An adoptive parent in the United Kingdom recently described the potential reunion of the children temporarily in his care with their parents as his “worst nightmare”.
This was like a kick in the gut.
Because I feel that my own reunion is quite imminent.
And I can imagine someone in his position of power withholding valuable information in an effort to prevent such an eventuality.
When I replied rather viscerally to his statement, I was once again reminded by APs how “angry” I am.
It is startling how not evolved adoption discourse is in the places of its origin.
And this, after a century or so of adoption practice.
Which has not changed the societal parameters of poverty or class inequality in any way.
I’m just saying.
By way of contrast, things are starting to shift in Lebanon.
We’ve definitely turned a page.
Perhaps I should say things are coming to a head.
Because this will not, I’m afraid, be without blowback.
Adoptive parents really can’t imagine the depths of the nightmare that is adoption.
Nor do they want to face their role in promulgating such an affair.
I feel my worst imaginings along these lines will pale in the face of local reality.
I’ve often referred to this “bottom of the abyss” in terms of my adoption research.
Which always seems to open up yet again.
But first, some perspective.
I have been able to pinpoint via DNA testing rather specifically—and beyond any expectations I might have had previously—my origins in this country.
I’m talking in terms of community, place, as well as family.
This is beyond mind-boggling to me.
At first, I was rather ecstatic.
Exhilarating sensations of feeling grounded.
Of belonging, as it were.
This was rather short-lived, giving way to a kind of despair.
This despair is rather nondescript.
I’m hard-pressed to explain it.
I think it has to do with what I would refer to as a ghost life; a “what might have been” in terms of existence.
Especially when this “might have been” remains extant.
I don’t mean in the adoptive-parent epithet: “Think about what might have been if we hadn’t adopted you!”
I mean in terms of the fact that we are perhaps not forgotten.
That we might be, quite on the contrary, vividly remembered.
Our disappearance takes shape.
A memory of us forms; ages; perhaps even dies.
In such a case, we return not to our absence, but to an active memory.
Another imagining, rivaling our own.
This memory precedes us.
And it will haunt us.
Many of us were told that we were abandoned.
Strange, then, that in my case the site of supposed abandonment should also be a particular political party’s headquarters.
A political party named for Francisco Franco’s Catholic fascists in Spain.
We are left to ponder what else might have been “borrowed” from this ignoble group.
For example, particular notions of eugenics.
Or certain tactics of warfare.
Such as the disappearing of one’s enemy’s progeny.
Like in 1950s Spain; and in Argentina and Chile more recently.
Logical, then, the folk tales in the mountain towns of children from certain communities gone missing.
I raised this possibility with the woman who convinced me to perform the DNA test.
Who told me: “DNA is science.”
She is actively searching on behalf of her mother.
Like me, she is one of the earliest adoptees.
Adoption in Lebanon picked up after the 1958 “Battle of the Mountains”.
Between the Maronites and the Druze.
Read: Between local French and British proxies, respectively speaking.
This is no small coincidence.
And the focus on the Civil War, in terms of trafficking of children, need take a back seat to this, adoption’s true origins here.
To the Battle that got the ball rolling.
I don’t know why this took so long to click for me.
I kick myself for not having put the puzzle pieces together sooner.
I told others about it, including this woman.
Her response was quite disturbing.
And rather telling.
She backpedaled that DNA tests were not to be trusted.
And that a priest she works with locally wanted to speak to me.
Face to face.
This told me all I needed to know.
I passed on his name and location to two friends.
“Keep this, in case anything should happen to me”, I told them.
I was dead serious.
Adoptees who “poke around” too much become targets of the class that claims to have saved them.
One adoptee from Holland, who simply asked questions at the building of the former Achrafieh Hospital, received anonymous phone calls that he should cease and desist.
“If you know what’s good for you.”
We are dealing with self-anointed saviors.
They fear a tarnishing of their “image”.
They remain pyromaniac firefighters.
Reeking of gasoline.
The local mafia.
I won’t chance it.
A young man adopted to Sweden went on television 11 years ago.
He was recently reunited with his family.
His own “might have been” would find him in Shatila, a Palestinian camp here.
I think now about the likelihood that watching that television program were those responsible for his disappearance from the university hospital where he was born.
They remained mute.
And they remain free.
His mother was informed that her child had died.
In Spain, the nurses would keep dead babies in the hospital refrigerator to show as “proof” of such “death”.
A war on the progeny of their enemies.
I worry about him in Sweden, even more homogenous than the place I grew up.
