What do you know about your family name?

In Lebanon, your family name goes beyond identification. There’s usually history hidden behind a family name, that unfortunately most of us lose track of, or which fails to get passed down from generation to generation. And in some cases, it’s your grandmother’s maiden name (like in my case) that comes with an interesting story to tell.

I come from a mixed faith marriage, most people who know me know this about me already. (One of the first things you learn about people when you meet them in Lebanon is what faith they are). For most of my life, that was it; the story ended there. And that kind of attitude also translated into school where I never really cared about history because to me it was all about a bunch of names that I didn’t relate to anyway.

Come to find that my great grandfather (maternal side) was a Sheikh and a Shi’a scholar who establish one of the first printing presses in south Lebanon. He also founded Al-Irfan (a monthly review), opposed the French mandate, and was a reformist who fought for the rights of the underprivileged, including women’s rights. (There’s even a small Wikipedia article about him)

Had I known all of this from the beginning, I might have paid more attention in history class.

Now why am I sharing this? The other day, I walked into one of the bookshops just off Hamra main street. The bookshop had vintage publications on display and one of them was a copy of a 1962 edition of Al-Irfan..the publication my  great grandfather founded.

Al-Irfan (1962 Publication)

Al-Irfan (1962 Publication)

Al-Irfan, (the name comes from the Arabic word for knowledge) is

an Arabic-language monthly “Scientific, Historical, Literary and Sociological Review” that brought the world to the Shi’a community in Lebanon and farther afield to Iraq and Iran, and debated issues of concern to Shi’a and Arabs. The magazine was printed in Beirut for the first two years. In 1910 El-Zein commissioned his own printing press in Sidon where Al-Irfan was printed until the 1960s. The magazine was published 10 times a year until the death of the founder’s son, Nizar Al-Zein, in 1981. Afterwards, it was published quarterly until 1987 and then from 1992–1996.


What I know of the history of the magazine is limited. What I know of the man behind the magazine – my great grandfather – is just as limited. What I do know is that the Zein house in Saida was where people came to have coffee and to discuss social affairs (that era’s version of a cafe) and that it fostered open mindedness, solidarity, and tolerance. Pretty impressive for that era: 1910 – 1960.

The interesting part is the way I found out about all of this. It wasn’t through the usual way where one of my parents (or grandparents) sat me down and told me about our family history. No, I found this out during one of the many random conversations I had with my aunt’s American husband in Virginia, probably sometime during either Thanksgiving or Xmas dinner, during my university days in the US. Afterwards, it took me many emails to try to get the information out of my mother or either one of her siblings. All I got was the little bit of information you see in the Wikipedia article, which was written by one of my mom’s cousins during her PhD years at AUB, and which was stored in film and was hard to recover. Unfortunately, there is no one I can ask who can clarify some of this information for me. Those with first hand information have since passed away, or aren’t able to communicate what they know. So, all of this to say, if you still have a grandparent who’s alive, have a heart to heart with them, you never know what you will find out about yourself..your history.

Lebanon’s history isn’t necessarily bright, but it is nice to know that that some parts of our culture is maintained, especially when we have been thought leaders and pioneers on some issues in the region and the rest of the world.

Other oldies

Other oldies

“If you don’t know [your family’s] history, then you don’t know anything” – Michael Crichton

— Youssef


Filed under life in Lebanon

13 responses to “What do you know about your family name?

  1. Were did you study in Virginia? I’m currently a grad student in Norfolk at Old Dominion University.

  2. Ali

    Youssef, don’t take it personal, I like your post but what’s your point?

    • Ali, the point is simple and stated at the end of the post:
      “So, all of this to say, if you still have a grandparent who’s alive, have a heart to heart with them, you never know what you will find out about yourself..your history.”

      I would like to just encourage people to find out more about their own selves and their own families. People might be pleasantly surprised with what they could find out. Just like I found out something that i think is cool about my own history.

      • Ali

        Hi, I was just fooling or playing around with you. The truth is you are right. You reminded me of a conversation I had with my father. As you stated above, I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. I found out something that I think was cool about life. My father told me, about 40 years ago, my brother who was around 7 or 8 years old got hit by a car that broke his leg. He was taken to Barbir Hospital in Beirut. To make a long story short, my father needed $473.00 to pay the hospital. He was supposed to pay by next day. The next morning , he didn’t have the money and was walking towards the hospital. He was sad, looked up at the sky, and said: God, if you are for real, I need you now. About 5 minutes later, he was close to AbdulNaser Mosque intersection, Mazraa Street. A policeman was organizing the traffic. My father saw what it looked like money bills on the street. The policeman stepped on them, other people walked by and didn’t notice the bills. My father got them and walked away. He counted them, and he found exactly, $473.00. No human knows about my father need or what street he was going to walk that morning. Call it miracle, what do you think?
        P.S. the last name of the driver who hit my brother was El-Zein from Haret Saida, what a coincidence!!!!!!

