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: Is [this focus on gender] a procedure in the application for citizenship?
DD: I don’t think it came up as such…
RL: So far, with you?
DD: And…S. got her nationality and I believe D. is also going for her nationality, so I believe it’s possible but I can imagine, how to put this, there’s no, there’s no [official focus on gender that I am aware of]…[and Lebanon is] unlike Korea which has established special visas for adoptees to come back—ay [yeah]—it sounds nice, [but] it’s basically brain-draining and exploitative [as was explained to me by a Korean adoptee who returned], “our kids went and got educated and we’re gonna take them back for economic capital”. I [have long since been] corrected of that romantic notion.
When my lawyer told me that I was Lebanese now, I started crying. She’s like, “you’re suppose to be happy”. I was like, “I want to be acknowledged by the state, I want the state to say to me: yaa ibne [O my son] you’re back”. It doesn’t happen this way. I could have paid X-amount of dollars and got all of it done in a couple of months’ time I imagine. But I wanted to do it in a legal way [to establish a precedent others could follow]. I don’t know that there’s a point in the procedure where this comes up. What I was going to say was, I call this [extraneous activity linked to the corrupt process] our “jumping through hoops”.
Okay, taking a step back, for us to be adopted most of the legality of that act is based on the adopting country. So the orphanage had different paperwork for the different countries of destination. So the United States wants to know that the parents are dead, the child has no surviving relatives or they are unknown [or have signed away their rights], and is technically an orphan. This is demanded by the States and I imagine it’s demanded by European countries as well.
But what does this mean? It means that Lebanese law is bending to foreign law and doing things it doesn’t normally do because the idea of an orphan, the idea of a child without nassab [genealogy] or lineage of any kind, [doesn’t exist as a concept here]; it’s much harder here or it’s not required in a similar way. So we jump through hoops to bend our identity back into Lebanese law when we return. It was basically, here are the six pages, the papers, write out all the information, this is all the Amn Al-Aam [General Security office] needs [to process a child destined for adoption].
We need a passport, we need all of this stuff, picture, tuk, tuk, tuk, tuk [MAKES STAMP NOISE], off the kid goes, with no thought that that child is ever going to come back. So when that child comes back as an adult, and it’s like, well this is the name on my birth certificate which is false, it’s a fake name, with fake names of parents, how do we bend this back into the Lebanese system? The Lebanese system accommodates this I think…
(BOTH LAUGH [concerning the corrupt and malleable Lebanese system])
DD: [Plus] we come back with a certain amount of class privilege and privilege as foreigners [and so this bending is much easier]. It’s been amazing to me at times (CHUCKLES) the bending back has been (PAUSE) for example the child comes back…let me put it this way: “Daniel Drennan” has a three-year courtesy visa to stay in the country. “Bernard Sarem” [as named by] the orphanage has his nationality, he can do whatever he wants. He can vote, he can work, he can open bank accounts, he can do whatever. Daniel Drennan needs to prove that this [other false name] is him. This is what is taking so much time, and what we’ll end up doing is putting on the [official] registry, “Bernard Sarem currently know as Daniel Drennan”, and that is what my name is going to be, like half of a sentence long.
RL: Like “the artist formerly know as Prince”.
DD: Exactly, exactly! There’s no such thing as a name change. So the problem becomes…
RL: Oh to stop you there. So you can’t change your names? It’s not legal in Lebanese law to change your name.
DD: No. There has to be a [maintained] connection [to family and lineage; this is the basis for our personal status]…The next point I was going to make was the next step after nationality is establishing the family record. Who do you put on the family record [of an adopted child]? These are fictitious names [that worked for the adoption, but they don’t work for things like inheritance, etc.]. So my lawyer just recently informed me that I need to get all this information from my adoptive parents[: passports, a death certificate, driver’s license].
I said [jokingly] to my mom, “sorry mom I’m dragging you into being a Lebanese citizen as well”. They have to make up a family record of who the parents are at least, and this is where it gets interesting to me because you don’t [actually] exist [in the atomic sense, and the state goes about fabricating a reality for this fake existence].
