When Heba was very young, there was a knock at the door at her home in Lebanon. It was another family from the village, claiming that they knew her… from a past life.
Now, as an adult, she still wonders: Have I always been Heba? Or was there another life before this one?
This episode was produced by Dana Ballout and Alex Atack. Fact checking by Tamara Juburi, and sound design by Paul Alouf. Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar, Nadeen Shaker and Findbar Anderson.
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Find a transcript for this episode at our website, kerningcultures.com/kerningcultures.
Editor’s note: our transcripts are made with a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may not reflect the audio with 100% accuracy.
DANA BALLOUT: I’m Dana Ballout, and this is Kerning Cultures. Our story today starts with Heba Aridi. She’s Lebanese American, in her 30s, and she grew up between Lebanon and New Jersey. And I wanted to talk to her because of something that happened to her when she young. It might sound unusual to you – but we’ll explain a bit more later. For now I’m just going to let the tape run. Here’s Heba.
HEBA ARIDI: It started off when I was around four or five, and every night when I’d go to sleep, I’d feel like someone’s patting my hand and saying Nada, Nada, Nada. And that was my early memory of why do I keep having the same reoccurring feeling? And I keep hearing the same name? I would talk to my Mom and she wouldn’t say anything until I got older. And you know, my mom would call me and I would say, no, my name is Nada. And I was like three at the time or four. And I’d say, no, my name is Nada.
DANA BALLOUT: It wasn’t just that Heba was asking her Mom to call her Nada. There were other things too – like, she’d sit next to the window of their home in Lebanon, pretending to make a sandwich for her somebody called Amin. No one in her family was named Amin.
HEBA ARIDI: And my mom would say, what are you doing? And I say, I’m waiting for Amin.
DANA BALLOUT: And when her Mom would ask her who Amin was – she’d say: he’s my husband. She was five.
HEBA ARIDI: I expected her to know who Amin was.
DANA BALLOUT: One day her Mom had a guest over at the house – a woman from the village. And she overheard one of their conversations about this man “Amin”.
HEBA ARIDI: My mom’s like, yeah, she keeps saying her name is Nada and her husband’s name is Amin and the lady’s like, oh, well, not too long ago, a couple of years ago, there was a woman I know from our village and her name was Nada and her and her husband’s name was Amin and she passed away.
DANA BALLOUT: Kind of strange, but her mom brushed it off. The friend on the other hand did not. In typical village fashion, she must’ve gone back and told other people in the village, who told other people. And shortly after that they got a knock on the door. It was Amin’s family.
HEBA ARIDI: And my mom said she opened the door. And as soon as she opened the door and I saw the woman standing at the door, I ran to her and I was three, four. So I don’t usually run to strangers like that. I ran to her, I hugged her. I was very comfortable with her.
And they talked to me for a bit. I don’t remember the details, but they talked to me for a bit and they asked my mom if it was okay for us to go up to their home so I can visit the home.
So my mom agreed and when I got to the house, you said, as soon as you got out the car, you ran around the whole house and you remembered everything and you’d go into every room and say, you know, [speaking Arabic] – ‘where’s the old lady that used to live here?’, or ‘why isn’t this table here, the way it used to be?’, or ‘where’s my jewellery that I used to put here?’ And it kind of confirmed, everyone’s like, yeah, this is where her grandmother used to stay. And this is where she put her jewellery. And this is where, and, you know, as a four year old, you can’t make that up. That’s not your imagination.
ALEX ATACK: So, hearing Heba’s story – to a lot of people might sound – maybe unusual is the wrong word but – not something you hear about every day.
DANA BALLOUT: This is producer Alex Atack, who helped me out with this story.
ALEX ATACK: But to you, you’re from a similar background to Heba – you’re both Druze, which is a minority religion in Lebanon and lots of Druze people believe in reincarnation… so hearing her story, it wasn’t something that was completely out of the ordinary for you?
DANA BALLOUT: Not at all. Not at all. Growing up in Lebanon, I grew up in Lebanon and I’m from a very small mountainous village, as most Druze villages. It’s very common that you hear people talk about their past life.
And there’s a word for it. Like when a child is born, they say they [nata] if it’s a girl, they say not which is like she, she remembers her past life.
So she’ll even kids will start speaking of their past life and then it’s – but yeah, it’s very common and sometimes it creates a lot of angst in people as well. I remember I had one friend that was so anxious and frustrated about the fact that in her past life she was a very wealthy woman.
And she would talk to me about how she can remember, like brace, gold bracelets going down her hands and her arms. And in her current life, she wasn’t at all. She was struggling for money. And I remember her often talking about how that was frustrating. And I’ve had other friends remember on what hill they died and how they died.
