Most of y’all know that our family lived in Amman, Jordan for nearly fifteen years (1997-2011). What some of you don’t know is that my Middle Eastern life started before I was born. My father was born in Jaffa, Palestine in 1938 to Christian Palestinian parents. He and his family were forced from their home in 1948 and lived as refugees in Jordan. The government of Jordan graciously and generously granted them citizenship after a number of years. My dad was very smart and he worked hard in his studies, so much so that he was granted a Fulbright scholarship to get his Master’s in Public Health at Columbia University in New York. He went on to pursue a PhD at University of Massachusetts. It was there that he swept my mom (a sheltered undergrad) off her feet. To be fair, my dad found my mom’s beautiful blonde hair and blue eyes, along with her gorgeous singing irresistible.
I was born less than a year after they were married. My dad left the hospital right after I was born, mad that I was not a boy (Arabs tend to put a big emphasis on sons). This didn’t last long – he fell in love with me and still brags about how he could balance me on one hand and how I was the only one of his three children who would eat food directly from his mouth after he’d chewed it for me.
During my first 3 years of life, we were immersed in Arabic culture. There was a steady stream of fellow Middle Eastern students and their families hanging out with our family as well. Two of my dad’s siblings lived with us for months at a time. My mom learned from my dad and from my Auntie Helen how to prepare Middle Eastern food. We were eating hummus and tabbouli decades before they become popular in the States. My Polish grandmother often commented to my mom about my strong garlic breath and my willingness to eat many different foods. Later on when I was in sixth grade, I vividly remember eating lunch at a neighbor’s house and being served a grilled cheese sandwich and Campbell’s tomato soup. I had to ask what they were because I’d never eaten either before; my friend and her mom were shocked that I wasn’t familiar with this American staple.
We moved to Iowa when I was three and my brother Tony was a toddler. I remember the first time I met my dad’s parents “Seido” and “Tata” when they emigrated to the U.S. from the Middle East. I was four at the time – I struggled to understand them with their broken English and their heavy accents. They were disappointed that I didn’t speak Arabic and scolded my dad for this. Through the years, their English improved and we got along well. I enjoyed my Tata’s easy laugh and good cooking and my Seido’s intelligence and worldly experience.
We moved to Indianapolis when I was five. There was a big chapter of the National Association of Arab Americans that my dad became very involved in. My parents’ social circle was mainly Arabs. I still remember vividly when my dad brought home a large warm green garbage bag after visiting his Middle Eastern Muslim friend who had celebrated Eid Il Adha by slaughtering a lamb. This friend gave my dad half of this freshly slaughtered lamb, including the head, for us to eat. My dad cut up the lamb into smaller portions and put most of it in our deep freezer to be cooked later. He prepared the head immediately in our pressure cooker. I was willing to try the cheek and tongue meat but drew the line at the eyes and brain. We had many meals of delicious lamb for the next several months.
I also remember the time we had a big party at our home for my parents’ Arab friends. Arabs are some of the most generous and extravagant hosts in the world and my dad is no exception. He bought trays and trays of stuffed squash, cabbage rolls, and grape leaves from the local Middle Eastern market to serve . We had lots of leftovers after that party – too much to fit in our freezer. It was winter so my dad decided to store some of the leftovers in our garage which was below freezing. Unfortunately some of the trays were forgotten and come spring, I discovered a horrible smell in the garage. I felt so bad for my dad when I told him what I found – he actually had tears in his eyes at the loss of this delicious food and was saddened he had to throw the rotten food away – he didn’t even want me to come near it, it was that far gone.
My dad was always good at finding a good deal and saving money. One of my dad’s friends, Anwar, had been a veterinarian in Egypt. He was working as a vet tech while trying to pass the American boards in order to practice in the US. He actually lived with us for about a month (Arabs are some of the most hospitable people in the world). One day he and my dad took our family dog to the vet clinic after hours. The next day she was brought home still recovering from anesthesia with stitches on her belly. I can still picture her eyes rolling back and her falling down the stairs like she was drunk. When I asked my dad what happened, his explanation was “Anwar took her babies out” – I was too little to understand why a dog needed to be spayed but this explanation just made me feel worse about the whole thing. I never liked Anwar after that ;).
My brother Andrew was born when I was almost 11. He was a picky eater, very different from Tony and me – we had always eaten everything. He went through a period of time when he refused to eat anything other than a McDonald’s Happy Meal for dinner. When we went to visit my grandparents, they were incredulous that he didn’t want to eat hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes, and olives for breakfast. They tried to get him to eat the dinner they prepared, calling it “McMahshi” and “McKoosa”, but he didn’t fall for the renamed food. My mom and dad were scolded profusely for this “spoiling”of my little brother.
My dad’s sister, Auntie Mimi, lived in Cincinnati with her husband and three children. We spent many Easters, Thanksgivings, and Christmases together. My Uncle Joe is also Palestinian so their family spoke Arabic at home – I was a little jealous that my cousins Mary, Eddie and Rula understood Arabic and were able to follow along with the conversations that were more Arabic than English. I was also jealous that my girl cousins had such gorgeous thick curly hair and curvier figures than I did. I think if I asked them today, they might tell me they were jealous of me and my siblings for being half American. My Auntie Mimi made the best wara’ dawali (stuffed grape leaves) and lahmit ‘ajeen (little Arabic pizzas). Sometimes we’d attend their church which was Orthodox and mostly in Arabic – it was hard to sit still when I couldn’t understand anything that was being said.
I have two aunts who stayed in the Middle East, settling with their families in Arab East Jerusalem. I remember my dad getting airmail letters from them written in Arabic – it looked like unintelligible scribbling to me back then. Little did I know that one day as an adult I would actually study Arabic and learn to read and write it. Each aunt came once during my childhood for a visit, bringing along my cousins. My cousins were younger and hadn’t started studying English in school, so communication was a huge challenge. It was so enjoyable to get to see them again as adults and get to know them better when we moved to the Middle East and visited them in their home town.
One of the more difficult things I experienced was living with very conservative and traditional rules. My dad wanted to know exactly where I was going, who I was with, and the phone number and address of the place I’d be. Sometimes he’d even call or show up just to check on me! My curfew was 10 pm, much earlier than all my friends. I wasn’t allowed to sleep over at a girlfriend’s house until I was 15. I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16 and anybody who wanted to date me had to come over and meet my dad first. I still remember my first boyfriend coming over to the house – my dad brought him in to the living room and offered him a glass of wine. He actually accepted it, later telling me “I thought that was his custom and I didn’t want to offend him”! My dad brought him wine in a juice glass and proceeded to ask him about his parents, his siblings, and his aspirations for his future. It is funny to me now, but back then it was embarrassing! It was easier for me to not go out very much (maybe that was part of my dad’s plan!).
As we get closer to the holidays, I’ve been thinking about my family more and all the specials memories we share. I decided to share with my readers a few of our unique experiences, hoping it will be a nice change from all the discouraging reading that is out there in the media. Have a blessed Thanksgiving, everyone!