A Boston teacher on Fulbright grants to Lebanon, Syria and Bahrain (pre-Arab Spring) provides surprising, elucidating insights into the Arab character.
Born to Lebanese immigrants, Shakir (Remember Me to Lebanon: Stories of Lebanese Women in America, 2007, etc.) was thoroughly Americanized, growing up outside of Boston, and even attended St. George’s Orthodox Church and later Wellesley College, where she embarked on her career as an academic. In this well-honed, posthumous memoir (Shakir died in 2010), consisting partly of childhood memories and partly of her experiences teaching English-language literature to young Arabs, the author sounds out her own character for what it means to be Lebanese and later recognizes many familiar traits in the old world of her parents: love of family, respect for the wishes of one’s parents, modesty, pride and generosity. Along with her brother, Shakir was surrounded by an extended Lebanese family, hard workers in the mills, presses and sewing shops of the Northeast. Her mother was a charter member of the Syrian Ladies’ Aid group and her uncle, a flamboyant co-owner of the iconic Cyclone roller coaster at Revere Beach. Shakir ventured on her Fulbright in the mid-2000s, long after the Lebanese civil war but just shy of an Israeli bombing campaign and well before the current civil war in Syria. Hence, her observations are pertinent and subtle, rather than political, and pertain especially to the various shades of Arabic diversity, such as accents and dress, especially women’s dress, between Beirut and Bahrain (jeans versus abaya) and religious piety—e.g., in the surprising reactions of many students to the perceived permissiveness of Arab-American literature that Shakir introduced in class. In her tight, witty prose, Shakir challenges easy assumptions about ethnicity, religion and belonging.
One open-hearted teacher’s resistance to narrow definitions of identity.