This series of posts is based on an interview conducted with Romy Lynn Attieh. 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 first entry to the series can be found here: [link to entry].
RL: Actually there are two things I’ve picked up on that you were talking about that I would actually like you to maybe elaborate on. I am also coming in with background information. You are my friend, you are my family member and I know that you have worked on this and I know you’ve written on this. But you were talking about the kind of Europeans that come in and are expecting this civil, civic law, and there isn’t this organized civil system in which there is transparency and there is accountability. For me that is interesting because I know you are applying for citizenship, and I just want to know how you think gender plays into that. Maybe into your process into applying for citizenship and also, in the face of the state if you will. Are there other adoptees applying for citizenship…that are women?
DD: Yes absolutely.
RL: That are going through the motions, that are going through the process? Did they find it more difficult? What do you think about that?
DD: It’s troubling to me actually because I know many adoptees for example that returned to Korea and ended up going back to the States, and it has to do with reasons of the place of women in society and what they were allowed to do as single women. You come back as an adoptee, you fit in in terms of physical features, but you’re still considered a foreigner because you don’t speak the language and you don’t know the cultural ways and mores. Um, so she was living there, she wanted to stay, but it became too much. She was questioned at every turn, basically what you could imagine, the implication of: women don’t do that, you can’t come to this café [alone], you cant buy alcohol, or you can’t be alone in this place or, or, or.
And she wasn’t able to explain at any given time, so it became very difficult for her. I’ve been very lucky in that regard as a man coming back to Lebanon. You know, it’s interesting to me as the years have gone by, every night I go and hang out at the corner with the chabaab [the guys], we hang and we drink tea, and nobody questions me. Whereas I can imagine if I were a woman, this would bring up a lot, especially in this neighborhood [of a particular class description], it would raise a lot of…If she were going to the corner as the foreigner this is completely different. But if she wants to go to the corner as a Lebanese, then [it’s perceived as] mamnou‘a [forbidden].
The women who come back have to deal with their perceived role in society, and I feel that. I don’t mean to say that’s not break-out-able, because I think that’s the grey area of a lot of gender discussion here, you know. I find gender strictures to be much more rigid in the States, for example, than here, meaning [here] women can push up against that wall, and it perhaps gives. You know what I’m saying? They can make a space for themselves in a different way, in certain communities and certain areas it’s more allowed [or tolerated].
Like when we went, like when we went…For example, [theoretically informed “Western”] feminist groups here demonstrating about women’s space and space for women and this kind of thing. But they don’t challenge male-dominated space [which would often cede to them if they approached it from within the community]. But if you do challenge that space often times you’ll find that it opens up. But in the States it would be much more rigid I find. Does that make sense what I’m saying?
RL: Kind of, I’m trying to digest it myself and understand.
DD: But so for a guy coming back it is much easier to navigate. Nobody questions my presence in the neighborhood, what I’m doing; even the language has diminutive, affectionate nicknames for men who have no children. So you’re given the diminutive of your own name, I become “Abu Duun” for example. So there’s an acceptance…
RL: Abu Duun? Like Danduun? (BOTH LAUGH)
DD: It’s funny! A woman, a woman…I think women have a much more difficult time. I know S., who was living, she was living in Achrafieh. I think it was much harder for her, much harder to break the barriers of culture or to open up because it’s perceived differently. A woman coming here from France who all of a sudden starts talking and opening up, it’s perceived in a different way. It hasn’t been easy for me, I won’t say it’s been easy, but I think women have it much more difficult.
And then there is the whole nationality thing, where, you know, the whole idea of paternity when you might not even know, when you might not have that link to a father or the ability to say the father is Lebanese. And I know of many cases, if that link cannot be established then this becomes much more difficult. Not that my link is more established, but I think that for, that I am given more benefit of the doubt—obviously you possess [or embody] nationality because you’re a man.
DD: You know what I’m saying?
RL: Yeah, yeah.
DD: As opposed to women where you need to prove your connection to the country. Which is obscene on so many levels.
There are a few elliptical points to elaborate on here. First, where I say “Like when we went, like when we went…” I was bringing up a case that was to be contradicted by the “Westernized” feminist groups I mention after, who were demanding a “women-only” space. What I was going to refer to was the times I know of concerning women in Sour who quite readily “challenge” the “perceived-as male-only” settings of local cafes.
The point being that the perception and the reality are two different things, and the perception is often quite “challenge-able”. So the “forbidden” mention I make of a woman “hanging” at the corner is based on the upholding of “perception”; the lived reality might be very different. I’m not claiming that this is not offputting to women, or that the male-centered nature of such space does not exist; what I am saying is that it is flexible, and bends much more readily than might be expected, and this based on class stereotypes of the perceiver, not anything inherent to the spaceholders.
Second, the “embodiment” of belonging also has linguistic correlation, and this again according to community. Men in uniform are referred to as “waTan“, or “nation”. There are women in uniform, it need be stated, and I can easily imagine they might be referred to as “waTaneh“, although I have never heard this. Syrian workers refer to compatriots as “bulud“, the diminutive of “balad“, or “country”. I’ve never heard this from a Lebanese; nor has the occasion for a feminized version presented itself. Finally, in the Islamic notion of the “umma” or “larger community of believers” is the shared root with “umm“, or “mother”. Here are revealed, perhaps, overlapping “belongings” and different “avenues of return”, based on where we attempt “re-entry”.
