El Ghorba: Home Remembered and Imagined

Personal Essay

El Ghorba: Home Remembered and Imagined

“To survive the Borderlands you must live sin fronteras [without boundary], be a crossroads.”

-Gloria Anzaldúa, “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza”


It was nearing the end of 2007, and my mom needed to do something about her headaches. She was no stranger to them — always busy, always moving, always stressed. She carried a mini bottle of painkillers in her purse for when they got really bad, but neither the pain nor the frequency made anyone think twice. The headaches could be managed. Drink more water. Get more sleep. Take a nap.

In those years, she wore the hijab. Rather than wearing it traditionally, wrapped around the head and covering the neck, she sported silky Hermes scarves that she tied in a bandana-like fashion. She wondered whether that, too, might have something to do with the headaches. Was she tying the scarf too tight? This question, she’d ask only to herself. My dad would say maybe she shouldn’t be wearing it at all.

The early 2000s were fraught with Islamophobic hysteria following the 9/11 attacks, which created upheaval for Muslims worldwide and particularly Muslims in the United States. Our lives as Palestinian Muslims and as Arab-Americans living in the New Jersey suburbs was only a microcosm of the racism, discrimination, and “othering” directed at Arabs and Muslims on a global scale. 

The harsh and painful sentiments reached far and wide, quickly permeating communities and seeping into every family, every home, and every television, especially during the 6:00 news. In turn, there were several years where we’d have family meetings following incidents of bullying at school, endless consolations after racist encounters at the supermarket, and heated discussions between my mom and dad about her hijab and implications on her safety.

But steadfast in her hijab, and with headaches weaving in and out of the mundane moments that filled her suburbia days, she persisted. My mom believed she was stronger than the sentiment as was her faith in God. She would make sure the athan (Islamic call to prayer) played at home five times a day. She would send us to school with Zaatar sandwiches and tell us to stay proud when our classmates with PB&J would mock us and smirk. She would make sure we thoughtfully selected and brought back souvenirs for our teachers after every summer overseas, secretly loathing her hope that these frivolous objects would win acceptance and tolerance.

The responsibility my mom shouldered to instill and nurture our cultural and religious roots was challenging and strenuous; further amplified by the lack of community and understanding from anyone outside our home. El-ghorba – the Arabic term encompassing the feeling of homesickness and/or strangeness in a foreign country – is certainly not for the faint-of-heart. It can consume even the toughest and most determined. 

The headaches grew stronger, and on December 30, 2007, right before her 40th birthday, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor that could leave her paralyzed from the neck down within six months.

Gloria Anzaldúa, an American scholar of Chicana cultural theory, offers an illuminating and useful approach for our understanding of mixed identities in her work “Borderlands: La Frontera.” Anzaldúa believes that those straddling two or more cultures receive “multiple, often opposing messages” that cause a “cultural collision.”

Our upbringing was undoubtedly a series of cultural collisions, of uncomfortable and puzzling friction between two contrasting cultures and communities. My siblings and I identified with both cultures. Almost every parenting and family decision for us played into this larger context of cultural and religious binaries, compartmentalizing and labeling what is us (read: Arab and Muslim), and what is them (read: everything outside of that). In this way, we were playing into the very same divisive structures we were fighting against.

The responsibility my mom shouldered to instill and nurture our cultural and religious roots was challenging and strenuous; further amplified by the lack of community and understanding from anyone outside our home.

Anzaldúa encourages us to look beyond the traditional markers of identity – like language, culture, and religion. In Anzaldúa’s framework, our identities are constantly in-flux, not fixed, and the deeper meanings we’re looking for occur in the liminal, conflicting boundaries of those cultures. She says that trying to keep a shifting identity intact is like “trying to swim in a new element, an ‘alien’ element.”

My mom spent much of her life swimming in this new element, this alien element. The seemingly small battles of our daily life in New Jersey were an attempt to make sense of dualities she could not rationalize herself, dualities that felt deeply polarized. Things like, “you’re allowed to go to the school dance, but you can’t have a date,” meant my mom was actively negotiating identity while parenting, dissecting what she should accept or reject from American culture and what implications that had on our Palestinian and Muslim identities. 

Parenting as immigrants evidently becomes imbued with much weightier implications, like, will I lose my kid to this country forever? Will they end up marrying Americans? Will they believe in God?

