A Country Called Amreeka: Arab Roots, American Storiesby Alia Malek
Among the surfeit of narratives about Arabs that have been published in recent years, surprisingly little has been reported on Arabs in America an increasingly relevant issue. This book is the most powerful approach imaginable: it is the story of the last forty-plus years of American history, told through the eyes of Arab Americans. It begins in 1963,
Among the surfeit of narratives about Arabs that have been published in recent years, surprisingly little has been reported on Arabs in America an increasingly relevant issue. This book is the most powerful approach imaginable: it is the story of the last forty-plus years of American history, told through the eyes of Arab Americans. It begins in 1963, before major federal legislative changes seismically transformed the course of American immigration forever. Each chapter describes an event in U.S. history which may already be familiar to us and invites us to live that moment in time in the skin of one Arab American. The chapters follow a timeline from 1963 to the present, and the characters live in every corner of this country.
These are dramatic narratives, describing the very human experiences of love, friendship, family, courage, hate, and success. There are the timeless tales of an immigrant community becoming American, the nostalgia for home, the alienation from a society sometimes as intolerant as its laws are generous. A Country Called Amreeka's snapshots allow us the complexity of its characters' lives with an impassioned narrative normally found in fiction.
Read separately, the chapters are entertaining and harrowing vignettes; read together, they add a new tile to the mosaic of our history. We meet fellow Americans of all creeds and colors, among them the Alabama football player who navigates the stringent racial mores of segregated Birmingham, where a church bombing wakes a nation to the need to make America a truly more equal place; the young wife from Ramallah now living in Baltimore who had to abandon her beautiful home and is now asked by a well-meaning American, "How do you like living in an apartment after living in a tent?"; the Detroit toughs and the potsmoking suburban teenagers, who in different decades become politicized and serious about their heritage despite their own wills; the homosexual man afraid to be gay in the Arab world and afraid to be Arab in America; the two formidable women who wind up working for opposing campaigns in the 2000 presidential election; the Marine fighting in Iraq who meets villagers who ask him, "What are you, an Arab, doing here?" We glimpse how America sees Arabs as much as how Arabs see America. We revisit the 1973 oil embargo that initiated the American perception of all Arabs as oil-rich sheikhs; the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis that heralded the arrival of Middle Eastern Islam in the American consciousness; bombings across three decades in Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and New York City that bring terrorism to American soil; and both wars in Iraq that have posed Arabs as the enemies of America.
In a post-9/11 world, Arabic names are everywhere in America, but our eyes glaze over them; we sometimes don't know how to pronounce them or understand whence they come. A Country Called Amreeka gives us the faces behind those names and tells the story of a community it has become essential for us to understand. We can't afford to be oblivious.
- Free Press
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Read an Excerpt
On June 7, 1967, Luba Sihwail rode with the windows down and the radio on in her blue Buick sedan. Spring always reminded her of home. Even though these outskirts of Baltimore City were nothing like her faraway village, she thought Maryland was nevertheless quite pretty.
Luba had left her husband George's rug installation shop and had given herself fifteen minutes, just enough time, to reach her daughters' elementary school. Each day she would vary her route, taking a different tributary that connected the two major roads, Hartford and Belair, between which her life was contained. With its nicer houses fully detached single-family structures Hamilton Avenue was her favorite. Luba liked to pick a house always one with a wraparound porch and fantasize she lived there instead of in the tiny apartment they rented, just a few streets away, that overlooked the vast cemetery on Moravia Road.
Outside her window, the trim and manicured lawns, full of verdant green grass, were so different from home, where the terrain was rugged and allowed to remain wild. The land there was interspersed instead with dirt, rocks, and plants that thrived in a climate where it did not rain for half the year. Americans seemed intent on bringing the earth in line, smoothing Maryland's modest crags into even rivers of asphalt, along which Luba now drove. The houses that stood at perfect attention along the roads were made of uniform bricks cast in a die or siding completely level. Each house was so like its neighbors but for some variation such as the color of the shutters, the location of the driveway, or the hue of the roof 's shingles. Back home, the houses reflected the needs and means of the individual families that built them and were constructed with hand-chiseled stone, each one an echo of the flicks of the wrist that had formed them.
But it was spring now and spring anywhere always reminded Luba of Ramallah, her village in Palestine. There, when the winter rains finally gave way to the unadulterated blue skies that lasted all spring and summer long, Luba, her sisters, and the neighbors' boys the three sons of a Palestinian father and a German mother would race the two miles to the top of one of Ramallah's hills and shout across the valley. The boomerang of their voices' echo would delight them. They would then run down into the low field separating the hills, turning over the rocks on their path to watch what scorpions, little snakes, and centipedes they could find. They picked wild anemones, tulips, narcissus, and cyclamens before returning home. Upon seeing the frenzied bouquets, Luba's mother would admonish her children for bringing more flowers than she had vases before filling pots usually used for cooking with water and standing the blooms upright.
How was her mother now? Luba wondered.
Since Monday, Luba had kept the radio on constantly at the house, at the store, in the car. A new war close to home had erupted in the Middle East, and each evening she and George watched it unfold on American nightly news.