It’s quite it can be quite vivid.
ALEX ATACK: And how have you felt about it growing up?
DANA BALLOUT: I never gave reincarnation much thought growing up. I would say my family probably – my parents do believe in it. I’m undecided. But in the Druze faith, you have to be reincarnated into another Druze soul.
So your Druze soul gets reincarnated into another Druze soul. And that’s mainly because you can’t convert into the religion, so there’s a limited number of Druze souls.
The story goes that there was a period in time in history where it’s almost like the door was opened to convert into, being Druze and and then the door closed.
And so all the souls that were became Druze like my soul, I guess, there’s a limited number of them, so you get reincarnated into another Druze person.
ALEX ATACK: Yeah. So it’s like a way of the community almost like replenishing itself? In a way?
DANA BALLOUT: Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely.
ALEX ATACK: And so is there an element of it to which it’s you, Druze is already a minority, it’s already a very small community and so like an element of the belief in reincarnation is this thing of like wanting to keep the community alive?
DANA BALLOUT: Yeah. Yeah. A big part of being Druze is keeping the community alive and your responsibility of keeping the community alive. Again, because you can’t convert into the religion, you can only be born into it. And that’s why there are things that like, marrying outside the religion is a really big deal because it’s almost like you’re messing with the gene pool, almost. On a larger scale, you’re contributing to the collapse of your faith by marrying outside the religion.
ALEX ATACK: It sounds though to me like it’s something that can also be really like lead to all kinds of like really complicated and fraught emotional situations. It just, it sounds like there’s a million ways that reconnecting with your past life family can be just an impossible emotional situation to have to deal with.
DANA BALLOUT: Absolutely. I think sometimes, and in the case of Heba’s story, it’s not always so positive.
HEBA ARIDI: I was 15, I was a sophomore in high school and I was visiting Lebanon with my father one summer and we were at his friend’s house And we’re sitting on the balcony talking and they start talking about reincarnation and how many different people from their villages that have been reincarnated and they’re sharing other people’s stories. So I told my dad I’m like, oh it wasn’t I reincarnated? And he said, yeah. And he told the guy, oh, you know who she was. And I’m like, oh, you know where the people live? And he said, yeah. And I’m like, can we go visit? And I really didn’t think about the whole process. I was young, I didn’t think about the long term effects. I was just curious. And I’m like, oh, this is really cool. Let me go see them.
DANA BALLOUT: So the next day – they went. Heba, her dad, her aunt and two of her cousins – they all got in the car and drove to this home. And when they knocked on the door, a woman answered.
HEBA ARIDI: When she saw my dad she recognised him so she knew it was me.
DANA BALLOUT: It was Heba’s past-life sister.
HEBA ARIDI: And I felt very uncomfortable as soon as we got there. She sees my dad and she automatically starts crying and she looks at me and she says, ‘Heba, Heba’ and I said, yes. And I didn’t know who she was. She started hugging me and kissing me. And it made me feel uncomfortable because I didn’t know this person, but she was treating me like we were best friends. And then they’re like call Sara, and I had no clue who Sara was at the time. So I said, who’s Sara? And they said, oh, that was your daughter.
DANA BALLOUT: Nada – Heba’s past-life self – had a daughter named Sara. Who was now roughly the same age as Heba.
HEBA ARIDI: So this teenager – this door opens and this teenager walks out. She was a red head, you know, curly, red hair, freckles. And she looked angry and she walked straight to me and she looked at me with like an attitude. And she said, [Arabic] basically are also, you’re supposed to be my mom? And I was like, oh no, no, I’m not, you know, mentally. I was like, no, I’m definitely not. And I kinda was that’s when it hit me, like, what am I doing here? Why did I come here? You know, my curiosity is opening up a lot of pain for these people. And I didn’t think that through.
And we went back out on the balcony and my dad at the time was like, Heba why don’t you and Sara go for a little walk? And I go for a walk with her. I remember we were on someone’s roof and we were just walking on the roof back and forth. And she was a year older than me, but she was speaking to me like I was her mother. She wasn’t speaking to me like I was Heba she was speaking to me like I was Nada.
And she started automatically, like – ‘you don’t know what they did to me after you left’. And her dad remarried and you know, her step-mom, I guess wasn’t the greatest to her. She treated her badly compared to the other siblings. And she said stuff like [speaking Arabic] ‘I left a sweater for you. And she even burned that. And she wouldn’t let me keep any memories of you’. And I realised, you know, this girl had a really rough life in this village and I’m going to go back to New Jersey in a week and go back to high school and move on with my life. And why did I just do this? And it really hurt me. Because I couldn’t do anything. Like what was I supposed to do? You know, how, what was I supposed to do as a teenager like how was I supposed to protect her from that or help her in any way.
