American Impressions: Prologue
The Day Before America
The Switzerland of the Orient. The Paris of the Middle East. The jewel of the Mediterranean.
The crock of it all.
Lebanon was never the nation it made itself out to be, but it had its share of marketers -- racketeers, really -- who created a lie smelted out of pretty little illusions: Lebanon the land of tolerance, the intellectual haven, the pluralist oasis. A bit more gall and the myth-makers would have claimed that Christ summered in the Lebanese hills or skied around the cedars. That miracle of restraint went unrewarded. On April 13, 1975, the lie -- my native home, my sweet memory, my once-upon-a-time-in-the-East -- unraveled.
Remembering this now is unnerving. I don't like to think about it. I don't need to think about it. I'm about to embark on the journey of a lifetime across the 50 States, discovering them and writing about each of them over the next year in a way most of us imigrants (that is, all of us Americans) only dream of doing some day. Mostly by chance and this paper's indulgence, my "some day" is here, and I want to embrace it. Lebanon is a done deal.
And yet it isn't, because I can trace everything that I am and everything that I escaped, including escaping being Lebanese or being dead, to that Sunday 24 years ago.
It went like this: We'd spent the day at our summer home in the mountains with aunts and uncles and cousins, feasting on one of those Lebanese meals that demand an afternoon's stamina and end, for the over-40 set, in a group slump. Our parents' cigarette clouds and boring talk chased us kids outside. We played Bonanza. The parents napped. They woke up, smoked more cigarettes, then told us to get ready to leave for the city. We protested. They yelled. We relented, and by 7 p.m. we were back in Beirut.
An hour later my cousin Philippe called to spread the news. Somewhere in the city Palestinian guerillas had assassinated a minor Christian militia leader at a church dedication earlier in the day. Christian militiamen had retaliated by ambushing a bus-full of Palestinians and strafing everyone to death, bystanders and the required women and children included. Fighting had broken out between the two sides in a Beirut suburb. Maybe it'd turn out to be just another heave of tire burnings and idle shooting at the sky.
It didn't. We began to hear the sounds of war during the night as fighting spread, although to me and my two older brothers it meant only that we'd be spared school in the morning. The prospect of facing Jesuit teachers was more real, and more frightening, than a war we could not imagine. But that's how Lebanon's war with itself had begun 15 years of futility that started two weeks and two days before America's 15-year futility in Vietnam ended. I wasn't yet 11, not a bad time for a childhood to end but not a particularly good way to end it.
I looked up news coverage of those early days in The New York Times recently, pulling up the microfilm at the Florida Southern College library in one of those moments that make parallel universes as real as night and day. Around me was the quietness of the library and the shuffle of students who have every right to take a secure life in a middle-class future for granted. A few mind-hops away I could picture the infuriating traffic on South Florida Avenue or hear the bicker-prattle of a County Commission meeting and think to myself: what pleasure, what luxury to be so hassled, because staring through the microfilm monitor were those Beirut datelines of night battles and sniper fire and throat-slashings that were to frame the life and many deaths of an entire generation, when taking any liberties or orders for granted, let alone life, was an affront to the warmongers.
Lebanon made the front page of The Times the Monday after the bus-strafing, and again two days later when the death toll reached 100. (It would reach 200,000 by 1990.) Like a prophesy in newsprint, I could see the entire 15-year history of the war, my history, anyway, in those two articles, even in a single line: "The sound of guns reverberated through the dark and deserted streets while families huddled in their homes."
We were those families, we were those huddlers, and those sounds -- that thud of rocket-fire, that aimless rat-at-at-at of 16-year-old militiamen suddenly gorging themselves on live ammo and the obscenity of their AK-47s -- still reverberate in my ears, a constant reminder of the lie that Lebanon proved to be, of "the vile parody of home," as Vladimir Nabokov once called his ex-land.
As an ex-Lebanese I'm often asked to explain that "mess over there," as if it were an untidy room in the world's house. The only answer that seems to me justified is the one the war dead would give, given a post-dust chance: Who cares? Lebanese Christians, Muslims, Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians all made a bombing range of the land's alleged holiness and cheapened human life to dirt in the name of a God or an Allah or a star of David, a grove's boundary or the different pronunciation of a last name enough to turn two Semites into genocidal enemies. My memories of the old country were once redolent with that "scent of Lebanon" Solomon sings about. They now stink of that Sunday.
A year later my father was dead, claimed not by the war, not directly, anyway, but by the sort of heart attack that doesn't strike a 46-year-old man without accomplices -- anxiety, broken dreams, the ruin of his photography business. He was black and blue from his embolism when I last saw him, laid-up dead in a ring of mourners, as if beaten up. But he was simply beaten. He would have been 69 today -- Jan. 4, 1999.
