I was in Brooklyn, the year was 1985, and my brother had just returned home from seeing the latest Chuck Norris action film, Delta Force. He was excitedly extolling the virtues of Chuck Norris’s ability to “get them!”
“Get who?” my mother asked.
“The Arab terrorists. We got ’em!” he proudly exclaimed.
My mother had enough. She turned to my father and said, “That’s it! We need to take these kids home.” By home, she meant Palestine. It was time for living abroad, for moving back to the homeland. It was time for us to be introduced to our Palestinian culture and Arabic language. She didn’t want what happened to her and my aunt growing up in Detroit to happen to us. My grandparents were first-generation immigrants in the 1960s, and the goal was to assimilate into American culture. My mother grew up celebrating Easter and Christmas even though the family was Muslim. My grandparents spoke to them in Arabic, but my mother mainly responded in English. Arabic school on the weekends with an Egyptian teacher meant hearing an accent they couldn’t understand and experiencing a disconnect from the language they felt was being forced on them. And I understood these feelings because I have my own memories of my mother dropping me and my sisters off at the local mosque to learn Arabic and feeling the exact same way.
Slowly, we began to feel a connection.
My mother convinced my father to sell his business and our home to finance this move from Brooklyn, New York, to our motherland in Palestine. I was just seven at the time and I don’t remember much of the move. My mother put us in a secular Quaker school where we learned Arabic as a second language, and being able to speak English at school made the transition easier. Plus, a few relatives from America came with us, so it was like being on vacation at first. Slowly, we began to feel a connection. It was the little things like listening to Arabic music and learning to dance the debka; making small talk in Arabic with our grandmother and uncle’s family that lived there, which seemed impossible before. Just as life was becoming routine, nine months after we had moved to another continent, the intifada—the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation—began. My mother was afraid my brother would be taken by the army, and so she packed us up again and brought us back to America. My mother and her family had been living in Palestine when the 1967 war happened, and she was sent to America by her parents who feared for her safety. History was repeating itself.
Ten years later, they tried to take us home again. This time it was just a visit to see my paternal grandparents and extended family in Amman, Jordan. I was 17 years old in the summer of 1997, when we landed at Queen Alia International Airport. The first thing that hits you when you walk out is the heat, like opening an oven door. Though it was memorable to meet the aunts and uncles I had not known before, my siblings and I resented having to speak Arabic all the time and often locked ourselves in a bedroom to read books in a small house in Madaba in the refugee camp, about 30 minutes from Amman. I didn’t fit in here. The food didn’t taste right. I was a bratty teenager who couldn’t wait to go home. I made zero effort to get to know these people. It was nice to see where my father came from, but what time was our flight?
When I got back home to New York, we took the memories and put them in a photo album. I went back to my American life, peppered with my Palestinian culture. That’s how I saw my life continuing—until I got married.
My husband and I were married in Palestine because my father-in-law was too sick to travel to New York for a wedding. When we got back stateside, my husband started talking about moving to Damascus. They had a strong tradition of teaching Arabic and Quran recitation to non-native speakers, and it would be a great place to raise our future children. I could not find Syria on a map let alone picture a life there. How could I live anywhere but New York? I couldn’t say more than a few key phrases in Arabic. Was he serious?
Those first trips felt like leaving my whole world behind, but the landscape of the world has changed.
I was nervous but I believed in his vision. The desire to move was more for the religion than the culture. We wanted our kids to learn Arabic and the Quran from the start; we wanted our kids to grow up confident in their Muslim identity. Most of our friends were expat Muslims doing the same for themselves and their kids. We still spoke English at home and there was little attempt to mix with the locals. But my kids also grew up listening to the call to prayer five times a day, every day; passing mosques on our way to the park, eating Arabic foods, and walking through traditional souks. We missed home but we had our expat family that made me feel less lonely, and that gave me confidence in my decisions. Truth be told, Damascus was a lot like New York: a metropolitan city with too many yellow taxis. At first it didn’t have the comforts of home, besides Betty Crocker cake mixes and Kikkoman soy sauce, but it began to change over the years as foreign products came into the country. When we moved to Amman due to political unrest, we found that it too was not the same place I visited in 1997: it had also grown and developed, and it was easier to make the choice to stay. The kids weren’t really missing out on anything, and living abroad in a place where you feel a part of the majority is an invaluable experience. Even as they go to an international school and watch YouTube and American TV shows—my younger son is obsessed with American football.
But when we visit my uncle in the very house I visited as a teenager, it’s such a glaring difference. No longer are there two obvious camps, Americans versus Jordanians. My kids mingle with my cousins seamlessly. Their Arabic may be heavy at times and they may not get all the jokes, but they are confident to try. Thankfully my own Arabic has gotten better over the years, enough to connect with my family in a way I would never have thought possible at 17. Those first trips felt like leaving my whole world behind, but the landscape of the world has changed. My kids don’t have to choose to be Palestinian or American since they are growing up with an awareness and acceptance of both cultures. I feel blessed to be able to give them that, so they won’t have to feel the discomfort I felt when I was younger. It’s what my mother was trying to give us all those years ago. It’s been a long time coming, but I think I’ve finally gotten it.