In researching her bio on the Internet, we could not find any mention of Candy Lightner’s origins. It is as if her roots have been obfuscated in order for her to be reclaimed as an “All-American Woman.” The reality is that she is an Exceptional Arab-American woman with a Lebanese Mother and an American Father.
Candy (Candace) Lightner, born Doddridge, was born in 1946. She grew up in California, married Steve Lightner, a US Air Force officer, with whom she had three children: Twins: Cari and Serena, son Travis. She and her husband later divorced. Today she lives in Arlington, Virginia.
Trauma and Adversity have played an integral and profound role in Candy’s life. In fact, we can easily say that she has had much more than her fair share of life’s hardships. Her daughter, Serena, was eighteen months old when a drunk driver rear-ended Candy’s car injuring the baby. Six years later, an impaired driver ran over her son, Travis, who was permanently brain injured as a result of that accident. The driver of the car was on tranquilizers and never got even a ticket! In 1980, and at the young age of thirteen, her daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver (his fifth offense in 4 years) who received only a light sentence for committing such a horrible crime, which infuriated Candy. I cannot even begin to comprehend how after dealing with such tragic circumstances, a woman, a mother, can go on with her life! It takes a truly exceptional woman to overcome such suffering. Candy’s book, titled “Giving Sorrow Words: How to Cope with Grief and Get on with Your Life” is a testament to this woman’s fortitude and enduring legacy to the Arab-American community, as well as to the United States and the World.
As a result of losing her daughter, Candy founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, which later on became Mothers Against Drunk Driving) a grassroots organization that sought to raise awareness and to fight for tough laws against alcohol abusers and drunk offenders. DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) was not taken seriously until Candy made it her priority, and put human faces on the many victims of drunk drivers. Her efforts succeeded in establishing 400 chapters and 2 million members within the first three years of establishing MADD. In 1984, Ronald Reagan appointed her on the National Commission on Drunk Driving and as a result of those efforts, the organization succeeded in changing the national law and raising the legal drinking age to 21. She told People magazine: “Death caused by drunk drivers is the only socially acceptable form of homicide.” Well, she certainly changed that through her efforts, perseverance, the MADD organization, her book and her numerous inspiring appearances on television all of which focused the nation and the world on a very serious problem.
Candy’s daughter, Serena, established another organization that supported her mother’s efforts: SADD (Students Against Drunk Drivers), another fantastic effort to stem a social scourge that had needlessly taken so many young lives!
After leaving MADD, which had decided to become more against alcohol consumption than simply against drunk driving, Candy established “We Save Lives” (www.wesavelives.org) and became the President of that organization. She continued to be the terrific activist that she had always been and serves as a consultant for many organizations, as well as corporations.
Candy Lightner is an amazing woman and a successful crusader against drunk drivers. So, too, is Ralph Nader who sued and won against the car manufacturers and forced them to adopt safer car features that included safety belts. Two Arab-American advocates who changed the laws of the United States for the better. Our community could not be prouder of these two incredible individuals.
They provide a beautiful story of achievement to tell our children and grandchildren about! You can follow both of them on Facebook.
NAAWA and our community are always proud when one of us is recognized nationally. It was a very proud moment when we heard that CNN has recognized Lama Mufleh as one of its Heroes for 2016. Lama is originally from Jordan, and now resides in Clarkson, Georgia. Twelve years ago she founded The Fugees Family, an organization in which she coached soccer to refugee children who had suffered traumatic experiences. Feeling that soccer was the universal language that brings children together, she has succeeded in helping 850 refugee children from 28 countries to overcome some of their difficulties, adjustment issues and language barriers. Along the way she also established a school tailored to refugee children, and last year graduated its first class. Terrific achievement! As we congratulate Lama, we also recognize all Arab-American women who have achieved success!
Whom of us Arab-Americans is not bleeding for Syria, and for the entire Middle East? Irrelevant of which political side we are for, or against, we continue to be infuriated, angry, hurt and frustrated.
So it is with Lilas Taha, who carries in her heart the double tragedy and burden of Palestine, from her father, and Syria, from her mother.
On reading her biography, I was amazed that like Susan Abulhawa (check out her story on our pages), she abandoned a career as an electrical engineer (her first job was as a scientific writer) in order to express her anger and frustration through writing novels. And, as they say, what better way for the pen to vanquish the sword? This is what Lilas said in an interview with Chris Hernandez about why she chose to channel her emotions through writing:
“When I saw what was happening in Syria, that’s when I started writing. Watching these horrendous images on television, knowing these people and places, I just needed to express myself. Honestly, I initially had no intention of publishing anything.”
However, publish she did. Her first novel: Shadows of Damascus, is a must read, as is her second one, Bitter Almonds. Easy to read, not long, Lilas pours herself into both romantic stories and invites the reader to live the lives of her protagonists with her as she moves them across the pages with a deft style and beautiful images. Nostalgia for all of us from the Middle East!
Underlying her main romantic themes is that immense longing for answers to her angst; for an explanation regarding her own existence of exile; for clarity regarding the chaos that wars and uprooting cause; the turbulence that permeates into every corner of society and affects so many families as a result of politics; how to endure the heavy burdens that are carried on the backs of émigrés.
However, Taha explains, “it isn’t a technical history of the region – I want people around the world to care about my characters more than anything. And if they do connect with them, maybe then that would prompt them to explore Palestine or Syria more deeply, and possibly empathize with the people.”
