All posts by Michelle Nasrine Kemp

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

Celebrating, Lebanese-style

Last weekend, I ventured back to my hometown of Flint, Michigan and attended the annual Mid-East Festival hosted by Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church. As soon as I drove in to park my car, I was greeted by two handsome guys that said if I stuck around until the fireworks, they would have a beer with me! Awesome! I still got it!

The scents of home wafted in the air. I could smell the kibbee, falafel, shawarma and kabab cooking in the food tent. I was so giddy, and I couldn’t wait until I got my favorite comfort foods to sample for lunch. And I got a lot of variety to sample for sure! There was tabouleh, warak dawali, hummus, kefta, spinach pies, gherribeh, baklava, just to name a few. I was going to have to come back for something to different to try the next day.

I was so happy to see my Aunt Rhonda busy working with the food because that’s how I knew it was going to be delicious. I also was excited to see my cousins working on the grill. This was my home and not only did I fill up with the food, but also with an enormous pride of my family and heritage.

The food was exactly as I expected: Incredible! I sat with my cousins and talked and ate until I could not take another bite. Then the entertainment started. Of course, we were on Arabic time, so everything ran late. The belly dancers hit the stage and they were getting the crowd into it, asking them to participate and dance with them. Next was the dancing girls’ troupe that performed a beautiful routine with colorful flags and outfits that jingled with coins.

There was also a wonderful live band that entertained the people with classic Arabic songs. I would look into the crowd and see a lady lip-syncing. She knew all the words, but the best part about it was the attitude she had when singing.   The facial expression of pain or love, bobbing her head from side to side with a little shoulder shrug, putting emphasis on every word, it was almost better watching her than the dancers or the band.

My heart was overflowing and I felt at peace with the world. As all the fighting in Gaza is too horrifying to process, many in attendance celebrated their heritage and we all came together in unison to raise money for the church. There is a time and place for politics, but I decided to focus on the simple pleasures of food, family and fun for one weekend in the summer.

Fellaheen rule!

All my life, I was so worried that I was going to turn into “fellaheen.” My mom would use it as a warning to keep my behavior in check. I found myself yesterday using it in a sentence. “Go brush your hair so you don’t look like fellaheen!” I yelled to my daughter.

But what I thought was labeled “fellaheen” and what it actually was are totally different. (“Fellaheen is the plural of “fellah,” meaning “farmer” or “villager”) I thought that a fellah was an Arab redneck or homeless person. All the negative connotations were attached to it. I had to do some research to find out that it is a group of people that are farmers or peasants.   Actually, they own their own land and are choosing to live as farmers. Wikipedia says that the translation “misrepresents Palestinian fellahin society, because traditional European usage refers to someone who does not own the land they farm, whereas the fellahin of Palestine own the land, and the means of production, together.”

We have farmers in America and have our own stereotypes about them which may or may not be true. I picture a farmer to be wearing a cowboy hat, flannel shirt and jeans, speaking in a southern accent and driving a tractor. I also picture fellaheen to be draped in scarves, walking around with huge jugs on their head. But after looking further into it, you can see that is not the case. The modern farmers are business people, and some even own large companies. The fellaheen are not like the American farmers, but they are not like how I pictured them either.   They sell organic foods in the markets and keep the agricultural economy alive.

They are choosing to live in the ways of their ancestors because of cultural and religious beliefs. These are people that are upholding traditions that go back thousands of centuries. That takes a lot of discipline and persistence. I think that some people look up to them for having those traits. For example, Jack Kerouac wrote about the fellaheen in Lonesome Traveler.   Even though it’s a word with Arabic origins, he uses it to describe a group of Mexicans. Go figure! He makes them seem like they are not part of the modern world and writes, “…but you can find it, this feeling, this fellaheen feeling about life, that timeless gayety of people not involved in great cultural and civilization issues.” I also searched on Facebook and found a music band called Fellaheen. Weird music but I give them credit for coming up with a great name!

I’m not sure why I never found out for myself what fellaheen were all about until now. Like all types of cultures, you get an image in your head and a stereotype along with it. I even thought about Jeff Foxworthy… “You might be fellaheen if you…”

The fellaheen are very important to the Middle Eastern culture and history. They have been around since ancient times and their way of life will be around undoubtedly for many more centuries. So, what the heck was I so afraid of when I was told to not be like them? Now, if someone says I look like a fellaheen, I will just say “Thank you” and walk away with pride.

