By Aziza Quzeiz
“to be arab is to be simultaneously emphasized and ignored,
invisibilized but hypervisibilized in times of crisis”
–joanna kadi in food for our grandmothers
TAK, TAK, BOOM
the sound of a firework that probably wasn’t a firework woke me up and i cried for the next few hours because today was the first time ive ever felt connected to being arab, stopped denying it, and started to let myself feel the pain ive been holding back my entire life
i grew up saying, “listen to me” instead of sorry. i was armed with mouthfuls of justifications because my existence as an arab woman was already an apology. sorry for taking up so much space. sorry we are so oppressive and fucked up. sorry we are power hungry and that a few of us represent the whole.
in other communities of color in the u.s. we are resented for internalizing “model minority complexes.” we are not real to the census or governmental institutions. we are told we fade into whiteness but receive none of its benefits. if an arab immigrant mother has to be rushed to the hospital in the u.s. she cannot receive translation services because she is “white,” so we are voiceless even when we speak. we are represented in literary discourse as light-skinned, upper-middle class, wanting-white. no one wants to listen, even for a little bit—shhhh—sma3i shwey, we are undocumented, we are Black, we are Brown, we are dark-skinned and poor too, we are not all muslim, we are queer and our sexualities are expansive and complicated, we are threats, we are problems, we are refugees and the bags they carry, we are borders, we are the sound of bombs dropping during rainstorms, the confusion in the streets, the act of discerning which sounds are real and which are imagined
i dreamt of teta ululating to the sky, to the sound of this desperate explosion, something like thunder or a celebration of death, of our unpeopling. she howled with her head tilted back and in her calls i heard the earth split open to make space for our pain. i heard the gaps in generational memory between how hard we had it and how things Were Back Then. i realized that our realities are too painful to process so they require the extravagance of fiction, poetic ruminations about life before occupation and oppression. we need active imaginations in order to survive.
how do we express this pain? if we do not discursively exist then are we granted spaces to feel? my baby cousins exchange graphic images of entangled bodies like they are cartoons. they change their profile pictures to martyrs we know. i think of the splinters we used to get in our feet from climbing into fruit trees at jiddo’s house, the jubilee in our captain majid heroic AUUUI’s, an ouch-but-yes, a mix between baba playing umm kulthum and his answer to her voice with “aakkh, aakh”s—those soft recordings of his diasporic pain, and the ecstasy in being chosen to pick the fruits, EHH, YES, AYYY. because if we feel pain, if we feel splinters in our toes than, EH, YES, AUI, AKH, AUUUUIEHHHA, at least it means we are living.
ARABNESS, 3RAB, 3AAAAA, YA RUB
it is something like a denial of pain leads us to project it onto others. this pain gets stored in our bodies and passed on to new generations who don’t know what they are carrying until the sound of an explosion or someone asking “where do you hide your weapons” floods it all back. where do i keep my weapons? i wanted to ask the israeli authorities the question back to themselves. they kept asking, “why are you carrying so few bags? arabs usually carry more bags. show us in your bags where you keep your weapons.” listen, a little bit, search in the place between my neck and my shoulders, the spot where i hide my sadness. find them in our wrinkled eyes, teta’s back, her split discs that are revolutionary weapons planted by generations of pain, my mother too tired to walk, measure the geographies of our spines and the way our displacement makes us so lonely, our bags are our bodies are our bombs are our backs carrying the weight of our revolutions and resistance inside of us, so volatile, so vengeful, so awake, still, somehow, alive.
homegirls, hashish, mishmish, and the moon
I was rifling through the contents of my bag while receiving eidiahs and decided to dump out the treasures I was about to discard in the trash. I realized how much the contents reflect my restlessness, because I carry this bag with me everywhere I go:
Torn tunisian and jordanian dinars, euro coins and crumpled dollar bills, a ripped visa to the illegal state of israel, a tube of rose water a priest gave me in Beitla7im before calling me beautiful, hijab pins, a passport, a german chocolate wrapper, my vile of white misk that reminds me of my 3mto and how she puts it on her neck before putting on her hijab to go out, a list of Spanish phrases I might need, eyeliner, a condom in the innermost pocket.
