The Arabic language evolved slowly across the millennia, leaving little undefined, no nuance shaded. Bayt translates literally as house, but its connotations resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family and 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.
In old marjayoun, in what is now Lebanon, Isber Samara left a house that never demanded we stay or enter at all. It would simply be waiting, if shelter was necessary. Isber Samara left it for us, his family, to join us with the past, to sustain us, to be the setting for stories. After years of trying to piece together Isber’s tale, I like to imagine his life in the place where the fields of the Houran stretched farther than even the dreamer he was — a rich man born of a poor boy’s labors — could grasp.
In an old photo handed down, Isber Samara’s heavy-seeming shoulders suggest the approach of the old man he would never become, but his expression retains a hint of mischief some might call youthful. More striking than handsome, his face is weathered from sun and wind, but his eyes are a remarkable Yemeni blue, rare among the Semitic browns of his landscape. Though the father of six, he seems beyond proper grooming. His hair, apparently reddish, is tousled; his mustache resembles an overgrown scattering of brush. Out to prove himself since he was a boy, Isber would one day come to believe that he had.
By the time the photo of Isber and his family was taken, he was forty or so, but I am drawn more to the Isber that he became — a father, no longer so ambitious, parted from his children, whom he sent off to America to save their lives. I wonder if he pictured them and their descendants — sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, on and on — moving through lives as unpredictable as his. Did he see us in years ahead, adrift, climbing the cracked steps and opening his doors?
At Isber’s, the traveler is welcome, befitting the Bedouin tradition of hospitality that he inherited. The olive and plum trees stand waiting at this house of stone and tile, completed after World War I. The place remains in our old town where war has often stopped time and, like an image reflected in clear water, lingers as well in the minds of my family. We are a clan who never quite arrived home, a closely knit circle whose previous generations were displaced during the abandonment of our country decades ago. When we think of home, as origin and place, our thoughts turn to Isber’s house.
Built on a hill, the place speaks of things Levantine and of a way of life to which Isber Samara aspired. It recalls a lost era of openness, before the Ottoman Empire fell, when all sorts drifted through homelands shared by all. The residence stands in Hayy al-Serail, a neighborhood once as fine as any in the region, an enclave of limestone, pointed arches, and red tile roofs. The tiles here were imported from Marseilles and, in the 1800s, suggested international connections and cosmopolitan fashionableness. They were as emblematic of the style of the Levant as the tarbush hats worn by the Ottoman gentlemen who lived in the Hayy, where the silver was always polished and the coffee came often in the afternoon. Old patriarchs — ancient and dusty as the settees — wiped rheumy eyes with monogrammed handkerchiefs. Sons replaced fathers, carrying on treasured family names. Isber was not one so favored.
In a place and time not known for self-invention, Isber created Isber. His extended family, not noteworthy, consisted of “less than twenty houses.” His furniture, though expensive and imported from Syria, was as recently acquired as his fortune, and his house stood out not just because of its newness. It was a place built with the labor of a rough-hewn merchant whose eye was distracted from accounts only by his wife, Bahija. It serves as a reminder of a period of rare cultivation and unimaginable tragedy; it announces what a well-intentioned but imperfect man can make of life. Isber’s creation speaks of what he loved and what sustained him; it reminds us that everyday places say much, quietly. The double doors of the entrance are tall and wide for men like Isber, not types to be shut in.
Isber, whose daughter Raeefa gave birth to my father, was my great-grandfather. I came of age with remembrances that conjured him back to life, tales that made him real and transported my family to his world, a stop gone missing on recent maps: Jedeidet Marjayoun. This is the way my family refers to our town, our hometown. Never Jedeida, never just Marjayoun. We use the full name, a bow of respect, since for us the place was the beginning. It was bayt, where we came to be.
Settled by my forebears, Marjayoun was once an entrepôt perched along routes of trade plied by Christians, Muslims, and Jews which stitched together the tapestry of an older Middle East. It was, in essence, a gateway — to Sidon, on the Mediterranean, and Damascus, beyond Mount Hermon; to Jerusalem, in historic Palestine; and to Baalbek, the site of an ancient Roman town. As such, this was a place as cosmopolitan as the countryside offered. Its learning and sophistication radiated across the region.
Yet lingering in small places is not in favor now; they no longer seem to fit the world. Yes, Marjayoun is fading, as it has been for decades. It can no longer promise the attraction of market Fridays, when all turned out in their finery — women in dresses from Damascus, gentlemen with gleaming pocket watches brought from America. At night, there are only flickering lights, which even a desperate traveler could overlook. In the Saha, or town square, there are dusty things — marked down for decades — for sale. No merchants shine counters, or offer sherbets made from snow, or sell exotic tobaccos. The cranky sheikh who filled prescriptions, if he cared to, is no more. The town no longer looks out to the world, and it is far from kept up. Everywhere it is scattered with bits and pieces, newspapers from other decades, odd things old people save. Of course, no roads run through Marjayoun anymore. A town whose reach once spanned historic Syria, grasping Arish in the faraway Sinai Peninsula of Egypt before extending, yet farther, to the confluence of the Blue and the White Niles, now stretches only a mile or so down its main thoroughfare.
