A writer seeks clues to the present in her family's past
This memoir examines the lives and choices of three generations of women in a Christian Arab family.
In her tender, detailed account of the lives of her mother and grandmother, Jean Said Makdisi includes a fair amount of information about the housework they did. (Not surprisingly, as both women saw themselves, first and foremost, as stewards of their homes.)
At one point Makdisi describes the precise designation of brooms and cloths her grandmother adhered to (and her mother later copied) when it came to housecleaning - certain brooms and cloths for certain rooms and a sense of absolute horror should anyone forget which was which.
Such careful rendering of life's small moments is one of the charms of Teta, Mother, and Me: Three Generations of Arab Women, the memoir Makdisi penned in an attempt to come to terms with her own life as a woman. Yet what gives this book its unusual - and often unsettling - dimension is the way in which such scenes of gentle domesticity are splashed against the backdrop of a turbulent stretch of world history.
Makdisi's family story is anything but commonplace. This book tracks 125 years in the life of her Arab Christian family. Following their fortunes means understanding events in Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, and the United States.
Teta, Makdisi's grandmother, was born in 1880 in Syria as a subject of the Ottoman Empire. Her mother was a Palestinian who married a man who was born in Jerusalem but held a US passport.
Makdisi herself was born in Jerusalem, lived there as well as in Cairo and Beirut, and attended college in the US. She returned to Beirut to raise her own family, living in that city - as did her mother - throughout the horrors of Lebanon's civil war (1975-1990).
Add to this swirling mix of cultures and influences the fact that Makdisi's family were Christians, converted during the 19th century by Western missionaries - a circumstance which Makdisi feels often isolated her family from their native culture. It also forced Makdisi out of the traditional life of an Arab woman into a Westernized role - a development she later resented as she chafed against what she saw as the isolated life of the typical Western housewife.
To some degree, "Teta, Mother, and Me" is a love story. Makdisi's devotion to her family (including her brother, the late Edward W. Said, noted author, critic, and Palestinian activist) is palpable.
Her portraits of her parents and grandparents are both compassionate and respectful. She tells of her grandparents' exceptionally loving marriage - "marital love and accord that one hears about and is rarely found" - and the tender courtship of her parents.
She also warmly recalls her own childhood as a privileged child growing up in a loving and affluent family. Her memory is remarkably precise and she is able to include engaging details about the games she played, the meals she enjoyed, and the books she read.
Makdisi, who is a scholar and author of the well-received 1999 memoir "Beirut Fragments," seems to share the meticulous natures of her mother and grandmother. "Teta, Mother, and Me" is solidly and carefully constructed, not only from Makdisi's own vivid memories but also from family documents and interviews with family friends and acquaintances.
But the story of Makdisi's family cannot be told without reference to a larger world. She and her siblings literally played at the feet of the Egyptian pyramids - even as they maintained vivid memories of the home they lost in Jerusalem when the Jewish state was created. Political and cultural dislocation play a part in the life of this family again and again.
Makdisi's grandmother lost her home in the former Palestine. Her mother maintained hers in Beirut, but became a poignant figure: a dignified, elderly woman seen walking daily through the rubble of her city with every hair in place.
"Teta, Mother, and Me" was released in the US last month, just in time for Mother's Day. And the familial love it celebrates is appropriate to the holiday.
But warning to those looking for a warm-and-fuzzy read for Mom: "Teta, Mother, and Me" is not exactly that. Makdisi's wrestlings with the question of how to balance the drive for a harmonious home life with a deeper engagement in the outside world are sharp and insightful - but offer no easy answers.
Makdisi is also candid about the painful sense of dislocation she felt throughout much of her life and her ambivalence about the choices her mother and grandmother made. They enthusiastically embraced what they considered to be "modern" - for which Makdisi sometimes blames them.
Yet her tone is ever compassionate. A grandmother now herself, Makdisi sees herself as but one link in a chain of women struggling with similar doubts and questions. Her grandchildren, she hopes, will do a bit better.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.