Bittar is a California-based artist, educator, writer, and organizer for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. She lives in North Park.
Mothers carry ancient legacies to every generation. Within me is a hard-wired readiness to be the resourceful and fierce protector that my ancestors and my mother were.
Growing up in the United States, it is assumed that Arab women are weak, but I found few weak Arab women in my family, extended family, and other Arab-American families. Across religions, countries and generations, Arab women have showed great courage. Today, I share intergenerational family stories.
Mother’s Day in the Arab world is celebrated on March 21, the first day of spring. When my family immigrated to the United States, Mother’s Day in May seemed redundant. My mom didn’t know why breakfast in bed was special since my dad made breakfast in bed every day. She also wasn’t interested in being herded into a restaurant for brunch.
Unfortunately, she turned Mother’s Day into a day at work. Our dad was usually in the backyard of our East Coast home digging a hole for a tree or fixing a door. My mother took her five children to the basement to unpack the boxes for our latest move. We have moved a lot. My brothers had no idea, so often it was mother-daughter time. We turned to our favorite family photo box to unleash the stories of deckside photos. Each photo contained resonant lessons passed down from mothers and grandmothers. Some were sad, some funny, and many were meaningful. We looked at every facial expression and pose. My mother was a fiction writer in her spare time, but it was these raw, unrehearsed stories from her childhood that captured and fueled my imagination.
One story passed down was of great-grandmother Jamela, whose family lived in Kfarhouna,
a small village in southern Lebanon. The population of Kfarhouna was half Greek Catholic and half Shia Muslim. The two religious communities shared the water source and built their church and mosque nearby and hesitantly supported each other through the tumultuous decades to come. Our ancestral village was a pass and in a bowl surrounded by mountain ranges which prevented bombers from aiming it accurately because the plane could crash into the side of a mountain. Therefore, by default, it became a no-war zone frequently used by armies and refugees.
During World War I and overlapping with the Armenian Genocide, the Ottomans brutally seized Arab lands and banned all agricultural activity during their military occupation. Cultivating and harvesting agricultural land was punishable by death. It doesn’t matter what your religion or ethnicity is. People were starving and children were turning into skeletons, especially in urban areas.
It was a period of transition between the European colonial empires and the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Great-grandmother Jamela defied the Ottomans and tended a small hidden garden adjacent to her house and hidden from the street. There she grew food for her family and neighbors. Many refugees and visiting armies asked my great-grandmother if they could drink the water that the bags of lebni (yogurt cheese) were dripping into. The bags were not concealed and looked like white linen bleaching in the sun. This water was a form of food and quenched thirst and hunger. In its sheltered garden, a staircase from street level, she grew okra, onions, lentils, mint, tomatoes, sumac, zaatar and a small lemon tree. Another neighbor had a few goats which provided milk and yoghurt. The villagers traded among themselves at nightfall. Abundant wild sumac, a roasted lemon-flavored spice, was the substitute for salt. Within this small circular village, which it took 15 minutes to cover from end to end, they survived. Beirut was heavily fortified and had fewer resources, and that’s where the starving children were.
These women wielded authority and recognition and challenged gender roles while caring for their families with deliciously healthy food, home remedies like fixing a tilted uterus, and brilliant cleaning tips to remove rust. and ink marks. Also, they raised us to be kind of philosophers. We have learned to weigh arguments and to be shrewd, patient and calculating negotiators.
Once, when I was about 9 years old in rural New Jersey, these stories inspired me to grow lentils in our garden. I had a huge harvest one summer. Now I’m a mother bear defending my family and my community from the predators of ignorance and hate. In my nuclear family, when they need a defiant talker, I’m the one they call on. I can’t help but think that I stand on the shoulders of my mother, my grandmothers and my great-grandmother Jamela.