25. a few books by Arab & Arab American authors

The ‘noteworthy fiction’ table at the local Barnes and Noble was my favorite area of four square feet in Michigan. I could spend hours skimming the titles, reading back covers, deliberating over which of the titles to choose as my companion for the next few weeks.

As I entered college and began studying Arabic, I began to reflect on my literary choices. Why weren’t there ever any Arab or Arab American authors on the ‘noteworthy fiction’ table? Surely they exist. And they must write at least some stories worthy of note.

In Chicago, the Seminary Co-Op became my preferred bookstore. I felt my way through the labyrinth of shelves stacked to capacity with more uncommon titles. I sought out last names that indicated some sort of tie to the region I had been studying through language and connected to by heritage. Over five years, I had curated a respectable collection of books on my own shelf, with authors whose literary voices I didn’t have the chance to hear growing up.

I am excited to share a few highlights from that shelf with you. Below you’ll find a list of some of my favorite books by Arab and Arab American authors. Maybe you’ll get a chance to read some of them in 2018, or perhaps you’ll have favorites you’d like to add to the list. In any case, I would love to hear about your engagement with these titles. Happy reading!

A Map of Home – Randa Jarrar
This novel centers around the protagonist, Nidali, and her family as conflict drives them from Kuwait to Egypt, and then the United States. Nidali’s voice is so wonderfully fresh and sharp, and I often found myself laughing at her narrations. This story is interlaced with many themes, from displacement to the density of family relationships, but to me was ultimately about growing up. 

The Moor’s Account – Leila Lailami
This story is a fictionalized account of an historical event. It is written as the memoir of Mustafa, a Moroccan man who was sold as a slave after an unfortunate twist of fate. He is renamed Estevanico after being brought to Spain. He is then selected to accompany a group of explorers on an expedition to the New World, or modern-day Florida. It is full of adventure and exciting plot turns, while also diving into the dynamics of slavery and colonialism from a systematically silenced perspective. 

Lifted by the Great Nothing – Karim Dimechkie
This novel is both tragedy and comedy. Max tells the story of growing up in suburbia with his Lebanese father, who has attempted to give his son what he imagines to be a truly “American” childhood. But in the process of trying to protect Max, the father has spun an intricate web of lies. This sets Max on a journey to seek the truth. The relationships in this story are saturated with deep love and empathy, yet also grave misunderstandings.

I, the Divine – Rabih Alameddine
This is the story of a Lebanese woman who finds tentative peace in self-imposed exile in the United States, told entirely in first chapters. Sarah, the protagonist, attempts and re-attempts to tell the story of her life, and with all these false starts, a plot-laden narrative unfolds. The author of this novel is one of my all-time favorites. If you end up enjoying this one, I would highly recommend you also check out The Hakawati and An Unnecessary Woman. 

The Return – Hisham Matar
In this literary memoir, Matar tells the story of his search for understanding after the disappearance of his father during the Qaddafi regime. Matar also deals with the pain of exile and how it has shaped his identity, beautifully rendering attachments and relationships in Libya, New York, and London.

De Niro’s Game – Rawi Hage
I read this novel in a class taught by the brilliant Ghenwa Hayek, called “Narrating Conflict in Modern Arabic Literature.” This particular story is set in Lebanon during the civil war and told from the perspective of a young man who struggles to understand his place in it all. He tries to make a living for himself and his family, all while pursuing meaning in the senseless conflict and destruction that surrounds him. It is also a story about friendship and the different paths that we take.

The Hidden Light of Objects – Mai Al-Nakkib
A sparkling collection of short stories that stood out to me as tenderly evoked vignettes more than fully-formed narratives. I don’t remember the plots of the stories so much as how they made my feel; curious, filled with wonder, ready to seek meaning in the little moments that comprise mundane lives.

