The Arabic language evolved slowly across the millennia, leaving little undefined, no nuance shaded. Bayt translates literally as house, but its connotations resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings
gathered about family and home. In the Middle East, bayt is sacred. Empires fall. Nations topple. Borders may shift or be realigned. Old loyalties may dissolve or, without warning, be altered. Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is, finally, the identity that does not fade.
In old marjayoun, in what is now Lebanon, Isber Samara left a house that never demanded we stay or enter at all. It would simply be waiting, if shelter was necessary. Isber Samara left it for us, his family, to join us with the past, to sustain us, to be the setting for stories. Aft er years of trying to piece together Isber’s tale, I like to imagine his life in the place where the fi elds of the Houran stretched farther than even the dreamer he was — a rich man born of a poor boy’s labors — could grasp.
In an old photo handed down, Isber Samara’s heavy-seeming shoulders
suggest the approach of the old man he would never become,
but his expression retains a hint of mischief some might call youthful.
More striking than handsome, his face is weathered from sun
and wind, but his eyes are a remarkable Yemeni blue, rare among the
Semitic browns of his landscape. Though the father of six, he seems
beyond proper grooming. His hair, apparently reddish, is tousled; his
mustache resembles an overgrown scattering of brush. Out to prove
himself since he was a boy, Isber would one day come to believe that
By the time the photo of Isber and his family was taken, he was forty
or so, but I am drawn more to the Isber that he became — a father, no
longer so ambitious, parted from his children, whom he sent off to
America to save their lives. I wonder if he pictured them and their
descendants — sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters,
on and on — moving through lives as unpredictable as his. Did he see
us in years ahead, adrift , climbing the cracked steps and opening his
At Isber’s, the traveler is welcome, befi tting the Bedouin tradition of
hospitality that he inherited. The olive and plum trees stand waiting
at this house of stone and tile, completed aft er World War I. The place
remains in our old town where war has oft en stopped time and, like an
image refl ected in clear water, lingers as well in the minds of my family.
We are a clan who never quite arrived home, a closely knit circle whose
previous generations were displaced during the abandonment of our
country decades ago. When we think of home, as origin and place, our
thoughts turn to Isber’s house.
Built on a hill, the place speaks of things Levantine and of a way
of life to which Isber Samara aspired. It recalls a lost era of openness,
before the Ottoman Empire fell, when all sorts drift ed through homelands
shared by all. The residence stands in Hayy al-Serail, a neighborhood
once as fi ne as any in the region, an enclave of limestone,
pointed arches, and red tile roofs. The tiles here were imported from
Marseilles and, in the 1800s, suggested international connections and
cosmopolitan fashionableness. They were as emblematic of the style of
the Levant as the tarbush hats worn by the Ottoman gentlemen who
lived in the Hayy, where the silver was always polished and the coff ee
came oft en in the aft ernoon. Old patriarchs — ancient and dusty as
the settees — wiped rheumy eyes with monogrammed handkerchiefs.
Sons replaced fathers, carrying on treasured family names. Isber was
not one so favored.
In a place and time not known for self-invention, Isber created
Isber. His extended family, not noteworthy, consisted of “less than
twenty houses.” His furniture, though expensive and imported from
Syria, was as recently acquired as his fortune, and his house stood out
not just because of its newness. It was a place built with the labor of a
rough-hewn merchant whose eye was distracted from accounts only
by his wife, Bahija. It serves as a reminder of a period of rare cultivation
and unimaginable tragedy; it announces what a well-intentioned
but imperfect man can make of life. Isber’s creation speaks of what he
loved and what sustained him; it reminds us that everyday places say
much, quietly. The double doors of the entrance are tall and wide for
men like Isber, not types to be shut in.
Isber, whose daughter Raeefa gave birth to my father, was my greatgrandfather.
I came of age with remembrances that conjured him
back to life, tales that made him real and transported my family to his
world, a stop gone missing on recent maps: Jedeidet Marjayoun. This
is the way my family refers to our town, our hometown. Never Jedeida,
never just Marjayoun. We use the full name, a bow of respect, since
for us the place was the beginning. It was bayt, where we came to be.
Settled by my forebears, Marjayoun was once an entrepôt perched
along routes of trade plied by Christians, Muslims, and Jews which
stitched together the tapestry of an older Middle East. It was, in essence,
a gateway — to Sidon, on the Mediterranean, and Damascus,
beyond Mount Hermon; to Jerusalem, in historic Palestine; and to
Baalbek, the site of an ancient Roman town. As such, this was a place
as cosmopolitan as the countryside off ered. Its learning and sophistication
radiated across the region.
Yet lingering in small places is not in favor now; they no longer seem
to fi t the world. Yes, Marjayoun is fading, as it has been for decades.
It can no longer promise the attraction of market Fridays, when all
turned out in their fi nery — women in dresses from Damascus, gentlemen
with gleaming pocket watches brought from America. At night,
there are only fl ickering lights, which even a desperate traveler could
overlook. In the Saha, or town square, there are dusty things — marked
down for decades — for sale. No merchants shine counters, or off er
sherbets made from snow, or sell exotic tobaccos. The cranky sheikh
who fi lled prescriptions, if he cared to, is no more. The town no longer
looks out to the world, and it is far from kept up. Everywhere it is scattered
with bits and pieces, newspapers from other decades, odd things
old people save. Of course, no roads run through Marjayoun anymore.
