Mothers’ Voices: A “Rematriated” Adoptee’s Art Residency

As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve started an artist’s residency at the Newark Print Shop. Thanks to everyone who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign, which was successful.

Quick introduction:

My name is Daniel, I was born in Qbeih, Lebanon, in 1963. Two months later I was adopted by an American family, and grew up in New Jersey. In 2004 I returned, and lived and worked in Beirut for 12 years. It was last year at this time that I learned the truth about my adoption narrative, was reunited with extended family, visited my mother’s grave, but then was obliged to leave the country and return to the States. I was recently named a resident artist at the Newark Print Shop, and have proposed a printmaking project entitled: “Mothers’ Voices”. The project is detailed below, and a fuller personal narrative is included. I thank you in advance for your time and consideration of this project.

Full introduction:

In 2004 I returned to Lebanon; my dream was to reconnect with roots, find family, and to establish a truer sense of self. After a few years in Beirut I further decided to press a case to regain my Lebanese nationality as a precedent for other adoptees. Unfortunately, twelve years after establishing a life in my place of origin I was more or less forced to return to the States: The General Security of Lebanon refused to renew my “courtesy visa”, citing my inability to prove Lebanese paternity. Ironically, this came at a very intense time of reunion with family and a revealed understanding of my story, the culmination of a DNA test two years earlier. Furthermore, I was finishing up six months of research on adoption and trafficking in Lebanon as a fellow at the Asfari Institute at the American University of Beirut. Of course, the rational focus of my research could not negate the emotional toll taken from coming to terms with my adoption, the revelation of my narrative, as well as failing in my attempt to regain what should be my birthright of nationality.

In order to process this on a more emotional and spiritual level, I have embarked on two projects. The first is a memoir. The second, detailed here, is based in my current artist’s residency at the Newark Print Shop [link]. In order to devote myself full-time to this residency, I’m leaving my part-time job as archivist in a community college library in New Jersey. As the residency is without stipend, I have also developed a series of “deliverables” in terms of prints, T-shirts, Coptic-bound journals, etc. as a way to fund this effort over the next few months. I believe this project is of particular interest to communities of all kinds affected by dispossession, displacement, and disinheritance. I thank you in advance for any consideration you might give this project, and/or in helping to get the word out about it.

Note: Should I exceed my immediate goal, extra monies will go to fund the artists’ collective I started in 2009 in Beirut, Jamaa Al-Yad [link].

One-sentence project overview:

My goal for this residency is the production of a series of prints that combine documentary illustration with Arabic calligraphic quotations, poetry, and proverbs to examine extended motherhood; women’s Voice; as well as displacement, dispossession, and disinheritance in the Southwest-Asian context.

General overview:

For the six-month artist’s residency I’ve been granted at the Newark Print Shop, I would like to explore themes related to my adoption, return to Lebanon, and reunion with family. In order to take the time required to fully devote to this project, I am looking to cover living and commuting expenses; art, paper, and printmaking supplies; as well as framing and shipping for art/printmaking exhibitions in the Fall and Winter. To this end, I am offering a “pre-sale” of prints and bound journals in an effort to raise such funds.

Example of work: Woodblock print, 2011; “Right of Return March”.


Project output description:

The woodblock prints I will work on will feature a series of portraits. They will portray women at the very limits of a society’s allowance of their expression; capturing moments of righteous anger that break through the stasis of the status quo and reveal an unmatched latent power; a literal creative energy and force. For example, the Palestinian woman fighting off the soldier abducting her son; the Bahraini mother exclaiming to neighbors that she refuses to cry despite being delivered the clothes of her son executed by firing squad; the Syrian mother breaking through a border fence of barbed wire; the Lebanese woman reacting to police preventing her from protesting for her kidnapped son’s return. The portraits will be combined with poetry and quotations sourced from the region as well. These will be rendered in Arabic in square kufi calligraphy and will be silkscreened in a second color on top of the woodblock print. These will also form the basis for a separate series of silkscreen prints and journal cover designs, and will be made from hand-cut stencils.

