Category Archives: Immigration

Once upon a Time…

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“Media are major industries, generating profits and employment, they provide us with most of our information about the political process, and they offer us ideas, images and representations (both factual and fiction) that inevitably shape our view of reality.” (David Buckingham, Media Education)

I immigrated to the United States in the fall of 1990.  Iraq invaded our adopted country of Kuwait (my family was originally from Palestine) in August of that summer and after weeks of fleeing and general bureaucratic drama we finally landed in little Rhode Island, making us refugees twice in three generations.

The most memorable part (even though there were many) of leaving the only home I ever knew in Kuwait was the fact that I was only allowed to bring one toy and one book along on that journey.  This was a tall order, an only child and grandchild who (until then), but been lavished with every toy, craft, and Barbie dream house set available in the 80’s.  I spurned the cabbage patch kids and Barbie bedroom set for the soft and cuddly panda bear I aptly named Dabdoob. (Doob is Arabic for bear).

The infamous Dabdoob posing with a photo of my youngest child

The infamous Dabdoob posing with a photo of my youngest child

I provided emotional support to poor little Dabdoob (he was a bit guileless in his young years) on the journey out of Kuwait; military checkpoints, arid desert heat, custody battles, embassy lines, patriarchy, you know the usual…and the main way I did that was by reading to him.

The book I chose was my favorite at the time, Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid.  Now, before we get any farther, I need to clarify this was NOT the Disney version.  Happily ever after was ambiguous for the Little Mermaid, who ended up essentially sacrificing her life for that of her love, the prince.  You can read this version Here. It was clear that even at that young age, I already had deeply entrenched ideas about gender, female power (or lack of it), and societal expectations.

A mermaid has not an immortal soul, nor can she obtain one unless she wins the love of a human being. On the power of another hangs her eternal destiny.

I mean you may as well take out “mermaid” and replace it with female here and take it from there.

Unseen she kissed the forehead of her bride, and fanned the prince, and then mounted with the other children of the air to a rosy cloud that floated through the aether

Yup, here she is, giving it all up so that the prince can have this other lady while she floated through the aether until she can earn an immortal soul…

anyone wanna tell her they are other fish in the sea...?!

anyone wanna tell her they are other fish in the sea…?!

 

Well, needless to say, Dabdoob was totally taken by it, but I wasn’t buying any of it. I liked my princesses strong and loud with big badass hair but it would be another twenty years before Hollywood and the general media caught up.  At least it kept us occupied while my mom replenished our water supply in the intense August heat, or when we ran out of gas on the outskirts of Bagdad.  The familiar story lulled us to sleep in the back of my mom’s read Honda at the desert sky darkened and filled with stars.

Flash forward a couple months in America, I found myself repeating first grade since I had zero English. I have vivid memories of my teacher being really nice and patient. For one of our projects that year she had us write stories.  My oral English was fine, but I hadn’t mastered reading or writing yet.  She let me tell her my story while she transcribed my words for me to copy down later and this was the result:

The Poor Princess

The Poor Princess.  Wait? Is she levatating?

 

 

And here is the story page by page:

 

dat penminship tho

dat penmanship tho

 

story-2

 

What's better than a cookie eating monster vanqushing princess?

What’s better than a cookie eating monster vanquishing princess?

 

story-3

 

story-4

 

happily-ever-after

Big hair dont care

 

last

The end.

The princess didn’t need anyone’s help, just her own ability to eat a magic cookie. BAM!

In 2nd grade I created a princess that was also able to enlist the help of forest creatures and the natural environment to kick invading colonial forces (okay, an evil witch) out of her land- er, castle.

I wrote this one is 2nd grade!

There was ALWAYS a princess...

The princess was made a refugee, wonder where I got that idea from?! Ha!

 

My stories have gotten more complex over the years (probably not by much!) But the ideas of going against the general or popular grain of social expectations, especially ones reflected in the media remains at the heart of my writing. Dabdoob is not impressed though, he doesn’t like making waves.

Before the war, surrounded by my bday loot!

Before the war, surrounded by my bday loot!

 

 

 

 

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Not Since 1948

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unknown

Super moon

Beavermoon

Tonight we meet again.

Not since 1948.

Is it mere coincidence?

68 years ago we gazed at the moonrise from verandas overloooking the sea

We sipped sweet mint tea and spoke in hushed tones as the sky darkened

perhaps even gasped at she climbed the horizon, illumating her glorious fullness.

What A marvel! I could hear my great grandfather say. How bright it must have appeared to them then in the cloudless Levant evening.

