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Profile of an Arab Daughter
By Elmaz Abinader
Mother has fallen and fractured her pelvis. She was reaching for a jar in her kitchen and lost her balance. This is not her first fall. She has two artificial hips and was just recovering from the last time her foot gave way — that time, her toe caught on the edge of the carpet. Every tumble, slip, slide, and collapse, we are called. Each one of my mother’s six children tenses a little, not because she has fallen, again, but because we cannot turn back the clock, we cannot avoid these repetitive reminders that my mother is getting older and that one cannot recover from old age; reminders, too, that we are getting older.
This time, when she stretched her arm up to the cabinet over the refrigerator, this time, when she tried to reach the peanut butter, it was Sept 11, 2001. It was just after two jets crashed into the World Trade Center, about the time the towers collapsed and thousands and thousands of people died and thousands went missing, and the nation’s and the world’s faces knotted from fear or opened in shock or closed in sorrow.
So in the midst of this tragedy, we did not know of my mother’s fall until later. The silence of the phone gave no hint; no one knew my mother was in the hospital. Instead, my older sister, Selma, and I were desperately trying to reach our youngest sister, Geralyn, in New York, shaking our phones like rattles, hoping for something other than the sound of empty air. We recited her route to work as best we could remember and tried to judge where her husband would be: tower, tunnel, train, bus . . .
My mother is curled in a ball, my father says, on the downstairs couch, unable to move. The sadness courses in his voice like a slow river. He has driven her again and again to Montgomery County Hospital, fall after fall: up the stairs, over the threshold, losing her balance standing or sitting. At 87 years old, my mother is worn out by her own fragility. Her body sinks in on itself, drying up. Now at 90 pounds, this tiny fortress endured childhood hunger, escape, field labor, emigration, three businesses, five relocations, 15 pregnancies, nine births, six children. She does not recite these events, as her own mother did, sucked into a tunnel of memory. Her old age confuses her; she did not predict her own feebleness.
My mother’s voice rattles hollow when she speaks to me. What can we do? People fall. Things fall.
My mother tumbled at the same time another jet burst into the Pentagon, dangerously close to where she lives in Maryland. She lay on her side, my father running frantically toward her. She wept into the carpet, scared that she would never get up again. My 91-year-old father pulled her by her armpits, leaned her body against his, and took her to the car. He drove, his vision foggy, to the emergency room.
The day of my mother’s fall, my parents’ grandchildren were sent home to Chevy Chase from their school in Washington, D.C. Alone in the house, my nephew and niece were transfixed by the television. Slow-motion footage of the second tower falling suspended their breathing for a minute.
As the children flipped through the news coverage, they spotted their father, my brother, Jean, who works for an Arab advocacy institute. He sat at a table with a newscaster and other experts, speaking calming, trying to make sense of the devastation in discussions laced with words like “backlash,” “retaliation,” “revenge.”
My nephew and niece did not hear their father’s words. They saw his name below his face, the title of his job, the organization he worked for, all printed clearly against his blue shirt and brown jacket. We aunts and uncles tried to reach them: land lines, cell phones, Internet. Finally the New York sister reaches them. My brother’s son asks my sister, “Do you think someone will try to kill my dad?”
My mother doesn’t know these things as her heels numb, her shoulder electrifies her with spasms, and she shifts and shifts again on the couch, trying to relieve the pain radiating in her hip and lower back. The television flashes at her but she can take the pictures only in small doses, the doses of horror much stronger than the painkillers that don’t seem to reach the fire in her body. My father recites the rosary with her, sitting on the edge of the couch, watching her body ripple as she prays. My mother mumbles each decade until the drugs put her to sleep.
My mother gave me a picture of herself that she kept in the back of her diary. She is 16 in the picture and has a closed-mouth smile. Her hair is in tight curls close to her head. Her face is open, her gray eyes bright, even in black and white; her nose is long and slightly hooked, and her cheeks are wide.
That is my face, the one I grew into. The one that causes all the trouble.
They caution, when you travel, try not to look so . . .
My mother never considered herself an Arab. “We’re Lebanese, descendants of the Phoenicians.” Stories of our forefathers include their sailing ships to every continent carrying the wisdom of language, arts, and mathematics around the world. These were our ancestors.
Six girls faced sideways, all our noses pointing to the right. Mrs. Smoothe, the Girl Scout leader for the junior troop, inspected our forms, adjusted our shoulders, and pushed our chins so we would be perfectly sideways. I stared at the back of Jeannie Ostich’s dishwater-blond hair in front of me. It fell easily into a Miss America flip. Mrs. Smoothe stepped back and pulled a shade off a living room lamp, opening the light so that it sprayed around us. Suddenly, bathed in the glow of the bulb, we saw our faces appear on the white papers hanging beside us. “Oh,” we glanced sideways, but quickly righted ourselves when Mrs. Smoothe cleared her throat.
“We are going to make silhouettes of your profile.” Mrs. Smoothe walked toward us with her pencil raised.
I was the last in line, so I watched while Mrs. Smoothe drew the outline of the other Girl Scouts’ faces. Everyone stood perfectly still, our green uniforms pressed, our badge sashes crossing our chests diagonally. The other girls had gentle lines of faces, silky hair, slender noses. Mrs. Smoothe’s hand could quickly trace their images without pausing, rendering their beauty easily. Debbie’s blond hair was pulled back with a white stretchy band, Renee removed her glasses from her green eyes, Marcia pulled a spit curl around into a big “C.” My knees softened watching them, my body slumped, and I wanted to bolt, out of the cafeteria of All Saints School in Masontown, Pa., down Main Street where my father sold shoes, to our house not far from the auto parts store.
