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A Different Middle East Family History

The younger we are, the easier it is to push to the margins of our consciousness a surprisingly elementary concept: old women are merely grown-up young women. It is, perhaps, our way of distancing ourselves from our mothers’ and grandmothers’ choices, struggles, and disappointments—and a way of rationalizing our own.

As a young wife, mother and college instructor, Jean Said Makdisi initially sees a gaping divide between the balancing act of her quotidian life and the lived experiences of her mother and grandmother. In her new book Teta, Mother, and Me: Three Generations of Arab Women (W.W. Norton, $25.95), she writes, for example, that her loving relationship with her grandmother—”teta,” in Arabic—is marked by “the patronizing notion that she would not, could not possibly understand my anguish as a modern woman because she had been so safely ensconced in a carefree, though boring and limited, domestic existence.”

The author, in her exhaustive study of the lives of her mother and grandmother, ultimately overthrows many of her own received ideas about her foremothers, and, perhaps, the Western woman reader’s received ideas about counterparts in the Arab world.

TetaMother, and Me plays out against the backdrop of some of the most defining moments in Middle East history: the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the creation of the State of Israel, the Suez Crisis, and the Lebanese Civil War. Makdisi, a Jerusalem born Palestinian Christian, grew up middle- class in Cairo, where her family settled after Israel declared its independence in 1948. She lived in Washington and, later, Beirut, where she remained throughout the tumultuous 15-year war. In telling her story, the author weaves mundane but often lively tales of schoolwork, housework and childrearing with more solemn ones of war and dislocation over the course of more than 100 years.

This 404-page tome is less about politics than it is about viewing womanhood over time. Yet the realpolitik of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict has a recurring, and entirely one-sided, role in this book. “In 1948 the heart of our family was torn out, and the centre of our existence was broken,” writes Makdisi, who is a sister of the late Palestinian activist and literary theorist, Edward Said. “Most of all, though we have lived well and done well, and accomplished much, though we have many deep friendships throughout the world, since 1948 we have been outsiders—not only my parents but their children, and I fear their children’s children as well.”

The book concludes with a message that transcends cultures and generations: “We must negotiate the nooks and crannies of our own history, understand our past, ground ourselves firmly in it, and then move consciously toward a modernity of our own deliberate making.”

Gabrielle Birkner is a writer in New York.