Exile and Alienation: A Father’s Letters To His Son
These letters are in fact a personal account of my feelings as a father, an immigrant, and a poet, towards my son. They are an emotional register of the dilemma of alienation, exile and loneliness that faces every immigrant, Lebanese or not, who, for various circumstances, leaves his or her country and emigrates abroad. I happen to be a Lebanese man who traveled to America during the Lebanese war to continue my education and make a future for me, my parents and my siblings. Like many cultures, being the eldest son in a Lebanese family carries a huge responsibility that falls on your shoulders and becomes your cause.
America, as it was known, was “the land of endless opportunities, the generous and welcoming land, where money grows on trees,” and “attaining the American Dream was only a measure of your determination, perseverance and hard work.” Indeed, this is the land where endless possibilities abound and the reality of forging a better life has, and still does, lure people from around the world. In fact, may God bless America.
It was not an easy task to write these letters to my son and to put my innermost feelings out there in the open. But as a poet, it is my mission to share because poetry is the art of the unusual encounter with the inevitable and the holy, and the poet’s mission is to always take the road rarely traveled and to return and inform fellow beings.
The complexity of emotions displayed in these letters is further heightened as the text becomes a living document and evolves into a persona by itself and onto itself. The words, charged with meaning and burdened with symbolism, oscillate between two languages that individually struggle to claim the message, each for itself, and to embody the meaning, which although universal, is yet very personal. In many instances, the meaning is loaded with implications particular to its own culture and telling of its peculiarities and symbols, for language is an expression of culture. The text assumes a higher intensity and urgency when the private is projected onto a national and patriotic level and when the intended symbol is yet elevated to transcend the limitations of expressing the anguish, not only of the individual, but of the many, and becomes imbued with the mythical, the historical and the sacred.
Language is an amazing tool, and words are the body that crystallizes the ethereality of emotion in its material form through ink and paper. Although words attempt to move in a parallel and fluid motion, carrying meanings across languages, nevertheless, words remain locked into their own culture by virtue of their symbols. For this reason, translation of poetry between two different languages, from the mother tongue to a foreign tongue, and with two diverse alphabets, poses at times insurmountable challenges.
A perfect example is the name “Nicolas” in English versus “نقولا” in Arabic. When each letter of the name in Arabic is used as a symbol, the two languages collide, and each retains its individual identity associated with its own culture and symbolism. For the readers familiar with Arabic, the passage below illustrates the difficulty in translating the name. Since the sentences intimately relate to each letter in Arabic in the spelling of the name, “Nicolas,” the text is impossible to translate into English and still retain its original meaning. In Arabic, every letter becomes a symbol that recalls a word or a source that begins with the same letter from the historical, the mythical and the sacred. In English, there is no such equivalent.
“N I C O L A S” – “ن ق و ل ا” ”
نونك من نور الله, من نجمة الصبح, ونسمة الحقل ونغمة الغسق. قافك من قربان الآلهة, من قرآن محمد وقوافل العائدين. واوك من ومضة سيف إيليا, وعلي والاسكندر وطارق وفخر الدين. لامك من لبنان سنا ً, من لهفتي ولهيب شوقي وليلة القدر. ألفك من إنجيل المسيح وانشودة الأناشيد واساطير الغابرين.
When I wrote the first letter published here, my son was three years old. Hence, the feelings, emotions and thoughts are, in fact, a portrayal of my own struggle, frustration and fight. He had nothing to do with my strife and definitely did not experience any of this suffering and loneliness. This is my acknowledgement that I have projected my own fears on him while he remains innocent of this burden. This was my epic to survive, my cross to carry and my battle to endure. These letters are a private record, a personal portrayal of my inner struggle. I put it out there in hopes that it may mirror the experience of many other immigrants and highlight their attachment to their first born in a foreign country with the feeling of joy mixed with guilt of trying to raise a child without the support of family while desperately trying to provide a connection with the customs, traditions and culture from which the immigrant descended.
I am aware of the highly sentimental emotions displayed in these letters, but these are honest and true feelings without any exaggeration. I can say that while writing these letters, they actually wrote themselves. I did not have to embellish, polish or change many of the original words that jumped from my heart to the paper. It is my hope that other Lebanese, Arab and many foreign families read their own reflection in these letters.
In the name of God, I preface my first letter to you, my son. You are the stream of tenderness that flows in my heart and fills my cup. You are my provisions for the coming years and the lantern of my future. You are the most precious possession that I have in this world. You were gifted to me at my most blessed moment of contentment and peace. That day, you were formed in my conscience, a graceful thought, and in your mother’s womb, a clot of blood. That day, I was very conscious of what I was doing. To your mother, I said: “Come, my love, let us create a son, and his name shall be Nicolas.” I knew that the newcomer will be you. An inner feeling and a sense of the mystical awakened inside of me an unmistakable realization of your arrival, my joy, my boy, whose playground is the wide world while you remain ever present with me and within me.