DANA BALLOUT: When Sara was talking to you or when your family from the past life would talk to you and interact with you, are you answering as Heba or are you answering as Nada?
HEBA ARIDI: I think they always asked me expecting it to come out as Nada, but it always came out as Heba. I couldn’t – I was not Nada. I didn’t feel that motherly instinct towards her. I didn’t feel that like, love connection towards Amin, so I always spoke as Heba. And I think that caused more pain for them.
DANA BALLOUT: They stayed at the house for about two hours, but when they went home that evening, the whole thing still bothered Heba.
She couldn’t shake it – that she hadn’t felt any strong connection with Sara or anybody else in the family.
Nothing about it felt familiar.
She didn’t sleep very well that night. Then a couple of days later, Nada’s family showed up at her house again, asking if Heba would stay over at their place.
HEBA ARIDI: And I was like, oh no… So we ended up, I ended up going, because I didn’t want to say no to Sara. I really felt bad for her. And I went up one, I think it was like a Friday. And I spent, I couldn’t sleep all night. I sat with Sara and we talked about her life and the life she had, and it was completely different from mine, completely different. And the next morning was when it got really weird. We woke up that morning and she said, okay, well, we’re going to go to my dad’s house.
DANA BALLOUT: So this is Amin?
HEBA ARIDI: Amin.
DANA BALLOUT: Okay.
DANA BALLOUT: Amin: Heba’s past-life husband. The one she’d told her Mum about when she was 5, who she was making sandwiches for.
HEBA ARIDI: And we ended up going to her dad’s house and I’m not exaggerating. I think half the village was there. There were probably – you think it’s a wedding. There was probably like a hundred people on the balcony, inside the living room. And I get there – mind you I’m 15, 16, – and everyone is just staring at me. And everyone wants to say hi and greet, and they want a kiss, three kisses on the cheek. And then everyone just kept staring at me and they’d say stuff like [speaking Arabic]
DANA BALLOUT: Quick translation here: they were saying things like, “who is prettier Heba or Nada?” Or “Oh Heba is shorter than Nada”.
HEBA ARIDI: This is very weird. And then Amin came out and he was just crying. It was very weird because, you know, he was a man in his sixties and he just couldn’t stop crying. And I didn’t feel anything towards him at all. At all. I think if anything, I just really wanted to get out of there. So I left and I had someone, I think it was her uncle or someone take me back home.
DANA BALLOUT: Even if that whole situation in Lebanon had made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn’t believe that she truly was Nada in her past life… Heba still felt some sort of connection with the family… because when she came back to New Jersey, Heba kept a photo of her past life daughter Sara in her bedroom, which is how her younger sister – who is also called Sara – found out about her. This is Sara.
SARA ARIDI: I only discovered this because Heba had a picture on her dresser and like, we live, we shared the same bedroom for like, you know, the first, I don’t know how many years of my life. And when I noticed it, that’s when she told me that it was a picture of Sara
I was kind of just going with the flow. I was like, this is her story. I believe it, you know, there are so many people in our hometown in Lebanon and in general in Lebanon, if you’re talking to Druze people, everyone has this story of a relative or a friend or a friend of a friend who was reincarnated. And so I was like, okay, well, my sister is not quote unquote crazy. You know, she’s not the only person in the world who has, who has had these stories. It’s as if she told me that she has like a secret talent. I was like, oh, okay, cool. I don’t understand it, but I believe it, you know?
DANA BALLOUT: Sara is more sceptical about past life experiences and reincarnation than her sister. She’s a journalist – and she says she likes to put her beliefs into things that she can touch and feel and see.
And that’s partly why I wanted to speak to them together – as a Druze person myself, who isn’t religious but hasn’t fully decided how I feel about reincarnation, I wanted to hear what shaped their very different beliefs, and how they landed where they did.
SARA ARIDI: I would say for the first 10 years of my life, the Druze religion almost meant nothing to me. Not that I didn’t like it, or I didn’t respect. It was more like we knew that our parents or religious and they would talk about being Druze all the time. But, you know, we lived in New Jersey and there was no one in my life at the time that was asking about, you know, my religion at all. It wasn’t a conversation that came up with my friends.
DANA BALLOUT: When she was 16, Sara’s father passed away – and for her that was a bit of a turning point in her relationship with religion.
