Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Birds of Passage

I just finished reading Birds of Passage by Robert Sole. It’s a work of historical fiction told in anecdotes of sorts so, naturally, I loved it. It discusses at length the theme of belonging, I suppose, versus being an outsider—in families, in school, in countries. Andrew was thrilled to read it because it was his “thesis in fictional form.” I found it very easy to relate to several passages in the book, particularly toward the end of the book. I’m not sure why.

The whole book was an interesting read, but I found the end very touching. Perhaps that is because that is how the end of stories are supposed to be, or perhaps it is because of what has been going on in my life while reading the last few chapters that caused it to resonate so soundly within me.

I, too, have felt like an outsider for so long. I, too, have fallen in love with Egypt. And I, too, will be leaving Egypt soon to go “home.” But “home” isn’t really my “home” and I am rather loathe to identify myself as a “Utahn.” Sometimes it is difficult for me to call myself an American, although I am one and have been from birth. I’m Canadian, although I haven’t lived there for almost a decade. And I feel somewhat attached to Russia and Jordan and Egypt—all places I have called home in various seasons of my life. Sometimes I feel as though I am from no where at all.

Watching my friends and family members back home join in the political mud-slinging reminds me why I’m not quick to identify with my fellow Utahns. I am a political outcast.

“Your roots are here but the tree will be growing over there, so take care: trees of that kind can develop in a strange way. They sometimes bear disconcerting fruit…”

--Andre Bartrakani, Birds of Passage, p. 367

Several years ago, shortly after returning home from Russia, I was at BYU in a Russian class, having a political debate. We were given issues to discuss and I voiced my opinion on my topic, at which point it was opened for public debate. After back-and-forthing the issue for a few hot minutes, a woman in my class stood up, pointed at me, and shaking with rage spat out two words:


I smiled at her and answered her accusation with, “Да…а что?”

Roughly translated she said, “You’re a socialist!” and I said, “Yes…so what?”

I wondered why she had used the term so vindictively. Still puzzled, I shared my story to the professor of my next class, a TESOL class. He gently informed me that in Utah, at least, that was a big insult to be flung. Simply put, socialist = communist = spawn of the devil. I had lived in Utah for three years at that point, minus time spent abroad, and had no idea that my socialist ideals, specifically, were disconcerting to my fellow citizens. I knew that I always had a hard time voicing my opinion in history, English, philosophy, and sometimes even religion classes because teachers and peers alike would stare at me, stupefied, with eyes bugging and veins bulging, before the whole class would erupt into a fiery rebuttal that would make me feel small, insignificant, wrong, and alone.  But no one had ever taken the time to sit me down and tell me that it was because I was too “socialist.” That was an act of kindness I will never forget.

My socialist ideals are still disconcerting to my fellow citizens so I often give up my freedom of speech simply to keep the peace. It’s uncomfortable for me, but less uncomfortable than a heated debate in which I would find myself vastly outnumbered.

I suppose I hold the right to remain silent as close to my heart as I do my freedom of speech, a freedom I don’t have here. I can’t talk about religion at all and politics are dangerous ground.

I was out with some friends in the market and a local asked Jill where she was from. She stopped and chatted with him and then caught up to me.

“I stole your nationality,” she joked.

It’s safer, sometimes, as obvious Westerners, to claim to be Canadian instead of American. Canada is neutral, which means that people have more abated feelings toward Canadians (unless, of course, you live in Utah were Canada = Socialism = Communism = Abode of the Devil).

I didn’t mind that she borrowed my nationality. I identify quite nicely with it still, and I like her, so didn’t mind her playing ambassador for my country.

“What a strange road we’ve travelled, we who were known as Syrians in Egypt, are now called Egyptians in Lebanon, and call ourselves Lebanese in Europe.”

--Michael Batrakani, Birds of Passage, p. 373

I’m here on an American passport, so I usually say I’m American, but it has taken a lot of practice. And whenever anyone asks where I’m from I always hesitate before answering their question because I’m never sure of the answer, myself. Am I from Utah? I don’t feel like I’m from Utah. Am I from Alberta? Sort of. Am I from somewhere else? Definitely perhaps. My answer all depends on how much I want the asker to know.

