Thursday, April 19, 2012

Rahme Origins and Musings

Said Rahme

Those with a love of history will naturally become interested in their family genealogy at some point in life.
I developed a genealogical interest ever since I was able to read. How could I not. After all, my grandmother was a Vietnamese aristocrat and above the spiral staircase in my grandparents' home hung a gold framed portrait of some 19th century French ancestor, a slave trader who had died of Yellow fever in the Caribbeans.

This is the puzzling environment where I found myself growing up.

But I digress...
If you are interested, you can find ramblings on my family's genealogy from my blog, Les Nuits Masquees:

Tran Tien Family Genealogy
Candeau Family Genealogy (incomplete for now)

But today I want to talk a little of the other half of me. The Rahme side.
Because in case you do not know this already, I am half Lebanese.

The Lebanese Diaspora
So what does it mean to be a Rahme? Well first of all, just as there are Lebanese people who have emigrated all over the world, there are also Rahmes all over the world. Let us have a look at the top 10 countries in the world outside Lebanon where Rahmes can be found:
  • Brazil
  • United States
  • Argentina
  • Colombia - not a Rahme but Shakira is a fine example of a Colombian with Lebanese descent
  • Australia - no surprises here, most of my Lebanese family lives in Australia
  • Canada
  • Mexico - Salma Hayek is a good example of a Mexican of Lebanese descent
  • Venezuela
  • France
  • Saudi Arabia
Further down in the list depicted in this Lebanese Diaspora source, we find that Senegal also has a decent population of Lebanese immigrants. Interestingly, this is where my Lebanese grandparents chose to emigrate during the 1930s. It is also where my father was born and where I, too, was born.

Rahme - The Homeland
In Lebanon, Rahmes originate from the mountainous village of Bcharre, also written Bsharri, itself the capital of the Bsharri District in Northern Lebanon. The Bsharri District encompasses Mt Lebanon, an area rich in cedar wood (yes, it's that tree on the Lebanese flag). The area of coastal Lebanon was once the home of the Phoenicians who used cedar wood from Mt Lebanon to build their ships (and then supposedly discovered America long before Columbus). Lebanon itself has been populated by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mamluks and Ottomans.

Bsharri District has around 26 villages. But here, we are concerned with the actual village of Bsharri.

This happens to be the village where New York based writer Khalil Gibran was born.

Khalil Gibran's portrait of his mother, Kamila Rahme

Khalil Gibran wrote of his mother, Kamila Rahme:

"Ninety per cent of my character and inclinations 

were inherited from my mother 

(not that I can match her sweetness, gentleness and magnanimity.)"


The source describes this Kamila as "graceful, pretty, strong willed".

One is tempted to leave it at that and bask in the glory of this exquisite Kamila and her deeply philosophical and melancholic son.
But we need to dig deeper...

Rahme - Meaning of the Name
The origin of the name Rahme comes from the Arabic root RHM, which means mercy or compassion. This is similar to the Aramaic root RHM. Both imply "to be compassionate" or "to have mercy".

Rahme is actually a diminutive name. Its complete form was once Rahmet-Allah where the possessive et implies of God. So Rahmet-Allah means, Mercy of God. While this might be obvious to many, I will re-iterate it here, Allah is the Arabic and Aramaic word for God. It is a linguistic term rather than a religious term. Allah means God, regardless of whether one is Jewish,  Muslim or Christian.

Culture and Historical Origins
Most Rahmes are Christians of one of two sorts: Maronite or Roman Catholic. For example, I was born into the Roman Catholic Church while many of my relatives are from the Maronite Church. Not that it matters much in family gatherings but it is worth pondering over.