My mom had surgery on her tumor in January 2008, and after that, we relocated to Doha, Qatar, where she would be near her family. Her mother and father, who were both growing old, her three sisters and two brothers, nieces and nephews, along with the reassuring and resounding sound of the athan five times a day. But most importantly, she thought, the move would let her kids see themselves in the world around them. Mixed accents, Arabic and English words harmonizing together in the same sentence, and the holy month of Ramadan and Eid holidays being slotted into school calendars. School dances, too, where many girls wouldn’t have dates and it wouldn’t be weird. 

Consumed by fear in the days leading up to the surgery, my mom didn’t know if she’d make it to see these plans materialize. Instead of looking forward, she felt like she was watching her life on film. She saw herself young and full of promise as she boarded her first-ever flight to the US with my dad. She heard herself, her accent that was not distinctly Arab, but also not one as American as she tried to make it sound. She remembered when she sent out invites to the ladies on the neighborhood block for a get-together and received not a single RSVP. She remembered the day she tried to change her look to a GAP T-shirt and khakis, to play the part, only to be angry at her naivety. She remembered how fearless she was, how determined, to make this suburban New Jersey town hers, too. But 17 years of trying landed her here, now, in this hospital bed. When this is all over, she thought, and if she can make it back to Qatar, all will be well.

The surgery was nine hours long and complicated, but successful. The surgeon removed the tumor which was found to be benign and my mom thanked God. The looming sense of death she’d grown temporarily accustomed to was fading. She was in Doha – back in her childhood home with her parents which could, luckily, fit us all. Doha gave us comfort and love and Teta’s cooking and the presence of our much more ‘Arab’ extended family. My mom finally felt comfortable in her hijab again, and we felt relieved that her wearing it was no longer a subject of contention. 

Living in Doha meant mandatory “Assalamu Alaikoms” when we’d return home from school, and for my brother, strongly encouraged Friday prayers at the Mosque with Jedo. It gave us family lunches where my siblings and I felt more confident saying Bismillah (In the name of God)  a little louder and endless views of minarets which were remarkably picturesque against the setting sun. New Jersey felt like home and Qatar equally did, too.

While our time in Doha brought about very welcomed moments of God and community and family and joy, it also couldn’t remedy many of the challenges we faced in the US. The weekly Arabic and religion lessons we thought we could leave in New Jersey had to continue because we simply weren’t picking up the language, and Western culture and the English language ironically dominated most aspects of life outside our grandparents’ home. The emphatic sounds of 3ain or 7a would provoke teasing from my cousins or peers when we would attempt to participate in the language we thought was ours, too. 

Our living in Doha sadly illuminated that my siblings and I could be the same subject of humiliation as we were in the US, this time initiated by those who identified with the same culture and/or religion.

When Anzaldúa writes, “What we are suffering from is an absolute despot duality that says we are only able to be one thing or the other,” she’s problematizing and challenging binary approaches to identity and gesturing to the power of that liminal, hybrid space. This is to say that within Anzaldúa’s framework, we’re empowered if we’re consistently negotiating our identity, if we can see ourselves in multiplicity rather than duality, and if we have the strength to challenge essentialist labels. If we have courage to say I am both Arab and American and I am also neither because I am me.

 After a few years spent in Doha, we were faced with painful, perplexing and joyful news at once – both my grandfather’s Stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis and my mom’s pregnancy with her fourth child, my youngest brother. The circumstances demanded that my mom relocate back to the US where Jedo could undergo chemotherapy and my brother could be born in the same hospital as the rest of his siblings. 

Angry that she didn’t have the choice to stay or go, my mom felt betrayed by this version of Doha that couldn’t give her kids what it had given her, even in this short time. She couldn’t help but feel angered by God for taking away her and her children’s attempts at belonging, and felt especially devastated by the idea of losing the closest thing to her, her father. She was filled with disbelief and fear too, at how she’d bring new life into this world so soon after her own grappling with death, and how she’d have to equip this son to navigate an identity she hasn’t figured out yet herself.

When my mom gave Jedo a final kiss on the cheek on his deathbed, he smelled like musk. She felt a part of herself leave her body and look down at it all from a birds-eye-view. She saw herself in the hospital bed after the grueling surgery and after giving birth to Adam. She heard the voices of her kids speaking English and speaking the version of Arabic that sounded so imperfectly and perfectly like them and finally admitted this would be their language. She saw God and school Christmas parties and Ramadan’s partially-fasted. She saw herself in New Jersey and also in her childhood room in Qatar and also marveling at the olive trees in Falastine and all of them were home.  

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