Friday, February 08, 2008

From: "Jamal Najjab" Add Mobile Alert
Subject: If at possible, please buy this book, it is wonderful.
Date: Thu, 7 Feb 2008 21:48:08 +0000

Jan – Feb issue 2008.
Music & Arts
Raff Ellis Presents Kisses From a Distance
Jamal Najjab

Raff Ellis describes how his book Kisses From a Distance came to be (Staff photo J. Najjab).

INSTEAD OF DOING a traditional reading of his new book Kisses From a Distance at his Nov. 13 appearance at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC, author Raff Ellis delighted his audience with a detailed explanation of how the book came to be. “First of all there were my mother’s letters,” Ellis said, “over 200 of them, written between 1925 and 1990.” After marrying Ellis’ father and settling in Carthage, New York, Ellis’ mother corresponded with her family back in Lebanon. Many of the saved letters began with the phase: “Kisses from a distance.” When Ellis’ mother died, her children found the letters in her locked sandouq, or trunk. Ellis’ brother had the letters translated in Lebanon, bound them in a book, and gave a copy to each of his siblings. Each time he read them, Ellis found the letters more and more fascinating. “I came to believe there was a story hidden within these letters,” he said. He knew they were a true historical find, a treasure trove that needed to be shared with the world. First Ellis decided to find answers to key questions, such as was his mother’s family as great as she had made them out to be in her vivid stories that he heard all through his childhood? Were the mountains of Lebanon as beautiful as she said? Ellis also had to ponder what it meant to be Lebanese. He remembered the words of Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi: “They leave the mountains, but the mountains don’t leave them.” Growing up, Ellis said, he didn’t want to be what he called “ethnic”; instead he wanted to just blend in with the other kids in school and be American. “Show me that melting pot,” he said. “I want to jump in.” However, as he experienced bouts of discrimination, Ellis said, he came to realize that the pot may not have wanted him. He cited the example of a barber in Carthage who refused to cut his hair, because he was a “Black Syrian.” Ellis discovered the importance of his heritage when he left home for military service. When he was homesick, he recalled, “I would search out Lebanese restaurants wherever I was stationed. My care packages from home...My ethnicity became my anchor.”In order to complete his research for the book, Ellis traveled to Lebanon several times. It seems he found the answer to many of his questions, but Ellis teased his listeners by telling them they would discover all when they read the book. If they do decide to pick it up, they will be in good company. According to Sam Hazo, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist, the book “is not an exercise in nostalgia, this is a serious historical study.” And journalist and author Helen Thomas had nothing but praise for the book. “Raff Ellis’ book Kisses from a Distance brought tears to my eyes,” she wrote. “It is beautifully written and the story of every family whose members courageously left their homes and families in the Middle East before and at the turn of the 20th century, as did my parents.” Thomas went on to say, “I wish there would be less demonization of the Arab world today and more understanding of its great people. I know Ellis’ book will help that bridge.”Ellis concluded his remarks by reading the dedication from the book: “To whose intrepid immigrants who braved the perilous journey to reach America’s shores, while forsaking the familiar for the promise of the unknown, and whose contributions to the enrichment of the land they embraced has made this country what it is.” Kisses from a Distance is available from the AET Book Club.

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