by Ayah Chahine

Nominated by Ariel Kaplowitz Hahn for English 125: Writing & Academic Inquiry

Instructor Introduction

Our first project of the semester, the literacy narrative, invites students to share their stories of themselves as literate people. They are encouraged to define literacy as not only the ability to read and write, but also the ability to communicate effectively in given situations. Ayah’s masterful literacy narrative deftly explores her development of multiple literacies. She describes being a reader of the Qur’an, a lover of literature, a speaker and learner of Arabic and English, and an explorer of cultures, both American and Lebanese. At its core, though, this piece orbits one central literacy: the speaker’s ability to communicate with her mother. This mother-daughter literacy is not just linguistic, though that’s thoughtfully explored too; it’s also philosophical, spiritual, political, and personal.

Ayah’s writing weaves reflection, self-study, family lore, and crystal-clear scenes from childhood and adolescence together to show how she has cultivated an ability to connect with her mother, and with her own identity, in a way that feels both meaningful and authentic. Her work doesn’t shy away from difficult questions of social identity, but instead invites in the contradictions and joys of being a full person in a complicated world. She approaches these themes with a gentleness, clarity, humility, and grace. Reading this essay was moving to me as a teacher, and also as a reader, writer, and mother. As I wrote to her after receiving this essay in Fall 2022, “I only wish it could be shared with a larger audience.” I’m so glad it now has that opportunity.

- Ariel Kaplowitz Hahn

Beyond Eden

I do not remember the first time the Qur'an appeared on my nightstand. The heavy book, inscribed with perfectly geometrical calligraphy, must have always been there. My mother, having been an Islamic Studies and Literature major, felt a great responsibility to instill a strong sense of culture and religion within me from a young age. We began with little nightly recitations of Genesis of the Hebrew Bible, which simultaneously opened my knowledge of any kind of literacy. Of course, the original language was far too complicated for me to understand, so I’d just take in a basic premise. With my mother’s lively storytelling, I’d imagine some great eruption between the Heavens, Universe, and Earth. Man and woman drunk on happiness loiter in the colorful, mystical garden, completely peaceful, surrounded by nature and love. I liked listening to that part. I liked to think about the dove flying back with an olive branch to Noah’s ark and the promise of the rainbow that came thereafter. But the actual substance of these stories - the serpent, the fall, the flood - were omitted in my reimagination. Any meaningful thought concerning evil was too much of a scary subject. Instead, in my innocence, I’d blush over the fact that Adam and Eve had not cared to see each other naked.

We continued to traverse through the major stories of The Holy Scriptures: the Scrolls, Psalms, Gospel, and Qur'an. After some years, my role shifted from listener to reader. I began to read simple children’s books filled with fanciful illustrations of these stories. Reading on my own encouraged my independence of thought, but with my limited understanding, I invented a distorted amalgamation of the Abrahamic faiths. I’d excitedly go through one great epic after another, at any time of day, as opposed to just a bedtime activity. In the morning I’d begin the first book of Samuels, where a young David anointed to the throne of Israel heroically vanquished the corrupted King Saul and slayed the giant Goliath. By sunset, I’d be running to my backyard, barefoot in my pink pajama dress to throw sticks and pebbles at my older brothers and yell “Goliath! Goliath!” In retaliation, they’d dig up some earthworms and start chasing me through the little patch of woods behind our house. Eventually, I’d always run back to my mother’s arms. Of course, no one dared to touch our mother, so they stood awkwardly with worms in their dirty hands as I stuck my tongue out. Playing into our rivalry, my mother would recite some prayer about warding off evil with one hand on my heart and the other on my head.

As much as I grew to love literature, I was failing English in school. This was largely because all of my reading and writing practices at home were done in Arabic and I had no interest in reading outside of religious texts. My mother had stressed the importance of learning Arabic at a young age, and so it became the main language of our household. I remember being called to my teacher’s desk in second grade to go over what should have been an uncomplicated assignment: a short journal entry on what we did over the weekend. She asked me if I noticed anything wrong with my writing, and despite the long, concentrated stare I took to my paper, I thought it was fine. I did not realize that I had written everything from right to left! The issue of applying distinctively Arabic grammar rules within my journey towards English literacy came to be a frequent occurrence. I’d say verbs before nouns. I’d forget to explicitly use connecting verbs. My teacher, understandably concerned, scheduled a parent-teacher meeting, and afterward it felt as though my entire world had suddenly turned to a foreign English. The stories that I had once loved to read were stored away in the basement as they got replaced on my bookshelf with popular American books. The exploration of religion in my household had died and through sidelining Arabic for so many years I lost most of my literacy in the language.

I was overcome with excitement, however, when my family announced a summer vacation in Lebanon in 2017. I knew that my parents' home country was very important to them, but I had never visited it before. I prepared for this trip to be a Renaissance of my early childhood. I believed that because I was now mature, I could balance bilingualism and revive my Arabic skills. Furthermore, I had taken pride in my country's significance to some Biblical references. Upon my readings as a child, I imagined a great landscape of mountains and cedar trees, fruitfulness and well livelihood, a kind of paradise like Eden. I would finally be connected to my community and family abroad. When I got there, though, I realized I was completely naive to its present state. The city had countless demolished buildings and an overflow of garbage, young children trying to survive off of selling roses, and terrorism and or threats of invasion at any given moment. Because the country was under extreme religious tension and political and economic instability, my family mostly stayed in our home isolated on a mountain far from the conflicts and people. I was unable to reconcile this amount of suffering with my poor, innocent understanding of religion and the world. As a result, I was entirely grateful upon my return to America, for I unconsciously took it to be the ‘civilized’ society.

