The following series of posts is based on an interview conducted with Romy Lynn Attieh. I’ve known Romy since I arrived in Lebanon, and in that time I’ve come to see her as a great friend, an intrepid research assistant, a colleague, and a sister. She has followed my story since day one; our stories overlap in interesting ways: We were both acculturated American, and have both experienced Lebanon as a space of “re-entry” as it were.
The interview was conducted for a paper that Romy wrote entitled: “Exploring Kinship and Gender in the Return Narratives of Transnational Adoptees Born in Lebanon” for a class with Dr. Rosemary Sayegh called “Oral History and Gender”, in the Anthropology department at AUB.
The anthropological basis of her studies required that she interview adoptees, a bringing forward of the voices of those interviewed. What follows is an unedited transcript of a recent interview she conducted with me that we both thought might be of interest to those reading here. I’ve decided to put it up over the next week as a series of questions with follow-up for discussion and the like.
Romy is planning on continuing with this topic for her Master’s thesis in the program, and with her permission I’ll hopefully also post this finished paper. In the meantime, if you are a Lebanese-born adoptee who has returned or is thinking of returning, please email me and I’ll put you in contact with Romy.
Narrator: Daniel Drennan (DD)
Researcher: Romy Lynn Attieh (RL)
Date of Interview: April 23, 2014
Place: Daniel’s home, Beirut, Lebanon
RL: How have transnational adoptees, adopted from Lebanon to the global north, experienced their return to Lebanon? Why did the adoptees decide to leave the country they were adopted to?
DD: It’s an interesting question because I don’t think many…I find many more adoptees here from Europe than from the States. And, at first I was trying to find out why this might be. (PAUSE) I think it has a lot to do with perceptions of this region, how the mmm [IMPLYING Middle East], South West Asia, North Africa, all these conflict, regions of conflict, are mediated in the United States. So there is a desire to not be associated with that, perhaps, to not relive the civil war and be associated to tragedies of the past or anything like this.
And at the same time there is a weird—what’s the word—crossover with what I remember to be the Lebanese expatriate community. My hometown in New Jersey had a huge Maronite expatriate community. Not once, did anyone [who knew I was from Lebanon, and who had] names [that now I recognize] like Maalouf, Boutrous, Barroud, all of these names that when I think now its like, “this guy’s Lebanese too, this guy’s Lebanese too!” Yet not once did anyone ever say to me, bring it up like as a subject. I think everyone was trying so hard to assimilate into the States that the Lebanese aspect was cast aside. It was okay to have your tight-knit community but you didn’t overtly express it. And I think that this might cross over to adoptees. You grow up acculturated into a white environment, you spend your life trying to fit into a white environment that when you think about going back, there’s a sense, I don’t know, there is a sense that that [going back] might stick or that might shift [one’s identity], I don’t know how to explain it.
I think it’s also important to realize that there are various levels of return. I know many, I’ve met many of the adoptees from France for example, who come, they come for a week. And they think they are going to find out information in a week. And I meet them at the orphanage and we have lunch with the nuns. And, they’re…They see Lebanon as a place of (PAUSE) strangeness (?), foreignness (?) So they joke about things I wish they wouldn’t joke about. And they, they pretend to put a veil on [MIMES PUTTING A VEIL ON] and they, a lot of stuff like this. But then they go back and they, I think many of them leave with bad experiences. Because a week is no time to even get to know the country or its people, much less find out any information about yourself. Then there are people who come back [for much lengthier stays], and this is where I start thinking of places like South Korea because the Lebanese adoptees that I know who’ve come back [longterm] are very few.
RL: And decided to return, meaning decided to stay and spend a significant amount of time here.
DD: Exactly. When I think that there are some 500,000 adoptees from Korea, (CORRECTS HIMSELF) I mean they are a quarter of a million adoptees from Korea in the diaspora of adoptees. So it makes sense that statistically speaking there should be more that would go back (LONG PAUSE). And Korea is a particular case as well. But the adoptees who I know, from Lebanon—at one point I knew, I had a list of 80 names, kept in touch with them. And then I came back, and then I started, if you will, reporting back on what the situation is for us and what we are able to find out, and one by one, I lost contact with them and it’s almost if… You know, [I know] it’s hard to hear a lot of it. It’s not a happy story, these aren’t happy stories. So I can understand that [the desire to go back might not be a strong one]. But I also feel like, there’s a, especially for European adoptees, there’s a [contrary demand for information that “belongs” to us, a] sense that there is something called civil law. There’s something called a civic state; there are things that, you should be able go to this bureau and look up information about yourself (BOTH LAUGH).
