State of Belonging
by Rebecca Dimyan
Photo by Rebecca Dimyan
I did not know I was lost until I came upon an old man on a dirt road. I was deep in the mountains of Lebanon, in a village called Aarbaniyee. The man had skin of weathered ivory, like the houses that surrounded us. Roofs in shades of burning orange stood out against the dark bodies of cedar trees. The man was standing on the side of the road beneath a lemon tree, tracing long, bony fingers along the brightly colored fruit. Joseph, my translator and driver, asked the man if there were any Rizkallahs left in the village. Before replying, the old man turned and looked into me. He neither blinked nor smiled. He motioned with his hand. Follow me.
This memory assumed the shape of a March afternoon in Lebanon 2012. Joseph and I walked with the old man to the back of a pale stone house off the road. An open terrace overlooked a sun that danced gilt-faced over the immutable blue of the Mediterranean Sea. White buildings collected in the valley below like grains of sand. Cedar trees, tall and twisted, beckoned to the sky in outstretched limbs and half-shadows. Freshly laundered clothes hung from a clothes-line and wind rippled them softly. A woman came from the inside of the house with a steaming cup of black Turkish coffee which she handed to me with a tearful smile. The words that followed exuded emotion of some kind but I did not understand Arabic and I did not understand why she seemed so moved by me, a twenty-something American woman, a stranger.
The man disappeared inside the house but returned quickly with words for Joseph, words which I noted had a distinctly excited flavor. As I sipped the thick, potent brew, I heard the sound of an approaching car. The old man again gestured to me that I should follow. The woman I presumed to be his wife took my cup, nodded, and smiled, an act which multiplied the lines imbedded in the landscape of her face.
A man in his fifties with a stature and demeanor similar to my father’s, pulled up in a silver BMW, a car which did not seem to fit among the fruit trees and mountain roads. Jano Rizkallah got out of the car and embraced me with tears in his eyes. But these were not the tears of a stranger; they were the tender, unashamed kind of tears that belong to fathers. “Welcome home, habibi.”
This man was a distant cousin of my father’s. Before leaving for Lebanon, Dad told me he was certain most of our cousins who lived in Aarbaniyee had moved to America or France or had been killed in the battles between the Muslims and Christians that comprised a twenty-year civil war, a war that, while it had ended in the early 1990s, was still present in building carcasses and a tapestry of bullet holes which decorated parts of Beirut.
A few weeks before I bought a plane ticket and flew solo halfway across the world, I met with my father one evening for dinner and drinks. I walked into a dimly lit restaurant and found him perched at the corner of an empty bar. It was early still, maybe five o’clock, but Dad balanced a half empty glass of whisky in his hand, certainly not his first as indicated by bloodshot eyes and a relaxed smile.
“My child!” he exclaimed too loudly as I took the empty seat beside him.
“Hey, Dad.” His complexion was ruddy, and he was in need of a shave. My stomach twisted with concern.
The purpose of this meeting was to discuss my impending trip to Lebanon, his family’s country. Our country. But I did not feel as though I could rightfully claim it as mine. How could I? I grew up eating dishes like baked kibbi and hummus, exposed to the traditions of Sunday dinners with the entire extended family, and had even attended occasional Maronite Catholic services. But as years became memories so did the Sunday ritual and the constant contact with Dad’s family. There was never a reason why exactly, life just happened and we got busy. Dad got busy.
The minutes passed like sips of whisky. Dad’s glass was refilled, and I joined him with a house Chardonnay.
“Bec, you’ll find the answers in Aarbaniyee.” His portentous words were punctuated by choked back tears. I didn’t know what he meant by “the answers.” Was he referring to an explanation of why he made the mistakes he made in his marriage or maybe his professional impropriety? Or was he referencing me and my professional path, my literary journey? The only certainty I left with that night was that the drunk man sitting at the corner of the bar was broken, the pieces of his soul reflected in the amber contents of his glass.
