"Mary Anna" 9 inches by 12 inches; ink on paper, $125
I went to live in Beirut, Lebanon with my Aunt Anna my senior year in high school. I asked my parents at one point why they let me go so far away from home. They told me I was being bullied by mean girls at my school and they wanted to get me out of that environment. So, we had the idea that I would go live with my aunt, my father’s sister, Anna Hovey, for whom I am named.
She was a very glamorous woman to me as kid. She never married so she would periodically take off for a few years to go teach at some exotic place and then come back to the United States. She would often take me when I was little so it was part of the flow of my family’s life that I would go live with her. When I went to live with her she was teaching fourth grade in the American Community School in Beirut.
So, I spent my senior year in Beirut. We lived up the hill in what was Ras Beirut in an apartment which was a ten-minute walk down to the ocean which is also where the school was. The American Community School was filled with kids from all over the Middle East. The children whose parents were with the Aramco Oil Company came to board there along with children from all the different embassies. So, it was a mix of Americans and Arabs and it was very cosmopolitan. These children were from all over the world and spoke many different languages.
During this year, I actively explored who I was and pushed against the cultural boundaries by falling in love with an Arab boy who was a student at the American University of Beirut. His university was right up the hill from where I went to school. This was viewed as rebellious behavior and since I was not going to let anyone tell me what to do, by the end of the year I was considered quite a handful. To be with him I had to sneak around so I did a lot of things that I lied about. I even took him to my high school prom to everyone’s consternation. My Aunt told me that I was lucky that she didn’t send me home.
The young man was from Aleppo and I get teary when I think about that city now fifty years later. We actually went to Aleppo to visit his family, we had tea with them, they took us all around Aleppo. At end of the school year I left and I never saw my boyfriend again.
My aunt and I went at Christmas time to Egypt so I spent Christmas on the Sinai Peninsula at the monastery where it is thought God spoke to Moses and transcribed the ten commandments. I guess Easter was at Aleppo, and then we went to Jerusalem. My aunt, another teacher and I traveled all over the Middle and Far East: Jordan, Iran, Kashmir, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan. By the end of that trip I had to get home because my aunt was still so angry with me and I was very homesick.
This year abroad shaped me in profound ways. It opened my eyes to some kind of life other than the typical middle to upper middle class white American existence I grew up in. It really opened my eyes to the Middle East. I saw the Palestinian refugee camps in the 1960’s and it made me tolerant of Palestinians and their desire for statehood. What I experienced has stuck with me my whole life and now with this continued conflict it still sticks with me.
At a very personal level, while I was considered a very ‘rebellious’ teenager I also had the courage to follow my heart and to do what I believed was right. I learned that I could survive and take care of myself. As a woman who grew up in the 1940’s and 1950’s I learned to overcome timidity and fear and to sometimes be brave.
Debra Wuliger, figurative artist working with color, texture and pattern to celebrate life.
Image silhouetted with story. Ready for hanging.