28. resilient, not disaster-proof

There will be days when you don’t wake up feeling excited to write, or even to start the day.

Inspiration will not lift you out of bed. You will find the warmth of your pillow infinitely more alluring than the click of the keyboard. When you finally wrestle down inertia and manage to rise, you will make your coffee automatically. There will be no sense of wonder or contemplating how it looks like black silk as you pour it into a mug.

You will drink two cups and still feel tired.

You will not seek meaning in the sidewalks that lead to work, the vegetable market, the park where you recharge during lunch breaks. You will most likely be tangled in a loop of unhelpful thoughts, the storm in your mind sweeping you off the ground beneath your feet. You will feel anger and sadness, or other emotions that make you uncomfortable.

These days will come. You will eventually encounter pain, suffering, and loss. This is true whether you have made good or bad choices.

When hurt comes knocking at your door, avoid blaming yourself for not doing enough to keep it away. The best you can do is accept its presence. Maybe you can even allow it into your home for a cup of tea. It is, after all, a guest like any other. 

Hurt comes for all of us simply because we exist in this world. In Becoming Wise (p. 252), Krista Tippett reminds us: “All of our solutions will eventually outlive their usefulness. We will make messes, and disruption we do not cause or predict will land on us. This is the drama of being alive.”

You might fail at something. You may have a way of coping with loss or organizing your daily routine that has carried you through many years, and suddenly it doesn’t anymore. You might have a lapse in judgement that carries consequences. A relative or loved one may pass away. Several of them will, actually, through the passage of years. You could find yourself in the midst of a natural disaster or political violence. You might go to the doctor one day and walk out with a diagnosis that alters the course of your life. These are all terribly painful things, and it is terribly likely that at least one of them will happen to you.

There are no ways of living wholeheartedly that will allow you to avoid hurt. Brene Brown has discussed this brilliantly in The Gifts of Imperfection. She warns us that the only way to avoid hurt is by numbing ourselves. There are many distractions and painkillers at our disposable. But once we numb ourselves to hurt, we become numb to everything else: joy, curiosity, eager anticipation.

I think the best we can do on days when pain seeks a place in our homes is to remember our resilience. Returning to Tippett, I like how she has described this concept:

“Resilience honors the unromantic reality of who we are and how we are… [It is] a way of being that can meet the range of emotions and experiences, light and dark, that add up to a life. Resilience is at once proactive, pragmatic, and humble. It knows it needs others. It doesn’t overcome failure so much as transmute it, integrating it into the reality that evolves” (p. 252).

How do we cultivate resilience? To begin, we need to get comfortable with adversity and vulnerability. We need to find balance between loving and caring for oneself, and seeking love and help from others. We cannot do resilience alone, and resilience cannot be done for us. It takes practice, just like waking up every day to write. It is a form of muscle memory we develop, just like riding a bike. Whenever the going gets rough, it’s an opportunity for us to refine our resilience. These are the things I try to tell myself on days like these.

27. who will be next?

Chicago in the midst of October: Winter stretches her frigid arms, waving them to rid the prickles of so much rest. She wraps them slowly around each corner of the city. The corner upon which I walk is a few miles south of downtown, on the western border that runs up against the suburbs. I am accompanied by two middle school girls as we stroll around their neighborhood, a day out shared between mentor and mentees.

A mango vendor on 26th Street persists even as the weather changes. He sells slices of the bright orange fruit sprinkled with chili pepper and lime in clear plastic cups. I consider buying one, but the girls grab each of my hands and propel me toward La Baguette. We maneuver the narrow aisles of the bakery, using tongs to stack an aluminum tray high with dense, icing-laden pastries that cost only dimes each. Altogether the bill comes to one dollar and twenty cents. The woman at the cash register wishes us a good day: que tengan un buen dia. We carry our white paper bags that have already gathered translucent patches from the buttery treats, and walk in the direction of their homes.

We pass by mothers pushing strollers and gripping the mitten paws of toddlers bundled in so many layers. We pass by the Dunkin Donuts where blue-collar workers invigorate their tired bodies with caffeine, sugar, and a few minutes of conversation. We pass by murals that depict the Virgin de Guadalupe and protagonists of Mexican folklore. We pass by graffiti, some of it making an explicit political statement, much of it unintelligible. We reach the street upon which the two girls live.

Further down the street, I notice a home with front steps bursting in color and light. Bouquets of white roses and pink carnations rest against the cardboard image of a boy. He has the signs of a mustache, and looks no more than a few years shy of twenty. Glass votives adorned with saints contain candles of bright red wax, and are arranged in a semicircle around the vigil. The girls see my confusion and explain, “He died last week. Someone shot him.” Their faces furrow at the brow as they tell me this, but they betray no further signs of distress. This is not an uncommon enough occurrence to them, one that would warrant outward signs of shock. I try to offer a few words of condolences that they brush off like crumbs as they gather their pastries.