I am everything a product and reaction to colonial modernity, everything before it and around it. Everything that flirted with it just to reject it. Everything that wants it but mocks it in the same breath.
The night Eid started I stayed up until Fajr having an hours long conversation with my brilliant cousin who is doing her masters in Arabic linguistic histories. She is trying to prove that we need new dictionaries for our slang and that all dialects are legitimate and rooted in thousand year old traditions. Our Gehs are just as legitimate as our Kehs as our Ehs as our cadences colored by colonial encounter, the subjugation of others, our experiences with regimes, structures of violence, sexual abuse, internalized cycles of rejection and pain, even as these linguistic patterns change because of the internet and text speech. I thought of learning darija in Tunis from an anarcho-feminist who told me to listen to the rhythms of Imazighen goddesses in the words, the way Tinafigh blended the ends of words together and echoed itself in Tunisian Arabic. He told me, before you learn a language you need to get the beat down. I went with him to watch Sufi performances in the mountains of Kef, dances that people memorized from over four centuries ago, songs that chronicled when the Arab invaders came. Under blue and green stage lights, Sufi dancers chanted, their white robes glowing while mac computers dj’ed a sweet funky bassline in the background. I was always annoyed with myself for being so jealous after watching these performances. What dances do I know? What clothing do I have? Where are my cultural genealogies and generational chronicles? What rhythms do I know to carry on the words and vibrations of my ancestors? I only know how to dance to southern r&b and I never really learned to “bellydance,” because the most “ancestral” music I know dates back to 1960 Syrian children’s songs.
I thought of my mother who didn’t want to wear a white dress to her wedding because it was too colonial and western. But when she asked her elders what they wore before white, no one had the words to tell her, no one knew what we did before, back then. The erasure of that memory was made less violent by the strange finality in accepting that maybe there was no “pure” pre-colonial past but one full of difficult fusion…one where the memory of white wedding dresses was so new (or old? or ours? or theirs?) that it became a part of us.
My cousin said, linguists forget about the new dialects and the new words that emerge from displacement. Her nieces speak a fusion of Syrian and Egyptian dialects not recorded yet, processing new words with new contexts with old roots with old stories. I thought of the other day when my sister was cleaning the kitchen with our aunt and asked her to hand her a Khu’ra. My aunt looked at her and laughed. “What did you say? Do you mean a Fouta? We haven’t used that word since Ottoman times.” We must have picked up the word from our mother, who was displaced from Syria in the 60’s, who heard it from her mother and carried it on in a strange vacuum of sounds untouched by time because of our distance and displacement. Other words, like kharata instead of tanoora, sha7a instead of leika, fetitt hummus instead of tis’iyeh, variance in my family’s regional dialects amplified by the oceans that pushed us apart from one another.
There is something called phylogenetic trees that trace how dialects and words become sisters to one another. We begin to develop different strands of similar languages that then morph into parallel but different spatiotemporal directions. Like our subjectivities, language evolves into vastly fragmented, complex strands of meaning and belonging.
I think about the splits in our community and family tree, how we are scattered into different worlds with naïve hopes of returning to our homeland, our roots, once “this” is all over (the regime violence, the revolution, the refugeehood.) I think about how I am named after a tree I have never seen. I am named after a dream I have never lived. I live my life in hopes of returning to a homeland that has never known me.
And when I speak in this tongue that is somehow a part of this mess, my Arabic hiccups and wavers into whispers, manifests into hesitancy and a fear of messing up the intricacies of our fela7ified grammar. I am laughed at for my awkward Americanisms that don’t make sense in translation—my siblings and I speak in 3rabeezy, slinging around our mish-mash of Arabish, soupy slurs of ma3lish inno can you 3atini al jacket taba3i aw nah?
