When we were younger, my older sister Heba kept a photo on her dresser in our bedroom that always caught my eye. She said I was the young red-haired girl in the picture, but I was born with blonde curls and had light brown hair at the time. The girl in the picture was named Sara, like me, and I would later learn that the full story of the photo was too baffling for me to understand at the time.
My family is Druze, a thousand-year-old religion whose adherents mostly live in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan. Among the faith’s beliefs is that every human being is reincarnated. Your body is a shell, and your spirit can claim another life form to live on indefinitely. Many Druze say that certain people can remember details about their past lives. My sister is one of them.
I am more skeptical than Heba when it comes to spirituality, but I have never denied her experience. Because I had heard other stories about people from our hometown in Lebanon who died but “came back to life” in new bodies, it didn’t seem far-fetched that she had, too. Still, I wouldn’t discuss her past life openly — I imagined talking about it at dinner parties, only to be met with eye rolls, the same way I dismiss the conversation whenever my friends go on about their astrological signs. It wasn’t until I started living with my sister in New Jersey during the pandemic that I learned to suppress my cynicism — and embrace her beliefs.
I started questioning religion when I was 12. My family had just moved from New Jersey back to Lebanon, and I was shocked by the rampant sectarianism. Then, when I was 16, my father died of cancer, and I kept hearing the Arabic phrase “maktub” — “it is written.” While I understood the point of this tenet (to accept one’s fate), I thought it made all our human efforts seem futile. Similarly, my parents had taught us that our souls live on after death, but this belief made it hard for me to see life as precious. Since I couldn’t find comfort in faith-based acceptance, I searched for guidance in books about atheism, philosophy and science instead. Believing that our time on Earth is limited helped me to live life to its fullest.
Heba, who is eight years older than me, always leaned more spiritual. Unlike me, the way she made sense of her struggles was through faith, not necessarily in God, but in something greater, which included her belief in past lives. She was just 3 years old when she first declared that her name was Nada, and pretended to prepare sandwiches for her “husband,” Amin, to enjoy when he came home from work.
When my mother mentioned this, a friend said she knew of a woman named Nada who used to live a half-hour drive from our town. Nada had died, but had been married to a man named Amin. A few days later, Nada’s mother and sister knocked on our door and said they had heard about Heba. (Word gets around in small villages.) They asked if Heba would visit their home to see if she could recognize anything, maybe Nada’s room or her favorite nook. Out of politeness, my mother warily agreed.
At the house, Heba asked about an older woman who used to sit in a corner in one of the bedrooms. She must have been referring to Nada’s grandmother, who had since died, the family said. Heba also recognized Nada’s bedroom and remembered how she loved spending time in the family’s garden. They took those clues as confirmation that my sister had memories from Nada’s life.
My parents emigrated to the United States soon after, but Nada’s memories stayed with Heba. Years later, while vacationing in Lebanon with my father in 2000, she asked if she could see Nada’s family again. During their second meeting she found out that at the time of her death, Nada had an infant daughter named Sara — the redhead in the photo — and she was 16, nearly the same age as Heba was. Sara’s family had told her about my sister, and they agreed to meet.
Both girls, Heba said, felt awkward.
“So you’re my mom?” Sara asked sarcastically. She complained about her stepmother, who Sara said had tried to get rid of any traces of Nada. At times, Sara addressed Heba as if she were Nada: “They burned your sweater, and that was all that I had left of you,” Sara said. In reality, my sister was a sophomore in high school, living in New Jersey, with Mariah Carey posters on her wall.
My sister said she felt as though she had forced Nada’s family to revisit an unresolved trauma, and it weighed on her. Over the next several years, she tried to put the whole experience behind her. The family had given her a few keepsakes: a bracelet, a gold necklace and the picture of Sara. Eventually, Heba put them away. She went to college in Lebanon a few years later, and Sara showed up at her door unannounced to invite Heba to her wedding. My sister didn’t go. For nearly a decade, Nada only resurfaced as a character in an intriguing story, nothing more.
Then in 2015, while living in Los Angeles, Heba discovered past-life regression therapy, which uses hypnosis to help people recall memories from past lives. The idea, practitioners say, is that if you are grappling with trauma in this life, you may be able to find the root of the problem in patterns or recurring characters from previous lives. Heba realized there were people all around the world, not just from our small town in Lebanon, who also believed in reincarnation. She quickly became certified in past-life regression and, after years of trying not to think about reincarnation, found comfort in its ability to heal.
On the other side of the country, I was starting a career in journalism, and was ambivalent about Heba’s new profession. I wondered why I had accepted her experience with Nada so matter-of-factly without looking into it further. Questions nagged at me: How do I explain something I don’t understand? Are someone else’s memories enough evidence of them having a reincarnated soul? It wasn’t until this past year, while my sister and I were living under the same roof again, that I started to truly reconcile our worldviews.
Before that, living on my own over the past several years meant I could carefully curate my life, and engage only with people who shared my beliefs, mainly journalism colleagues who prioritized evidence-based facts. I thought I was open-minded — until I had to discuss politics and spirituality with my family around the dinner table.
Last December, during the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the first time in 800 years the two planets aligned incredibly close to each other and were visible in the sky, I joined Heba and our pandemic pod for a ceremony at a friend’s house. We sat in a circle, drew cards from an oracle deck and wrote down our reflections and hopes in an attempt to manifest our goals for 2021.
It was new and refreshing for me; it felt like much-needed talk therapy after an isolating year. And, my oracle cards were freakishly on point. The first said “Growth,” and mentioned leaving behind antiquated relationships, beliefs or systems. The beliefs I needed to let go of were not the spiritual ones though.
I still have questions — many questions — about past-life regression therapy, but I support Heba and her work. Some of my closest friends have become her clients. She has repeatedly offered to conduct a session with me, but I don’t think I believe in the therapy enough to go under. And if I do, I’m afraid of what I would discover. This life has been challenging enough at times, I don’t know that I could bear the memories of another one.
I also drew a second card that night: “Boundaries.” Heba and I glanced at each other. The card displayed a symbol of a red jaguar, its fangs out. As my friend read the card aloud, I was amazed by how elegantly it spoke to my struggle to be independent from my family while accepting them. The jaguar “has a healthy sense of boundaries and respects magic and the unknown,” it said. I may not be ready to confront my past lives, but at least I’m more open to having fuller experiences in this one.
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