Reminds Me of Bethlehem

(This is my “Asia” entry for my Around the World Reading Challenge.

It seems that the only news we in the U.S. hear about Syria (or the Middle East more generally) is of war, terror, chaos, refugees, and other forms of suffering.  For that reason, I am always happy to find published works that portray everyday life in the Middle East, especially everyday life during less chaotic times.

I discovered the memoir Road To Damascus by Elaine Rippey Imady recently in a new, local bookstore focusing on women’s works, international works, and works about human rights. The store, located in St. Paul, is called Daybreak Press   (A fun fact about Road to Damascus is that, as I discovered when I bought the book, it was written by the mother-in-law of the owner of the bookstore.)

Road to Damascus

Road to Damascus is written by an American woman who moved to Damascus, Syria in the early 1960s to be with her Syrian husband, Mohammed.  She lived there happily the rest of her life (or at least until the book was published in 2008).   Imady’s memoir provides an intriguing glimpse into Damascus as experienced by one American woman, a point-of-view I haven’t seen much before.

Elaine Imady

Elaine Rippey Imady

One of the pleasures of the book for me was that many of Imady’s descriptions of Syrian culture reminded me fondly of my experiences in Bethlehem (in the West Bank) when I was there in 2012.  More than 50 years had elapsed between my stay and Imady’s, and Bethelem was in a different country, but the culture struck me as very similar.  This shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose, since the country boundaries are artificial, and Palestinians and Syrians are both Levantine Arabs.

I have reproduced below some excerpts from Imady’s memoir, followed up with my own more recent memories in Palestine.

  • Our friends “had a terrible time finding us because we had no phone, and although they had our address with the name of our street and the number of our building, Syrians are accustomed to a different way of locating places, what I called ‘the landmark method.’ A Damascene would give direction to our home by saying, ‘The Imady building is one street up from the tram street in Mohajareen. Walk up one block from Abu Saoud’s drugstore at Shutta Street, and then turn left.  It’s the tallest building on the block.’  (37-38)

This anecdote made me laugh because I had the same experience with the rental apartment where I stayed for six weeks.  Before I arrived in Bethlehem, I asked my landlord (via e-mail) for the address of the place I’d be staying.  He said it was just a few houses up the street from Abdul’s Bakery.  I was confused and repeated my question, saying it was for mailing purposes.  He repeated the same thing about Abdul’s Bakery.  I gave up.  He may have had a street address with the number of the home and the name of the street, but nobody ever used it.  I used taxis all the time to get around, and I always told him it was near Abdul’s Bakery or gave the name of the local grocery store, and that always worked.

  •  “I found the main thoroughfare lined cheek to jowl with small shops. Most had some of their merchandise on display outside, either piled up on the sidewalk or hanging above the shops on “clothes lines.”  But the merchants didn’t stop there.  They sent young boys out into the crowds to entice you into their dens with insistent cries of “Tafuddily.”  (Come in.) . . . In ten minutes of walking in the souk, we saw for sale wooden clogs, slippers, children’s clothes, underwear, perfume, head coverings for men and women, brass rays, gold and silver jewelry, chess boards, lutes, rugs, prayer carpets and rolls of fabric of all kinds—but no pots and pans.  Beguiling and exotic smells wafted through the air.  There were fragrant scents from the perfume and attar shops, pungent odors coming from the spice market and the distinctive smell of tanned skins from the leather souk.”  (46)

 To me the souks and small “hole-in-the-wall” shops are a major pleasure of travelling in the Middle East.  They still exist in Bethlehem,  but in some major cities, they are being replaced by Western-style shopping malls.  I suppose the malls are more comfortable, but I do think something important is being lost with their triumph over traditional souks.


