I Have Never Been to the Place Where I am From, But I Will Imagine It For Us
I have learned all the stories my father was too protective of me to share, parsed the conflicting histories and studied the maps. Now I can finally recreate our family’s lost home, in a once small village in Palestine.
I am 21 years old when they amputate my father’s foot. He will drag it halfway around the earth for one more year, but for now he has no choice but to stop and convalesce, with me by his side.
The family apartment in Beirut has three bedrooms, mine flanked by two others. The one where my uncle, Amo Nayef, sleeps is on the right. He’s knocked out at noon, too much to drink the night before, the decades before. His liver will keep him supine, doused until it’s done with its daunting task of detoxification. The one on the left is where Teta Ibtihaj lies, staring at the ceiling. Her pasts are all catching up with her now. She no longer wishes to remember. Lying in this haze, thick as smoke from the day when the tobacco fields turned to ash, she’s regressing back to that time and place, wondering where she is and who I am when I check in on her. Thankfully her Alzheimer’s will protect her from one more year of great loss.
The middle bedroom where my father and I lie on two single beds is austere, or maybe it’s just his austerity that makes everything seem drab. There’s a cupboard, but it’s so dim all around that I no longer recall a window. Two plates of za’atar manakeesh and sliced cucumbers arrive, lacking their usual luster, or maybe it’s just me, feeling blue. I eat while he reads the morning papers, then I bury my head in the papers too. The South Lebanon Army has just collapsed and Hezbollah is advancing fast, while Israel is withdrawing its troops from Lebanon six weeks before its July deadline; “Lebanon’s Faltering Banking System,” another op-ed about a country slipping and state failure; but none of this catches my eye. A year earlier, my father was standing on a foot that was no longer breathing, and no one knew. I had just completed a degree in English & Comparative Literature and graduated top of my class. I told him I wanted to pursue my graduate studies. He looked at me like he would a child pestering him about wanting a toy in a toy shop.
I am not paying tuition for you to read more stories, he said.
What catches my eye now is an ad, a call to apply for a scholarship and a chance to win a full ride at SOAS University of London. I broach the subject again and he turns to face me. He is unabashed by his debilitation, and his jaundiced eyes rimmed in red chill me.
You are not going anywhere.
But Baba please, listen. This is what I love. This is what I’m good at. No, you listen: You have three options. Either you go back to Cairo to live with your mother, come back with me to China, or stay here in Lebanon with Teta. But all your brothers, they’ve sent my cousins abroad to study. Lena is in drama school in New York City. And Noor, she — He tries to get up, but he can’t. His body looks more and more like the fossil of a dinosaur, his leg now bandaged and propped on pillows is missing five toes and the ball of the foot. He wants to walk; he’s not built to stay in one place.
Instead, he says: And you want to be a whore like your cousins?
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