Thursday, April 19, 2012

Rahme Origins and Musings

Said Rahme

Those with a love of history will naturally become interested in their family genealogy at some point in life.
I developed a genealogical interest ever since I was able to read. How could I not. After all, my grandmother was a Vietnamese aristocrat and above the spiral staircase in my grandparents' home hung a gold framed portrait of some 19th century French ancestor, a slave trader who had died of Yellow fever in the Caribbeans.

This is the puzzling environment where I found myself growing up.

But I digress...
If you are interested, you can find ramblings on my family's genealogy from my blog, Les Nuits Masquees:

Tran Tien Family Genealogy
Candeau Family Genealogy (incomplete for now)

But today I want to talk a little of the other half of me. The Rahme side.
Because in case you do not know this already, I am half Lebanese.

The Lebanese Diaspora
So what does it mean to be a Rahme? Well first of all, just as there are Lebanese people who have emigrated all over the world, there are also Rahmes all over the world. Let us have a look at the top 10 countries in the world outside Lebanon where Rahmes can be found:
  • Brazil
  • United States
  • Argentina
  • Colombia - not a Rahme but Shakira is a fine example of a Colombian with Lebanese descent
  • Australia - no surprises here, most of my Lebanese family lives in Australia
  • Canada
  • Mexico - Salma Hayek is a good example of a Mexican of Lebanese descent
  • Venezuela
  • France
  • Saudi Arabia
Further down in the list depicted in this Lebanese Diaspora source, we find that Senegal also has a decent population of Lebanese immigrants. Interestingly, this is where my Lebanese grandparents chose to emigrate during the 1930s. It is also where my father was born and where I, too, was born.

Rahme - The Homeland
In Lebanon, Rahmes originate from the mountainous village of Bcharre, also written Bsharri, itself the capital of the Bsharri District in Northern Lebanon. The Bsharri District encompasses Mt Lebanon, an area rich in cedar wood (yes, it's that tree on the Lebanese flag). The area of coastal Lebanon was once the home of the Phoenicians who used cedar wood from Mt Lebanon to build their ships (and then supposedly discovered America long before Columbus). Lebanon itself has been populated by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mamluks and Ottomans.

Bsharri District has around 26 villages. But here, we are concerned with the actual village of Bsharri.

This happens to be the village where New York based writer Khalil Gibran was born.

Khalil Gibran's portrait of his mother, Kamila Rahme

Khalil Gibran wrote of his mother, Kamila Rahme:

"Ninety per cent of my character and inclinations 

were inherited from my mother 

(not that I can match her sweetness, gentleness and magnanimity.)"


The source describes this Kamila as "graceful, pretty, strong willed".

One is tempted to leave it at that and bask in the glory of this exquisite Kamila and her deeply philosophical and melancholic son.
But we need to dig deeper...

Rahme - Meaning of the Name
The origin of the name Rahme comes from the Arabic root RHM, which means mercy or compassion. This is similar to the Aramaic root RHM. Both imply "to be compassionate" or "to have mercy".

Rahme is actually a diminutive name. Its complete form was once Rahmet-Allah where the possessive et implies of God. So Rahmet-Allah means, Mercy of God. While this might be obvious to many, I will re-iterate it here, Allah is the Arabic and Aramaic word for God. It is a linguistic term rather than a religious term. Allah means God, regardless of whether one is Jewish,  Muslim or Christian.

Culture and Historical Origins
Most Rahmes are Christians of one of two sorts: Maronite or Roman Catholic. For example, I was born into the Roman Catholic Church while many of my relatives are from the Maronite Church. Not that it matters much in family gatherings but it is worth pondering over.

How did this come about?
Christianity had existed in the area that is now Lebanon from as far as St Peter's time and possibly since Jesus' visit in Tyre and Sidon. In the Bible, references to Lebanon are made through Canaan, that is, the land of "milk and honey". Yes, that Canaan. Despite the lascivious reputation of the Baal and Ishtar worshipping Canaanites, it would appear that quite a number of them embraced Christianity through St Peter's influence.
Up to the 4th Century AD, these Lebanese Christians were attached to the Patriarch of Antioch in Byzantium. This was to change when many began to follow the preachings of an ascetic monk, St Maron, who was himself influenced by Orthodox Christian teachings. This, however was at odds with Greek Orthodoxy and the Maronite Christians were soon persecuted by the despotic Byzantine Emperor, Justinian II. It was at this point that led by St Maron, they sought refuge in Mt Lebanon.

Later, Maronites faced further persecution from conquering Arabs who formed the Umayyad Caliphate of which Mt Lebanon became part.

Note that the Western world did not know of the existence of these Maronite Christians until they were 'discovered' by the Crusaders. And much later, following the 16th century, Dominicans and Fransiscans sent by Rome began to convert some of the Maronites into the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore following the 16th century, my ancestors departed from the Maronite faith.

I found this interesting description of the people of Bsharri from a Mt Lebanon website:

In Lebanon, Bsharri natives are characterized as very courageous and fiercely tribal. They are especially known for their distinct accent when they speak Arabic. Unlike other parts of Lebanon, Aramaic was spoken in Bsharri well into the 1800s. As a result, Bsharri natives developed an unmistakably strong accent which lasts to this day and which they are very proud of.

I note here the words "courageous" and "tribal". I do not think these traits are inaccurate given that it was to escape religious persecution that the Maronite Christians of Lebanon settled in the village of Bsharri in the 7th Century AD.
At an altitude of 1,650 meters, the relative isolation of this mountainous village provided security from further persecution while at the same time, it demanded that the inhabitants cultivate a certain level of solidarity for community survival. This strong need for community support would have reinforced tribal sentiments. Courage goes without saying.

