When I was approached concerning a possible article about my adoption, return, and new-found faith I was a bit reticent. The “hook” as it were was based on my previous life in New York City (over two decades ago), as revealed in my writing at that time. For a rematriated [link to definition] adoptee, this anchor, this albatross of the past around our necks is desperately depressing. It is a painful reminder that adoption is often very much about preserving that snapshot of us before we “go bad”; before we “revert to form”; before we “go back to our roots”; before we “devolve”. It is about what others need us to be culturally, socially, and psychologically speaking.
I had been more or less successful with many friends and my family in explaining this transition, and in establishing for myself a sense of life as a spectrum, with extra dimensions of time and place. I had been much less successful with other encounters with the media along these lines. What I’ve learned is that the static binaries we are categorized by only hold up as much as we let them. By this I mean to say that the racist sentiment we suffered and our claims to identity are flip sides of the same coin, and we don’t do ourselves any favors by attempting to force one “side” over the other. Furthermore, the dominant mode depends on such reductive binaries, and the media do their part in perpetuating them.
But I’ve explained this at length in my writing here and at Transracial Eyes [link to site]. And so throwing caution to the wind, I met up with Mark Oppenheimer, author of the “Beliefs” column at the New York Times, and we talked at length about adoption, the politics and economics of it, my past in New York, my life in Beirut. We discussed my past work within the mediated realm of the New York radio and literary scene, and it was at this point that I realized the lingering damage of adoption in terms of our foreign acculturation.
By this I mean to say that for many of us, the best we can manage to do within the dominant culture that is defined by the foreign place of our adoption is an endless attempt to “fit in” and “be” what is expected of us. This is, by its very nature, not “whole” or “holistic” psychologically speaking. The only recourse is often a literal annihilation of self. In my refutation of the book I wrote at the time, I put it this way:
The person who wrote that book no longer exists. It reflects more expected affectations of a particular person from a particular class catering to those likewise of such a mindset. Minorities as well as adoptees spend much time trying to “fit in”, and in categorizing themselves, and in writing a book that attempted to make people laugh about rather serious issues, I worry now that I was simply performing some strange minstrelsy; acting as court jester. I regret this very much.
Along these lines, returning to Lebanon—and then rejecting what is “class-similar” here compared to how I grew up—has been eye-opening and mind-expanding in many ways, not least of which concerns my own sense of self, and coming into my own. Which is still very much a work in progress.
I greatly appreciate Mark’s patience concerning my doubts and misgivings, as well as in terms of his listening to the condensed version of the anti-adoption (“pro-justice”) writing that is found here. Given that the Times would often not publish my comments in reply to their quite pro-adoption articles, I’m rather proud to have gotten the word “anti-adoption” into the newspaper of record, and I’m grateful for his “getting it”.
It was also a privilege to work with the photographer Ozier Muhammad [link to his web site]. We met in Jersey City; in the portrait that he took you can see the Colgate Clock behind me [link to info on clock]. I can remember the days when it was possible to walk down to the water here, with the river bank littered with random dumpings from the construction trade. Although that “perfect picture” down by the water is impossible now, I think we came quite close. As I often say, I still proudly refer to myself as a “Jersey Boy”….so some things do linger.
One final caveat: I am not in the practice of wearing my faith on my sleeve, and I do not wish this to be seen as anything along those lines. I do, however, think it is important for adoptees, especially those who might wish to return to their places of origin, to understand the complexity of the cultures we come from, the navigation of that culture once we arrive, and the persistence of the baggage of our previous acculturation. Beyond this is the fact that sometimes, if we dig far down below the surface level of the culture we come “home” to, is something incredibly resonant. Somewhere within all of this is hopefully something that might be useful to those who regularly read here.
The original article can be found at the Times web site [link to article]. What follows are some questions that Mark asked me which I thought might be of interest spelled out in their entirety; a kind of addendum to the article. Thanks for reading.
In what religion were you raised, and how seriously?
