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Remembering Childhood in the Middle East

Memoirs from a Century of Change

Collected and edited by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

Publication Year: 2002

Growing up is a universal experience, but the particularities of homeland, culture, ethnicity, religion, family, and so on make every childhood unique. To give Western readers insight into what growing up in the Middle East was like in the twentieth century, this book gathers thirty-six original memoirs written by Middle Eastern men and women about their own childhoods. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, a well-known writer of books and documentary films about women and the family in the Middle East, has collected stories of childhoods spent in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey. The accounts span the entire twentieth century, a full range of ethnicities and religions, and the social spectrum from aristocracy to peasantry. They are grouped by eras, for which Fernea provides a concise historical sketch, and include a brief biography of each contributor. The introduction by anthropologist Robert A. Fernea sets the memoirs in the larger context of Middle Eastern life and culture. As a collection, the memoirs offer an unprecedented opportunity to look at the same period in history in the same region of the world from a variety of very different remembered experiences. At times dramatic, humorous, or tragic, and always deeply felt, the memoirs document the diversity and richness of people’s lives in the modern Middle East.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This book began unexpectedly about ten years ago with the arrival of a childhood narrative in my husband Bob’s mailbox in the anthropology department at the University of Texas. “I heard that your wife was doing a book about children in the Middle East,” said the accompanying letter.“Maybe she would be interested in my story.” ...

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pp. 1-6

The narratives of Middle Eastern childhood presented here are personal histories written by individuals. In contrast, histories of nations are chronicles of groups, constructions of the past by historians. Such historical writing is a shared effort, part of an ongoing discourse in which scholars build upon each other’s versions of the past, ...

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The End of the Ottoman Empire (1923)

The Ottoman Empire dominated much of the world for more than five hundred years, including not only Turkey, but most of what is today known as the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. But at the end of World War I, in 1918, the Ottoman Sultanate ceased to exist, and the vast territory was carved up by the winning Allied powers. ...

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Mohammed Fadhel Jamali (Iraq)

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pp. 9-18

I was born in the holy town of Kadhimain (near Baghdad) in the year 1902. My community belongs to the Shiite sect of Islam, and its members are known to be upholders of the Shiite tenets and are usually pious people. My father was Sheikh Abbas al Jamali, one of the religious men of the aforementioned sect. ...

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Nazik Ali Jawdat (Syria/Iraq)

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pp. 19-32

Mumbuj is a Circassian village in the Province of Aleppo. My memories of it are disconnected and vague; horses, fields, and a house with a garden. One of the images: a man sitting up in bed holding me on his knee. From a cup he puts a spoonful into my mouth and then another into the mouth of the child sitting on his other knee. ...

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Charles Issawi (Egypt)

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pp. 33-44

Most people grow up sharing a language, religion, and culture with their neighbors. Some societies, however, include foreign enclaves; in Cairo, when I was born in 1916, they were very conspicuous and included the British, French, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, and others. ...

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Mansour al-Hazimi (Saudi Arabia)

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pp. 45-48

Professor Atiq bin Ghayth al-Bilady’s book, Popular Literature in Hijaz, aroused old memories in my mind and no doubt in the minds of others who experienced their childhood in the Hijaz. In spite of the fact that this book describes an era long past, it still retains value, and we cannot help but regard that era with nostalgia. ...

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Janset Berkok Shami (Jordan)

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pp. 49-56

My grandparents were among those Circassians who left the Caucasus when Czar Nicholas II made it clear that the Circassian people had two choices: they could either submit to the rule of Czarist Russia or be massacred—men, women, and children. ...

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Salma Khadra Jayyusi (Palestine)

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pp. 57-66

When I think of my childhood, it is ‘Akka, or Acre, that first comes to mind. ‘Akka has indeed taken on the aspect of a paradise in my memory, although I am not sure I was completely happy then, even as a child. I do not recall any sense of complacency or full acceptance in my heart of things as they were. ...

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European Colonial Rule and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (1830 –1971); Establishment of the State of Israel (1948)

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pp. 67-69

Europe emerged as a collective superpower at the end of World War I (1918), when the official end of the Ottoman Empire was marked by the post-war treaties of Paris (1919), Versailles (1919), and finally S

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Hoda al-Naamani (Syria/Lebanon)

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pp. 70-77

What I have been asked to remember I hope constantly to forget. A great nostalgia for my birthplace, Damascus, haunts me in my dreams, fills me with sadness, questions, and answers that make me sometimes fear that a source of beauty and respect is gone forever. ...

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Yıldıray Erdener (Turkey)

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pp. 78-84

In Turkey, those who feel connected to Islamic culture give their babies Islamic names. Others argue that we should use old Turkic names because we originally came from Central Asia. Another group either makes up their babies’ names or uses already made-up ones. My parents made up names for all four of their children. ...

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Hassan Aziz Hassan (Egypt)

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pp. 85-92

The First World War was the cause of my father’s exile from Egypt and his meeting my mother in Spain. An ardent nationalist, he was informed by the British authorities in Egypt in 1913 that he was to choose a foreign land as his home. He decided on Spain and there he fell in love with my mother, a beautiful Spanish girl with black hair, ...