In the United States they do the same thing when they alter the birth certificate and put in other names, and [yet]…the child [when grown up], because of the individualistic mindedness of the place, you can exist on your own, you can reject your family, you can change your name, you can leave the family nest and never see them again. Here, you can’t be a child without those two connectors [and implied connections beyond that], so we are bringing in my adoptive parents to make those connections.
This is the only place I think [that gender plays a significant role], because what, ah, you would have to show is that your father was Lebanese [in order to be Lebanese]. Um, I think actually it works to the advantage of the adoptee (PAUSE) that the information be false. It’s false, but it’s “correctly” false [in terms of what is required for nationality to be passed down]. Meaning the father is listed as a Lebanese citizen, and the mother is listed as a Lebanese citizen.
RL: Which might not be the case.
DD: Which might not be the case, and if an adoptee comes back and knows something of her story and knows that her father might not be Lebanese, this complicates things.
RL: Yeah, this was going to be my question. What if the father, for example I know of a case in which the adoptee found their mother and [the adoptee] was a product of a rape so the father is unknown. Does this make the process more difficult in a sense, that there is a general standard that one can follow but then does it get into these details, if you do find your kin, does this change the…?
DD: It does change and it’s almost as if the more truthful you are with the system, the harder it becomes. The system is built around lies and mythology basically and so it makes sense that I [am able to come back and re-establish a nationality based on the very lies that allowed me to leave in the first place]…Haram [Such a shame] the children who were kidnapped or trafficked during the war and left without paperwork of any kind. It’s impossible for them to come back. There’s no, there’s nothing that links them to the country. They might know that they’re Lebanese but they can’t come back and prove anything with [such] faulty proof.
[Radically different from those of us who come back with bogus paperwork.] I know a woman who found her family in the South and now she’s [aware of the fact that she’s] the oldest of eight children I think…It’s a sad story. Her parents were farmers; they put her in the orphanage thinking that, in the Muslim sense, that they would see her again at the end of the summer [when the field work was done], and she had been adopted [in the meantime]. When she came back they [her family] said to her, “we’ve been waiting 50 years for you to come back”. She’s in France and the last time I spoke to her she told me that her father here wants to put her on the family record. He’s very proud of her now, he wants her to be part of the family. [Lebanese law allows for this,] but this hugely complicates things for her French identity, right?
RL: Because she’d be living under two names?
DD: Exactly. Two names, two families, two inheritances, two, two, two of everything.
RL: But isn’t she already on the family list?
DD: It has to be reestablished.
RL: Was she not registered?
DD: She was registered, [but sadly I think the orphanage told them she had died].
RL: Was she a baby, an infant?
DD: Yes, this is what we are finding out now that 50% of children in this country aren’t registered. For reasons of poverty or distance from a place of registry, whatever the case may be, fear of government, or so many reasons why. A lot of kids, its more the norm not to register.
RL: And if it was during the war as well, I know how difficult it was to register. It would sometimes take up to a year, people have birthdates that are not theirs and… I think this happened even before the war.
DD: For these cases, I don’t know, I don’t know that it’s more difficult for women but I can imagine they are given a different scrutiny just by virtue of being women and reasons for their return. I don’t even want to say [the questions they are more likely to face] out loud: Why aren’t you with your family? Why aren’t you in your home? Why are you coming back? What are you doing here [alone]? It’s much different.
I joke about this “bending back”, but at times it is not fluid and the revelation of the pure bureaucracy of it can be startling if not disturbing. For example, I have found other adoptees who “share” the same false last name as I do (for the record, Sarem is an ordinary Arabic word that means “strict”). The desire was to avoid any possibility of confusion with actual Lebanese family names, of which there is a quite finite number. It is rather bizarre to be “connected” to others by a false name.