How did this come about?
Christianity had existed in the area that is now Lebanon from as far as St Peter's time and possibly since Jesus' visit in Tyre and Sidon. In the Bible, references to Lebanon are made through Canaan, that is, the land of "milk and honey". Yes, that Canaan. Despite the lascivious reputation of the Baal and Ishtar worshipping Canaanites, it would appear that quite a number of them embraced Christianity through St Peter's influence.
Up to the 4th Century AD, these Lebanese Christians were attached to the Patriarch of Antioch in Byzantium. This was to change when many began to follow the preachings of an ascetic monk, St Maron, who was himself influenced by Orthodox Christian teachings. This, however was at odds with Greek Orthodoxy and the Maronite Christians were soon persecuted by the despotic Byzantine Emperor, Justinian II. It was at this point that led by St Maron, they sought refuge in Mt Lebanon.

Later, Maronites faced further persecution from conquering Arabs who formed the Umayyad Caliphate of which Mt Lebanon became part.

Note that the Western world did not know of the existence of these Maronite Christians until they were 'discovered' by the Crusaders. And much later, following the 16th century, Dominicans and Fransiscans sent by Rome began to convert some of the Maronites into the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore following the 16th century, my ancestors departed from the Maronite faith.

I found this interesting description of the people of Bsharri from a Mt Lebanon website:

In Lebanon, Bsharri natives are characterized as very courageous and fiercely tribal. They are especially known for their distinct accent when they speak Arabic. Unlike other parts of Lebanon, Aramaic was spoken in Bsharri well into the 1800s. As a result, Bsharri natives developed an unmistakably strong accent which lasts to this day and which they are very proud of.

I note here the words "courageous" and "tribal". I do not think these traits are inaccurate given that it was to escape religious persecution that the Maronite Christians of Lebanon settled in the village of Bsharri in the 7th Century AD.
At an altitude of 1,650 meters, the relative isolation of this mountainous village provided security from further persecution while at the same time, it demanded that the inhabitants cultivate a certain level of solidarity for community survival. This strong need for community support would have reinforced tribal sentiments. Courage goes without saying.

Famine - Why there should have been more Rahmes
Following the Umayyad and Abbasids Caliphate, Lebanon came into the hands of the Mamluks and later under Turk Ottoman rule. This meant that in WWI, when the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany and Austria, Lebanon along with Syria, was drawn into conflict against the 'allies'.

Wow, my ancestors were part of the axis of evil. Fancy that!
But it gets a little dark right about here...

In 1915, Jamal Pasha, then Commander in Chief of the Turkish forces in Syria, initiated a blockade along the entire Eastern Mediterranean coast. This was to limit supplies to the enemy, that is, the English and French.

Unfortunately, this had disastrous effects. The lack of incoming food supply at a time when locusts had destroyed much of the country's crops caused a severe famine, notably in Mt Lebanon in Bsharri District where a third of the population perished.

I suppose that some of my relatives would have perished or suffered too.

The French Connection - Yep, there is always one
Now why is it, that many Lebanese, including the Rahme clan, can speak fluent French?

Following WWI, when the 'allies' distributed among themselves the land of those who had been defeated, France was given a mandate over Lebanon by the League of Nations. Naturally given past persecution under the Muslim Arabs, the people of Mt Lebanon, Bsharri village included, greeted the French as liberators. The French mandate, which favoured the Maronite Christians, lasted for 20 years.
In WWII, soon after France became occupied by Germany, Lebanon regained its independence.

Nevertheless today in Lebanon, Arabic is the first spoken tongue, and French is the second. Many Lebanese living in Lebanon would be fluent in both languages.

Following WWII, Lebanon took in an influx of more than 110000 Palestinian refugees. We know the rest of this story and the decades of conflict that ensued. This is not the place to dwell into it.

My Grandparents
So this is all very well. But who are my grandparents? And who is that sad guy in the first photo?

Said Rahme was born in Lebanon in 1912. I know that he would have certainly experienced the famine of 1915 and beyond since he was at least three years of age at that time.

In 1935, he married my grandmother, Mariam Yakoub, in Tyre before they both emigrated to Dakar, Senegal. I believe they took a ship to get there but I am unsure of the exact itinerary.