In a strike meant to preempt what the Israelis claimed was an imminent Egyptian offensive, Israel had on Monday, June 5, 1967, launched an air attack against Egyptian airfields, destroying dozens of planes parked on the runways and killing dozens of Egyptian pilots. In retaliation, Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi planes had attacked Israel. Israel responded by bombing Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian bases, quickly winning air supremacy. Its ground forces had also crossed into the Sinai, defeating Egyptian troops along the way. Then on Tuesday, Israel had wrested control of Gaza from Egypt. And much closer to Ramallah, fighting between the Jordanians and Israelis had yielded control of Palestinian cities Hebron and Bethlehem to the Israelis.
Luba had convinced George to put off buying a house here in Baltimore so they could one day when the time was right return home. But they always seemed to be waiting for the time to be right, and nearly ten years had passed since they had first arrived in Baltimore. With this new war, Luba was starting to panic that things would never be good enough, stable enough, prosperous enough for them to return home.
In Ramallah, they had gotten used to conflict bringing change to their lives. The creation of the state of Israel had seen Palestinian refugees, like George and his family, pour into Luba's village. Many, like George's family, had walked for days and arrived on foot with what little of their belongings they could carry. The amputation of the Palestinian cities, towns, and villages that became part of Israel, the destruction of many others that were cleared to make way for the new state, and the subsequent Jordanian domination of the West Bank meant economic hardships for them all.
But to Luba, it seemed that life-threatening violence came only accidentally to Ramallah. In 1948, an errant bomb intended for the nearby headquarters of the Arab Legion had instead crashed down on her family's house, forcing them out into the midnight darkness in their nightgowns and robes. The explosion had shattered all the glass panes in the house and annihilated two large peach trees and one fig tree. Where the trees had been, they found only craters. When Luba's mother went to retrieve her baby Isa from his crib, she found a puddle of shards and a big piece of sharpened glass balancing on the blanket that covered his body mercifully his exposed face and head were unscathed. Throughout the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, they had kept their suitcases packed and waiting by the door, should a truce never happen. When it finally did in April 1949, a kind of normalcy had descended, with both sides menacingly entrenched.
Yet despite the fact that the conflict might not be resolved anytime soon and that Ramallah might always be ringed by trouble, Luba believed it was bound to forever remain free from Israeli control. Maybe that should be good enough reason to just return home.
For now, though, she would be traveling only in Baltimore, and mostly between house, store, and school. With school soon to be out, that routine would at least change, and Luba would shuttle their children to dance, baton, and piano lessons instead. Even if she and George did not have enough money to take a proper vacation, the girls would have a full summer indeed.
Luba pulled into the parking lot of Gardenville Elementary and saw her daughters Sana and Mona waiting as they did every day at the school's entrance. Sana had her great-grandfather's blond hair, cropped short, and Mona's auburn hair sported the two braids that Luba wove each morning.
Sana jumped up front; it was her turn to sit next to Luba. Luba quizzed them about how their day had been and what homework they would be working on once they got back to the shop.
"Mom," Mona interrupted from the back, before switching to Arabic. "I went to the teacher today, and I told her 'Mrs. Dishler, I don't like how you're doing your hair.' "
Luba looked at her in the rearview mirror. Mona's teacher was an older woman who always wore her long blonde hair neatly pinned in a bun.
"I told her," Mona continued, " 'You should do it differently. You should let your hair down.' "
"You did not tell your teacher this!" Luba exclaimed, trying not to laugh.
"Yes I did!" Mona retorted, quite serious.
"Mona, you don't talk like this to a teacher," Luba admonished.
"Well, she would look prettier," Mona responded. "What's wrong with that?"
On the radio, the music was interrupted with a special news report. Luba hushed the girls.
Violence had escalated in the Middle East. Israeli forces had captured the Old City in East Jerusalem, Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai, and several Palestinian villages in the West Bank. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were fleeing into Jordan.
Luba needed to hear precisely which villages in the West Bank had been taken.
Jericho had fallen.
And Ramallah Ramallah was now under Israeli control.
Luba let out a heaving scream before moaning "Not Ramallah, not Ramallah!" She wanted to take her head in both hands, but she caught herself and instead banged the steering wheel repeatedly.
Sana and Mona immediately fell silent and stared, startled, at their mother.
Luba's mind quickly traveled to her parents, at home in their house in Ramallah, and she fought the terror of the Deir Yassin massacre creeping into her head. The mere thought of it still sent a chill down her spine.*
What would happen to her parents? Would the Israelis steal anything? Would they bomb anywhere? Kill anyone? Luba panicked that she would never see her parents again. Would she ever go home now? Would there ever be peace? She began to sob. " What's wrong, Mom?" Sana asked.
Everything was wrong, and Luba could barely see the road in front of her. She wiped at her tears with her sleeves and the backs of her hands.
Sana looked up at her and asked, "Is it your headache again?"
Luba strolled side by side with George in the British Protectorate of Aden in the early months of 1958. The whispering of the calm waters of the Gulf, fed by the Red and Arabian Seas, kept them company as they chatted and waited for the Abayan Development Board car to return. The British cotton company for which George worked in the remote village of Ja'ar had arranged for them to travel to Aden so that they could fetch the groceries not available in the village. They had finished quickly, but the driver would not be back for them for another two hours.