Arab American kids, then and now

When I think of my kids growing up, with all the new advances in technology, and how different it was when I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I feel bad for them. Sure, they have so many great things like iPads and Xbox games. And they don’t have to deal with the pain of rewinding VCR tapes or waiting for slow dial-up internet connections. I’m not really talking about those types of common things. I’m talking about what it was like growing up in my world versus theirs. Not only did I spend hours making mix tapes like my other childhood friends, I also had a unique childhood that only children of immigrants will understand.

When I was growing up, my parents lived within walking distance of ten different sets of relatives. Every day at our house, people were coming and going. We had a lot of people around, and there was never a dull moment!   Also, we would visit a lot of relatives during the week. I don’t know how everyone had the time to sit and talk over coffee back then.

I moved away from my hometown when I started my own family, and if my kids want to see the nearest grandparent, we have to travel 25 minutes by car. They aren’t surrounded by hundreds of relatives on any given day. If it wasn’t for social networking, no one in my large family would even see my kids for years. Thank goodness for Facebook!

My kids won’t ever know what it was like to have dinner over an auntie’s house on some random Tuesday. She would have a dozen plates of food and snacks out to eat and a dozen relatives to greet. They will never know what it’s like to walk in to the smell of Arabic coffee filling the house and a barrage of cousins to play hide and seek with.

If I didn’t want to play outside, I’d have to prepare to be bombarded with cigar smoke from the other room and watch the adults in the family play cards for hours. I still can remember the laughter, the smells of arak, coffee and cigar smoke all mixed together and hovering in the air. And the music! There was always someone there that knew how to sing and play the oud.

My kids will never hear stories of their parents’ childhood in the old country and how hard it was to live there. And, of course, there are all the stories of how my elders came to this country with no money in their pockets. I don’t have any stories of hardship really, unless you count living in a trailer park for a few years in the 70s a hardship.

One more thing that makes our upbringings different is that my children will never know how to communicate with people who only speak Arabic. I used to have to force myself to decipher the words in order understand my aunt and teita.   Sometimes drawing pictures was the only way. I got really good at charades too!

This kind of frustration can sometimes be seen when my son tries to help my mom on the computer. He wishes she understood technology more. One time he asked her to look something up on the internet, and she was clueless, staring blankly at the screen. Then she said, “Why don’t I just Google it?”

When they go to school, they will never know the joy of teaching your fellow classmates how to curse in another language. I went to a Catholic school. But for some reason, saying bad words in another language didn’t feel like I was committing a sin. Then I taught some friends what I was saying. Soon enough, I had the whole second grade speaking in a way that would make a sailor blush. It sounded harmless in Arabic and it was glorious to have a secret language that the nuns couldn’t interpret. If they asked me where I heard this language, I would innocently tell them, “From my grandmother.” Teita cussed so much in Arabic that it would even make Eminem say, “Damn!”

Also, my kids won’t be exposed to people with accents. I was always picked for roles in theater class that required having an accent. I was a professional. In high school, my class was putting together a Saturday Night Live-type project. We had short news stories, commercials and other parodies filmed on video. Since it was the 80’s, I was working with a small group, helping to create a commercial parody. I was dressed like Muammar al-Gaddafi in my dad’s old military suit. We called it “Gaddafi’s Corner” and made it like a commercial for a convenience store that sold guns, ammo and hostages.

Today, this would not be acceptable for a school project, but back then we got an “A+”! I still remember some of the lines that I said in a thick Arabic accent. “Come on down to Gaddafi’s Corner… we got all your rebel war needs! Hostages… buy one, get two free! Ak-47’s are half-off!” Looking back on it, I cringe, but it was all meant to be in fun. Now, since there have been so many violent attacks in school, there is no way this type of activity would be permitted. I mean, we even had real unloaded rifles as props in our show!!

I feel bad that my kids won’t get to have similar experiences growing up as me but they will surely have great childhood memories of their own. I’m sure one day I’ll hear about all sorts of stories about what they liked and disliked growing up. But one thing is for sure: memories are to be always cherished, and those are the times that shape who we are as individuals.

Little sister’s big trip

A month from now, my little sister is embarking on a trip of a lifetime to Nazareth. She will be staying with my mother’s cousins. For 2 weeks, she will be living as they do and experiencing the best of what Arab culture has to offer. She is in her twenties and single, so the first thing that comes to my mind is to give her some (unsolicited) advice. As the big sister, I feel it is my duty to protect her and help the best I can, like I always try to do. So for her, I have made a checklist that I think will help her when visiting the “old country”.