My adoption required that I be raised in a Catholic home. So I went to Catholic school for 10 years, and my mother (the daughter of a Methodist minister) was further bound by a signed statement (for her marriage to my father to be seen as valid by the Catholic Church) to not advocate her own faith in the household. This was too bad, because the church she belonged to when I was growing up (which was Presbyterian) was much more communal, non-hierarchical, and “Christian” in this way to me than what I remember of my Catholic “community”, which seemed much more to focus on those whose economic and class standing made them pillars of the Church.
If my father was not active in the Church, it was likely due to those he disparagingly referred to as “holy rollers”, and I can recall being made to likewise feel quite unwelcome in this realm, despite my efforts to be a part of it, such as helping during school masses, or joining folk group later on. I often remark that I spent 10 years in Catholic school and “10 years getting over it”.
Can you give me a chronology—when moved to Middle East, when first interested in Islam, when become a Muslim?
I moved to Lebanon in 2004, but my interest in Islam preceded that by many years. For a long time I described myself as agnostic or even athiest—skeptical and scientific—but this always seemed to ring hollow, and in retrospect sounded of the arrogance of those we know today as advocates of secular democracy, for whom their non-belief becomes just as much a sledgehammer to enforce on others as the religions they demonize (like the insufferable Bill Maher).
I felt something “missing” philosophically if not existentially, and so I sought out alternatives to my Catholic education, and thus studied on my own a variety of Eastern beliefs—Buddhism, Taoism, etc. Looking back, I can see that most of my interests in terms of culture at the time were based in an effort to literally break out of an American acculturation.
Of course, these alternatives had ridiculous “Americanized” manifestations such as The Tao of Pooh as well as guru-esque representatives such as Alan Watts. This passing over to “Western” understanding was allowed because they were rather superficial and could be separated from cultural roots. All the same, many equally sought refuge in spiritual retreats to India and the like; much of this was a kind of religious “slumming it”.
The version of Islam that achieved such dominance in the States was Sufism, with a focus on Rumi, and similar teachings, despite it not existing outside of particular African, Arab, and Asian domains in much different manifestations. I looked into this borrowed version as well. You might say I was surfing the end of the hippie-era opening up of such beliefs in American culture and society—all outward form with little framework or actually relevant content.
Once in Lebanon, I was faced with a quite different reality regarding religion, and our taken-for-granted “choice” of whether to be religious or not. First was the official list of 18 sects which are allowed to govern all aspects of personal status here, as ordained by French colonial powers bent on dividing the country. Not included at all is any notion of secularism, although a Communist party, other secular political parties, as well as secular political philosophers (Mahdi Amel, for one example) historically exist.
Second was the realization that in order to re-establish my nationality I would have to choose one of these sects. My lawyer, who was instrumental in the passage of the recent law that allows citizens to remove all reference to sect from their government documents advised me to not do so (as she herself had done) since this would leave me in a legal void concerning my personal status in the country—the other realms of the law have not caught up with this ruling.
But in any case it’s a moot point since by virtue of knowing someone’s given name, family name, and town of origin, a person’s sect can be guessed. And so the “secular” option doesn’t bring an end to any discrimination suffered, especially when in all other aspects of governance and partition of power, sectarianism plays a supreme role, as it was designed to do by so-called secular and democratic colonial powers. Most disturbing perhaps is the fact that I was advised to “choose” almost as a kind of business decision—certain sects have more political/cultural clout than others—as opposed to thinking in terms of actual faith or belief. This rubbed me the wrong way.
In 2005 I moved to a mixed though primarily Muslim neighborhood, and my day-to-day acculturation took on an Islamic inflection. I sometimes jokingly refer to “speaking in the Islamic form of the verb” in terms of my colloquial responses which tend to invoke God; for example, saying “thanks to God” as opposed to “fine” when asked how I am doing. This ironically marked me in a negative way (class-wise) among my colleagues in the supposedly secular American University I was teaching at.
This class marker in terms of faith also separated me from the community of my orphanage, which gave me flashbacks to the “holy rollers” I grew up with. Quite on the contrary, I found the communal nature of my neighborhood life to be quite compelling, and my interest in Islam was revived. At the same time, I remained rather skeptical, due to the rather Islamophobic acculturation that comes from this same “secular West”. I started asking friends and students questions about their faith and practice, and finally a student recommended that I speak with a sheikh. She and her mother brought me to the big hussaynieh in the southern suburbs of Beirut for that express purpose.