Was the moon whispering messages then, as she is today?

Or it enough to just shine her glow on all our dark spaces.

“I see you” she exclaims dryly.  Like a sibling’s weary game. “You can come out now.”

Be prepared

Come together

Build your dreams

There is no where left to hide.

 

 

unknown-1

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Reading: My response to Neil Gaiman’s ‘Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming’

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Reading Rainbow was the bomb...

Reading Rainbow was the bomb…

As a teacher, (and a young one at that),  I often wonder what makes schooling today so much different than when I was in school. No matter where I’ ve taught ( charter or public school, Urban or Suburban…) , its all so very different than when I was in school, which was again, not that long ago ( graduated in ’07’) !      So, I was pretty moved after reading Neil Gaiman’s lecture in the Guardian
 ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming)  I think it touches on I i’ve  why the gap between educational experiences is ever widening.
One of the main differences I’ve seen is the school culture around reading and appreciating fiction has vastly changed… whether through the take over of standardized testing or the push for an English curriculum that values informational texts over creative texts; its impacts are far reaching and speak volumes about what how we see ourselves and connect to each other.   I remember reading endlessly and being read to from all teachers in all subjects, I remember being the audiance to several school sponsered puppet shows, storytellers, and fairytale events.   I remember library being an actual class where we learned to work the card cataloge and put together multistep projects and work as a team.
reading in the 90's was wicked awesome!

reading in the 90’s was wicked awesome!

What is interesting to me is that as a Palestinian woman  growing up in post 9/11 America, I didnt realize that is wasn’t my work as an undergrad antiwar activist or as a spokesperson for students for justice in Palestine that was going to spark a revolution, but my imaginiation that will. How empowering it is to be reminded that one of the most revolutionary things I could be doing right now is exactly what I’ve worked on and wanted to do all my life; “make stuff up and write it down”.
ok, so what this wasnt a book? still pretty great...

ok, so what this wasnt a book? still pretty great…

When Gaiman states, “We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy” I am reminded of how I was taught to teach- just hook kids into reading anyways, anyhow… ( so I had creative control and freedom of what I was teaching them)    It was life or death…  and for the group of students I primary taught it was.  It didnt matter if I got teens reading graphic novels, or those hood novels which some schools thought were too violent…just get them to read!  Now its about reading informational articles that are short and boring as hell… last year, the public school had me teaching a scripted cooperate program ( so much for creative freedom or even professional respect) about polar bear habitats to English language learners in the 7th grade.  This was supposed to be an English class… and yes getting poor students  of color in Providence reading is life or death:
                      “The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners  are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.”
The most important thing reading did for me anyways is to build empathy with others.  I didnt know a lick of English when I immigrated from Kuwait and didn’t understand a thing about American culture.  Needless to say there were times growing up I felt awkwardly lonely and very misunderstood. Gaiman says that [reading helps] “you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well.”  That other world, for me, was America.
Alex Mack was the BEST

Alex Mack was the BEST

He goes to say, “you’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”
I certainly was.
I learned about the Black struggle through fiction, about slavery and immigration and other wars and other times besides my own.  I wasn’t simply born political by way of nationality as others like to joke ( Ive known many a palestinian with sucky politics…) Reading helped me form my own thoughts and ideas about the way things could be.  Reading provided me with the background and the historical context I needed to build from, its not only personal experiences that shape one’s politics, its all these things and more.
 Reading fiction assured me I wasnt alone, that I had a place, that there were others out there like me who I could one day connect with, organize with, change the world with… This was revolutionary given how cut off my mom and I lived from any Arab or Muslim community, how sedated my suburban white environment actually was and how drowning that felt as a youth.  Reading was my savoir, the key that unlocked the wider world and my future possibilities.  More than anything reading fiction gave me hope, it taught me that “the world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”
My son and his friend with Big Nazo puppets at PRONK festival, imagining a different world...

My son and his friend with Big Nazo puppets at PRONK festival, imagining a different world…

Gaiman goes on to talk about reading as a form of escapism, arguing that “escapist fiction opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”  As a child witness to war and domestic violence and now as a teacher of students with varying levels of  trauma, Ild agree that reading is certainly a real way to cope with and in turn, change reality.
I wholeheartidly reccommend reading Gaiman’s lecture.  Here’s the link again: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming
                      “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all” and the truth is, all of us, whether or not we are teachers or writers, have the power to imagine and create a better world and the obligation to provide for others to do the same.
Sunset over Providence

Folks marching at Providence PRONK festival

Shells in the Woods

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“The only constant is change”

Ecological succession is a natural process, a progression.

