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.
RL: Two more questions? It’s 8:30 and I don’t know if you want to go?
DD: Let’s finish our questions.
RL: Ok. They’re pretty brief and pretty straightforward. I just wanted to know when you do obtain your citizenship, can you choose your sect?
RL: So you might have a very Christian name and then…
DD: This is where, you know (EXHALES) When I made the decision to convert, part of it came from knowing that when I registered, when I went to get my ID and if I were to become a citizen—this is before they changed the law that allowed you to remove this information—but I knew I’d have to pick a sect. All of my friends were saying to me, “you’re so lucky, you get to choose, choose right, make the right decision”. It was discussed in terms of politics and economics, not in terms of faith.
RL: That’s interesting, it’s like a pun: “Choose the right sect”.
DD: For me it was a question of faith and this opened up a whole, a whole (PAUSE) weird, not weird, sadness about this country, that in its imposed sectarianism, faith has completely disappeared. I know men who’ve converted to get a divorce that was cheaper and quicker, or women that convert to inherit from their father. So these business decisions have nothing to do with what you believe or how you feel. So I was faced with what I though was a decision of faith and then people were giving me grief because I chose so low on the sectarian ladder [or gave me grief that I was choosing at all]. But the greater irony is…(CHUCKLES), my poor lawyer, at one point she gave me my, what’s it called…
RL: Hawwiyye [national ID card]?
DD: La’ mish al-hawwiyye [no, not the ID card].
RL: Ikhraj ‘ad [personal status papers]?
DD: Ikhraj ‘ad! Yes. She showed it to me and I looked and it was written, “Maronite”. And I looked at her with these eyes of like, “you’re going to make me cry again?” And she was like, “no, no, no, now, you have to ‘be’ Maronite because all the law that governs your status now is within the ecclesiastic court of the Maronite Church. Once this is taken care of and we go to register you finally we can change it to whatever you want”. But there was this weird sense of [being “stuck” with something that wasn’t “me”]…Then another lawyer said to me, she was the lawyer, N., you know her…
DD: She was responsible for the change in the law that allows you to remove all the sectarian information [from our government documents]. So I asked her advice, and I said: “What do you think I should do?” She’s like, “choose a sect”. She’s like, “I removed mine and it’s become a nightmare because there’s no civil law and there’s nothing that governs your personal status anymore. And if something were to happen, God forbid, that requires a determination, they go to what it defaulted to [previously]”. So she suggested, even if you want to remove it, move it to the sect that you think is most convenient for you in terms of the legality, and then remove it.
So for me I try to think of it personally as a question of faith. I hate to talk about it. I hate [being forced to have to deal with this reality of our existence in Lebanon]…one time I was at the corner and the guys were talking shit. And it was getting, it was during one of the hot spots, hot times of the war in Syria and it was turning into this sectarian discourse and I hear myself say, “ana Shi‘i” [“I’m Shi‘a”].
And it really upset me that the country, especially when the sheikh that I spoke to before I converted said to me, “I don’t want you to think that you are converting to be Shi‘ite, you are converting to be a Muslim”. And this is one of the things that impressed me upon meeting him, [such] that I wanted to go through with the shahad [profession of faith right then and there]. The country imposes this on us in a way where it pushes it into us and then it has to come pouring out of us at some point. And when it comes out, it comes out ugly, really ugly. I don’t know if I answered your question…
RL: You did, and more. OK, two more things real quick, I swear. So I know that in East Asia, for example, in China and Korea, specifically China, where you have laws that regulate the family to one girl and one boy, and if more girls are born they are basically the child that is abandoned or “put up” for adoption. And I wanted to know if you’ve noticed any patterns like that here in Lebanon at all.
DD: There’s so many levels to this in terms of the local culture. When I read a book of proverbs for example, you can find these proverbs that make reference to girl children [and the negative aspect of having female children], and you know that these have big roots that go back historically. So the [perception of girl children historically speaking is a negative one]…It’s in the Qur’an as well, as [a corrective, as] a proscription against infanticide, which was usually of female children. It’s [culturally in terms of these proverbs] described in such a way that these female children were seen as merely decorative, to one day marry off, they’re not going to help with the work, they’re not going to help with the family in that way.
So these are deep cultural roots that I think in many ways Islam has made inroads against, again in full cognizance of patriarchy as we know it and machismo of society as we know it, I can’t say [all the same that they show up or manifest themselves in terms of adoption]…I’ll make my point this way, when I see pictures of Chinese children in the states adopted and they’re boys, red warning lights go off in my mind. “How did you get a boy child? People are stealing other boy children, or male children from each other, how did you manage, you, white adoptive parents, to come away with a male child from China?”
Here when I look at pictures from the orphanage, I don’t notice this type of discrepancy. It might have existed [in terms of which children were abandoned, or which children were given preference to or were preferred by adoptive parents]. You’d have to probably do a real statistical analysis of the children that went through the orphanage.
RL: It might also be a case-by-case justification. There is no pattern.