Third concerns my “acceptance” in my current neighborhood. I need to elaborate on the fact that for the first two years I was living here, I had to deal with half of the residents here wondering about my presence. What was I doing here? Was I a spy? Was I working for the CIA? Why would an American want to give up that “Shangri-La” and live back in a place that everyone is trying to escape?
These first two years were excruciating, in the sense that I was hyper-aware that I was the subject of many conversations, but I didn’t understand what was being said about me. I was asked point-blank by a sheikh on my street what I was doing there, and that I should excuse the question, but I needed to understand what it was like during the Civil War, and the presence of informers was on everyone’s mind. He listened to my story and said: “I will trust you until you give me reason not to”. I believe I’ve kept up this end of the bargain.
It took eight years, but I am no longer jokingly referred to as “The American” by some of the men in the neighborhood; my opinion is no longer sought as the “token” American whenever the United States flexes its war machine in the region. I quietly catalog references to my “Arab blood” or “Arab roots” inside of a box marked “humbly accepted inversions”. When the investigative phase of my nationality case came about, and “information officers” made the rounds of the neighborhood asking after me, I am happy to report that I passed this test with flying colors. Nothing means more to me than this local acceptance.
So I am acutely and painfully aware that this is not always shared by my sisters in Beirut, depending on the community or neighborhood they find themselves in. One adoptee, who found her family in the South, was welcomed back by a festive party attended by the whole village. Other adoptees have not been as lucky. The main point I am trying to make is that the baggage we carry with us here upon return, which would paint certain groups within certain classes to be obvious allies, is deceptive in the extreme.
I have no way to explain, for example, the need of former university colleagues to claim to my face that I was an agent of the CIA. Nothing was more emotionally debilitating to me than to have students challenge me based on what was alluded to by these other professors. I have made it a point to actively challenge such descriptions, even if they are said in an offhand or joking manner, because they are quite dangerous in terms of my physical well-being here. I had to do this only twice in my neighborhood; more than a dozen times during my years at the university.
As I write this, a “warning” has just arrived in my email inbox from the United States State Department, warning American citizens not to travel to Lebanon. In its list of those it considers to be “terrorists” are groups that it has actively funded over the years. There are also groups which “oversee” politically the neighborhood I currently live in. Ask me whom I’m more scared of. I’m wondering if the US should not instead send these missives to residents of, say, Ferguson, Missouri, which seems much more militarized and “dangerous” than Beirut at this point.
The greater irony here is of course coming from a class of people that believes itself to have more in common with the “West” of Europe and the United States than with locals here. A class of people that doesn’t mind the presence of USAID and its humanitarian imperialism on campus. Doesn’t mind when colleagues work with professors in Israeli universities, calling this “academic freedom”. Doesn’t mind the arrival of a shipment of arms and military supplies that is stored in the de facto arms depot that was the building next to mine previous to the “street wars” of 2008 that left three dead on my street.
They don’t mind storing the guns that prop up their lifestyles and livelihoods in my neighborhood, but then they turn around and call it a neighborhood of “za3raan“: “yobs”; “working class thugs”; and me, a “thug”, or “az3ar“. I had to deal with this as an epithet from the so-called educated elite that I worked with for eight years. When this comes from those above you in terms of the power structure, there really is no retort; no recourse. And the oppressive class structure of the society is thus painfully made aware to you, as well as the “devil’s bargain” of aiding and abetting its very maintenance of this power.
My point here is that in the interview, I claim that there is no “questioning” of me as a male adoptee returned. What I need to clarify is the fact that the ability to integrate oneself as a returned adoptee is different for men and for women; that this “acceptance” has come nine long years after my arrival. Depending on the community we find ourselves in, depending on the class makeup of those we find ourselves among, this is easier or not so easy. Contrary to what we might imagine, such integration is often less easy in neighborhoods which seem to share similar class markers as those we were acculturated in.
This contradiction is perhaps explained by the desired attainment of the local bourgeoisie of what we “have” as acculturated Americans. As a hired “American”, for example, I was paid a higher salary than my Lebanese coworkers. Being seen as an “American” meant I was privy to some pretty loathsome conversations concerning local populations. When I linked my activism as an adoptee to the plight of others locally displaced, dispossessed, and disinherited, I very quickly realized that I had overstepped these bounds, had crossed a red line, had defined my “class allegiance” completely contrary to what was expected of me.
I make reference to an adoptee, S., who lived here in Achrafieh, which I often jokingly refer to as a “French stronghold” or “fiefdom”, in ironic answer to ridiculous press descriptions of communities which “belong” to the other end of this perceived spectrum of “Westernization”. We might imagine that this would make things easier for her “return”, but in fact they didn’t. Similarly, there are French people living on my street who attempt to live an “Achrafieh” lifestyle in a much more communal space, and this marks them, and they remain “outsiders”.
As difficult as it has been, giving up the baggage and acculturation of my upbringing was key to a certain level of “return” that I never imagined possible. It has, ironically, meant the total alienation from the community of the charitable organization that oversees my orphanage, as well as the class of Lebanese whose lifestyle in fact creates the conditions that lead to the impoverished children they then see as needing “saving” via adoption. So much of our adoptions are likewise tied up in notions of class differential; this acculturation can, in and of itself, become a barrier to our “return”—if we allow it.
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)