As a child, I hated school. I was the American-born daughter of Lebanese refugees. I spoke with broken up English and Egyptian-accented Arabic. I was the odd one out.
My childhood ran parallel to the Lebanese Civil War. My ethnic heritage made me a visual target, easy pickings anytime Arabs were rumored to commit evil. I have been fortunate to find friends who could accept our differences, embrace them, even stand up for me when they saw my differences exploited as an avenue for peer fear and resentment.
“Long time ago, when I was a young girl, a boy used to come from the nearby woods
His name was Shadi
Shadi and I used to play in the snow, we sang for each other and ran in the wind
We carved our names in the rocks and the wind bit our faces.”
My best friend was a young man named James. James would fight battles for me when I was picked on or faced racial violence. It wasn’t uncommon.
One example: I had been bullied before a choir concert. James was the Master of Ceremonies for our middle school choir performance. Singing was a shared joy that had brought us together. But I wasn’t going to sing.
“One of these days, the world was smothered with fire
some people began fighting against other people
and the fighting spread to our hills
Shadi ran to watch“
How could I? I was a mess. Another plane had been hijacked and although the plane had landed and no one was hurt, I was the terrorist. I had the olive skin, the prominent “Arab” features. James had seen me crying and stepped behind the stage curtain. The audience was waiting.
“I got scared, I yelled: Shadi where did you go, Shadi
He disappeared, he could not hear me, the valley took him in
since that day I never saw him again”
James came to me; I was flushed, well on my way to fainting. I had just escaped a group of girls in the bathroom who promised me I was going to pay for the hijacking. My necklace, given to me by my mom; that one of a kind necklace had been torn off my neck. I had red marks, claw marks and I was not going to sing. James knelt down and said, “Those girls Can’t Understand Normal Thinking. It’s an acronym, Doll.”
I took a deep breathe thinking the crying would stop. It didn’t. I cried harder. Then I thought about Shadi. He was my Shadi…and I would never let him go.
I stopped crying. My friend wanted me to sing with him, enough to halt the show and whisper targeted jokes while the audience waited. He knew what singing meant to me.
“Shadi was lost for ever
Snow fell and melted away for twenty times
I grew up and Shadi remained the boy I knew, playing in the snow.”
I took the stage in my ugly 80’s floral dress and raised my voice. I didn’t have a solo, but I joined my fellow All City Choir group and I sang my heart just like my mom always did, my voice part of a collective telling a story, marking a watershed moment in my own history.
Tattered remains of this photo my mom saved after I threw this album out.
My mother would speak to my sister and me with English and Arabic, encouraging us to learn all we could so that one day, one day we could return to see Lebanon. Her memories would spill forward through the richness of her Lebanese dialect and dynamic storytelling ability. When she sang, it was with floral Arabic soul.
She chose her songs for their stories. l would listen to each lyric. Her voice was always so clear, reaching four octaves. Most often, she chose songs by Fairouz, a legendary Lebanese singer whose name translates to “turquoise.” Like the color of her name, Fairouz’s voice and songs were beautiful.
One song in particular resonated so deeply with me I can still remember the poetry, the sadness; “Me and Shadi”. Every word that was sung was imploring the people of my parents’ native country of Lebanon to not destroy their country over religion. They had lived side-by-side, joined in the beauty that was Lebanon.
I heard stories of how, in Lebanon, there was nothing you could not do. It was the gem of the Middle East. Everywhere was only minutes away from a beautiful beach or a short trip up the mountain to ski.
I also heard the stories that were chock full of fear of what she and my father had witnessed. How, in the war’s early stages, he whisked us away to safety. He was smart; he knew how to do business. He also was and is very diplomatic. He worked for one of the many princes of Saudi Arabia. Once our family was secured in Saudi Arabia, he imported Coleman Coolers to the region. In a desert, water was as important as oil.
While my father kept us safe and fed, my mom kept us informed. She would buy us books strategically selected to show that differences were to be embraced and learned from.
To my mother and father, religion was a personal matter; a spiritual relationship between each of us, not be judged by our neighbors. We would face judgment for how we lived. They simply wanted us (my sister and me) to be better than what we saw when we looked at the world. We needed to be the true faces of Lebanon. What was the true face of Lebanon?
With all the differences and similarities in their faiths, the people of Lebanon had chosen to live side-by-side despite what was happening around them–in order to save their land, their country, their homes.
Theirs are the same ideals that are supposed to be the core of this nation, yet they were torn apart. If civil war can happen to Lebanon, I am afraid it can happen to America.
I would ask my parents, “Why are they killing each other? Why did they try to kill you?”
The response was always the same. “They don’t see the truth. They think it is Allah asking this of them.” Allah, the Arabic word for God.
