Aunties of the Diaspora

What I LOVE about living in L.A. with my family is that their deep roots in the SWANA community make “homeland” very close somehow. When I was young, this relationship was a source of restriction and stress at times, but as an adult it is EVERYTHING. For all the ways I *still* feel…errr… non-conventional… and a bit estranged in the context of the mostly very traditional SWANA community I grew up in (who mostly expect me to be married with a couple children or a good job as a lawyer or otherwise highly established professional by now, “like all the other Lebanese kids I grew up with” lol. My siblings and I have always been exceptions… my poor parents), the deeper wisdom of old ALWAYS seeps through the seams and cracks like trees growing thru ancient boulders on the top of a mountain.  One day, I have a dream of collaborating with my dad somehow to collect the many remedies and memories that come through the sharing of his largely SWANA and immigrant health clinic patients. It is incredible what wisdom dwells there.

This week, preparing for my departure was strewn with visits to aunties of my childhood. By aunty, I mean aunties of diaspora, aunties of shared migration- aunties of a reconstructed village in the version of homeland away from home. The aunties of my childhood are from ALL over the SWANA region, of different experiences, villages, religious backgrounds, and interests, lending an incredibly diverse body of resources and relationships.  Like a good strong ceremony, the spirits of this journey started speaking much before I even set foot on this airplane I am writing you all from. Preparing for my visits homeward always blesses me this way… the medicine starts working as soon as the seed of my visit has been planted. Mine really started intentionally with my visit to my Teta Renee in Florida on Easter, and has been continuing to unravel since.

I started my visits this week at one aunty’s house, where I got to share plantcestral love with her while she shared her amazingly beautiful art with me. We shared about anti-cancer plants from the SWANA region, and then after casual mention between her and my mom of how they used to use coffee on cuts to close a wound in the homeland and kids, we digressed into a conversation about Tayoun,  one of my favorite Lebanese plants and an ally notoriously known for stoping bleeding fast and cleaning wounds. If anything reminds me of Lebanon in the summer, it is the smell of Tayoun! We looked up pictures of it on google as we shared stories about it, wondering if it also grew in the Syrian village of my aunty’s roots. She could not remember. What I love most of all is how these moments resurrect stories from my mom that she wouldn’t otherwise think to tell me. In this conversation, my mom was awakened with memories of days in her village as a kid where the aunties and tetas would harvest branches of Tayoun and dry their figs at the end of the season on them. It makes perfect sense, since Tayoun is a natural insecticide, and extremely anti-fungal and anti-microbial. It was fun to share these facts with my mom. She also remembered them using its branches to swat flies and mosquitos. (Those of you who got our SWANA book can add these notes to your Tayoun materia medica 😉 ).  It’s been sweet, because this trip has been drawing out the interest and sharing of the extended community I grew up in, who often feels a bit estranged from my world of plantcestral and ancestral nerdery. They have been enjoying my book and sharing resources with me where they can. The next day, I saw my Aunty Aida who I grew up seeing EVERY DAY. She is our neighbor and used to come have sob7ieh with my mom every day (morning and in this case, sometimes afternoon coffee dates). When I told her I was intending to go to both of her homelands- Palestine and Armenia, she was elated and immediately began to share with me stories and places and people I must connect with in both places. I got her blessing with so much love, and many contacts on the way.

But the highlight for me this week was yesterday, on my last day before departure. My parents and I made a visit to a family friend who recently suffered the unexpected loss of their son. I offered her some of my Grief Ease formula, knowing that she is a fan of herbs and natural healing methods, and through our visit, her curiosity about my upcoming trip naturally led to many connections in Lebanon. She took me into her apartment to retrieve the contact info of one Cheikh in particular who dwells in Trablos (aka. Tripoli). She took out this hat box where all these amazing incenses from him were hiding and continued to share with me stories about his impressive gifts and intuitive abilities. But I REALLY smiled when she handed me these…

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She offered me 3 and taught me how to burn them for clearing and protecting space, and insisted that the medicine used this way is very effective. I giggled a little and told her, “Oh, PEONY seeds!” She looked at me with an ambiguous expression, unsure as ever. She said she didn’t know what they are exactly but that she has looked all over the place for them here and has not been able to find them. I smiled a bit, intrigued about their use in my own ancestral region as I have mostly associated this medicine with the Yoruba derived traditions of the African Diaspora. I giggled a little extra knowing that this Aunty and her family lived in Nigeria (home of the Yoruba) for years and still travel between L.A. and West Africa very regularly. Her son and husband still live there for most of the year, in fact. I mentioned to her the relationship and she looked surprised and asked me if I had connections to these communities in L.A. where she might get some more medicine. Such an interesting world of unexpected connections.

