Remembering Childhood in the Middle East

This is a collection of narratives written by men and women remembering personal experiences growing up in the Middle East. There are 36 contributors from 11 Arab countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon) in addition to Iran, Turkey, and Israel. The book includes a concise historical summary for each period, and a brief biographical sketch of each contributor. Some of the narratives were originally written in Arabic or French and translated into English. The accounts are presented along four overlapping historical periods: The end of the Ottoman Empire (1923), European Colonial Rule and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (1830-1971), New Nations (1951- 1979), and the Post Colonial Middle East (1971- ). The collection was put together and edited by Elizabeth Fernea, a professor of English and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Fernea allowed her contributors–men and women; Muslims, Christians and Jews; Arabs and non- Arabs–to speak for themselves. One should keep in mind however, that the stories they remember are all reinterpreted through their adult perspectives.

The first part of the book, the end of the Ottoman Empire, includes six narrators, three men and three women from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. They are all, however, from families belonging to ruling elites in their societies. All attended school, encouraged by parents who valued education and all ended up receiving graduate degrees from Western universities like Columbia or the American University of Beirut. With these backgrounds, they are part of the minority in their societies.

In “An Arab Faces the Modern World,” Mohamed Fadhel Jamali describes how he was raised in Kadhimain, Iraq. He remembers his youth as growing up in “an old traditional society, with its rigid religious practices and superstitious practices on the one hand and its good-hearted, cooperative, and patriarchal kinship on the other” (p. 12). Jamali’s family belonged to a pious Shiite community where his father held a leading role and his mother, “a saintly lady … conducted special rituals for the ladies … inspiring hope of gaining recovery” (12). He also remembers a childhood where most of his actions were directed by fear–fear of his father, his uncle who took care of him when his father moved away, or fear of being hit by the Quranic schoolteacher, the Sheikh. The image that emerges from this narrative is one of a sectarian Iraqi society where religious upbringing was paramount and where a strong patriarchal extended family and its members were directly responsible for supporting the children of the clan. We also get a glimpse of a social organization based in neighborhoods where family houses were linked by passageways to facilitate visits.

In the second part of the volume, the “Rise of European Colonial Rule and the Rise of Arab Nationalism,” Fernea presents eleven narratives written by six women and five men. With the exception of Zbida Shetlan who grew up poor and illiterate in a rural area of Tunisia, all the contributors in this section are distinguished poets and authors who have also been exposed to Western cultural influence. Most come from family backgrounds that must have been the exception rather than the rule, in that they encouraged education and supported the schooling of their sons and daughters during the middle of the twentieth century when literacy was still reserved for the lucky few. All contributors shared the experience of growing up in a period of high instability in the Middle East. The political events and social upheavals in the 1940s and 1950s had a direct impact on their lives. Some recall the exile of Egypt’s King Farouk because of the Free Officers take-over in Egypt, while others remember food rationing during WWII, or having their classes disrupted by student demonstrations in Cairo. Some witnessed protests against the British in Baghdad or the political unrest of the Mossadeq era in Iran. Some recount being stopped by foreign soldiers at checkpoints in Beirut or having to immigrate to Israel for being an Iraqi Jew.

While the narrators remember the events, they also note that they were far from realizing their significance for the region. Hoda Naamani in “Damascus the Golden” states that “as a child [she] lived behind a mask” (p.74). She felt that in her protected childhood, she was unable to see “the beginning of a conflagration that would destroy all the old principles and traditions and establish a new Damascus.” In “My Education in Half the World,” what impressed itself on Mohammed Ghanoonparvar’s memory was his father’s scheme to provide him with an education alongside the formal school system, that taught him valuable lessons, more so than the education he received in school. His father put him through a series of diverse apprenticeships that taught him the value of work and respect for all trades. Growing up in a historic city in Iran also “created in [him] a sense of belonging to a city, a country, and a culture, which is the main ingredient of collective and individual identity” (p. 118).
The experiences of Zbida Shetlan, recounted in “My Story,” are unique in the volume, but ironically may be the most representative of what young Arab girls growing up in the twentieth century have experienced. Zbida never went to school and spent her childhood working for her family including uncles and grandparents. She does not say why but does make mention of the fact that she was raised by her grandfather and step-grandmother. She grew up in a callous world filled with burnooses, never ending chores and beatings. Unlike the other memoirs, she does not come from a wealthy family and education is not favorably looked upon. Her only hope is to get married and hope for a better life.