Funny: Barely a week before his death he had returned from the United States, where he'd spent five months looking for a way out of Lebanon for us. He'd hated the place, writing my mother that we could never have a life there. He couldn't take the uprooting from a Lebanon he'd loved, a way of life he could not do without.
I don't mean to paint an overly tragic picture. He died. We -- my mother, my two brothers and I -- didn't. We retreated to the relative safety of our summer home, away from the ravages of Beirut. We learned to duck and lay flat at the sound of whistling shells. We had fun grandparents. We went to school more on than off, and had, despite the war, a blast. We simply were not conscious of the dangers we faced every day.
For 15 years, my mother had been one of Lebanon's most famous TV personalities, hosting a live kids' variety show and a radio show, and writing a lifestyle page a week in Lebanon's French daily. TV was out, the station being within sling-shot range of a Palestinian camp that double-bunked guerillas and refugees. But her newspaper and radio gigs continued, and she let me skip school to be with her when the interviews were worth it. She profiled the big-wigs of the day -- most of them mobsters with self-aggrandizing government or military titles, the type of people who did not tolerate tough questions unless the questioner was willing to end up headless in a ditch a few days after the annoying interview.
More novelist than journalist, and profiting from her minor celebrity status, my mother stuck to the psychological profile (letting readers infer what they would rather than infuriating her subjects) and sometimes hosted dinner parties for the mobsters at our home. Men who would otherwise not officially speak to each other would end up sharing mother's goulash around our dining room table. Bodyguards holed up in the kitchen usually outnumbered guests, for good reason. Several of the guests were eventually assassinated or exiled, including her bosses at the newspaper and the radio station -- the Gemeyel brothers, both of whom were "elected" president but only one of whom lived to serve out his term, then enjoy, to this day, some posh Parisian exile.
But three teen-age boys in the Lebanon of the mid-1970s were militia-bait. My mother worried that we'd eventually be drafted, as many boys were. She wanted us out of there.
We got lucky. We had what most Lebanese by then didn't have -- the proverbial rich American uncle. Three years into the war he took us in for a summer, as my mother traveled the United States on assignment for her Lebanese paper. Kingsport, Tenn., where we summered before being dispatched to boarding school in England, was not a particularly enticing introduction to the United States, especially not when the winds blew in a certain direction, dousing the town in the smells of an Eastman Kodak plant. But those were the smells of industry, of a nation at work, not at war. I remember with fondness my first drive-in experience at Wendy's and the sheer bliss of fries and a Coke on demand. I remember also that drivers respected road signs, that forests grew, that being civilized was not, here, an idle notion.
If I missed Lebanon it was more out of habit and the fear of spending a year in boarding school in England, Englishless and motherless, than out of sincere affection for what was by then a melting-pot of anarchy and thick-calibered barbarism. People were shot with anti-aircraft guns, children were decapitated, whole villages were massacred. Revenge was an afternoon's duty, bloodlust a Friday night date.
So I put up with the snot-nosed cruelties of English boys, who so enjoyed the fact that I couldn't speak their language, but by Christmas that year I could cuss with four-lettered abandon and by spring could write letters in English. I had to: My mother had met an American journalist on her American trails, she had married him, and together they were repatriating us all under one roof, a family again, in New York City in the summer of 1979.
New life, new country, new dad. Only in America, as they say. And the new dad wasn't the intolerable step-sort. He was -- is -- lovable, every fiber an American, and better yet, a newsman who let me spend my adolescence in his newsroom, albeit the television sort. There he was at John Kennedy Airport the day I landed back from England, Green Card in hand, a resident alien of a nation I had dreamily traveled so many times by finger on the National Geographic maps spread on the living room carpet back in Lebanon. I landed on July 19, 1979, a year to the day after I had left Lebanon (never since to return), three years to the day after my father's death.
I am not big on providence or cosmic coincidences. This one is an exception.
*** It would be nice to think that the day I arrived in the United States I fell in love with it and set my mind right then to making a pilgrimage across its 50 states, my 50 Meccas. It wasn't the case. Immigrants become American only with time, if they do. Many die still broken-hearted for the old country, their American adoption having been a convenience or a filial sacrifice. Many are crushed by the prospect of making it here. "America," my father had written my mother two months before his death, "is a hard country." He wasn't wrong.