I am so blessed to come from a family of migrating revolutionaries, to come from a people who sacrificed everything for their words. Who were criminalized and terrorized and violently displaced because they chose to write and speak their realities.
But no matter where we go, we cannot rid of these accents. And I can’t rid of my restlessness, my inability to focus on one thing without thinking about what my parallel-self, my “over-there” subjectivity is thinking or doing or writing.
I recently facilitated a healing group for Muslim women who were yearning to talk about the splits in our identities, how we feel so fragmented and fused and forgotten.
I wrote down the common themes on a tiny receipt I found in the bottom of my bag:
where is home – where do i feel home – why does home not feel safe – why do i not feel safe in my own body – why doesnt my body feel like home to me – why does my family / community seem to create expectations i do not fit in to- why am i living in doubles/ triples / a million fractured pieces – when will i be whole – when can i learn to love my splits – when will i bridge this world with that – where can i go to be loved – where can i go to be heard – will you hear me – will you hold me – can we love each other wholly –
(I think of Qwo-Lo Driskill, in Double Weaving Two Spirit Critiques: “How does our storyteller construct her survival from the threat of losing family love, especially in a context where familial ties hold so much material and emotional security?”)
Can we speak our truths and know that we will still be loved, across these multiple worlds?
I find home in my homegirls, in a few drags of hashish, preferably under the moon and with music playing. I find home in bowls of mish mish and ma’mounia, mashed into a delicious brew. I feel home embrace me somewhere at the tip of my tongue. My mind needs to be in motion to make sense of these things, my mouth laps up quiet soups of clunky morphemes and finds pleasure in the phonetic fusions. I find home in my hybridity. I feel comforted by Gloria Anzaldua when she said, “I am a turtle, wherever I go, I carry home on my back.” But me, I am an Arab woman, wherever I go, I carry home in my bag.
Letter to Um Yusuf
“Legbara, your daughter still need plenty healing yet,” said Osain with her mouth. “Body get better, but spirit still bust-up, I think.”
“Is okay, Papa Osain, thank you,” Ti-Jeanne told him, a little surprised at her own audacity. “I think you start the healing good already. I could do the rest myself.”
–from Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Leila told me that they took you while you were sleeping. She said you blamed god and yourself and that you didn’t understand what you had done. I always took you for granted, as the auntie immutably fixed in the living room, chopping bamya in the shadows. Your right eye would wander and every time I looked up I would find it resting on me. I remember your voice sounded like eggplant roasting in cumin and bharat under high flames—scratchy, layered, deep. When they told me you had been raped in regime prisons, you had just passed away and I could not dislodge the letter from me to you from the back of my throat. I could not even send your daughter a condolence text because our pain was too similar.
I know you are long mornings made of warm bread and Quranic verses, centuries of erosion. You are not a metaphor for our motherland or for the earth or the state but you are inside them all, working to untangle their crusty layers of toxic waste. I will find you in breathless la howa wa la qowa illah bilahs, I will find you when I am stripped to my bed rock trying to remember. I will hear you speak to me when I vomit for hours thinking I am pregnant and you will remind me there is a cocktail of toxicity trying to find its way out of your body and mine. Sometimes I feel the violence of the empire coursing in our veins. I never know about the survivors in our family until they have passed.
I know your real body is made of stars and the rest of you is diffused into different realms of possibility, somewhere between jinn worlds, angel light, our fucked up human shit made from mud and clay. I know your body will remember this pain, your palms will become permanently inscribed into rocks and I will find your imprint everywhere. I felt your pain and it is terrifying, underwater avalanche meets planetary explosion. Your shoulders were never meant to be boulders and none of this was ever your fault, but now that you are here you will find pieces of yourself you thought you lost and when you do,
it will be a beautiful,
and for that
and for you
i am so thankful.
 title is a failed fusion between nizar qabbani bread hashish and moon and sonia sanchez’ homegirls and handgrenades