Ani mi Levanon

Smiling through Hebrew class


A chocolate bar is just a chocolate bar?

Like so many Lebanese of my generation, I am more comfortable in a foreign language. Arabic is, unfortunately, greatly undervalued in Lebanon. Most families of means send their children to Western educational institutions where they learn to speak, read, think and sing in a foreign tongue. Arabic gets relegated to the corners of curricula and heard only in its colloquial form in the home and on the street. As a result, these children emerge highly educated by Western standards but essentially illiterate in their mother tongue.

Disadvantaged by this linguistic handicap, I was faced with a dilemma when I learned that I was required, as a Master’s candidate in Near Eastern Studies at New York University, to study a Middle Eastern language. I hadn’t studied Modern Standard Arabic since the eighth grade, so I would have had to start from scratch at the elementary level, learning words like ‘apple’ and ‘dog’ and suffering through the awful sound of Americans trying to pronounce the guttural letters. I decided it would be more interesting and challenging to learn a foreign language. Urdu and Turkish didn’t appeal to me, so that left Farsi and Hebrew. It was morbid curiosity more than anything else that drew me to Hebrew, a language which had only ever signalled violence and war, occupation and oppression, to my Lebanese ears.

The glass wall

There was, expectedly, an invisible divide in every Hebrew class I took, between the Jewish majority and the small handful of random non-Jews. There was nothing hostile about it. It was a natural result of experiences had and not had, a glass wall built of Jewish neighbourhoods and Hebrew Sunday School, latkas and knish, Seders and Shabbat candle lightings. Those of us who had not grown up on the other side of the wall were invited, through our participation in such classes, to peer through its transparent torso at a new lifeworld.

My first semester I was joined by an Argentine learning Hebrew to please his Israeli girlfriend, and a Hispanic girl from Florida driven to embrace this difficult, guttural language because she found Israeli guys attractive. We shared raised eyebrows and awkward smiles when references to Yiddish culture, Jewish religious practices or the Torah were made, and together felt impotent when unable, like the other students, to participate in such discussions. But to their credit, most of my teachers made an effort to explain everything they referenced, and to include those of us that were relatively ignorant of Jewish history and practices in such conversations.

I knew when I signed up to take Hebrew that much like the history and culture of the Arab world is weaved into Arabic lessons, Judaism and the Jewish people would make a frequent appearance in Hebrew class. It wasn’t this glass wall that phased me, but the barbed wire that sat on top of it, visible, it seemed, only to me, made up of birthright, Israel pride parades, students for AIPAC and the like. In these classes, for the first time in my life, I was facing in the flesh a voice, a perception and an ideology that up until then had been boxed within television sets and newspapers. It had been contained and kept at a distance. I had felt it momentously of course, through cruel foreign policies and disastrous wars. There were plenty of suits I could identify with it, plenty of names to curse and pictures to spit at. But I had never seen it at the grassroots level before. I had never given much thought to how it had flowed through the interconnected streams of power networks into the minds and bodies of ordinary people, and I never would have imagined that this encounter would terrify me more than the sonic boom of a plane popping my country’s sovereignty, or a gun pointed at my borders.

The Zionists and me

Personified in the form of seemingly harmless freshmen was an ideology that demonised me, my grandmother and my neighbour, that kept friends of mine from ever knowing their homeland, that imprisoned my mother’s childhood within the tank-lined borders of an occupation, that bombed the apartment my aunt loved and the entire neighbourhood along with it, that displaced and humiliated so many, and that transformed a nation into a wretch. Sitting before me with their notebooks and schoolbags were the products of meticulous, successful processes of Zionist subject formation, and I had no idea how to react to them.

The first three words I learned in Hebrew were mi ayin at, or, where are you from. The professor used this question as an icebreaker. It was her way of getting to know the class, and it was an opportunity for us students to dip our tongues into the intimidating pool of a new language. On the surface, it was a simple question. She gave us the first half of the answer: I am from/ani mi. Ani, just like they say in the south of Lebanon. It was easy enough to remember. We just had to fill in our respective blanks. But after about ten ‘ani mi Long Islands,’ I got nervous. What was going to happen, I wondered anxiously, when I interrupted this clean braid of Long Islands, Brooklyns and Westchesters, with my random lock of Lebanon? Would they throw the proverbial tomato at me? Or worse, would I be left lingering, along with my unwelcome nationality, in the limbo of awkward silence? More importantly, was I going to take the timid route, afraid of being a lone soldier, and let the words fall limp out of my mouth, or was I, head held high and chest inflated, going to belt them out proudly?

