Learning to Like My Mother

Personal Essay

Learning to Like My Mother

The FaceTime melody interrupts my post-class stupor. It is a wintry London evening and I am splayed out on my dorm bed, stalking through Facebook. My roommate, Moné (yes, Moné with a pretentious accented ‘e,’ though I would later discover that she is the furthest thing from pretentious) sits cross-legged on her bed across the room. Her eyes dart upwards as I scramble to pluck my phone off the charger. We exchange awkward smiles, the kind you wear when you’re caught observing someone you don’t feel allowed to observe yet. I divert my gaze to the vibrating phone. 

My face stares back at me, double chin quivering. Above it, the words, “Mama would like to FaceTime” in Apple font. I stuff headphones into my ears and slide the arrow across the screen. My mother’s matching double chin appears where mine sat moments ago. She beams at me from across two continents.

“Hello,” she says. I wince at her cigarette-worn voice.

“Hi,” I reply, with barely concealed annoyance. This is her third FaceTime call of the day. 

“What are you doing?” She asks, teeth-bared in a brilliant smile. 

“Chilling at the dorms,” I reply.

She asks that I show her my dorm room so I flip my camera and take her on a half-hearted spin around the room by way of my wrist.

“Is that Monnie?” She asks, spotting my roommate’s hunched frame. I feel a pang of protectiveness. My mother met
Moné on move-in day. She had narrowed her eyes at the Filipino accent peeking through Moné’s California drawl. It wasn’t until she saw a Cartier Love bracelet clamped against Moné’s wrist that she relaxed. 

That night, at a sushi spot in Mayfair, my mother smiled across the table at her friends. “Ayah’s roommate is Filipino.” There was a collective widening of botoxed eyes (hard to detect, but I am well-trained). I could tell my mother was relishing this, sweeping her cronies into silence like a conductor, poised to flick the silence away herself moments later. I couldn’t let her do it. 

“So what?” I snapped.

My mother shot me a warning look. “But she’s from a very good family. She was wearing a Cartier bracelet.” The women nodded approvingly. “Yes, I heard some Filipinos are wealthy,” one of them chimes.

“Show me Monnie,” my mother commands, through a phone screen, back in my dorm room. I reluctantly fix my camera on Moné, who is too engrossed in her laptop to notice my phone is pointed at her.

“Remove your headphones, I want to ask her something.” I flip the camera back to myself, hoping this will dislodge the idea from her head. 

“What do you want to ask her?”

“Remove them mama, I want to tell her something please.”

“Tell me what you want to tell her.”

By this point, Moné has noticed my discomfort. She shoots me a nervous smile, chuckling uncomfortably. “What’s up?” She asks.

My mother takes this as an opportunity to shriek “MONNIE!” into my ear. I yelp in pain and jerk the headphones free.

“Sorry, sorry,” She laughs, “But I wanted to ask Monnie something. Monnie, can you hear me?” 

Moné motions at herself questioningly. “Is she talking to me?” I nod, and Moné glides across the room to sit beside me. My mother’s smile widens. She is no doubt very proud of the question she is about to ask.

“Monnie, I wanted to ask you… Do you know Maria?”

A gasp escapes my throat. My first instinct is to hurl the phone across the room. Instead, I drop it, as if that will somehow make the question disappear.

The phone lays face down on the parquet for a moment. It’s over, I think. Then, my mother’s gravelly voice emanates from the floor. “Maria? Maria Benetiz? You know her, Monnie?”

Moné picks the phone up, confused. She looks away for a moment, unpacking the question. She appears, for a brief instant, truly stung. But ever the polite roommate (and then later, despite this incident, friend), she rearranges her features into a knowing smile.

“Uh, no auntie, I don’t know a Maria Benetiz. Is that your housekeeper?”

My mother nods emphatically, a grin still plastered across her face. “Yes! Our nanny! She is 64 years old, she was with the girls their whole life. Are you sure you don’t know her?”

“No auntie, sorry. I don’t know her.”

I bid my mother a curt farewell. Moné and I never discussed the incident afterward.