We promise to see each other soon and from there we part ways. As I walk to the bus station, I pass a brick wall wall covered with the names of men scrawled in paint. In the center, the anguished artist has posed a question in bubble letters: Who will be next?

26. an unsubstantiated theory of time

We enter the world with our arms reaching at anything they can grasp: a mother’s breast, a set of keys dangling from a father’s fingers, the invisible matter that we don’t yet know to call air. We take and we are given and so quickly we grow. One day, another millimeter. Tick marks on a wall tracking height show exponential gains in the matter of months. We keep stretching outward, to the sun and hidden light of other objects, with no sense of time. We fail to grasp that it is always passing, how it slips through our greedy, curious hands.

Structure is imposed into our lives, maybe through pre-school or just kindergarten. We play and learn, we are introduced to the concept of time. We are given pictures of clocks with movable hands push-pinned at the center. We swirl them around in wonder, still not yet grasping what the evenly spaced tick marks indicate.

In elementary school the concept of time begins to crystallize. Slowly it moves from blurry abstraction to sharp-edged reality. We read the clock and it means something. An hour has passed, two, three, four; twenty more and it will be a whole day. Some of us begin to wear plastic watches adorned with Pokemon creatures and Disney princesses. We barely glance at them, but feel somehow cooler with our timepieces. Adults begin to ask us what we will do when we grow up. Gleefully we oblige them. The responses roll off our tongues without a moment of thought, already conditioned by what we see the old people around us doing. Where are you gonna go? College! What are you gonna be? A lawyer! What are you gonna play? Basketball!

High school comes, and around junior year many of us learn to exploit this strange thing called time. Each hour of the day has a purpose: homeroom, biology, calculus, world literature, lunch, American history, and so on. Some of the hours move fast if the subject matter interests us, or if we have a sweetheart to hold hands with during the break between classes. Some of the hours drag and we fight to keep our eyes open. Many of us stay after the final bell for yet another two or three structured hours, conditioning our bodies with weights and endless sprints assigned by a tyrannical coach, or teaching our hands to play notes that appear on a page and issue from the horn of a trumpet. Our efforts are awarded with leather jackets adorned with pins and velvet letters and the school mascot. We are given incentives to keep using our time well.

Then we jump into college and time does something strange. It moves both fast and slow. Each year feels wholly distinct, each semester unique. We are fully immersed in these short-term goals that feel so far off; this honors class I can take next fall if I do well in the spring, that fellowship I can apply for my junior year, this job I am reaching for by end of graduation. Each year a new epiphany on what we envision to be the linear track along which we become somebody.  Days so jam-packed they pass in the blink of an eye, and yet the years do not blur in our memory; each one stretches only to the boundaries of the academic calendar.

Adulthood comes as a cliff from which we are pushed. The years begin to lose the fine-tuned definition of university time. No longer do we sense each 365-day cycle to contain the same abundance and potential for complete transformation. We are taught to try and stay put for a year or two or more in our first job. It is scary at first, to do the same thing day in and day out, even if we love that thing, and the eight hours of the work day pass by painfully slow. We are told that we will get used to it, that 730 days can go by so quickly, there is no need to start reaching now for the next thing. At first we don’t believe these words. Within six months we are living them. How did half a year pass? One year? Two? Did I graduate three years ago now? 

We wake up and pour our coffee; we dim the lights and softly encourage our bodies to recharge for the next day; we repeat. We cycle through so many tired Monday mornings, so many Friday evenings filled with guilty pleasures. Somewhere down the line we learn that a year or two or five is not so long to tolerate ambiguity, that making radical change from month to month requires so much energy we would rather save for other pursuits. Decisions are stretched over longer periods of time that feel half as short.

The years from 22 to 25 speed by like a train moving at 100 miles per hour. From 26 to 29 we get nervous about birthdays. After our thirtieth cycle around the sun many of us stop counting. We make big choices and live with them. Those choices affect others and we gather dependents. We put ourselves on autopilot to keep the one million plates we have accumulated spinning fast enough that they don’t crash to the earth. Forty comes, then fifty, they start calling us over the hill. We become the big ones asking the little ones what they will be when they grow up. We slow down and yet roll ever faster down that proverbial hill. We wait patiently for whatever comes next and accept its inevitability. We stop reaching and grasping and wanting. We let time take us. We come to understand it was never ours for the taking.

 

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.