The Road Home: First Stop, New Orleans

On finding ones roots in a surprisingly foreign yet familiar city.

By Hala Daher March 22, 2016

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New World, Old World? New Orleans is both.

Image: Shutterstock

This is the first in a 5-part series on a road trip from Houston to the author's hometown of Detroit.

I feel like my mother haunts New Orleans like so many other ghosts throughout the old city. It's not that she's not buried there—in fact, she never even stepped foot in Louisiana—but something about New Orleans feels like home.

When I first visited New Orleans for a conference eight years ago, I had just moved Houston from Detroit and the Garden City seemed instantly and intimately familiar in a way the Bayou City didn't. At the time, I thought the connection was with Detroit: another American city heavily influenced by French colonialism, one with a storied musical legacy and an urban population affected by white flight. New Orleans and Detroit have always felt like sister cities to me, strange though it may sound.

I've been to New Orleans a few times since then, learning more about its history along the way, and I realize now the connection it has to my mother. New Orleans was part of a French colony founded by a Canadian, built by slaves from the Caribbean by way of what is now modern-day Senegal. My mother was Lebanese, but born and raised in the French colony of Senegal, eventually moving to Canada then to the States. The rest of her family settled in France and we visit them at least once a year.

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That's not jambalaya, it's thieboudienne.

Image: Shutterstock

My mother used to cook a spicy Senegalese dish called chiboujen that, I realize now, closely resembled jambalaya. She would make us fried fish sandwiches on French bread and correct our pronunciation of French words, insisting that donuts were actually "beignets." She told us stories of old women in Senegal who could cast voodoo spells and showed us pictures of Dakar, the capital of the west African country, which looked just like the French Quarter in New Orleans, right down to the same iron work on the balconies of the old homes.

On my road back home to Detroit, I thought it would be fitting to stop in New Orleans and make a visit in honor of my mother. One regret I have is that she never got to experience it before she passed away in August of last year. Still another regret is that we never visited Dakar together.

I'm lucky to have a friend in New Orleans who was happy to play tour guide, taking time off work to show me around on an overcast Tuesday. We prayed it wouldn't rain as we dusted off a couple of road bikes, and off we went all over town. We biked to the oldest cemeteries to find the oldest graves in one of the oldest cities in the country. We rode through the different neighborhoods, gawking at the architecture. I later learned the shotgun style homes all over New Orleans were influenced by the homes of slaves from West Africa. My mother grew up in a home that looked just like that.

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Architecture in the French Quarter bears a striking resemblance to that in Dakar, Senegal.

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We headed to the French Quarter where we looked for streets named after French cities. I sent a photo of the "Chartres Street" sign to my uncle who lives in Chartres, France. I sent a photo of the "Toulouse Street" sign to my aunt who went to university there. She said she had a little house with a garden in Toulouse in 1987. I couldn't find Paris or Bordeaux streets where the rest of my family lives, though I knew those were around too.

I saw a fortune teller in Jackson Square and she told me I come from a strange family—and that a person I lost made me the "freak" that I am today. This would be my mother, a woman who could never decide on her cultural identity because it was too complicated. She was Lebanese, but she was also Senegalese, French, Canadian and American. She would sometimes complain, "I speak too many languages!" after accidentally mixing it all up in one sentence. 

Everything I experienced in New Orleans seemed to remind me of my mother and her family. I ended the day happy to have had such a lovely send-off on the long road north to Detroit, feeling my mother's spirit by my side. If the souls of the dead could travel, I hope she regularly checked in on a city that shared her same weird background. Tomorrow, I leave beautiful New Orleans and head up I-59 towards Birmingham, Alabama.

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