My friend who calls herself Canadian in Egypt isn’t Canadian at all. I am and yet I am here as an American.

Another friend I have remarked that she is more African American than a friend she has back home who is African American because she, white as can be, is an American living in Africa, whereas her African American friend had never been to Africa. But it isn’t that simple, I’m afraid.

The Batrakani family lived in Egypt for generations, never being awarded Egyptian citizenship, but were “Egyptianized.” Born and raised in Egypt, they were not Egyptians—like our own little Miriam, who will never have Egyptian citizenship. They spoke French, though, and tried to preserve their Syrian identity in their children because they were Syrians and Egypt wouldn’t let them naturalize, but even if they had naturalized to become Egyptian citizens I’m sure some of their foreign ideals would have shown up in their children.

African Americans are no different—they were Africans, forced to be in America, and passed on their culture and idioms to their children, creating an African American culture that cannot be erased simply because they’ve never been to Africa.

Rachel knows that she’s American even though she can’t remember a thing about life in the States. I’ve been doing my best to impress Canadianisms upon her as well (she says “pencil crayon” instead of “colored pencil,” for example).

I just want her to grow up being as confused as I was growing up a Canadian American (kidding). Somehow claiming the title of “Canadian American” doesn’t seem as official as claiming to be “African American,” something I will never be able to claim to be.

I don’t have any answers to these questions, but I wonder if forcing titles upon ourselves helps us to retain our heritage. Should those who leave their countries willingly more readily relinquish titles than those who were forced to leave? Would giving up the title allow us to assimilate easier into the dominant society? Is assimilation ideal?

My answer to the last one is “I don’t think so,” but there again I feel I must hold my tongue or risk offending the conservative masses.

“‘You’re right, habibi,’ I told him. ‘No one actually forced us to leave, whereas other people were expelled. The Egyptians simply acted in such a way that we expelled ourselves. And that’s a lot more painful than a kick in the backside!’

I’m not sure he really understood. Was I satisfied with my own reply? Pithy phrases are ill-suited to a history in half-tones like ours. We weren’t expelled and we didn’t expel ourselves. The truth lies somewhere in between. We’ve always been in between…”

--Michael Batrakani, Birds of Passage, p. 373

It’s getting late but I wanted to share another passage and a story.

“As children we would compete to describe the most trivial fall from a bicycle, the humblest incident. ‘I simply must tell you!’ cried whichever of us had undergone some slightly odd or faintly amusing experience. I think, by the way, that we underwent certain experiences purely for the pleasure of recounting them alter.

We invented and embroidered a little. In our mouths, insipid facts took on epic dimensions. The same sets of circumstances were recounted five, ten, twenty times, but they ceased to be identical. Thus our family histories are larded with anecdotes which, though only half true, have become established by virtue of frequent repetition and embellishment.

This verbal diarrhoea may have been attributable to our powerlessness…”

--Charles Yared, Birds of Passage, p. 312

This passage just made me chuckle. It describes modern day blogging at its finest! In Birds of Passage as the same story would be recounted several times with different details added and embellished through the decades the story takes place. It was interesting to hear the true stories develop into tales.

A few weeks ago Andrew remarked to me that he enjoyed my posts that were more literary and thematic in nature.

“I don’t like your diaretical posts as much,” he told me.

“Diarrheatical?!?” I asked, insulted.

“You know, like the ones that sound like an entry in a diary…”

“Oh, I thought you meant…”

We both had a good laugh about that, but here is Robert Sole using the term “verbal diarrhoea” in a fine piece of literature. Perhaps Andrew wasn’t so far off in his description of my writing, after all.

This post, itself, is a nasty regurgitation of disjointed thoughts I had while reading this book yesterday and today. Definite verbal diarrhoea, I don’t think it would have any hope of being accepted as literary analysis. Penny Bird would be so disappointed in me…but that’s the joy of not being a student anymore, right? I don’t have to dissect the book to death. I can read it and enjoy it and if it makes me think, that’s all the better.

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic post! I can definitely identify with the feelings you describe. I think it's so healthy to have an concept of just how big the world is, and how many different people are living in it.

    Traveling always helps me to understand how connected we all are (and just how much we all have in common in the end), and at the same time how differently two people can experience/interpret the very same events.