Small shops in Bethelehm


Small shops in Hebron

  • “Characteristically for desert weather, the temperature could drop twenty-five degrees Fahreneheit or more from noon to midnight, and the tile floors, high ceilings and drafty windows meant bone-chilling rooms at night. I had never been so cold indoors before: no central heating, and only one room of my in-law’s five-room apartment had a heater.” (42)

I live in Minnesota, which is known (rightly so) for its cold winter weather.  Yet, I have NEVER been cold for any length of time while inside a house.  Our homes are all well-heated, and we take this heat for granted.  Therefore, I was surprised to find out how cold my Bethlehem apartment was.  When I first arrived, they were having a cold, rainy spell.  I spent several days shivering under the blankets.  The home did have central heating, but the cost of heating was high, and my landlord only turned on central heating for about an hour a day.  He let me use a space heater in my bedroom, but even then, I was supposed to ration it to a few hours a day.  Fortunately, the weather warmed up after a week or so; otherwise, I don’t know how long I could have lasted in that ice-box!

  • ‘Referring to some visitors to their home, Imady writes, “Sometimes the voices of two or three guests would rise, their faces would look agitated, and they would gesture excitably. I would be sure they would be furious with each other or that something was wrong and would worriedly ask Mohammed what was the matter.  He would laugh and explain that it was nothing, that Syrians were simply more vehement, fiery and emotional than Americans.”  (37)

My landlord was a mild-mannered man when he spoke English (at least to me).  He spoke it fluently, by the way.  I noticed, though, that when he spoke Arabic, he often sounded angry to me.  Perhaps he was angry, but I did notice that Arab speakers were more likely to be loud and emotional than we reserved Minnesotans are/

  •  “Fat-tailed sheep crowded the narrow road, and sometimes our car had to stop while young boys or girls shepherded their flocks across the road.” (35)

Bethlehem is in most ways a modern 21st century town.  The streets are full of cars; everyone has cell phones and computers, and so forth.  And yet, it was not at all uncommon to see flocks of goats and sheep crossing the street—in the middle of the city.  I never quite got used to that sight.

feeling sheepish

a young shepherd with his flock

  • “I could hardly believe that Lamat went on this picnic wearing a good suit, stockings, and high heeled shoes. Her heels sunk in the plowed furrows between the trees, but she didn’t seem to mind.”  (35)

One of my favorite pastimes while in Bethlehem was hiking.  One day I joined a public hike that focused on Sufi shrines.  Both Western tourists and local Palestinian women were on this hike.  The Westerners wore casual pants and hiking boots.  The Palestinian women wore street clothing and shoes—the type of clothing one might wear at an office job.  None of them wore athletic shoes or hiking books.  I have to confess I found their lack of proper clothing irritating, because they slowed down our pace considerably. 

Scene from Sufi hike
Scene from Sufi hike

Perhaps the most significant commonality between Imady’s Syria and my experience of Palestine, though, is the warm hospitality she and I encountered everywhere.

I have never been to Syria, and I would like to go there.  Now is obviously not a good time.  Watching the devastation their country is going through now is heartbreaking.  I hope they can resolve their conflicts soon.

Have any of you been to Syria?

Debra Goes Mild with Cheryl Strayed


In the past couple of weeks, I have read the memoir “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and seen the movie version of it starring Reese Witherspoon.  My reaction to both the book and the movie was a constant oscillation between “Strayed is amazing!” and “Strayed is batshit crazy!”

Strayed’s memoir is about a period in her early twenties after her mother died suddenly of cancer at the age of 45.  Reeling with grief, Strayed’s life started to unravel with her self-destructive behavior.  She became promiscuous, used heroin, and divorced her kind and loving husband while on her downward spiral.

Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed

One day, Ms. Strayed, who had never done an overnight hiking trip in her life, decided it would be a good idea to hike 1000 or so miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself.  “Wild” is her account of both her downward spiral and the hiking trip that helped her recover from her grief.

“Wild” is not a hiking guide or a self-help book.  It is a memoir, a work of literature.  Strayed writes beautifully and honestly about the beauty of the landscape she traversed, but also, frequently about the physical pain she endured.  Her backpack, which she affectionately called “Monster,” was way, way too heavy for her.  Not only was it difficult to walk with such a burden on her back, but it left her seriously bruised and blistered.  Even worse were her feet.  I don’t know if this is common for long-distance hikers, but her feet were in constant agony and she lost six toenails by the end of the trip.