SARA ARIDI: When my father passed away, it was kind of like – kind of just reaffirming, like, okay, there’s no point in praying. There’s no point in assuming there’s a higher God or a higher power that’s going to look out for you because the world is totally random and socially totally arbitrary. And I don’t think there’s any, anything wrong with other people praying. It’s just not the way I live and the way I see the world.
DANA BALLOUT: Heba’s relationship with her faith went the other way. While Sara was frustrated by how secretive the faith is, Heba was fascinated. And she dug deeper.
HEBA ARIDI: Every time I was in Lebanon, I’d visit those shrines or [unclear] or whatever you want to call them. And I’d look for books written in English and I’d find them in like [unclear] or [unclear]. But I found a couple, I found The Druze Faith by Sami Makarem and I found Mysticism and the Druze Faith and Druze and Astrology.
DANA BALLOUT: When researchers have studied past life experiences amongst the Druze communities in Lebanon, here’s what they’ve found: some children who claim to have past life experiences are more prone to daydreaming or attention seeking – and some of the reports found evidence of PTSD-like symptoms… which might go some way to explaining why so many children who grew up during the Lebanese civil war have stories of past life memories…
DANA BALLOUT: But Heba’s story about meeting her past life family was so vivid … so convincing … as so many of these stories are.
NATALIE EL-EID: So, I’ve seen it check out so often that I want to give more credit than a sense of imagination.
DANA BALLOUT: Natalie El-Eid is writing her PhD project on reincarnation – and in her research, she’s also found this hard to explain.
NATALIE EL-EID: I mean, a child’s capacity for imagination is almost unparalleled. And a lot of Druze people who do remember, remember as children, and they’re remembering at a very young age But we also have this verification process. Right? So when certain families allow it, they will kind of explore or verify these children’s stories. Sometimes they don’t check out and sometimes they do. And sometimes there’s kind of these gaps and understanding where this could be right, but not everything is spot on or, it doesn’t always fit.
But there’s also verified stories. So what do you do with that? And then whether or not it’s true, what is the belief in that do, what is the impact of that? So if you truly believe it, or if the family that you’re associated with truly believes that, what does that mean? That kind of shifts things for them and then they can be very life changing.
DANA BALLOUT: This is something that a lot of research on reincarnation in Druze communities misses out. Whether you believe in it or not – Natalie told us that it does have this very real world role in keeping the community tied together.
NATALIE EL-EID: For the Druze we’re very small. There’s estimated to be about 1 million of us in the entire world – what reincarnation does for us and the sense of interconnectivity.
So there are people that I’ve spoken to who will visit their past life families and then begin visiting their past life families over and over and over again. And they become part of their family in this present life. So it’s a way that we remain connected to one another across time and space despite our limited numbers.
So yeah, when, when I’m hearing kind of testimonies and stories, the idea of whether it’s true or not has never really matter to me because what matters to me is that the implications or the belief of this for this person, for this family and for this community.
ALEX ATACK: There seems to be quite common instances where people with past life stories when they meet their past life families – it can be quite traumatic. I wondered how you square this thing that’s a deeply held belief but can also be traumatic and difficult – how are those two things squared in your experience?
NATALIE EL-EID: It’s hard because there’s so much pain and sadness and trauma and these stories, but at the same time, there is an immense hope. There’s an, I think that hope comes from the idea that when we die, we do not die. So it can be really hard to go through these memories, but for many people to remember your past life, despite its pain and trauma is, it seems to be exciting and happy and full of possibility. And again, that chance for connection to another place in space and family. So there’s a bit of a seesaw here, but it kind of seems to balance itself out.
DANA BALLOUT: Now, as an adult, Heba does believe in reincarnation even if she doesn’t think that she was a part of that family in Lebanon – her past life family. She’s since been through past life regression therapy – which is a kind of therapy where patients undergo hypnosis to try and remember past lives. Practitioners say it can help resolve trauma. And recently, she became a past life regression therapist herself.
HEBA ARIDI: After doing past life regression, after getting there and when I started getting into past life regression. It wasn’t until I started accessing other past lives of mine that I noticed a deep connection and the relationships that left strong imprints that I was able to say, no, I really didn’t feel much towards my mother in that past life. Because she didn’t leave an imprint into me, I think maybe we didn’t have that great of a relationship. And I’ve experienced through regression other past lives that were connected to this little one, this one in particular. And it just made more sense and it gave me more understanding and it created more healing. And those are the past lives to me that I just feel are more beneficial for my growth or from, or like me evolving at the current moment.
DANA BALLOUT: And Sara have you done in past life regression?
