“These guys went to America!”
Random boys playing on Korneich would gather around me and my brother, Hamoudi, and ask questions about America. Their eyes flickered with excitement.
“Did you see Michael Jackson?!”
“How are the girls there?!”
“Did you meet Rambo?!”
Going to America was not a common thing if you live in UAE in the 80’s. If you live in Khor Fakkan, that makes it even more unbelievable.
My mother would shop for most of our clothes from America. We dressed in American fashion most of the time. My mother is from the Bazzi family, from the city of Bintjbail in South Lebanon. Bintjbailers form the majority of immigrants from Lebanon in the Detroit area. Now they form the majority of Dearborn to an extent that you can call Dearborn a second Bintjbail.
The first Bazzi to immigrate to Dearborn did so in the late 1800’s. I didn’t know the story till I asked my uncle, Khattar, couple years ago. The reason I wanted to know is that of a racist Border Patrol Office at the Ambassador Bridge Canada-USA entry point. Here is the story:
I was crossing the border coming back from Canada with my wife and kids, coming back from Toronto. The Border Patrol Officer asked me how I got my citizenship since I wasn’t born in the U.S.
“I got it through my mother”
“And how did your mother get it?”
“She got it through her mother”, I said. I was waiting for the racist punch line.
“And how did she get it”
“I don’t know,” I said, and here it came:
“You see, it is like a rolling snowball”!
As far as I know, a rolling snowball has a negative connotation. It describes a negative event, not a positive one. The last thing I want to do as an Arab American, Muslim American, dark-bearded, Dearborn-living, UAE-born, citizen is to argue with a Border Patrol white officer with a blond mustache, and blue eyes, while his President is Trump. so I didn’t say anything. I am just waiting to pass in peace back to my country. The only government that gives me a hard time in passing is my government. The problem is, I can’t call the embassy when the border patrol officers are the harassers.
What I really wanted to reply is to ask him “How about you? How did you get your citizenship?”
And if he says I was born here, I would ask him how about your parents, and keep asking him till we find the immigrant grandparent, then I would say: “You see, it is a snowball effect”.
When I came back, I thought to myself, “How did my Grandmother get her citizenship?” So I decided to ask my uncle, and he told me the story that goes all the way back to 1870’s when the first Bazzi left Bintjbail and came to New York, then to Detroit. It turned out that we had veterans from World War I and World War II in the family, and that our family probably had deeper roots in the US than the blond mustached officer.
My maternal grandparents, Yousef Saleem Bazzi and Mariam Mohamad Saeed Bazzi had 6 girls and 3 boys. 2 of my aunts and two of my uncles were living in the US at that time along with my grandmother. We would visit and stay with my grandmother during different years.
My earliest recollection of such a visit, I was probably 7 or 8 years old. I remember the old bags, now called retro, with their so boxy feel and heavy exterior. I remember my father’s 80’s black mustache. I also remember the long trip in the smoking section of airplanes. Yes! Smoking section! Airplanes had smoking sections were people smoked in the airplane, and the ashtrays were attached to the arm handles. I remember getting sick in the airplane. We travelled mostly on British airways, and we stopped at Heathrow for few hours.
I don’t remember pleasant traveling experience to the USA. I mean the journey itself. My parents were always stressed, always over packed (just like most arabs), and seemed confused. They didn’t speak good English, and any change to the itinerary would throw them off. We mostly travelled with my mother, and my father followed, or left earlier.
My mom stresses out very easily over anything pretty much. I feel she is stressed by default. I don’t even recall her not stressed. The memory of her being stressed overwhelms everything else. I mean, it wasn’t all inherent or internal. Many of what stresses her out was out of her control, and due to dealing with all the non-expectancies of life, ill preparation, or lack of responsibility of others.
My maternal grandmother, Mariam, Im Fouad [mother of Fouad], is a wise well-read strong woman. She immigrated in the early 70’s to the U.S. with her younger daughters and sons, and established a life out of nothing, with no English, and no money. I am not very sure about the details, but I know that my grandfather has married a second wife while married to her, and that was the end of their relationship. Very soon, she found a way to flee the war torn region, and the dysfunctionality of the family, and start a new life in a new continent from scratch.
This time, which was the first trip to America I can recall, my father travelled with us at the same time, and we arrived to Detroit Metro Airport, where several relatives are waiting for us at the door of the gate. My mom hasn’t seen her family for years, and we pretty much didn’t know my grandma, aunts and uncles in America. Rare expensive phone calls were made, with poor quality, shouting across the line to make the other hear you, and then sending back and forth cassettes with voice recordings were the only ways of communciation. We gathered around the cassette player to hear my grandma or aunts speaking to us, in a one way, severely delayed, messages, but full of love and emotions. The reception in the airport was tearful, passionate, and dramatic.
My grandmother lived in a small second floor apartment of a small house in Detroit, above my great aunt (her sister Im Hassan). I think it was a two bedroom apartment. They gave us one bedroom to sleep in that barely fit a queen bed, and everyone else slept in the other room. I woke up to my mom’s unpacking the bags, and distributing gifts.
It was Detroit in the 70’s. Muscle cars, Holkogin and WWE wrestling, Michael Jackson, Madonna, the birth of Pop, and Detroit was devastated by the civil riots that took place in the 60’s. One of my uncles worked in a gas station while studying mechanical engineering, and the other worked as a security guard, guarding various locations as needed. My aunts worked in restaurants and went to school. It was a simple happy life. We became friends with some of the Arab kids in the neighborhood, and spent ourtime running around the neighborhood. But at night, it became dangerous, and we needed to be in doors before sunset.
Often the streets at night filled with cars with loud music, and African American guys and girls danced in the streets. Gunshots were familiar, and fights were random and frequent. Me and my brother Hamoudi were too innocent and young to understand racial divisions, tensions, racism, crime, and other American signature dishes. We just played with everyone, and took our dimes and nickels to the liquor store to buy delicious American candy.
Our relatives took us to parks, Niagara Falls, to Houston once, to california another, but I don’t remember out of these trips anything but exhaustion. Playing in the neighborhood with friends were more memorable, and eating pizza delivered by my aunt’s fiance was the most delicious meal ever.
Everytime we would visit America again in few years, my aunts and uncles would be older, more well off and established, and everyone in newer houses. America would be a little changed. Eventually, by the late 80’s, everyone was living in Dearborn, mostly white city at that time, with nice cars, degrees, few kids running around, and professions. My grandmother remained the rock around which everyone gathered and she unified the family and brought wisdom and stability to the group.