BY NOOR HINDI
“An immigrant is just a person who knows home is a verb,” — Philip Metres
We did not watch Baseball. My siblings learned English by watching Full House. As a child, I learned how to dip pita bread into hummus, zait & za’atar, labneh, baba ghanoush. My family comes from a land that does not exist on a map. In my earliest memories, my father is running the blade of a knife down a prickly pear. A pomegranate. He reminds us that these are the fruits of Palestine. I knew football as fútbol. Not soccer. Microsoft Word would like to correct this. It would also like to correct my name, Noor, which means light. Sometimes I remember standing on the rooftop patio in Amman, Jordan, looking at all the lights, the city hanging from the clouds. The city a mountain. My uncle was undocumented. We lived in section 8 housing. We are Muslim and sometimes we joke about blowing shit up. Sometimes my father couldn’t afford school supplies. We ate ketchup sandwiches. When my parents and grandparents pray they say Allahu Akbar. My grandmother’s name is Jihad. I don’t like the Middle East. I don’t like America. I drank too many Little Hug Fruit Barrels as a kid, high fructose corn syrup painting my lips.
2. A Prayer
My mother is a blue apron pacing in the kitchen. My mother is speaking in prayer for my undocumented uncle. She hangs our clothes on a clothesline. She washes a plate.
I hear her whisper, بدون أوراق, which means without papers, to my father when talking about my uncle.
The first time I meet him, he’s just arrived from Amman, Jordan to our home in Barberton, Ohio. He’s sitting in our living room in the middle of our beige couch. He’s loud and he talks really fast and his arms flail in the air and he makes a lot of jokes. His legs bounce and he has a nervous habit of brushing his nose with his index finger when he talks. He is unlike my mother, who has a quiet presence and lightly moves through our home.
I think I’m about four years old when I meet my uncle. Each Friday, he brings me a huge bag of candy which I dive my scrawny hands into. He works at a gas station. He makes my mother laugh. He reminds her of home.
He will be بدون أوراق for a long, long time. It will feel like forever. Until it doesn’t.
3. A Question
A child asks
“If Aliens invaded Earth, wouldn’t we seem Alien to them?”
According to the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), in the U.S, you are an Alien if you are not a U.S citizen. If you hold a green card (permanent resident card) you are considered a “resident” Alien.
Alien (adjective) 1. a :belonging or relating to another person, place, or thing : STRANGE //an alien environment b :relating, belonging, or owing allegiance to another country or government : FOREIGN //alien residents c : EXOTIC //alien plants d : coming from another world : EXTRATERRISTRIAL // alien being // an alien spaceship Alien (noun) 1. a : a person of another family, race, or nation //aliens seeking asylum in the U.S. b : a foreign-born resident who has not been naturalized and is still a subject or citizen of foreign country.
My grandmother was ALIEN. My father was ALIEN. My mother was ALIEN. I was ALIEN. My siblings were ALIEN. The whole goddamn fucking nation (read: world) is ALIEN.
My God. We are all
So green. Have you looked
at the grass ?
4. USCIS. Trip #1 — A Simple Act of Revision
At the USCIS office in Cleveland, Ohio, my grandmother and I move through security. We are here to get her fingerprint scanned so she can become a U.S Citizen. For the last five years, my grandmother has held a green card. She’s lived with my parents during her time here, and travels back and forth from Amman, Jordan, to the U.S.
Over the last year, we’ve finished her USCIS Form N-400 and sent it in, along with the $725 fee.
After moving through security, we ride the elevator up to the fifth floor. The federal building is cold and stale. I gaze at my grandmother, draped in her black abaya and clutching her purse, light brown eyes waiting for the doors to open.
A white woman greets us at the door, then gives us a form to fill out. She slides it under the glass screen.
When asked her country of origin, my grandmother writes PALESTINE in black pen and slides it back to the woman.
The white woman says WE DO NOT RECOGNIZE
PALESTINE AS A COUNTRY
And crosses out PALESTINE with a red pen.
as an entire people
5. A Quick Study of the Word Existence
My father pronounces the letter p as b because the sound p doesn’t exist in the Arabic alphabet.
Inger Christensen says, “Apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist.”
