her native tongue Every Sunday we visit Grand Mere till her death whom only spoke her native tongue and we only spoke in English, so much was lost --
    I had a beautiful collection of Gibrans 1st edition books with colored plates with onion skin protecting the art work -- his art is housed I think in the New York Museum? it has been a while since I have been there, and I know not what happened to my complete collection of Kahil Gibrans books?

    A beautiful story Lorenzo with roots you can be proud of.

    warm wishes,

  14. Such a family tree, Lorenzo, I can imagine, as my mother is a genealogist, we have a mix of Dutch, Irish, Scottish, English, French in us, and other bits I'm certain someday we will find. Intriguing, isn't it, the ties that bind us, generation to generation? Poetry binds you with yours, as this post reveals, such beauty:

    "That I have plundered the morning for a face,
    the dusk for hair,
    uniting both in me."

  15. Wow, Lorenzo--that's amazing--you sure know how to weave a story, and I agree--your ancestry is no surprise given your way with words.

  16. ps
    I meant to comment as well on that photo of your dad and you--handsome man, and you really resemble him as well!

  17. " his poems he chanted..."
    Poetry used in verbal battle, it seems. Did I read that right?

    I am curious how much is lost translating from the Arabic in the sounds and rhythm -- I love Arabic. I wish I could know that feeling, even if only enough to do poetic fencing!

  18. Yes, you have outdone yourself with this one, Lorenzo. So many threads of connection, defying time and place. I'm with Ruth: are you sure you didn't write that poem? You so easily could have. No matter. I bask in your words, your couple-of-generations-great uncle's, and the glorious music. Heck, it's all glorious music!

  19. Fascinating, I hope you can learn more (and share more) about your families 2 very diverse cultures. So much rich history that is slowly being lost in the US. When people ask my kids what nationality they are, they say "American" and of course, I gasp in horror, and say "German, Scotch/Irish, Ukranian!" Would love to hear more of the two worlds you come from. Claudia

  20. We all want to claim our ancestors who claim theirs who claim theirs. There is not end to the felt need to be connected.

  21. "Larry from Arabia" that's perfect! Who knew he was playing your song?

  22. Thanks, Robert, I am heartened that this has touched something in you. Sometimes one connects two strands without knowing what energy will flow through them.

    Tess, I wish I had remembered your line about DNA tingling when I wrote this! I have always liked that expression so much and enjoyed it when you do your sepia Saturday pieces and other investigations into your family past. Such a wonderful description of the sensation these findings generate.

    Hi, Maureen. Yes, I see the similarities in our experiences, blank included. Is your experience similar to mine in that when I was younger, I did not give much thought to that blank and it is only in recent years that I long to have more information?

    Thanks, Brian. Yes, the poem certainly does have playful and vivid imagery, with an ironic humor. I wish I could read it in the original!

    Thanks, Bonnie, your comments are always warm and insightful. Yes, that lullaby has stayed in my mind for 20 years now. It was certainly high time I tell someone about it!

    Thanks, ever so much Ruth, for how you always do the emotional friend-work of meeting me halfway. It makes it much easier and more welcoming to open up in the blog. I, too, saw similarities between things I have written and this poem and I am glad you too feel the importance of knowing our past to pass it on to our children, consciously or through lullabies or invisible bees or however. I often think that my real reason for doing this blog is for my daughters to read me in 30/35 years when they get to be my age.

    Thanks, Margaret. I know from your blog and thoughtful commenting on the blogs of others how much importance you attach to what we share and pass on to our children

    Yes, Steven, I hear what you say about not doubting that the antecedent memories are hovering there for a purpose. Often I will wonder as to whether it is a real purpose we must work to discover or one that we strive to create. Either way it is rewarding work that we must do and that feels like a blessing more than a laborious task when it can be shared with kind and caring friends like you.

    Good and wise questions, Ellen. Truly, if there is any hope for humanity it is if we can fee that we are many faces, but one people.

    Thanks, Rosaria, your kind comment on connecting and what we pass on to our children, does make me think that I probably started this whole blog thing out of a need to speak to my daughters. Even though they are now 17 and 20 adults, they do not read the blog, nor would I expect them to, but certainly my hope is that they will when they are ready. But I am read by kind and supporting like-spirited friends like you; the community that has opened up has been such an unexpected discovery. Having thoughtful readers like you helps keep me wanting to write until my own daughters read me!

  23. Thanks, Valerianna, for the compliment. Perhaps the strands of connection are more closely woven than we suspect, but often remain invisible.

    Hi, bkm. I agree about The Prophet; it really is a treasure chest of insights, big and small.

    Hi, Joanny. Always discovering things we have in common. Though well intentioned, it is such as sad mistake for immigrant parents to discourage children from learning their family’s language, thinking this will help them learn the language of their new homes. Children always learn the language of their environment, it is the ones left behind, with their rich load of culture, family history and heritage, that we must be careful not to lose. The wondering what happened to your beautiful edition of Gibran sounds like it has the makings of a good story or poetic exploration.

    Interesting, Terresa. I did not know your mother is a genealogist. Of course people out in your neck of the woods (or desert ;)) are some of the most tenacious and best genealogical researchers in the word. It is interesting to think, isn’t it, that poetry may be what keeps certain connections alive, long after all other strands have become frayed and let go. Perhaps the music and words of the lullaby are in the poem

    Thanks, Sue. Since you mention the photo, I did want to say that there is something a bit ‘odd’ about it. Since you are an artist you may have noticed something strange about the light (any light that makes women think I am good looking strikes me as strange and very welcome ;)). Actually, the light is not in the original photo. As I do not have a scanner I placed the original black and white picture on the dining room table and took a photo of it. The light coming down from above my dad and me was not in the original photo and was actually light coming in from the side through the window of the living room. Were the light to have been in the original, there would have been pronounced shadows where there are not. I think this gives it a bit of a mysterious effect. It somehow seems fitting to contemplate with today’s light an image from my childhood past illuminated by yesteryear’s light. Or maybe I should just buy a scanner…

    Hi, Sabio, and welcome to the blog. Arabic is sad to be one of the most poetic of languages and I so wish I knew it. I am sure very much is lost in the translation, even more so than in the already great loss that occurs when poetry is translated between languages like Spanish, English, German, Italian, French, Russian … which all at least have a common root in Indo-European language.

    Yes, music, ds, glorious music is what this is all about. Thanks for your kind words. No, I did not write the poem, but I can see why you might think otherwise. Perhaps sometimes it is the poems that write us.

    Hi, Claudia. Yes, to say “American” normally is to say so many other ethnic and national heritages in one word. More than melting pot, I like to think of a rich stew.

    I am glad, Dan that you enjoyed the Larry Coryell piece. In addition to thinking it is a great piece of music, I must confess that I have always felt a bit identified with this tune. I believe this was Larry Coryell's first recording.

  24. Thinking about our ancestors is always moving, they all had to go around for us to be and yet we know so little, even when we know something. They struggled and so we do, together but for the time, that separates us, forever.
    I have found your post throught Terresa's. It is immense. Congratulations.


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