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Teta, Mother, and Me: Three Generations of Arab Women
Jean Said Makdisi
W. W. Norton, 2006
384 pp., $25.95
Modernity, Middle Eastern-style
Rarely will something as personal as a memoir ably locate the individual experiences of the memoirist within a larger historical context. Too often, we are treated to an inward-looking exploration of a tiny familial or social circlea narrative which, if not completely oblivious to the ferment raging without, audaciously presumes that regional and global events merit little significance when compared to the writer's own tribulations. Yet with Teta, Mother, and Me, Jean Said Makdisi comes close to chronicling the modern history of her part of the world through delving into her mother's and maternal grandmother's rich and varied lives. And this, even though Makdisi has for years struggled to overcome a gnawing feeling that she falls "outside history," a fate she cannot escape.
Essentially three memoirs in one, the finished product effectively juxtaposes Makdisi's recollections of childhood and adulthood with those of her mother (upon whom she impressed the necessity of passing on her reminiscences before it was too late), supplemented by a surprisingly substantial quantity of mainly research-derived information about the life and times of her Teta, or grandmother. This book, which covers Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, spanning the period from the late 19th-century until today, probes the effects of "modernity" on the women of Makdisi's family. Teta's life, which straddles the traditional and the modern, provides the basis for many of the author's observations and criticisms concerning Western missionary schooling, village versus city life, the nuclear family, and even the carving up of the Ottoman Empire by Western colonial powersin short, modernity, Middle Eastern-style. Sadly, Makdisi's Teta and mother are both "defeated by modernity," which, among other affronts, strips them of the matriarchal role to which they would have been entitled in the old system. A desire on Makdisi's part to investigate the socio-historical reasons for this loss in ...