How ‘The Land of the Stars’ Shaped Astronomy (and Me)

In the mountains and deserts of the Middle East, the region's role in shaping our modern view of the cosmos quickly comes into focus.

Land of the stars, I am here.
Gaze deeply…do you remember who I am?
I am that youth whose whole universe
Was right here.

— Illya Abu Madi, written upon returning to Lebanon

My father may have dedicated a lifetime to studying the heavens, but my mother comes from the land of the stars. In the Middle East, the night sky’s stories have been known for millennia, told by those who named its lights, aligned their tombs and temples with its shifting shapes, and divined the movements of the worlds wandering our solar system.

In some ways, the language of astronomy is derived from Arabic: Familiar stars such as Betelgeuse, Altair, Deneb, and Rigel retain their original names; terms like “azimuth” and “nadir” have their roots in this exquisite and perplexing part of the world.

And as surely as I grew up surrounded by messages to the stars, Arabic was a language of my childhood.

This summer, after more than three decades on this planet, I finally visited the seaside village in Lebanon where my mama, Amahl, was born. Just north of Jbeil (also known as Byblos), Anfeh rests along the same coast the Phoenicians bid farewell to as they sailed into the unknown, using starlight to guide them in the dark.

It’s a place where salt is still laboriously harvested from the sea, where the moon shines down upon ancient churches, where the house my mother and grandfather were both born in still sits a few meters from the Mediterranean shore. In fact, all the houses of my mother’s family are still there, as are my cousins, and the people who knew her when she was a child.

Now, finally, they know me too.

I came to the Middle East for the first time not knowing what to expect, yet anticipating the awakening of a sleepy part of my myself. I’d grown up hearing Arabic and knowing the recipe for proper tabbouleh, but Lebanon was a place I’d only seen in my dreams. It was somewhere I’d never breathed in or dared hope to go, a land achingly out of reach.

As the mountains and buildings of Beirut emerged from the haze, I felt like I was coming home. I was that youth whose universe was right there among the salt and the cedars and the centuries of richness and strife, staring wide-eyed at a realm where the first twinklings of the stars were recorded.

I’ve always felt like a bit of an impostor Arab. My blondish hair and bluish eyes don’t fit the stereotypical image of my darker-eyed kin—but walking the streets of Beirut meant seeing that so many Lebanese women look just like me. It was an observation that offered solace, and I felt like I belonged—a nearly impossible privilege in a part of the world where wars are fought to make “belonging” even a smidge more possible. But there I was.

After leaving Lebanon as a teenager, my mom (left) last visited the country in 1970. Here, she and her cousin's future wife Katia are exploring some of the country's treasured ruins. [PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NADIA DRAKE]

Part of traveling means finding the beauty in unfamiliar places and faces. Sometimes, it means acknowledging the pain, too. That’s there, in harsh landscapes and in the eyes of those who have seen too much. And it’s true that learning about others and acknowledging differences can flow both ways.

In rural Jordan, I was somewhat of a curiosity—a single woman, either brazen or crazy enough to hang out solo. “Where’s your husband?” so many men asked me. “He’s not here,” I would say, while proceeding to quiz my questioner about what it’s like to live in such a spectacularly beautiful place.

Tucked between Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, Jordan’s tourism industry is suffering from the distorted, myopic lens many people view the Middle East through. Yet I never once felt unsafe there or in Lebanon, where wartime scars still adorn buildings in the form of bullet holes and bombed out walls.

One evening, we camped in the Wadi Rum desert near Jordan’s southern border. Also known as the Valley of the Moon—and adopted home of Lawrence of Arabia—the Wadi Rum is moody and otherworldly in a harsh and commanding way. There, lumpy sandstone walls erupt from scorched, reddish sands crisscrossed by herds of camels and Bedouins shepherding tourists around in rickety Jeeps.

Too hot to sleep, I wandered outside and found myself completely distracted by one of the most dazzling skies I’d ever seen. A half moon bright enough to cast shadows obliterated the stars until it sank behind a ridge—and then, in the Valley of the Moon, those stars started screaming for attention.

I settled into the sand and lay there silently for hours, transfixed by the lights tracing paths across the sky. Antares, the red supergiant beating at the heart of Scorpius, soon emerged, and then the entire scorpion’s tail curled across the sky and dipped into the stream of stars that is the Milky Way. Cygnus glittered overhead, next to the starfield where NASA’s Kepler telescope has made such monumental planet discoveries. In the north, Cassiopeia clung to her throne, while in the south, the Sagittarius teapot pointed to the spot where a supermassive black hole churns away in the core of our galaxy.

I can only imagine how captivating this evening light show must have been during the ages when Earth’s skies were uncontaminated by artificial lights. It’s no wonder cultures all over the planet have their own version of its stories, their own solutions to its mysteries. What did the ancient Arabs think these shapes in the sky represented?

Twinkling overhead are the same exact stars humans all over the world have gazed at forever, beckoning to us and inviting us to solve their riddles.

Both sides of my family have brought the stars to my life. I’ve known my dad’s version of their stories for almost as long as I’ve been alive, but it wasn’t until I visited the Middle East that the thread connecting me with my mom’s history really began to breathe.

In a time when fear and hatred paint entire portions of the planet in a single shade of uninformed ugly, it’s more important than ever to live gently, to get to know those around you, and especially those who are different. There are greater goods and worthier goals than crushing those we disagree with, than giving in to hate and fear, than falling prey to tempestuous rhetoric and the manipulations of those who would do unspeakable harm in the name of their deities.

The Middle East is far from perfect, as is every place on Earth. Conflict disfigures the region in profoundly troubling ways. Yet if you ever doubt that we are all connected, just look up: Twinkling overhead are the same exact stars humans all over the world have gazed at forever, beckoning to us and inviting us to solve their riddles. And as long as those stars shine in the sky, we owe it to ourselves to help life on this planet sparkle as well.

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