To Whom Do I Belong?

 

 

I am the daughter of a single mother and a once-absent father.

My mother was born and raised in the farmlands of Slippery Rock, PA, whose claim to fame is their university and odd moniker. My father was born and raised in the fields of Amman, Jordan, populated by ancient ruins and the stories of refugees.

My mother’s family knows the toil of farm life and the joys of a large family and a full house. My father’s family knows the toil of a life in exile, living in a land which struggles to claim them as full citizens, and the joys of solidarity with a movement and resistance to a regime.

My mother’s hair is short, light, and blonde. Her skin is light, and it tans well. Not as tan as Baba’s though. His hair has receded and is streaked with grey, but his skin maintains its year-round, dark olive tone.

I carry the physical traits of both of my parents on my body: Mom’s eyes in shape and Dad’s in color, Dad’s hair in thickness and volume and Mom’s natural highlights.

My curls are looser than the tight-bound coils they once were. My nose is bigger than “average” and it hooks. My English contains a hint of a Southern accent.

I pass as a member of those who call themselves white, even though my body holds characteristics that don’t keep me quite there.

Both of my parents know the loss of family land. My mother’s family lost our farm the summer before I started high school, the farm on which I spent my infancy and toddler-hood, due to lack of finances. My father’s parents left Palestine before the chaos of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could deport them.

They know the loss and joy of leaving home for Orlando, Florida, in order to seek their fortunes, and they know the pain which resulted when things did not go as planned.

And they share me, their light-skinned, brown-eyed, chestnut-haired, social-justice-loving, strong-willed daughter.

I am the child of Amer and Elizabeth, a Mustafa and a Davis.

I am a child of America and Palestine, of long-time citizens and almost-refugees, of struggle and privilege.

I have lived here for generations, and I am the first generation to occupy this soil.

I am a product of the occupied land of Palestine, the Amman ruins, the ocean air of Orlando, the Slippery Rock farm, the city of Winchester, the rolling hills of Bridgewater and Harrisonburg, and the busy highways of Northern Virginia.

I love steak with a bit of pink in the middle served with mashed potatoes covered in homemade gravy and corn on the cob planted and harvested by my late grandfather. My mom’s spaghetti is my favorite comfort food. I love falafel and baba ganoush, and my dad’s Middle Eastern grilling is delectable.

My family has two sides, but I interact with one like a citizen and the other like a tourist.

I am fluent in Pennsylvania slang and can barely recite the Arabic alphabet. My nose recalls the scents of my Gammy’s apple pie and the earth after a rainstorm, but it is still growing accustomed to the smells of naan and an approaching Fort Lauderdale summer shower. I have memorized the funny and heartbreaking stories of my mother’s family and struggle to recount basic stories of my father’s youth and his extended family’s history.

I found much joy in being reunited with my father and have found many struggles in reconciling these two identities. I admire my mom for her resilience during the struggles of our life together, and I wish both of my parents had found a way to bridge their personalities and cultures so I could fully know and love them both.

Do I get to authentically embrace both sides?

Do I get to enjoy Mom’s spaghetti and Baba’s kufta with the same level of authenticity and pride?

If I learn Arabic and Palestinian history primarily through books and classes, am I still able to identify as one of them?

Do bi-racial kids who grew up with only one parent get to honor both of them, or must we choose one over the other?

Advertisements

Am I Arabic?

Imwas, my father’s family’s village, in 1968 after its destruction during the Six-Day War

Am I Arabic?

It’s a question I ask myself a lot lately.

I ask it when I fill in surveys asking for my race and ethnicity, when people hear “Mustafa” in my last name and ask me how I got it, and when my boss tells me I add more “diversity” to the office.

How do I explain to people, and even myself, that I still see myself as one of the whitest white women to ever exist?

After all, I might love falafel, kufta, and baba ganoush, but I had to look up how to spell those last two words right.