DD: I don’t…There is no pattern [that I’m aware of] and I’ve never heard it spoken of [even though the nuns were quite open about speaking of racial preference, for example]. Not that that means anything. What I mean to say is no one has said to me what I just said about a Chinese male child. “Oh, you’re a Lebanese adoptee and you’re male…” It doesn’t qualify in this way.
RL: Last question, um, I just wanted to know, um, your kind of, your decision to advocate for adoptee rights, like, was there a specific turn of events? I know, I mean I know you personally so I feel like I’m asking you a very [obvious question]…
DD: It’s interesting. I mean I can’t really…It’s been an evolution. I have to say I took refuge in hiding from the personal story because it’s too hard to deal with sometimes, especially when you’re in your place of birth and you realize [that] by pure happenstance it’s very likely that anytime, anyone you’re talking to is five, six, maybe three, four steps away from someone in your family, because that’s how Lebanon works and yet you feel you’re no closer to that source, it becomes very imperative, not imperative, but I found that for me, the only way I could cope with it was to think of it in terms of economics and politics.
Because then I could wrestle with it and chew it up, and talk about it, write about it. I have a much harder time writing about the personal aspect than I do the economics and politics. When I started looking into it that way, and the history of adoption especially, the overlaps with every other kind of what I refer to now as displacement, dispossession, and disinheritance [which] applies to so many other groups, and we have so much in common.
You know, this was made clear to me when I started working with Palestinians, for example, or the fact that most of my friends in the neighborhood are Syrian migrant workers, their experience of displacement [maps onto mine]. I’m not saying, I’m not putting myself in the place of a Palestinian, just as much when I compare adoption to slavery I’m not saying I know what its like to be a slave, that’s not what I mean, what I mean to say is that the economic and political machinations that cause slavery, trafficking, gentrification, immigration, emigration, exile, all of these things we know of, refugees, also are behind adoption.
It’s not behind the mythology, which is about family creation. This doesn’t have currency to me because historically the basis for adoption is about Anglo-Saxon indentured servitude. Period. There’s nothing else to say! And from that point when you look at it, it does two things: it gives you incredible common cause with other people who [have experienced something similar]…the fact that the chabaab [the guys, referring to Syrian migrant worker friends] are the ones who, the only ones in my life, told me haram, you know, “I’m sorry to hear that [you were adopted]”.
But also kind of implying, “that shouldn’t have happened to you” [that an injustice was committed]. This was such a relief as opposed to [what we normally hear which is] “you are lucky, you are chosen” and, and, and…There’s an understanding there which I take great comfort in, as many people might think that that’s ridiculous to find comfort in something like going to the bottom rungs of society to find comfort, it’s like, “okay, yeah, well, that’s where I find it”. It’s certainly not at the top. And this is a hard lesson to learn.
But the, the, the…how to put it, the getting away from the personal got me into that research and down that avenue. And then just living here in Lebanon, you know, in a place that they refer to as chaos [with no definable source], which I don’t see it that way, I see it more as [self-]organiz[ing] [willed political and economic] mayhem, it functions for all of its [perceived] flaws [which likely are not flaws after all]. But that research also started, the whole idea of migration, or [being] taken from one place and brought to another [and how that is manifested here among, say] the Armenian community, the Palestinian community, [the bedouin population, the diaspora of this place which is much larger now than the local population], the refugees who are about to change the [balance of the] population of this country in a way that nobody wants to talk about apparently. Well they want to talk about it but in really horrible ways.
RL: Like, “send them back”.
DD: Like, “send them back and can you please move your camps to the other side of the border” which is a ridiculous thing to say. Um, so yeah, there was never a moment where I decided I’m going to be an activist along these lines. And what I realized was no one was talking about it in this way. No one talks about it in terms of class, in terms of the economy and the history. And it became so important for me to do two things: one, re-assert that history but also demythologize adoption. Because there’s no point living in the bubble anymore, or to continue drinking the Kool-Aid as we say.
First, I’d like to give credit to a profound (seemingly offhand) remark concerning adopted children found in The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon:
…the native intellectual has thrown himself greedily upon Western culture. Like adopted children who only stop investigating the new family framework at the moment when a minimum nucleus of security crystallizes in their psyche, the native intellectual will try to make European culture his own.
I am also borrowing from Jae Ran Kim’s description of adopted Asian children as “the model minority of the model minority”. Both of these phrases define a doubled stifling; a doubling up of “mental colonization” (borrowing again from Fanon). From these descriptions more passive in nature (something inflicted on us) I’d like to add the notion of our own active agency in our own situation, and thus: “an acceptance of the acceptance”; “a tolerance of the toleration”.
I don’t know if there is anything here that needs clarification or expansion. I’d like to simply thank Romy for her friendship and sistership all these years, and for her interest in this subject in terms of how it manifests itself locally. It is a burden removed to know that a younger generation is taking up this subject outside of its formerly more typical personal and individual psychological notions, and is focusing instead on the economic and political underpinnings of adoption as an institution, which defines a society’s views of those most in need of its protection. I am hopeful that Lebanon is moving quickly to a point of acknowledging its past in this regard, and will prove itself capable of breaking through the more obvious “emotional” and “super-mediated” aspects of adoption that mar and undermine a correct discussion of the subject as witnessed in the “West”.
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)