Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My Log 374: Beautiful Al Jazeera documentary reveals the longing of many immigrants for their home countries

Al Jazeera building in Doha, Qatar.
Al Jazeera building in Doha, Qatar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Lebanon Mosque
Lebanon Mosque (Photo credit: Côte d’Azur)
If  any reader of this blog does not yet have access to Al Jazeera television, I  would advise them to lay down the $2.50 a month that it costs so they can take advantage of some excellent programmes.
Not only does the station give a somewhat different perspective on the affairs of the world, but it also produces some wonderful documentary films on all sorts  of subjects. Most of their subjects are from non-European countries; many of them deal with problems suffered by people in poor countries; but the quality of the work is first-rate, and the freshness of perspective notable in almost every case.
Just today I saw a moving  programme called “Beirut Buenos Aires Beirut,” that was screened in a series called Al Jazeera World. The film was made by a man called Hernan Belen, about a handsome 37-year-old woman from Argentina, Graciela,  who started to ask questions about what happened to the great-grandfather, Mohammed Moussa Haithan, who, having emigrated to South America from Lebanon many years before and raised a family, suddenly after the death of his wife, left his children  all behind to return to his Lebanese home, seldom to be heard from again.
First she went to the archives to look for any immigrant who might have been recorded as an arriving ship passenger at around 1900, but was told that Arabs in those days were not regarded as favorable immigrants, and the curator was not surprised to find there was no record of his arrival, since so many documents had been trashed. She had been given some letters by her grandmother, family letters written to her great-grandfather in Arabic, and carefully guarded these many years, and now she took them to an Arabic-speaking scholar who translated them for her. One of them was from her grandfather’s sister, Carine, chiding him for never writing to his family in Lebanon with news of his fate in Argentina. From such an inconclusive search she was far from satisfied, and decided, to the astonishment of her family, to go to Lebanon to see if she could connect with members of their family still living there.  She was worried that she did not have a precise address for her grandfather, but her elders told her that in those Lebanese villages, “everybody knows everybody.”
I want to add to this narrative --- to interrupt it, if you like --- that I was caught up in this story because she was explaining a sequence of events that my own family had experienced, although long before I was conscious of it or even interested in it. My own grandfather, as a boy of 22, had arrived in the south of the South Island of New Zealand in 1878 from County Antrim in northern Ireland, and like the young Lebanese in Argentina had married and started a family. He was an early pioneer in that sparsely-populated part of the country, set up a business as a coach driver, and unfortunately died when my father was 10, leaving his Scottish-born wife alone to carry on his business, and even to set up a new one, as a funeral director. I knew none of the details of my grandfather’s life until many years later when my nephew, a successful businesssman, researched my grandfather's life for a book he was writing about his own experiences in business. In that indifference to family history I suppose I am typical of many descendants of the brave ancestors who have sallied out around the world in the last 200 years
I read somewhere that there are 500,000,000 of us, we people whose forebears left their homes in search of better opportunities in new countries, so we are quite a brotherhood and sisterhood, taken all in all.
Graciela, the Argentine woman heroine of this film, knew from her grandfather’s rare letters that he had settled in a southern Lebanese village called Kfar Kila. And once arrived in the country she was fortunate to find an Arabic-speaking friend from Buenos Aires who was visiting, like herself, and whose knowledge of the language eased her search considerably. He discovered that they would need a military permit to allow them to enter the region in which this village was situated, and later they found out they not only needed the general permit, but detailed permits, one  for every place they intended to visit.  
Arrived in the village, they inquired of two men standing in front of a house for directions to the mayor. When they elaborated on their mission, the man said he lived in the house her grandfather had occupied, so he took them there. When she saw the windows before which her grandfather used to sit and smoke shisha (whatever that is), she wanted to sit there and imagine the scene from years before.
The man said he knew the family of her grandfather’s widow, and he took them to meet Carine’s son, Habib. Carine had been killed in 1948 by the Israelis, even before the  grandfather had returned to Lebanon. Her son said he had never met his mother, and when  Graciela produced Carine’s letter to her brother, Carine’s son  seemed overwhelmingly moved, because this was the only memento he had of his mother. They gathered, this large Lebanese family, for a photo with this woman from Argentina, and Graciela remarked that here they were, many thousands of miles apart, speaking different languages, with different cultures, yet all members of the same family. It was a truly moving conclusion to the film.
I have to confess I really don’t have that overwhelming connection to family, that seems so  typical of Middle Easterners, and perhaps especially of Arabs. In fact, on a visit to New Zeaand some years ago some people I had never seen, never even heard of before, travelled quite a distance to come and see me, and I couldn’t help wondering why they bothered. But I guess in these two attitudes we discover a dichotomy that illustrates something about the immigrant diaspora. Most of us, I guess, eventually settle into our new country and culture, and more or less forget about the country of their origins.  My father was one of those who longed for the country of origin: although born in New Zealand, and living all of his life there, he nevertheless dreamed always of going on a visit to what he insisted on calling “the home country”. And eventually he went, back to Britain, back to Northern Ireland, and he found an aunt whose acquaintance he was delighted to make. We have found since, thanks to a distant relative who lives somewhere in Canada, that my grandfather had a brother who, like him, emigrated, but this one came to North America.  Apparently, neither brother bothered writing home. The descendant who discovered this connection has since visited New Zealand and introduced himself to many members of the rather large clan of Richardsons who have descended from my grandfather.
For myself, I have lived a different sort of life: I left New Zeaand with my wife at the age of 22, travelled the world, had a family, a truly nuclear family wholly dependent on each other, since we had no extended family within many thousands of miles. And I can’t say I have ever felt homesick for the old country, New Zealand, or for the family I left behind there.
As migration increases in these modern times, this question of the attitudes of immigrants to their newly-found societies is still a matter of intense controversy. In fact, it is to be read about in the newspapers every day right at this moment, as the Quebec government is in the process of introducing a so-called Charter of Quebec Values, which would forbid the wearing of any religious symbols, such as the hibab, the kirpan, the turban and so on.The French government has been going through the same process, arguing that conformity to the customs of the host nation must be respected by those who choose to come and live among them.

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