While waiting for our meeting, I made a promise to myself that if anything didn’t “ring true” for me in our discussion, that I would forget the whole thing; that I would walk away and be done with it. The sheikh had some questions for me, and I had a lot more for him. We ended up speaking for an hour and a half, at which point he said to me I could come back and talk with him whenever I wanted, and if and when I was ready, I would need only say the shahada should I want to convert.
I felt at that moment a great ease and a realization that this was the next logical step for me on many levels, and so I “converted”, or as I prefer to say, “stepped into” Islam, since it seemed like Islam was the footprint already awaiting my next step not just spiritually, but intellectually, philosophically, and culturally speaking as well. Beyond this is the fact that many of us who passed through the orphanage are from Muslim families originally, and my sense is that this is likely my case; and thus another level of “return”.
What is your Muslim practice like?
I with met this sheikh just before Ramadan, and he said to me that my practice was not to be governed by a list of rules, but should reflect my evolving understanding of the path that I was now proceeding along. He suggested that Ramadan was upon us, and that I should perhaps attempt to fast for the month, which I did. My initial understanding was clumsy and oafish, and informed by the class of Lebanese I previously found myself among, and so Ramadan became like a dance card to fill with iftars, like a month of Thanksgiving dinners, each one outdoing the next—an exercise in gluttony and avarice.
Since then I have realized the error of my ways, and now during Ramadan I avoid such invitations, and have taken to cooking dinner in my kitchen and bringing it to the corner shop where I hang out with neighborhood friends. We have a modest iftar on the floor of their shop, and passersby are welcome to join us. I’ve developed a reputation for my cooking, drawing among others friends who drive taxi cabs for example. the communal/spiritual aspect of it makes me extremely happy, and this remains my favorite time of year.
Apart from that I read Qur’an; the Qur’an is broken down into 30 parts, and so I read one section each day, completing a full reading in a lunar month. I’m still reading in translation (I prefer those of Muhammad Asad [link to site] and Tarif Khalidi [link to site]), and am finally attempting to read and study more in Arabic, following my learning curve in the language.
Prayer is a bit more difficult. I’ve clumsily taught myself, despite offers of friends to help me or to bring me to masjid. As an adoptee returned I have a real block here, in terms of what I should know, and what was “taken” from me, in terms of faith, but also in terms of language. You might call it embarrassment, or else the extremely painful realization that in many ways I have reverted to a kind of “boy-like” status compared to others in my community.
It isn’t rational, but I feel a disconnect between my apparent age and my “spiritual” age and I am loathe for this to be known outside a circle of friends within contexts of faith. This is distressing, because in general I do try to not separate practice of faith from life; to me they are the same thing. I need to work a lot more on overcoming this, God willing.
Do you identify as Sunni, Shi‘a, something else?
This is an intensely loaded question. My sheikh/advisor said to me: “You have not converted Shi‘a, but Muslim. You should not follow a list of dos and don’ts, but should employ your own reason.” And yet…every political incentive in Lebanon and the region for that matter forces one’s hand. It’s rather ironic in a way, since my attempted re-entry into Lebanon demanded I felt that I give up the categorizations and identity markers that I used to abide by and define myself by.
Along these lines, I refuse, for example, to call myself “Lebanese”, or even “Arab”, since my acculturation was completely different. I’d rather be judged by actions and not labels. In this light, I will refer to myself as “Muslim”, since this is a valid “taking on” of such identity. To claim to “be” Sunni or Shi‘a to me then is to fall back into such traps, and I try to refuse that at every turn, especially since those who do so identify this way often do so pridefully or arrogantly even.
Having said that, I did, one time in anger, say: “ana Shi‘i” (“I’m Shi‘a”) when I found myself listening to a particularly sectarian anti-Shi‘a conversation. I wasn’t proud of that though; it seems to be a kind of falling prey to the poisons we otherwise try to avoid. I have friends from both of these particular realms of Islam, and within those realms from the further internal divisions thereof, and the discussion of such differences can be infuriating as well as enlightening. Nonetheless I see them as crucial at this point in acknowledging the vast amount of derivations and manifestations of Islam globally speaking.
