The Airport

once when i was small  we packed a shared suitcase

of bright cotton  floral prints  & something yellow

& silken i’d never seen my mother wear

& for the trip across the country she wore perfume

& her best red beaded scarf  & we clattered

into the terminal  my mother  collecting all the light


a wedding on another coast  its promises

of sunlight & gold  & her scattered schoolmates

& cousins & faraway friends  all crowded

into a rented hall  making it  with color

& incense & song  our country

& it all shone in my mother’s face


we approached the counter to check in  the family

ahead of ours handed their boarding passes with a grin

before the agent turned to us & his smile clicked shut

said  check-in is closed  & no

there is nothing he can do

& no there is no manager to call & please can we leave

this counter is now closed


my mother’s faltering voice  the soft music in her english

her welling eyes  her wilting face  her beaded scarf

& all she said was please  please  i have a ticket

& i’d never seen her so small  english fleeing her mouth

& leaving her faltering  frozen  reaching for words

that would not come  dabbing at her eyes

with the scarf  its red so bright  so festive

like it was mocking us


& all i could do was reach  for the suitcase with one hand

her limp arm with the other  & wheel us to the exit

& in our slow retreat i heard the last snatches

of that man’s joke  his colleague’s barking laugh

no way we’re letting

mohammed so-and-so near the plane

& that’s why we don’t go anywhere  anymore



my mother is so often sad  so often tired & wants mostly

to sit quietly in front of the television  where we watch

turkish soap operas dubbed over in arabic

their sweeping landscapes & enormous romances

until she falls asleep

chin pointed into her chest & glasses askew


on bright days she plays music  pitches her voice high

& sings along to all the ones we love  abdel halim

& wardi & fairouz  sayed khalifa & oum kalthoum

gisma’s open throaty voice & frantic percussion

to which mama claps along  tries sometimes to teach me

the dances  the body formed like a pigeon’s

the chest arced proudly upward  head twisting helixes

against the neck  in a surprise to no one i cannot dance

but love to watch her  love that she tries anyway

to teach me

& sometimes  rarely  by some magic  the movement

will click fluently into my body  & she’ll ululate & clap

while i twist my head in time to the song  mama’s voice

celebratory & trilling  my nima  my graceful girl



is smaller than me  three weeks younger & always

a little disheveled  always dressed in something that

someone else wore first  & laughs

the most enormous sound


haitham passes me a drawing  during arabic class

full-color cartoon on the back of a worksheet

of our horrible teacher  spit flying from his

large mouth  with a speech bubble that reads


ZE ARRABIC!  eyes bulging & his bald patch

glistening in the light


i press my fist over my mouth to keep the laugh inside

& it builds until i think my eyeballs might burst

until the sound threatens to come pouring from my

ears  from my nose  until my face is wet

with tears


& haitham swipes the drawing  crumples it

into his notebook  right as the teacher turns

& thunders over  spits a little while asking

what on earth  (the only way teachers are allowed

to say the hell)  what on earth is wrong with me

i only manage to choke out    allergies

& haitham  from the row behind  offers me

a tissue with a grin



once  in arabic class  excited that the new girl’s name

luul  reminded me of the song i love  the pearl necklace


i sang a little of it when she introduced herself

& watched her smile falter  confused  before she finally


excused herself  & by the end of the day everyone

was giggling  nima loves old people’s music  pass it on


so even here among my so-called people i do not fit

here where the hierarchy puts those who have successfully


americanized  at the top  i’ve marked myself by caring

about the old world  & now i hover somewhere


at the bottom of the pyramid  (while our arabic teacher

drones about ancient times  & the little-known fact


that our country has 255 pyramids remaining today)

the bottom of the pyramid with those recently arrived


dusty-shoed & heavy-tongued  & though i’m born here

though my love of the old songs & old photos


doesn’t translate to my spelling  my handwriting

my arabic pronunciation  or grammar  or history


or memorization of the qur’an  i recognize

in their widened eyes  that feeling  that shock


of being here instead of there



lives in my building  which isn’t actually surprising

since it seems everyone from our country immigrated

to this same block of crowded apartments


it’s saturday morning & he’s ringing the doorbell

frantic    & falls inside when i answer

sweaty & rumpled & still in his house shoes  coughing

with a little joke in his eye


his grandmother opening his t-shirt drawer to put away

the laundry  found his secret pack of cigarettes  which

he doesn’t even really smoke  which he tried to explain

away  while dodging the slippers aimed at his head

who knew mama fatheya was so athletic

everything always so funny to him

she chased him out with cries of


was he going to go


my mother hasn’t left yet for work  & makes us tea

boiled in milk  poured into mismatched mugs

& hands us packs of captain majid cookies she gets

from the bigala that haitham & i call  ethnic wal-mart

where we buy everything  from bleeding legs of lamb

to patterned pillow covers  & cassettes

covered in a layer of dust


she never seems old enough to be anyone’s mother

so pretty & unlined & smelling always of flowers

she clears the cups & wipes the crumbs from the table

& our faces in quick movements  pins her scarf

around her face & leaves for work


haitham isn’t wearing shoes so we cannot go outside

we instead spend the day playing our favorite game

calling all our people’s typical names out the window

into the courtyard mohammed! fatimah! ali bedour!

to see how many strangers startle  & look up

when they are called

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