The actual event was anti-climactic, given the marathon of nervous thoughts that preceded it. Ani mi Lebanon, I said, my eyes shooting back and forth across the room, trying to survey the reactions. Levanon, the professor replied, correcting me. I told her my name and, smiling, she excitedly asked if I was related to the Israeli author Anton Chammas. The Palestinian author, I thought. No relation. Chammas is Greek Orthodox, it later occurred to me. That, coupled with my deceptive first name, meant it was safe to assume the professor had taken me for a Christian. I always wondered if that assumption informed our relationship at all, if thinking I was Christian meant she found me less threatening or ‘foreign’ than she would have had she known I was technically Muslim. I never bothered to correct her, even though I pictured that conversation on numerous occasions.

An opportunity even presented itself in her office once, when she asked me how we distinguish between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon. I responded uncomfortably, explaining that one couldn’t really tell the difference unless a Muslim woman was wearing a headscarf, amazed that the question didn’t strike her as offensive. I left it at that. It was tempting, right then and there, to casually say, you know, I’m Shi’a. But then I imagined that conversation getting awkward: yes, Shi’a like Hezbollah. I’m writing my thesis on them, actually. Also, Zionism is the worst. 

All imaginary roads led to disaster. A battle with a middle-aged Hebrew teacher from Long Island just never seemed worth picking. It is easy to imagine oneself the hero in daydream scenarios, waving around a sword of words, cutting down every branch of Zionism in sight. But face to face with my Hebrew teacher, the ‘soft Zionist,’ as someone once labeled her, that sword seemed rather blunt and useless.

She never brought politics to the classroom, at least not intentionally. She often came armed with a bag full of Israeli chocolate. This was, for all intents and purposes, a benevolent, motherly act. To my fellow students, excitedly peeling back the wrappers, a chocolate was just a chocolate. But to me, this was no ordinary chocolate bar. It was a minuscule, caramel filled nugget produced in and economically benefiting an apartheid state. All I could do was set mine at the edge of my desk, unwrapped. We came from different worlds. In mine, nothing was apolitical, not even chocolate.

The professor never asked me about my politics, but she (rightly) assumed that I probably wasn’t going to be comfortable writing about how wonderful life was on an Israeli kibbutz in the 1960s. Whenever we came to an assignment of that sort in our propaganda-saturated textbook, she would suggest an alternative topic to me. Write about what it would be like vacationing in Rio de Janeiro, she would say, for example. I could never figure out what the appropriate reaction to such a situation was. Was I supposed to feel appreciative because she had spared me the pain and discomfort of writing about, what for me, was a politically charged topic? What if, under another professor (as I heard was the case for some students), I was required to complete this assignment, and I decided to lodge a formal complaint explaining that I wasn’t comfortable writing uncritically about a phenomenon I considered a symbol of occupation and settler-colonialism? Would I have been taken seriously?

A peer of mine studying under a staunchly patriotic Israeli professor composed an essay in flawless Hebrew critiquing the institution of the Kibbutz, and she was reprimanded for doing so. She had presented a ‘false’ portrayal of the Kibbutz, the professor argued. In a language class, my peer responded, she was supposed to be judged on the quality of her writing not on how well she conformed to Zionist propaganda. How was I supposed to respond, knowing that an Arabic teacher who, for example, showed her students a map of pre-Israel Palestine, would face the wrath of a thousand op-eds, while I was studying a Hebrew textbook that was more or less a badly disguised Israel-for-dummies manual?

“It was morbid curiosity more than anything else that drew me to Hebrew, a language which had only ever signalled violence and war, occupation and oppression, to my Lebanese ears.”

In Hebrew classes all over America, students were being served up a PG-13 version of Israel free of checkpoints and apartheid walls, settlements and blockades, and of course, Palestinians. It was as if one couldn’t learn Hebrew without learning about Israel, as if the language hadn’t preceded this precocious, adolescent state. I wouldn’t have found this so problematic if the image of Israel being constructed in these classes was at the very least, a nuanced one. Students were reading and writing about the aliyahs to Palestine, the history behind the Israeli flag, and the nightlife in Tel Aviv as if this was all light, fluffy, coffee-table conversation, while Al-Kitaab, the standard Arabic textbook, was being dissected by the hawks at Campus Watch who were determined to prove it an anti-Semitic and anti-western jihadist mouthpiece.