The third part of the volume includes nine narratives written by two women and seven men and arranged under the headings: New Nations (19521962); Oil wealth and OPEC (1973- ); Israeli-Palestinian Wars (1967, 1973); Camp David Treaty (1979); Iranian Revolution (1979). The children growing up during this period had a common experience as witnesses to the rise of nationalism, conflicting ideologies, and social transformations in their communities. However, although living through these turbulent times as teenagers, the narrators were not fully aware of the significance of the events happening around them–a coup d’état in Turkey, the war of liberation in Morocco, the discovery of oil in Kuwait, the fall of Mossadeq in Iran, the defeat of 1967 or rural migration in Egypt. Only later as adults reflecting on their childhoods do they discover that those events shaped their world and their own attitudes towards it. Also common are the narrators’ educational experiences as they move from traditional Quranic schools to Western style schools.
In addition to these shared themes, the narrators reflect on more personal experiences, such as the tradition in Morocco of the neighbors “stealing” the boys for circumcision to avoid the parental anxiety that accompanied it; seeing one’s friends being grabbed by a crocodile on the banks of the Nile; living as a Palestinian refugee in a UN refugee camp in Lebanon; or being exiled and living under house arrest. The contributors to this section come from various socioeconomic backgrounds, but are not fully representative, since those who contributed had the chance to go beyond basic education.

The last part of the book, “The Post-Colonial Middle East (1971- )” gives voice to ten narrators, three men and seven women. All but one, Abdelaziz Jadir, received higher degrees from Western universities and many live in the United States. Their present lives have no doubt colored their childhood memories. Shafeeq Ghabra, who wrote “My Childhood: Innocence, Politics, and Rebellion” is one of the lucky Palestinians from this period because he comes from a well-connected family that was able to obtain Kuwaiti citizenship. Yet, he looks back at his childhood in the 1950s as being “… burdened with the sad past of personal and national loss” (257).

Because of the loosely defined setting, a geographic region that encompasses a wide variety of cultures and a time span characterized by profound changes in every aspect of society, it is difficult to identify a unifying theme of the volume beyond the basic account of childhood reminiscences. Moreover, the narrators’ freedom to choose which memories and experiences from their childhoods to describe contributes to the kaleidoscopic nature of the narratives. For some, childhood experiences extended all the way to their college years; while for others, the period of childhood was much shorter. The editor gave free rein to the contributors to select from their personal histories. The fact that there were no guidelines to direct the experiences on which to reflect is both strength and a weakness of the book. Furthermore, they are adults, looking back with the eyes of grown-ups at their childhoods and the children they think they used to be.

The mosaic of images is, nonetheless, tied together by universal concerns that transcend both the time and space to which the book is dedicated: the Middle East in the twentieth century. As readers everywhere we can relate to those feelings associated with a whole range of experiences described by the narrators, such as authoritarian parents, school, social pressures, moving to another town or country, dealing with gender differences; fears of losing or, in some cases, the loss of a parent or the hardships of living in poverty. Some common themes in the volume are education and discipline, paternal dominance, women’s importance in the family, the role of the extended family in the upbringing of children and arranged marriages. For many Middle Eastern readers, the identity dilemma of the post-colonial era resulting from the prevailing multicultural educational systems–an issue raised by several of the contributors–is still very relevant today.
The book succeeds in presenting us with intimate and in some cases candid reflections on family and social life over a turbulent century in a tumultuous region. In the end, the major contribution of this volume is to make us aware that no matter where we are, we are all moved by similar aspirations. It celebrates the universality of human nature and the shared core values of human cultures. Along with the universality of childhood experiences, the narrators’ reflections on their past introduce us to very particular stories, particular to the individuals telling them as well as particular to the time and place to which they belonged.