1. Pack light, or better yet, bring an extra suitcase for things that you are going to be given by relatives to take back home. Make sure you bring gifts too. You should bring lots of gifts for various cousins that you’ve never met before.

2. Pack a lot of nice outfits. You never know if you are going to a wedding or visiting another relative’s house. They might have a fancy party for you every night. Be prepared.

3. Don’t worry about learning Arabic. They will teach you! You’ll come back with all kinds of phrases that you can’t learn from books.

4. Tell the U.S. Embassy that you are coming so they have a record of you being there. Keep your passport on your person at all times. There’s this new RFID blocking passport wallet that you should think about getting. Maybe I’ll get it for you in pink!

5. Stay away from anything with “hashish” in it.   Don’t drink too much arak. Stay sober. No one likes a drunk American.

6. If an aunt or cousin offers you something to eat, eat it and say that it’s delicious. It’s an insult to not eat the food they make for you. Oh, and prepare to gain at least 10 lbs!

7. Try not to make eye contact and smile at any single men while you are there, even if it is your cousin!   Unless you want to bring home a husband, then flirt away!

8. You will constantly be surrounded by people and loudness. So be prepared for high noise levels and people in your face. Personal space is non-existent. Also, keep in mind, they are not fighting when they yell, that is just how they talk. If you think they are talking about you in Arabic, they are. Just keep smiling and nod!

9. You are never going to have “me” time over there. They love you and will be on a mission to make sure every moment you have with them is the best! Bring a good camera with A/C adapters to keep your electronics charged and ready to go to capture those moments. Plus, they have Facebook over there, so I expect to see all your photos daily. Don’t skimp on the picture posts!

10. You don’t have to bring me back a souvenir, you should bring me back several, especially gold jewelry. Better yet, I’ll give you a pre-paid Visa card to buy me stuff from the Holy Land.

I’m happy for you and excited that you are going to see where our mother came from. I wish I could go with you, but I will be there in spirit.   Now, I’m going to sulk in private and just know that I’m jealous but still love you! Have an amazing trip little sister!


Why am I cooking grape leaves?

Like all good Arab daughters, I too have dabbled in the realm of Arabic cooking. So what food did I decide to make that would be my signature dish? Warak Dawali (stuffed grape leaves) and Kusa Mihshi (stuffed squash), of course! Not only are these my favorite Arabic meals of all time, they looked super easy to make. Even though my mom lived 2 hours away, I said to myself, “I got this!”

My husband and kids are picky eaters, so I did not even try to make them eat this. I was going to make them for me and for any friend that dares to try them. I would impress all my neighbors and relatives with pictures of my big pot of grape leaves and stuffed squash posted on Facebook. All of my cousins would be wishing that they lived closer for a bite to eat.

Every once in a while, I get a craving for them, and when I eat Kusa and Warak Dawali, it feels like I am home again. I can remember driving around Flint, Michigan when I was a little girl with my Teita.  She pulled over to park under an expressway yelled at me to help her. “Yella Nasrine! Ti-alley hone! (Come here!) Help me pick these leaves!” I’d think, “Ok, so I guess we’re having grape leaves from the abandoned highway tonight. Yum!” Whatever it took, I would find the ones that passed my Teita’s inspection.

Since I didn’t want to drive around looking for wild grape leaves, I ventured out to my nearest Arabic food market. The grape leaves that I picked for dinner were pre-packaged in a jar. Sorry Teita, but it’s a matter of convenience.

Next, I picked out some fresh Kusa squash. Not too big, not too small. I already have a tool that carves out the inside of the squash from my mom. If you don’t have one, you should ask your parents, because they probably have 10 of them in the utensil drawer.

After I got the ground meat, rice and 7-spice, I headed home to prepare. Now, this is when I made a call to my mom. She loves Skype, but usually I call her and Skype at the same time because it takes 10 minutes for her to figure out how the computer works. But that is another story!

Anyway, she told me to boil the leaves really well and rinse them a few times. Then she explained how to mix the rice, spices and meat.  Then she said I should taste it. What? I am not doing that.   My mom would taste it and season it before cooking, but the thought of tasting raw meat and rice was unappealing to me. But, this is old school cooking, and that’s what they did.

