Excerpted and adapted from Nothing But the Truth by Marie Henein. Copyright © 2021 Marie Henein. Published by Signal, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
I have a photograph of one of our family dinners at my grandmother’s house in Toronto. I was five years old. Weekly family dinners at my Teta’s were mandatory, and, as usual, after dinner my cousins escaped to the basement to play. Not me. I always preferred the company of the adults. Every one of these gatherings ended the same way, with anise-laden arak, our traditional drink, being brought out from my grandmother’s mahogany cabinet. I would watch the adults’ sorcery as they mixed the clear liquid with water, turning it into a cloudy white elixir. By the time the sweet licorice-scented smoke from the arak and the cigarettes had settled over the room, the Arabic dancing would begin. Later on, the pounding, joyful rhythm of the Egyptian tablah would give way to the melancholic tones of the famous singers Oum Kalsoum and Fairouz, enveloping everyone in arak-infused homesickness. But it was early yet.
In the picture, my dad is standing in the centre of the group of adults who are lounging on garish velvet furniture. He is in his element, smiling, his arms outstretched, one leg crossed over the other, in mid-dance. It was his signature move, hips swaying, his fingers snapping, a bastardized mash-up of the Lebanese dabka. The women would later chime in with belly dancing. But at that moment, my father had the floor.
I am caught by the camera standing off to the side, arms crossed, wearing checked flammable polyester pants – an immigrant staple – looking straight ahead with a very disapproving look. I have a lousy memory for most things from my childhood, but it’s funny that I still feel this moment. And it’s where I need to begin. I remember exactly why I had that look on my face. This silliness. Wasted time. How could my father blithely dance with that grin? It was the frivolity of the adults, especially my father, that upset me.
Even at that young age, I was serious. A chronic condition. And while I was given to excess in all sorts of other ways, the emotional frivolity, the sheer happiness of my dad at that moment, pissed me off. I have never, not once, felt what he did. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve had fun. I’m capable of it. But that sort of fun, never. There were other things to be done, serious things. And the adults should have had the decency, my father should have had the decency, to at least agonize about some of what was being left undone and unsaid while he danced away. But there he was, wildly dancing. Enjoying himself. If I had centre stage, I would say things. Not dance.
My mom knows. She tried to console me. As she hugged me to safety tight to her side, she whispered in my ear, as she would throughout my life, It’s never easy, it’s never easy for you. It never is. It’s just differing degrees of unease for each of us.
Discomfort is a home of sorts to me. I know it, and find myself restless and searching for it the moment I feel myself slipping into any state of ease. The truth is that I feel most acutely when I have pushed into some state of discomfort. For years, I just thought I liked the exhilaration of the new. But that’s not it. It is the unease, the challenge of discomfort, that feels stabilizing. Maybe that is what upset me in that moment. Why wasn’t my father feeling that? Why weren’t any of them? Did they think that because we had crossed the ocean but held on a little to our dabka and our arak, it was done? That we were here?
The truth is, I am still that little girl – this is no transformation story. I’ve gotten a little taller, but at my core, I am still that serious five-year-old immigrant girl, looking in, the discomfort always scratching beneath my skin, the sounds of Oum Kalsoum and Fairouz, the voices of my home, forever humming in the back of my head.
When I try to remember my early years in Toronto, they play out in vignettes. There is no continuity, no story with a beginning, middle, and end that captures what it felt like when we were trying to get our footing in this new country.
I want to tell you what it feels like – the urgency, the trepidation. How my grandparents, having spent their formative years and every significant moment of their lives in a different country, now feel completely foreign, engulfed by a language and culture that are incomprehensible to them, yet they hang on, year after year, convinced that this is one necessary, difficult step to progress. How my father and mother look forward to just trying to get grounded and make a better life for themselves and their children. Head down, work hard. The children will make good. That is where their worth comes from. And how we, the youngest, my cousins and I, want so desperately to integrate, to soak up everything that our new country offers, to be real Amerikani, but we have no guidance and more than a little resistance from our parents, who cannot even now let go of their home, their customs, themselves. We are all submerged, my parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins, me. Floating around, buoyed by I don’t know what. But we don’t drown. Something keeps pushing us back to the surface. Maybe the hope of better or more or new, just around the corner.
I remember things here and there. Playing in the basement with my cousins after our weekly family dinners. Dancing with my uncle Sami to the newest Donna Summer album in training for my fabulous Studio 54 debut. The multi-car family treks to Niagara Falls. What is it I am trying to say to you? Then I know. It is her: Teta was always there. Everything about me in those early years, she was the centre of it all, hanging on to us, grounding us so we didn’t drown, quietly pushing us back to the surface again and again. Beginning in this country is her story as much as it is mine.
Despite her simple upbringing, Teta grew into her life in Egypt. She was always beautifully dressed, kept her home in perfect order and frequently redecorated. The children all had tutors that my Teta hired in the hopes that at least one of them would be academically inclined. None of them especially were, but they did well enough, with the two middle sons becoming general accountants. My mother, the only daughter, was sent to a French school in Cairo, and she grew up spoiled and well taken care of. Her summers were spent on the beach in Alexandria, her weekends at the souk buying fabric for her next dress. But it was the proverbial gilded cage. The only dream she was allowed to have was to find a husband after high school. Throughout it all, Teta ruled the family with an iron fist. She was the single strongest influence in my mother’s life and Uncle Sami’s life and a powerful one in mine. She restricted my mother, didn’t understand Sami but loved him unconditionally, and me, for some reason, she encouraged to be free, to travel, to be adventurous, and not to settle down and get married.