Dad was halfway across the world in Danbury, CT, and I was getting into a silver BMW with a man named Jano Rizkallah. The idea of getting into a car with a complete stranger in a remote mountain village in Lebanon would probably not seem like the best idea to most people. But for a reason I couldn’t pinpoint, I trusted Jano without knowing anything more than his name. Perhaps it was the slight bounce in his gait, the very same as my father’s.
“Habibi, you have come home,” Jano managed in heavily accented English. He used the term of endearment, habibi, or “my heart,” with such genuine affection it seemed as though he was struggling not to cry.
I was unsure how to respond to this declarative statement. I had never been to Aarbaniyee before or to Lebanon for that matter. “It’s beautiful here. Different than America.”
Jano turned to look at me through misting eyes. Though he was still driving and at a rather fast speed, he maintained eye contact as he sped along the road, turning as if by rote as the curves mandated. Cedars, olive trees, snow-capped mountains in the distance, a woman singing in Arabic on the low-playing car radio. Jano, a stranger who did not seem to me a stranger. Hardly reducing his speed, Jano pulled over to the side of the road where a shrine of the Blessed Mother was decorated with candles and flowers. He got out of the car, knelt beside Mary’s statue and after a moment returned to the car where I sat waiting.
“I have thanked our Mother for your safe return,” Jano explained as he wiped away a stray tear. Without knowing why, I realized I, too, had tears in my eyes. “Let me show you your family’s house.”
Driving less than a mile down the road, we came to an old stone house. Some of the windows were boarded up and leafy green veins threaded the pale limestone façade. The house looked old but preserved as if its occupants were simply away for an extended vacation. We walked, side by side, around the outside of the house. The air prickled with the tang of surrounding olive trees and cedars, the bittersweet smell of home once forgotten. This Mediterranean scent ignited my memory, the backyard of Tita’s house, my father’s childhood home, a single cedar tree languished in the overgrown yard. Rotting apples, relics of dying fruit trees that surrounded Tita’s cedar. Dad frequently talked about that tree, his voice would change ever so slightly, as if the tree meant something to him. But I was a little girl and I did not understand why a tree that looked half dead was so important. Many years later, I was only beginning to appreciate the cedar tree in its native country, beautiful in the silver bend of the sunlight.
We walked the perimeter of the house and came upon a neglected garden overwrought with weeds and rotten fruit, much like the yard of Tita’s house.
“Delicious fruits and vegetables grew here once,” Jano explained and then continued, “Let’s eat, habibi. Your belly must be crying by now!”
He drove not more than a few minutes up the mountain road to a large, pale limestone house with an orange tiled roof and an iron-wringed balcony. The house overlooked the distant mountains and the Mediterranean Sea below. Inside, Jano’s house was elegant, with pristine white tile floors and large plants in vases. Before I was seated on a beige divan, a housekeeper brought a tray which carried a porcelain cup filled with Turkish coffee and a small bowl of sugar cubes.
“Nilou, bring bread, cheese, fruit, pastries. More food! Please!” Jano gesticulated wildly to his housekeeper.
“This is fine, Jano. Thank you!”
He looked almost hurt. “No, no, habibi. You are hungry.” It had been nearly two decades since my grandparents had passed, and I had forgotten: food is never a question.
Over homemade honey and pistachio pastries, Jano asked about my father and our family in America. Never had I had such an interested audience; he seemed to devour every word like the pastries before us, savoring every detail as if it too was glazed with Aarbaniyee honey. When I had finished telling this newfound cousin about Dad and my life in America, he insisted on calling Dad from his cell phone despite the high cost per minute of such a long distance call.
The voice of my father on the other end of the line answered Jano in a single word: Brother. The men, complete strangers connected only by a tenuous bloodline and a chance encounter, wept together. And in this moment I finally began to understand the cedar tree, my father’s words, the very purpose of this trip. For years, I had been preoccupied with inhabiting a sense of place, with belonging to a city or state or house or country. I realized now that all this time I did not know the meaning of home. Home is the people in our lives; it is a person not a setting. Home is the people who fill the moments of our lives that we spend looking for the places and things that will satisfy us. Home is the stranger’s warm embrace, a father’s affectionate greeting. The sound of my father’s voice calling out, Brother.