I might have the olive skin, deep brown eyes, curly hair, and hooked nose of my father and his family, but I’m still “white” to most people. To some, even an “exotic” white. They know there’s “something in me,” but they don’t know what it is.

I didn’t become emotionally invested in the Palestinian cause from birth. Instead, I learned about the conflict through talks with my Christian college chaplain and through books and plays written from a white perspective.

I have walked comfortably in this world as a white woman, and no one has ever suspected I might be anything else.

Hell, I barely have either.

I didn’t start using “Mustafa” as part of my last name until I was 24 years old. No one coerced me into doing it. I wanted to start embracing this side of my identity.

But it’s been 4 years, and I’m still not sure what it means to be a “Mustafa.”

I know what it means to be a “Davis” like my mother and even like my husband’s family. But I still don’t really know what it means to be a “Mustafa.”

So am I Arabic or white? Am I both/and, either/or, or none/neither?

There are stories about people who have a black parent and a white parent, a Latinx parent and a white parent, or come from other racially blended families.

But I have yet to find a story of someone with an Arabic parent and a white parent.

I want to claim my family’s story and identity in a way which is true and genuine, not to earn a cheap badge for the sake of “diversity.” Most of my life, I only had one family identity. Then one day, I discovered the second family. Now, as a married woman, there is a third.

And I’m still figuring out how to be a part of each of them.

I want to learn and engage with both sides of my story, but is it possible when I have to study more than live through one aspect of it?

How do I do this?

A Letter for My Little Brother (And Other Arab and Muslim Boys Around the World)

Sami5

My beloved little brother, my habibi, 

I love you so much.

But I can’t protect you from what’s to come, not any more than Baba or Mama or Layan or Razan could. The only way to protect you would be to cover you with myself and my whiteness.

Yes, it’s there. It hides under an olive tone at times, but it comes out the moment I end my name with “Davis,” and one day with “Cowett.”

I can hide myself. You don’t have that luxury.

And I couldn’t do that to you, and even if I could, I wouldn’t change your beautiful olive skin, your big brown eyes, or your nose that may one day hook like mine and Baba’s. If I took away your body, and made it what it wasn’t meant to be, I’d take away the history we share.

I’d have to take away the story of our Baba, who came here on scholarship, confusion, hope, and fear in his heart, who was mocked and derided by those studying at the same institution as him. I’d take away the story of this man, who worked at great risk to himself instead of going home, because doing so could have meant going home in more shame and in more trouble.

If he had done that, my life never would have begun, and neither, perhaps, would yours.

I can’t take away the story of our grandparents, refugees oppressed by those who have a long history of oppression. Nor can I take away the story of our great grandparents, including one who left Russia before having to leave Palestine.

No, habibi, I won’t take away our history from you, not even to protect you.

Sami6

Sami7

That being said, I can’t promise that you won’t be accused of being any number of things that you obviously aren’t.

I can’t promise that you won’t be judged by your name, your skin, your nose, your eyes, and all the physical traits we love about you instead of by your character, your skills, your wisdom, your story, your life, or anything else that makes you amazing.

I can’t promise that you won’t be hurt, antagonized, discriminated against, spit upon, demonized, or lumped in with a group you oppose as vehemently as the rest of us who value freedom and human dignity.

I can’t promise this will be an easy life. Baba can’t promise it, because it wasn’t easy for him, not when he was young, when he became a citizen, when he met my family, when he had me, when he lost me, when he got married, when he had our sisters, when he got and lost his cushy job, when he had you, or when he sees headline after headline demonizing our people, even when they are at their most vulnerable.

But I can promise that you will need to live this life, and you can count on Allah to be with you as much as I can count on Jesus to be with me.

And no matter what, I promise you that I will not let those different names divide us.

And I would remind you, as Baba might, that our family lived in the village of Imwas, or what the Christians call Emmaus. And we tell the story of Emmaus every year.