Your wide open eyes are two lakes of emeralds. You are not of flesh and blood. You are the essence of love, the expanse of light, a river of warmth and the glimmer of hope. Let time stand behind us because we existed before time. As for me, you are my whole existence. Your smile permeates the world with joy. Your little hands are the perfumed lilies of the fields and your face the shining sun of light and truth. As you embrace me, time stops, and within me, the glory of the Lord shines bright. I declare to you our eternal relationship: You, me and your mother. Let all others who have populated my books come out. They are naught but a mob of “unnecessary duplicates.” You are not alone. I am with you forever. I give you more soul from mine, more love from my love and more heart from my heart. Your presence overfills my existence and leaves no space for any other. You, alone, are my preoccupation, and at your feet, time stops. You are ever-present in my memory. You are my fruit, my roots and my future. You are my glorious history.
You, who are perpetually preoccupied with yourself, eternally preoccupy me, intentionally or unintentionally. Your childhood is the boundary of my imagination, the myth of eternal return and the enchanted forest of beauty and mystery. Your childhood is the manna, the elixir and the ambrosia of the gods, the mist of the River Jordan and the wisdom of Genesis. You are my rock, and on this rock, I shall build my future. Let destiny witness my love and endurance.
The day that I decided to write to you, my love, I simply wanted to record my stories that I relayed to you during our intimate moments together. I wanted you to know who you are and where you came from. An urgent desire compelled me to bring you into my private world so you can, consciously and willingly, relate to my history and my background. I was actually attempting to uproot you from a lonely, foreign present, and plant you in a past filled with family, relatives and friends. Perhaps my desperate attempt was in reality my personal escape from my own exile, so I could sail in my memory to my own roots, my beginnings, the warm womb of my motherland, and my home country. Inadvertently, I have bestowed on you my own fears and loneliness. I have burdened you with my own yearning even though I wanted to protect you from the barrenness of my own exile and longing.
Actually, who claimed that you are a stranger in America? You were born here. You live your childhood here. This is your world, your continent and your life. What have you to do with Lebanon, with Mansourieh and even with the Arabic Language? Yours is my present, and here, now, is my present, and perhaps, my future. What is wrong with me that I continue to pull you back to a past that is dead and to long gone memories? To a Lebanon that has already expired and to Beirut, a damaged city in whose heart the song of love and compassion has long died. But be patient, my child. I still fear for you to grow up here in a land where you have no past, no deep roots and no history.
Both your grandparents are back there and their roots are deeply entrenched in that land. As for your father, he is tormented and beaten daily by his painful longing for his suffering country. You are mine, created after my own image, and I wanted you to go back with me. As for your mother, she was a lone flower and I plucked her, and we departed on our blessed journey together. My tragedy is that I wanted you to live my own childhood because it was beautiful, peaceful and safe, filled with family and neighbors, and on the expanse of its boundaries, there grew flowers of love and trees of friendship, and the birds of contentment sang their most beautiful hymns.
Have I been daydreaming, my little one? How dare I compare the Lebanon of today with that of yesterday? And to which Lebanon do we return? My Lebanon has been erased and theirs, as it is today, is not worthy to even wear the shoes of my Lebanon. Please forgive me. Your present in this diaspora is much better than their present in their tormented country.
We, poets, are like the birds of the sky. Our universe is endless. We are global beings capable of acclimating wherever we live. So, why do we need a Lebanon? My country is my paper, my inkpot and my plume, and the whole world is my extended family. So, why do I dwell on lamenting my Lebanon?
This new land was, and still is, generous. It hosted me the day I left my country. It offered me an education, a job, money and a home. It offered me an address, a citizenship, and my wife, the love of my life. It offered me a future when Lebanon refused to give me even a present and when Lebanon told me that all that was sacred and beautiful on its land was naught but lies and dark ashes. Blessed be this new found land that gave me your precious life and your angelic face. You were born an American citizen. This is your identity, and here is your address and country. You shall grow up and be raised according to the laws and norms of this great country. You shall not be a stranger and an immigrant like me. You shall not suffer from a schizophrenic personality like me. You shall not worship two gods like me. You shall not suffer a marginal existence like me. You and your mother are immune to such feelings and nightmares. This is my cross that I alone shall bare. Why would I carry you to my country? Why would I uproot you and carry you away from the truth of your birth, from the realities of your childhood and plant you in an evil world that even I refuse to belong to now?
Forgive me, my little one. Let destiny chart a path for us, and we will surely walk that path, and in God will be our faith and trust.
From my book: The Return of the Hero and the Resurrection of the City, originally written in Arabic and translated by George N. El-Hage and edited by MaryAnn Del Vecchio, Ph.D.