Under An American Moon
A series of stories celebrating “the other” in modern American society.
What’s your name?: Ghada.
What does your name mean?: Charming graceful woman.
Where are you originally from? Beirut, Lebanon.
How long have you lived in the US? Since 1986.
What’s your first memory of living here?
I remember Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” playing on the radio while we drove through the city. I also remember standing in line to watch Purple Rain at the movie theater. Prince was famous everywhere, but it was the first time in my life, standing in line for a movie!
What is your family’s origin story?
My family is originally from Lebanon.
My dad was from the Beqaa Valley, from a village called Ferzol. It’s a farming area with a lot of greenery — the white houses with grapevines over the doorways.
As a young man, my dad moved to Beirut for more opportunities, and he applied to the national police force headquartered there. He eventually worked his way up to being Chief of Police, for his district in Beirut.
My mom was a city girl. She grew up very connected to her mom, and she loved Beirut. She would ask the neighborhood tailor, George Riyesheh, to make dresses specific to her designs — she was very picky, but she had the best taste. She grew up with an alcoholic father, and seeing how it affected her mother, she was afraid of marriage. She wanted to have fun and put off family life for as long as possible.
Someone tried introducing my dad to my mom, but she wouldn’t give him the time of day. He was very shy with women, being a farm boy in the city, but he didn’t give up on her. Finally, my grandma told my mom, “I won’t be around forever. He’s a good man.”
They got married in 1958, while a protest was happening in Beirut [the 1958 Lebanon Crisis, part of the Arab Cold War]. A year later, my brother Gus was born.
How would you say your culture affected your childhood?
As a child I appreciated the value of commitment, seeing how hard my parents worked for us. My dad helped my mom with chores, cleaning, taking care of all five of us.
In Lebanon, family’s always one of the most important priorities. My mom hosted relatives for weeks at time, without ever complaining. If someone was sick, she took us all to go see them. I remember my parents being present to everyone in their lives, and I knew that community and loyalty mattered.
We were also taught to enjoy the simple things. Even when we were struggling financially, we would still appreciate the beauty of our surroundings, a simple meal, playing games together. We worked hard but savored life.
That’s something that runs deep in Lebanese culture, because there can be so much uncertainty at any given moment. It’s important to enjoy what we have and who’s around us — those simple pleasures.
How would you say your culture affected your experience of friendship throughout your life?
In Lebanon, friendship is very deep. The same ties that you have with family, you can make with friends, when they’re the right people.
I remember when the civil war started in the 70s [the Lebanese Civil War, from 1975–1990, with over 120K fatalities], my family and I would hide out in the basement of a building, in a bomb shelter.
Although there were different religions killing each other in this war, my dad’s best friend at the time was Muslim [compared to my dad, who was Maronite Catholic]. His friend would sneak food to my family while we hid in the shelter, and he would do this under the fire of bombs, shooting, and shrapnel. I still remember his name.
The war played a big role in our social lives too. We are a very fun-loving, outgoing culture; when we were teenagers, we wanted to go out and drive around, just have fun, but our parents were controlling. They were always anxious because they didn’t know if we were safe when we were out. We had to be home before dark.
Sometimes my mom would light candles and pray to the saints while she watched for us from the bathroom window facing the street, just to make sure we were coming home alive from wherever we were.
But even with all the restrictions and danger, we still managed to steal those moments of youth. I remember one of my best friends, Mirela, covering for me and my sisters, so that we could all sneak away to Cypress for a weekend. That was the most freedom I had in my teen years, and one of my favorite memories.
Mirela was a great friend. Unfortunately, the effects of war took their toll, and she grew dependent on anti-depressants and other medications that changed her personality. That happened to a lot of people who grew up in the war.
In terms of friendship values, my dad had no tolerance for bullshitters or gossips — he was a man of integrity. That was something that a lot of families passed down to their kids — friendships and connections with integrity. My dad valued honest, loyal, hardworking people. Those are the kinds of friends I’ve bonded with the most.
A year after coming to America, my circumstances changed, and I suddenly became a divorcee with a single child in an unfamiliar environment. As much as I loved my culture in my youth, I appreciated the American mentality of freedom and acceptance, because it might have been a lot harder to make friends in Lebanon in my situation. American friends took me in and taught me about American culture with no judgment, no titles. An American friend was with me when I first took my pregnancy test. Friends here wanted to learn more about Lebanon, and they were shocked when I corrected them that it wasn’t just camels and sand [laughing]. Their openness was a breath of fresh air.
What effect would you say your culture had on your dating life?
In Lebanon, the dating culture [in my teens] was very pure. There was a lot of patience, and romance. When I came here, I was divorced in a short amount of time, and I had to adjust to that new life before I could even think about dating.
Dating was something you did to get married, in Lebanon. I got married, and then became single as an adult — it was disorienting. I had never heard of anyone being divorced in Lebanon (although I’m sure people did it); in the American Lebanese community, I was usually the only divorcee in the room. Single Lebanese men viewed me differently because of it.
American men were more my speed. They were laidback, quicker to praise, less judgmental of the divorcee title, and more willing to explore outside of their immediate community. Almost every American man I dated commented on how much he loved certain things about me that I think are tied to my culture — the empathy, the loyalty, the passion.
I’m so grateful to have been in a country where I could meet different kinds of people and enjoy freedom around dating. As a single parent, my daughter was my priority, so I needed men to be okay with my status, my schedule, and my values. I don’t know if I would’ve had the chance to experience dating fully as an adult, post-divorce, if I had stayed in Lebanon. The culture there is very conservative. You’re not supposed to live together before marriage, or separate afterwards. There were clear expectations, at least in my time.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you around culture in the United States?
Things were hard sometimes, but I don’t know that my culture has created a specific challenge.
I will say it was frustrating sometimes when people labeled me as “Arab” or made an assumption that I belonged to a certain religion or group, just based on being Middle Eastern. The questions about camels, I got those for years [laughing]. When I started working in the university environment, I was surrounded by knowledgeable people who knew about Lebanon, and called Beirut “the Paris of the Middle East”. That was a source of pride.
What are you most proud of your family for?
I’m most proud of how hardworking, genuine, and close-knit my family is. We always make time for each other, and when we look back on our achievements — careers, raising beautiful children, adjusting to a new life, taking care of our parents — I feel proud of what we’ve done.
What role do you see culture playing in your future life?
I would love for my daughter to consider marrying a Lebanese guy, so she can continue our culture… [laughing] But I’ll be happy with whoever she chooses.
In my own life, I would like to continue expressing culture in small ways to people around me. At work, when I eat lunch with the floor staff, I lay things out the way they do in Lebanon. I put out the lettuce, the olives, the cut tomatoes. I make everything colorful. I think for some of my co-workers, it’s the only time they eat vegetables [laughing].
I like to represent the beautiful, healthy, hard-working parts of my culture, instead of the bombings and politics you see in the media.
I’m also visiting Lebanon for the first time in 17 years, for my birthday, with my daughter. I’m excited to see how things have changed, and to experience it with more time and detachment from the more difficult memories of war.