Where the number one cause of Korean male adoptee deaths is suicide.
For not fitting in.
I have other friends in Sweden.
Survivors of an oft-deadly journey across the Mediterranean.
Trying to escape an embattled homeland.
I had tried to convince them not to attempt the voyage; that thousands were perishing in the scandalously perilous crossing from Libya to Italy.
“What is my choice, professor?” the younger of them asked me.
Understanding his desperation, I did not have an answer.
During the three days we were without phone contact with him, we learned of the disappearance of two ships off of the Libyan coast.
There were 10 survivors, if I remember correctly.
The first boat, full of women and children, numbered 250.
The second boat, full of men, 100 or so.
I spent a day trying to call Italy.
Meanwhile, his brother sat at my computer.
Our search phrases only ended up revealing endless images of bodies washed up on North African beaches.
It is, to be sure, an existential moment realizing that neither your life in your war-torn country, nor your death trying to escape that life, makes the slightest blip in terms of media coverage and outside awareness of your plight.
Wretched refuse, tempest tossed…
I contemplated trying to call Libya.
But NATO has seen to it that this is not even remotely possible.
On a morose Sunday evening, I sat with his brothers in their shop.
We shared an eternal deafening silence.
When it became unbearable, I swear to God I prayed that he would call on the phone to tell us he was okay.
Or that someone would call to break the bad news.
Anything to end the agony of waiting.
I stared at the phone, willing it; sensing its impending ring.
The phone rang; they announced it was him.
I broke down, sobbing for close to an hour.
The ships used by the traffickers are salvaged from their destiny on the scrap-heap.
They are designed, in fact, not to arrive.
Traffickers are never concerned with us once payment is received.
His ship, its engine cutting out mid-journey, started to take on water.
A European oil tanker rescued them, and took them to Italy.
The irony of what this implies is not lost on me.
That we are forced to thank afterwards.
All the same, I told his brothers: “He’s better off here”.
For I remember when I lived in Paris in the mid-1980s.
Reagan bombed Ghaddafi in Libya and Europe was, like now, on “high alert” for “terrorism”.
For this I had the great pleasure of being stopped by the CRS police at least twice and up to five times a day because of my gueule arabe.
Who, then, took advantage of the situation, and set off tear-gas bombs in the subway?
The fascist Front National.
Who set up tables in the Place des Fêtes where I used to live and handed out racist literature, yelling at us sales bougnoules to “go home”?
The irony of the desired deportation of one’s perceived enemies is not lost on me.
“Qu’un sang impur/Abreuve nos sillons…”
The nuns at my orphanage told me that “darker babies” like me went to America.
Europe preferred lighter if not white children.
Systemically, there is nothing differentiating such expulsions.
Like a splinter, the foreign body is driven from its host.
“Foreign” being a temporally comparative term.
What we share as adoptees with others displaced, dispossessed, and disinherited needs to be foregrounded.
Otherwise we are like the British adoptive parent mentioned above.
Defining and defending our class interests, at the expense of others.
In Lebanon we have started an organization fighting for the right to know one’s origins.
Fully half the country’s citizens are not registered with the government.
Fully half the country’s denizens are now migrants and refugees.
A feeble minority of this country, empowered from without, remains in control of this situation.
This cannot maintain.
We enacted a theater performance of our witnessing.
It included adoptees, a domestic worker from Africa who kept her child, a young man who recounted his years of abuse in a local orphanage.
At each rehearsal, I pulled into the darkness backstage as they spoke.
I was reduced to tears each time.
I was in awe of their fortitude all the same.
We dressed in white, with a stenciled number spray-painted on our backs.
The year of our birth.
The one thing we might imagine we know to be true about our particular cases.
We made a bit of a production out of creating these costumes.
We went to the tailor next to the theater who graciously provided scrap pieces of white cloth.
The haberdasher on the other side gave us newspaper to protect the sidewalk from spray paint.
We set to our task, and were soon surrounded by some shoeshine boys.
When I worked at the American University, I had a bit of a relationship with these young men.
It was known that I didn’t want anyone to shine my shoes for me.
And that I wouldn’t give anyone money outright.
But that if they grabbed me near the National Bakery, I would buy them manaqeesh.
One of them once came up to wish me goodbye.
He was going back to Syria to do his military service.
I thought to myself disturbingly that he would be better off.
Comparatively speaking, that is.
I wished him the best of luck.
I’ve since heard that he has gotten married.
And I wonder how he is faring after four years of war.
No longer working at AUB, I’ve since lost contact with them.