Once, in this place, my family helped raise the cross and disturb the peace. We were known here, not for gentle natures or even temperaments, though we were among the town’s first Christians. We walked these streets, played a role in determining where they would go. And then we used them to leave. Although our family tree still has olives on its branches, we follow the tradition of remaining mastourin (hidden, invisible, masked) when it comes to emotions, yet there are sometimes tears when we look back.
Isber’s is one of the many houses left behind here, one of those we call mahjour, an Arabic word meaning abandoned, forsaken, lonely. The leftover houses — spindly, breaking down, haunted — speak of Marjayoun’s lost heyday. For many who have walked by them through many years and wars and passings, they are friends. In their shattered windows, those who pass by see shiny panes and all that happened behind them. In the dark rooms they envision, not just scarred or peeling walls or dusty floors, but old acquaintances lighting lamps or stoking the coals of stoves.
The story of the town is written in these places; it is a history of departures. I still think of them every day. The houses of those who left are everywhere, walked away from. There were letters for a while. She was my best friend. Those who stayed remember those we lost. We woke and saw that their place was empty. In these broken-down rooms one can hear the voices of ghosts and the regrets of those who still recognize them.
Close your eyes and forget Marjayoun. The next thing you are crossing is the Litani Valley, over the mountains to Jezzine and then down the coast to Saida.
My aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents, were part of a century-long wave of migration that occurred as the Ottoman Empire crumbled then fell, around the time of World War I. In the hinterland of what was then part of Greater Syria, known locally as Sham, the war marked years of violent anarchy that made bloodshed casual. Disease was rife. So was famine, created by the British and French, who enforced a blockade of all Arab ports in the Mediterranean. Hundreds of thousands starved to death in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and beyond. Isber’s region was not spared. A reliable survey of 182 villages in the area showed that a fourth of the homes there had withered into wartime ruin, and more than a third of the people who had inhabited them had died.
This horrific decade and its aftermath provoked villagers, including my family, to abandon their homes for locations from South America to West Africa to Australia, as well as a few neighborhoods in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Wichita, Kansas. What became an era of departures ended with more Lebanese living in the diaspora than within the boundaries of 1920, when Europeans parceled out the unbroken expanse of the Ottomans.
A green folder sits in my file cabinet. Family Records, it reads. Inside are citizenship and marriage certificates, my grandfather’s discharge orders from the U.S. Army, my grandmother’s story, written by one of her daughters, and a record of my grandfather’s journey from Beirut to Boston aboard a ship called the Latso. Creased and folded in thirds are family trees from both sides of my clan, the Samaras and the Shadids. The first traces back to one Samara Samara, who was born in 1740 and emigrated in an epic exodus said to be led by women from the Houran of present-day Syria to the hills of Marjayoun. The other, much more complex, radiates into more than two hundred branches of names, insistently rendered in English and Arabic.
The folder also contains pictures. In one, my maternal great-grandfather, Miqbal, boyish-looking then, wears an ill-fitting formal jacket with an oversize white rose in his lapel. Other photos portray wistful ladies and men with handlebar mustaches and tufts of what appears to be quite unmanageable hair, all dressed as dandies in their Sunday best. There is one of the dry-goods store of an older Miqbal, where signs offered High Quality, Low Prices. But the English is uncertain: Help Us, Weel Help You. And the script is distinctly native, the graceful slope of Arabic, leaning to the left, imposed on the rigidity of Latin, standing straight.
The America that drew my family was a journey of seven thousand miles, and although mountain roads and voyages in steerage were treacherous, the hardest were those first miles away from home, away from faces that would no longer be familiar. By the time we arrived in New York, or Texas, or Oklahoma, or wherever, much was lost. “Your first discovery when you travel,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “is that you do not exist.” In other words, it is not just the others who have been left behind; it is all of you that is known. Gone is the power or punishment of your family name, the hard-earned reputations of forebears, no longer familiar to anyone, not in this new place. Gone are those who understand how you became yourself. Gone are the reasons lurking in the past that might excuse your mistakes. Gone is everything beyond your name on the day of your arrival, and even that may ultimately be surrendered.
So much had to be jettisoned for the sake of survival. Emotions were not acknowledged when so many others had suffered more. There was only survival for these travelers and faces to recall until the pictures they carried frayed or no longer held together. Though none of us could summon its image, Isber Samara’s house remained, saying his name and ours. It was a place to look back to, the anchor, all that was left there. To my family, separated or reunited, Isber’s house makes a statement: Remember the past. Remember Marjayoun. Remember who you are.