In Dakar, Said Rahme owned his own business as do many Lebanese who live in Senegal. Why on earth would they choose Dakar... Remember the French connection? Just as Lebanon was under French mandate in those days, Senegal too had been a French colony since the late 19th century. This means that Said Rahme not only spoke Lebanese Arabic but also French. I believe this would have facilitated the migration to Senegal.  Language is after all, an important consideration when emigrating to a country.

Growing up in Senegal, my father spoke French and Arabic. He also developed strong notions of Wolof, the main Senegalese dialect. In fact most of my older Lebanese relatives who have since emigrated to Australia, understand a bit of Wolof. They've often called themselves the 'African-Lebanese'. Amusing but true! Isn't it amazing how culture can mutate? I am sure I could digress right about here but I won't...

In 1937, Said Rahme was voluntarily enlisted in the "Troupes Coloniales", that is, France's colonial military troops. It was during WWII that my father was born.

Said Rahme's Colonial Recruit Booklet in WWII

Following WWII, I know little of my grandfather's life but I believe that money was short and indeed this led to my father discontinuing school in his early teens in order to contribute to the financial comfort of the family. Said Rahme had six children in total, four boys and two girls. This, together with family hardship, did not stop my grandparents from opening their hearts to another baby, a female relative whose mother had died in childbirth, such that Said and Mariam's children eventually numbered seven in total. They are now all living in Australia.

When my father was 16 years old, I note that Said Rahme took an interesting journey into Lebanon. He actually died not long after that and was quite ill so perhaps this was a final trip to his homeland before the inevitable.

The journey is fascinating and can be traced using the visa stamps on his Lebanese passport.

He boarded a ship in Dakar on 17 April 1959. The vessel took six days along the Western coast of Africa then across the Mediterranean all the way to Marseilles in France where he arrived on 23 April.
The next day, he boarded another ship which, as far as I can make out from the Cyrillic letters on the stamp,  took him to the port of Piraeus in Athens, Greece. This journey took five days so that he arrived on 29 April. He then traveled from Piraeus to Alexandria, Egypt arriving in Egypt on 1 May. And finally, he took another ship to arrive in Beirut, Lebanon on 3 May.
The entire journey from Dakar to Beirut took him just over two weeks!!

Said remained in Lebanon for just under six months and returned to Dakar in the same way, starting from Beirut and travelling via Alexandria, Athens and Marseilles.

At some stage during his residency in Dakar, Said Rahme along with his wife and children acquired the French Nationality. Here is his French identity card. This was why my father was a French national even before he married my mother who was French by birth, and why I also became a French national.

I never knew my grandfather since he died in 1966. My father was not even married then and so my mother never met Said Rahme.

He remains, for me at least, quite an enigmatic figure. According to family accounts he was kind and peaceful. In photos, I note the melancholic air in his eyes. I think to a degree, my father can be quite melancholic too and this same dreaminess is a part of me in many ways.

There are possibly more stories I could draw from interviewing my family but that will have to do for now. Perhaps another time, if you will forgive my self-indulgence.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

What is Essential is Invisible to the Eye

"je n'aime pas qu'on lise mon livre à la légère" 
- Antoine de St Exupery

A treasured feeling for a writer is the moment when their words are truly 
understood;  the moment where deeper meanings and subtexts that were once weaved so artfully into the narrative are finally revealed to a reader. It is the moment when the reader is finally touched and inspired, and perhaps muses forever more, often quoting passages at various moments in his or her life, whether for strength or reflection.

I think at that moment, the essence of the writer's soul vibrates in harmony with the reader's heart and mind. It is a beautiful moment of understanding, when the word ceases to become mere expression or artifice and instead, ascends to the profound. Depth of meaning is what makes writing profound.

Meaning is found with the revelation of a writer's true nature; it is the sum of the writer's lifelong influences, their dreams and vision. Meaning is found when the words encourage self-reflection; a mirror for the reader's buried memories, their experiences, their joys or even their regrets. Meaning, when the words bring to light a universal truth, one that soothes the soul and lights a beacon of hope.