In that story, two men travel the road. They had lost all hope of being dignified, of having their divine humanity recognized, of living freely as the people of God and not the people of Caesar. As they walked in hopelessness, a man they didn’t recognize walked with them, talked with them, and ignited their hearts.

And when they finished walking, he broke bread with them, and they saw, staring into their faces, the hope they thought had died.

People will tell you, “You are not my people,” and unfortunately, some, if not most of, those people will claim the same Christian title I do. While it will be impossible for it not to get to you, I want you to know this: Their words are lies.

You are my people.

Your God is my God.

Your family is my family.

Your blood is my blood.

There is no half in this.

You.

Are.

My.

Brother.

Different mothers and different skin complexions don’t change that. You are my brother.

And while our upbringings, skin tones, and lives will be different, we share eyes and a nose and a kindred spirit and an inherently divine humanity.

We also share a family, for better or worse.

And I will keep the promise I made to you before you were born: I will always be with you, and I always be for you.

All my love,

Lindsay (Your Favorite Big Sister 🙂 )

Sami2

Dreams Deferred and Reborn

Bouquet

Elegant Bridal Hair Accessories

Several weeks ago, Mom and I went to Hobby Lobby searching for wedding bouquet ideas. We walked through aisle after aisle of multi-colored flowers, trying to find the ones which most matched the scheme we had planned (burgundy and gold).

We walked. We browsed. We talked about my financial struggles and whether they would get better.

And as we talked and shopped, I thought about Mom and her life.

As a young adult, she worked a difficult night shift job she didn’t like to make ends meet and afford things she wanted, like her very first car. Around age 30, she moved home with her new baby and a loaded moving van to finish her college degree. As I grew up, she took up extra jobs to ensure I could own a horse, play my own saxophone in the middle and high school bands, and go to college.

As I reflected on all of her hard work and sacrifices, I thought about her dreams, the ones she didn’t see come true, like becoming a vet or a P.E. teacher or a star athlete.

But she became a teacher to ensure she had a steady income and the same vacations and days off I had. She educated multitudes of children, and some of them still visit her, letting her know how they’re doing and how important she was to them.

And she did all she could to make sure I had the opportunity to have my own dreams and maybe see them come true.

I was always a dreamer. Every time I had to write an “All About Me” essay in school, I got giddy with excitement when I got to the “What are your dreams and goals?” section. I wanted to be everything: a marine biologist, a vet, a farmer, a writer, a teacher, a member of the Navy, a jazz musician, a pro skater, a jockey, and then some. I filled those pages with dreams upon dreams, and I had my ways to get to them, even if they seemed impossible.

And here I am, working multiple part-time jobs, still struggling to eke out a living and begin a new life with my fiance, and I wonder if I’ve let my mom down. She worked so hard for me, after all, and what do I have to show for it?

I wonder if I’ve let myself down, because I don’t always know what my dreams are, and I don’t feel like I’m on the fast-track to reach any of them. They seem so numerous and sporadic, disjointed and unrelated, and I don’t know which ones to pursue.

But as Mom and I went about our day, picking out my bouquet, eating lunch and dinner together, looking at bridesmaids dresses and arguing about where the reception should be and if the bridesmaids all needed to have the same style dress, I realized something.

Not many people accomplish the dreams they initially set out to do. And that’s OK.

Mom didn’t accomplish all of hers, and while I’m sure she feels the sting of those losses from time to time, I know she doesn’t regret having me in her life, even if the paths she took weren’t the smoothest. I haven’t accomplished all of my goals and dreams, because they change so often and the world isn’t always kind to dreamers, but I know I will always have the love of my mother, fiance, and others to give me reason, purpose, passion, and joy in this life.

For most of my young, life, I used to think not accomplishing your greatest dreams was the worst tragedy to someone could experience. I used to think it would result in regret and despair, the shriveling up of a soul like a raisin in the sun, as Langston Hughes described in “Harlem.” I told myself I had to accomplish at least one of my big dreams to find true satisfaction in life, or else I’d doom myself to a life of apathy, of going through motions and putting one foot in front of the other with no idea of where the steps would take me.

