Between Their Arab Past and American Present

With each leg of my grandparents’ journey—from Damascus and Istanbul to New York and finally Los Angeles—the markers of their previous lives fell away: my grandmother’s first language, the Koran, the prayer rug, the community of Arab émigrés in Brooklyn. Though certain customs remained: Neither of my grandparents ever learned to drive, and they always spoke Arabic at home. They preferred my grandfather’s Syrian cooking to what they called American food, and didn’t cotton to eating in restaurants or taking vacations. In Los Angeles, they were content to live apart from the mainstream, within the bounds of home, family, and the community of Armenian and Lebanese immigrants who, like my grandparents, found California’s weather and geography agreeably familiar.

In the assimilation that took place between the first and second generation, the tensions between the old and new were constant. When my father came of age, he didn’t care to be matched with the young women my grandmother called Syrian girls. His brothers felt the same, and the result was four intercultural marriages, each a hybrid but uniform in its shedding of Arab identity and customs. None of the grandchildren in the third generation were taught to speak Arabic. Nothing of the religious or cultural identity was passed down. This, more than anything, brought about the break with our history: the missing knowledge of our ethnocultural past. Without it, there was only the sense of our difference, one that was at once deeply rooted and unfamiliar.

In Catapult, Lauren Alwan narrates her family’s migration from Syria to California to explore how people’s evolving identities help gain them a foothold in America and create unintentional tensions across generations.

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