My Lebanese Heritage

Photo courtesy of Michelle Daher Yaacoub

It’s not just about hummus. It’s not all chicken shawarma wraps, grilled to perfection, with a side of hummus and fresh, soft pita bread. It’s not only about a finjein of Turkish coffee to start every morning, or about the nature of our shareable meals. Lebanese cuisine is one of life’s greatest pleasures to me, so I understand why everyone loves it. Food is a massive part of our culture. However, there’s so much more than cuisine to love about Lebanese and Middle Eastern culture that I wish was more understood in the United States. Connecting with my culture means connecting to my home, family and land. Finding that connection in the U.S. tends to be difficult for me because of the ways we are minimally represented, so I cherish every bit of culture I find. 

If I’m going to tell you some cultural story involving food, I don’t want to only tell you our recipes and food traditions. I also want to tell you how, as a little girl, my dad’s mom would show my cousins and I how to spin bread dough and use the saj for fresh saj bread. The smell would fill the basement of our home in the southern Lebanon mountains. I want you to hear about the way my mom’s mother always asks me what I want to eat, and will forcefully serve me a five-course meal even if I say I’m not hungry.

I want to tell you how Lebanese culture to me is the generosity of our people. It’s the feeling of being back in that land – whether in the bustling capital city of Beirut or up in the tight roads of the small mountain villages. It’s the feeling of the warm, welcoming love from jido and teta who cook their best recipes just for me when I’m home for the summer. I want you to know how strong our connection is to extended family, and the way we find family wherever we are in Lebanon, blood-related or not. I can tell you how little of that homey, comforting warmth I feel in the U.S. 

Aside from the obvious cultural differences between the U.S. and Lebanon, there’s so much I wish I could share about Lebanese and Middle Eastern culture. Many people don’t realize how little correct language there is to describe us. We’re “Arab,” but many Lebanese people such as my dad assert that we’re Phoenician instead. I’m “Middle Eastern,” but that term comes from the Western perspective. Until this year, the U.S. census considered us to be white but that doesn’t explain why many of us don’t look white and aren’t treated as white. Regardless, I am 100% Lebanese, even without the proper American categories to describe me.

The Lebanese experience in America is the way my head snaps around any time I hear Arabic speech or music anywhere. I’m grasping for crumbs of anything from my culture, and that tiny crumb will spark joy in me as if I haven’t eaten in days. I would feel so excited if I saw a fellow Middle Eastern person in the media, even if they’re from opposite sides of the region and we don’t speak the same Arabic dialect. It’s as if anything counts, even things far removed from my Lebanese heritage. But this is hypothetical, because I cannot think of any prominent Middle Eastern figure in U.S. media off the top of my head. A study from Nielsen found that Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) people make up only 2.5% of on-screen characters. The statistics are even worse for representation of the array of intersectional identities in our community. 

But in everything, we find pockets of joy. One of those moments for me was discovering Abu Salim’s Middle Eastern Grill on Haight Street, just a 15-minute walk from USF. I was hooked my freshman year when I first walked in to find the familiar art style on the walls, the TVs playing Arabic hits and music videos, and the instant smell of home in a restaurant 3,000 miles from my parents and 7,000 miles from Lebanon. I eat at Abu Salim’s so often that the waiters know to include extra pita bread in my order. 

I guess my sense of culture did come back to food. At least for now, I hope people begin to see that there is much more depth to Middle Eastern culture beyond the stereotypes we’re made out to be. 

Editor-in-Chief: Megan Robertson, Chief Copy Editor: Sophia Siegel, Managing Editor: Jordan Premmer, Opinion Editor: Chisom Okorafor

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