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Columnist Thérèse Soukar Chehade: Drive for independence pulses like a heartbeat

  • Independence isn’t unalloyed, but the drive for it is pure, and it pulses inside each of us like a heartbeat.



Tuesday, July 03, 2018

In the early 1970s, time of my early youth, the Lebanese Independence Day meant a day off from school and an extended television broadcasting day. (Back then there was no TV during the normal day and programming didn’t start until 6 p.m.)

I sat on the lamb rug, waiting for the festivities to begin. The Army parade was long and tedious. The shows that followed felt stale, as though plucked from the discard bin forgotten by the door: “Rin Tin Tin” and “Flipper,” as I recall, some Lebanese slapstick. But no matter — it was TV in the middle of the day, school was out and life was good.

The show of national pride was taken with a grain of salt. The trumpets, the firing of the cannons, all those shiny boots — no one was fooled. The soldiers we cheered with fondness, but few illusions. Small as we are, a dot on the map, patriotism is never without irony in Lebanon (except during the civil war, when it became deadly serious).

Israel in the south coming and going, the sonic booms of its repeated invasions of Lebanese air space a familiar sound in my childhood. Syria, ousted in 2005 but not gone. Our modern borders cobbled together by the French after World War I, so sovereignty is hazier than is desirable on days marked for solemn commemorations.

Lebanon became independent from France on Nov. 22, 1943; the French the last in a long list of conquerors, before them the Ottomans, four centuries our masters. The majority of the Lebanese speak some French.

At my school, French was the dominant language, Arabic a poor cousin we made a show of welcoming to the table. My mother’s heavily accented French was a source of embarrassment. My education is full of holes, my shelves lined with the classic Arabic poetry I am scrambling to read, the history I have not fully learned.

A linguist from Haiti who gave the keynote speech at a conference I attended recently spoke of the same heavy Francophonie in his country, of parents who pushed their children to speak the French they themselves didn’t understand. Haiti has been independent since 1803. The linguist now writes in Haitian Creole, to his parents’ dismay.

A friend asked, What was the point of independence?

I have been a denizen of a military and cultural superpower for many years now. When my two boys were little, I participated in the rituals of Independence Day. Saddled with folding chairs and snacks, we walked the trek from the car to watch the fireworks in a crowd that stank of mosquito repellent. I took my boys every year, afraid they might miss out on the festivities and their Americanness, until they grew older and went with their friends, and I was released.

The Declaration of Independence speaks of a severing, a need to break ties with a country that subjugates. It speaks of self-governance, even happiness, as natural rights, of revolution as the recourse of a people tyrannized. It is a document that still feels wonderfully alive, so rational and clear it breaks the heart to see its blind spots. (What of your slaves? Your women?)

The blind spots — a gap between the ceremonies we deploy to define ourselves and lived experience — persist, an intrinsic weakness. New cruelties succeed old. (What of those splayed on the hoods of police cars, lying face down on the ground, languishing in jail, hiding from the hand that stokes our deepest divisions? “No one wants to see children taken away from their parents, of course. But as far as I’m concerned,” the woman on the radio said, “we can send all of them the hell back.”)

It’s difficult to celebrate independence when hardship presses on all sides. These days the principles, penned in 1776 are ever more removed from reality. The driving mission of those with the upper hand seems to strip us of power until we break. They invoke the majesty of our founding documents to claim the right, the independence from constraints, in a drive so brazen, it might topple them flat.

When I think today about independence writ large, my mind turns to the little girl who relished in interrupting her daily routine to watch TV, already aware on some level of how easily strutting and posturing devolve into the ridiculous. Perhaps I am allergic to ostentatious pronouncements of fealty to patria.

The last few years, I have been booking my flight out of the country on July 3. I go to a small village in the south of France to write. With its vine trellises and stone walls, it reminds me of my ancestral town in northern Lebanon. It is as close to home as I can get these days. Seventy-five years of independence, and I’m still in pursuit, still scrambling upstream toward home.

Independence isn’t unalloyed, but the drive for it is pure, and it pulses inside each of us like a heartbeat. People the world over seek and struggle for independence against terrible odds. I have known the bombs of Assad the Father and the Israelis. They have struck terror in my heart. I am awed by the courage it takes to rise up against oppression so brutal.

This year, I go abroad on July 5. I’ll use the day set aside to celebrate independence to contemplate my personal independence from the pressures of the crowd. The next day, in full flight, I’ll wish that I could keep going but I’ll know that I can’t. There is no way out. Even with the ability I have to come and go, I am, we are, under siege. We have crossed the line into something else and we cannot untangle ourselves and we cannot avert our eyes.

How do we move forward with our eyes wide open? How do we hang on to the ideals of the Declaration as the country spirals into unfettered cruelty? And how do we recover?

Thérèse Soukar Chehade, of Granby, is a teacher at Wildwood Elementary School in Amherst. She is the author of “Loom,” a novel about a day in the lives of a Lebanese immigrant family living in rural New England, which won the 2011 Arab American Book Award in the fiction category.