“Heaven lies at the feet of mothers” [square Kufi Arabic calligraphy]

Background narrative:

During the twelve years I lived in Beirut, I was often struck by the extension of motherhood to me by women who made up my neighborhood and daily life. The hajjeh[1] upstairs from me in Ras En-Nebaa, for example, would often bring me down food or, if she were too busy, would lower it from her window above my balcony. If I thanked her too profusely, she would put an end to my pleas with the simple phrase: “Daniel, enta ibni”—“Daniel, you are my son”; and after many years, she would sometimes drop the stricture of a veil covering in my presence. Given my reasons for returning to Lebanon, and also my own sense of “foreign-ness” while there, to be considered family in this way was quite overwhelming.

Looking out from my balcony; Ras En-Nebaa, Beirut.

She was, by far, not the only one. For another example was ’Umm SalaH, whom I remember most vividly standing in our street and yelling at militiamen to clean up the gun casings left over from the four days of Beirut street battles in 2008. It was her familiar voice (and angry cursing) that let me know it was safe to go outside. Whenever she would see me at the corner greengrocer where I helped out at night, she would stop and announce to all present: “Maa fii minho; hayda ’adame!”— “There’s no one like him—he’s good people!” And then, toward the end of my stay in Lebanon, after I had learned my story and was introduced to my family and village, it was the women of my extended family that protected me from the vestigial taint of my original banishment: they helped locate my mother’s crypt; recounted stories to me of my mother; and defended me against the powerful sheikhs who demanded that I not investigate my roots any further.

The first day of spring as well as Mother’s Day, 2015; Qurnayel, El-Jebel, Lebanon (at my cousins’ house).

The story thus recounted to me of my mother (her name was Bahija, which means “happiness” in Arabic) was that of a beloved village woman who, despite patriarchal decisions concerning her body and her child, resisted as she could for those times. Her father, Hussein, beseeched that I be registered under my father’s name and raised by maternal family; when this was refused, she demanded that I be allowed to stay with her an extra month to make sure I was healthy enough to travel. A former student and brother in faith Omar explained to me that my return to Lebanon was functional to her lifetime of “daawa”, or “supplications” in times of grief. He states: “There is a hadith, or saying of the Prophet (S.a.w.), that reads: ‘Beware of the supplication of the oppressed, for there is no barrier between it and Allah….’ ” He continues: “A mother’s supplication lasts not only a lifetime, but an eternity”.

June, 2016; Helping out at my friends’ greengrocer shop, Ras En-Nebaa, Beirut.

It was at this time that I was informed by the General Security office in Beirut that my visa would not be renewed since, it was implied, I could not prove paternity via a Lebanese man: nationality in Lebanon is a function of paternal lineage only. Those who would be able to provide such a link—my five half-siblings on my father’s side—refused contact, believing me to be in quest of their inheritance. The fact that I am not allowed to claim nationality via my mother reveals the contradictory limits of women’s agency under a patriarchal neo-liberal order that is not limited to this region, but which is global, and arguably equally dismal in those places considered to be bastions of enlightenment and democracy.

Asfari Institute fellowship lecture, AUB, Beirut.

In the days before I left Lebanon last June, my cousin Jamal and his father took me up to my village to visit my mother’s crypt site. A few days previous to this, I wrote an homage on my blog to her, Bahija, the mother I had never met [link to blog post]. I quoted the hadith which states: “Heaven lies at the feet of mothers”, and I expressed my grief and anger that such an oft-quoted saying could be so universally and hypocritically contradicted in action and deed. Arriving at the crypt, Jamal pointed out to me the mirror above the crypt door, on which was inscribed this very hadith.

Mirror above my mother’s crypt, Qbeih, Lebanon.

I had come armed with a quotation of one of the mother’s of the disappeared from Lebanon’s Civil War, provided by my friend Zeina. This mother, realizing she had outlived any chance of seeing her son again, stated:

“Should my son come back let him knock on my grave three times; in this way maybe I will find peace.”

Keening at her grave site, I, too, heeded this invocation. I knocked on the crypt door three times; I beseeched my mother forgive my tardiness; I explained to her that I had been well taken care of by my commère, my mother in the States; I wished her peace until we might be reunited. After a lifetime of wondering and searching, in so many subtle ways I had come full circle, and I promised her that my existence, from then on, would be her resistance. And in honor of her, I prefer to say that I am an adoptee “rematriated”[2].

The 4 images serving as the bases for my prints.