To exist comes from the Latin existere/exsister, “to step out, stand forth, emerge, appear.”
I exist. Palestine exists. Undocumented immigrants exist. Muslims exist.
6. A Place
There are about 50 mailboxes in Section 8 housing in Barberton, where we lived when I was younger. The mailboxes are in the middle of the large roundabout in front of our home. Behind the mailboxes is an enclosed bulletin board for announcements and flyers.
No one ever used the bulletin board. Or, I never paid attention. It’s the bees I was usually fixated on. They were trapped behind the sliding glass doors. So many of them were dead. Bee corpses everywhere. A few flew around, hitting the glass doors again and again.
I watched them all the time. I didn’t care about helping them escape. When I’d get bored, which was often, I liked tapping on the glass and shaking the foundation of the board and watching the bees fly in circles and panic. I don’t know how they got in, but I knew they couldn’t leave. Sometimes, if I pressed my ear to the glass, I could hear them buzzing, drones.
7. USCIS. Trip #2 — A Violation
At security, I stand in front of my grandmother. We are here so she can be interviewed by an immigration officer. But first, we have to move through police scanners and metal detectors.
TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES
MAKE SURE YOU HAVE YOUR ID ON HAND
NO BELTS, PHONES, JACKETS
I wonder why the officers are always yelling. One of the officers, of course, wants to check my hair, has flagged me for “additional screening.” I have to stand with my hands up as he waves a scanner around my body.
When I turn around, my grandmother is not wearing her headscarf. I’m not accustomed to seeing her golden-brown hair in public. I give her a questioning look as she waits for her black headscarf to move through the security monitor.
When I ask her what happened, she won’t look at me and keeps whispering, “, شلحونئ, شلحونئ” — they stripped me, they stripped me. She looks naked and vulnerable as she hurries the scarf around her head. Later, she tells me an officer demanded she take it off, twice.
I want my rage to elicit love and more love. I want people to stop asking if I love this country. No. Ask if it loves me.
On the way home that day, it is autumn and the leaves are beautiful and dying. My grandmother loves this country, its greenery. Used to the desert landscape of Amman, Jordan, this is one of the few times in her life when she’s been able to witness autumn in Ohio. She watches the trees from the passenger window.
I am shaking my head. At nothing. At everything.
Her eyes are grateful.
I want her to want more from America.
The words pound in my head again and again as I hold onto my steering wheel. My anger is a sound I turn down like a bad song no one wants to listen to.
She asks me to look at the trees. I tell her I am looking.
8. A Dream
- My mom, standing at the door of our house in Barberton, wearing a bleach-stained T-Shirt, her curly hair swaying in the sunlight, calling my name to come home.
- Dad calling me an old lady for drinking the leftover sweet black tea each morning. His laughter, an echo. His head cradled back. Eyes full.
- Making mud soup with my friend, Shawnee, her scrawny body leaning over a plastic bowl, her hand holding a stick as she swirls it through the mud.
- Lying next to my dad as I fell asleep, the sound of Al Jazeera booming through the living room, my hair smelling like cool watermelon Loreal Kids Shampoo.
This is what I remember most about Barberton. I’m about 13 years old when we move to our house in Akron. After we leave, I tell my brother I miss our home in Barberton. He says, “We lived in the fucking projects,” as if it’s something to be ashamed of.
When we buy our house in Akron, it’s not the home of my parents’ American Dream. For one, it’s foreclosed. It’s also Akron, which is not Fairlawn or Medina, the richer neighboring counties of my mother’s wishes.
The house is a wreck. The bathrooms need updating. The kitchen needs updating. The windows have to be replaced. The hardwood floors have to be refinished. The grass needs to be cut. The walls need painting.
A white picket fence needs building. It’s missing a two-car garage. And a white family. And an SUV. And two kids with blonde hair and blue eyes.
My mom makes her opinion of the house very clear. To this day, she calls it a خرابا, “a desolation.” For years after, if I look at her closely enough, I can feel something’s broken within her.
I try not to look.
9. USCIS. Trip #3 — A Test
My grandma has to memorize the questions and answers for the USCIS civics test. She doesn’t speak much English, but her reading skills are decent. For months, she carries her study booklet everywhere she goes, and alternates between studying the questions and reading the Quran.