But I had everything going my way. I was 14 and adaptable when I arrived, I had an American father to ease the transition, not to mention pay the bills of choice schools. His affection for New York proved transferable so that I am now more fond of some parts of the New York subway than I am of most pockmarked memories of Lebanon. Commuting through the city's tunnels for seven years without once being mugged, in those pre-Giulliani days of alleged chaos, also helped.
By the time I raised my right hand to take the oath of citizenship in a Brooklyn courthouse, on a cool December day in 1986, I had shed Lebanon willfully and entirely, had shed my mother tongue, had even shed my father's name to create my own. I considered myself, happily and without reserve, finally, an American. No illusions why: Lebanon had taken away. America had given. It was as simple as that.
Loud patriotism gives me the creeps and I don't mean to hoist hymnal flags to the republic. Lebanon's demise had a lot to do with blind acceptance of fake truths, with monochromatic ideologies that reduced everything to good and bad. Shouts drowned out reason, and when the shouts weren't enough anymore, guns did. The United States isn't immune to that sort of stupidity. It's the country of extremes. But extremes have always been tempered by a reverence for law and a healthy, grudging faith in government. That balance has kept the American experiment alive, and on the whole, successful. It has kept us immigrants coming, even if the balance is not quite balanced these days.
Last July 19, exactly 19 years after I had landed there with my Green Card, I returned to JFK to visit. Airport roadways and buildings were bannered with yellow and gold pennants celebrating the airport's 50th anniversary. "Welcome To JFK Where America Greets the World," one banner proclaimed. It may be the new Ellis Island, but in today's JFK there are as many No Entry signs as there are barriers, steel-secured doors and forbidding security guards whose job is to ensure that only certain people cross certain lines. International greetings in the age of globalization and falling borders have become more, not less, guarded. It is as if everyone is suspicious until proven worthy of greeting.
Walking around the terminal where I had landed, I found Emma Lazarus' famous words: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free," but there were neither golden lamp nor golden door. The words were inscribed in yellow letters on a black marble wall that hadn't been polished in a very long time, or so it looked from behind the bullet-proof pane beyond which I wasn't allowed.
Miss Liberty's words are out of the way. The shops aren't. The terminal was being refurbished so that by 2001, a sign proclaimed, the 1.5 million-square-foot "light-filled terminal" will include a "100,000-square-foot magnificent retail hall, which will include food courts, restaurants, duty-free shopping and a wide variety of special stores." When President Truman had dedicated the airport in 1948, back when it was called Idlewild, he saw the place as "the front door for the United Nations" headquartered in New York. "Men and women from the far corners of Earth will land here in their search for peaceful solutions to their countries' difficulties," Truman said. When the terminal is rededicated in 2001, it is unlikely that more than shopping, convenience and speed will be celebrated.
I don't mean to be so gloomy. Unlike most trips to airports, my day at JFK was almost exhilarating. Truman's hopes for the airport as a doorway to diplomatic peacemongers may not have come true, but that may be because the real United Nations is not located in the UN's dirty-green, anorexic building on Manhattan's East River but in the city, and to a lesser extent across the nation that surrounds it.
Eavesdropping while sitting at JFK's Starbucks was like tapping into an international phone exchange. There was a time when the languages heard in airports were limited to French, German, Dutch, Portuguese -- the voices of the old colonists then traveling the world in search of lost glory.
No longer. The voices you hear now are Malay, Arabic, Hindi, Korean, Hausa, Swahili, Chinese. The colonized have become the new colonists, converging on America in their sarongs and dreadlocks and chadors to mix with cut-off jeans and yarmulkes and mid-riff shirts. Most of the new colonists would always remember their first day in the States, their first hours at JFK.
Which is why I was back there. I knew by then that I would be traveling across the country, and I wanted to begin at my Plymouth Rock, retailed and barricaded as it was. More than 10 years ago I had decided that I would one day travel the country, walking and breathing every state, a sort of fulfillment of my new citizenship. I didn't know when or how that journey would take place. It turned out to be now.
Immigrants like to journey back through their genealogy and return to the land of their ancestors. I am reversing course. I want to journey out from my past into the land I have chosen to be mine and immerse myself in its multi-meridian moods. In the next 51 weeks I will draw a portrait of the nation as it is today, but it will be an intensely personal portrait, my landmarks in every state having more to do with impressions than monuments. I picture myself writing my children's cultural genealogy, with the ink, or ink-jet, of an immigrant. And I don't pretend to set down universal truths.
"There are too many realities," John Steinbeck wrote in his "Travels with Charlie." "What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style. For this reason I cannot commend this account as an America that you will find."
It is merely the America that I found -- as untidy, as contradictory, as excessive as was my gratefulness to have found it.