To the girls in my village whose clothes I made fun of, to the teachers I silently cursed for not giving their English speaking students extra attention, to my father who made me hate him, to my mother who cries alone, and to Falasteen that I helped destroy:
Will this piece of literature redeem me?
How do you love a broken place when you yourself are broken?
Tell me. Please. I can’t breathe. I stand on the edge of the roof in this small rural village, the roof of my father’s childhood home, in the midst of the strongest and purest winds this world has to offer. If the noun alive had a smell this would be it. This is what life smells like. And still I cannot breathe. Maybe if I jump I can finally feel the wind. That’s how physics works right?
Downstairs Baba is yelling at Mama because she asked to visit her parents’ home this weekend. She never learns. She’s not supposed to want to visit her parents. She got married and gained a new family. She has a responsibility to her elderly mother and father in law now. Her Mama and Baba are not hers anymore.
Lesson #1: Your mother’s side of the family is bad.
Your father’s side of the family is good.
The exception: Your father’s sisters. They are expected
to visit their parents every single day. They do not help
their in-laws. They barely see their in-laws.
Eventually Baba will storm off with the last word–most likely a “God damn you.” Mama will lock herself in the bathroom and smoke a few of his cigarettes and flush them down the toilet. She thinks we don’t know.
I anticipate the smell, and I wonder if they’re the reason I can’t breathe this beautiful air. Is it your cigarettes Baba? Or the hand you almost struck Mama with that takes my breath away?
Or maybe it’s my asthma.
Yeah, that could be it. I have chronic asthma.
Also my uncle liked to play with me when I was little.
So maybe it’s not just the asthma. I’m not supposed to say that though. Information like that is scandalous. It could harm my prospects of marriage, my family’s reputation. That honor Mulan sang so much about? Yeah, it all rests in my hands. In my scrubbed clean–after the blood that flowed from the cuts on my arm–hands.
Lesson #2: Everything is a secret. And secrets can ruin lives.
Your pure Arab life. So, shhh.
My mom doesn’t know about the blood though. She thinks I stopped. We moved here so that I can stop. It was my fault she found out. I didn’t use enough gauze that one night. As I slept Baba saw my thigh soaked in blood. He didn’t check for the source of the blood himself– just in case it may have been my period. But Mama–Mama was smart. She knew the direction period blood would leak. To the back, not front. She found the canvas I made on my thigh. I woke up during her inspection and calmly asked for some paper towels and neosporin ointment.
“You know where they are,” she said. “Get them yourself.”
A month later, after my high school graduation, we moved to Palestine.
To my parents, whatever made me hurt myself was in America. It was something they could leave behind.
But it followed.
Memory isn’t something you can run away from. That’s my true illness. Remembering.
I’m sentimental, and nostalgia is my best friend. She’s the friend that comes over and never leaves. You try to drop hints that suggest she should go home, but she never picks them up. And so she sleeps over, right next to you in your bed. She’s a cuddler.
She helps me to remember the good and feel immense pain that it is gone. But the good–my family– reminds me of the bad–him. And so it is never a pure nostalgia that I wake next to. She is tainted. She wraps her arms and legs around me and squeezes with all her might. The cuddle that is meant to envelope me in care and love, chokes me.
They brought me back to Palestine to help me, but they do not realize Palestine is the friend nostalgia sees behind my back. You see Falasteen remembers too, and she cannot remember the beauty of the past in isolation of the darkness. There is no such thing. They put me in the room that belonged to my aunts when they were kids, and the room right next to mine is where my uncles used to sleep. I live in a house reeking of the past that created mine. Memory never leaves me alone. It is in the very air I try to breathe right now. It comes from the North where Deir Yassin once stood, blows through Haifa and Jaffa, and comes to me here in the countryside of Ramallah city, passing countless settlements along the way. It blows through the abaya they told me to wear when I go outside. Still, I cannot breathe.
Lesson #3: You have to wear the abaya. The hijab is incomplete without the abaya. People will stare, and people will talk.
They teach me that I should thank God that my village still stands. I don’t tell them how I wish it burned to the ground. How I wish I never knew this place’s name. They brought me to a place where the walls speak. They tell me what they saw when my father was growing up, when my sidi left his wife and kids to make a living in Kuwait. They tell me they know about the man who hurt me. He slept right next door. They brought me to a place with so many walls and so many stories. I carry the nostalgia of all the people from here. I sleep with millions of arms around me.
But why should I? How dare I claim to be a part of this memory, this history? I can’t call myself a Palestinian.
I’m an imposter.
In America I used the name to distinguish me from the uncultured students in my white school. Being Palestinian made me different. During heritage month I had something to wear–a thob I took from my mother. During protests in the city I could chant and yell with the rest of the crowd and upload pictures on instagram hashtagging freedom. But on the fourth of July I wore an American flag on my head as my hijab and watched the fireworks in all my patriotic awe. During Thanksgiving I told my friends I was thankful for them as we ate together–I don’t tell them that I don’t like turkey.
I entered my village on a high horse, careful not to let my expensive name brand shoes touch the unpaved, dirt and goat feces-covered ground. I hated everyone in the village who welcomed me with their kind, warm Asalamu Alaykums. I hated them because they were not like me, they did not know and agree with all the things that I knew. I hated them because they did not speak English and because they wanted me to speak only Arabic. I hated them because they gave us so many rules to follow, rules that tore my family apart. I hated them because I was so sure that I was better than them. That’s what coming from the land of the free and home of the brave meant–better.
But now I’m nothing. I hated myself there and I hate myself here.
If the refugees returned, would they have a home to jump off from? So yes, I should thank God. I can be another story for the walls to tell.
I can hear them already, their voices mixing with that damned cigarette smoke:
This Amercaniya slept here for a while, in this room next to her aunt–her father’s last unmarried sister. She tried to help her wallah, she did. All her niece wanted to do was sleep.
“Get out of bed. It’s only 7pm, and all you’ve done today is sleep.”
“I wasn’t sleeping. I tried though. All day I try, but I can’t breathe.”
“Why can’t you breathe?” she asked softly, sitting down next to niece.
“I don’t know. You came here to help me right? So help me. Make it go away.”
“Make what go away habeebti?”
“Everything in here,” she would point to her head.
Her aunt would fling her legs onto the bed and scoot down to lay next to her niece. She grabbed both of her hands and held them tight. “You need to relax. Take slow breaths.”
“It’s not working.”
“Then you think about something else. Something happy.”
“The happy doesn’t stay,” cries the girl. “Didn’t you feel that?” she asked. “My legs are shaking.”
Her aunt wrapped her feet around hers and waited to feel the spasm. “There’s nothing honey. It’s all in your head”
“Wallah they are. There! Didn’t you feel that?”
“Stop thinking about them. Breathe with me.”
“Amte,” she whispered nervously, “I’m dying.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Ihlifi.” Swear, she said.
If I asked them not to say Amercaniya, will they listen? I don’t like the way it sounds.
Correct them for me please.
Lesson #4: Amercaniya is an insult here.