Monday, September 5, 2011

Lebanese Stories.

Having grown up in a huge Lebanese family, I have many memories of summer nights filled with family get togethers. 

I realize huge is a relative term, so by huge I mean 23 aunts and uncles and 41 cousins. Can you picture it? Huge, right?

As a kid, I remember trying to navigate my way through living rooms and backyards full of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Nights filled with swimming, sipping Arabic coffee, and sharing lots of stories. 

Ever since I can remember, I've loved the art of storytelling. 

Despite the language barrier, I would try to 'read the room' to tell whether someone was telling a good story or a great story. 

I noticed that the good ones had people laughing, scoffing, or quipping back and forth to each other. The great ones had people jumping out of their chairs, mostly out of disbelief or disagreement. I love how animated both Lebanese storytellers and listeners are. 

When I was 10, I got my first taste of great storytelling. Well, sort of. One summer night, I came downstairs to a living room full of caffeinated relatives chatting away in Arabic. 

A story was being told about two people: a Lebanese man and a Syrian woman. It was implied that they were not friends, but enemies. Looking back, this was more of a joke than a story, but this premise is what made the joke a good one. 

In my attempt to be included I asked a question, looking for clues to help me understand what was so funny. 

I asked if they were married. 

The room broke out into laughter. Apparently, this idea was preposterous. To this day, I don't know what the joke was about or how my question changed the meaning in such a way. What I do know was on that day, my contribution caused a room full of family to laugh. At? With? I didn't care.

It runs in my family.
My mom was a showgirl. 
My brother's an actor. 

And my dad... well, my dad's a storyteller. 

This is probably because, most of the time, he comes across as extremely stoic (though I think he's a teddy bear), but the bar's been set so low that when he busts out with a cheesy story or a funny joke, you are so surprised, you find it funnier that it probably really is. 

Growing up around my huge family, I picked up some Arabic terms. The essentials. Usually not gramatically correct, but enough to get by. 

How are you? (male) "Key Fak?" 
Can I drink water? "Fene ishrub mai?"
Where's the bathroom? "Wen hamem?"
"Akhol charmout" ...I really don't know the literal translation (don't want to know), but I know we heard it a lot when my dad was really mad, usually at other drivers.

My dad had this really funny way of cussing. He's gotten a lot better at it now. 

It's like every cuss word in his Arabic and English vocabulary would be strung together to make a new supersonic expletive, as if its length would express the magnitude of his anger. 

As a thirteen year old, it was hard not to crack a smile while being cussed at by an upset Arabic person. I especially found it near impossible when it didn't make grammatical sense. 

Smiling or laughing only led to more cussing and maybe the occasional taking off of one's slipper and waving it in your face. That was really bad.

I have the most memories of my Aunt Renee doing this. I love my Aunt Renee. Before her stroke, she was a spitfire. She said what was on her mind. And boy, did she have presence. She wasn't my mom, but with one look she'd have me falling in line. 

Whenever we were hanging out at Aunt Renee's house, she'd make us lady cousins sit on her couch with our ankles crossed, because "that's how ladies sit", she'd explain to us in Arabic.

So, there we sat, with our bangs teased out a mile high and our eyeliner so thick you'd think we'd been punched, but you know that our ankles were crossed, because we were ladies and we were not about to cross Aunt Renee. 

This summer, while I was home visiting my family, my brother found some old VHS video's from the 80's. Home movies, mostly of these summer family get togethers. 
Watching the home movies made me feel like Clark Griswold, stuck in the attic, in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Remember the scene?

Pure nostalgia.  

We were all so young back then. Clearly velour was in fashion, as well. I instantly teared up when I saw my cousin, Gilbert, on film attempting to jump in the pool with nervous excitement. He must have been around 6 or 7 in the video. Gilbert lived down the street from our family and was like a brother. He passed away in 1998 his senior year of high school. One of many tough times our families would experience that would force us out of our youth.

When I think of my huge Lebanese family, I'm reminded of a time when summer evenings felt like ours to own. 

A time of living life to the fullest. And by fullest, I mean swimming every night, sneaking into a garage freezer full of Nestle Crunch Ice Cream Bars, packing out the living room every summer to cheer on Miss Lebanon, who in 1971 actually won the Miss Universe Pageant. It was our World Cup. Strange, I know.

It was a time when family would fill living rooms; the smell of Arabic espresso would fill the evening. And where stories would be heard and told. 


Noemi said...

I love it, I want to read more! Maybe you should write a movie script and have your brother star in it and do like an indie comedy? : ) Great stories, Ly.

Teri said...

What a family. What a heritage. What good memories you have and a good way of letting us share them. I can just picture the crowded rooms of family. My emotions must have been already twisting because when you cited that Clark Griswold moment, I totally know it, and I teared up! At Clark Griswold!!! Love your writing. You obviously have some of that family talent.

Anonymous said...

Makes me want to see your family again! I love them! You are such a great story teller Layla! Thanks for sharing.

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