My mother is a Levantine.
This has been a weekend of thinking about family; not so about much family dynamics, as about that enigmatic idea of “where I come from”: my roots, my origin. Perhaps it is because my dear Peacebang has been talking about it so much. Maybe also because this has been a fairly Turkish weekend for me, between seeing the Mevlani (Whirling Dervishes) last night, and visiting the Turkish Festival earlier today. It doesn’t matter. I think about Turkey a lot: it is the cultural home I didn’t have.
My mother is a Levantine.
I guess that word demands some explanation. Google it, and you’ll see a variety of explanations. Generally speaking, the Levant is “The countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Egypt” (American Heritage dictionary). I like the word, actually, and its etymology:
The term Levant, originally used in the wider sense of “Mediterranean lands east of Italy”, is first attested in English in 1497, from Middle French levant “The Orient”, the participle of lever “to raise”, as in soleil levant “rising sun”, from Latin levare. It thus refers to the direction of the rising sun, from a Mediterranean perspective. As such, it is broadly equivalent to the Arabic term Mashriq, ‘the land where the sun rises’. (Wikipedia)
It is a really broad area. Some maps just point to the Middle East. Other maps include Turkey. To be honest, the terms Levant and Levantine seem to be used a lot as though everyone uses them precisely the same, and without much specificity. Or maybe I’m wrong; this is a reflection, not an academic paper.
My mother is a Levantine.
This doesn’t mean just that she’s from the area. The term seems to have some specific meaning in Turkish history–meaning which applies to my mother’s family, and thus to mine. The Levantines in Turkey are descendents of Europeans who came to Turkey during Ottoman times, who maintained their individual nationalities intergenerationally. They’re Greek; they’re Italian; they’re French. And they’re Turkish. They’re both, and they’re neither.
To the Turks, they’re outsiders. Understand, though: my mother and her cousins are native-born. They’re fluent in Turkish, as well as whatever language is their mother tongue. In my mother’s case, she was born to a Greek mother and an Italian father. She was raised speaking Greek and Italian, as well as Turkish. Somewhere in there, she picked up French; I don’t know if it was in school or from her community, probably both. When she speaks to her relatives or old friends, it is a lesson in code-switching: she shifts from Greek to Italian to Turkish, in one sentence. However, native-born Turks–that is, not simply someone from Turkey, but someone of Turkic descent–don’t treat my mother or their family as one of them. They’re outsiders. They call my aunt “Madame”, knowing she is European.
My uncle says that when these people return to their European homelands, they’re not treated as native. They’re treated as foreigners, as outsiders: you may speak my language, you may have my looks, but you’re not one of us. So they’re not really Turkish, or Greek, or Italian.
I like what the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles says:
noun. Levantine: a) someone between and within an intersection of cultures and languages; b) a native or inhabitant of the Levant. adjective. a) a cross-cultural Middle Eastern quality; b) Eastern; orient, oriental; Levantine…
“The Levant is a land of ancient civilizations which cannot be sharply differentiated from the Mediterranean world…The Levant has a character and history of its own. It is called ‘Near’ or ‘Middle’ East in relationship to Europe, not to itself. Seen from Asia, it could just as well be called the ‘Middle West.’ Here, indeed, Europe and Asia have encroached on one another, time and time again, leaving their marks in crumbling monuments and in the shadowy memories of the Levant’s peoples.”
“Ancient Egypt, ancient Israel and ancient Greece, Chaldea and Assyria, Ur and Babylon, Tyre, Sidon, and Carthage, Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem are all dimensions of the Levant. So are Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which clashed in dramatic confrontation, giving rise to world civilizations, fracturing into stubborn local subcultures and the multi-layered identities of the Levant’s people.”
“It is not exclusively western or eastern, Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Because of its diversity, the Levant has been compared to a mosaic—bits of stone of different colors assembled into a flat picture. To me it is more like a prism whose various facets are joined by the sharp edge of differences, but each of which, according to its position in a time-space continuum, reflects or refracts light. Indeed, the concept of light is contained in the word Levant…” (Egyptian author Jacqueline Kahanoff, quoted in After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture [Minnesota, 1993] by Ammiel Alcalay.)
Someone between and within an intersection of cultures and languages.
That certainly describes my mother. She met my father when she was a switchboard operator for NATO, and he was in the Army. They married in Izmir, my mother’s hometown. You’ve probably never heard of Izmir, but maybe you’ve heard of its Biblical name, Smyrna:
And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. (Rev 2.8)
My mother moved to the United States in 1965 or 1966. She has an accent, not immediately identifiable to most people, unless they know where she’s from. They just assume a foreigner. (I think she probably has an accent in every language she speaks in. I once asked which language she counts in, and she answered, “Greek”, so I’m guessing that is my mother’s “mother tongue” if push comes to shove.)
When she moved to the United States, she brought the Levantine legacy with her. I inherited it, but not fully. Every summer through grade school, we visited Turkey for a couple of weeks. At some point, we began to visit Athens and Italy as well, to visit other relatives. My mother continued to visit Turkey long after I stopped going, but I went back in 2002 with my ex. That summer we were in the lengthy process of breaking up, never quite on the same page regarding our relationship, including on that trip. The trip had its significant highs and its lows, including the interpersonal issue and almost breaking some ribs when I fell into a hole in some ruins. (Reflecting on that last trip’s personal and medical problems, I’m reminded of the joke: Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the show?)
I was raised eating the food, hearing the language, surrounded by the place but not fully part of it. I can’t cook the cuisine. I can’t speak Turkish or Greek, but I know when I’m hearing it on the street. (I used to think that was pretty cool. Now it just makes me sad: it’s like picking up an ATM receipt for someone else’s account and seeing a balance of $150,000–knowing what the other person has but not having it myself.) I have very little link to these countries. I have some cousins, but we’re not very close to each other. I have friends, but they’re mostly people I’ve met on the Internet.
My mother’s homeland is certainly not my homeland. I was born in the United States, but I also don’t feel culturally like “the average American” (a decidedly elusive and statistically fickle cultural construct, I’ll grant).
So I go to things like a Turkish festival or a Turkish restaurant, and I’m reminded of the foods and drink I enjoyed so much on my travels there. I look at pictures, and again I’m reminded of travels, and of desires for future trips that may never happen. I hear words whose shape I know but which are empty to me. I mangle my way through the occasional merhaba (hello) or tesekkur ederim (thank you). I listen to the ethnic music I recognize and enjoy, and then watch the cultural dances that are not mine but I want to be part of.
Is it possible to be homesick for a home that was never yours?
Originally published October 2, 2005