The Woman from Tantoura – Radwa Ashour
I saw this title in a charming bookstore in London, on the edge of Baker Street that leads to Hyde Park. I was drawn to the cover, which carried the name of my second-year Arabic instructor. Turns out she had translated this book! It follows the life of Ruqayya, who is born in a village of Palestine but displaced after the events of 1948. Ruqayya and her family are scattered around the world, but the events of the novel after the invasion of her hometown Tantoura unfold in Lebanon, Jordan, and the Gulf. Her voice is mature and measured, simple and frank, yet she does not shy away from evoking the bottomless pain of loss.

The Corpse Exhibition – Hassan Blassim
This is a collection of short stories that captivate the reader despite the disturbing images they evoke of Iraq during war and American invasion. His work recalls Gabriel Garcia Marquez with his use of magical realism and absurd treatment of violence. I would not recommend this title for readers with difficulty stomaching gruesome scenes. For those who can better tolerate such stories, I would say the challenge of reading this collection is instructive, especially for those of us who have been privileged enough not to experience war firsthand.

American War – Omar Al-Akkad
This dystopian novel imagines what America would look like if it split info a civil war spurred by political factionalism, regional disagreements about dependence on fossil fuels, and the imperial interests of other global superpowers. It is beautifully told and at the same time frightening, given the realities of climate change and political polarization.

24. nose ring

On a frigid Saturday morning five years ago, I let a whim guide me. It took me on a bus downtown, and then a blue line train heading northwest. The cold pursued me mercilessly as I walked between transit stops. It cut through my gloves and the three layers I had managed to stuff under my coat. I arrived at the parlor with my nose red and running, then promptly asked the technician if he could pierce it. I pushed the words out of my mouth before I had the time to take them back.

It was the week before my twentieth birthday. I had been feeling lost, adrift. I was hoping  that this small act could somehow anchor me.

Nose piercings are not permanent. The ring can be removed at any time, and the hole will close itself within one day. It is hardly an irreversible decision. And yet, it was important to me in a way I couldn’t articulate. I understand now that the nose ring was not just about decorating my face with something beautiful. I was struggling, and I needed something to give me courage while facing the adult world’s ambiguities. Or, perhaps more accurately, I needed something to crystallize the courage I was trying to gather from within.

The nose ring marked my passage from my teens to my twenties.  Everyday while facing the mirror, with the shiny stud resting against my left nostril, I was reminded that I was growing up. I was starting to make independent decisions. I had not consulted my family on the matter, afraid that they would disapprove. And yet, I still went through with it. Fear of disappointing others was no longer enough to prevent me from pursuing some of the things I wanted. And in this way, however small a nose ring may be, getting one felt like a declaration: I am an adult who occasionally makes choices that are mine only.

It also felt like a promise to my body as it showed signs of change from its adolescent form. The promise was something like: I will honor you. I am the one who makes decisions about us, and no one else. The passage into adulthood is hard on young women. In a culture with narrowly defined beauty standards, many of us are horrified by the natural swelling of our hips and the softening of our bellies. We reach an age where political debates, held mostly between men with opinions about women’s bodies, will start to directly impact us. As we explore the world of dating, and even in everyday encounters, we will have at least a few encounters that reveal the ugly and persistent grip of misogyny. We are told in so many ways that we do not belong to ourselves. The nose ring, for me, symbolizes a commitment to resist those voices.

Five years later, the nose ring has become a near-permanent fixture on my face. I only take it off for medical examinations, and when I do, I feel its loss. I may wear it for many more years. Or, I may wake up one day and decide it no longer suits me. Regardless, I will treasure that tiny gem for having accompanied me through so many changes: some of them painful, some of them exhilarating, all of them pushing me inevitably forward.  

23. thank you notes to my friends

Thank you for bringing me coffee from your home state. I brewed it in my french press this morning, and it is wonderfully rich. It is keeping me company and reminding me of you as I write this morning.

Thank you for the biggest hug after a month away, and for your understanding that I forgot to wash your sheets after my sister slept in your bed.

Thank you for feeding me lentil soup at your house and listening to me as I poured my heart in an undignified display of emotion.