My grandma would go further with this than my father. She would explain specifics of how there was more in common with the religions in dispute than different. To her, prayer was important. Peace could be found in prayer. Not war, killing, or terror. That was not the god she was praying to.
I would watch my mom. I studied her face when news from Lebanon would come on the television. Devastation upon hearing of her favorite places now bombed. Worry for her family still there. She would make phone calls, checking in on her childhood friends. Pain would flash on her face. Anxiety.
I asked her about the Beirut Marine Barracks Bombing. She shed a tear. I asked her, “Why are you crying?”
Her words were so poignant. “You are an American, Shareen. You were not born in the Middle East. Those are your Marines.”
I sat with that knowledge.
Other times she would say, “I am afraid.” Her message was ever so clear. She wanted me to be able to go see her country, visit her memories and share in her joy.
Knowing I was a bookworm, my mother would read me stories. Through them, I was taught over and over again that God’s will was not death, killing, and terror. God was merciful and kind. Allah was not what they were fighting for. The war in Lebanon was and remains a war over land.
It was a tale as old as time–empires encroaching on the lands of others, using the native people to start a rebellion from within. In Lebanon, Islam and Christianity were not enemies.
I read History books as I got older. My father would read to me from the newspaper or explain a Peter Jennings’ story, deconstructing it so I could see the truth behind the phrasing. Rhetoric was everywhere.
My dad would say, “You are a Muslim, but your friends can be any religion. Find common ground. Never fight over what is different. Find what is right”.
I remember asking about the suicide bombers on September 11th. My parents had been flying that day. I had spent much of my day writing an editorial. I was echoing the words of my father; that is not for Allah, not for God. Those men were going to burn in fire and brimstone.
My editorial got published in the local paper. I had given up journalism years past, choosing to use my negotiation and diplomacy to work out deals, reconcile accounts and bring people to the table to resolve their disputes amicably. I was successful at that because I was always willing to be fair.
My mother told me to always put myself in the shoes of someone else so that I could better understand them, help them and support them. “Always find common ground,” she would say to me, and I took this to mean superficially.
My dad would tell me to dig deeper. “Always look for the truth.” It was years before I applied this to myself.
Now, as the world continues to build its wars against the pieces of me, I think back on all the times I was more “American of Lebanese descent,” making America bigger in my self-presentation. I regret not following my passion and sharing my experiences growing up Lebanese in America. In a world with free speech, one would think that I would have been able to share my truths and tell the story of Americans Arabs the way it should be told–knowing that not everyone had the same experience, but that my experience was different enough to show that you can’t just check a box off and assume you know how I was raised. That our commonalities, just like in Lebanon, sometimes stem from our acceptance of our differences.
Who am I?
I was raised with Allah. Before I took a test, I would recite a prayer. My father knew I had panic attacks. And what did he do? He told me to do what therapists would tell me to do later in life: “Clear your head. Recite or think of something that calms you.”
I prayed. I would recite the opening surah (chapter) from the Qur’an. I would say it on my way to the classroom till I was at my desk, sitting in front of a teacher. I would say it before an exam, when I could not sleep, or when I had a feeling of doom. And every time it worked.
A friend had gone out with me one day and I could not control my anxiety. She asked me, “Can I play a song for you?”
“Sure,” I said.
She played “Cotton-Eye Joe”. I laughed. She would later start a tradition of making me personalized CD’s and even still now she sends me iTunes gift cards with song suggestions.
As my friend she tried to connect . She played “Cotton Eye Joe,” without knowing I hated that song, but at that moment she had reached me the way my mom had when she sang our history. The way James had years ago on that stage when he coaxed me to use my voice to step back into my heart. That song brought her joy and she was sharing it with me, offering me common ground. She reached me then like she reached me later, playing “Hey Baby, Let’s Go to Vegas” anytime I needed a reality check. Inspiring my Vegas wedding. Bonding us further as best friends . She stood next to me celebrating the union & commitment as I spoke my vows to my husband .
Music is the anchor to my feelings. If I feel misunderstood, music is my path to understanding.
But what about me and “Shadi”? I was as much part of “Shadi” as Fairouz was, but to my question I have no answer. I can only tell you to listen to the song, read the translation and tell me that war over religion is right. Tell me the hate of Arabs and Muslims in America is really about religion. Tell me we aren’t repeating history and that these actions are based on common ground. Tell me war will heal us.
Listen and see if you can reach me. I believe music is in every person’s heart. I will wait. I am standing on common ground.
Shareen Mansfield is the creator and publisher of Open Thought Vortex Magazine. Her passion is supporting writers and artists by providing a platform for their stories. Step with her #OfftheDeepEnd and into the vortex.
Sally “Salem”Dana Ayoub with Alexander Mansfield
Image Credit pixabay.com
Alternate Translation with Arabic
Lyrics to “Me & Shadi” by Fairouz