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Basima Qattan Bezirgan (Iraq)

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pp. 93-99

My earliest memory is from the year King Ghazi died. That was in 1939, and I must have been very small. Our house in Karradat Marriam in Baghdad was on the route of the funeral procession. People stood on the street to pay their last respects to the king. So we could see better, we went up on the balcony of our neighbor’s house; ...

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Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot (Egypt)

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pp. 100-111

My earliest childhood memory is being handed out of the kitchen window to my father on the back of a horse. Our house overlooked the desert in Heliopolis, an oasis and suburb of Cairo, and every morning my father went horseback riding in the desert. He often would put me up in front of him on the horse and send the horse galloping. ...

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Mohammed Ghanoonparvar (Iran)

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pp. 112-118

I often think back on my youth and my “informal” education in the city that has been known for centuries as “Esfahan, Nesf-e Jahan,” “Esfahan, Half the World.” Now that I am an educator and also a father, this experience means more to me than it ever has; ...

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Avraham Zilkha (Iraq)

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pp. 119-126

The old city of Baghdad in the forties did not bear any resemblance to the exotic town of Arabian Nights portrayed in Hollywood movies. There were no domed roofs, no flying horses, and no magic carpets. Beautiful women in silky belly-dance outfits were not seen in the streets. ...

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Halim Barakat (Syria/Lebanon)

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pp. 127-132

I have a vision from my childhood of quickly descending through thick black clouds lit up by flashes of lightning. It is my father’s death that comes into my mind. He died suddenly when he was in his thirties without leaving us much of a legacy except for a stone house with a dirt roof and a mule which he had used for transporting goods. ...

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pp. 133-147

That spring the island folk caught scabies. At first, each family scratched in secret, but soon everybody was itching so irresistibly that they couldn’t help scratching even those parts you don’t touch when someone is looking. The men did their best to keep out of my father’s sight, terrified he’d notice the taint, ...

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Zbida Shetlan (Tunisia)

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pp. 148-156

My name is Zbida Shetlan, and I’m about forty-five. Good Lord, I don’t know how old I am for sure, maybe forty-five. I just get by. I don’t own any gold jewelry. Everything about me belongs to the past. Well, let me tell you, we all used to be just poor farmers. Back then, when we were young, we used to take the cow and the bull out to the field, and then we’d go back home to have a nap. ...

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Mahnaz Afkhami (Iran)

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pp. 157-162

I was born in Kerman, a sleepy desert city in the south of Iran known for its carpets and pistachios. In those days, these native commodities also determined the position and attitude of those whose lives depended on the production and marketing of each. ...

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New Nations (1956 –1962); Oil Wealth and OPEC (1973 – ); Israeli-Palestinian Wars (1967, 1973); Camp David Treaty (1979); Iranian Revolution (1979)

The new countries carved out of the old Ottoman Empire had fought hard to become independent nations. They came to power facing all the problems that accompanied the pride of independence. Young and idealistic new leaders promised everyone—men and women—free education, free health care, more rights for women, representative government. ...

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Salah-Dine Hammoud (Morocco)

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pp. 165-176

The city of Meknes of the 1950s and early 1960s provided my brothers and me with a great place to live and play. The area of the medina where I lived with my parents, brothers, and sister was not poor but it was not rich either. Our street (zenqa), Zawiya Touhamiyya, was a long, winding, unpaved alley ...

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Saif Abbas Abdulla Dehrab (Kuwait)

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pp. 177-188

I was born on the sand dunes near the shores of the Gulf. I was born into a humble family, but at that time my country Kuwait was also poor and humble. Everything outside the city walls was literally desert. I was born in a mud house, in a room we call ‘Arish, a kind of arbor made of interwoven twigs. ...

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Hamza al-Din (Egypt)

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pp. 189-195

On a hot July morning in 1929, in a village of 3500 souls living along the Nile valley of Nubia, I was born to a tribal family composed of my paternal grandfather, grandmother, teenage aunt, a cow, a donkey, a modest flock of goats and sheep, plus pigeons, ducks, and rabbits. ...

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Akile G

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pp. 196-211

Early morning, May 27th, 1960. A date which is to change the course of not only my childhood, but my entire life, as well as Turkey’s political history. I wake up at dawn. There are unfamiliar, unusual footsteps and voices outside in the corridor. Doors open and close. ...

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Rafiq Abdul Rahman (Palestine/Lebanon)

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pp. 212-221

We grew up both as refugees and as poor people. At first, my family did not live in the refugee camps but in a Lebanese town. We were aware of our poverty but believed it was temporary. After all, we had lots of land in Palestine. Maybe we exaggerated our seemingly comfortable lives in Palestine, ...

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Abdelaziz Abbassi (Morocco)

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pp. 222-231

You sat down in a slightly reclining position on the smooth, straw-matted floor of the hammam changing room, surrounded by the small piles of clothing that belonged to other bath-goers. Though your heart was still beating like a drum from the Royal Guard Orchestra because of the hell-like heat inside, ...