I am left very curious about the roots of using this medicine in the SWANA region in this way, and looking forward to learning more from the Cheikh and others about it, as well as from my elders of the African Diasporic traditions who have wisdom to share on the subject per their own traditions. Do practitioners of non-SWANA traditions burn the medicine too, or mostly wear it or consume it internally for medicine? It is my first time hearing of using the medicine as a sacred smoke specifically. But about this medicine more generally, I imagine it’s regard as sacred by various peoples of the world related to the fact that the seed is both red and black, with one small white navel- three important colors for ancient peoples (I know a few of you mystic nerds who will run with this one and unravel all KINDS of mysteries 😉 ). I will have to look into where the flowers are native to- I am pretty sure it’s East Asia somewhere, so it’s also interesting to see how the medicine has traveled and earned its regard beyond that. Do any of you know if the seeds are used medicinally in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)? I know the root is. Plus, have you all seen Peony flowers?! They are GORGEOUS and their colors often change as they bloom too, which I think is just magical! In any case…

The diaspora is an incredibly rich place that carries so much medicine- that is the truth. It is a profound resource, a deeply rich web of networks and relationships, stories, and villages that merge in one unified place where they otherwise may never cross such intimate paths. I think it’s one of my greatest blessings on this homeward healing I focus on, ironically. For the ways that being rooted in an ancestral homeland keep you knowing your own village, family, and immediate community intimately and deeply, the diaspora (and the city) forces you to expand your definition of who and what “home” is to you- to create cultural bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood where your own sisters, brothers, and parents do not physically dwell alongside you anymore, and where the narrow political divisions of homeland (heightening further per the past several generations in particular sadly, thanks to the ongoing wars and insidious influences of imperial forces in the SWANA region) are more necessarily transformed into a cultural unity and affinity required for survival in the very different kind of estrangement and danger that exists in diaspora. The diaspora is deep, in all it’s complexity, and profoundly sacred somehow. At it’s best (and certainly there is a level of grief inspired amnesia I am not discussing here), all the simple knowings and ways of home become treasures to protect and cherish, things that can’t be taken for granted, and the network of community becomes the most incredible value and force of protection.  This comes with longing and blessings both, of course. But the older I get, the more profoundly grateful I am to my parents for being such people of service to community, of loyalty, of relationship to their SWANA roots and relations despite immigration from their own ancestral homes and families, and for the expansiveness that the diaspora has allowed this to entail most of all. There is actually so much ancestral medicine I seek in Lebanon that I eventually find in or through the gateway of the diaspora in all its magic and mystery. It’s amazing. Ultimately, my journey always begins and ends in the blessing of diaspora.  Here I am now with peony seeds in my purse waiting to be burned to bless my house once I get off this plane and land in Lebanon in several hours. 

In other news, I love my family. I cannot lie- it becomes harder and harder to leave them the older I get. I want them to stay close, I want to be in the company of my mom and dad as I travel their homelands. I want to hug my sister and puppies every day. I want to see my little brother’s paintings and deepen with my older brother as he develops alongside me in his own masterful relationship with sacred plant medicines (more about him soon, so much great news to share about his recent developments in the plantcestral and traditional medicine realm). And especially as I embrace my return back to a homeland that no longer is blessed with the physical presence of my Teta Hind, I know that things will be different and home may have a different flavor. There is seriously no place I miss my parents and family more than in Lebanon. I am grateful for this love of family that I am leaving with in my heart, bitter-sweet as it sometimes is. And hope they don’t stay worrying too much about my crazy travels :D.

More when I hit the ground… One of my hopes these next couple weeks is to go see the amazing anemones and poppies native to the SWANA region, fields of them growing in the south and mountain areas. I want to go rest in their glorious red before they melt under the summer sun! … More to share soon, inshallah.

Written by:
Layla Kristy Feghali,
MSW, creator of River Rose Apothecary, the نجمع جذورنا – reGather our Ancestors Program and the SWANA Ancestral Medicine HUB. She is a plantcestral educator/herbalist dedicated to the reclamation, healing, and re-membrance of the original teachings and medicine of our indigenous ancestors with a particular focus on the SWANA region.

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