The reactions of people close to me got me thinking that maybe it's a good time (maybe it's a bad time) for a refresher about where we come from.
Yousef Moun-aye-er (an alternative transliteration of the Arabic name that captures the sound a bit better than the Frenchy looking "Monier"--roughly translated, the name means "Someone Who Radiates Light") was raised in Qatana, an Ottoman garrison and dust-dry village some 20 miles west of Damascus. Talk about a dead-end existence. Yousef, a Catholic, was built like a grizzly, which made him a target for threats and abuse from the local Muslim forces. Aged 12, Yousef, all by his lonesome, decided to take what I like to call "One Big Risk" and run away to make his fortune in "Amreeka."
His journey--which crossed the Mediterranean Sea, France, and the Atlantic ocean--took years. He stowed away on an ocean liner, and when discovered, cleaned and hauled stuff around the ship for food.
What no one told this grizzly of a boy, however, is that "Amreeka" is a big place, two continents actually. His ship docked smack between both. Teenage Yousef decided to head north to his Land of Freedom. Illegally. Working for a traveling Mexican circus. I used to pretend that this meant he was a performer. My dad had to convince me that his dad had not swung from the flying trapeze as the circus paraded across the U.S. border. Yousef had been behind the parade, sweeping up the animals' droppings. Especially memorable were the elephants.
"But, it was a different time to enter as an illegal immigrant!" some argue. Yes it was. It was the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Tammany Hall, and of lynching blacks in town squares.
In a fit of racist, disillusioned pique, thirteen-year-old me once used the words that the mean kids used on me and around me: "So, we didn't come through Ellis Island or anything? I'm the granddaughter of a towelhead wetback?"
My dad stared me down so that I held my breath. Then he released a rueful little chuckle. "Yes, I guess your Jiddo was a towelhead wetback. And he had hustle."
|That's my daddy on Jiddo's lap, giving the world the reverse finger.|
He started school in blond-and-blue-eyed Grand Rapids Michigan speaking "Arabish." He had a lisp, too. He spent so much time with the speech therapist that he became interested in linguistics, but that wouldn't pay the bills. So, being the first in his family to finish college, he became a dentist and spent the rest of his career pushing tongues out of the way.
During his one trip to "The Old Country," he married a gorgeous, multi-lingual, huge-hearted, highly cultured woman from Damascus whose grammar, syntax, and accent he relentlessly corrected for the next twenty years. But when civil war broke out in Lebanon in the 1970s, swallowing my mother's siblings and children into the vortex of violence, he stepped up and sponsored them. All of them. We called our house "The Hotel Monier."
Mom and Dad helped those refugees to become American. They and their kids are blue collar workers, real estate agents, daycare owners, teachers, lawyers, pharmacists, and physicians. My dad, son of an illegal immigrant, is responsible for the existence of nearly forty US citizens, if you count the wives, children, and grandchildren of those who passed through our home on their way to the American Dream. If that ain't hustle, nothing is.
I don't speak Arabic in part because my older sisters and my father always insisted that "We are ONLY AMERICAN," and in part because it was easier to go blank and glazed when relatives spoke Arabic to me. Easier to insist, "I'm just an American."
Except, unlike my sisters, I couldn't pass for one. Except my body, face, and hair were at best "exotic" and at worst were mocked by the rich white kids at school as belonging to a "sand nigger," "camel jockey," "gorilla," "Afro Queen," and "terrorist." I learned to take on the bullies by biting and scratching back--literally and figuratively. I fell, again and again, into self-loathing and depression. I read novels too advanced for my age and drew portraits of my favorite lilly-white British New Wave pop stars. I learned history, French, and German. I grappled other "freaks" and outsiders to my soul, badgered the shy immigrant kids into friendship. I traveled and taught.
Today, I seek ways to remind others of the need for compassion, for empathy, for vigilance...for each other and for our future.
It's definitely not a time to sit still, Friends.
It's definitely time to hustle.
Copyright 2017, Tanya Monier