Abayan Board had hired George just months before as an accountant. Founded with a substantial loan from the British government, the company had put in place a series of major irrigation works to convert the land in Abayan for cotton cultivation. With earnings from cotton exportation, the Abayan district had grown into quite a community, with roads, running water, and electricity.
Great Britain had been in Aden since 1839, when it invaded the strategic port over which both France and Egypt wanted control because it provided a western approach to India. Now, Aden had become one of the busiest ship-bunkering and tax-free shopping and trading ports in the world, second only to the port of New York City.
But by the mid-1950s, Britain's presence was under constant attack by Radio Cairo, which broadcast the Voice of the Arabs, and other revolutionary Arab nationalist centers. British exploitation had become a nationalist issue, and the native rulers were being portrayed as imperialist tools. In a nod to those demands, Abayan Board had gone to Jordan to recruit Arab workers. George had sat for the accounting test and with two other Palestinians was offered a job if he would be willing to relocate to Ja'ar.
Luba and George had been newly engaged, though there were objections in both families. Her parents thought he was not ready for marriage, and his family questioned what kind of girl Luba could be, having been sent by her father to university in Beirut, where she had lived as a single woman. But because George was allowed to bring a wife to Aden, and because the British protectorate at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula was so far from Ramallah and George's family, Luba let go of her misgivings. She quit her job as a mathematics teacher at the Quaker Friends School, and they married hurriedly in Ramallah on October 12, 1957, arriving in the British protectorate south of the Kingdom of Yemen on October 14.
They had come to Ja'ar, a village on top of a mountain surrounded by a lush forest populated by birds and trees Luba had never seen before and could not name. Abayan Board provided them with a fully furnished apartment alongside those of the other expatriate workers. The company even hired a boy to come and sweep the house of all the dust that would accumulate from the frequent sandstorms that beat at the flat's wraparound balcony. Besides the Palestinians and two Greek couples, the rest of the employees were British. The native villagers lived down the mountainside and away from the foreigners.
Luba loved their newlywed life together. George would bring her morning coffee in bed, and she would always have dinner ready when he came home from work, the table fully set with a tablecloth, formal flatware, and folded fabric napkins. In the evenings they would take walks together and discuss their future. Should she get a job with Abayan Board? What kind of house would they buy in Ramallah with the money saved from working a few years in Aden? How many kids would they have? Luba declared on one of these walks that if they could not conceive she wanted to adopt Palestine was full of orphaned children and George readily agreed.
But then, very quickly, the tensions that were nipping at Aden became part of their lives.
One evening in November, not long after they arrived, George and Luba had made their way to the social club in the expatriate section at the top of the mountain. They socialized with their neighbors and George's coworkers and those they would see around the neighborhood when they took their walks. Luba chatted with the British women about how often they went into Aden and how they got there. They liked feeling as if they were part of a community.
The next day, a British man approached George at work. He informed George that he and Luba were not entitled to come to the club because "You and your wife do not belong to the elite."
Luba and George were shocked and never returned there. At Christmas, when its halls were lit with a large celebration attended by all the expats save for the Palestinians and the Greeks Luba watched with longing from outside. She and George instead spent a lonely evening with the elder of the Greek couples.
Then shortly after Christmas, George joined in a soccer match down the mountain with the villagers. He was a passionate player whose skills had made him popular in Ramallah. When a British manager saw George running in the dirt with the Adenese, he pulled him out of the game and reprimanded him. George was not allowed to mingle with the natives.
Now as Luba and George together discussed what they would cook with their groceries, they came upon a building labeled American Embassy.
Luba turned to George. "Let's check it out," she said playfully.
George was also curious. Back home in Ramallah, going to America was a dream. People put their names on the quota list and waited years for a visa.
Inside they were greeted by the consul an eager, handsome, and blond American. There was no one else inside; there appeared to be no other staff, not even a secretary.
The American asked how he could help them.
"We would like to know," Luba asked, "what are our chances to go to America?" knowing there was little if any chance at all of getting a visa.
"Where are you from?" the consul asked.
"We are Palestinians," George responded.
The consul seemed confused. "Where's that?" he asked.
Luba and George explained that Palestine was in the Levant and bordered by Jordan, and that parts of it had become Israel.
The American remained confused and brought out a map. Luba and George showed him where Palestine was, even though there was no such name written across any of the colored divisions of nation-states.
The consul then gave them forms to complete, asking basic biographical information. After filling in the required details, Luba and George bid the American good-bye and left.
Two months later, Abayan Board gave George notice that his services would no longer be needed. After only five months of work, George and the two other Palestinians were fired. Syria and Egypt had merged as the United Arab Republic and had then federated with North Yemen; pan-Arab nationalism clearly had British rule in Aden in its sights.
They could not leave immediately as required by their visas because Luba had become pregnant. Instead they were granted an extension by the British, moved from Ja'ar, and took jobs in the city of Aden. Luba was quickly hired to teach math to both the Adenese and the British girls at the British-run schools but shortly got herself in trouble when she complained that the girls were being given drastically different curriculums and that, unlike the British girls, the Adenese girls did not have enough books. The principal threatened Luba, "Keep your mouth shut or you will be fired." As soon as Luba could travel, they left Aden.