Now, I see this whole deferment of dreams as a mostly inevitable part of life.

Dreams come in and out like waves in a tide. As life happens, so do our dreams and plans. The flexible and willing among us adjust. They let their passion remain even when the dreams depart, and they fuel their new dreams with that same passion and joy.

Dreams can be for ourselves. They can be for the ones who come after us. They can be put on hold and then reactivated.

But as long as we keep the fire within us alive, as long as we continue to be surrounded and powered by love, we will remain alive, even when our biggest dreams die.

Palestinian-Pennsylvanian: Reflections on My Heritage

parentals

I am the daughter of a Pennsylvanian woman and a Jordanian-Palestinian man.

On one side, I’ve been in America for several generations. On the other, I’m a first-generation American.

Mom and her family raised me. I didn’t even have my proper introduction to my father and his heritage until age 19, already fully developed and ingrained into my Pennsylvanian culture, preparing to navigate a culture foreign to my experience but natural to my bloodline.

Both sides lived lives of struggle and celebration, of keeping and losing land, of raising many children and living in close kinship with family.

Both sides lost the places they called “home,” one due to lack of proper funds and increasing age, the other as the result of colonialism and war.

Both have born the difficulties of maintaining peace of mind, body, and soul, for themselves and for their descendants. Both have sought “better” for themselves and their children, and both have discovered this road and these goals are not as precise as they had been told.

My mother and father left their own homes to seek their fortunes in Orlando, Florida. Mom returned to her family soon after my birth and stayed until she received her degree and found a job teaching in Virginia. Baba returns to his home sporadically due to distance and increased prices of airfare, sending money and visiting when he can, longing for the community he left and which I take for granted.

I know what it means to be Pennsylvanian. It’s eating corn on the cob with every meal in August, rooting for all the Pittsburgh teams no matter how the season fares, riding “quads” instead of ATVs, and drinking “pop” but never “soda.” It’s familiar. I can fall into its rhythms and norms easily.

Being Arabic is a different story, mainly because I don’t really know what it means to be Arabic, not culturally or even ethnically.

As a child, I knew my father came from Jordan, but I had no idea what their customs were, how different or similar they were to mine or my mom’s family. I found out Baba was a Muslim in Middle School when I found a Mecca necklace while snooping through Mom’s jewelry box. I did not know Mustafa was part of my name until I found it on the back of my baby picture hidden inside a “Baby’s 1st Christmas” ornament.

Being Pennsylvanian came laid out and ready for me to claim. It’s my upbringing and my inheritance. I know its stories like the back of my hand. I can recite several from memory without hesitation, with great joy and sorrow when necessary.

Being Arabic did not come for me. I had to seek and find this birthright of mine, and now I’m not even sure it’s mine to have anymore.

I only have an idea of the foods we eat and an even more limited knowledge of the language we speak, the clothes we wear, and the music we listen to. I have yet to set foot on the land taken from my family and the land we settled in our displacement.

Am I not Arabic? Am I only Pennsylvanian? Do I have claim to the inheritances of my mother and father, or only to my mother’s?

And what does it mean to even claim an inheritance you can’t touch but can only experience?

Mom Didn’t Raise Me to Be Like This

mama

Mom didn’t mean to raise me to be like this.

She didn’t raise me to be a bleeding heart liberal, someone who takes to the streets in protest of a President’s administration. She never dreamed I’d one day aspire to be a leader in the Church. She couldn’t have imagined I would be as idealistic as she is practical, or as fretful as she is reasonable.

I don’t know what my conservative, pragmatic mother expected me to become, but it definitely wasn’t this.

She even said so herself.

The other day, in the car on the way to look at wedding dresses, Mom looked at me and said, “I’m proud of the woman you are, but sometimes I look at you and wonder, ‘How did you turn out this way?’ You didn’t get any of this from me.”

