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A tale of two teitas
Michelle Nasrine Kemp
by Michelle Nasrine Kemp
June 4th, 2014 (10 Comments)
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“Nous u Nous”, half-breed, half-Arabic…that’s what I am. My mom is a Christian Palestinian and my father is from America. I always felt that I wasn’t enough Arabic for my mom’s family but too Arabic for my dad’s side. It’s a wonderful and weird combination of heritage and even more so as a child.

The most influential people in my life besides my parents are my grandparents… mainly my Grandma and Teita. Now I’m not going to choose which one was the best grandparent, but I will tell you the differences that these two women had were so great, it was a miracle that they could be in the same room together. Actually, now that I think of it, they were very good friends!

Like all Teitas, food was the main focus of their lives. It was everything to my Teita. It showed love of family and she loved to feed us all. She would wake up at 5 a.m. every morning and cook huge pots of Kusa and Warak Dawali for all 3 of her daughters’ families. She made sure that all of her grandchildren ate well and grew up on her cooking.

I would love afternoon visits from my Teita when she would bring us taboulleh and kibbe or whatever she decided to make that day. My grandma, who incidentally lived 2 houses down from me, made me feel lucky if she heated me up a can of Spaghetti O's. I love American food and BBQ’s too, but to me growing up with food made by my Teita was the best part of being half-Arab.

Teitas are not all perfect though (thank goodness she is not alive to read this, God Bless her), because at Christmas, I was definitely happy to have an American grandmother who knew the importance of what any American kid wanted for Christmas: TOYS! While a hand-knit sweater made by Teita was nice, my Grandma loaded me up with at least 20 presents to open. They were always new Barbie Dolls or Easy Bake Ovens. My Teita didn’t understand why giving toys to a kid were so important as it wasn’t part of her beliefs, and she thought we were too little to appreciate it. One year, I even got a broken watch from Teita because she thought I wouldn’t notice. ”Look, it’s like toy! You can pretend it works!”

Communication with my grandmothers was as totally opposite as it gets.  My Teita spoke to me in Arabic. She wanted to teach me the language. My grandma was quiet, but I could talk to her for days about things in my life and I didn’t have to back up and translate or draw a picture of it.

On my Arab side of the family, we greet everyone with a double kiss, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve never the person before. I always kissed as a hello and goodbye because that is the custom I was raised on. However, being that I am not fully Arab, I tried this on my American side of the family, and it was not as warmly received. My grandma would say “Oh, here comes the kisser!” when I would come visit. Then, I just knew that I needed to put that custom away when I was at my grandma’s house, but then I went into full kissing mode at Teita’s house. I learned really quick how to adapt to my surroundings like a true survivor!

I never knew how much my Teita had her nose into everything my mom did until I got married and started my own family. From how to treat your husband to raising your kids, they are so involved (more like interfering, but I’m trying to be nice). Arab grandmothers are the true matriarchs of the family and they call the shots. I couldn’t imagine having two Teitas. They would be over our house constantly trying to outdo each other. The cooking alone would have made me obese by age 6.

As for the American grandma, she was always behind the scenes. She was there if you needed her, but she didn’t want to bother my mom.   She never interfered with my parents’ marriage and didn’t try to give unwanted advice in child rearing. She was always neutral and stayed out of their business as much as possible. I never understood why, but maybe it had something to do with my Teita and not wanting to interfere with her interfering.

These two women had different ways of life, but to me, everything made sense. The best part of their time together is when they went to the “old country” back in the 80's. My grandmother loved the whole experience, the culture, the family, and the food. My Teita took her to every cousin’s house, and they even traveled to Egypt too. When they got back from the trip, I could tell they became the best of friends. My Teita would make her the same dishes of food that my grandmother had enjoyed overseas. The look on my Teita’s face when my grandma asked for the recipe was priceless! Grandma didn’t know that Arabic women never wrote down recipes.

Up until my Teita passed away, I had never seen my grandma get emotional. It was something that most Americans just don’t do. At the funeral, I told her that she was my only grandma left.   I was taken by surprise that my grandma actually gave me a hug and kiss! I think my Teita may have rubbed off on her! Several years later, even in the last days of my grandma’s life, she wanted to eat Warak Dawali again… and even after she tasted it she said it wasn't as good as my Teita’s.

 

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* Michelle Nasrine Kemp is a wife, mother of 2, advertising sales rep, and writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Comments (10)
  1. Great article. “Look, it’s like toy!” Still laughing…

  2. You are a great stoty teller and took me down a much missed visit with aunt ellen. You are the best combination of an american and wonderful arab women.

  3. Beautiful

  4. Tanya Kasim ... June 7th, 2014 - 08:11

    Michelle, I, too, am a nous-nous kid and my mother’s maiden name is Kemp. I had a teita who was Circassian and a grandma who was American of English and Scottish descent, and the latter would tell me and my sisters that my Circassian teita gave her a ring I admired. Although the two women never met, it was interesting to imagine what their first meeting would have been like. I should also add that I have some Irish and Arab blood to add to the mix. ;-)

  5. Efi Chavez ... June 7th, 2014 - 09:19

    Wonderful story of love and tolerance. God keep them best friends in heaven.

  6. Excellent story! Reading it felt like a stroll down memory lane of my upbringing.

  7. Marcelo Devilat Marzouka ... June 16th, 2014 - 01:08

    Great story! As a chilean-palestinian I was deeply touched.

  8. Robert Sweiss ... June 19th, 2014 - 01:07

    Very nice article. Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience.


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