Thank you for taking me seriously but also making me laugh.

Thank you for sharing mediocre donuts with me every Friday for three years.

Thank you for treating me with curiosity, as though you have something to learn from me, when really I am the one who learns so much from you.

Thank you for giving me solemn life advice and for making me dance all in the same evening.

Thank you for driving me to the hospital years ago when I wasn’t sure what was going on.

Thank you for making the time to tell me your news from the other side of the world. It is so special to communicate with you despite the hours and space between us.

Thank you for believing in my dreams even as they change every few months.

Thank you for taking walks with me around this neighborhood of mediocre sidewalks. I treasure all the stories we share while our feet are moving and dodging potholes.

Thank you for reading on the other side of the screen. And for letting me know what it meant to you.

Thank you for coming over to have dinner with me two nights in a row. There is no one I would rather eat coconut rice and homemade Nutella with.

Thank you for reviewing my more vulnerable writing and giving me honest, generous feedback.

Thank you for opening your home in another country to me. I am nervous about traveling to new places where I don’t know the language, but comforted knowing I will be with you for some of it.

Thank you for trusting my decisions and supporting me.

Thank you for every cup of coffee we have shared. My favorite ones have been those you made.

22. in memory of Martha Washington (Haidar)

On the night of February 22, 1929, a baby who will later become my paternal grandmother is born.

Her parents, Sam and Fatmeh Allie, hold her close. They swaddle her in blankets and attempt to shield her from the West Virginia winter. She is the first of their children born on American soil. Coincidentally, she is born on the birthdate of the nation’s first president. They want to name her after him, but alas, she is a girl. In a moment of inspiration, they settle on naming her after the founding father’s wife.

Martha.

They shed the naming convention of the village they left on the other side of the world. Normally, they would give this daughter a personal name, then her father’s name, and then the family’s name. But instead, they give her a middle name that reflects their new country.

Martha Washington.

The last name is tricky. Back in Lebanon, Sam was from the Smidi family. But here in America, he decides to change his last name to something that sounds less foreign. Or is at least easier to pronounce among his adopted compatriots.

Martha Washington Allie.

Her siblings were born in the home that has been with the family for generations, high in the mountains of northeast Lebanon, along the border of what we now call Syria.

* * *

Life transplants the Allies from Beckley to Detroit. Maybe it’s the burgeoning auto industry, and the hope that it will help them provide for their children in the midst of the Depression. Sam Allie does what he can, with his limited education and professional credentials. He ends up peddling goods door-to-door, selling curios to his new neighbors. Some days, he gets on a truck with other immigrants and they are taken to perform manual labor. He makes enough money to one day purchase a beautiful watch. Before he dies, he passes it on to his grandson, the man who would later become my father.

Meanwhile, Fatmeh Allie tends to the home and childrearing. She is economical with every meal that she cooks. Nothing is wasted. Her kids learn to eat kidneys and other innards with great enthusiasm. Her love is expressed in quiet actions rather than grand gestures. She never has a bad word to say about anybody. When Martha later has my father, and she is not well enough to care for him, Fatmeh takes up the responsibility. She teaches my father how to make bread at home. Together they roll the dough for spinach and meat pies.

* * *

When I am born, my parents teach me to call her sito. Martha holds me, calling me sito, until I catch on and repeat it to her, and this is how I learn to call her sito.

We also call my mother’s mother sito. It becomes clear to my parents that they should develop a mechanism to  help us distinguish them. So, my father adds the name of the place where Martha has spent most of her life to her grandmotherly title: Sito Detroit.

In turn, I call my maternal grandmother Sito Caracas. Neither of these names reflect where my grandmothers were born or where their families first came from. But it encompasses them in a way that feels whole to me. In my child’s imagination, I cannot picture them anywhere else. It is impossible to conjure up images of them in unfamiliar territories, at times when their skin was taut across their foreheads.

* * *

Martha grows into a woman with her mother’s profound love but with sharp edges that are all her own. She gets married, and although it doesn’t last long, she keeps his last name. It is the name her son was given, and that he in turn has passed on to his children. 