And now, one of the new generation watched us as we lined up the stencils.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“What is that question?” I cajoled him, like I do the street kids in my neighborhood.
“First, before you speak, you need to greet us properly”, I admonish them.
Locally speaking, raising children is often a communal endeavor.
Adoption, on the other hand, is premised in nuclear family.
It was an early purveyor of this concept and ensuing predatory practice, the founder of the so-called Children’s Aid Society Charles Loring Brace, who referred to the “orphans” in Eastern seaboard cities whom he wished to ship to the Midwest for indentured slavery as “street Arabs of the dangerous classes”.
I now see this as a supreme compliment, coming from such uncivilized and uncivilizing ilk.
And nothing much has changed.
No thanks to his efforts, and those like him.
And so we come full circle.
The boy didn’t miss a beat.
“as-salamu ‘aleykum. Where is your presence from?” he corrected himself.
He thought I was challenging his form, and not his words.
“wa‘aleykum bi elf salam. I’m originally Lebanese”, I stated in reply.
This is as close as I can get to claiming place here.
I continued: “But still, what is that question? You sound like a Lebanese yourself!”
These questions of origin are political in nature, and can have quite serious consequences.
We are empoisoned with sectarian and nationalist division, whether we like it or not.
And thus my avoidance of saying “I am Lebanese”.
Instead, I usually employ the term “Lebanese” as an epithet.
“Where is your presence from, my son?” I asked.
“From Dar‘a, in Syria”, he quietly offered.
He knows about the dangers of answering this question truthfully, and how he has no real choice but to do so.
“An honor; ahlan wa sahlan“, I welcomed him.
“Welcome to you” he replied, as he left us for perhaps easier marks.
Our presence is forever marked by our originating place.
For better, and for much worse.
We finished our painting and returned to practice.
The play, despite minimal rehearsal time, was a rather success.
Opening a dialogue on a taboo subject.
From voices too often silenced.
I believe it was well received.
That is, except for the government minister in charge of overseeing such matters locally speaking.
He doesn’t want us stirring up such debate publicly.
He used words to describe us that I would rather not repeat.
In a strange way, I thank him for his honesty.
It makes it easier to question the powers-that-be that control our fate.
It makes me question further those adoptees who insist on sitting at the tables of power.
Who wish nothing more than to recreate the power differential that resulted in their dispossession in the first place.
By entering such hallowed halls.
Thinking that they have now “arrived”.
Smiling into the faces of those who wish them ill.
The faces of those who won’t express it aloud, but yet are thinking it all the same: “Orphan”; “Foundling”; “Bastard”….
Let that sink in a bit.
We cannot deny the base reality of the society that allowed our displacement.
And we should not co-operate with it in any way.
Like slaves only managing to demand better living conditions.
Or only seeking to speak while all the same remaining on the plantation.
This is the Orwellian world of Adoptionland today.
We have rights, or we don’t have rights.
There is no incremental middle ground.
And the rights we think we have come from a class identification.
And thus are forged from the very void that is the absence of others’ rights.
Whether we like this state of affairs or not.
In terms of this class identification, I’ve gone from one extreme to the other.
This makes itself aware to me in disturbing ways.
Like the time I was at the General Security to pick up my passport.
The final stages of the endless case that is rebending my existence back into Lebanese society.
I live with the distressing knowledge that friends in my neighborhood, here for much longer than I, do not have the same privilege.
For the crime of being from Syria, for example.
Or Egypt. Or Sudan.
This, in a “country” which itself hasn’t been “Syria” for not much longer than I’ve been alive on this planet.
I’m just saying.
Everyone at the General Security knows my case.
Which is strange, in terms of what we might expect from dystopic bureaucracy.
I was waiting to collect my passport.
Along with dozens of Syrian men, herded into the line.
A woman was brought in, and sailed right to the front.
Her passport was not ready, it seems.
So she launched into a tirade of how precious her time was.
And how she had made time in her day for this, and now the day was lost.
I would like to go on the record and say that foreigners in Lebanon need to understand that there is a limit to the suffering that comes from their very presence.
People will suffer in silence only so long, and not one second more.
“Excuse me, ma’am!” I cried out.
“You’re not the only one who has been waiting, or who has given up their day to come here!”
“Yes, but…” she protested.
“No ‘buts’! Stop wasting our time, and come back next week.”
Check your privilege.
Or else get checked.
We walk a razor’s edge.
I’ve often tried to describe life here to friends back in the States.
I’m not sure how successful I have been.
So I was happy when a friend decided to visit from New York for a week.