Expanded framework:

For someone like me who did not have the luxury or privilege of “asl”, “Hasab” or “nasab”— “ancestral origin”, “accrued family name” or “genealogical connection”, I soon came to realize the truthfulness of the phrase used by Zeina Zaatari, in her journal article discussing the women of South Lebanon[3]. Here she states that such women are “mothers of all”, with their extensive networks of mutual aid, information dissemination, familial and community planning, and socially understood role of protector. In this light, as I was shown time and again, to have the women of a community on my side made a huge difference in terms of my acceptance, inclusion, integration, and community standing.

As Zaatari elaborates, this view of women in the Southwest Asian realm runs counter to their media portrayal outside of this region. In the proposal I will elaborate here, I do not seek to counter such stereotypical views. The anti-Arab, Islamophobic, and anti-poor stances of such portrayals stem from very particular economic and political needs[4], and to directly answer them is to take on a defensive posture and, in some way, acknowledge as truthful the very tropes I might attempt to deconstruct via such a discussion. Instead of entering into a false dialogue, I wish to present images that, in and of themselves, negate the need for such a discussion in the first place[5].

This is the final sketch for the first woodcut, showing how the square kufi lettering will appear in the final print.

Along these same lines, I do not intend to mimic the visual clichés of the humanitarian imperialist realm of non-profits, foreign government assistance programs, and other neo-liberal aid schemes and schemers. Their portrayals of quiet, suffering, tearful, and/or stoic women—for example, holding images of disappeared loved ones, or grieving graveside—are indeed powerful, but they reify in no small way the same individualizing and disempowering stereotypes listed above[6]. They do not convey the active agency of these women, nor their communal role that is supportive, expansive, powerful, and vital.


Visually and conceptually I am inspired by the work of Ricky Solinger[7], photographing single working mothers in the South Bronx. I am struck by her statement: “The subjects here do not present themselves as victims. They present themselves to the photographers and the viewer as determined survivors and dignified practitioners of motherhood.” In her work, Zeina Zaatari quotes an Arabic proverb that states: “The woman that rocks the cradle with her right hand rocks the world with her left.” I hope that my series of portraits will portray these women not just as “survivors” and in a “dignified” light, but as “world rockers”; and I pray that this body of work might approach something that does them a justice that they may not have found in this current lifetime.


[1] Honorific; denoting a woman who has—or who deserves the respect of one who has—made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

[2] See discussion at Transracial Eyes: “Rematriation and adoption.” [link]

[3] Zaatari, Z. (2006). “The Culture of Motherhood”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 2.1, 33–64.

[4] Sheehi, S. (2011). Islamophobia: The ideological campaign against Muslims. Atlanta: Clarity Press and Massad, J. (2016). Islam in liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[5] An example of this type of expressive work would be the hundreds of scraps of cloth that desperate mothers sewed onto the swaddling of the children they deposited at the foundling hospitals in England; they kept a similar piece of cloth with themselves in the hope of one day being reunited. This act of resistance to the dispossession of their children belies the stereotypes used to describe these women.

[6] See the recent Oxfam advertisements in the PATH system, featuring Syrian girl refugees, for one recent example.

[7] Solinger, R. (2002). “Beggars and Choosers: Motherhood is Not a Class Privilege in America”, Labor History, 43:4, 411–418.

Kickstarter link: []

About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
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18 Responses to Mothers’ Voices: A “Rematriated” Adoptee’s Art Residency

  1. excellent project Daniel

  2. Marcy Newman says:

    Beautiful and powerful, Daniel.

  3. 30% funded! I’m communities.extremely grateful for the support, and appreciate any help getting the word out about the project to your circles and communities.

  4. Jessica Pegis says:

    Daniel, I am thrilled that you are kicking off this project, which will have the power to disturb, move, and inform so many. All the best. I hope you are doing well. Like the pic of you on Mothers’ Day, -Jess

  5. maryanne says:

    Daniel, this is a powerful and beautiful project. I have sent our information on to CUB and hope they will help. I love the concept of being “rematriated”. Your mother would be very proud of you.

    maryanne cohen

  6. 40% funded! Thanks to all who have contributed. See the updates page on the kickstarter link for pics and info concerning my progress!

  7. 50% funded! Ever grateful.

  8. 95% funded! 3 days to go….

  9. I am moved to tears each time I read your story Daniel. Thank you!!

  10. maryanne says:

    Still getting the word out, hope some of my friends have kicked in to support the project. Really hope you make the last 5%.

  11. 100% funded! I’m eternally grateful to all who supported this project!

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