My mother loves this story. She constantly makes me tell it in front of all her friends, or anyone new we meet, always waiting for the punchline with feverish delight. It’s one of her favorite stories of mine where she is the protagonist, of which I assure you there are many. Most involve instances of prejudice, like the time we visited the US for the first time. On a shopping trip in New York, we were offered a free “Legalize Gay” t-shirt by a queer employee for spending more than $100. My mom took one look at the shirt, a gaudy purple with the slogan splashed across it in bubble letters, and shook her head.

“No thank you,” she said, shaking her head with a look of disgust. “We don’t want the gay.”

There is also the time I became close friends with a British Indian girl at the British school I attended. When she invited me to her house in a barricaded compound, I was nearly sick with excitement. I visualized myself sprinting through its leafy streets in a stripy t-shirt and chunky New Balances, tossing newspapers onto the grass like an extra in “Matilda.”  

This weird and slightly problematic daydream reel was cut short, however, when my mother dropped me off.  She openly shuddered at the girl’s parents, eyes fixating on the father’s protruding beard and mother’s henna-stained nails. To her bourgeois ideals, being so visibly Muslim was not “élégant,” a blatant sign of being from the middle class my mother sneered at with her friends. From that moment on, she barely let me go to her house.

“But mama,” I would venture, “Aren’t we middle class also?”

“No mama. We are not middle class. We are from the most important family in Jerusalem. We had more land than anyone else in Palestine,” she corrects. 

My childhood consisted of events like these; my mother’s obnoxious, offhand comments, and my rejection of them. I would file these instances as stories deep in the recesses of my memory, only to recite them verbatim at the dinner table, my on-point impressions rendering gleeful squeals of laughter from my mother, embarrassed chuckles from my sisters, and a bemused snigger from my father.

“Your mother is a character,” her friends told me, again and again and again. They sensed the shame beneath my meticulous renditions.

In a school system that preached equality and political correctness, to me she was anything but amazing. “Say NO to Prejudice!” My imperialist British teachers would plaster across the school walls. “Say NO to Racism! Say NO to intolerance! We all look different but we’re all the same!”

I was too young to see beyond the hypocrisy of British educators, the way they saw themselves as the enlighteners “fixing” us savage Arabs, barricading us with Western feminism and philosophy. I was too naive to look deeper into their scornful depictions of Saudi’s “oppressiveness” and “stupidity,” absorbing only the happy-go-lucky “we are all one” image they had carefully curated.

All I saw were the annual Peace One Days, International Days, World Food Days, and endless dedication to celebrating the diversity pulsating between the school’s walls.

My mother, to me, was the antithesis of this. The ring of elite Saudi friends and aristocratic Jerusalemite heritage were her main sources of pride. The vintage Chanels, the emeralds and rubies, the trips to the South of France – those things (because they were always things) put her in a league above everyone else. She loved looking rich, even though her parents had lost most of their money when they were plunged into refugee status in 1948, and only barely managed to scrape a decent living in their adopted Saudi Arabia 40 years later. My mother curled her lip at women who worked out of necessity and not amusement. She spent all her (read: her father’s) money projecting the image of a woman who had millions. 

My father, one of 10 children from a modest Palestinian immigrant family in Jordan, kept his bank account in constant overdraft to meet my mother’s financial expectations, leaving my sisters and I constantly confused – with my mother assuring us of her wealth on the one hand, dressing herself in new season Fendi from head to toe, and our father living off the same mobile phone for seven years at a time, refusing our requests to go to Swiss summer camps and ski trips with the rich friends my mother had meticulously selected for us.

“It’s too expensive,” He would say, and my eyes would instantly flit to where my mother stood, hunched over the dining table, admiring the vintage china she was laying out for her elaborate dinner party.

Her confidence amazed me because I couldn’t understand it. If I attacked her for her openly bigoted statements, she would laugh it off, reminding me to bring the stories up in front of her friends later. She loved to be the center of attention, her smile spreading wider and wider as the stories went on then collapsing into a fit of laughter when I reached the climax.

“Your mom is really something, huh?” She would cough between giggles.

