INTRODUCTION: BAYTThe 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 longingsgathered 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 shoulderssuggest 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 sunand wind, but his eyes are a remarkable Yemeni blue, rare among theSemitic browns of his landscape. Though the father of six, he seemsbeyond proper grooming. His hair, apparently reddish, is tousled; his mustache resembles an overgrown scattering of brush. Out to provehimself since he was a boy, Isber would one day come to believe thathe had.
By the time the photo of Isber and his family was taken, he was fortyor so, but I am drawn more to the Isber that he became — a father, nolonger so ambitious, parted from his children, whom he sent off toAmerica to save their lives. I wonder if he pictured them and theirdescendants — sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters,on and on — moving through lives as unpredictable as his. Did he seeus in years ahead, adrift , climbing the cracked steps and opening hisdoors?
At Isber’s, the traveler is welcome, befi tting the Bedouin tradition ofhospitality that he inherited. The olive and plum trees stand waitingat this house of stone and tile, completed aft er World War I. The placeremains in our old town where war has oft en stopped time and, like animage 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 whoseprevious generations were displaced during the abandonment of ourcountry decades ago. When we think of home, as origin and place, ourthoughts turn to Isber’s house.
Built on a hill, the place speaks of things Levantine and of a wayof life to which Isber Samara aspired. It recalls a lost era of openness,before the Ottoman Empire fell, when all sorts drift ed through homelandsshared by all. The residence stands in Hayy al-Serail, a neighborhoodonce as fi ne as any in the region, an enclave of limestone,pointed arches, and red tile roofs. The tiles here were imported fromMarseilles and, in the 1800s, suggested international connections andcosmopolitan fashionableness. They were as emblematic of the style ofthe Levant as the tarbush hats worn by the Ottoman gentlemen wholived in the Hayy, where the silver was always polished and the coff eecame oft en in the aft ernoon. Old patriarchs — ancient and dusty asthe settees — wiped rheumy eyes with monogrammed handkerchiefs.Sons replaced fathers, carrying on treasured family names. Isber wasnot one so favored.In a place and time not known for self-invention, Isber createdIsber. His extended family, not noteworthy, consisted of “less thantwenty houses.” His furniture, though expensive and imported fromSyria, was as recently acquired as his fortune, and his house stood outnot just because of its newness. It was a place built with the labor of arough-hewn merchant whose eye was distracted from accounts onlyby his wife, Bahija. It serves as a reminder of a period of rare cultivationand unimaginable tragedy; it announces what a well-intentionedbut imperfect man can make of life. Isber’s creation speaks of what heloved and what sustained him; it reminds us that everyday places saymuch, quietly. The double doors of the entrance are tall and wide formen 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 himback to life, tales that made him real and transported my family to hisworld, a stop gone missing on recent maps: Jedeidet Marjayoun. Thisis the way my family refers to our town, our hometown. Never Jedeida,never just Marjayoun. We use the full name, a bow of respect, sincefor us the place was the beginning. It was bayt, where we came to be.Settled by my forebears, Marjayoun was once an entrepôt perchedalong routes of trade plied by Christians, Muslims, and Jews whichstitched 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 toBaalbek, the site of an ancient Roman town. As such, this was a placeas cosmopolitan as the countryside off ered. Its learning and sophisticationradiated across the region.
Yet lingering in small places is not in favor now; they no longer seemto 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 allturned out in their fi nery — women in dresses from Damascus, gentlemenwith gleaming pocket watches brought from America. At night,there are only fl ickering lights, which even a desperate traveler couldoverlook. In the Saha, or town square, there are dusty things — marked down for decades — for sale. No merchants shine counters, or off ersherbets made from snow, or sell exotic tobaccos. The cranky sheikhwho fi lled prescriptions, if he cared to, is no more. The town no longerlooks out to the world, and it is far from kept up. Everywhere it is scatteredwith bits and pieces, newspapers from other decades, odd thingsold people save. Of course, no roads run through Marjayoun anymore.A town whose reach once spanned historic Syria, grasping Arish in thefaraway Sinai Peninsula of Egypt before extending, yet farther, to theconfl uence of the Blue and the White Niles, now stretches only a mileor so down its main thoroughfare.