Nonetheless, her book was inspiring to me.  I have done a little bit of hiking I my life, but not a great deal.  And I certainly do not enjoy pain.  But what she wrote about the healing effects of strenuous outdoor activity makes sense to me:

“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back.  And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it.  That I could bear the unbearable.  These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm.  That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding.  It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away.  By the end of that second week, I realized that since I’d begun my hike, I hadn’t shed a single tear.” (92)

Strayed suggests that there is something about strenuous effort or—to be more blunt—physical pain in the wilderness that can make a person stronger, not just physically, but also emotionally.  Whereas heroin and sex were attempts to get outside of herself, Strayed realized on her hike that she need to stay inside herself in order to heal.

“But walking along a path I carved myself. . . was the opposite of using heroin. . . Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something.  That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me.  Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”

So I am now inspired by Strayed to experience more of the strenuous outdoor life.  Yet, I still think hiking 1100 miles by oneself is crazy.  I’m not interested in doing anything like that.  However, I would like to get out into nature more often than I normally do.  So here is my compromise, my very Mild response to Strayed’s “Wild” adventure.

Strayed hiked a total of approximately 1100 miles.  My goal is to do 1100 miles this summer, by combining biking and hiking.  I pledge to hike a total of 100 miles and bike a total of 1000 miles this year.  I am no Cheryl Strayed, so these miles will be cumulative, not all at once.

I live in Minnesota, so I can’t really get outside until probably late April, when the snow melts and the temperatures are regularly above freezing.  Because of the generally crappy climate I live in, I henceforth declare the spinning classes can count toward my mileage.

I will update my blog periodically about my progress, so stay tuned!


“Below Stairs”: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir that Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey”


 Those of you who are “Downton Abbey” fans know that the 5th season has just begun here in the U.S.  We viewers are wondering which of her many suitors Mary will marry.  We are wondering why Edith’s love relationships are invariably disastrous and how she will be able to keep the existence of her illegitimate child a secret.  We know that the aristocratic and wealthy Crawleys live lives that are worlds apart from those of their downstairs servants.  We see, however, that the Crawleys do care about the welfare of their servants and treat them with kindness and respect.  In some cases, such as the relationship between Anna and Lady Mary, the relationship could almost be considered that of friends.

Reading Margaret Powell’s memoir Below Stairs made me realize how utterly unrealistic “Downton Abbey’s” portrayal of the master-servant relationship is.  Below Stairs, originally published in the UK in 1968, is the memoir of Powell’s experience in domestic service in the 1920s.  This memoir (along with her others) was the inspiration for the hit TV series “Upstairs, Downstairs” and one of the inspirations for “Downton Abbey.”

Fans of “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs” will find many of Powell’s descriptions of the homes, the job descriptions, the relationships among the servants and so forth quite familiar, if nonetheless appalling.   When Powell was hired as a kitchen maid at age 15, she worked from 5:30 a.m. until about 10:00 at night.  She had only one evening off a week, from 4:00 – 10:00, and every other Sunday off, also from 4:00- 10:00 p.m.  She could never be out later than 10:00 p.m.   She slept in a tiny, freezing-cold attic room and was only allowed a cold hip bath for her hygiene.  All of this for 24 pounds a year.  It is no surprise, then, that Margaret felt like was in jail.

Margaret Powell
Margaret Powell

21st century readers might wonder how this life differed from slavery, except for the fact that servants were free to quit their jobs. Powell did eventually quit, after she got married.  Trying to find a husband while working in such constrained quarters and with so few hours off was another trial for Powell and another theme of her memoir.

I already knew about the hard work, the low wages, and the appalling hours.  What I did not realize was how awful most of the employers were to their servants.  In both “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey”, the wealthy employers are basically decent people who are not unkind to their servants.  In Powell’s book however, basic human kindness was an extremely rare commodity among the wealthy who hired her.  Most of her employers treated their servants as little better than brutes and lorded their superiority over their staff in every way possible.  (To be sure, Powell’s perspective is that of one individual and could be skewed.  However, some of the critics of “Downton Abbey” who are knowledgeable about the period also claim that the relationships between employers and servants in “Downton Abbey” are extremely unrealistic.)

