“You can’t go back home … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory,” wrote Thomas Wolfe.
I sometimes struggle with “Home.” When abroad, I proudly assert, as I did this month when asked where I’m from, “Exeter, New Hampshire — it’s about an hour north of Boston.”
Once, in Exeter, when asked a similar question, I replied, “New Hampshire — I was born in New Hampshire — it’s where my parents replanted their Lebanese roots.”
But that’s not the whole answer, perhaps not even the whole truth.
Certainly, New Hampshire is where I was born, went to school, became a second baseman on a sandlot baseball team, played CYO basketball, fell in love (often), and learned to cherish America’s freedoms and values. New Hampshire is where I became conscious of my Otherness — a consciousness that informs my passions — and life.
The transplanted Lebanese roots my parents embedded and nourished in New Hampshire’s flinty soil define a dominant part of my identity. Arabic was occasionally spoken at home, although my parents stressed we needed to speak English like Americans — whoever they were — and our social lives revolved around Saturday nights at the Lebanese-American Society, located on appropriately named Cedar Street, and Sunday mornings at the Melkite Church.
Much of life centered in the garden and kitchen; beyond the sheltering grapevine that thrived in our back yard, nurtured from a cutting smuggled from family vines in Rmeileh, near Sidon, beyond the special cucumbers and squash grown from seeds that magically arrived, inside pockets of travelers, from the “Old Country,” and especially beyond memories of the mucilaginous “mloukhieh” that Sittoo, grandmother, cooked on holidays, our souls in Manchester remained culturally and emotionally tethered to the Levant.
It was not unexpected, then, that as a young man, eager to explore the world and become a freelance photojournalist, I moved to Beirut, Lebanon, to explore my roots and start a new life. There I discovered a richness of beauty, music and relatives that I had believed in my soul existed but had never been able to reach out and touch. I was embraced by love and family, by Arabness and Islam, by a hospitality and humanity that fulfilled the unrealized promises of my New Hampshire childhood.
I was home.
Last month I returned to that home to visit Oman, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia, distant lands; lands that I had explored, where I embraced Islam and made the Hajj: lands I loved that had nourished my soul. Lands of The Other.
“O my Sustainer, cause me to grow in knowledge!” — Qur’an, 20:114
In Muscat and Muttrah, in Dubai, Riyadh and Jeddah, while I was sojourner and stranger to some, I was lover, uncle and friend to others, rediscovering what had once bound us, rediscovering each the other as warm desert sands embraced us, re-excavating mounds of knowledge that had lain dormant in the years of our separation.
Time and Memory.
Arabian Sea. Persian Gulf. Red Sea. Sandy beaches. Skyscrapers. Open tents. Families introduced, homes opened, courtesies extended: nothing denied. Dusty memories of landscapes were brilliantly refocused. Alive again.
Home: You do not thirst there, nor do you suffer from the heat of the sun. — Qur’an.
Affections and common bonds were rediscovered and new humor, intimacies, delicacies and knowledge were discovered, shared with pleasure over innumerable cups of tea and Arabic coffee, Medinah dates, Yemeni honey and Dhofari frankincense.
Hospitality even included a coffee and two glazed donuts from a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in Diriyah, an oasis outside the Saudi capital Riyadh where, in 1744, Muhammad ibn Saud joined forces with Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, a religious scholar, to create the alliance which this day governs the eponymously named Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
My home is not defined by geography. Home is where the morning light illuminates beauty. Home is where it matters less whether the coffee is hot but with whom it is shared. Shared touch, embraces and handshakes, familiar references to events long passed, anticipations of new excitements; such intimacies happen only at home.
Home is where the fragrance of cumin and cardamom excites memories.
On my last morning I had a final coffee with Abdullah, whom, before this return to Jeddah, I had not seen in 11 years but whom I love as a brother.
It seemed only yesterday we had had coffee in a Harvard Square café and wondered when we would ever see each other again. Abdullah is funny, generous, very smart, amazingly well read and a great conversationalist — and I’ve missed him.
My journey across this compelling topography of desire, memory and time brought us together again. Wherever we were, we were home.
Home is where those who love discover beauty.
Wherever such truths are embraced I am at home.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.