A town whose reach once spanned historic Syria, grasping Arish in the
faraway Sinai Peninsula of Egypt before extending, yet farther, to the
confl uence of the Blue and the White Niles, now stretches only a mile
or so down its main thoroughfare.
Once, in this place, my family helped raise the cross and disturb the
peace. We were known here, not for gentle natures or even temperaments,
though we were among the town’s fi rst Christians. We walked
these streets, played a role in determining where they would go. And
then we used them to leave. Although our family tree still has olives on
its branches, we follow the tradition of remaining mastourin (hidden,
invisible, masked) when it comes to emotions, yet there are sometimes
tears when we look back.
Isber’s is one of the many houses left behind here, one of those we
call mahjour, an Arabic word meaning abandoned, forsaken, lonely.
The left over houses — spindly, breaking down, haunted — speak of
Marjayoun’s lost heyday. For many who have walked by them through
many years and wars and passings, they are friends. In their shattered
windows, those who pass by see shiny panes and all that happened behind
them. In the dark rooms they envision, not just scarred or peeling
walls or dusty fl oors, but old acquaintances lighting lamps or stoking
the coals of stoves.
The story of the town is written in these places; it is a history of departures.
I still think of them every day. The houses of those who left are
everywhere, walked away from. There were letters for a while. She was
my best friend. Those who stayed remember those we lost. We woke
and saw that their place was empty. In these broken-down rooms one
can hear the voices of ghosts and the regrets of those who still recognize
• • •
Close your eyes and forget Marjayoun. The next thing you are crossing is
the Litani Valley, over the mountains to Jezzine and then down the coast
My aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents, were
part of a century-long wave of migration that occurred as the Ottoman
Empire crumbled then fell, around the time of World War I. In
the hinterland of what was then part of Greater Syria, known locally
as bilad al-Sham, the war marked years of violent anarchy that made
bloodshed casual. Disease was rife. So was famine, created by the British
and French, who enforced a blockade of all Arab ports in the Mediterranean.
Hundreds of thousands starved to death in Lebanon, Syria,
Palestine, and beyond. Isber’s region was not spared. A reliable survey
of 182 villages in the area showed that a fourth of the homes there had
withered into wartime ruin, and more than a third of the people who
had inhabited them had died.
This horrific decade and its aft ermath provoked villagers, including
my family, to abandon their homes for locations from South America
to West Africa to Australia, as well as a few neighborhoods in Oklahoma
City, Oklahoma, and Wichita, Kansas. What became an era
of departures ended with more Lebanese living in the diaspora than
within the boundaries of 1920, when Europeans parceled out the unbroken
expanse of the Ottomans.
A green folder sits in my fi le cabinet. Family Records, it reads. Inside
are citizenship and marriage certifi cates, my grandfather’s discharge
orders from the U.S. Army, my grandmother’s story, written by one of
her daughters, and a record of my grandfather’s journey from Beirut to
Boston aboard a ship called the Latso. Creased and folded in thirds are
family trees from both sides of my clan, the Samaras and the Shadids.
The fi rst traces back to one Samara Samara, who was born in 1740 and
emigrated in an epic exodus said to be led by women from the Houran
of present-day Syria to the hills of Marjayoun. The other, much more
complex, radiates into more than two hundred branches of names, insistently
rendered in English and Arabic.
The folder also contains pictures. In one, my maternal great-grandfather,
Miqbal, boyish-looking then, wears an ill-fi tting formal jacket
with an oversize white rose in his lapel. Other photos portray wistful
ladies and men with handlebar mustaches and tuft s of what appears
to be quite unmanageable hair, all dressed as dandies in their Sunday
best. There is one of the dry-goods store of an older Miqbal, where
signs off ered High Quality, Low Prices. But the English is uncertain:
Help Us, Weel Help You. And the script is distinctly native, the graceful
slope of Arabic, leaning to the left , imposed on the rigidity of Latin,
The America that drew my family was a journey of seven thousand
miles, and although mountain roads and voyages in steerage were
treacherous, the hardest were those fi rst miles away from home, away
from faces that would no longer be familiar. By the time we arrived in
New York, or Texas, or Oklahoma, or wherever, much was lost. “Your
fi rst discovery when you travel,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “is that
you do not exist.” In other words, it is not just the others who have
been left behind; it is all of you that is known. Gone is the power or
punishment of your family name, the hard-earned reputations of forebears,
no longer familiar to anyone, not in this new place. Gone are
those who understand how you became yourself. Gone are the reasons
lurking in the past that might excuse your mistakes. Gone is everything
beyond your name on the day of your arrival, and even that may
ultimately be surrendered.
So much had to be jettisoned for the sake of survival. Emotions were
not acknowledged when so many others had suff ered more. There was
only survival for these travelers and faces to recall until the pictures
they carried frayed or no longer held together. Though none of us
could summon its image, Isber Samara’s house remained, saying his
name and ours. It was a place to look back to, the anchor, all that was
left there. To my family, separated or reunited, Isber’s house makes a
statement: Remember the past. Remember Marjayoun. Remember who