Luba and George returned home to Ramallah years earlier than expected and without the money they had hoped to make. At first, they struggled to find work for George and a place to live; both of them moved back into their respective parents' homes. But within a few months, Luba returned to the Friends School to teach, George found work in Jordan, and they were able to furnish their own apartment. Sana was born that October, and after only twenty days' leave, Luba was back at work. She loved the school where she herself had been educated and was a frequent teacher's pet. The stone contours of the school and its gardens were like a second home to Luba, and she loved especially the tall, sky-blue irises Samaan the gardener grew, better than anyone else in Ramallah.
Luba was teaching at her favorite school, she had a new baby girl she adored, she was a neighbor to her parents, and she and George had finally finally begun to feel settled. But then one morning in the spring of 1959, while Luba was at home a letter arrived that would change everything. She opened the envelope and read its contents.
How could this have happened? she wondered.
According to this letter from the U.S. Embassy in Jordan, waiting there in Amman were two visas for them to emigrate to America.George would be in Ramallah by lunchtime for the weekend. He spent the workweek in Amman at his job and came on Fridays to be with Luba and Sana. Luba decided she would tell George then about the letter.
He arrived early that afternoon, and they examined the letter together. Because George was a Palestinian refugee registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRW A), they would be given visas and their trip would be paid for by the agency provided George turned in his refugee rations card.
George was thrilled. Two of his brothers already lived in the States and were finding financial success. Luba's sister Evelyn was a graduate student in English literature and library science at Columbia University. Her brother Aziz had studied at Harvard for his master of laws degree and was married to an American woman.
But Luba was settled in Ramallah and committed to a life there. She had forgotten all about the embassy on the beach and the blond American with the blue eyes.
Luba decided to seek her father's counsel. Her parents' stone house was just a dusty walk down the Sharì 'Ayn Misbah the street named for the spring where the community filled their jugs with water when it was scarce. Her parents had built the house in the early 1930s in an area surrounded by small orchards of fruit and few houses.
As she approached her parents' house, she found them already seated on its front balcony. Her father, Saliba, had stopped working ten years before, when his illness had forced him to retire at age forty-five.
Luba told her parents she and George had been granted visas to immigrate to America. "What should we do?" she asked her father.
"Don't go," Luba's mother, Zahia, interrupted. "America is for the Americans, not for the Arabs! Look what it did to your father."
Saliba had himself gone to America in 1923, already married and with two children. He had spent eight years separated from them, and the money he had earned peddling had built their very house. But Luba's mother wasn't convinced that money should be a reason to leave the homeland. "God always provides," she would tell her children.
Zahia also blamed America for her husband's illness. His time in America had been during Prohibition. Though he was undiagnosed, something had attacked Saliba's nervous system, and Luba's parents believed it was the wood alcohol that he had drunk in the country's dry years. When he returned from America in 1931, his little finger had begun to feel numb and with each year, the illness had progressed a bit further into his body.
Saliba nonetheless always spoke with admiration about American progress and the opportunities America provided. He wowed his children with stories of American pharmacies, where one could buy not only medicines, but chocolates and ice cream! America was also where he had decided on Luba's name, long before she had ever been imagined. There he had rented a room from two Russian sisters Nadya and Luba and he had promised them that if he ever had more daughters, he would give them the same Russian names.
"Let them try it," Luba's father said to her mother. "Don't stand in their way."
Luba looked to her father, whom she believed could guide her.
"Look, go try it. If you like it, you can stay," he told his daughter. "If you don't, come back." He shrugged. "But if you don't go, you might always regret it."
In 1967 Baltimore, Luba walked into the store with the girls.
"Why are you crying?" George asked, startled. "What happened? Did you have an accident?
"It's about Ramallah," Sana answered before her mother could say anything.
"What about Ramallah?" George asked.
Luba was surprised he didn't know. "Listen to the news!" she snapped.
George turned on the radio they kept on the desk. Luba again thought of their parents in Ramallah and started to cry. George had also begun to cry. Luba understood the news had awakened in her husband memories, ugly memories that he would rather not remember.
They decided to close the shop, though it was still hours before seven, and go home. George drove in his truck and Luba followed with the girls in the Buick. Like a funeral procession, they caravanned the short yet eternal road back to their apartment.
As soon as they were home, they turned the television on and waited for the evening news. Phone lines to their village had been cut, so they looked to the television for any information about what had happened and if God forbid anyone had died.
Israelis were flocking to the Western Wall to celebrate the capture of East Jerusalem. Luba always felt the Jordanians had been wrong to prohibit Israeli access to the Wall. If Luba wanted to be able to worship at her holy site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she thought the Jews ought to be able to visit theirs as well. The country had enough room for both the Palestinians and the Jewish immigrants.
Now, watching the news, Luba hated their celebration.
In addition, thousands of Palestinians from West Bank towns were fleeing for Jordan proper, dispossessed of even more of their homeland.
But what of Ramallah?
And then Luba found herself staring at images coming from Ramallah. The townspeople were shown waving white handkerchiefs or carrying white pieces of sheets bound to sticks, having put up no fight at all.
Luba felt personally demeaned watching these old women and men made so submissive, submitting to the will of Israeli teenage soldiers, so easily, so quickly.
"Where are the Arab countries?" Luba exclaimed. "Why did they forsake us?" she said, trying to justify the surrender of these people.