  3. mtackla@hotmail.com

    I agree. My grandmother is my oldest living relative and she’s 97! I’ve learned more about my family talking to her than anyone else. She has a unique perspective. Great post, Youssef! Thank you!

  4. Me & Beirut

    Youssef, this post is very very interesting and adorable. Unfortunately I know almost nothing about my ancestors because neither my parents nor their parents were interested in finding out more! I can imagine how happy you were when you found the book, mabrouk 🙂

  5. Pingback: Gendin’s Journal » Blog Archive » So This Is Beirut

  6. katiedonaldson08

    Reblogged this on Across Cultures and commented:

    After reading a blog entry ”What do you know about your family name?” I began to think of the importance of your family name. In American your name has a personal connection to who you are. Knowing where you came from and the culture of your ancestors is important to many. There are websites, databases etc for a person to reconnect to the people in their families from the past.
    Since the majority of Americans are considered “Caucasian” or “African American” this means that the majority of their ancestors are from another location in the world. This map by the U.S. Census in 2000 shows where the largest demographic of ethnicity lie, demonstrating a large range and variety of ethnicity in the United States. A surname is also linked (linguistically) to the place it originated from. Mine, Donaldson is Scottish. .

    Because most person’s families are from different countries this could be the reason for so much interest in genealogy, written and oral history of your name. There is a history behind your name that identifies and shapes who you are. Your name is your heritage. “Furthermore, our ancestral background affects not only how others see us but even how we experience ourselves. Indeed, knowing who our ancestors were is fundamental to our sense of who we are.”

    This rest of this entry is a “reblog” of one persons account of the imortance of your last name in Beirut!

    quote taken from:

  7. Luanna Saade

    Hi Youssef! I know I’m two years late, but i’ll comment here anyways… lol.
    So, I’m Brazilian from a Lebanese family, yet my family after fleeing from Lebanon spent many years in Germany, and during the II World War fled to Brazil. I plan on going to Lebanon next year to find out more about my family origins, yet I need to ask… how does one go about searching for their long lost genealogical tree? Here in the U.S., where I currently live, there are several websites where you can pay for a family history tracking service, but it only works for American last names. How does it work in Lebanon?

  8. Imane

    Having grown up knowing my families history and how everything was explained to my brother and I since we were young, I am so proud of my dad and when he explained what he went through with his dad( mygrandfather) it made me so so proud that he is my dad and my respect for him became indescribable. When I just randomly read your story, you made me think how lucky I am to have known the history of my family. I’m so sorry that you didn’t know who your great grandfather was, but at least now that you know, don’t dwell on why you never knew or why you were never told by your parents, just thank god you now know the history of were you came from. Try to just feel
    good and proud that you finally heard about despite who you heard it from. I believe that everything happens for a reason. 🙂 I myself was brought up in Africa and London and agree that when you come to Beirut they immediately want to know your religion and what your surname is which I didn’t understand at first, but suddenly realized that being Druze made a lot of people edgy with me and they knew my family name that I didn’t understand why was so important to them until
    I lived here. That really bothered me, but to stay sane I had to pretend that I got but because we are humble people and we’re not brought up on the war and are not bitter, I blamed it all on the war and felt sorry for people had gone through which I never saw anything of, and I swear that made me feel better and strayed to not let it get to me. Sorry for saying all this, but now that I’m 47, I feel I’ve been through enough to not depress myself and ended up marrying an Armenian Christian which I was always threatened that they would disown if I married a non Druze, I finally did marry a none Druze with the blessing of my parents as they felt guilty that they didn’t allow me to ever settle down till
    they felt guilty for doing that.
    Instead of being so angry at them, and to make
    make myself feel better, I forgave them and it blame they feel more guilty. What I’m trying to say is that parents change and probably regret their decisions they made before because they probably thought that it was for your best at the time and didn’t mean harm to you, and now probably regret it after you found out your history and got upset why they never told something so important. Forgive and move on, don’t let them feel blamed, they might not even show you that they feel guilty, but trust me they do. By forgiving them, this will make you feel so much better yourself as forgiveness makes you stronger than continuously thinking and dwelling of why wasn’t I told. Just pls
    try to just think that I’m so happy to finally know, and were luckier than so many others don’t know anything. Take care

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