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Fedwa Malti-Douglas (Lebanon)

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pp. 232-239

For as long as I can remember, Aunt Najla looked the same. Gray, thinning hair wrapped in a bun behind her head. A round face that seemed at times angelic. An overweight body with sagging breasts. Her whole body covered in a dress that memory has played with over the years: ...

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Awad Abdelrahim Abdelgadir (Sudan)

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pp. 240-245

The lion is known as the king of the jungle, but the king of the Nile is the crocodile. Since our village is located right on the bank of the Nile, it is not surprising that there are many stories about crocodiles. Some of the stories are legends and some are rumors, but others are true. ...

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Ali Eftekhary (Iran)

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pp. 246-252

My father was a liberal person for his time. My grandfather always wanted me to enter the Muslim clergy, but a friend of my father said, “Let the boy get his high school diploma first. Then he can decide. And just because he’s the oldest son, don’t put pressure on him.” ...

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The Post-Colonial Middle East (1971– )

Events of the last fifty years have changed almost everything in the Middle East, as these chronicles of childhood show. A thousand years ago, men and women had no doubts about who they were and what was expected of them. Society was controlled from above, by kings and sultans; one’s place in the world was fixed at birth ...

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Shafeeq N. Ghabra (Kuwait)

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pp. 255-268

Being a child was a mixture of being subjected to the will of adults and of not knowing what the future would bring. I experienced much love and care, being the oldest, but childhood was a concurrent mixture of happiness and burden. In many ways, being a child in the Middle East, at least for my generation, was quite confusing, ...

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Maysoon Pachachi (Iraq)

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pp. 269-284

I spent the first year of my life in Washington D.C. in an apartment within earshot of the zoo. I used to drift off to sleep up on the tenth floor to the roar of lions and the calling of tropical birds. Maybe this experience gave me an early appreciation of incongruity and an understanding that the notion of “home” is not simple. ...

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Esther Raizen (Israel)

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pp. 285-294

I often wonder why my childhood years seem to have been uneventful, when episodes of polio, diphtheria, an earthquake, and two wars passed by in succession. I guess that thousands of miles and a number of decades away, with the perspective of an adult accustomed to riding the fastest lanes of the information superhighway, ...

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Lilia Labidi (Tunisia)

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pp. 295-301

To write about my childhood, to objectify it, I need to identify events I believe shaped me. Some assumed significance many years after they took place, in the course of a psychoanalysis with Jacques Lacan. Here I want to pinpoint two events that seem to me to have been crucial in my personal development. ...

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Suad Joseph (Lebanon/United States)

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pp. 302-309

As far back as I can remember, I had big eyes—big brown eyes that saw everything. Before I learned to speak, before I learned to listen, before I learned to walk, before I learned to reach out, my eyes could talk, hear, gesture, and touch. “Eyes like those take a lifetime to make,” my friend Dipok said. ...

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Abdelaziz Jadir (Morocco)

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pp. 310-319

My mother said, “You told me one morning, son, ‘Mother, don’t come to school with me, I’ll go by myself, stay home and make lunch.’ I was devastated with acceptance as much as I was devastated with fear; I said to myself, it’s good for you to walk to school by yourself, you’ll feel that you’ve grown and become a man. ...

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Nahid Rachlin (Iran)

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pp. 320-328

As I sit in a room in my apartment in Manhattan I clearly see myself coming back from high school in Ahvaz, a town in southern Iran. I amlooking for my older sister, Pari. “I wrote a story today,” I would say as soon as I found her in one of the many rooms in our large, outlandish house. ...

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Mustafa Mirzeler (Turkey/Kurdistan)

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pp. 329-339

My hometown, Kiremithane, lay at the edge of the cottonladen plains of Chukurova, in southern Anatolia, Turkey. To the north of Kiremithane, the snowy peaks of the Taurus Mountains rose abruptly on the horizon with dark clouds hovering over them. ...

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Leila Abouzeid (Morocco)

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pp. 340-348

My earliest memory is of a bus trip.We were on our way from Sefrou, my mother’s home town, to El Ksiba, a Berber village in the heart of the Middle Atlas where my father, Ahmed Bouzid, worked as an interpreter for the French. It was on that bus trip that I first began to understand that my father was involved in political activities, ...

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Randa Abou-Bakr (Egypt)

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pp. 349-354

I have always secretly wondered at my intense passion for music and have always believed that, somehow, there was an unknown influence behind this overwhelming fascination with melody. Since there were absolutely no musical talents in my immediate family, it seemed that this must be some sort of heredity, ...

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pp. 355

In the fourteen years since I began this book, the world has become more interrelated than ever. The political and economic situation has changed globally. Different challenges face not only Middle Easterners but also all the citizens of the world, including Americans. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780292798731
E-ISBN-10: 0292798733
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292725461
Print-ISBN-10: 0292725469

Page Count: 365
Illustrations: 36 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2002

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Subject Headings

  • Middle East -- Biography.
  • Middle East -- Social life and customs -- 20th century.
  • Middle East -- Ethnic relations.
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