Haidar. 

Martha Washington Haidar. 

21. a poem about loss

on a summer morning
sunlight pushes against her tiny window
refracts against the mirror
lights up her face
the one she presses just inches away from the glass
as she applies makeup
closing her left eye,
she smoothes sand-toned shimmer from lid to crease
and contemplates the way
shadows collect on the valley of her nose

a swoop of the hand
as she loads her mascara brush
with sticky black tar
that will make her more beautiful
she turns her attention to the other side
and closes her right eye

suddenly
someone has covered the sun
with an itchy wool blanket, suffocating its golden breath
the shape of the mirror before her
evaporates
this thing that once had edges
replaced by a smudge of grey

she opens both eyes
wider than the tunnel through which the Chicago Metra passes
the sun shakes off its oppressive wool blanket
and inhales, exhales
as light and color refill the room

she is once again confronted by her image
framed by the sharp edges of the mirror
concern seeks refuge in the space between her creased brows
as her bottom lip quivers

she chooses to emulate the sun
and takes a deep breath
recollecting herself
determined to bring symmetry to her face
inhale, exhale
she turns once again to paint the left eye
and closes the right

again
the world melts to monochrome
and her face dissolves into a work of abstraction
or perhaps an impressionist piece
drawn in number two pencils
with dull tips

she blinks back and forth between eyes
left and right, each equipped with its own filter
one that is clean
and one that is dirty,
smeared with sticky black tar
that one would use
to make herself more beautiful

20. intersections of social work and writing

I have been thinking a lot about my social work training lately. Two of the major ways I currently spend my time are not directly related to my master’s degree. At my full-time job, I coordinate projects and manage grants at a media organization. In my free time, I write.

I am a proponent of the social work degree because it offers skills that can be applied to a range of organizational settings. On the one hand, you become more skilled than when you came in, and on the other hand, you remain a generalist unless you choose to advance otherwise through your career.

I also believe that many components of advanced social work training enrich one’s own life. Although I am not a direct service practitioner at the moment, I have benefitted immensely from field work and learning about methodologies to improve mental health. I often apply social work theories to sort through my own thoughts and determine which are helpful, and which thoughts I can work on letting go. It has also primed me to recognize, for myself and others around me, situations in which self-help is possible and those where professional help is needed.

Writing consistently for the past few weeks has me reflecting on how the social work training offers other unexpected gifts to its recipient. Many of the competencies learned in social work school can be applied to the act of writing:

Person-in-environment | The concept of “person in environment” is a cornerstone of the social work profession, and distinguishes it from the field of psychology. Social workers focus on improving the well-being of individuals and therefore consider person-level factors, such as behaviors, personality, and thought patterns. But they carefully place these in the context of environment, and consider how social-structural issues impinge on the individual and intersect with their overall wellness. Writers also attend to the person-in-environment perspective while creating the worlds that their characters live in. They must develop personalities for the people who animate their stories, and consider how their personhood bumps up against the environment they find themselves in. Writers can employ certain environments to illuminate different aspects of a character. Similarly, writers can draw out more nuanced descriptions of a particular environment by showing the reader how it affects different characters.

Appreciation for narrative | One of the basic skills that social workers learn is to conduct an intake interview. This involves social workers assessing potential clients to determine their needs and whether those align with the services that their agency can provide. Such an assessment requires social workers to elicit narratives from potential clients regarding their experiences. The social worker then transmits those narratives to agency representatives to determine the potential client’s eligibility for services. In this way, storytelling is considered fundamental to social work practice. Certainly, there are critiques to make regarding the justice of how narratives are employed to determine one’s worth for assistance. But the point I am trying to make here is that social workers are sensitized to the importance of narrative. There are other ways that storytelling appears in social work practice, such as narrative therapy and tracking client progress through the use of case notes. Writers must also cultivate an appreciation for narrative, finding it in daily interactions and dramas that extend further across time.