On the surface, she’s right. We have different hobbies and interests. She was an athlete, and I’m an artist. She’s upfront, and I’m more meek. Most of her favorite shoes are black, and my favorite pair are my bright pink Chuck Taylors. Appearances, physical and otherwise, would suggest I got nothing from my mama.

But in reality, I got so much from her.

As a child, when she and Dad split up, and she found herself dealing with circumstances she never dreamed she’d have to confront, she did not cave in but pushed forward. She raised me on her own and gave me a household as stable and loving, if not moreso, as most two-parent families.

She taught me the world could not easily defeat me.

As a teenager, when I came home from school worried I was too quirky and different from my peers to fit in with them, she looked at me and asked, “Do you want to change for them?”

I thought about it, and I said, “No. I want to be myself and have them like me for it.”

Even though, as a teenager and even as an adult, this has been hard to live into, I do my best to be as true to my odd and sometimes awkward self as possible, and funny enough, I continue to find myself surrounded by lots of love.

She helped me realize who I am, and she taught me to be myself, unabashedly and unashamedly.

All through my life, Mom fostered in me a love for reading and learning. I read with feverish abandon, and the stories left their imprints on me. They helped me identify with people I’d never known, and they caused me to put myself into situations I hadn’t imagined. As a teacher’s daughter, I knew the importance of paying attention and participating in my education, so I talked with and listened to my own teachers to gain new insight about the world around me.

She taught me to value, uphold, and defend a variety of people and perspectives, even ones different from mine.

Those virtues and lessons, along with the multitude of others she has given me, made me into the passionate, bookish, vibrant, wannabe-troublemaker I am today.

So even though I answered her question with a typical, “I don’t know, Mama,” I accidentally told her a lie.

In the everyday actions of mothering, due to the very fact that she, Elizabeth Davis, is my mother, she shaped me into the woman I am today.

I am who I am because of her.

And I am forever thankful to her for the gift of helping me discover myself.

mommy

Bloodshed in Sacred Space

ft-lauderdale-airport

Hillyork.com

The Hollywood International Airport in Fort Lauderdale is a sacred place for me.

It’s where I felt my father’s embrace for the first time in 16 years.

It’s where I met my sisters and stepmother for the first time ever.

It’s where I first discovered and felt the love and joy of this new family of mine.

And, like many other beautiful, sacred places, this airport has become a place of innocent bloodshed.

This past Friday, January 6th, a man opened fire and killed 5 travelers and injured 6 more.

They all had their own stories, too. The travelers had their own joyous reasons to be in this sacred place. They had their own families and loved ones to meet and spend time with. Even the man who pulled the trigger has his own stories, of joy and sorrow and pain that culminated into this violent moment.

This post does not serve the purpose of facilitating discussion around guns and mental illness.

This is me mourning the further loss of life at a place that holds so much meaning for me and so many others who see this airport as a sacred place of reunion, love, and joy.

I, like the families and loved ones of these victims, cannot walk across the terminals and pick up my luggage without remembering that innocent blood has been spilled there.

When I go to hug my father, stepmother, and siblings again, I will know there are people who will never again hold some of their loved ones in this same embrace.

When I walk with my family to the parking garage to make the drive home, I will remember that for 5 people, the baggage claim, not the homes of loved ones or resorts of joy and memories, was their unintended final destination.

And that is heartbreaking. And it is worth mourning.

It is a sacred duty to remember, mourn, and prevent the loss of sacred lives wherever we go.

So when I return to Hollywood International Airport again, I will mourn. I will pray. I will love my family fiercely.

I will do what I can, where I am now, to make sure there are fewer victims of senseless violence, and I will do what I can to make sure those perpetrators are prevented from doing this damage in the first place. This involves caring for them, too, and that will be hard, difficult work, and it needs to be done.

I don’t know how I will, but I hope that the act of being with my family and walking across those holy, devastating spaces will both remind me of what has been lost and give me the courage to do something that will bring more love and less hate into this world.

May we all do the same.