Celebrating America and remembering the motherland: making meaning of Thanksgiving

We’re celebrating contemplation and gratitude all week long. Read more Thanksgiving reflections, by students, faculty and alumni, at The Gero-Punk Project.

by Philipos Ghaly

I was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt, and became a participant of the American story in my early adulthood. All my memories of family gatherings, annual holidays, and festal cuisines are native to Coptic (native Egyptian Christian) culture. This meant that I could make little personal meaning for a holiday like thanksgiving, for unlike my American friends, I had no family stories to tell of past thanksgiving days, nor did I have memories of the smell of my aunt’s turkey or the taste of my grandmother’s pumpkin pie. Over the years however, I acquired memories that helped incorporate me into the American collective experience of the holiday, beyond the opportunity of dietary indulgence and exaggerated alcohol consumption.

I experienced my first thanksgiving through the generous hospitality of an American family. Over a delicious festive dinner of familiar and unfamiliar foods, they acquainted me with the story of native hospitality to the pilgrims and the traditions of the day. Crossing the borders of nationality, ethnicity, and personal beliefs, I became part of this family and they a part of me; they were my people in the loneliness of foreignness.

Therefore, thanksgiving became a time of reflecting on my life journey in the United States, a day to give thanks for the love of my chosen family that I acquired over the years, mostly from the Marylhurst community, and that made America a lucid space where I can create memories, meaning, and identity across the life course as I age.

Last year, my parents’ visit coincided with thanksgiving, and turning down invitations, we decided to celebrate it our own way. We customized the traditions of the holiday to our culture and replaced turkey with lamb, and pumpkin pie with baklava. We said our prayers of gratefulness in Arabic, and remembered our suffering land and its people with great longing.

Like the pilgrim settlers, I, too, came to this land seeking certain religious and social liberties, and although a vibrant phase of my story was constructed and contextualized by American culture, I could never completely abandon the ways in which my ancestral motherland of Egypt shaped me. In coming to the new land of freedom, we often view the old world as something of the past, an oppressive memory that is a polar opposite to where we are. This was not my experience, for without my homeland, I am disembodied, without roots or the comfort of the smells and tastes of home. In celebrating the story of America, I reflect on what was before, and in the vivid pleasant memories of the homeland, I cry, I laugh, and I long, and then secretly replace turkey with lamb.

Philipos Ghaly was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. He earned his BA in Psychology from Marylhurst University and is currently finishing his second BA in Interdisciplinary Studies and a certificate in gerontology. He is a sub-deacon and a cantor in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and a presenter on Eastern Christian spirituality and mysticism. Philipos is looking forward to attending divinity school in the fall of 2014.


Photo credit: Kyle Taylor via Flickr, Creative Commons license