Deep empathy | Social workers must toe the line of empathizing deeply with their clients while also maintaining professional boundaries. Through the process of the helping relationship, social workers come to know many aspects of their clients’ lives. Clients share their stories with social workers, and even let them into their living spaces when the social worker comes for a home visit. There have been several clients in my own training with whom I have felt a strong sense of connection, despite the very different worlds we inhabit. Social work often brings us into contact with a diverse array of individuals that we may not have ever have gotten to know otherwise. In this way, social workers learn to hold many different perspectives; they also develop the skills required to come to an understanding of those perspectives in the first place. Writers must also practice deep empathy in developing the protagonists of their novels, or writing about the real lives of others. Powerful writing is vivid and textured; I think bringing these qualities to the page require the writer to imagine themselves and the people they write about in sometimes unfamiliar or challenging circumstances.

Observational skills | Social workers are trained not only to gather the stories of their clients, but to make careful observations about them and their environments. The ethical social worker will pay very close attention to detail, and will not make judgements without direct substantiation from their observations. We are taught to recognize patterns of speech and thought; to detect the signs of child abuse and neglect; to pick up on body language and adjust accordingly to help the client feel more at ease. Writers often draw upon real-world observations for inspiration in their work. Even when creating a work of fiction, their descriptions of settings and characters are grounded in qualities they have observed from the world and its varied inhabitants. Writers must draw upon their repertoire of observations to magnify the little details that make a scene feel compelling and more real to a reader.

Curiosity and cross-cultural competence | Despite many of the unfair representations we see of social workers in literature and film, the majority of social work students and practitioners I’ve interacted with approach their work with curiosity and strong cross-cultural competence. We are taught to keep an open mind while interacting with clients, seeing what we can learn from them and their experiences, before we attempt placing them within theoretical frameworks. Further, cross-cultural competence is not taught as a set of facts that you should know about someone from a particular identity, such as their race or ethnicity. Instead, the social worker is taught that cross-cultural competence is deeply grounded in an orientation of respectful curiosity. The social worker must get to know the client to see how they themselves interpret their culture and its significance in their lives. I think writers must be fundamentally curious, and if they ever write about an experience outside of their own, they would benefit from applying cross-cultural competencies in their research process.

Showing up (even when you don’t feel like it) | Some days, or maybe even most days, practicing social work is difficult. The clients that social workers interact with are often at the socioeconomic margins of society. Social workers are constantly confronted by how social injustices play out in the lives of individuals they’ve come to know personally. It can be incredibly tiring to show up for one’s clients everyday, especially when we consider that social workers are people too. They have their own baggage, and they must do their best to check it everyday before coming to work so they can be as available and present as possible for their clients. I am learning that writers, too, have to practice showing up even when they don’t feel like it. There are days when I feel stressed, anxious, tired, and unexcited to put words on a page. But I remind myself to trust in the process, as a social worker trusts in the importance of consistently being there for their clients.

Self-care | Lastly, social workers learn that they must take care of themselves so that they can more sustainably take care of others. Although showing up is important, so is taking time for oneself. I find that writing can be a similarly draining practice as social work. It requires many hours alone in contemplation, and stirs thoughts and ideas that can be difficult to turn off during the day. I am learning that it is critical for writers to also practice self care. This means learning how to quiet the mind, and creating space in one’s life to actually do so. The writer needs a break from constantly seeking inspiration for the next piece, so that they can enjoy the present and come back to their work rejuvenated. 

* * *

Any social work readers on the other side of the screen who have additional thoughts about how our training intersects with writing? Or people from other professional backgrounds who see intersections between their own training and writing? I am curious to hear your thoughts!

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My MSW cohort, one of the kindest and most curious groups I’ve had the privilege of spending time and learning with!

19. learning to sit, yearning to move

Sometimes, our bodies and minds become incredibly tired. Even when we sit all day. This exhaustion is not the result of poor lifestyle choices or individual agency. Humans need breaks, and the structure of 21st century life does not always accommodate space for rejuvenation.