I remember first learning about ecological succession in middle school science class.  We were taught that all environments; tundra, forest, desert, ocean are constantly changing.

Evolving.

Over time oceans can become desserts or swaps becomes forests.  It is the natural progression of life.  I always found it to be very fitting that I learned about ecological succession in middle school, a time of natural progression, especially for pubescent girls.   While my peers chatted about their first kisses, adorned themselves with makeup and tight shirts to show off rapidly emerging curves, I stayed in the background, hidden by baggy shirts and a tomboyish attitude.

I still spent my time in tree forts, exploring the woods behind our house, comfortable with the growing distance between me and my classmates experiences.  This was partly due to the fact that I wasn’t allowed  to do many of the things that other girls my age were doing; having sleepover parties, hanging out in the mall without an adult…all things that I wished I could do, but had to learn to not waste my time wanting.

My after school haunts changed when my mother and I moved to a different part of town the beginning of my 7th grade year.  There were new    woods to explore and new kids to meet. 

To pass the time, my new friends and I used to walk through all the backyards in the neighborhood, oblivious of property markers or boundaries.  This one particular backyard I remember led into a small patch of woods, cut in the middle by a narrow brook.  We would spend time getting dirty, jumping across slippery rocks, making up stories about the creatures that surely lived in this patch of woods.

A lot was going on that school year.  My best friend since elementary school moved away to another state.  Her sister was being sexually abused by her mom’s boyfriend and when she mustered the courage to speak up against him, the family moved away and he went to prison.

My mom and I were constantly moving around.  Although never to a different school, the different neighborhoods meant different kids…all with their own territorial dramas and suburban dilemmas to get re-accustomed to.  My mother took back her on again, off again husband, Richard.

I remember Richard as being funny, interesting, and charming.  He taught me how to catch fish and played the harmonica in his rusty pick up truck.  Richard was also an alcoholic and out of work chief.

Their arguments were vaguely interesting.  I would turn my radio up and get back to my homework.  Another normal routine.

Some time in the winter he disappeared, took off again.  My mom told me he left her a note.  He ran off with another woman but promised to still complete her citizenship papers.

I was having a difficult time acknowledging that things change… even me.

That spring, I turned thirteen and started my period.  The melting snow receded, revealing white shells at the edge of the forest. I  almost walked right over the  shells but my  friend stopped me and picked one up.   As she excitedly passed it around to the other kids, she exclaimed this was a sign this forest was once a river.  I walked around the shells disheartened.  I was tired of change.

I saw adulthood like I saw my mother;  overworked, limited, bound to some invisible force … she was working full time and on her degree at night.    The more I learned about it meant to be a woman, the less I wanted it for myself, I wanted to fend off  the adulthood disease as long as I could.

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I very rarely saw Richard drunk.  I just occasionally heard him stumble home late at night.  There were a few nights where I was a witness to the emotional and at times physical abuse.  But I avoided talking about it or asking questions since I was trying to stay as far away from that adult world as I could.

One day in early spring, I came home from school to a barely legible handwritten note.  The chicken scratch read:

I’m sorry. I still love you but I can’t do this anymore.  Don’t worry, I wont mess up your papers.

~Richard

It was a note much like many others he had left , only this time I was the first one to see it.

I called my mom at work.

“Did you have a good day at school?”

“yeah,. school was fine.”

“A lot of homework?”

“Richard is gone.  There is a note.”

“What?”

“Does this mean we have to move again?”

This was also the point where I remember bursting into tears at the mere thought of another move.  This was the first time I let me mother see me react.  I felt like so much was spinning out of control as I came face to face with the shaky balance between dependence on others and my need for independence.  I was face to face with realities of the adult world…and it wasn’t pretty.

That was the last time.  After four years of leaving and staying, of moving and packing, she didn’t go back to him.  Little did I know, his departure, and my mother’s new beginning, left an opening, a space, for me to enter adulthood with less fear.

      Later that spring, I took one last a walk to my usual spot.  We were moving again, but it didn’t feel so heavy.  I rushed to the spot at the edge of the woods where we noticed the pile of blanched shells in the woods a few weeks back.  this time, the leaves were a deeper green, the spot, increasingly  hidden by the growing foliage.   I pulled some branches back and there they were.

The shells in the woods.