I think when he wrote The Little Prince, Antoine de St Exupery was able to achieve meaning. He had no need to play with words to try impressing his reader. Yet readers all over the world and in numerous languages have found the depth of The Little Prince and just as this book's meaning has been revealed to generations, so too, the essence of the writer was laid bare in all its beauty.

I think this is true joy in writing.

Writing this way is only possible if one remembers the Little Prince's famous words, "it is only with the heart that one sees rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye." 

This is the writing I aspire to. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

On Failure and Social Support

There is a fear of failure in most individuals that belies one of the greatest truths in human social interactions. It is simply, that misery loves company and people are more likely to warm up to others who they think embody some weakness of some sort.

This is the product of social comparison, the tendency of individuals to compare themselves to others to assess their own standing and maintain self-esteem. It is easier and less painful for individuals' self-esteem to provide social support for those against whom they believe, they compare favourably.

To illustrate this phenomenon, I would like to give an example using two women. Everyone knows these two women. The scenario I am using is familiar and has been played in the social sphere countless of times.

Woman One has been overweight for most of her life. In terms of fitness, she is equated with a level of failure.
Woman Two is a splendid model of health, who for years, perhaps over twenty years, has followed a fitness and diet regimen without fail.

This is where it gets interesting.

In some circles, I must try not to generalise but that is the norm, the continually slim, healthy woman is dismissed as vain and 'not-knowing-what-it's-like' to struggle with weight issues. If she were to post a photo of herself on a social media platform, perhaps feeling proud of all her efforts in maintaining a toned figure and her persistence in taking care of herself after all these years, the general consensus is that she must 'really love herself'. It does not matter that following a regular exercise and health routine involves determination, discipline and self-sacrifice. The fact that she generally succeeds in this quest and has succeeded in this quest for years often bears negative consequences. Her 'success' is perceived as having come easily for her. There is also the perception that her 'overblown' efforts to maintain her appearance are only the result of her self-centredness and vanity.

Now let us examine what it means to be seen as 'once having failed'.
Please note, that personally, I think, failure only becomes failure if one is dissatisfied with one's state but chooses to do nothing to overcome this state. The example I give with Woman Two, that of being overweight, is only a problem if Woman Two is dissatisfied with her health and unhappy with her abundant curves. My measure of failure, here, is relative and depends on the individual's own values.

So returning to our example, let us assume that this overweight woman decides to lose weight and increase her fitness level because she wants to and over the next six months or maybe a year, she does indeed succeed at her enterprise.
Let us also assume that she begins to post photos of her efforts on a social media platform partly to motivate herself in her ongoing quest but also to celebrate her results so far.
Now comes the difference...

Her friends will naturally be encouraging of what is perceived as her commendable efforts in exercising regularly and eating well. They will perceive her long struggle. They will empathise with the feelings of dissatisfaction that have given rise to her desire to better herself. In short, she can expect more support than Woman One.

This is not just for women by the way,  I have witnessed abundant outpourings of support, praise and encouragement on Facebook when one man admitted to having lost 10kg in his last regimen. Kind words like "That is an amazing effort!" or "Well done on your determination" rarely shower down for those who are 'effortlessly' slim.

This is an example of how being perceived to have failed and to then succeed is often more socially welcomed than being perceived to have done nothing but succeed. Unless an individual is already a celebrity and has over 10 million fans, people have a need to know that the individual is not superhuman. Many people in fact need to see others as struggling with some sort of setback before they will allow them to shine.

Another example. When a new author comes onto the scene with a published book, recall how fascinated we are to know that they were once rejected by fifteen different publishers. All of a sudden, when we learn of this, there is a glow around their newly published manuscript. It's a manuscript seared with battlefield scars. It acquires an aura of injustice that has been finally overcome. Its potency somehow increases just as does our support for the author. It does not matter that most publishing stories are in fact riddled with rejections and the writer's journey is by its very nature likely to be fraught with setbacks and rejections. It is as though having identified that an author has been rejected before, we think they must 'know-what-it's-like' to struggle and we rally in favour of this underdog. Take the growing pains of J.K. Rowling in placing Harry Potter on the market and how this has been perceived. J.K. Rowling is seen as fully 'deserving' of her books' successes as a result.