I experienced the transition from childhood to adulthood as a gradual acclimation to sitting in chairs for longer and longer periods of time throughout the day. There was the world before school, where I hardly sat in chairs at all. I preferred to crawl up and down stairs, run down the grassy hills of my neighborhood, climb on furniture and only occasionally sit on it.

Then there was preschool, kindergarten, and elementary, where we were slowly introduced to the concept of sitting in a chair for long stretches of time. These were broken up with recess, lunch time, in-class activities that allowed us to move around a bit.

By high school our sedentary training was nearly complete. The day was split into six one-hour blocks of sitting in class, and instead of recess as a break, we were given yet another hour of sitting, this time at a lunch table. I let out my pent-up energy after school, in grueling hours of physical conditioning with my volleyball team, then went home and sat in another chair, this one in the quiet of the basement, to do my calculus homework.

College was more of the same, plenty of sitting but with less structure and obligation. The hours I spent in a chair were no longer enforced by a daily class schedule. Instead, I disciplined myself to sit for most waking hours, hunched over texts and dissecting arguments, learning methods to create knowledge. This self-imposed sitting was requisite for meeting the standards of my professors, and the expectations I had set for myself to succeed.

The only respite from all this sitting was moving from one seat to another every few hours. First at the drawing table in my cozy apartment, then the campus coffee shop, then in the lecture hall for class, then at the library…

From graduation to the world of work, there is yet another threshold to cross in our learning to sit.

Adulthood can further limit the space we have to move around throughout the day. Many of us end up working office jobs where we stay in the same building, and often the same seat, for eight hours. I find myself voluntarily adding to my seated hours outside of work as I pursue other interests, namely reading and writing. As a result, on some days I find the disks of my spine feeling much like a stack of steaming pancakes sliding around in syrup.

What is the antidote to all this sitting?

Well, one could say that the most durable solution would be revolution. Perhaps us humans need to rethink the way we have structured our lives, especially those of us who live in cities and take up more elite professions distinguished by the exertion of sitting in chairs all day. Or, at the very least, we could make some changes to the length of the work day, reconsider the layout of our work spaces, add more time for vacations that are truly work-free.

But I don’t anticipate the revolution coming anytime soon. Nor am I certain that I would be happier if I relinquished all my hours of contemplation and creation at a desk. And even making modest changes to our work spaces so that they accommodate less sitting will require time, as the transformation of culture often happens incrementally.

So for now, the corrective that I employ to all this sitting is movement wherever I can fit it in. Exercise and play through yoga and dance have become all the more important to me. But sometimes I need a more immediate fix, something I can do in the middle of the day, when I am hunched over my desk and feeling very tired.

And so I will get up and take a walk to the nearest park.

For this reason, I find myself feeling increasingly thankful for public space as I get older. I have leaned on the presence of parks throughout the past few years as I learn to sit in one place for the majority of the day. In Chicago, I lived in a neighborhood bordering Lake Michigan, and I interned at an office that was near Millennium Park. Whenever I needed to clear my mind (and realign my posture) I would walk along the shoreline, or take a stroll through the gardens and watch tourists excitedly snap selfies at the reflective “Bean” statue. In the winter, when it became much too cold to enjoy walking outside, I would make weekend pilgrimages to the Garfield Park Conservatory and parade across its expansive greenhouse.

Here in Amman, I am lucky to live and work in one of few areas of the city with a pleasant public park. I like to walk there, sometimes alone or with another friend yearning to take a break. I am thankful not only for the space to move, but also to be in the company of others taking rest from the obligations of life. Yesterday when I walked there, I saw a crew of children playing soccer on a patch of cement, and a couple chatting on a wooden bench.

Bearing witness to these pauses in the day, these defiant acts of simple pleasure, helps me feel rejuvenated once it’s time to sit again.

 

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Footnote: If you look closely to the bottom right of this picture, you will see an adult making giant bubbles. This makes me incredibly happy.