By Hani M. Bathish
The Daily Star, February 26, 2008
Raff Ellis' 'Kisses from a Distance' delves into the lure of migration, a subject that resonates deeply for nearly every Lebanese family today
BEIRUT: Lebanese-American author Raff Ellis' "Kisses from a Distance"
unfolds like a quintessential immigrant's tale. It follows a Lebanese
story that is as relevant and familiar to today's Levantine audience as
it would have been 100 years ago. Over the book's 311 pages, which are
peppered with relevant and exhaustively researched history, Ellis tugs
readers along on a journey down the snow-capped mountains of Lebanon,
over land, across seas and oceans and into many strange and distant
ports. The story anchors in New York and allows readers to experience
the anxious excitement of the wide-eyed immigrant as he steps off the
boat and sets foot in a new country for the first time.
In "Kisses from a Distance," Ellis chronicles a very intimate family
history - his parents' marriage and migration to the United States and
their struggle to raise a family and make ends meet in the small town of
Carthage, New York, during the Great Depression. Ellis also gives
readers a glimpse of Lebanon ravaged by war, famine and disease. But he
also reveals the ways in which the country encompasses boundless hope
and countless tales of courage, triumph and success.
That success, in particular, reflects the dogged determination of
Lebanese immigrants to persevere against all odds, an attribute which
continues to serve their adopted homelands well. The author's story is
just one of innumerable ordinary, untold epics, a highly personal
account of a sad history, presenting a proud and fiercely independent
people who are all too often caught up in the region's tectonic
The genesis of Ellis' family epic came after the death of his mother,
when he discovered more than 200 letters among her personal affects. The
letters from friends and family span 60 years, starting in 1925. They
begin with traditional Lebanese greetings, and many kisses: "Kisses from
a distance ... We kiss your cheeks ... I kiss you many times from this
distance," thus inspiring the title of the book.
As Lebanese autonomy in Mount Lebanon was suspended during World War I
and the Ottomans began inflicting ever greater hardships on the
population, not least by confiscating vital food and grain stores to
feed their troops, the trickle of migration from Lebanon that began in
the late 1800s turned into a flood.
Amreeka (as the locals pronounced America) was the Holy Grail for many
Lebanese, including peasant sharecroppers and notables alike. Motivated
by great need, many Lebanese journeyed to the new world in search of
work in order to earn enough money to send home to their families.
Expatriate remittances remain a vital life line for many Lebanese
families today. But for Lebanese families circa World War I, a few
dollars from Amreeka made the difference between scraping by and
starvation, as the author points out.
Ellis' story begins in 1895 with the "forced marriage" of his maternal
grandmother, Adela el-Khazen, a postulant nun, to a suitor from the
Hobeiche clan. The arrangement was deemed a good match by her family,
and served more as a union between two notable clans than two people.
Women back then were rarely involved in intricate marriage negotiations,
and they usually acquiesced to their families' choice of husband.
Ellis' maternal grandfather, Namatallah Hobeiche, despite being a
sheikh, was one of many who migrated to the US before WWI, but who never
realized the promise of prosperity there. He died penniless in a strange
land, leaving his wife and children to struggle on in the old country.
In desperate times, wealthy expatriate suitors were seen as ideal by
many Lebanese families regardless of class and social station, which led
the author's mother Angele and her family to accept Toufic Kmeid, the
author's father, as an ideal match.
Toufic, who changed his family name to Ellis (after his grandfather
Elias) upon arrival in the US like so many immigrants before and since,
had come back to Lebanon to choose a bride. Toufic was the son of a
stone mason from the village of Bqaatouta in Kesrouan, where as a young
man he worked in the region's quarries.
In the new world, he started out as a traveling peddler and, after
making enough money, he bought his own store. The ravages of war served
to tear down many feudal class barriers as the acute need for money
superseded all other considerations. "Kisses from a Distance" offers
rare insight into a world churning with upheavals, as wars and political
ruptures transformed countless lives - some for the better but others
Angele, a prolific letter writer and a proficient linguist, corresponded
regularly with her family in Lebanon, mostly with her brothers Youssef
and Khalil, her sister Miriam and her mother Adela. Through their
letters back to Angele, readers of Ellis' account learn of her
frustration with her new life in America, her pining for Lebanon and her
unhappiness in marriage. The letters also peel back layers of her
personality and in particular her religious fervor, which was a great
source of comfort for her in the many family arguments that erupted over
money and property.
Through her correspondence with her family, Angele learns of their
struggles and frustrations, too. She learns of her sister Miriam's
untimely death from a burst appendix, her younger brother Khalil's
passing and her mother's worsening health until her ultimate demise.
Angele watches from a distance as one after another of her loved ones
The real-life dramas unfolding between the pages of these letters,
especially in the last half of Ellis' book, make for a very compelling
read, turning "Kisses from a Distance" into a veritable page-turner.
The author's visits to Lebanon, his meticulous research and his
tenacious quest to trace his family's roots - and those of all the
characters involved in this complex story - further enrich the
narrative. The well laid-out book, which is Ellis' first full-length
effort, is divided into 41 chapters ranging from four to 12 pages.
The story eventually comes full circle when the hard-working immigrant
returns to his ancestral homeland one last time. In Toufic's case, the
journey home was disappointing.
"I hope God helps whoever lives and returns to this beautiful country
for it is a bastard nation where the child does not know his father or
his brother," Toufic laments from Lebanon, in a letter to his wife dated
1965. "I do not feel sorry for any of my relatives or your relatives
even if they die from hunger because they expect a person to give them
everything he has."
For the young and intrepid immigrant who left Lebanon behind to toil in
a foreign land, Toufic must have found the attitude of his relatives
entirely foreign to his temperament.
In assessing "Kisses from a Distance," however, one ought to note the
author's penchant for using unnecessarily complicated terms to convey
simple meanings. Having a dictionary close at hand helps, but the effort
isn't entirely rewarding. The book could have also benefited from a
judicious edit to tighten up the language and eliminate the handful of
typographic and grammatical errors. But minor defects such as these do
not detract from the overall experience of the book.
As expressed in "Kisses from a Distance," the subject of migration
resonates deeply for nearly every Lebanese family today, more so than at
any time since WWI. Once again, many of Lebanon's youth are seeking work
in foreign lands to escape the instability and uncertainty in their home
country. And one suspects that when and if they return, they too, like
Toufic, will be both disappointed and dismissive.
Raff Ellis' "Kisses from a Distance" is published by Cune Press,
distributed in Lebanon by Levant, and available now in major bookshops
Use this link to buy from UK
Kisses from a Distance: An Immigrant Family Experience
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