by Margo Abdo O’Dell
An iron-ore mining company in northern Minnesota hired a great-great uncle of mine, from Edjubra, Lebanon, as an accountant. They call that northern Minnesota mining area, “The Range.” After working “on the range” a few years, his sister’s husband became ill working “on the range” a few years, his sister’s husband became ill and unable to financially care for his family who also lived in Ejdubra.
This great-great uncle told his sister, my great-grandmother Naseema, to come to Minnesota and he would find her work.
What a brave woman - BIS MA SALEEB. The burden of the family’s survival was hers. With no English skills, at the turn of the 20th century, she made her way to America - alone - armed only with determination and her sewing basket.
To make a long story short, Naseema financially succeeded and provided for her family. For an unknown number of years, she sewed for the prostitutes “on the range.” As the story goes, they loved her - and her embroidery, her crochet work, and sewing. In return, they paid her handsomely and taught her to read and write English.
Then, the next generation came to Minnesota.
Naseema’s daughter, my Sittee (Grandmother) Hasna, came to America when she was sixteen years old. Recently married to my Grandfather, ten years her senior, they were coming to make a new life. I was always told that Jiddee (Grandfather) yearned for America since he was a boy. Was it because the Turks had killed his two older brothers?
Or did it have something to do with an event later in his life? A family story is told where Jiddee was supposed to marry one of Sittee’s older sisters. But he fell in love and married her, quickly left for America, and never wanted to return to Lebanon. I always wondered why. Were the older sisters still waiting for him?
My childhood memories among immigrant Lebanese families in “Nordeast” Minneapolis are punctuated with the smells of garlic, lemon and tobacco. The view from a child’s height was of old women dressed in black, mysterious dark interiors, heavy floral wallpaper and worn carpeting. And the sounds of the city were background noise to the strange Arabic conversation and music that wafted through the thin walls.
I found it scary. I didn’t want to visit the old women who stroked my cheek and cooed to me in a foreign language. But at least they were attentive. The old men simply ignored the children. If they spoke to us at all, it was to tell us to quiet down –“SIDDEE BOU ZIK.” Those were definitely the days of children being seen and not heard, in a variety of cultures.
As I got a bit older, I spent many afternoons baking KHUBZ (Arabic bread) with my Sittee, listening to her old world stories and advice, and being entertained by her charming broken English that I continue to imitate today. My beloved Sittee passed away many years ago but her memory lives on.
An especially intriguing topic in our conversations was the Evil Eye. As a child, I couldn’t decide if the stories were fact or fiction. But for an American kid, such as myself, they were much more entertaining than ghost stories.
She told of a man in Ejdubra whose wife could not bare children. One day, he passed a home where a set of infant twins lay outside in a basket. This was the home of a family with many children. Because of his jealousy, it is said; he gave the twins the evil eye. On the same day, the twins died and the image of the eye was found on their bodies.
Sitte's father owned a cow that provided much needed milk for the people in the village. One evening, this same man walked behind the cow when Sittee's father was bringing it home for milking. The cow was full and night had fallen when it was milked. When the pails were brought into the light, they were filled with blood.
Sittee also told me stories about the Evil Eye that took place in America.
Sittee gave birth to my Uncle Khalil at home (as she did all nine of her children). A female relative of this same man was in the room when Khalil was born. For nine months, the baby cried, was very thin and did not grow at a normal rate.
And yet, the same woman was in the house when my Aunt Joan was born.
But the doctor made sure the door was closed so the woman would not see the newborn. Aunt Joan was a beautiful, plump, healthy baby. People frequently told Sitttee what a gorgeous child she was – SMALLAH. One day when Sittee was strolling Aunt Joan, that same woman stared into the baby carriage. Sittee always believed Aunt Joan's life-long unhappiness and poor health were a result of that incident.
My conversations with Sittee were not always of the paranormal. She spoke of her childhood, her pet goat and why she was deathly afraid of camels. She reminisced about her exciting boat journey to America and her first taste of beer. She told me how the first neighbor she befriended in Minneapolis taught her how to smoke – although I don’t think Sittee ever inhaled! Our bread baking sessions were always educational and I learned at a young age that Sittee was adamant about her beliefs.
For someone who grew up in a male dominated culture with limited options, journeyed to a foreign country so young, not speaking a word of English, she was resolute in her advice to me, which included:
- warning me to be easier on my boyfriends and not to expect so much;
- suggesting that I not know my husband too well before we marry because there wouldn’t be any mystery left;
- telling me to be wary of getting too plump, as she continually pushed delicious home cooked meals at me;
- ensuring I served the male relatives first when family came to visit.
Sittee’s stories of the Evil Eye may have been as difficult to swallow as some of her advice, but I never let on.
I adored her.