my sister grabs my hand & we feel so small
walking alongside the weathered stone’s exterior
that has aged like leathered skin exposed to dust
& sun. so much sun now that we have permanently affixed
our wrists, like the neck of a snake, to our heads.
Mom is gone for the day & we are left with baba,
a name that, being here reminds us, also means “dad.”
When we’re intentional, when we’re thinking
about how much we want to order the kooshari ourselves,
we proudly turn around & scream baba to be like all the other
bint arabi. But we slip. When we’re alone, in the apartment,
being tickled into our natural state of childhood, we scream “Daddy!”
He has taken us on a long walk and we begin to feel that
Cairo is passing us by and we’re just walking along
rotating globes. We’re close to the gate; although, we can’t be sure
what it’s for, because we’ve forgotten between fresh-squeezed orange juice
& bus rides where the buds nestled under my sister’s shirt
were our greatest vulnerability. Dad—I mean,baba, stops.
He turns to us, his brown skin flecked with sweat and unruly
hairs that we comb with our baby nails. “Don’t say anything unless
I tell you to, okay?” We nod vigorously, now it’s a game.
My shoes are covered in filth but I’ve never felt more regal.
We arrive at the booth. We smile, but try not to giggle while baba
argues with the men at the gate. When we finally go inside, we look
to him for an explanation. We wanted to practice our arabi!
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he says, “they just thought I was your nanny.”
there’s coolness lifting off the September wind. It’s seasonal,
migratory—like us. Months earlier, teachers put me in front of a video
camera and surrounded me with “heritage,” flags draped under
pearl-inlaid boxes my mom delicately packed for me. Words
escape my mouth about waraq’anib, but I would’ve said “grape leaves”
because I didn’t know that we drop the quaff in Lebanon & when
I think of “homeland,” I dream of the warmed, bacterial yogurt sitting
on my tongue while I kick stumped toes out under the cherry-red table
in North Carolina. I pronounce histories for the camera that I don’t even
understand, timelines that confuse why my father is here now
if he was there earlier. They project the video to the school and I shudder
not because the Arabic sounds stilted, worn down over time in the back
of my mouth, unused; but because I thrust my neck forward when I
can’t hear the directions behind the camera, “speak up!”
I put on and swing out to a dance
where white girls & boys command entire floors in their houses
like they rule a domain. Cairo and Beirut
are lost here; faint images that fade under the pink light and aggressive
stereo. I am left
alone, stranded in a crowd, hoping no one notices my silo.
Whirling fabric flitting out around young
legs remind me to sway, move my body, it beckons. Then,
I am surrounded, from behind; the solitude I wished would disappear
only seconds before, now I desperately hope to return. Their faces,
clothes, over-cologned necks dissolve into the deep bass
but their words crawl up all the dark places I’ve been told to protect.
Ringing in my ears, “terrorist.”
border control calls me: shapeshifter.
I began in two places, ended in another. I cannot
look to my father to make sense of the sounds that
carry on too fast for me to understand. he’s not next to me & I realize
that my body is illegible without his. I hope the printed name—
even if it is in English—will inscribe my otherwise blank-face with belonging.
I wait in line.
My mind locates the growing flutters of frustration sprayed across the room
bil arabi from families who have been traveling together for hours.
I am alone. There is a stiffness
in my throat. Suddenly I feel
all the rough blemishes of my face. I try to discipline my transcontinental
hair to hide these faded scars. I’ve reddened my lips. To distract.
I hand over my American identity,
wishing I could chase it with soft, easy Arabic. All I have are my hands,
mimetic, trying to gesticulate in a way that elides my broken language.
The tongue is my alchemist & I wonder whether it can turn this colonial
language inside out.
“Do you speak Arabic?”
I think about all the ways I could say, “yes”: how I used to read Where’s Spot? bil arabi.
how mujaddara tasted better because of the first syllable’s dip; how Fayrouz
marbled, like delicious fat, the meaning of home. But instead,
a slight gesture
with my hands meant to replace the gap in my mouth.
Heavy silence outs me,
I’m exilic, I confess:
un-rooted. He answers, “you should learn Arabic.”
after Inam Kang, “detailed history of the affair between my father’s head
and my mother’s shoulder”
none of these words I pluck,
would understand, or at least
if I could trick my not-yet-born mouth
she would hear a roaring silence &
smiles could only be smuggled in by fingers
gently translating between us, like a
spurious langua franca
kissing the wisped hairs of our
brow, all along the way
shrouded in a beautiful phantasm, I would move
mint between my hands,
spreading its wide scent,
that connects the sinew of our fingers
the calcified tips of my nails
would palpate the wet skin of onion,
Alhamdulillah, she would say
because my hands know how to
undress the layers quickly, pulling
apart the meaty body before
its acrid air makes either of us
reach for the damp
fabric of her apron
while we eat, there would be a natural quiet
our mouths to all the ways
our words fail to orchestrate how
tabbouleh can; she would raise
her eyes as if to say [ ]
I don’t understand,
my lips would begin to mimic a strange form
& then stop, instead
I would chase away the distance with a careful
palm laid across her forearm
then there would be the warm water,
pouring down my arms while she careens
throughout the galley
kitchen, singing from places in her throat
I only dream of; I would fall into a sleep
where her sounds are my own
& the silence that transpires between us,
a confirmation interpreted
in distance that I am hers
finally, a long-lost liaison between
the worn softness of her rug & the bareness
of my legs
I would cantillate sweet sounds that have
that anyone could call “language”;
grandmother couldn’t resist these resonances
culled from my lungs,
habibti! she would laugh, but then
cry—because, after all
I would fade
a part of this delicate collection
war has taken, removed
Micah Khater is an Arab-American historian and creative writer. She is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in African American Studies and History at Yale University. Her poetry and prose are forthcoming in Sukoon. In 2019, she was a finalist for the Black Warrior Review contest in fiction.