As Powell recounts it, class divisions were never forgotten, never even blurred.  Even as a young child, she learned that rich children and poor children could never play together.  She did not mind that so much as a child because it seemed that the poor children had more freedom and more fun.  She was not so happy about the class divisions, however, when she went into service.  She said of her employers that

“We always called them ‘Them.’  ‘Them’ was the enemy, ‘Them’ overworked us, and ‘Them’ underpaid us, and to ‘Them’ servants were a race apart, a necessary evil” (74).  Powell goes on to write that,

“It was the opinion of ‘Them’ upstairs that servants couldn’t appreciate good living or comfort, therefore they must have plain fare, they must have dungeons to work in and to eat in, and must retire to cold Spartan bedrooms to sleep.  After all, what’s the point of spending money making life easier and more comfortable for a lot of ungrateful people who couldn’t care less what you do for them?  They never tried, mind, to find out if we could have cared more by making our conditions good and our bedrooms nice places in which to rest.”

One of the pleasures of reading Below Stairs is Powell’s ability to write brief, yet insightfully snarky sentences about the hypocrisy and meanness of her employers, such as this:  “There were always economies which had to be made.  During my years in domestic service I noticed that all economies began with the servants and always ended with them too” (46).

Powell is acutely aware of the class differences in her world and of the drudgery of the work servants do.  However, she is no socialist and is not advocating a revolution.  Her point is simply that most of her employers could have made the servants lives considerably more comfortable without a huge sacrifice of money.  For example, why couldn’t the servant eat the leftovers of what the employers ate, rather than having to eat food the rich would find unpalatable?  Couldn’t the servants have a heated bedroom with decent blankets?  Couldn’t they take a heated bath?  Maybe have two nights off a week instead of one and be able to stay out as late as they wanted to?  Slight changes would have made a huge difference and there was no compelling reason NOT to make them except for the seeming callousness of the employers regarding their servants’ basic human needs.

The servants did what they could to make their lives more bearable.  One way was to gossip about their employers.  After all, the servants met very few other people in their lives.  Some of the most entertaining stories in the memoir are gossipy tidbits about her “betters” that Powell shares.  For example, one of her married women employers had a habit of bringing young male ‘boy toys” back to her home.  Powell unfortunately walked in on one of them, who was standing stark naked in a bathtub.  Another employer, a man, had a fetish for hair curlers.  He invited the female servants up to his room at night, simply so he could rub their hair while it was up in curlers.

I am trying to imagine Lord Grantham lasciviously rubbing the curlers of, say, Anna, while Cora is in the other room having a “romp” with, say, Jimmy.  Good heavens, I think I am going to swoon!

Where are Jane's curlers?
Where are Jane’s curlers?

Home to Lebanon: Anthony Shadid’s “House of Stone”

This post is a response to Aarti’s #Diversiverse challenge.  For more information about her #Diversiverse challenge, click  here.

(I don’t know if Arabs are considered people “of color,” but they are certainly a minority group who have been much maligned as of late.)



“To my family, separated or reunited, Isber’s house makes a statement:  Remember the past.  Remember Marjayoun.  Remember who you are.” (xviii)

Shadid's restored house in Marjayoun, Lebanon.
Shadid’s restored house in Marjayoun, Lebanon.

 Click here for photo source.

The Arabic word bayt translates as “house” in English.  However, according to Anthony Shadid, the connotations of bayt “resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family home. In the Middle East, bayt is sacred.  Empires fall. Nations topple.  Borders may shift or be realigned. Old loyalties may dissolve or, without warning, be altered.  Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is, finally, the identity that does not fade” (xiii).  Bayt is not just a building; it is an identity—an idea as much as a physical space.  But, “what happens to the idea of ‘home” [or bayt] for migrants who live far from the lands of their birth?  How might their travels impact upon the ways “home” is considered?” (John McLeod 210).