And then its like, you know, welcome to Lebanon it doesn’t work this way. I’ve spent ten years figuring out the hard way at some points, what I really, what I really need to do [to find out information]. I was actually talking to an adoptee the other day and I said, “I’ve spent ten years getting to the point where I think I’m ready to look for family, and it’ll probably take me another ten years to go through that next step of the process.” So it’s not a quick, it’s not something you can just dip into. You have to, um, devote time to it. And it means giving up, things. It means giving up your acculturation perhaps, or your sense of self, or individuality, or [privacy]…all these things that are appreciated in the West that are radically different in this part of the world, [but] which I now appreciate, which makes it harder to go back [to the States].
Umm, but I, the adoptees that I meet here, kind of dip into it, expect an answer right away, and then they, they leave. The other thing I notice about them, I don’t know if this comes from correspondence with the crèche [orphanage] that they’ve had [which gives them different information maybe], but I grew up with the idea that the name on my birth certificate tied me to a family and [I know that finding out the truth] is heartbreaking sometimes. I’ll get, I’ll be contacted by adoptees in the States or in Europe and they’ll speak in factive terminology: “my name is, my original name is, and I’m from this place, and”… I don’t know how to break it to them, that this isn’t true. Your name is false. This information is false. I don’t wanna be the one to rupture that mythology and I’ve spend a lot of time, building up to the point where I’ve [written out], it’s almost like a form letter basically saying, “I’m about to hit you on the head with a sledge hammer, is that okay?” Because you are asking me questions and for me to answer them honestly you’re going to have to come to terms with a lot of stuff. Are you ready for that? Many say no. Many say, “I’ll write to you later, maybe I’ll get in touch with you later.” It’s hard.
First, it’s very interesting to go back and read one’s “raw” words, which are much more conducive to reflection and introspection, so many thanks to Romy for this interview. I realize that one of the main reasons that there aren’t more American adoptees here is that the States is just so far away! It’s not as practical to get here. But I do believe the acculturated distance also counts for much, based on my correspondence with both groups of adoptees.
There are a few half-stated thoughts here that merit expansion. For example, “And Korea is a particular case as well”; by which I meant to say “a place of war, and economic and political manipulation from the outside”. Also, “a place with particular notions of patriarchy and patrilineal connection as well as views of women especially single women who find themselves pregnant”; and “a place whose more progressive political movements were destroyed via foreign intervention and economic incentives”. This all feeds back into a loop concerning the foreign bourgeoisie and its need to “save” foreign children for its own personal use, and the internal bourgeoisie which desires to attain this status via similar local exploitations. Here we can see the “opening up” of adoption in the local source country as not as a “solution”, but as the logical conclusion of this economic subterfuge.
The reason I find it troubling that putatively Christian adoptees might naively mock Muslim women does not have anything to do with my sense of faith as a Muslim, but more with the fact that many of us are, in fact, from Muslim families. We cannot make such claims about ourselves. Furthermore, it maps onto particularly obnoxious local anti-Arab and Islamophobic tropes that are derived in no small part from the “Enlightened” “West”. So to see this mimicked in an adoptee’s sense of self in terms of their acculturation just disturbs me greatly.
On relating info to other adoptees, I remember attending at the Adoption Initiative Conference in 2012 a presentation by a woman who worked with Catholic Charities in New York City, and thus had privileged access to information from those who were seeking understanding of their forebears who were shipped out to work as indentured labor via the Orphan Trains. She said to me that New York State prevented her from divulging certain personal information, and so she relayed it in a “coded” way such that those who consulted with her could find out what they needed to know.
I was struck by the strange sensation of wishing I had a similar “legal stricture”, meaning, I wished I could say, “I can’t tell you that” concerning questions other adoptees have for me. Notions of privacy work completely differently here than in Anglo-Saxon society, for one example; going to the General Security building to complete aspects of my nationality was like visiting a beehive. I don’t say this as a negative judgment, but as a statement of fact.
I’ve had ten years to acclimate myself to this, and to understand the deception of what happened in order to adopt us out of the country. How do I break this to adoptees asking me questions? Especially when I recognize in them my original naivete in this regard, my sense of “self” that I derived from, say, my false name? How do I stow the sledgehammer? There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to “deliver the blow”, as it were.
The series entries:
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (I)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (II)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (III)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (IV)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (V)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (V-postscript)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (VI)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (VII)