Making Pretty

Her mommy downstairs, it was time to play!
She dipped the brush into a pretty pink
And painted little roses on her cheeks.
(To think, it was her very first bouquet!)
Her daddy said her eyes were like blue jays,
So snatching up the wand of clumpy ink,
She gave them wings with just a couple of blinks.
Then with a pencil she tried hard to trace
A delicate shape out of her little chapped lips.
To finish up, she grabbed a stick of red
And colored in a perfect jester’s smile.
But then she noticed that her tooth was chipped.
The red quivered, the black ran, the pink spread
And tears fell on the dirty bathroom tiles.


The luxury of reading

Growing up, I was a total bookworm. I would go to the public library every week and check out around 5 books or so each time. Sure enough, I’d finish them all in a matter of days and then sit on the computer reserving more to go pick up.

There was nothing strange about that. Ok, so maybe I was a little nerdy. Still, going to the library once a week was something a lot of my friends did. It was something that we did at school. There was a book mobile that came to our apartment complex once a week. Checking out books from the library was something that most kids around me did. Some by force and others by choice, but they did it.

For some, it gave them much needed reading practice. For others, it provided an escape from their mundane life. For me, it was pure bliss. I loved it! I loved the anticipation that every turn of the page brought with it. I loved trying to guess the ending. I loved imagining what happened to the characters after the book. I loved choosing the next set of books I’d read.

I never thought of any of that as a luxury though. It was something everybody could do. It was for rich kids, poor kids, black kids, white kids, Christians, Muslims, everybody. What I didn’t know was that this luxury (yes, luxury) isn’t available for people in other parts of the world. As a kid, I rarely thought beyond the kids in my school, let alone country. It didn’t occur to me that finding books to read was a luxury for others.

As I got older, I started my own book collection at home. I would order boxes of books off of ebay. I enjoyed filling bookshelves. I loved going to garage sales and used book stores to add to my collection. Then I moved across the Atlantic to the Middle East to live in Palestine.

Adjusting was an awful and drawn-out process that took around a year. One of the things that made it even harder was not having my collection of books to comfort me. I had only brought one book along with me- The Collected Works of Jane Austen. I read and reread them, but I longed for new or at least different books to read.

After a lot of asking around, I found a bookstore with English-language books. It was tiny, like closet-size. Still, it had books in English. They were expensive though. Gone were the ‘buy 2, get 1 free’ days when I’d sneak 6 books home. I could only really pick one. That day I chose The Color Purple. Now I could switch between it and Jane Austen’s novels. It was better, but still not enough.

I started bringing it up in conversations regularly- where do people get their books from? I only ever got answers about books required at University. Apparently, nobody (or nearly nobody) reads for fun here. I started looking at people in cafes, on buses, in waiting rooms. I never saw people reading.

I asked around some more and my conclusion was right. Most people only associate reading with school. Now I know that not everybody in America reads in their free time, but there is a culture of reading. Barnes&Noble and Borders do have customers who aren’t school-aged or in University. People go there to browse through the aisles and choose books to take to the lake or to the beach with them. People read when they’re on the subway. People read while waiting on the doctor. People read at home in the evenings or on the weekends. Some people more than others, but it’s still there. It’s still a part of the culture. Nowadays, more people are choosing to read on their Kindles and iPads, but reading hasn’t disappeared.

I call reading a luxury for 2 reasons. The most obvious one is that books aren’t easily available in other parts of the world and when they are, they often carry high price tags. That’s not the main reason though. A love of reading is the real luxury. That love of reading gives us knowledge of people and places we’ll never see. It gives us an escape when we need one. It introduces us to amazing characters who we look up to and admire. It lets us experience things some can never even imagine. It gives us hope. It makes our world a little bit brighter or at least a little less lonely.

“Where are you from?”

It’s supposed to be an easy question to answer. It’s one of the questions I get my EFL students to ask each other during the first lesson. The problem is when they ask me the question.

I hesitate. I don’t know what to say. I usually look back at them and ask them what they mean. Since it’s a question I teach them to ask, I should know the meaning. In my case though, it doesn’t have a clear answer.

I’m Palestinian. My mother and father were both born in Palestine in the 1960s. My father immigrated to America when he was 7 years old and my mother after she got married. I was born in America. I lived there most of my life, but now I live in Palestine.

Sometimes I just answer them by saying “from here”. It’s an honest answer and an easy one, but it doesn’t satisfy them. They always turn to me with a look of disbelief on their face and say, “really?!” like I must be lying.

See I have light colored skin, hazel eyes and what others tell me are “foreign features”. Don’t ask me what they mean, because I honestly don’t know. I don’t feel like I look that different than the average person here. I even wear hijab. It doesn’t matter though. I still stick out like a sore thumb.