And so what becomes interesting to me along these lines are the ways in which religions jibe with other existing systems, cultural, political, and economic. I see now that certain religions (or belief systems) tend to avail themselves of or dovetail with capitalism in a very particular way, or lend themselves to a foreign individualistic, colonialist, and capitalistic/neo-liberal outlook. Such outlooks tend to be reductive and extremely literal in their reading of the Holy Writs, stultifying, static, and domineering in terms of belief. In this light, certain alliances of the United States make absolute perfect sense, in a globally destructive way.
The “hippie” surfing of religion alluded to earlier likewise makes sense, as it focuses completely on the individual in a “consumerist” shopping for religion. The similarities are striking in terms of a focus on a purely individualistic salvation, with this based in a rootless and superficial appearance and practice as opposed to abiding by what I see as more deeply rooted communal and collective tenets of faith.
Furthermore, these reductive manifestations of faith share a blaming of the poor for their condition, a hypocritical focus on absolute rules, the view of wealth as a marker of Godliness (or polis, in secular terms), etc. And so I might say that I am drawn to teachings which focus on the opposite of this, more liberationist theologies, which advocate for equality; social justice; an esoteric understanding of our reality; a collective over an individual existence; a focus on reason, knowledge, and education; an acknowledgment of the validity of resistance to dominant norms; etc.
But beyond this, there is so much for me to learn historically and philosophically that I refuse to reductively describe myself, nor to limit myself in terms of what feeds into this education. It’s an evolving process [link to further reading].
What else do you want to say about Islam that I haven’t asked?
It has been an interesting experience as a returned adoptee to attempt to glean an understanding of that adoption from the faiths local to the place of my origin. At first I “read” the Qur’anic invocations concerning the orphan—”your ‘adopted’ children are not the same as your biological children”—to be rather harsh. It depressed me. But this was in fact me projecting my American acculturation concerning adoption mythology.
I’ve since learned that culturally speaking there are two terms in the Qur’an that are translated as “adopted” [link to Islamophobia and Adoption: Who Are the Civilized?]. The first implies in a positive way an acknowledged belonging, as a townsperson “belongs” to a town. The second implies in a negative way a kind of “taking in” or “indenturing” of a servant, and it is this latter that rather readily describes Anglo-Saxon adoption in terms of legal practice, the “purchase” of property, as well as historical precedent.
It was startling to me that the community of our orphanage be the least welcoming of us (as returned “orphans”, and as a former social problem to be gotten rid of), whereas the Islamic context provided much more in the way of access and welcome; of belonging; of understanding. I’ve had taxi drivers refuse to take my money after hearing my story, for one example; women in my neighborhood go out of their way to refer to me as their son, for another. And so whereas Lebanese society is vertical and patrilineal, it does have this horizontal and communal impetus that I find grounded culturally speaking in Islam as it is lived and practiced.
The other thing that I find fascinating is informed by all of the differences and contradictions of religion and faith I experienced growing up. I’m talking about the fine-line differences but also overlaps; the places where belief systems diverge or else converge. I find that I tend to look for similarities between what are often seen as “different” faiths or even ideologies—I especially enjoy talking with my mom about religion, or, say, using Qur’anic terms to discuss socialism with friends in my neighborhood—and I find comfort in the spaces that allow for such discussion, and for such “breakthroughs” of understanding.
I sense that revolution will come of this, as opposed to demanding of the majority of the planet an elitist secularism that is only allowed to those with the luxury and privilege to remove themselves from street realities. In the same vein, I am endlessly intrigued by the historical bases for belief systems, as well as their place within our acculturation, whether we acknowledge them or not.
I find Islam to be particularly rich in this regard, and the various manifestations of faith along obviously theological but also economic and political, and beyond that cultural lines informs my own work as well as teaching and activism. It permeates life in a particularly logical, beautiful, and sustaining way, and if I come away with nothing else for having returned to Lebanon, for this I am endlessly grateful.