‘Egyptian-American’: The Hyphenated Experience

Priscilla Wathington
Author Pauline Kaldas.
Looking Both Ways
By Pauline Kaldas
Cune Press, 2017
Something about Pauline Kaldas’ new memoir makes you feel both adrift and at home – sensations normally at war with each other. Yet, somehow, in her rounded phrases and softly imparted narratives, the elements of surprise and familiarity find balance in each other.
Composed of a string of personal essays, her history unfolds over many moments, rather than the narration of a single breath. Each one operates as a self-contained memory with its own inner framing and conventions. They also find each other, reaching out across the chapters and sections, drawing patterns of experience and interpretation that represent one human’s consciousness.
The memoir’s title, “Looking Both Ways,” proves a fitting picture of the hyphenated experience that Kaldas chronicles. At first, she approaches the hyphen almost like a seesaw, a kind of no man’s land found between the Egyptian and American ends of the wooden plank. In her journey across the pages, Kaldas often slides between the two, never quite up or down.
At times, she feels removed from the American daily events outside her apartment. In “The Camel Caper,” for example, Kaldas describes searching for ways to braid her family into the college town brimming with lawn flamingos in the summer, and “wobbling snowmen” in the winter. They settle on a large plastic camel, a side character in a nativity scene. When the plastic camel goes missing, however, the expected sense of connection takes a downward turn. 
Moments of disappointment like this bubble up across the different cities and years the author narrates. The insidious question, “Where are you from?” repeats as the author moves about her neighborhood. Such encounters pull her down an inner tunnel of self-examination concerning her hair, her accent, and her relationship to places. 
At other moments, the author feels herself tipping toward the American side. When she pays just a tick more than the resident price for a taxi in Luxor, the sum stands for more than the additional bills Kaldas must extract from her wallet. It represents a calculation of the author’s distance from an “Egyptian” identity.
The hyphen, a location of "between," balancing at the unsteady midline, slowly morphs into something else. When protests erupt in Egypt in 2011, Kaldas’ sense of linear distance breaks down. Unrest in Egypt becomes a moment of solidifying her own identity at the hyphen, the identity of "both." For the first time, Kaldas hears the term “Egyptian-American” being used with ease on TV.
"I dream of houses with rooms inside of rooms – an architectural maze that opens and closes in unexpected configurations," the author writes, describing a dream. Within this surreal architecture, "a small frame opening" appears. Here, the author recasts herself, the self at the hyphen, as an opening, a point of vision, for light to catch and fill.

This book review appeared in the current issue of Al Jadid, Vol. 22, No. 74, 2018.

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