Thérèse Soukar Chehade: An immigrant reflects after the election

  • A sign is held high at a rally in front of Northampton City Hall on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, attended by about 400 people protesting the election of Donald Trump. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 11/22/2016 9:53:19 PM

It took the death of Leonard Cohen to puncture my post-election numbness and for the tears to flow. To my friends, I sobbed that my beloved poet had seen the future and decided it was a good time to die.

After loss comes grief. There are seven stages until you reach salvation, or amnesia, the experts say. I’m not sure about that. I think you often get stuck between stages X and Y. I think sometimes a cataclysmic event sends you back to the blistering beginning.

It is the early ‘80s and you have left your war-torn country, Lebanon, to start a new life in western Massachusetts. No more self-imposed curfews, no more bombs. You still jump when you hear a loud noise, but after a while that stops and you get on with your life. One day you’re in a long line at the gas station. Someone thinks you’re taking too long and he walks up to your window and yells at you to go back to Pakistan. You try to respond but you’re at a loss for words (your English is still young) and your friend in the passenger seat, a recent immigrant from Israel, is urging you to drive away. There’s fear in her voice. You’re also afraid. Furious, too, because he’s a bully, and you know all about bullies, you’ve spent the last eight years cowering in an underground bomb shelter, so you wish you knew enough English to put the bastard in his place.

Time passes. The story loses its power to cut. It’s now a joke you tell your friends. There are variants on it here and there, but now your English is good enough that you can come up with a retort that leaves the offenders scrambling for answers, something that pleases you tremendously.

Besides, the racist incidents are not so frequent that you lose any serious sleep over them. It seems that your skin is light enough, and that you are, for better or worse, western enough in your demeanor. It probably helps that you have a Christian sounding name. In brief, you are acceptable and you pass. People usually mistake you for Greek, Italian, Bulgarian, and no one is in any hurry to send you back to those places. Something happened to Pakistan along the way, but you’re not complaining.

You start forming opinions about politics. It is understood that in a democracy you can’t always get what you want, and sometimes you have strong disagreements, which you are not afraid to voice. You understand that democracy is messy yet you dive in and participate, because in the end something holds you together with the people you now call, still shyly, your compatriots.

You inch your way toward a home. (See? Now you measure your progress in inches, not the centimeters of your childhood). Eventually, you have children. They are born here, in this land that awes and scares you a little (a lot when you’re honest with yourself). You watch your two boys claim their rightful place in their country and dearly hope that they will never have to know the violence that ejected you from your own.

In the year following 9/11, you develop hives that bloody your skin. The violence has tracked you down. Those days under the bombs — they were never too far off, were they? Fear is back. You stay put. All your American life you’ve lived in western Massachusetts. Children and your job tie you to the place. It’s nice, here, kinder to people like you than other places in the country, you hear. You’ll probably never relocate even if you could.

In the war, tiny Lebanon was further cut up. Here Muslim, there Christian. You stuck to your own. Come home before dark, your mother warned. Always stake out shelters you can use in a pinch. You were young, athletic. You loved to dance. You dreamed of becoming a writer. Then a bomb would explode somewhere and you’d put your head between your knees and that would be that.

9/11 was violence on the terrifying scale you were familiar with. It was no longer confined to the people in the forgotten pockets of America: now they could be you and your children. But for the grace of God, you muttered, even though you were no longer a believer. Where would you run for cover this time? But you were doing all right in your new home. Time passed and healed your hives.

It is 2016 and Trump is elected president. The net gets completely pulled from under you. The self-willed dream you hung on to for 33 years has finally shattered. You should have known better (but you knew and blocked your ears), you who came from a place that got blown to the winds then reconstituted itself over and over again, until you no longer knew what was up or down and decided that government was a joke, and that in the end you only had yourself and your close circle to pull you out of any muck you got yourself into. You are back in the shelter.

I came here in 1983 and got to be a writer. But the day after the election I almost dashed my boys’ dreams. I almost said to my boy, a young engineer who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, “Please come home,” even though home had just been defaced by ugly racist words on beautiful Mount Tom.

To my younger son in college, who wants to be a doctor, I said, “Hold off a little on that,” as I contemplated future student debts and meager employment prospects under a Trump presidency. I took the words back and exhorted him to go for it, Trump be damned, but not without trepidation.

It will not come down to a full-blown war, here in the land where wars are fought on other peoples’ lands, but there are degrees of violence. Every time the man, who, by some absurd cast of the dice, is now our president-elect, opens his mouth, it is a new aggression — on women, decency, humanity. He appoints the foul to his stumbling administration, and every time a new door is shut.

But I don’t want to cower.

There was a time when I could never see myself taking part in civil protests. They seemed too loud and boisterous to my private and quiet nature. Afflicted with the reserve of the immigrant observer, I didn’t imagine myself marching forth for my rights with any real conviction. Besides, I come from a country where the years before the civil war saw protests that ranged from calls for the liberation of Palestine down to cheaper cinema tickets, all to no avail.

So please forgive me if I don’t always believe in the power of “We, the People.” Yet now I intend to join the Women’s March on Washington in D.C. on Jan. 21 because I believe that silence sometimes begets death, and that people in our soon-to-be government want to quash children’s dreams, and I’m not doing that, I’m not quashing any child’s dreams, and I’m not hiding and biding precious time. It is time to leave the shelter.

I don’t understand the Trump voters. They are not two-horned creatures (unless they voted for him because of his racist utterances, in which case…). They are neighbors, colleagues, family members. But I wish they had tried to see the whole of him before they elected him. Populist?? Really??

It takes a great deal of thought to vote for the president of the United States, not just: “Let’s try it out.” It is not a road test. The world will feel the repercussions of his presidency for decades to come. Clinton was not my first choice. It pained me to vote for her. But if not Clinton, it would have been him.

It was, is him. And now we have a mighty mess to clean.

I learned after his death that Leonard Cohen performed in Tel Aviv in 2009 despite the calls of BDS (which stands for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, and is inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement) to boycott Israel. It was a bit painful to hear. I still love his songs, always will. Perhaps he saw Tel Aviv as a kind of home, and who could turn his back on that?

In the end, we are all seeking refuge. Finding it is hard work, as it turns out. May we all share what little of it we find with one another.

Teacher and novelist Thérèse Soukar Chehade, of Granby, is the author of “Loom,” the 2011 winner of the Arab American Book Award in the fiction category. She is working on a novel about the civil war in Lebanon during the 1970s.




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