Luba didn't care if Israel took all of Syria and all of Egypt, but not her home. Ramallah was off-limits! She felt loss, failure, desperation, hopelessness. Ramallah is mine, mine! How dare you take it!
The girls were hungry, so Luba rose to make dinner, but throughout her preparations, she and George exchanged phone calls with their relatives who also lived in America. They asked each other if anyone had heard a word about their families in Ramallah. "Why can't we get through?"
Though none of these calls gave Luba any solace, she held on to the one comforting piece of news coming from the TV. There were no casualties in Ramallah.
Between her tears, Luba managed to feed the girls.
Finally, they asked her, "Why don't you stop crying? What's the big deal?"
Luba explained that the Jews had taken her hometown, had taken Ramallah.
Both Luba and George had sought to keep the girls connected to their homeland. He insisted the girls speak Arabic in the house, and she always read them the letters from their grandparents. When Luba called her mother and father, she would put Sana and Mona on the line, and they chattered away about their school and friends.
Sana, who had been born in Ramallah and had often listened intently to her father as he watched the news, seemed to understand. Mona could not care less.
"What's wrong with the Jews?" Mona asked.
Luba was frustrated. Mona's questions demanded explanations. They could not be swatted away or easily answered.
"Well, the Jews have been taking Palestine little bit by little bit, and now they reached Ramallah and they took it," Luba said. "Now all Jerusalem is with the Jews and now it is Ramallah's turn to be taken," Luba explained. "And that's why I'm crying, and that's why I want you to shut up and stop asking questions!"
But Mona continued, "The Jews, aren't they human beings? Aren't they people?"
"Yes, of course they are human beings," Luba responded. "They're people like us."
"Then why can't they be in Ramallah?" Mona demanded.
"Mona, this is your house, do you want your neighbors to come and tell you to get out, take your house, and then they live here. Is this right?" Luba asked her.
"Yes, they're people," Luba continued, "but Ramallah does not belong to them."
The taxi driver beeped his horn, signaling to Luba and George, Time to go! They were standing on her parents' front balcony, saying good-bye on a crisp morning in August 1959. It was not yet eight in the morning but Ramallah's sun and her people had long been awake, and Luba's parents were already dressed to see their daughter off. Luba herself had been up for hours, anxious about the trip and spending time bathing, feeding, and changing Sana.
The driver had agreed to make a quick stop at Luba's parents' house. Her father could not make the trip down the street the night before when everyone came to formally send them off. And even though George's parents had been there last night, they had stopped by earlier in the morning, to say a last good-bye.
Passersby on the street, already headed to work or to run their errands, yelled out to them:
As Luba said good-bye to her parents, she feared she might never see her father again. After each separation, Luba returned home to find him sicker his legs less able to carry him, his eyes less able to focus, though his mind was ever sharp and intact.
She embraced her father.
"Go with my blessings," he told Luba. "Maybe we will see you back again next year."
Her mother clung to Sana, crying.
People on the street shouted out comfort: Wish them luck and they'll be OK! They're going to a good place!
Luba's mother hurriedly handed Luba packed sandwiches of mortadella and snacks of precut apples, plums, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Luba's father snuck a KitKat bar in the provisions for the road.
The driver sounded his horn again, briefly. Reluctantly, Luba took Sana from her mother and turned toward the car. UNRW A would pay for their voyage to America and had provided the driver to transport Luba and George from Ramallah to Amman and then to Beirut, from where they would travel to America by ship. With their luggage in the sedan's trunk, they unfolded the portable crib they had brought for the journey in the back seat, where Luba sat with Sana, while George rode in front.
They drove in silence through Ramallah, leaving town by the road to Jericho. George's eyes bore the glimmer of tears while Luba wept openly, turning her face away from the buildings that lined the streets that she knew so intimately.
Have we made a mistake? she wondered.
The road to Jericho curved through rocky hills broken down and terraced to bear grape vines and olive trees. Held in the hills' embrace were other villages of white limestone a church steeple or mosque minaret often the highest peak that would appear to keep them company for a few blinks of their eyes as they wound their way toward Earth's lowest point. Held motionless by the planet's core pull, the Dead Sea glistened like moving water nonetheless, in the desert surrounding Jericho. Amman would not be much farther now.
They spent a night in the Jordanian capital before continuing to Lebanon. They arrived in Beirut by early afternoon the next day, spending their last night in the Levant in the coastal Mediterranean city.
The next morning they made their way to the port of Beirut, where they were met by the agent contracted by UNRWA, who gave them their tickets. He lead them to the Greek ship on which they would travel from Beirut to Port Said in Egypt before continuing to Piraeus in Greece. On board, a Greek sailor escorted George and Luba three levels below deck. The floors were dirty and the smell of stale, sweaty air filled Luba's nostrils. The sailor told Luba and George that they would be in separate cabins because for those traveling in third class, the Greeks segregated men from women in the sleeping quarters.
They had been swindled! The Lebanese agent had been given money by UNRWA to buy them second-class tickets, not third-class passage. George ran back up to the main deck and tried to chase the man down in the crowds. He was, however, long gone.
When George returned, they were each shown down a narrow corridor to different cabins. Inside each windowless box, there were two pairs of wooden bunk beds. Luba was assigned one of the top bunks that hovered right below the ceiling.