Finally, a witness to the depravity of a “Fourth-World” country with “First-World” pretentions.
Where most live in a constant present of disaster preparedness.
And where the elite have the audacity to call this disastrous reality “living”.
I attempted to show him as much of the country as possible in such a short time.
We went to the old souks of Saida.
Since the ones in Beirut have been turned into a high-end shopping mall.
We visited Sour as well.
Where it is still possible to afford a beachfront cafe and watch the sun go down.
We walked through much of Beirut.
I could not get over how much it has changed these past 10 years.
And not for the better.
Every once in a while, when tired of walking, we would grab a taxi.
And so my friend was privy to the above-mentioned “placement” conversations.
Passengers are already sized up by sight.
In terms of dress, manner, seeming direction.
And so the guessing game continues inside the cab.
“Where is your presence from?” asked one cabbie.
“What is this question?” I cajoled him.
“Your accent prompts it”, he replied.
“I’m originally Lebanese”, I said.
This is now my stock reply.
I can’t bring myself to claim anything further in terms of nationality.
For a variety of political and personal reasons.
“But you lived abroad, I can tell.”
“Yes, in America and in France. I came back 10 years ago.”
“From where are you locally?”
“Why do you want to know such a thing?”
“I’m just trying to place your manner of speaking.”
I paused a bit.
I could explain the whole adoption thing, or the fact that I spend all my time with Syrians, to answer his questions about my accent.
Or I could go with what I now know to be the truth.
“I’m from the jebel (the mountains outside of Beirut) originally.”
At this point I could explain how offensive I find this whole line of questioning, or else I could give in and give him what he seeks.
I told him the name of the town I believe I’m from.
I waited for him to perform his sectarian calculation.
“ahlan wa sahlan“, he said.
“Welcome to you”, I replied.
It was the first time I felt confident claiming where I was from.
Although “confident” is perhaps the wrong term.
Many have remarked on my newfound “calm” as the burden of not-knowing has been lifted from me.
I’ve stopped staring into faces, seeking physical similarities with total strangers.
I realize what a toll such action takes in terms of sapping one’s energy.
Unfortunately, this defensive claim in a cab is an empty one.
I’ve not even been to this town in the 10 years I’ve been here.
Come to think of it, I was likely not even born there.
And thus have never really been “home”.
I have researched it online, and it does seem rather beautiful.
Many have offered to bring me up there.
It’s difficult to think I’m but a half hour away from what we might call my source.
I have declined each time.
In the movie Somewhere Between, I remember cringing as one of the women returned to China puts a sign up about her adoption in the town square.
I remember thinking, “who put her up to such a thing? It’s destined to fail.”
Within five minutes she was re-united with her family.
I can now imagine such a thing happening to me.
For some reason, I want the reunion to be more, I don’t know, controlled.
No surprises, for anyone involved.
In any case, I can’t bring myself to claim such an origin on my own.
I see it as a shared decision.
I don’t really think my “cousin” matches from 23andMe understand what it means that I am “of the family”.
One of them suggested that the family will be “very welcoming” should I go up to the town.
I’m not so sure, given the possible variations of my narrative.
Most of them not pleasant.
A friend, on hearing that I was from a Druze family, joked: “This explains your insistence on pronouncing the ‘qaaf‘!”
And so we are marked.
It’s a sad testament to this country that you can run your DNA results anonymously through the Lebanese Genome Project and see yourself scatter-graphed and grouped in terms of religion.
Nobody really strays too far afield.
I imagine this leads many locally to see their faith as genetically determined.
This is such a pathetic state of affairs that I avoided such DNA testing all these years.
Because the promoters of the project wished to show how “Phoenecian” they were.
Read: Neither Arab or Muslim.
These are the same people who kidnapped and converted “Arab and Muslim” children out of the country.
These are the same people who provided a landing site for the Marines occupying the country in 1958.
On this, the beach where they claim I was abandoned and left to die.
The irony of this is not lost on me.
Our DNA, revealing millennia-old migrations, should show us how similar we all are.
Instead it reveals the endless depravity of this racist and sectarian failed experiment of a so-called nation-state.
I can’t bring myself to claim belonging to such a place.
For a variety of reasons.
That I hope are obvious now.
And so my resultant despondency.
A former student offered to ask her friends from the jebel if they were aware of the fate of children from this community.
I agreed, knowing that such percolation of my story through the social fabric was most likely the best way to find family.
She spoke to a friend who in turn asked her parents.
“Yes, these stories are known”, they replied.
It’s really rather shocking.