Anthony Shadid grapples in The House of Stone with this question, addressing the repercussions faced by immigrants or their descendants who have lost their bayt, the roots of their identity.  Shadid, who died recently, was known mainly for his work as a journalist in the Middle East.  In his House of Stone, Shadid recounts his process of restoring his abandoned and ruined family home in the town of Marjayoun in what is now Lebanon.   At the beginning of this process, he feels depleted, lost and rootless.   He uses the term  “mahjour, an Arabic word meaning abandoned, forsaken, lonely (xvi)” to describe his great-grandfather’s house, but this term also applies to Shadid’s own run-down emotional state. By the end of the restoration period, however, he finds he was able to rebuild not only the house, but also a more solid identity with stronger roots.

             One thing I find interesting about House of Stone  is the process Shadid uses to rebuild their sense of bayt, one that was disrupted by the processes of history and migration.  More specifically, I suggest that he uses the technique of bricolage to effect this more satisfying identity. The term “bricolage” comes from a French word that describes the process of creatively using bits and pieces of materials leftover from other projects to create a new artifact.  Within the realm of cultural studies, the term was popularized by anthropologist Levi Straus and is often used to mean the processes by which people create new cultural identities by combining various social constructs they find at hand.  Bricolage, thus, emphasizes notions of “eclecticism, flexibility, and plurality” (Rogers 1). I argue that Shadid believes that Arab-Americans need to be inventive and flexible in using whatever cultural “bits and pieces” they have at hand to create a hybrid Arab-American identity.

House of Stone is Anthony Shadid’s Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East. His book is structured as a mosaic of different pieces, or “tiles,” if you will.  House of Stone is, in part, an account of the frustrating yet rewarding process of restoring his abandoned family home.  It is also in large part a history of Shadid’s ancestors who left the town of Marjayoun and emigrated to the United States.   These ancestors, not surprisingly, left Lebanon because of larger historical/political forces; for that reason Shadid also outlines for readers some of the convulsions of recent Middle Eastern history. If that is not enough, Shadid also introduces readers to some of the people who currently live in Marjayoun.  In the end, though, I would argue that this book is most importantly a memoir of healing.

At the beginning of the book, when Shadid first moves to Lebanon, he is divorced, exhausted, rootless and dispirited.  He is at a point in his life when he needs the sustenance of a real home, in the deepest sense of the word, which is why he returns to his great-grandfather Isber’s home.  This house was built in order to “join us [his family] with the past, to sustain us, to be the setting for stories” (xiii).  The process of restoring his family home, using the literal and metaphorical technique of bricolage helps to restore his sense of a grounded identity.  But what is the nature of this identity? The question is harder to answer than it might at first seem.  The old adage, ‘you can’t go home again’ is at least partially true. The Marjayoun to which Shadid returns is a far cry from the Marjayoun where Isber resided.  Decades of civil war in Lebanon, along with larger upheavals in the Middle East, changed the region almost beyond recognition.  By the time Shadid arrived in Lebanon in 2006, he observes that

“Politics was refracted through unyielding religious discourse or more ancient affiliations, and identity flowed exclusively from them, irrespective of culture and language.  It seemed we have been left with tribes bereft of citizenship.  Home, united, as other generations had known it, had long been lost, though an older architecture still whispered of times glimpsed in broken masonry and solitary arches.”  (6)

The Lebanon that Isber once knew was gone, as Shadid acknowledges, and yet that does not stop him from continuing his quest for home.  If the Lebanon of the present reality has little continuity with the Lebanon of his imagined past, then what does he hope to find there?  One could argue that he is seeking to live with people who share his identity, but who are these people?   Identifying as a Lebanese-American has little meaning to him because of the artificial origins of this nation, with its boundaries demarcated by European colonial powers.   He believes these borders and boundaries are toxic.    He asserts that “Marjayoun suffered with the advent of borders, losings its true hinterland in Palestine and Syria and all the more accessible towns there.  Those towns of an older antiquity—Haifa, Jerusalem. . .—shred with it  common geography, history, trade, and culture, unfettered by borders, and for generations that land was the place of opportunity for those who chose to remain in Marjayoun.  Now they no longer could” (98).