Conversely, think to some of the feedback that writers like Elizabeth Kostova have received for being known to not-have-struggled in their publishing quest. Not content with being likened to the next Dan Brown, Kostova dared to attract a $2-million dollar advance for her fabulous debut novel, The Historian. If this was not enough, Sony was known to have immediately signed up for the movie rights. Here is a brief example of the against-the-grain responses (with the star rating in brackets) that have been made of The Historian:

"I honestly don’t understand the high reviews that had been given to this book" (1/5)

"This proved to be a big disappointment. It's been a huge bestseller, & reviews always mention the huge advance it got & often say it's brilliantly structured. But I found everything about it implausible..." (1/5)

"I found The Historian to be rich and luxurious - kind of like a mink coat, unfortunately the pacing and unrelenting narrative make it about as useful as a mink coat in Florida. Still, I wouldn’t mind reading the next novel Ms. Kostova writes, maybe a biography of one of the historical characters in this book because she has a wonderful ability to bring her characters to life. My only hope is that Ms. Kostova spent her two million dollar advance wisely, hopefully not on a mink coat." (2/5) - Ha!

"This is definitive proof that Dracula is NOT still alive/undead because if he was, he'd've killed this author. And then her editor." (1/5) - And they say only indies have editing problems. :)

"Considering the fact that the author had a 2 Milion Dollar advance to write this book over 10 years, it was a very bad read. I kept hoping the story would unfold, but no." (1/5)

Negative reviewers of this instant-success novel tended to make relative judgments based on the publicity that the book and its author had garnered. For example, they alluded to the critical acclaim and hefty advance and balked at how misled everyone else who raved about it was.

It would be interesting to discover if the lowest ratings given for The Historian would have been statistically higher, if Kostova's book and her generous debut novelist advance had not received so much publicity.

Indeed, people are relatively more supportive of those who struggle with some perceived failure and who eventually overcome this to 'succeed'. It is as though they are deemed to 'have suffered long enough' to be allowed to succeed. There is a sense that due to all their sufferings they now deserve their silver medal. As a result, it becomes perfectly alright to praise them and shower them with support since we have now established that they have been to hell and have suffered 'just like the rest of us'.

Human nature is indeed fascinating.

Beautiful actresses who uglify themselves onscreen deserve an Oscar

So in summary we can formulate the above discussion into two equations:

1. Effort + Success => Low Level Social Support or in extreme cases, No support

2. Perceived Failure/Struggle + Effort + Success => High Level of Social Support

What to take home from this?

Ultimately the social support one will obtain from others is related to the ability to market one's failures and let others know that one has flaws. Failure is not such a bad thing after all.

In fact many women do bond by speaking about the difficulties in one or more aspects of their lives. Woe to the woman who has everything going for her and is perceived as a model of perfection.

In some cases, people make a point of revealing their problems because they know perfectly well that this will arouse sympathy and can be used to rally others to their cause. It is a form of social manipulation.
Based on this, is it socially manipulative to advertise your failures?

I have no answer. With anything, it depends on the individual and the situation. In fact, never believe any advice that is too deterministic in nature: human psychology is riddled with 'it depends'. Don't even believe what I've written here. I should know better. I should know that successful people are praised every five minutes and live a joyful life due to all those who bask in their glory and hope to gain favours from them. I should also know that people who lose weight after years of struggle are met with apathy and jealous silences and that since they've dared to come out of their box and reinvent themselves they can expect nothing except resentment... Yeah, you see? It depends!

Fascinating, those humans...

But returning to the topic... While I would not go out of my way to hide my failures, I personally would not follow the conscious, 'everyone-look-at-how-much-I'm-struggling' approach.

I like to be perceived as superhuman you see...Why not!  And by the same token, the prospect of seeing my friends kick ass at whatever they do, can only bring a smile to my face.