The best gossip at the Rashid family reunion this year was that 22-year-old Barbara McAllister was engaged to be married.
Perhaps the second best was that she would be bringing her fiance' to the reunion banquet. Instead of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, this was a case of Guess How Big the Dinner Is. Her fiance' would get to meet a couple hundred Rashid family members.
"I'm just going to bring him," McAllister said with a shrug the night before the dinner. "You can't explain something like this."
The word "family" doesn't really convey the scope of the annual reunions of Rashids. "Dynasty" comes to mind: brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, lovers -- a few of the Rashids have married each other. Yvonne Rashid was introduced to her fourth cousin, Baddia, known to everyone as Bud, at the 1932 reunion in Peoria, Ill.
"Her uncle brought us together," said Bud, the Washington-based national executive director of St. Jude Hospital in Memphis. "He thought we'd make a good match." Yvonne and Bud have been married 32 years now, and have six children.
They are of Lebanese descent and as American as the Kennedys, and this year they descended on the Marriott Hotel in Bethesda for the annual gathering that is their most beloved tradition. There are some first-generation Lebanese in the group, and then there are third-generation teen-agers, the boys with their punk sunglasses and the girls with fashionably mismatched earrings. Sam Rashid, 81, remembers homesteading in South Dakota. Steve Rashid, 30, can barely pronounce the name of the ancestral town in Lebanon.
Lebanon as a political issue is much less of a factor here than Lebanon as the homeland. "When you say you're Lebanese, people think you're a Shiite right now," said 24-year-old Georgette Rashid. The Rashids have long been predominantly Catholic.
"Every day I hear someone say, 'Dumb A-rab,' " said Jacqueline Salloum, 16, of Dearborn Heights, Mich. Her mother was born in Lebanon. "It doesn't really bother me. I don't think of myself as Arab. I think of myself as Lebanese."
"It's terrible," says her mother, Norma Salloum, whose husband is the Rashid connection. "I'm American and proud to be American, but it's terrible to see my family tortured like that. . . . I'd like to go someday and take my children to Lebanon. But I can't."
In numbers alone, they are staggering. The family claims 1,300 Rashids (pronounced RASH-id) in 32 states and another 40 families in Brazil. There were about 260 in evidence this weekend, including one family from Lebanon. The activities board at the hotel said it all: THE RASHID CLUB OF AMERICA. Down the hallway, taped to a wall, was a paper sign reading "Rashid Lobby" with an arrow pointing in the direction of the main ballroom.
"My colleagues around the city are in amazement when I say 250 of my relatives are coming to town," said Ken Rashid, director of administration for the Consumer Product Safety Commission here.
"If you look down the hall," said 54-year-old Alfred Gannon of Oak Hill, W. Va., "you'll see a little guy with sneakers. He's 8 years old and he's my son. I'm here because if I let him know the joy I take in this, he'll enjoy it and carry it on. We don't want to let something as wonderful as this family go by the wayside. We want some roots."
"You set a beautiful example for your homeland," George H. Siam, political affairs counselor for the Lebanese embassy, said in a speech to the family at the close of their banquet Saturday night. "And we look forward to the day when all of Lebanon will follow in the steps of the Rashid family, when all of Lebanon will come together as you did this weekend in the spirit of joy."
One thing seems clear: they greatly enjoy each others' company.
"It always amazes me that our children, brought up here," said Yvonne Rashid, "will take very special care to attend the reunion -- and that's of their own choosing."
"The family gossip is," Dawn Rashid said conspiratorially, "that there are a lot of cute family kids running around and they're all trying to see if they're related."
The cute family kids spent Friday night amusing each other, checking out the disco and room hopping through the hotel until 3 in the morning. In fact, that's one of the advantages of the reunion for the younger ones: You can party with abandon, because it's all in the family.
"You get to stay out as late as you want and your parents won't say anything," said Jacqueline Salloum.
"They're your cousins," added 17-year-old Richard Rashid. "No bad influence."
"We come to see all our cousins," said Greg Rashid, 21, who goes to Notre Dame with his 19-year-old cousin, Ed Lahood. They're both from Peoria. "We just have good old American fun."
"Lebanese style," added his brother Jeff, 20.
Joyce Rashid, mother of Jeff, chuckled about attending her first Rashid reunion as the wife of a relative.
"She had to go through strange initiation rites," said Jeff.
"Not knowing who was who," said his mother. "I kept my mouth shut. I didn't dare say hello to anyone."
