A couple of years ago, when I lived in Massachusetts, I shared a car ride from Montreal to Boston with a guy who did the drive almost every week. We headed south on snowy roads, and began chatting about the usual vague and generic topics. “Montreal or New York bagels? How do you like living in Boston? Do you prefer Montreal?” He went back home every weekend to see his girlfriend. “Oh, Montreal isn’t home? he asked.” No. “Wait, where is home? Ah… Lebanon.”
This made approaching the border fun, with him teasing me about the questions they might ask me. “Sir, do you know any terrorists? he asked, with an artificial low-sounding American-officer-of-the-law-voice. You must get a lot of shit at airports.” I always loved those comments. “Wait, you’re not a terrorist, are you? haha.” No. Haha. I suck at fake-laughing. “You must hate the Islamophobic climate nowadays, eh? Ah, you’re not a Muslim. What are you? What do you mean, nothing? Isn’t everyone in Lebanon something?” We all need labels. A name for what we are. At least he knew more about it than many who had questioned me before him. “You were baptized? So you’re a Christian, then.” Well, if that’s how that works, then… yes, I guess. “But still, it’s not easy, I imagine?” What? “Being from Lebanon.” Being from Lebanon is not so bad. It’s telling people about it that is.
I did end up having a genuine laugh when the border-patrol person questioned him a lot longer than me. While he had to talk about his job, what he’s bringing into the country, how long he was gone, and other trivial questions, “So, you study at Boston University?” is the only question I had to answer. We continued on our way, driving through the wintery-white green-mountains of Vermont (Yes, it’s in the name), onto New Hampshire, where the highway happened to skirt a town called… Lebanon.
“Did you know that people from this town prefer to pronounce its name Leba-nen, rather than Leba-none?” No. Why do they do that? “So they can distance themselves from the country. They don’t want to be too associated with it.” Well, then why don’t they change their name? was my immediate reaction.
I later researched it, and discovered that it was named after Lebanon, Connecticut, which was itself given the Biblical name because of the height of the land, and because of a large Cedar forest. It was not named by the local Mohegan tribe that used to live there, as you will have guessed, but by the white settlers who purchased the land from them in the early days of the colonizing saga of North America: a tale far-from-devoid of war and massive killing of people, and sadly not too different from more familiar colonizing tales of the 21st century (more familiar to some, at least).
But back to Lebanon, NH: do they not realize that in British English, Leba-nen is how the country’s name is pronounced? (Leba-nen is my inexact approximation of the British pronunciation). I mean, Lebanon has produced a culinary tradition that the entire world admires. It has produced music, art, literature, all of which speak for themselves.
These people are distancing themselves from us? Who ever heard of Lebanon, New Hampshire? Even a town whose main claim to fame is being near the junction of Interstates 89 and 91 gets to snub us? This bothered me a lot, at the time. But as I thought about it, I realized it’s really all in the name, and ours is always in the news. Fox News, it’s true, but they still call it the news here. You want to be mentioned on the Food Channel, or in fun tourism documentaries, on sports channels, even comedy channels… just not on American news channels. People read your name too many times, and now they only think bad things.
I guess being unheard-of is better than being poorly-heard-of.
It got me thinking about names, and how loaded they are. So much is in a name that we don’t mention. Things we don’t even notice, things we forget, often on purpose. In the West, people name everything. The smallest ponds have names, every alley, even park benches sometimes have names. In Lebanon, if all streets have names that we wrote down somewhere, who knows them? I don’t know the names of most of Beirut’s streets where I spend my time. I’ll leave it to someone else to ponder why we avoid the practice of naming, and what it says about us, though I sometimes think it would be more useful to be explicit and precise…
Anyway, I remembered all of this earlier today when I read this article on BBC, which talks about a situation they’re having in the city of Frisco, Texas. A new high school is opening soon, and it’s going to be named after the small farming town that used to exist where the high school is being built: Lebanon High School. You might have predicted it, and it’s true: many people in town are complaining. As one resident put it, “for a high school name, it doesn’t fit this community.” Another resident added that although she appreciated the history of the name in the community (the small village of Lebanon had a long history, probably going back.. a hundred years, or who knows, maybe two, I didn’t research it) it (the name) always troubled her. “The present-tense name of a country that was in the news all the time with reference of war and battleground was always what was on my mind when I would say the name Lebanon,” a local resident told the school board.
Who can blame her? The name is always associated with bloodshed and violence today. Don’t misunderstand her: Lebanon-the-country, not the other Lebanons. The history of the small village’s name is appreciated, even though it is indirectly linked with a history of colonization, of massive murder of hundreds of thousands of native Americans, with the slavery of millions of black people for centuries… No, no, you misunderstand. All of this doesn’t matter. It’s the name, Lebanon, that disturbs. I mean… Could it just be racism? – You mean, against who? The Lebanese? Against Arabs? What do you call that kind of racism? You see, it doesn’t have a distinct name, the way anti-semitism does (although Arabs are also Semites, for God’s sake). It’s lumped with all other kinds of racisms. Even the terrifying ones, like the kind against African-Americans, who have suffered unbelievable amounts of prejudice and discrimination for centuries, and still do, even in modern-day America.
All that to say that a name is something that comes with a baggage, with images and ideas associated with it, images that we need to work on improving, not only because everyone else in the world does it with their names, but also because many in the world make sure ours is seen as negatively as it is. People in Lebanon are all about conspiracy theories, and sadly always have been. That’s also a subject for another post, but in this case, it’s not far-fetched to say that the PR campaigns from certain other countries actively work as positively on their images as they do negatively on ours. Being conscious about this would at least help us not help them.
Israelis make movies like the one named Lebanon, about their soldiers’ experiences in the 1982 war. Bands call themselves Beirut while having nothing to do with the city. Towns called Lebanon shun us. Lebanese restaurants in the US often call themselves Mediterranean, because otherwise they would lose too many clients. Now, other restaurants call themselves Mediterranean too, and sell Lebanese-style cuisine, even though they’re not Lebanese at all. It works, we’re all hiding behind signs, pretending.
Who cares what something actually is. It’s all in the name.
p.s.- This may come off as a joke, but the BBC article actually closed with the following quote from a resident of Frisco: “All we’re asking for is a voice to be heard and have an open mind.” I think it’s about time we start demanding the same.