I sprinkle yeast over the surface of warm water and watch it begin to foam, a tiny pond of living things. Then I dip a measuring cup into the flour canister, its fine dust creating a cloud in the air even though I try to hold my breath as I tip it into the mixing bowl. Flour hangs in the sunlight coming through the kitchen window and I add the olive oil, creating golden gullies through the fine powder. Finally, the water and yeast join in, settling the dust and turning the landscape in my bowl soft. I slip off my wedding ring and sink my hands in.
I am Arab-American. From my dad’s side of the family, I’ve inherited an immigrant work ethic, a (sometimes unhealthy) drive to avoid shame or embarrassment, and a love for thick, tangy yogurt. When my sisters and I visited my grandmother on Saturday afternoons she would pull a cut glass bowl of the yogurt out of the refrigerator for us before settling back down into her corner of the sofa with her crossword puzzles.
Her father, my great-grandfather, was an immigrant from Lebanon. At only twelve years old he left the red roofs of Douma, a small mountain village in what was then part of the Syrian Arab Republic, and found his way to Cherbourg, France. On October 3, 1908, the S.S. St. Louis set sail for New York City. According to the ship’s “manifest of alien passengers,” he arrived with less than ten dollars in his pocket and could neither read nor write.
He made his fortune in America, as many Arab immigrants have, as a salesman, first traveling by horse and buggy to sell reliable, made-in-America Levi’s denim to the farmers of rural Southern California, and eventually building one of the largest department stores in the Western United States. Ever the strategic entrepreneur, the store was situated just across the street from a bustling U.S.–Mexico pedestrian border.
I never met my great-grandfather, but each December we honor his hard work and our own immigrant heritage at the county museum’s “Christmas Around the World” event. Families with immigrant legacies and those who are just making their start in our community assemble to share their favorite foods with the museum’s visitors. My grandmother, father, sisters, and I would make giant tubs of homemade hummus, filling my grandma’s kitchen with the scent of sharp garlic and earthy tahini. Then we’d break open jars of pickled okra, and slice pita to serve it with. Years ago, hummus was a novelty; these days everyone knows what it is. But our family recipe is delicious, so we keep sharing it.
I lean my body weight into the dough, the heels of my hands crisscrossing in front of me in a steady rhythm. Press and turn, right and then left, over and over. My grandmother’s Kitchenaid mixer has seen more than three decades of dough come together and now bears witness in my kitchen as I work away. It sits on top of my refrigerator ready to lend the rhythmic kneading of metallic hands, but sometimes it just feels right to let my own touch decide when the dough is smooth enough. I tuck the edges beneath the glossy dome, return it to the mixing bowl with more olive oil, and cover it with a kitchen towel. I’ll know it’s ready when the towel gives away the shape of the bubbling dough beneath it.
I am Arab-American. From my mom’s side of the family, I learned how to shoot a Smith & Wesson 357, use “catawampus” in a sentence, and question the work ethic of anyone on food stamps. My grandparents grew up in Louisiana but relocated to Southern California when my mom was just eight years old. All I have to tie me to the Deep South is a handful of place names, the traditions of eating red beans and rice with sausage on Christmas Eve and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Eve, and a smattering of stories. And those stories scare me.
Like hearing one of my relatives express their opinion that citizenship in the U.S. ought to be based on “heritage,” by which they pretty clearly meant race. Or knowing that when my mom was in elementary school her parents drove her to a classmate’s birthday party only to refuse to let her get out of the car because they saw that a Black child had been invited as well. I recently looked up the last Louisiana town my grandparents lived in before moving west and found that they only elected their first Black mayor last year.
Some of these story fragments position white bodies and values as solidly superior to all else, setting my own body at odds with itself. Is it possible, I’ve wondered, that someone in my white family tree was a spectator at, or even participated in the lynching of a Black American? I want to know, and yet I’m terrified to find out. Perhaps I’ll never know. Some stories stay buried by design.
As the dough rises, I start on the filling that will be hidden inside. The onions sting my eyes as I dice them small, but it’s worth the sweet smell as they caramelize in the pan with garlic and ground beef (lamb is traditional but expensive). When the beef is no longer pink, I add salt, handfuls of chopped parsley, and Lebanon’s unusual secret ingredient—allspice. I transfer the mixture to a plate and slide it into the refrigerator to cool as the aromas linger in the kitchen.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Lynching In America project, white Americans lynched 549 people of color in Louisiana between 1877 and 1950. In 1929 a Lebanese immigrant named N’oula Romey was lynched in Florida. The oppressed and oppressor, the victim and the perpetrator. In the plainest of terms, the lynched and lyncher are combined in the twisted double helix of my DNA.
These narratives careen and collide with each other in my own body. Neither story feels safe in the presence of the other. When I tell one, the other protests; when I embrace one, the other spars for space. I would much rather identify with the oppressed who fights for justice, the victim who overcomes against the odds. I want to arrange these fragments within a feel-good frame. The oppressor who is humbled, the perpetrator who laments and repents doesn’t paint nearly as glamorous a portrait.
I recognize my privilege. I can pass for white if I don’t mention foods with strange names or call my son habibi (Arabic for “beloved” or “my love”) or wear my eyeliner too thick. But I keep coming back to these stories. While members of one branch of my family tree may have been aware of or even participating in racial terror lynchings, relatives from another branch were living with its threat. While one side of my family was comfortable in their whiteness, the other side was fighting for inclusion. On some days the result of these warring stories is a deep feeling of homelessness.
I flour my rolling pin, suspending even more dust in the shaft of sunlight streaming through the kitchen window. The dough gives way beneath the wooden cylinder, morphing from three dimensions into two. I press the rim of a clean glass into the sheet of dough. A spoonful of fragrant filling goes in the center of each round and I begin transforming the circles into triangles, three sides making a tent above the meat which I firmly pinch together. One after another I fill and fold until the filling disappears and I’m left with parcels that hold a delicious secret. The oven lets out a high-pitched tone to tell me it has reached 450ºF, so I slip the tray inside.
I set the questions I’ve been keeping my distance from loose in my mind: What if the worst possible thing about my white family were true? What if some of my ancestors did participate in a racially motivated murder? What if my great-grandparents or great-uncles or distant cousins from Louisiana would have hated my Lebanese forebears simply for their tanned skin, generous noses, and musical language?
Trauma travels through generations. Values flow through the veins of our ancestors. The fears of our forebears show up around our dinner tables, and their hopes do, too.
The stories of my mom’s heritage, the heritage passed on to me, haven’t survived to either confirm my fears or prove them wrong. I’ve only been left with fragments to navigate their legacy. And I know I can’t make excuses for generational sins simply because I don’t have skin for the skeletons in my family’s closets. “[God] does not excuse the guilty. He lays the sins of the parents upon their children—even children in the third and fourth generations,” Numbers 14:18 says. So I confess and repent of the sins that have traveled through my own generations. The knowns and the unknowns of my personal history are housed side by side in my body, but I don’t have to fear them. In fact, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, my own body can be part of reconciling them.
It’s been almost fifteen minutes and my nose tells me the fatayer must be nearly ready. I peek through the oven window and see the puffed packages just browning, the seams on top of each the color of fallen leaves. My folding was successful; only one or two have glistening juices escaping from their corners. I don’t let them cool for nearly long enough before I pile a few onto a plate with a spoonful of thick, tangy yogurt for dipping. I take a bite and let the allspice tickle the back of my tongue, and I whisper gratitude for the resilience of generations.
Maybe next week I’ll try making some red beans and rice with sausage.
Cover image by Milo Weiler.