“Ya Hayati,” Teta would say whenever she saw me, her first grandchild. “My Life.” Unlike the antiseptic “darlings” and “dears” of the English language, endearments in Arabic are raw. More than a name, they are an expression of how much you mean to someone, how cherished you are. I cringe when someone flippantly calls me “dear” as though it were nothing more than a dog whistle. Ya Hayati. Ya Amar. Ya Rohi. My Life. My Moon. My Soul. This is how we speak to each other in my culture. This is how my Teta spoke to me.
Teta and I spent most of my early years being virtually inseparable. I was in her apartment on Thorncliffe Park Drive every single day as she took care of me while my mother and father were at work. She had started taking English lessons and would take me with her, depositing me in the playroom.
It had one of those half doors, and I would crawl under it, desperately looking for her, the thought of our separation for even an hour was unbearable. When I started school, I spoke a mash-up of Palestinian and Egyptian dialects, but not a word of English. I spent the whole first day crying in class, unable to understand what anyone was saying, while Teta spent the whole day crying outside the classroom until we could be reunited at the end of the school day. My early report cards describe a shy and quiet girl. Who did they meet back then? Whoever that was, she is long gone, I think.
Take a breath
Some days I convince myself that the legal system is as unassailable as the Sphinx, solid and immovable. It is false comfort, though, because nothing is ever unassailable. Weathering centuries of desert storms, even the Sphinx was not impervious to losing her nose. She had been a sitting duck for a long time, exposed to anyone who wanted to take a shot. Sure, the Sphinx still sits majestically exactly where she always has, just without a nose; damaged, a little less than what she originally was. Interestingly, in legal writing, the role of the judge is often compared to that of the Sphinx – immutable, untouchable, impervious to any shots taken.
Lately, I’ve come to believe it’s not true. Like the Sphinx, the justice system is equally vulnerable to attack – from politicians, driven by the digital mob – one of our most important democratic foundations is on shaky ground.
Social media is the lens through which we now often assess many things, from news to ourselves, and it is naive to think that the justice system is immune to the digital distortion we all fall victim to. Think of this. Before the advent of social media, what occurred in a courtroom was covered only by experienced, knowledgeable court reporters. In addition, there was a built-in cooling-off period because the public needed to wait until that evening or the next day to learn about what had occurred in a given trial. The expectation was that the goings-on of a courtroom would be reported through the neutral lens of a professional journalist who understood the contours of what was happening. In my experience, many people think they have a good grasp of what is occurring in a courtroom, and why; but the fact is, they don’t. Watching every season of Law & Order does not make you an expert. The legal system can be like a foreign language, and it takes a lot of work and knowledge to translate it. This is not to say that all court reporting is good or even wholly accurate, but it’s pretty consistent, and most of the people who do it are pros who have been around the courtroom block.
But now, with the speed and scope of social media, anyone, anywhere, can comment on what is happening in a trial without stepping foot in the courtroom, and these opinions can be consumed by millions of people within minutes. And all in 140 characters of a tweet whose power far exceeds its constitution or composition. Unfiltered and uncurated, the public is left to discern what is and is not true. Having lived with social media for several years now, we know that it is easy to incite the mob. Jon Ronson, in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, gives numerous examples of ordinary people who have been outed on social media and have had their careers, if not their lives, destroyed because the digital mob, incited to outrage, has demanded their heads on a platter. In the old days, wading into a public shaming required a person to actually step outside of their home and engage with the mob. Now, it can be done from the convenience of one’s couch, in complete anonymity. You don’t even have to stand up to throw stones.
The democratization of communication through social media has value, bringing to the fore stories and views that historically have no platform and no audience. But it is important to filter our reliance on social media by remembering that it is unrestricted and posting a blog does not require a single qualification. Not all commentary is created equally or, more accurately, created by people who are equally qualified to make it. This brave new electronic global village cannot be rewound. I am not advocating that it should be. It is not reasonable or practical to think that social-media commentary can be meaningfully censored or that we can trust Facebook, Google, or Twitter to do that filtering. They are corporations that owe us and our democracy nothing. But we do still have control over one thing – our reactions. We do not have to simply agree with other people’s conclusions. We still have independent will, even in the digital age. We do not have to be persuaded by or believe everything we read. And surely our reaction, mob-like in its intensity and quickness, should be held in check.
The internet lacks integrity. It doesn’t have a truthfulness or accuracy meter. In fact, as numerous writers have identified, the people that hold the key to information that is disseminated to us from Facebook to Google do not filter for truthfulness or accuracy. The disseminators can’t be trusted to be knowledgeable, much less give us the whole truth. So it falls upon us, the users, to attempt to discern what is and is not real, and what is and is not worth reacting to.
Here’s my worry. Sorting the fake news from the real news is hard enough, but add to that the challenge of sourcing informed, reasoned, non-inflammatory commentary and it is no wonder that the public is frequently and quickly inflamed about the justice system. If QAnon can convince thousands of people that the Democrats are a pedophilic secret society, why would we think that the justice system is immune from digital distortion?
I’m still an optimist. I think that if the public is provided with good old-fashioned information, they will be able to engage in a meaningful debate and ask the right questions. An informed public is the antidote to a mob, seduced as it is by the speed of the technology at hand, its own ignorance of facts and history, and its need to do something, anything, in the name of “justice.”
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