Famine - Why there should have been more Rahmes
Following the Umayyad and Abbasids Caliphate, Lebanon came into the hands of the Mamluks and later under Turk Ottoman rule. This meant that in WWI, when the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany and Austria, Lebanon along with Syria, was drawn into conflict against the 'allies'.

Wow, my ancestors were part of the axis of evil. Fancy that!
But it gets a little dark right about here...

In 1915, Jamal Pasha, then Commander in Chief of the Turkish forces in Syria, initiated a blockade along the entire Eastern Mediterranean coast. This was to limit supplies to the enemy, that is, the English and French.

Unfortunately, this had disastrous effects. The lack of incoming food supply at a time when locusts had destroyed much of the country's crops caused a severe famine, notably in Mt Lebanon in Bsharri District where a third of the population perished.

I suppose that some of my relatives would have perished or suffered too.

The French Connection - Yep, there is always one
Now why is it, that many Lebanese, including the Rahme clan, can speak fluent French?

Following WWI, when the 'allies' distributed among themselves the land of those who had been defeated, France was given a mandate over Lebanon by the League of Nations. Naturally given past persecution under the Muslim Arabs, the people of Mt Lebanon, Bsharri village included, greeted the French as liberators. The French mandate, which favoured the Maronite Christians, lasted for 20 years.
In WWII, soon after France became occupied by Germany, Lebanon regained its independence.

Nevertheless today in Lebanon, Arabic is the first spoken tongue, and French is the second. Many Lebanese living in Lebanon would be fluent in both languages.

Following WWII, Lebanon took in an influx of more than 110000 Palestinian refugees. We know the rest of this story and the decades of conflict that ensued. This is not the place to dwell into it.

My Grandparents
So this is all very well. But who are my grandparents? And who is that sad guy in the first photo?

Said Rahme was born in Lebanon in 1912. I know that he would have certainly experienced the famine of 1915 and beyond since he was at least three years of age at that time.

In 1935, he married my grandmother, Mariam Yakoub, in Tyre before they both emigrated to Dakar, Senegal. I believe they took a ship to get there but I am unsure of the exact itinerary.

In Dakar, Said Rahme owned his own business as do many Lebanese who live in Senegal. Why on earth would they choose Dakar... Remember the French connection? Just as Lebanon was under French mandate in those days, Senegal too had been a French colony since the late 19th century. This means that Said Rahme not only spoke Lebanese Arabic but also French. I believe this would have facilitated the migration to Senegal.  Language is after all, an important consideration when emigrating to a country.

Growing up in Senegal, my father spoke French and Arabic. He also developed strong notions of Wolof, the main Senegalese dialect. In fact most of my older Lebanese relatives who have since emigrated to Australia, understand a bit of Wolof. They've often called themselves the 'African-Lebanese'. Amusing but true! Isn't it amazing how culture can mutate? I am sure I could digress right about here but I won't...

In 1937, Said Rahme was voluntarily enlisted in the "Troupes Coloniales", that is, France's colonial military troops. It was during WWII that my father was born.

Said Rahme's Colonial Recruit Booklet in WWII

Following WWII, I know little of my grandfather's life but I believe that money was short and indeed this led to my father discontinuing school in his early teens in order to contribute to the financial comfort of the family. Said Rahme had six children in total, four boys and two girls. This, together with family hardship, did not stop my grandparents from opening their hearts to another baby, a female relative whose mother had died in childbirth, such that Said and Mariam's children eventually numbered seven in total. They are now all living in Australia.

When my father was 16 years old, I note that Said Rahme took an interesting journey into Lebanon. He actually died not long after that and was quite ill so perhaps this was a final trip to his homeland before the inevitable.

The journey is fascinating and can be traced using the visa stamps on his Lebanese passport.

He boarded a ship in Dakar on 17 April 1959. The vessel took six days along the Western coast of Africa then across the Mediterranean all the way to Marseilles in France where he arrived on 23 April.
The next day, he boarded another ship which, as far as I can make out from the Cyrillic letters on the stamp,  took him to the port of Piraeus in Athens, Greece. This journey took five days so that he arrived on 29 April. He then traveled from Piraeus to Alexandria, Egypt arriving in Egypt on 1 May. And finally, he took another ship to arrive in Beirut, Lebanon on 3 May.
The entire journey from Dakar to Beirut took him just over two weeks!!

Said remained in Lebanon for just under six months and returned to Dakar in the same way, starting from Beirut and travelling via Alexandria, Athens and Marseilles.

At some stage during his residency in Dakar, Said Rahme along with his wife and children acquired the French Nationality. Here is his French identity card. This was why my father was a French national even before he married my mother who was French by birth, and why I also became a French national.

I never knew my grandfather since he died in 1966. My father was not even married then and so my mother never met Said Rahme.

He remains, for me at least, quite an enigmatic figure. According to family accounts he was kind and peaceful. In photos, I note the melancholic air in his eyes. I think to a degree, my father can be quite melancholic too and this same dreaminess is a part of me in many ways.

There are possibly more stories I could draw from interviewing my family but that will have to do for now. Perhaps another time, if you will forgive my self-indulgence.

1 comment:

  1. Belle histoire ! je connais la famille rahme par l'australo-libanaise star au liban , Daniella rahme dans la quels je rêve de rencontrer un jours c'est une déesse incarné lol, si éventuellement tu a des contacts avec elle :p un autograph ne serait pas de refus sur ce je te souhaite une bonne journée.