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Lebanese abroad keep our traditions alive!

April 19, 2009 @ No Comments

By Nicole Sayegh
New York – Every Monday morning I help my mother with the weekly food shopping. First, up the block to the bakery for pita, labneh and halloum cheese, then two blocks more to the butcher’s for kibbaneye and makanek – in Brooklyn.

I grew up in New York, but I feel as if I was raised in a displaced Lebanese village that somehow broke off, floated across the oceans and plopped down on the American East Coast. My mom always cooked Lebanese food for dinner – though we would beg for burgers and pizza. The CD, or rather ancient cassette, playing in our car was Melhem Barakat’s; we would not dare ask for the radio. Lebanese news was watched on satellite every evening, and Lebanese hafles – music and food parties – were the entertainment events of preference.

As I got older, I learned to embrace it. Many of my own friends were Lebanese, and I learned the folk dances, the words to all of George Wasouf’s songs and developed a personal and patriotic connection to Lebanon. My experience is one of millions of Lebanese living abroad. Whether one is a recent emigrant or first or second generation, whether Lebanese American, Australian, or Brazilian, the Lebanese diaspora’s attention to their homeland’s culture and tradition is as strong as arak.

The civil war forced many to flee, promising themselves and those they left behind that the move would only be temporary. What the majority thought would be a few months until they returned accumulated into years, then decades, and for most, that time has yet to come.

“We thought we would be back in no time,” said Tony, a 63-year-old living in New York. Tony left Lebanon at the beginning of the civil war. He married a Lebanese woman, also a recent emigrant, raised a family, began a business and lived a comfortable life. So why did he try to move back in the 80s? He described a desire to return driven by a sense of “obligation,” and so he took the chance. However, when the conflict in Lebanon escalated, he knew that, for his children’s future, he had to make the regretful move to the US a permanent one.

“If I ever felt sure we could have lived securely I would be ‘home’, but that time has yet to come,” he said.

Tony, like the quarter of the Lebanese population that left during 1975-1989, had no choice but to create a ‘new’ life abroad.

But was it really new? In her book Representing the Homeland: Lebanese Diaspora’s Notion of Home and Return in a Global Context Dalia Abdelhady says the Lebanese diaspora’s desire to feel a sense of belonging encourages the creation of social relations with those living the same experience. People far from home invent cultural symbols in an effort to construct a notion of ‘home’.

While destruction, reconstruction, destruction and reconstruction again have changed more than just Beirut’s landscape, Lebanese abroad feel connected with the mother land by nostalgically reliving Beirut before the bombs.

And so a slightly different definition of what it means to be Lebanese is created. The stories of Lebanon of the 1960s and 70s that family members have passed down to first, second and even third generation descendants are remembered and reinvented through various – very Lebanese – forms of expression.

For many Lebanese abroad, their desire to connect with their ancestry is expressed through dance. Debkeh, the traditional circle dance of Lebanon and the Middle East, has gained popularity and is the signature symbol of Lebanese social events abroad, where it is performed with meticulous accuracy and enthusiasm.

Jad, 21, from Brooklyn, New York said, “It is a way of expressing ourselves and feel[ing] proud of our country.”

Jad moved from Beirut where he grew up dancing dabkeh and studying the derbekeh, a percussion instrument that creates the beat for the circle dance. Sad to leave home, he was happy to find that he could continue to dance in Brooklyn. Jad helps choreograph and performs with Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral in Brooklyn’s dabkeh group as well as at Arab clubs, lounges and social events across Brooklyn and Queens. Six years after his move, in a recent series called Folk Feet on Fifth in Brooklyn, Jad and others from local Lebanese and Palestinian dance groups hold classes and host social events for the community to learn and perform the Middle East tradition.

A few thousand miles east, we see Lebanese in France also remembering. Josaine, a successful painter in Paris, moved from Lebanon a few years ago. However, even though she left home to pursue her dream in one of the most cultured cities in the world, she said that she remembers her Lebanese roots in every single one of her paintings. “In all of my paintings I remember my roots by drawing arches. The arch is something concrete, a concrete recognition of my identity in all my paintings.”

Through their food, gatherings, dance and drawings, Lebanese abroad hold on to what sometimes may truly feel that it is the one “concrete” thing they know they are, Lebanese. That strong connection has not only inspired art, but in parishes, mosques, collegiate and high school clubs all over, the Lebanese remember by taking action. Charitable events, film screenings, lecture, music and food festivals, political and religious conventions are held for and about the one thing they all have in common, “home.”

What it means to be Lebanese abroad? If I may speak for myself and those I interviewed, it seems that it means something different than what I see in Beirut today. As my peers in Lebanon enjoy a nightlife of DJs playing the latest French and English hits, I wonder if my friends back in Brooklyn realize they are recreating a Lebanese culture of the past that may no longer be the culture of its present. But, if some in Lebanon fear the country is losing its “Lebanese-ness,” perhaps they will be reassured that on almost every continent, a group of us are sharing a traditional meal, listening to Fayrouz and toasting glasses of arak to the Lebanon they remember… cheers, KASAK!

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