"I cannot keep Sana with me," Luba exclaimed. "There is no room for her here," she said, eyeing the scant distance from her bunk to the wooden ceiling. She turned to George. "She must stay with you."
All around them, Luba and George heard only Greek, a language neither of them could understand. George did not feel safe having Sana with him in his cabin with unknown men. They would have to find another solution.
They returned to the main deck as the ship soon pulled out of port; the journey to Port Said would take just one day. As Lebanon's mountains receded behind them, Luba began to feel nausea swell inside her with the dizzying undulating of the ship as the Mediterranean jostled it toward Egypt. She was soon shuttling back and forth to the bathroom to vomit, and Sana developed a rash.
As night fell, George found a wooden bench across the corridor from Luba's cabin. He decided he would sleep there. He tied Sana's crib to his bench using clothes from their luggage, securing her makeshift bed to his.
Luba flung herself onto her top bunk above a snoring Greek woman. In the darkness, Luba could hear Sana crying, but could not rise to soothe her without losing herself again to the nausea.
When people in Ramallah learned that George and Luba had been granted travel visas to America, some said they were fools even to hesitate. The creation of Israel had forced many Palestinians from their homes and ancestral lands, and most sought to heal the wounds of the displacement by forging a future elsewhere. Those who didn't receive a visa to America traveled to Canada or Australia instead, but it was American opportunity that many idealized. But Luba did not think she could make it.
When they arrived in Port Said the next morning, Luba told George she could travel no farther. They decided she would return to Ramallah and come to America by plane instead of weathering the nearly one-month trip by sea.
Luba was granted special permission to disembark in Port Said. She went to the Egyptian immigration office, taking only her purse and leaving Sana with George until she secured her passage back to Ramallah. Luba at last could breathe fresh air, air not contaminated by sweat, breath, and urine. She walked into the dilapidated office in the port, relieved to be returning home.
"I want to go home," she told the officers. "I am sick, and my daughter is sick, and I cannot go on like this." She asked for their help in getting to the airport.
The Egyptians searched through her purse, examined her passport, and interrogated her. None of their questions seemed to Luba to be relevant to getting her and Sana from the port to the airport and home. She wondered what on earth the Egyptians could possibly suspect her of being or doing, but answered their questions nonetheless. They then asked her the same questions again. Finally, she realized they did not believe she was truly sick.
"You know what," she said, "I don't want to leave. I'm going to stay." She decided that remaining any longer with the Egyptians might be worse for her than the ship.
Luba left the immigration office as quickly as possible and told herself, "What will happen, happens."
One of the officers slipped out of the room and followed her out. When he caught up with her, he advised her to go to the pharmacy and buy a certain medicine good for seasickness.
The Egyptian turned out to be quite right. For the next two days, the rest of the trip to Greece, Luba was able to spend the days on the deck. At breakfast, she was able to sit at the long table where all the passengers ate together. The table was always set with forks, knives, and spoons, though all they were given to eat was bread and olives, to be washed down with tea already sweetened. Each time Luba would mutter, "Why do they bother to give us these utensils?" She was also able to help George set up the crib by the bench each night, and now when she heard Sana cry, she would rise and leave the room to tend to her.
Finally, three days after leaving Beirut, they arrived in Piraeus. There they boarded an Italian ocean liner, the MS Saturnia. It was much larger than the Greek one and capable of crossing the rougher waters of the Atlantic Ocean. This time they had second-class tickets and George, Luba, and Sana had their own cabin with a shower and toilet included. For meals, the tables were draped with white linen, and at dinner, there was always a bottle of wine waiting. Luba felt she was in heaven.
The journey to America would last two weeks. From Greece they traveled toward the Strait of Gibraltar. On the day they finally came upon the Rock of Gibraltar, George snapped a picture of the famous island, whose name was derived from the Arabic Jebel Tariq, Tariq's mountain, after Tariq bin Zayad, the general who had invaded Spain in the eighth century. In school in Ramallah, they had been required to memorize verses from the speech he gave upon arriving at the island.
Luba again mouthed these words from memory as she looked at the towering mass of land that jutted out of the waters. "Where are you going?" Tariq had proclaimed to his troops, after burning all his ships to prevent his army from retreating. "The sea is in front of you and the enemy is behind you!"
Where was she going, Luba wondered. She was impatient with the waters ahead of her; she wanted the trip to end and to see what America was like. She thought of their apartment in Ramallah, their furniture, the rhythm they had established for their life together. Would she have the same in America? Surely they would, she tried to assure herself; everything in America was better. She imagined the flowers and gardens of New York City they must be stupendous! But then she worried about George's English, whether either of them would find work, and how expensive America must be.
Then, a month after they had left Ramallah, they arrived at their first port in North America, in the Canadian city of Halifax. After crossing the Atlantic, they finally walked again on land for a few hours. Luba liked the small, orderly houses that formed neat rows, with their gardens full of geraniums and climbing roses. America was not far.
They reboarded the Saturnia for their final day of travel. Tomorrow, they would at last arrive in New York City.
The next day, Luba dressed Sana nicely, in a dress with matching socks, shoes, and ribbon for her hair. Instead of wearing her regular jeans, Luba put on her white sandals and her favorite dress a sleeveless, orange A-line with white polka dots, cinched at her waist with a white belt. She wanted to impress George's family and greet America looking her best.