When Mrs. Smoothe approached me, I straightened and stared out beyond the other girls who were already cutting out their profiles to paste on black paper. “Hmm,” Mrs. Smoothe paused, her pencil raised. “Those braids are a bit difficult.” I could feel the weight of my mother’s hands as she pulled my bushy hair into three sections and crossed the tresses over and under, over and under — first on the right, then on the left. After every row, she pulled tighter and tighter, tearing my hair away from the perfectly drawn part down the middle of my head. Her hand scooped a wad of Vaseline, and she slathered the stray curls that insisted on popping up around my face.
Mrs. Smoothe lifted my braids and threw them behind my shoulders. I quivered briefly. I imagined the profile she would draw — the only one with a hook nose, a sharp chin. It couldn’t disguise the chaos of my thick curly mop, it couldn’t hide my “large bottom” or cover my dark hairy arms. When everyone saw the portrait, they would say “sand nigger,” like Dave Lupinsky on the playground. My mouth will pout like Darlene Pardy’s mouth did when she pulled down her lip into a swell imitating full African lips. Somewhere in the construction paper portrait, my dark eyes would be revealed and my life would be uncovered. A door would open on the chaos of my home life with nine family members shouting in two languages, eating raw lamb, and trilling their tongues when the excitement rose into a frenzy.
The first time I was ever stopped at an airport in the United States was on a layover in Denver before a flight to New York. My husband was carrying a laptop, a CD player, a bag of food, and a briefcase. People waited behind us as he unstrapped and untwisted his cases and placed them on the belt. After he walked through the security gate, his belongings tumbled from the scanner onto the little ramp.
Every trip we took together through airports, I sucked in my breath as he fumbled with all his equipment. Always highly conscious of the people behind me, always afraid of missing the plane, always aware of how big I was at any given moment, I believed in traveling light. One purse with a book, a notebook and pen, a bottle of water, and some cosmetics. As I followed my husband through the gate, a security guard raised her hand. “Go over there.” She pointed to an empty low table against the wall staffed by another security guard. His uniform hung just a little too large on him. Without speaking, he motioned for me to place my purse down and then raised his hand in a halt. He waved, and I obediently took one step back. Two women joined him and proceeded to take my purse apart. As they poured my checkbook, lipstick, pick, wallet, tissues, sunglasses, and makeup case onto the table, I felt a burning in my legs. I have traveled all over the world; I’ve been inspected, searched, frisked, and scanned — but here I am in Denver, an airport with pizza stands and coffee shops, the standard newsstands and shoeshine chairs.
They turned my purse inside out and x-rayed it. One guard picked every credit card out of my wallet and held it to the light. They flipped through my notebook, shook out my magazines. I stayed in my position, staring with fury. No one else is being asked to stop. What is this about? What could I be transporting from Oakland to New York that should cause all this scrutiny? The man finally asked me for my coat.
I handed it over, speechless. Behind me, others beeped through the gates and headed to their flights unchecked. Finally, the man poured my water into the garbage can. He replaced the cap and offered me the empty bottle. Soon they shoved everything toward me and left the table. I glanced down at the contents of my purse lying scattered on the brown Formica. “Is this crazy or what?” I asked my husband. “What the hell was that about?”
Later I learned about profiling , the new system that was installed at airport security to stop terrorists. I read about security guards being trained in what a terrorist is likely to look like as they pass through security. But not any kind of terrorists: ones with dark hair, aquiline features, deep eyes. By the end of the article, my entire family was indicted.
My mother, whose face I inherited, would never believe I have been profiled over and over. She talks about Arabs as them , the other population in Lebanon, her home country. They are Muhammadans, not Catholic, like us. Them— despite our common looks, language, music, politics, food, customs. Our sympathy with Palestinians.
And on Sept 11, 2001, when the country grieved the losses in New York and Washington, my mother and father prayed extra rosaries, my mother’s lips dry from painkillers, her body limp against the brushed velvet of her sofa. The television reminded her again and again that the world she traveled through so doggedly to make a home for her family was not safe.
A week after the destruction and devastation in New York and Washington, DC, one news station took a poll and discovered that most Americans think that Americans of Arab origin should carry identification cards. They think that capturing our faces, pasting them flat on a card with our names and addresses, will somehow lessen the dangers.
I do not want to believe this poll. I do not want to believe that suddenly we are all suspects and apart from everyone else, people who need to be feared and named. History is a poor teacher — tattooed numbers flash across my arm, and internment camps grow in the desert of my imagination. My eyes darken.
I try to picture how I would lead my mother and father from their suburban town house to some government office to have their picture taken. “Why are we doing this?” my mother would ask. She has told the story of her mother entering Ellis Island in 1921 and having her name changed by some unschooled clerk.
When I take my parents for their Arab IDs, we will have to decide if my mother needs her walker or a cane. They have been in the United States for 63 years, they have attended Catholic church every week of their lives, but they speak Arabic and originate from a troubled region. My mother’s legs will wobble under her. She will complain to
my nearly deaf father that they are Christian. Doesn’t anyone understand? Because they don’t realize how poor their hearing is, their Arabic will echo all around them. It will echo off the marble pillars of the government building, float through the air, and crash into the walls.
“We are Phoenicians,” my mother will plead. And she will still say rosaries for the dead, for the missing, for her son whose children worry for his life. In her mind, she, like me, will sail away, following the Phoenicians, carrying wisdom with her, tucked inside the fractures in her pelvis, where she will ache and ache.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 7, No. 37 (Fall 2001).