SARA ARIDI: I haven’t, but in terms of like doing past life, I just know from her experience with some of her clients that if they go into it or they’re not really there and they’re not present and they’re not willing to go under and just follow her, her kind of questions and just sort of have faith in the process. It’s not going to work. And frankly, I don’t think that it would work on me because I just don’t believe in it. You know? I don’t think that it’s possible for me to access past life. I’m also just sort of – I don’t know, I’m also, I just don’t have the curiosity to be honest, you know, I’m more interested in learning about this world. I feel like I don’t know enough about the world that I live in. The reason why I think atheism is beautiful is because it reminds people that like … we’re literally all just human beings and we’re all gonna be alive for, you know, a few years and we’re going to die and that’s it. To be very, very crude and simplistic, you know? But yeah, who knows maybe I’ll change my mind if he wants or in a few years. I don’t know. And I know Heba is right here, so if I want to do it? She’ll have she’ll happily do it for me.
DANA BALLOUT: At first, Sara wasn’t sure about her sister’s new profession. But for a whole they moved in together, in New York, and she started to see Heba’s fascination with past lives for what it is: a desire to understand the world and her place in it. We can all relate to that.
SARA ARIDI: I think it was actually weirdly like – I don’t know if this sounds weird to say this – I was like proud of her in a weird way, You know, I don’t think I believe in it. I don’t think I ever will believe it, but she discovered this, she’s passionate about it. She’s interested in it. She could talk about it for days. She found people that relate to her, you know, and obviously she found a way to make more sense of her experience with reincarnation. So I actually was really happy that she sort of found her individualistic beliefs on her own and just gained happiness out of it. You know?
But she was truly like wanting to learn more about the religion or religion, because she was curious. And if I want to get really cliche and philosophical, that’s why I went into journalism, you know, because I’m really curious about a lot of things. And I just want to know more and I want to answer questions and logic is like the one thing that I believe in, you know? So for her, she was just trying to make sense of her world because she appreciated the religion. Whereas I was always the kind of person that was like, okay, maybe I’ll read a little bit about it, just so I know about my own history, but I’m not really ever going to have a deep connection to it.
ALEX ATACK: So this is where the story was gonna end and then something happened…
DANA BALLOUT: It’s true. Okay. So the story – it’s unlike me to feel to have these kinds of moments, the facts are the facts. So I interviewed Heba and her sister. We talked for many hours about like reincarnation, about being a young Druze woman, and one of my questions was if I wanted to learn more about reincarnation where can I get more information? And then Sara said,
HEBA ARIDI: I recommend Many Lives Many Master by Brian Weiss to anyone.
DANA BALLIOUT: And so she said, one book that I really recommend is this book called Many Lives, many Masters. I was like, okay, that sounds interesting. I’ll look it up. And then I think it was the next day or like a couple of days later. I am going on my usual run in my neighbourhood. And in my neighbourhood, there are these things called public libraries, but they’re like, not like an actual public library, but they look like these bird houses and there’s like books in them, and then you take one and you and it’s like a nice community neighborhoody thing. And I’m doing my usual run and I shift my eyes to. Birdhouse library thing and I see a book in there, a single book. And it’s Many Lives, Many Masters.
DANA BALLOUT (VOICE NOTE): Alex, sorry. That was an incomplete message. Okay so you know how I did the reincarnation interview with Heba…
DANA BALLOUT: And to add to all of this…
DANA BALLOUT (VOICE NOTE): And I took it, and inside of it there was this note. I’m gonna send it to you now.
DANA BALLOUT: It says to you, who finds this? I’m still not sure if I believe in past lives, but I will say that it was a very underlined, very interesting read, and I believe everything that they experienced, enjoy, and keep exploring.
DANA BALLOUT (VOICE NOTE): Alex, is there a god, and are they trying to talk to me?
DANA BALLOUT: I honestly think that finding the book in the tree house was a big moment. And I think on my, in my scale of like spirituality and like belief in things that I can’t really explain, I was definitely deep in the scientific spectrum and I am a very, still, a very secular person and religion doesn’t really play a role in my life. But I would say that after this, finding that book and even reading it honestly, I guess I’ve shifted a little bit to be like maybe 10 or 20% more open to the magic of the world.
DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by me, Dana Ballout, and Alex Atack. Fact checking by Tamara Juburi, with sound design and mixing by Paul Alouf. Our team also includes Nadeen Shaker, Zeina Dowidar and Finbar Anderson.
A special thanks to Heba and Sara Aridi and Natalie El-Eid for speaking to us for this episode. You can read Sara’s essay about reincarnation at the New York Times – it’s called My Sister Remembers Her Past Life. Somehow, I Believe Her.
Thanks for listening, see you next week.