By late afternoon, the ship began approaching Ellis Island, and Luba and George watched the city appear from the main deck as the Statue of Liberty grew closer and closer.
As they pulled into the port, Luba was surprised by what she saw. The buildings, tall as she had heard, seemed dark and dirty and nothing like the shiny pictures she had seen in school of the White House and the Grand Canyon.
The ship finally docked, and Luba and George made their way down a ramp toward the immigration building. When their turn came, they approached the immigration officer and presented their passports. He asked them:
"Do you have a place to live?"
"Are there people here to pick you up?"
"Did you bring any food with you?"
Luba answered for them both.
"You speak good English," he told Luba, and he stamped the passports.
"Thank you!" she replied.
"Welcome to America." He smiled at them.
Luba and George were each handed their Green Card a small piece of plastic the size of a credit card that was indeed green the color of moss.
Outside Luba and George immediately found their family. Finally,Luba embraced her sister Evelyn, whom she had not seen in seven years. As they hugged and kissed each other's cheeks, the trip's details spilled out of Luba, and looking at all that surrounded her, she asked Evelyn, "Is this America? Is this it?
"I want to go home," Luba told her sister, "I want to go home."
In Baltimore in the fall of 1967, Luba's feelings were unchanged from that first impression. Her old neighbor and friend Bernice would later tell her that because Luba's American home was on a street named Providence Road, God was looking out for her.
Almost four months had passed since the Israelis had invaded and occupied the West Bank. Times had become very tough for Ramallah. Tourism was over, the banks had closed, and rich and poor alike found themselves with no money and no work. Expensive Israeli goods had replaced the affordable Arab products on the shelves in stores; hospitals were low on medicines. A few thousand of the refugees who had come to Ramallah in 1948 fled again, and Israeli personnel had set up residences and offices in people's homes.
Luba had no hope that the United States would intervene who had given the Israelis their arms, after all? As for the United Nations, Luba had no faith in the international body. True, the international community had been quick to condemn, and the UN had held several emergency sessions and called on Israel to allow the displaced to return, to ensure the safety of civilians, and not to jeopardize the status of Jerusalem. But how many times before had the UN denounced what Israel had done? Since 1948, nothing had come to pass of any of it. And the Arabs? After the crushing collective defeat of the war in June, which had ended in six days, Luba realized her dreams for Palestine's future must be sown in fields elsewhere.
Luba and George discussed almost daily whether they should go back home or stay in America. The stories they heard coming from Ramallah always set off another volley of the same pros and cons they had been listing since they got their visas all those years ago. But now the Israeli invasion had given them several new realities to consider, as the conflict had very much arrived on Ramallah's doorstep.
Luba's uncle in Baltimore told them about what had happened to his daughter back home. The Israeli military had beat on her door and had forced her, her husband, and their son to get out, telling them to move in with the family living on the first floor, while the soldiers took over her second-floor flat as quarters.
Luba's cousin and her family had spent three nights huddled with their downstairs neighbors. When they returned to their house above, after the soldiers vacated, they found it a mess. Instead of toilet paper, the soldiers had used her curtains. She immediately changed them, as well as the mattresses, sheets, and towels, all of which had been soiled.
Then Luba's parents told her over the phone how three Israeli soldiers had banged on her mother's door. Zahia had opened it to find three teenage boys, each with a gun, demanding to use her bathroom.
She had answered defiantly, "No, you cannot use my bathroom."
One of the soldiers then poked her chest with the butt of his gun. "Yes," he told her, "we are going to use your bathroom," and pushed past her into her home.
When her parents told her this story, Luba felt her face flush in humiliation and fury. Why am I not there? she asked herself. If I were there I could have protected her. Her parents were living one day at a time, unsure what would happen next. I could comfort them, Luba thought. Having their granddaughters close could ease their anguish, she chastised herself.
Luba and George questioned why people in Ramallah their families, their friends, their countrymen and -women should suffer every day, while they lived in a place called Baltimore, in a country that had given them citizenship, safety, and some security. Why are we here and not there?
But then Luba would think of Sana and Mona and the educational opportunities available to them here. It was also for the children that they had decided to acquire American citizenship the year before, in 1966.
They had both had misgivings then about becoming Americans; it had felt like an acknowledgment that they were not going to go back home. But Luba had reasoned citizenship would make it easier for the girls to find scholarships or grants for their studies. Yet though they had been in America for more than eight years and more than a year had passed since they had acquired citizenship, she herself still did not feel like an American. She was an Arab living in America. And America is for the Americans, America is not for the Arabs, Luba believed. Where did that leave her daughters?
America was also a country that Luba felt did not understand the place where she came from. After the Israeli invasion and occupation of the West Bank, Luba had heard from the media one unending narrative about the situation: Israel was a modern David to the Arabs' primitive Goliath; Nasser was to blame for the conflict; the Israelis were stoic individuals, the Arabs irrational masses; and the survival of the state of Israel must be assured.
