Essay: Understanding My Middle Eastern Heritage and its Appalling Conflicts

Writer Christopher J. Henry opens up about his family’s experience with conflicts in Lebanon and beyond.

Content warning: War, violence, death

In February 2004, I was born to a Lebanese mother and an African American father at Pomona Valley Hospital in California.

In 2006, Mohamed Hammoudi, my great-uncle from my mother’s side, was killed in an Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon. A tank shell was shot through the window of our family home. An article in the Los Angeles Times was written about him in August of that year.

After being born in America, my mother attended grade school in Tyre, a coastal city in south Lebanon, with her older brothers Safi and Adeeb and infant brother Nasif in 1982. Early one morning, air raid sirens sounded, notifying the nearby towns and schools to mobilize into bomb shelters due to the expectancy of Israeli airstrikes.

Operation Peace for Galilee is the name of Israeli soldiers’ three-pronged invasion of Southern Lebanon, led by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. The objective? Get rid of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon after factions moved operations into Lebanon from Jordan. The Israelis used the blitzkrieg tactic, taking siege up to Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, killing thousands along the way. Over 800 tanks and about 60,000 soldiers stormed through the borders of south Lebanon that day in June of 1982, according to the IDF Editorial Board

My family returned to the United States in 1984 to escape the war, and my mother and uncles attended school in Eagle Rock, a Los Angeles neighborhood.

My mom recalled her experience with me on the phone earlier this week — how everyone’s prayers got her through those six days scared in the shelter.

“We were scared about Nasif, he was only an infant,” she said on the phone. “I remember dad, your grandpa, leaving to get milk, and I thought I wouldn’t see him again.”

“The Red Cross cleared us because some of the buildings were falling,” she said. “They moved us to the beach to sit on the shore. It was really scary watching all the bombs and buildings fall from explosions.”

They then stayed for a few days on the beach, being forced by the Israelis to move as the bombings and attacks escalated in Tyre where they were attending school.  

“I remember many young Lebanese people singing and chanting positive messages in Arabic,” my mom said. “Why are they so happy and singing? We’re all gonna die right now. I was confused.”

With my family still living in Lebanon, evacuation updates from immediate family through border bombings between Israel and Lebanese forces during their recent conflict with Gaza have made it hard to sleep at night. These people are my people. With the possibility of this conflict expanding, my family resides in danger. 

I want to paint a picture for you — one that is very real and vivid. 

You’re a child, living but starving in poverty, unable to leave what you call home — a coastal landmass of about 140 miles. For perspective, the drive from Chicago to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is about 140 miles. Two million people are living beside you and can’t leave. Food, water and electricity are strategically reduced to provide a standard of living just above death and starvation. One million of those people are starving children.

Growing up, you’re periodically subjected to criminal and merciless assaults by land, air and sea as a country actively seeks to uproot terrorism with, oftentimes, more terrorism. 

Peter Maur, the former president of the International Red Cross, was quoted after visiting Gaza in 2014 when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge — a military conflict that took place in July and August 2014 between Israel and Hamas.

“I’ve never seen such massive destruction ever before,” Maur said.

To reiterate, this destruction is inflicted upon a population of overwhelmingly refugees — half children. The Israeli Defense Force inflicts the most massive destruction the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross had ever witnessed in his professional career. This is Palestinian life in Gaza and military-occupied Palestine — leave, die, or join a cause to fight for freedom. 

My family has lived in the northern Galilee region for over 2,000 years. Lebanon’s border with Israel has led Palestinian refugees to settle in the southern region. Being free of military occupation offers better circumstances. 

The village of Aynata is small and about 2 miles from the border and buffer zones between militant groups of Lebanon Hezbollah and the Israeli Defense Forces. This is where the home of my late Teta — the Standard Arabic translation of grandmother — stands after being reconstructed, sustaining an Israeli tank shelling in 2006 during the July War, as it’s called in Lebanon.

My uncle Ji Samhat has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Lebanon. He owned the world-renowned Radio Beirut station and nightclub and is an explosive ordnance disposal specialist of 15 years working for the United Nations Mine Action Service. I last saw him in August in our California home before he returned to Lebanon expecting the birth of his second child, Fidel, in late September.

I had just finished an exam in class, Friday, Oct. 13. Walking out of Mundelein, I opened my phone to check WhatsApp for any updates from my family. 

My uncle had shared with me three messages, one in Arabic followed by four horrifying videos. 

“This is ugly. I have no words. Issam is dead. His team was just bombed.” 

A colleague of my uncle, Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah, was killed in an Israeli artillery strike Oct. 13, which injured six other Journalists — similar to the weapon that killed my great-uncle in the living room of our home in 2006. 

My uncle, within hearing distance of the strike, obtained uncut footage of the strike and aftermath before any other news outlet released it. I was subject to seeing and hearing the blast over the live camera shot the crew was filming, along with uncensored screaming from a female journalist, claiming she couldn’t feel her legs. 

I wish I hadn’t watched that field footage. I couldn’t attend my last class that day because I was so mortified. As a veteran, my uncle had seen and lived real terror. He meant nothing more than to show me the realities of war in our homeland of the Middle East. 

This conflict didn’t start on Oct. 7. The attack by Hamas, which killed 1400 people in Israel, was a part of a larger conflict, according to the Associated Press. These ongoing conflicts have claimed the lives of my immediate family and the families of many others across different nationalities throughout the Middle East. Diplomatic relations have no business annihilating homes and innocent families with aerial bombs. When has uprooting terrorism with terrorism ever gotten humanity anywhere? 

Israel, as it is currently constituted, is a government systematically colonizing and displacing people, concealing behind an ethnic-cleansing operation, according to Al Jazeera. Hamas terrorist fighters, radicals from the Palestinian side, hold over 200 hostages from 30 countries in tunnels underneath Gaza, according to BBC

My family has died over these injustices, and my heart breaks for those dying and being kidnapped this year for the same injustices. Terrorism is disgusting, and how it is enacted leaves no mercy for any life. We have become desensitized to its use — headlines get a glance, and then war crimes get constantly swept under the rug.

The story of my family’s life in the Middle East represents a struggle, civilians face the consequences of war, as living in a warzone is never a choice but a burden. Once referred to as “the Paris of the Middle East,” Lebanon sits in a constant state of war due to over 70 years of conflict between an oppressed group of Arabs and Israelis doing anything in their power to reign over them with full force, what they call “Israeli sovereignty.”

I am not a professional government critic, nor can my knowledge, writing this article or my family’s story fully explain the massive complexity of the Middle Eastern conflict. But it’s personal for me, like many other Arab Americans. We are all humans, and hatred and finger-pointing are not the way forward.

Feature image courtesy of Christopher J. Henry

Christopher J. Henry

Christopher J. Henry