Next, it was time to stuff and roll the leaves up into what I think looks like cigars. As a kid, I used to pretend I was smoking them like cigars before taking a big bite.  Hey, you did it too!

I had high hopes that maybe I inherited the tricks of the trade for rolling a tight (but not too tight) dawali. My mom and Teita had me doing this since I could remember, so it all came back to me. Well, some of the memory is fuzzy, but I think I did pretty well. I carved the Kusa and rolled leaves like a champ. I also covered the pot with a plate (even though I had a lid) and filled the right amount of water like how I remembered my mom doing it. I let it slowly simmer for hours.

After I saw that the leaves turned darker, I thought about biting into one. So I took one out.  It unraveled in my hand! Where did I go wrong? Another one was bursting, with rice and meat coming out of the sides. And then the spices were off and the rice was mushy. I just spent all day making a disaster!

So I called my mom back and she said to wait until she came over to visit and she would make me some. But that was not the point. I wanted to make it perfectly. So I kept trying, and the next time it was a little better. I was the only one who ate them, so I didn’t care if it was a little off. No one would notice in the pictures, and I could brag to my family and friends that I did it myself.

Now, when I get a craving for Warak Dawali and Kusa, I know just what to do. I learned how to make it over time with practice and patience. I learned that you have to make Arabic food with love and care. You have to make sure all the ingredients are just right and taste-test it to know what to add. I will remember all the little things, like not to roll them too tight or too loose. Also, I will not to forget the Laban (yogurt) for dipping. Yes, when I get homesick and want some comfort food I’ll know just what to do. I’ll go to the Arabic food market and order some from Mary, because she makes it just like my mom.

Here’s a recipe for those who want to experiment.

More Arab than you?

I was recently at a friend’s party and I heard someone say, “Because I’m Lebanese.” That was her answer to another lady that asked her why she was so tan.   I immediately gravitated towards her and started asking her a ton of questions! I was so happy when I found out that her dad was Lebanese and her mom was American, mostly Dutch roots. I’ve found a kindred spirit! One of us! One of us!

After asking her some questions I started to feel less and less camaraderie. She was not like me at all. I asked her what her favorite Arabic food was, and she said she hated them all and that her body would convulse at the thought. I asked her if she knew the language and she shook her head “no,” like this concept of learning Arabic was strange.

This made me think that maybe it’s different for us half-Arabs to have a mother that is Arab than a father that is Arab. So I did some research. I googled all kinds of things that would help me figure out why some of my cousins with one Arab parent seemed more immersed in the culture. I didn’t find anything on the internet, but I did my own study with a huge test demographic: my own family!

Here’s what I found out:

Some of my cousins that were raised by an Arab dad and American mom felt that they didn’t get the full Arab experience because their dads were busy working and their moms were at home. They didn’t eat the food growing up as much as they would have liked because their moms did most of the cooking. As much as the moms would have loved to learn how to make Arabic food, it’s a hard thing to learn mainly because Arabic mother-in-laws didn’t write down the recipes. That might change now that everything is on YouTube! (Watch out, teitas everywhere!)

My “half-half” cousins felt that they would have learned more Arabic at home if they had more time with their Arab dads teaching them the language. Since Arab dads worked all the time and spent little time at home with their children, it was a lot of work to train their kids on how to speak, read and write Arabic, unless he brought them to work with him at the store and taught them throughout the day, but this was a near impossible task.

Some of my cousins were lucky enough to have Arab dads that knew how to cook and raised them on the customs. They felt that they were really immersed in the culture.   They were not lacking in knowing more about the Arab culture at all.

Well, that just blew apart my whole theory! So, what makes us feel like we are more Arab than other half-Arab people? If it’s not our moms versus our dads raising us up in a mixed home, then what is it?

I think the more cousins I asked, the more I started to realize than it all depends on the individual. I was given a choice to embrace the customs and culture the older I got. If someone is not interested, then I think he will not gravitate towards the Arab side of his heritage.

I have always leaned towards learning more Arab traditions and language, and I teach them to my own children. I thought it was because my mom was Arab, and if I had had an Arab dad, it would not be this way. Now, I’m thinking that it really has nothing to do with it all, and that it’s only up to me.

It’s not a competition, and there is no trophy for winning the “Most Arab” award. We can all be proud that we have inherited a culture rich with great music, food and traditions.   Besides, we all know I would totally kick my cousin Joy’s butt if there were an award for Arabic karaoke singing!

A tale of two teitas

“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.