I felt as though I had lost all of the defining aspects of my identity that my mother had worked so hard to emphasize. I lost my Arabic fluency, I was disconnected from the people and culture of Lebanon, and I could not extract any practical meaning from religion. At first, I’d feel nostalgia for my young self with any slight reference to the aforementioned, but eventually I was completely indifferent, rendering it all as a naturally childlike albeit meaningless kind of thinking. Truthfully speaking, I adopted an internalized racism against myself. For some years I proclaimed that I had evolved from ignorance and superstition to a wiser, secular philosophy, and thus began the many disagreements I had with my family about what I valued. When I felt a growing coldness between my mother and I’s relationship I had to ask myself: What went wrong? Was this just the inevitable consequence of being raised in a different environment? We still loved each other immensely, but the dynamic beyond the standard role of mother-daughter disintegrated. We were just too different, I thought.

I never knew my mother had gone to college until one day in tenth grade she mentioned her major, Islamic Studies and Literature, in Lebanon. I was surprised and immediately curious. When I asked why she did not complete her degree, she simply said, “the war.” At this point, I was aware of Lebanon’s reputation for instability, but this response felt far more cryptic. The war, I kept repeating to myself. With this information, I realized I knew an embarrassingly little amount of history of Lebanon and my mother’s life, though it did further contextualize my childhood. I could finally see why my mother was so passionate about guiding me with religion, because her dreams of becoming a theology teacher were taken from her. With just this little glimpse into my mother’s past, I uncovered a great deal of insight into my identity.

I wanted to understand my mother’s experience, which required an actual grasp of Lebanon’s history and the lingering consequences of perpetual colonization and imperialism. On my first visit to Lebanon, I only saw the destruction immediately before me and not the events of how that came to be, leading me to believe that it was a result of my ‘backwards’ religion, culture, and community. To actually formulate a timeline, though, entailed extensive research, mostly done through reading and sharing dialogue with the people who have undergone these experiences. I learned of the harsh occupation just some years prior to my visit, the government corruption systematically established postcolonialism, and the crossfires Lebanese people were burdened with from the surrounding areas. In my research, specifically in the book Orientalism by Edward Said, I deconstructed the western stereotypes of the Middle East as some desert filled with a singular, barbaric ideology. The actual definition of an Arab is far more complex. It is an ethnolinguistic term, within a region united through a common language and collective memory of our place and role in history. Our language is not a mere instrument of communication either, but instead an embodiment of a whole culture across time and space. My appreciation for my heritage grew in correspondence with every bit of history that I uncovered.

My attitude towards religion began to change too, and I became interested in rereading the stories that I had once ecstatically acted out as a child. This time, however, I sought to uncover the underlying message of what each tale brought to life as opposed to my own erroneously blissful interpretations. To begin to understand this overwhelmingly complicated world, I could no longer shy away from uncomfortable topics and live within a fantasy. In doing so, I found myself immersed within the universal, poetic language that investigates the purpose, morality, and functionality of human existence. I’ve also opened myself to reading a variety of genres, through which my interest in classics and romance flourished. These readings raised questions apart from, or even against, the dogma of religion, expanding my perspective beyond an archetypal model of the world. Through adopting the themes of my readings as personal virtues to strive for, I utilized literature to define the ethics that I live by.

I did not intentionally mean to rediscover the beauty and power in literature when I set out to rekindle a close relationship with my mother, but in retrospect, this outcome makes perfect sense. The components of my identity - language, culture, religion - are so intrinsically connected as an extension of the way I was raised and where I am from. My identity does not just define ‘what’ I am either, but also how I view and interact with the world around me. Reading and bilingualism were my main tools of understanding why these components were important and related.

If I had not read through my history and religion, nor relearned Arabic, I do not think I would be able to have the conversations that I have today with my mother. We often sit together on our porch, chewing on flax seeds and sipping tea, as she recalls the many stories of her childhood in Lebanon. I listen carefully to all of her words, and I try to imagine the scenes before me. She lived on the outskirts of a southern village in a small, orange clay home during the time of occupation. The church bells and the mosque’s call for prayers were forcibly shut off. She had her own kind of rebellious phase, too. She’d sneak out as a teenager with her friends to throw eggs at the tanks that paraded through her village, as much as that was a dangerous endeavor. Her school enforced learning French over Arabic. However, these foreign soldiers tried to admonish the spirit of her community in vain. At night the village would whisper about a revolution brewing, in Arabic. Above all, my mother emphasized the countryside's natural beauty. Fig, olive, almond trees, and wheat fields across mountainous terrains beneath the colorful enduring sunlight and star-filled night skies. God willing, I’d like to walk along these trails and pick fruits with her the next time we visit Lebanon.