The “malleability” of Lebanese law in the face of a greater force of foreign law points out, for all intents and purposes, the colonized nature of Lebanese government and society. It is rather similar to the expatriate issue, where foreigners change the local scene based on their demands, needs, and lifestyles. The “bending back” into Lebanese law was basically a matter of determining what would “fly”; what we might “get away with” for want of a better way to say it. But as I noted, even in countries where there is a more overt welcoming back of adoptees, this too is based on economic and political needs of the source country.
There is a supreme irony in the use of the adoptive parents to create the family register, in that during the time of this processing, the courtesy visa defaults to writing out dashes in the places for the names of “mother” and “father”. In contrast, my work visa at the university listed my adoptive parents’ names. So the “atomic” orphan does exist here, and culturally speaking it has always been more difficult to live as such in Lebanon based on the community one finds oneself. Often, the place of birth was used as a false name: “Beiruti”, for example. Frankly, the same baggage exists for “bastards” and “orphans” in the States and Europe, it is just more overt here. And oddly, it seems almost a gesture of catering to a foreigner to not establish him as a local “orphan”, by continuing the charade and listing adoptive parents on the register.
Which brings us to the words used to describe such children locally speaking: “children of shame” or “children of sin”; “bastard”. My orphanage used to be located in the woods of Azarieh, and now to say “the children of Azarieh” is to refer to us collectively, and this too has taken on a derogatory sense. On the MTV web site in a discussion on drones, these aircraft were jokingly referred to using the derogatory implications listed here: “Bastard plane-child”, if you will.
This word, “laqiT” (“foundling”) comes from “laqaTa“, a verb meaning “to glean”, or “to pick up from the ground”. Its derived meanings refer to snapshots and radio/TV waves—”picked up” by the eyes or ears, but also shadows of an original. Other derived meanings include: “leftover ears of grain”; “offal/refuse”; “bargain”.
The inability of mothers to pass on nationality to their children is, in fact, a recent law, designed to target the Palestinian population and prevent it from marrying into the local population, and thereby change the precariously balanced sectarian census. Organizations such as Jinsiyati (“My Nationality”) have been actively working to change this for years.
I remember being in a faculty meeting discussing the hiring of a “Lebanese” instructor who would require a full professorial budget line (similar to other foreign hires). A Canadian visiting professor didn’t understand why this should be, so it was explained that he was “from” here, but did not have the nationality, since his father wasn’t Lebanese. One of the professors, trying to placate the feigned distress of this visiting professor, stated: “That’s our Ottoman law for you!” It was a bizarre exchange, highlighting the internalization of a colonized mindset here, and local Islamophobia. The fact remains that the Muslim conception of the orphan remains the “preferable” one locally speaking.
This segues into a discussion of the Muslim “naivete” concerning Christian orphanages, with the absence of understanding concerning adoption leading to the case I described of a child being adopted out from underneath her parents’ oversight. There is also a need to discuss the politically desired “conversion” of this population, similar to what was undertaken with American Indian and other indigenous children in Anglo societies.
It is very distressing to me my ability (as a foreign national) to recover my identity here, whereas most of my friends in my neighborhood remain locked into their status as “foreign workers”, with no ability for their children to attend public schools, for example, despite their being here for decades. On the flip side is our ability as foreign nationals to maintain more than one nationality. This is more often than not a cynical “brain drain” of foreign workers (German, Indian, etc.) or else a desire to use a diaspora population as a tool of foreign policy, via foreign elections, especially if that local population tends to be quite conservative (Chile, Lebanon, etc.)
I was most flabbergasted when I learned that a full half of children in this country are not officially registered with the government, for the reasons listed. This becomes the prime focus for an organization that just started up, Bada’el (“Alternatives”). To fight for a child’s right to know his or her origins brings adoptees together with refugee children, the bedouin, unregistered children, the children of migrant workers, etc. Our hope is that this broad focus and coalition will go much farther to change actual law as well as change how such children are currently seen in society.
In all of this I also think we can see the rather easy correction to make which would simply obviate adoption by forcing local legality; a dismantling of the “hoops” that are jumped through; a termination of “bending” the law to accomodate foreign interests; a literal return to something approaching justice. Soon, God willing.
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)