At USCIS, the officer will ask her 10 random questions out of a selection of 100. She has to answer at least six correctly.
Questions like, “What is the “rule of law?” and “What happened at the Constitutional Convention?”
I test her every week for two months, and every day when we get closer to the date. She gets hung up on certain words and has trouble pronouncing them. The words are Legislature, Communism, Terrorist, and Spangled. The night before her test, I repeat them to her:
and she repeats them back
and while sitting in the waiting room of USCIS
and on and on and on
10. A Letter
It’s fourth grade. Dustin has orange hair, plays baseball, and cuts in front of me at the drinking fountain line.
When I protest, he turns around and says, “Go back to your country,” takes a drink of water, then walks away.
Before this moment, it doesn’t occur to me that my country is not my country, that I should “go back.”
Go back to where, exactly? Am I alien. Am I not like the others. Am I other. Am I.
My family came to the U.S. when I was two years old. We’d gone back to Amman, Jordan once: when I was in third grade, for the summer. Amman was always a vacation spot, a place where mom smiled more and where I spent time with family members who listened to me speak English and talk about America in envy.
A place where I was seen as American and not like the others.
When my teachers learn about what happened between Dustin and me, they force him to write me a letter of apology. His letter, placed on my desk at the end of the day, is written in pencil. Within it, Dustin writes something along the lines of, “I’m sorry for what I said I don’t know what your family had to go through to get here.”
I’m sorry for what I said I don’t know what your family had to go through to get here. I’m sorry I don’t know your family here. I’m sorry
11. A Chaos of Semantics
Semantic Satiation: A psychological phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to lose meaning, temporarily. Or, according to Urban Dictionary, it’s when “you say a word so much it starts to sound fucking weird.”
Leon James, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, coined the term and describes the process as a kind of mental “fatigue.”
We Too Are American We Too Are American We Too Are American We Too Are American
We Too Are American We Too Are American We Too Are American We Too Are American
When I say this phrase, the words We and Too push out of my mouth, like a whistle. And then my lips stick together to produce the Ummm in American, before the quick movements of my tongue make Erican.
Air. Ee. Can. Ummm.
When I repeat this to myself in front of a mirror, my body disappears.
If I keep going
I start wondering if this act will render my family into existence.
I want to believe language matters, that words create meaning, that a person can breathe
a thing into existence.
But what happens when the repetition of the words
beckon at the opposite?
We Are Not
I’ve gone on for too long.
What I am talking about is loneliness.
12. A Home
The breakfast table is my family’s connection to Palestine, to home, to Jordan. In this way, eating is sacred — and dipping pita bread into olive oil is an act of love.
Saturday mornings, you’ll find pita bread atop the stove, my mother flipping it while waiting for it to warm.
The homeland is stuck in our teeth. It’s filling out cavities. It rests on our tongue.
How we yearn for its olive trees.
13. USCIS. Take 4 — A Photo
My grandmother’s body in perfect posture, sitting across the immigration officer at USCIS. A plaque on the wall in his office, a certificate of achievement for his time serving as a border control agent.
The same amount of time it’s taken my grandmother to get to this point.
He asks her six questions. I have the answers memorized. Their exact phrasing. The placement of their commas, their punctuation.
I sit in perfect posture, suspended. Waiting. For her to answer each question.
When he tells my grandmother she’s passed her civics test, she cries. I cry.
Outside, my grandmother wants to take a photo next to the large statue of George Washington. She has her hands up, swaying in the wind. A smile sprawled on her face. She allows herself a moment of silliness. Child-like glee.
She tells me, this is George Washington.
I know, grandma, I say. I know.
I take the photo.
14. Confessions — Take 2
I am tired of language. I don’t want to make metaphors. About olive trees. About wearing a keffiyeh. About About About. The dream has not ended. My grandma is back in Jordan. She loves her passport. What does it mean to love. A country. A book. A people. To say “I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty” while thinking about Palestine. While holding the key to your father’s first home. While While While. The news keeps screaming. The headlines chew at our eyes. A bald eagle burdens its wings with suitcases. It drops them in another land.
Note: Pieces and parts of this essay are in conversation with Marwa Helal’s Invasive Species.