a chance encounter in the diaspora

What does it mean to accidentally meet someone who you might share roots with? Tonight, curled up in bed with a cup of tea, I grapple with this question. I think I might have met a distant cousin this week in Amman. We are just a year apart. We share the same last name. Both of our grandparents are from Baalbek, a southern town in Lebanon with an ancient history. According to her, we share the big, sleepy eyes that characterize kin of the Haidar family.

Let me take you back to how we met: Friday marked the closing for an exhibition of the 100 best Arabic posters of the year. I heard they were beautiful, so I went with a group of friends to see them. I strolled around the room, staring closely at the bold images and striking Arabic fonts contained within the posters.

I remarked to one of my friends that I couldn’t understand the meaning or context for some of the posters. He mentioned that one of the designers was standing by her poster, and perhaps I could ask her to tell me about it. I looked over, and she appeared to be around my age. It might be nice to talk to someone outside my little expat group, I thought to myself. Why not?

I introduced myself in Arabic, and told her I was from America, but of Lebanese heritage. She excitedly responded in perfect English that she is from Lebanon, and she came to Amman just for the poster exhibition. I explained that I have never been to Lebanon, that my parents are actually from America and Venezuela despite their Lebanese heritage. You have to go one day, she told me. Inshallah.

I brought the conversation back to the posters. Her eyes lit up at the opportunity to tell me about her work. She had designed her poster to promote a group of speakers for a campus event. They were all Arab, but they had connections to other countries where English was spoken. Their names were drawn in English and Arabic, mirroring each other. She wanted to reflect their dual identities.

She earnestly asked about my work, and I told her about my research and background in social work. As our conversation came to a close, we decided to exchange contact information. “Just in case you ever need a graphic designer to bring awareness to your work,” she exclaims. “Or in case you ever visit Lebanon.”

As she writes down her email address, I notice that her last name begins with an “H.” My heart skips a beat and she keeps going… “A-I-D-A-R.” I let out an incredulous chuckle. “There is no way your last name is Haidar. Mine is, too!” We both doubled over in laughter.

“Haidar from Baalbek?”

“Yes, from Baalbek.”

“Maybe we are cousins!”

It is a strange world that we live in. Diaspora makes the world smaller and larger all at once.

We hugged and said our goodbyes. On the taxi ride home, I regretted not asking her more, and not even thinking to get a picture together. Of course my parents would like to see my resemblance to her! And there was still so much to talk about. So, I risked sounding a little desperate to make a new friend, and emailed her asking if she would like to get together before heading back to Lebanon. She happily agreed.

Today we met over lunch and had a wonderful time together. We both decided we were sick of Levantine food for the day. One can only have so much foul, falafel, and shawerma. We ordered quinoa salads and sipped fresh squeezed orange juice and chatted and looked out onto Amman’s hilly horizon.

I learned more about her family, and she learned about mine. She told me about Beirut, and I told her about Detroit.

The first thing she asked me was why I have never been to Lebanon. This is always a difficult question for me to answer. Is there a good reason why not? My father has never been there. Growing up in Dearborn was Lebanon enough for him. My mother always took us to visit Venezuela growing up, since most of her Lebanese family had moved to Caracas by the early fifties. My stepmom left Lebanon after the civil war and never really had the chance to look back. And there are so many other little stories, every relative of mine having a different quality of connection to Lebanon and the Lebanese-America of southeast Michigan.

Why have I never been to Lebanon? Sometimes because diaspora has been enough, often times because it feels like the only option.

My maybe-cousin, she understands. I don’t have to explain too much. We talk about our pasts and future ambitions. We recount our weekend experiences in Jordan, hers at Petra and mine at the Dead Sea. We talk about little things: Cities in America. The creative impulse, and her transition from 2D to 3D design. The novel that is not yet in my head, but I know I will write some day. Her uncle’s library filled with books, and how I would probably get along with him.

Are we actually related? Haidar is a big family in Lebanon. The better question at this point: Does it matter? I made a new friend, and she feels like family. It was a serendipitous meeting, a chance encounter. But I won’t wait for luck to make our paths cross again. Family stays together.

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[Originally published on Andrea in Amman blog, September 2016]

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