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Telling her mother's tale

Evelyn Shakir wasn't always proud of her Arab roots. Growing up in post-war America meant growing up American -- without a hyphen in her nationality.

But as a Lebanese-American, she was different.

''I was embarrassed," Shakir said. ''I felt very different, about the funny food we ate and the church we went to, the accent my parents had. During that period, anything Old World was by definition inferior and was to be shed."

After the pressure to Americanize yielded to an era of rediscovering ethnic roots, Shakir made such discoveries her life's work.

Now a retired Bentley College literature professor living in West Roxbury, Shakir was among the first scholars to specialize in Arab-American literature. She published a book in 1997, ''Bint Arab" (''Arab Daughter," published by Praeger) filled with the stories of Arab-American women she interviewed around the country, as well as her own mother's stories.

Shakir, who earned her bachelor's degree at Wellesley, her master's degree at Harvard, and her doctoral degree at Boston University, spent 10 years working on ''Bint Arab." The book grew out of interviews with her mother, Hannah, and Arab women in Boston, before she began traveling from New York to New Orleans to Dearborn, Mich., speaking to Christians as well as Muslims.

Shakir encountered women who were struggling with their Arab identity. One young Iraqi-born student had grown weary of explaining her religion and culture to peers. ''I get tired, I get very tired," the student says in the book. ''People don't understand how emotional this whole thing is to me."

A Palestinian woman tells of how she yearned for the freedom other non-Arab teenagers had and how she coped with protective parents. ''I was so, so tomboyish," the Palestinian says in the book. ''My talk and my manner were very masculine. My hair was just a mess. My clothes were always just either sweats or jeans and an old raggedy T-shirt. It was like I was telling my parents, 'I don't have any sexuality, so you don't have to worry about me.' "

Shakir recently won her second Fulbright grant to teach and research in the Middle East, and will lecture on American literature at Damascus University and interview women in Syria. Her last Fulbright, which involved similar work at Lebanese University in 1999, was the first to be awarded for work in Lebanon since civil war raged there in the early 1980s.

Shakir returned recently to the land of her ancestry, where she taught short courses to Bentley students in Beirut and Bahrain on Arab-American and ethnic American literature. And she is writing Arab-American fiction. Back home in West Roxbury now, she recently finished her first collection of short stories, tentatively titled, ''Oh, Lebanon."


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