A broken man returns to the land of his ancestors, hoping to find a place where he fits in, hoping to find a home in the deepest sense of the word.  Instead, he finds that almost everything worth cherishing is gone, destroyed by the ravages of war.  One possible reaction to this loss would be despair.  He could give up on the whole idea of finding something meaningful in his family’s past and recreate himself as a newborn American without a past.  (I would argue this is what happens with many, maybe most Americans.)  However, Shadid does not take this path.  Instead, he (metaphorically) looks around the culture and history of the Middle East and picks up the “bits and pieces” that he finds useful and beautiful.  In a process of bricolage, he incorporates these remnants into his newly emerging identity.

The pieces of the Middle Eastern identity Shadid finds most useful is the idea of the Levant.  The Levant for him is more than just a geographical concept.  He notes:

But the Levant was really more a culture than an expanse of land or group of nations or homelands.  It was a way of living and thinking that bound Asia Minor to the Middle East and Egypt to Mesopotamia.  It was, in essence, an amalgamation of diversities where many mingled, a realm of intersections, a crossroads of language, culture, religions and traditions.  All were welcome to pass through the territories and homelands within its landscape, where differences were often celebrated.  In idea at least, the Levant was open-minded, cosmopolitan; it did not concern itself with particularities or narrow concepts of identity. (119)

The quality of the Levant that Shadid finds attractive and wishes to retain is its diversity, what he calls the “mosaic” of different cultures, different identities which, for the most part, were able to live together in relative harmony.

Intriguingly, Shadid finds a material artifact that symbolically represents his ideal of the best of the vanished Middle East:  the cemento tiles that he installs on the floor of his restored house.  He devotes a significant portion of his memoir to commenting on these tiles and what they mean to him.  Here he describes the moment when he first notices them:

“As I walked toward the smooth stone stairs, I noticed some ornate Italian tile peeking from beneath all the dust.  I was immediately drawn for reasons I can’t explain.  I am no aesthete, but I knew that the tiles were called cemento (though they were known these days as sajjadeh, Arabic for carpet, a name suggested by their repeating colorful patterns.)  Through the dirt I could see only black and white, but I suspected other hues lay hidden beneath all those years.” (29)

These tiles captured Shadid's imagination.
These tiles captured Shadid’s imagination.

Click here for photo source.

He said he had undoubtedly walked on cemento tiles many times before in the Middle East, “but it was the cemento here in Isber’s house that drew me.” (30)

These tiles drew him in, I suggest, because they offer him a concrete means by which he can construct his new identity.  These tiles, for him, represent what is best about the Middle East, the Levant of his great-grandfather’s time.  He says, “The tiles at my feet were the remnants, in Arabic the atlal, of a lost Marjayoun.  They were artifacts of an ideal, meant to remind and inspire, vestiges of the irretrievable Levant, a word that, to many, calls to mind an older, more tolerant, more indulgent Middle East.” (118)

The endless fighting and narrow sectarian identities of the current Lebanon appall Shadid.  The cemento tiles, however, hearken back to an earlier time and a way of life that values craftsmanship rather than war. These tiles

“did not speak of war, or frontiers, and the spaces they narrowed, but rather grandeur.  The tiles returned one to a realm where imagination, artistry, and craftsmanship were not only appreciated but given free rein, where what was unique and striking, or small and perfect, or wrought with care was desired, where gazed-upon objects were the products of peaceful hearts, hands long practiced and trained.  War ends the values and traditions that produce such treasures.  Nothing is maintained.  Cultures that may seem as durable as stone can break like glass, leaving all the things that held them together unattended. I believe that the craftsman, the artist, the cook, and the silversmith are peacemakers.  They instill grace; they lull the world to calm.” (118)

Shadid spends a great deal of time, effort, and money to find just the right tiles (from different merchants) and then laying them in just the right way.  As he lay these tiles, he notes that “It felt as though I was lifting history and putting it back in its place.” (126)  I suggest that this effort is not simply to create a beautiful house; it is simultaneously his way of creating his own identity as a tolerant, cosmopolitan Levantine who values craftsmanship, art, and peace.  It is his way of lulling himself into an internal state of calm.   The way he shops for, chooses, and carefully lays the tiles as a way to create his house AND his identity exemplify the process of bricolage—in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