During her life in the United States, Lilas also worked with domestic abuse victims, with Human beings. Who were carrying their wars within them and how they managed to survive under grueling circumstances. That made her realize that, while she had to struggle with her own demons in order to survive her uprooting, there were women and children struggling every day in her new country from the devastating effects of domestic abuse.
Her books marry all her experiences, as do her enchanting characters bringing Syrians, Americans and Palestinians together and through them raging against the frustrations, oppression and wounds that cause so many tragedies. What I found most fascinating, especially in Shadows of Damascus, is how she leaves us not knowing where the relationship of her Syrian and American protagonists is going as if to ask: where is the relationship between the US and the Middle East going? It is a question that all of us have asked!
Check her out on:
Although it is a children’s picture book Sitti’s Secrets is a nostalgic journey for any Arab-American, especially those of us who arrived to the United States from the seventies on. It describes how Mona, an Arab-American girl, goes on an emotional journey to visit her grandmother back in Palestine. Upon her return to the US, she writes a letter to the US President in which she says: “I vote for peace. My grandmother votes with me.”
Naomi Shihab Nye wrote Sitti’s Secrets in 1994. She followed it with another book in 1997. Habibi is also set in Palestine. It is the story of 14-year old Liyana who moves back to the West Bank with her family, falls in love with Omer, a young Israeli and goes on to relate how these two young people might reconcile this “Romeo and Juliet” dilemma.
Writing about the Middle East is a recurrent theme for Naomi Shihab Nye whose father is a Muslim Palestinian, mother is a Lutheran American. Her religion is spirituality, which does not adhere to any organized religion. “There is something very comforting about ritual,” she said. “I have friends who go to church or sit at the Zen Center. I respect that. The ritual of writing fills that need for me. Writing has been a kind of spiritual devotion for me. Listening to language, feeling stories unfold and poems arrive, being present to the page – I do not think of it as a career. I think of it as a devotion. That is a big difference to me.”
Having grown up in the United States, Naomi never strayed too far from her Arab roots. In fact, after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, Naomi became an active voice for the Arab-American cause speaking out both against terrorism and racism, combining her experiences in 2002 into a beautiful book of poetry: 19 Varieties of Gazelle: poems of the Middle East. When asked by Kim Rosen for an interview in Spirituality & Health about what effect she would like to have on the readers of her poetry, she said: “More peace. I would hope that a poem about the Middle East, for example, would make anyone who read it less willing to place a group of people into the enemy category. And also, a sense of peacefulness – in people’s lives, in society – a sense of possibility, that things can work out.” That is the essence of Naomi’s writings: everyday life where she is at ease in her relationships with the earth and its people, as well as writing and being conscious of the pains of war and the beauty and diversity of cultural issues. She has travelled a lot and portrays this in her anthologies by showcasing poets from many places. In this aspect, she is a universal writer with universal concerns. One of her best known poems is: Kindness written after a personal traumatic experience in which she so poignantly says:
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
Naomi is one of our most prolific Arab-American poets and writers, a terrific embodiment of all the true values carried from her roots in both the Middle East and the United States. She has written Poetry, Essays, Novels, Anthologies and Picture Books for which she has won numerous prizes and acknowledgements. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1952, and is considered one of the leading poets of the American Southwest. Today, she lives in San Antonio, Texas with her husband, Michael, a photographer.
Sitti’s Secrets and Habibi are a terrific gift to give to our children and grandchildren. With the Holidays coming up, what could be lovelier than including Naomi’s books, or books by our other Arab-American writers, on your Holiday gift list?
There are certainly many extraordinary women in our Arab-American community. One of those is Susan Abulhawa who was born in 1970 in a Palestinian refugee camp. As a consequence of Israel’s uprooting, her parents were separated and she was sent to live with an Uncle in the United States with whom she remained until she was five years old. From the day she was born and until she graduated with a Master’s Degree in Neuroscience, Susan seems to have been shuttled from one place to another as, after her initial stay in the US, she was then sent to live with various family members in Jordan and Kuwait. At the age of ten she was taken to an orphanage in Jerusalem, and at age thirteen she was again sent away, this time to Charlotte, North Carolina where she was a foster child. After that, it seems that she remained in the US until she graduated. One would think that all this shuttling must have affected a child profoundly and adversely. However, the amazing result of her emotional and geographical upheavals seemed only to have shaped Susan Abulhawa into the extraordinary woman that she is today. Quite impressive and unbelievable!
Nevertheless, at some point, and frustrated by the lack of unbiased coverage regarding the Palestinian people, Susan decided to shelve her Neuroscience degree and turn to writing and journalism.
Since then, she has been published in many newspapers within the United States and abroad. She has also published a book of poetry, My Voice Sought the Wind, and written two best selling and incredibly beautiful novels: Mornings in Jenin and The Blue Between Sky and Water. For some purpose, this writer seems to weave her poetry and writings around the Wind, Sky and Water. It would be interesting to find out if that choice signifies Freedom for her and her people, or if that motif has inspired her for other reasons.
Other than writing, Susan is also the founder of an NGO: Playgrounds for Palestine, and is a speaker for Al Awda, the Right to Return Coalition. Moreover, she is an activist in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
An extraordinary life that has produced an inspirational and extraordinary woman!
We hope that all who are reading this will go out and buy Susan’s books to read, to share and to give as gifts.