Especially when members of this community, like Mrs. George Clooney, turn around and state their desire to adopt children.
Another former student from the Chouf said he grew up hearing about such stories.
Of kidnapping; of bogeymen who took children from their families.
Quite disturbing, where this fantasy intersects with reality.
As real life warrants in Lebanon, word about me has gotten around.
That I am here, that I am searching.
And so it’s a matter of waiting.
I wait out of respect.
Because I doubt that my story is a pleasant one.
And, as expected, the reality of the social fabric here brings contact with such strangers.
I spoke with a gentleman who works at a government ministry downtown.
He wanted to get in touch with me because a family from his town has been looking for their son for 50 years.
I would not allow myself to believe that this might be me.
With the head of our newly founded rights organization, I met him at the ministry.
He recounted the story.
The boy was five years old.
He was walking home from school.
He disappeared, and the family has been searching for him since.
I explained that unfortunately, this wasn’t me.
But that we would do what we could to help the family.
I dread now the further stories I will be compelled to hear; to bear.
Endless absences, given miserable shape; tragic form.
I was introduced to the minister, who offered his help to us in return.
This was a welcome relief.
I remember 10 years ago going to the police station near the place of my supposed abandonment.
A friend drove me; I couldn’t bring myself to go inside.
He returned with the name and number of a police officer there.
I met him later, and was told that for a few thousand dollars, they would “help” me.
Aghast, I declined.
I explained that a financial transaction was behind my adoption; I refused to allow another such transaction be behind my reunion.
We are targets, both as children and again as adults.
And those who know and don’t offer to help us are criminals of the highest degree.
We are essentially and eternally stigmatized.
We will always be the detritus of this place.
Flotsam and jetsam, stupidly and naively washed ashore.
Few truly wish to provide us succor.
Fewer still can be trusted.
On these few I have pinned my hopes.
Among others like me I share my tale.
From them I derive solace, and strength.
Adoptees need come to terms with the class-based difference inherent to our origins.
We can stop pretending we have “arrived” due to our adoption.
For this is only valid if we “know our role”.
If we toe the line.
In this, the theater performance of our very lives.
I know an adoptee in France who found her family in the South.
They had placed her in the orphanage while they worked the fields in the summer.
They had no concept of “adoption” as such.
Nonetheless, their daughter was adopted out and away from them.
A war on the progeny of their enemies.
When she returned, the whole town turned out to welcome her back.
They never gave up hope.
It is quite striking to me who, locally speaking, opens their arms to us.
And who, in stark contrast, would wish we had never returned.
We, the purposefully “gone missing”.
We share our stories with so many in this country.
Prisoners of war, the disappeared during the wars, the imprisoned locally and in neighboring countries, refugees, bedouin, migrants, emigrants, slave workers, etc.
Their absence is marked by those who remember them.
Their mothers, their families, their communities.
How can we as adoptees not see our affiliation with these, the lost and gone?
How might we so selfishly carve out a class-based space: “adoptees only”?
We are the children carried off by local bogeymen.
By Abou Kiis: the Bag Man.
He is actually quite intensely real.
I walk through his neighborhoods on my way to work.
His flags flying; his leader portraits bearing down.
An oppressive journey; a stifling reminder.
Nothing much has changed here.
A friend on hearing my story joked: “Your gut instinct was pretty much off in terms of your faith!”
I replied, half seriously: “Actually, historically speaking, I was only off by a thousand years or so.”
For in fact, I had not mistaken the faith.
I had merely incorrectly guessed the enemy.
I want to acknowledge my gut instinct.
It brought me back here in the first place.
I give it credit for the sensation that I was not abandoned as such.
That a ghost-memory has been waiting for me to return in order to match up with it.
A doppelganger; a shadow-self.
And ten years here might as well be a thousand.
Something called me back.
To this place of desolation.
To this place of desperation.
To Lebanon, land of apparitions.
A spectral state.
Where those with less than nothing offer me everything.
Where those with everything offer me less than nothing.
And so I wait.
For this, the eventual Merger of Selves.
And I think about the story I heard the other day about the Lebanese child of a Filipina slave adopted off for 10,000 dollars.
A child disinherited.
And a ghost-child, born in turn.
In this way, our tragedies are doubled.
And there is no way this is “balanced” by any adopter’s perceived “receiving” joy.
And I wonder at this point in time, some 120 years after the establishment of the institution of adoption and some fifty odd years after my own trafficking, my own transaction—
When might this nightmare end?
And how can we speed that dawn?
How might we hasten that daybreak?