I find Shadid’s embrace of the tiles and their representation of  Levantine identity interesting for a couple of reasons.  First of all, he admits that this open-minded, tolerant Levant no longer exists.  His language (“in idea at least”) suggests that perhaps in its idealized version, it may not ever have existed.  Nonetheless, this imagined past can still provide emotional sustenance for him.  Also interesting to me is that the Levant, at least as he defines it, is a place that is attractive precisely because it does NOT represent a clearly defined, restricted identity.  Rather, the Levant is a “crossroads of language, culture, religions and traditions” that eschews “narrow definitions or identities.” Shadid, then, is a man who is hoping to find a more rooted identity by going back to his family home.  He does find this sense of home, but he does it by forming an emotional bond with a place that no longer exists and embracing an identity that paradoxically eschews narrow definitions of identities.  He is not really going back to reclaim an old identity.  He is creating a brand new one, one that incorporates the past, but just the parts of it he finds sustaining.

 Click here for a link to Shadid talking about the house and tiles on a Youtube video.

The Twin Tragedies: “Her” by Christa Parravani


Christa Parravani, Her.

I don’t know how to write what I’m going to write without sounding heartless. Perhaps I am heartless. Let me say in my defense, though, that generally speaking I love memoirs and novels about people struggling with mental illness, heartbreak, addiction and so forth. For example, I LOVE Marr Karr’s memoirs The Liars Club and Lit. (I haven’t yet read the third one, Cherry). They are about her highly dysfunctional childhood and her young adulthood in which she struggled with alcoholism. I worship Karr’s writing ability. I also love Sylvia Plath’s work, especially the poetry she wrote when she was on a downward spiral to suicide. I also adore Anne Lamott’s memoir writing about her troubled years of self-destruction.

So I thought I would be moved by Parravani’s Her, a memoir about growing up with an identical twin sister who eventually killed herself. I wanted to be moved and even haunted, the way other readers said they were. The truth, though, is that I was so bored reading the memoir that I didn’t even finish it. I read about 150 pages and that was only because my book club was discussing it. The reality is that I just didn’t care what happened to the narrator.

Yes, that sounds harsh when I write it down. To be clear, what happened to the two sisters, especially, Cara, was horrifying. I’m not giving anything away when I say that Cara was the victim of an especially brutal rape and was never the same afterwards. She became addicted to heroin and eventually died of an overdose. Whether or not this particular overdose was a suicide wasn’t clear to me, but in any case Cara was headed in the direction of suicide. This is of course terrible and I do feel badly for her and for Christa who reeled from the aftermath of her twin’s untimely death.

My critique is not of the flesh-and-blood sisters in real life, but of the quality of writing of the memoir. Parravani made it very clear that the sisters, especially Cara, were unusually close, even for twins. (Cara actually came along on Christa’s honeymoon, uninvited!). She also made it clear that both were messed up, not surprisingly, given their childhood. But frankly, that’s all I could really gather about the sisters. I didn’t get a sense of either of them as full-fledged people. When Parravani was not writing about her pain, she focused almost exclusively on mundane details of her life (such as the clothes she wore, the way her house was decorated, etc.)

To be honest, the parts that I DID gather about them made me find them not particularly likeable. The author seemed narcissistic, self-involved, and without any sense of self-awareness. The main thing I learned about Cara, the dead sister (apart from her self-destructive behavior), was that she was beautiful and used her beauty to screw with men (literally and figuratively). All I could really gather about Christa is that she found herself and Cara to be the only people in the world that really seemed to matter. Maybe that’s what rubbed me the wrong way. If you don’t care about anybody but each other, why should we readers care about you?

Mary Karr and Anne Lamott write about serious problems, their own and their family members. What makes them so much better as memoirists, in my humble opinion, is that they are brutally clear-eyed about their own shortcomings. They are also funny as hell. Christa Parravani does not share either of these qualities. I know she was in pain when she wrote this, and I do empathize with that.  However, reading her memoir makes me realize that readers need more to “grab on to” than just a stranger’s pain if we are going to find it worthwhile to spend so much time with their thoughts.

Based on the reviews I’ve read, I believe I am a minority in my reaction to this book. Please feel free to respond with me in the comments if you feel differently than I do.