Once, in this place, my family helped raise the cross and disturb thepeace. We were known here, not for gentle natures or even temperaments,though we were among the town’s fi rst Christians. We walkedthese streets, played a role in determining where they would go. Andthen we used them to leave. Although our family tree still has olives onits branches, we follow the tradition of remaining mastourin (hidden,invisible, masked) when it comes to emotions, yet there are sometimestears when we look back.
Isber’s is one of the many houses left behind here, one of those wecall mahjour, an Arabic word meaning abandoned, forsaken, lonely.The left over houses — spindly, breaking down, haunted — speak ofMarjayoun’s lost heyday. For many who have walked by them throughmany years and wars and passings, they are friends. In their shatteredwindows, those who pass by see shiny panes and all that happened behindthem. In the dark rooms they envision, not just scarred or peelingwalls or dusty fl oors, but old acquaintances lighting lamps or stokingthe 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 areeverywhere, walked away from. There were letters for a while. She wasmy best friend. Those who stayed remember those we lost. We wokeand saw that their place was empty. In these broken-down rooms onecan hear the voices of ghosts and the regrets of those who still recognizethem.• • •Close your eyes and forget Marjayoun. The next thing you are crossing isthe Litani Valley, over the mountains to Jezzine and then down the coastto Saida.
My aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents, werepart of a century-long wave of migration that occurred as the OttomanEmpire crumbled then fell, around the time of World War I. Inthe hinterland of what was then part of Greater Syria, known locallyas bilad al-Sham, the war marked years of violent anarchy that madebloodshed casual. Disease was rife. So was famine, created by the Britishand 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 surveyof 182 villages in the area showed that a fourth of the homes there hadwithered into wartime ruin, and more than a third of the people whohad inhabited them had died.
This horrific decade and its aft ermath provoked villagers, includingmy family, to abandon their homes for locations from South Americato West Africa to Australia, as well as a few neighborhoods in OklahomaCity, Oklahoma, and Wichita, Kansas. What became an eraof departures ended with more Lebanese living in the diaspora thanwithin the boundaries of 1920, when Europeans parceled out the unbrokenexpanse of the Ottomans.
A green folder sits in my fi le cabinet. Family Records, it reads. Insideare citizenship and marriage certifi cates, my grandfather’s dischargeorders from the U.S. Army, my grandmother’s story, written by one ofher daughters, and a record of my grandfather’s journey from Beirut toBoston aboard a ship called the Latso. Creased and folded in thirds arefamily 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 andemigrated in an epic exodus said to be led by women from the Houranof present-day Syria to the hills of Marjayoun. The other, much morecomplex, radiates into more than two hundred branches of names, insistentlyrendered 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 jacketwith an oversize white rose in his lapel. Other photos portray wistful ladies and men with handlebar mustaches and tuft s of what appearsto be quite unmanageable hair, all dressed as dandies in their Sundaybest. There is one of the dry-goods store of an older Miqbal, wheresigns off ered High Quality, Low Prices. But the English is uncertain:Help Us, Weel Help You. And the script is distinctly native, the gracefulslope of Arabic, leaning to the left , imposed on the rigidity of Latin,standing straight.
The America that drew my family was a journey of seven thousandmiles, and although mountain roads and voyages in steerage weretreacherous, the hardest were those fi rst miles away from home, awayfrom faces that would no longer be familiar. By the time we arrived inNew York, or Texas, or Oklahoma, or wherever, much was lost. “Yourfi rst discovery when you travel,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “is thatyou do not exist.” In other words, it is not just the others who havebeen left behind; it is all of you that is known. Gone is the power orpunishment of your family name, the hard-earned reputations of forebears,no longer familiar to anyone, not in this new place. Gone arethose who understand how you became yourself. Gone are the reasonslurking in the past that might excuse your mistakes. Gone is everythingbeyond your name on the day of your arrival, and even that mayultimately be surrendered.
So much had to be jettisoned for the sake of survival. Emotions werenot acknowledged when so many others had suff ered more. There wasonly survival for these travelers and faces to recall until the picturesthey carried frayed or no longer held together. Though none of uscould summon its image, Isber Samara’s house remained, saying hisname and ours. It was a place to look back to, the anchor, all that wasleft there. To my family, separated or reunited, Isber’s house makes astatement: Remember the past. Remember Marjayoun. Remember whoyou are.