They brought with them Oum Kalthoum on worn tapes—the ones that they had carried there were no use because the Mother of the Arabs was everywhere, but where they were going, their Mother wouldn’t be. Some had to wait, though, to bring her, and instead carried her within their steps to the DMV, to the factory, to the hotel, to their apartments, to the Church. “Oum Kalthoum sang hymns, you know.”
They brought with them God—inshAllah, they would say when their children were born in a foreign land. InshAllah, what I find strange, you will find familiar, yet we will be one— inshAllah. It was the wish they hoped could bind them to their offspring. They carried God in their hearts and said, “Yes, we do not speak the same language, child, nor do we understand each other’s ways—but we love God and inshAllah is always on our lips.” Did you know that the Muslim and Christian says this? But here, in America, no one believes in God.
They brought with them sugar canes long and sweet to remind them, but mostly to teach the babes what they had always known. They brought with them dates so firm, but the children rejected those, asking for chips instead.
During Nairouz, they brought with them yellow dates, but told the children, “In Egypt, they are not so. In Egypt, dates are red on the outside, symbolizing the blood of the martyrs, and white on the inside to show the purity of those who die for Christ. Yet through all their torment, the martyrs, like the dates, are firm with a strong, single pit and that is the Holy Spirit. But in America, these yellow dates are not so.” They will have to do, though. They will have to do.
They brought with them salutations of peace and received howdy in return.
They brought with them tears as they landed on American soil. “I am free, child, I am free.” The customs officer, pale and blond, shoving the immigrant along. “Sankis you,” says the immigrant, dreaming of a fertile land of milk and honey.
They brought with them incense and shoriahs and said, “For God to give me blessing. May the Church grow tenfold.” They drove their children to Church, but would rush to work without praying, bringing home the money for their first house; and when that first house came, they called on the Abouna to bless it before they settled. “This is what is right, so
that my labor is not in vain.” They brought candles and icons to fill these houses to convince themselves this was home.
They brought with them salted fish in barrels to save for six months until Shem el Nesem. “See how resourceful your mother is, Dodi. I am Egyptian.”
They brought with them green Bibles with Arabic calligraphy—a twin to the Quran, so as to mingle—and they opened it to keep pictures of their family back home hidden in the caverns within and newspaper articles of bombings and persecution. “Forgive them,” says the child. “I will not,” says the Egyptian. “They have uprooted me from my land, tossed me in the wind for others to grab and molest. Do you understand? I cannot return to my home.”
They brought with them stories of a life abused and never would they cease to tell. In the market, they would start the tale of the merchant who looked at the butcher’s wife inappropriately, but Americans are not so. At night, when all was quiet in suburbia, they remembered their mothers who cleaned through the night to go to work in the morning while their fathers wept over their fate; tears and dusting, that is what they heard all the way in America before their eyes shut. When their kids climbed the yellow bus to go to school and learn the language of white men, they remembered the cross that they hid underneath their shirts and the Quran classes they were required to take; at the bus stop, they would recite a Quranic verse in memory of a time spent wandering.
They brought with them bridal magazines in Arabic plastered with European models, and diplomas whose value became nothing somewhere over the Atlantic, and brides lusting for American life away from their names back home, and strong coffee in small cups while they played backgammon, and belly dancers to remember home even though Abouna objected, and falafel and mangoes and feta cheese, and money to last only weeks but hope to last another generation of separated souls.
They brought with them gold bracelets laced in diamonds. “It’s cheaper in Egypt.” They put the gold on their sons who came home and said, “Men don’t wear jewelry, Mama” in broken Arabic, and they would frown, placing the gold back in their cases. It’s a different world here, Mama would mutter, hoping for the moment when her kids would return to her and her people.
But they missed something on the way. Of all the things brought with them to make America home, to stabilize themselves, to sedate themselves, they had forgotten to take a step back and say, “I am home.” They forgot their selves who waited on a corner in Egypt, attached to the sea and sand and dust of a land they could now only dream of.