The blue and white elephant in the room

But in these classes, I wasn’t face to face with Mark Regev (the media spokesman for the Prime Minister of Israel). Rather, I found myself seated next to the likes of a squeaky voiced girl who almost exclusively wore overall dresses and constantly talked about the joys of her birthright trip. She turned to me once and asked if I had been to Israel. I can’t go to Israel, I responded, stating what I thought was the obvious. Why not, she asked. Because I’m Lebanese, I said to her blank expression. She didn’t understand. This wannabe national spokeswoman for birthright, who had been to Israel a thousand times and boasted a deep familiarity with the country, didn’t know that Lebanon and Israel were enemy states. A semester later I shared a classroom with a young Upper East Sider who had never heard the term ‘Occupied Territories’ before, and couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that Gaza and the West Bank didn’t belong to Israel.

In one of my smaller classes, set around a conference table, I sat across from two Syrian Jews, born and raised in Brooklyn. I was excited to finally meet Arab Jews, an ethnic group that had sadly been reduced to myth in my native Lebanon, their memory dying with our passing elders and their oral narratives, their presence reduced to wilting branches on Lebanese family trees that most preferred not to mention. One measly letter separated my last name from one of theirs. It was a sign, to me, of our shared Arab heritage, a testament to a time not so long ago when our ancestors lived peacefully side by side, and a dismal reminder that once we could have been kin and that now, in the modern, progressive, liberal future, this idea would be too intolerable for many to even imagine.

More tragic than anything else though, was that these two kids didn’t want to relate to me, but to the other Jews in the class. I was part of a past they had long severed themselves from. They were about as Arab as Netanyahu. On one occasion, our Professor asked the class to name some Jewish foods. One of the Syrian Jews said, lahm b ‘ajin.  Ears perked and eyebrow kicked up to the crown of my head, I looked at him quizzically and said, that’s not a Jewish food, it’s a regional Arab dish. The name meant meat in dough, I pointed out. It was an Arabic, not a Hebrew term. Maybe the Arabs have a variation of it, he retorted, pointing out that it was a popular dish in the Syrian-Jewish neighbourhood he grew up in in Brooklyn. Because it is a part of your Syrian heritage, I wanted to explain. They were so insecure, it seemed, about not having a part in the Yiddish past, so concerned about not being able to contribute to talk of latkas and matzah balls. It was as if it made them somehow less Jewish to also be Arab, as if you couldn’t be both of these things.

My feelings towards the state of Israel were defined by the Arab-Israeli conflict, by its ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people, by the constant threat it posed to the existence of my country whose landscape bears the scars of countless Israeli raids. But my professors and fellow students didn’t seem to perceive themselves, despite being self-proclaimed Zionists, as standing on one side of a conflict. They had learned to practice a kind of selective blindness, perceiving Israel through a tight lens that blocked out anything ‘uncomfortable,’ anything that would taint this farcical, constructed image of fun in the sun, falafel, and attractively tanned men and women. To be a Zionist for these people, it seemed, was essentially to love a fabricated, Disney version of Israel unconditionally. It is to practice a dangerous and profound form of ignorance.

To say all this is not to apologise for them, but to point out that what we refer to as ideology is not just an idea that one can adopt or discard. It’s not just something that sits casually on the surface of cognition and can easily be removed, shoved out of the way by convincing arguments and facts, video footage and statistics. What we often call ideology is actually an aggregate of sedimented habits, a cultivated way of being in the world that is the result of practices engaged with in the school, the home, the neighbourhood, of books read and television shows watched, stories told and heard, pilgrimages carried out, all of them performed repetitively over the years, all of them training the body to react to its environment in certain ways, to perceive violence in specific ways, to see this but not that, to hear this but not that.

Prodding the big white and blue elephant in the room I realised, wasn’t going to change anything on the fiery ground thousands of miles away, and it certainly wasn’t going to undo the ways of perceiving and reacting to the conflict that had sedimented in my peers and teachers’ bones over the decades. Sitting with them, engaging in the most ordinary conversations, I felt that I stood more of a chance of killing, or at least bruising, that elephant with kindness, with an assertion of my humanity rather than my politics. As the face of the invisible ‘other’ in the thick of that class, it was difficult for them not to see me. It made sense, more than anything else at the time, that I smile.


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