It infuriated me, how my attempts to embarrass her into restraining herself were futile. How it didn’t matter if people saw her as racist, obnoxious, and attention seeking, as long as they also saw her as rich.  

 

As I write this piece, I’m tempted to say that I am no longer angry at my mother, that I understand we cannot mold trauma into its most acceptable permutations.

In Kundalini yoga, they speak of a divine feminine energy force located at the base of the human spine, its visual representation a coiled serpent. Every time my mother and I communicate, I feel this snake unfurl and become rigid, its fangs piercing the roof of my mouth to become my own. As I tip into my late 20s, it seems so silly that this is still the case, that resentment still lives in the wonky L of my jawline, that my mother cannot say two words to me without bracing herself for an attack.

I’ve taken to reading various refugee accounts as an exercise in empathy, hoping to find in them a portrait of her. One of these was a Twitter thread by an Indian expat living in Kuwait during the Gulf War. When a lone attack cascaded into full-blown battle, his family sheltered in a basement apartment with 8 other Indians, surviving off of pita bread until they could escape. Many were evacuated before them, groups who were considered more worth saving (by who, and how, I shudder to think), like VIPs, diplomats, other (read: western) expat communities. 

When they finally escaped in a converted fishing boat off the coast of Basra, they ate nothing for three days. He described the moment he was handed a green apple upon their arrival in Dubai. He said it was the most delicious thing in the world. 

I think of my mother, imagine her on that ship. But I can’t, because I know she wouldn’t have been on it. She would never subject herself to such miserable conditions, never accept that as her place in society. My mother would have pulled every string she had to be the first one out, on an airplane, of course, her biggest compromise settling for an economy seat. That green apple would have been offered to her in the lounge, before boarding the flight. She would have tossed it aside, unfinished.

I think of her mother, my grandmother, who braved her own metaphorical ship in her escape from Palestine. But braving a ship does not give you the language to guide your daughter through the shame of being the daughter of Palestinian refugees in an elite Saudi school. For my mother, the issue remains herself – she is to blame for the teasing. Her inherited poverty and displacement were what made her foreign to her peers. And so, in self-defense, she did everything to erase them. And I, in self-defense from my own peers, judged her for it. 

I didn’t realize that what I was feeling had started in the pit of my grandmother’s belly as a pomegranate-sized ball of helplessness. Through capillaries, it passed into my mother, where it ripened into a monstrous, insatiable hunger. In me, it became rage – also monstrous, also insatiable. As I write this piece, I’m tempted to say that I am no longer angry at my mother, that I understand we cannot mold trauma into its most acceptable permutations.  

I spent a long time wishing my mother was that kind of refugee, you know, the sympathy generating kind, rags to riches but still humble, the type that gave away her wealth at every chance because her time at the bottom made her realize how superfluous it all was. It’s hard enough to scratch away at ourselves for empathy, harder still to bestow it on a mother who didn’t listen, whose response to prejudice was to become prejudiced herself, who didn’t rise above, but rather floated on top, staring down her nose at those who couldn’t grapple free. 

The last time I saw my family, my cousins, sisters and I sat in the living room listening to my mother’s friend tell us about her childhood in rural Syria. My mother was noticeably absent from this discussion, not because she wasn’t physically present, but because her head was bowed towards her phone, watching Whatsapp videos on loud. 

The story swelled towards its climax, where two brothers pointed guns at one another on a Damascus str– “Look at this video of our family home in Palestine,” my mother interrupted. Each of our heads whipped towards her. My cousin’s eyes met mine, waiting for the familiar flash of annoyance from me. But, strangely, it didn’t come. I glanced at my mother, curled up on the couch in a bubble of her own creation, and felt understanding.

We tend to glorify suffering but disregard the destructive potential of wonky healing. Like a Nakba survivor who grapples with her newfound safety by acting like it can be taken away any second. Like her son, who to this day believes money, and only money, will fill the void of statelessness. Or, finally, her daughter, whose only safe space is an airtight bubble. As I watched my mother churning through her alternate reality, I understood this. She had never meant to suffocate me socially. She was just surviving the only way she knew how: by preserving her family history in a neat little line of ascension, reality tossed aside like an unfinished apple.

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