In reply to their “really?!” I always say yes. Then comes the next question. “But where’s your mom from?” because my mom must be from somewhere else. They’ll ask if she’s American or Russian. Then comes the look of surprise and disbelief again when I tell them that she’s from a village just outside of the city.

Then a few weeks will go by and I’ll hear them whispering about me. It’s never anything bad. Sometimes about how my mother must be foreign (after I’ve told them she isn’t). Sometimes about how it’s good I can’t understand their Arabic (I can and I tell them that repeatedly). It’s like they refuse to accept that I’m Palestinian just like them.

I’ve thought about just going along with what they want to believe, but I’m a terrible liar and it would only make them more confused in the end.

When I go back to America, the opposite is true. My hijab marks me as a foreigner. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never experienced much Islamophobia firsthand. I get other comments like “Welcome to the country” and questions about whether or not my husband forced me to wear hijab. I get people who want to tell me about their college roommate from “Morocco” or their neighbor from “Pakistan”. I get people who are shocked when they hear me speak English that’s better than their own.

If you ever saw the movie Selena then you’ll remember her struggle being Mexican-American. As her father told her, You’re not Mexican enough for the Mexicans or American enough for the Americans. I didn’t quite understand when I was a kid, because I blended in a little better without the hijab in America. Now, I understand perfectly.

So I started using the question “Where do you live?” with my students instead. It’s a lot easier for me to answer them, and I get to avoid the questions for at least a little bit.

My Special Book

The gift was on my desk well wrapped in red,
Or maybe green or maybe it was spotted
With Christmas trees. There was no doubt
About what it would be thanks to its shape:
It was a little eight by eight thin square.
Each kid had one in front of his or her
Frog pond name plate; they all looked just alike.
The teacher must have put them out while we
Recited our long lists to old Saint Nick.
I knew it was no Easy-Bake but still
Excited I ripped off the paper. Of course
I was right—it was a book. Since I could read,
I took a look inside and saw that it
Was all about a girl with the same name
As me. She had a sister just like mine,
She had a friend named Shaddi, and a mom.
She was like me but she had real good luck.
This girl who stole my name, delivered gifts
With Santa, got to visit the North Pole,
And got a special present… well, her hair
Was orange and made her look like a boy.
The other day I saw that book in an old box
While I was packing up my things and getting
Ready to leave the place where I grew up.
It was with lots of grimy toys and stuff
From when I was a little kid. Now grown
Up, I read it for the first time in years.
The end’s an old ad for Create-A-Book.

Sarah’s Braid

I wrap a towel around
Her long and dripping hair.
Then rub the strands against
The threads until they’re bare.

The towel now gone, I grab
The brush. She pulls away,
Is pulled right back into
The bristles she can’t escape.

She shrieks and cries out, “Stop!”
“It hurts.” I kiss her head,
Resume my work and quickly
Finish—her scalp is red.

All tangles gone, I part
The sweetly scented curls,
And then I weave: the browns
And golds, I’m watching twirl

Together with the smooth
Advance of nimble hands
Until the ends are reached
And tied up with a band.

She winces when I show
Her what her hair has made.
I pick the scissors up,
And cut away the braid.

Night Awakening

I drink a cup of warm and creamy brown.

My cheeks begin to flush; my feet begin

to tap. My head begins to spin around-

I find myself alive as if I’d been

asleep without knowing. My heart beat pounds

with energy that’s new to me, akin

to chimes of clocks atop the city’s clouds.

But then the chiming stops. My eyes open.

I’m in my bed. It’s dark. No stars. No moon.

The tiny hairs along my arms stand high

and wave through cold still air as a solute

to honor fallen dreams.  I do not rise.

I pull the blanket tight as a cocoon

to block the darkened night and save my sight.


“The other hand”

Reflections on the other hand by Chris Cleave

When a friend recommended this book to me, the recommendation came with a warning. “It’s pretty heavy, definitely not light holiday reading.” I was in a reflective mood and decided to start reading it.

She was right, but the story in it served as a much needed reminder that there are so many human atrocities that we don’t hear about or read about. I’m not talking about the Palestinian struggle or the violence across the Middle East. Despite what many say, those are heard about and reported on.

I don’t want to ruin the story for those who haven’t read it but it tells the story of a Nigerian woman whose life was forever changed by the conflicts in her country. Her path crosses with that of an English couple. Without giving away more of the story, it will leave you with a heavy heart.

The novel is a great reminder to open your eyes and dig for the truth to better understand what is happening in the world around you. It is a reminder to show kindness to strangers. It is a reminder that there are almost always others worse off than yourself. It is a reminder to smile in spite of the difficulties you face. As the Nigerian proverb at the end of the story states:

If your face is swollen from the severe beatings of life, smile and pretend to be a fat man.