Luba wanted to know, what about the survival of Palestine? She did not hear voices in the mainstream media lamenting the loss of her country, of its cities, its traditions, and its existence upon this same land now so easily assigned to the Israelis. She wanted to know, would anyone remind Americans that a nation had been made refugees not twenty years before, in 1948, its homes and their belongings lost to Palestinians and taken by new arrivals from other shores? Did it matter that its collective heart had been broken once already? Did anyone share her horror now as it happened again, as further dispossession tore at the already tattered fabric of its society, and did anyone care that Ramallah was Luba's and that this time, it was her own chest that might explode from this pain?
It was so simple for the Americans, she believed. Israelis were like them, and Arabs were so different. Most significant, Arabs seemed incapable of suffering, and so they could be ignored.
It had been nearly ten years since Luba and George had arrived in New York City, since Luba had sat lonely on a bench, watching Sana play, in Forest Hills in Queens, where they had had their first American apartment. Wanting to make just one friend, Luba had wished someone in the tall and stifling housing complex would just return a smile or say hi.
That day, a woman with a daughter almost the same age as Sana had sat next to Luba. Luba smiled at her, and offered a "Hello."
They exchanged their daughters' ages, which floor they lived on, and what they did. When the American woman told Luba she was a teacher, Luba felt an instant connection.
The American then asked Luba where she came from.
"I'm an Arab from Palestine," Luba said.
The woman was excited. "How do you like living in an apartment after living in a tent?" she asked Luba.
Luba was taken aback, shocked that a teacher, no less, thought such things and knew so little. Luba wanted to impart as much knowledge as she could. In America, Luba felt constantly cooped up in their one-bedroom apartment on the sixteenth floor of a red-brick apartment building that looked out on only more red-brick apartment buildings.
"If you knew the house I lived in!" Luba responded. "We lived in a big stone house, stone chiseled by hand, with spacious rooms, and balconies, running water, and a toilet. We had a garden with olive trees, grapes, and peaches."
The American woman flushed. "I'm sorry. But this is what we are taught about the Arabs." She changed the subject before leaving shortly.
Since then Luba felt compelled to explain to Americans that Palestine and Pakistan were not the same place and that Jerusalem was a city of Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. And now in the wake of the war, she was reminded daily how little Americans understood about her homeland.
Luba felt an obligation to educate Americans and share the Palestinian side where she could. She confessed to her neighbors that though the situation now was bad in Ramallah, she felt even more of a pull to go home, especially now.
Some of her neighbors thought that was crazy and asked her, "Why would you want to go back there?"
Others would acknowledge, "The homeland is always homeland."
The Tupperware representative across the street whose husband loved Luba's Palestinian cooking just baked them sponge cake and brought it over when she heard Ramallah had been taken.
Luba and George felt they had to do more. They began attending meetings in Washington, D.C., mostly organized by the American Ramallah Federation, founded in 1959 for those Americans who could trace their origins to one of the founding brothers of Ramallah. Telegrams were sent to President Johnson, Secretary of State Rusk, Congress, and other political figures urging the United States to be fair to both sides and true to its own values in safeguarding the rights of Palestinians. The federation also insisted that the property rights of Americans who owned land and houses in Ramallah be protected. Money was collected for food and medicines, and grief, anger, and indignation were readily shared.
But Luba felt only frustration in these meetings. It seemed all they could do was raise money for relief efforts. She felt they should be writing articles and speaking on TV and radio, but not only did they have no access to such outlets, they were also afraid of what might happen to them if they spoke out too much or dissented in their adopted country.
George still struggled with whether they should return, and one night he banged on the kitchen table, yelling "This is not fair!," referring to the fact that people were dying and fighting for their homeland in Palestine, and he was in Baltimore. "This is not fair," he said.
Luba told him then, "Just go," and she meant it. "See what you can do there." She could see how tortured he was. Though she felt the same, she could not stay miserable in front of the girls. She did not want the girls to be nurtured on what was gnawing at her insides. She convinced herself she could hide it. For the girls, for their futures, she could abide the loneliness and the guilt of staying in America.
George gave her a look to say, how can I leave you and the girls? They did not even own their house.
Though George talked about it nearly every day, he did not go back.
This split-level house off Providence Road was the third one they had visited. They had begun searching for a house to buy in late summer, and the real estate agent had already shown them two other houses. The first had an underground basement, which for Luba ruled it out to be in that basement was to be in a grave. The second house sat too close to the street, and Luba wanted the girls to play in safety.
This house off Providence Road had several picture windows that let in the sun's light. Luba loved the trees in the neighborhood, especially the evergreens that would stay faithful in the winters and the magnolia tree that steadfastly stood outside and in view of the window above the kitchen sink. These houses had been built in 1958, and Luba could see many children running in the cul-de-sac they formed, children with whom she imagined Sana and Mona could play. A new elementary school had opened within walking distance, on the other side of Providence Road, and another Arab-American family, Lebanese, already lived up the street.
For $28,000, this house off Providence Road would be the house they would buy.
This house off Providence Road was where Bernice promised God in Baltimore far away from his and their Holy Land would look out for them.
Copyright © 2009 by Alia Malek
Meet the Author
ALIA MALEK is an author and civil rights lawyer. Born in Baltimore to Syrian immigrant parents, she began her legal career as a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. After practicing law in the States, Lebanon, and the West Bank, Malek, who has degrees from Johns Hopkins and Georgetown universities, earned her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. Her reportage has appeared in Salon, The Columbia Journalism Review, and The New York Times. This is her first book.
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