This Is Not Who We Are: Arab-Americans in a Post-9/11 World
The only place she ever traveled beyond Palestine was to Mecca, by bus. She was proud to be called a hajji, to wear layered white clothes afterward. In her West Bank village, she worked hard to get stains out of everyone's dresses—scrubbing them with a stone over a big tin tub in the courtyard, under her beloved lemon tree. If we told her, "You are very patient," she would joke, "What choice do I have?"
I think she would consider the recent tragedies a terrible stain on her religion. She would weep. She never fussed at my father for not praying five times a day in the traditional way. As she excused herself from our circle for her own prayers, he might say something like "I'm praying all the time, every minute," and she would grin.
She wanted people to worship in whatever ways they felt comfortable. To respect one another, enjoy one another's company, tell good stories, sit around the fire drinking tea and cracking almonds, and never forget to laugh no matter what terrible things they had been through. Laughter was the power.
What wisdom did she possess that other people can't figure out?
I thought I was done writing about her—for years she starred in my essays and poems. But after September 11, she started poking herself into my dreams again, kindly, sorrowfully: "Say this is not who we are."
Apparently, the entire United States has taken to reading more poetry, which can only be a good sign. Journalists ask, "Why do you suppose people are finding strength in poetry now?" Those of us who have been reading poetry all our lives aren't a bit surprised. As a direct line to human feeling, empathic experience, genuine language and detail, poetry is everything that headline news is not. It takes us inside situations, helps us imagine life from more than one perspective, honors imagery and metaphor—those great tools of thought—and deepens our confidence in a meaningful world.
I feast on The Poetry of Arab Women, a contemporary collection published in 2003. Deema K. Shehabi wrote, "And where is that mountain / that will fold us inward slowly / ...enemy of melancholy, ally of life / glistening darkly / in silence."
Nazik al-Malaika wrote, "How do we forget pain, / how do we forget pain? / Who will light for us / the night of its memory?"
From Fadwa Tuqan, the brave Palestinian who has lived all these difficult years in Nablus on the West Bank: "Give us love, so we may build the collapsed universe within us / anew...."
Then I read Coleman Barks's vibrant translations of Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet who has for the past few years been one of the best-selling poets in the United States. It's rumored he's also the poet most often read aloud on the radio in Afghanistan. Open The Soul of Rumi anywhere and find something helpful. On page 158: "Why am I part of this disaster, this / mud hole for donkeys?" Later in the same poem, "I ask / a flower, 'How is it you are so wise so / young?'"
Yes. I breathe deeply, closing my eyes. And how are we educated human beings so old and so stupid?
Now that I have tears in my eyes even while making baba ghanouj, our famous eggplant dip, so what? This is my cultural sorrow—not the first ever in the world. Admit it and move on. There is still so much good work to do.
When a gentle man I don't know approaches me in a crowd at a literary conference to say, "I am afraid for my daughter to admit she is half-Arab now. What should we do?" I am momentarily tongue-tied.
Later I wish I had told him, "Tell her never deny it. Maybe Arab-Americans must say we are twice as sad as other people. But we are still proud, of everything peaceful and beautiful that endures. Then speak beauty if we can—the beauty of culture, poetry, tradition, memory, family, daily life. Each day, live in honor of the ones who didn't have this luxury or time. We are not alone."
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