The Rashids of America all trace their lineage back to a small town in southeastern Lebanon called Merjayoun, where today the Rashid family is one of the most prominent in the town. The first Rashids arrived in America, by ship, in 1890 and settled in Bloomington, Ill. "We don't know exactly why," said Bud Rashid. They were mostly itinerant peddlers who went into farming and homesteading and, later, business. "Very few had education, so they insisted their children have it," Bud said.
The first Rashids to arrive were five cousins -- four men and one woman.
After that, keeping track of relations gets dicey.
In the throng of Rashids who were here this weekend, a flow chart of their relationships would be extraordinarily complex and forever adjustable. Some of the younger Rashids solve it by giving up.
"In our family, any man who is older than you is called 'Uncle,' " laughed Alan Rashid, one of Bud and Yvonne's sons.
But that still gives rise to this kind of conversation when someone asks Alan if he is married:
"No," he said, "but Uncle Phil was pushing it."
"Which Uncle Phil?" asked his mother, Yvonne.
"Kissing Phil," said Alan. "I mean, the man left tooth marks in my shoulder."
"There are about three Phillip Rashids," said Bud Rashid.
Much of the reunion conversation revolves around calculating the relation.
On Friday night Marc Rashid, 20, of New Castle, Pa., beamed in triumph at Maria Lahood, 15, from Peoria. "We just figured out how we're related," Rashid said. "My grandparents on my father's side -- he's a Rashid. They were first cousins with her grandmother and grandfather" -- he pauses and flashes a no-let's-start-over look. "My Aunt Ida told me my father's parents were first cousins with Maria's mother's parents."
Bud Rashid is brilliant at these relative equations -- he remembers names and generations and ranks and functions as a sort of informal family statistician. But he defers to his wife as the ultimate authority. "Whenever I get stuck, I say, 'What's the relationship between so-and-so?' "
Immediate family members look like each other, but aside from that, the variations are quite evident and grow through the generations. Tow-headed third-generation toddlers waddled down the hallway past black-haired immigrants.
"That's the joke at the pool," said Teel Rashid, 23, a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who works in administration at George Washington University Hospital. "If you have dark hair and dark eyes, they ask you, 'Are you a Rashid?' "
They no more all look alike than they all know each other. "I recognize a lot of faces," said Steve Rashid of Hartford, Conn., who helped organize this year's event. The obvious rule of thumb is that the older a Rashid you are, the more relatives you know.
The reunion is a 57-year tradition, meticulously planned over the entire year. In addition to parties, the family gives scholarships and each year picks one charity to donate to from the family coffers. (Dues are $3 an adult. The treasury now holds about $26,000.) This year's charity is the Statue of Liberty. They also decide on the site of next year's reunion. It will be Chicago.
The young-adult generation planned this reunion and deliberately mixed traditional and more contemporary events -- an Arabic dinner, Arabic music, a disco party, a Saturday night banquet and a jazzy pop music band.
The highlight of Friday night was an Arabic dinner for 300 prepared by family members. "We started in April. One day we turned out 700 kibbie kabab," said Dawn Rashid of Potomac, referring to traditional Lebanese spicy meatballs. She has her own grape arbor in her backyard. "The first year of my marriage, I was on the phone all the time -- 'Hello, Mother, how do you make . . . ?' We try to pass down all the recipes to our children and pass on an appreciation for the food."
Late Friday night, in one darkened room, a disc jockey set up a disco with throbbing music and a dance floor where young Rashids all danced with each other. Down the hallway there was a smaller, brightly lit room where some of their parents were helping themselves to cake and coffee. Conversations in Arabic and English floated across the room, sparked by soft laughter. It was one of the few moments when Arabic rang out as loud as English.
According to Gannon, very few of the Rashids speak Arabic. He is one of them. His 22-year-old daughter Alexis took a semester of it in college. "That was a disaster," he chuckled.
The most ambitious family activity at each reunion must be the taking of the group photo. Photographer Ed Segal set up a panorama camera in the center of an arc of chairs. Some would sit, some would stand. Segal was prepared. He brought a megaphone:
"Young people 10 years and younger sit down on the rug in front!" he boomed.
Good-naturedly and noisily, family members began arranging themselves until the photographer looked like he was standing in a stadium -- rows of Rashids, literally from the ceiling to the floor. Children crawled in front. Adults waved across the room to each other.
"You all look maahhvelous!" cried reunion cochair John Abood before finding a place in the group.
"Right here at the camera! Big smile!" Segal coached through the megaphone. The group issued up a long drone to last the length of the timed exposure: "Cheeeeeeese . . . "
On Saturday night the band Bolt struck up "Celebration," and Ken Rashid only stopped dancing long enough to take off his suit jacket and grab his wife Dawn.
"I hated turning 45," he lamented, "but coming to this reunion, watching the new people coming up, it makes you feel young."