Shoe-less in Suburbia

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I don’t remember how they started, but they always ended the same way, with me frantically trying to tie the stubborn shoelaces on my floral Keds.  I needed to hurry up and run… To catch up with my family that was already several paces ahead.   I was always right outside my aunt and uncle’s house where I grew up, using the front steps for support as I attempted to strap my slow moving feet into shoes that suddenly became too slippery. The street was dark and there was never a soul in sight… (which was true of the Johnston suburbs before RI’s high unemployment rate forced everyone to do their own yard work and go on stay-cations)…I almost always fell, tripping over the loose laces, or worse, a shoe might disappear altogether, leaving me grappling in the eerily quiet streets of the Johnston suburbs.  Scrambling for the missing shoe, I would hobble around with my bare feet on hard concrete, inevitably falling further and further behind.

Not long after arriving to the United States, I had this recurring dream of leaving the house shoeless in the middle of the night.  The dreams were vivid and occurred for several years in my childhood.  I would wake up dazed, kicking my legs still trying to run.   Once I got my bearings, I would laugh at myself, wondering why I so upset about leaving without shoes on?

Of all the fears to have? Shoeless?  Really?

It wasn’t till I was an adult that I realized that the shoeless in suburbia dreams most likely had to do with fears of leaving home suddenly,  being caught off guard and undergoing unexpected life changes…among other things.

That dream keeps me grounded now and serve as a gentle reminder.    As quickly as my life may change and as unexpected as those changes may be, things could be a lot more unstable and stressful…as they were for me as a child…more importantly, as they are right now for millions of people all around the world.

In Solidarity and Keds,

Nada

Jaffa is to Palestinians : Fox Point is to Cape Verdians

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I always found it interesting that Rhode Islanders are known for giving directions by describing landmarks that no longer exist:  Take a left where Frankie’s corner store used to be —Across from the old DMV—–after the Londsdale drive in, oh yeah, they tore it down, but you remember don’t you?—-  Rhode Islanders ‘ memory banks are pretty impressive.

And I, a tried and true Rhode Islander, feel that it is only right to continue on with the remembering.

My family is originally from Jaffa, Palestine, land of oranges and olives, circa ’48.  They were forced to flee amid bombing and my grandmother, barely an adult,  found her way to Kuwait as a teacher, where about forty years later we would have to flee amid bombing again…

….But I digress…

The Jaffa of today is not the Jaffa of 1948… much like Fox Point, a neighborhood in Providence.  Once a vibrant Cape Verdean, Portuguese and Irish community  it is now nothing like the Fox Point of ’48.  Instead of hearing Creole on Wickenden Street, now you hear Browneze… (slang for Brown University hipster lingo…)  Much like Jaffa, now part of ‘greater Israel’, instead of hearing Arabic, it is mostly Hebrew.  My grandmother would barely recognize her hometown today…much like WWII soldiers who came back to Fox Point wondering what happened to their vastly changed neighborhood.

In Fox Point, the construction of the highway and Brown University expansion and property buyouts successfully gentrified a family neighborhood by renting apartments to college students at high prices. Working class families had a hard time saying no to a fat Brown check to buy their home.

I hear they offer up a ton of money to Palestinians still holding on in East Jerusalem.

This in turn led to the scattering of the population, the shutting down of locally owned businesses and community centers, and the inevitable shift in the culture of Fox Point, now a college hangout.  Some Rhode Islanders still recall a time when Cape Verdeans spanned the area down Benefit Street to the Old Stone Bank.  Walking along Benefit and South Main Street today,  it is hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t the sanitized version of history we are lead to believe it is…when you might have heard small children playing outside, when the electric trolley dropped off passengers getting off of work, when the air was scented with Catchupa and other stews…

I wonder how long memories hold up?  How long before we forget that Yaffa had a bustling port that is now closed?  That I came from a family of farmers and landownders?  That Palestinians had a livelihood?

Maybe as long as I give directions like a Rhode Islander we’ll be alright:     ‘Where? Israel? Oh yeah,  just take a left where Palestine used to be.”

Just Hold Still

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“Art is the center of the real world”  Glass Garden, Philadelphia, PA

I always loved window seats.  I love them more when they are 9 stories up and overlooking the arts district in the city of brotherly love. I lucked out and got an amazing view of the Philly skyline.  My hotel room looks out on to the impressive architecture of Board Street, now glowing blue and purple in the changing light show. I can’t think of anything better than writing on a window seat…

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     I just recognized that being a writer has a lot to do with being comfortable with stillness.  Not only does the physical act of writing require long periods of holding still,  I have found that my creative process benefits immensely from it and arguably, if it wasn’t for being forced into a comfortable relationship with stillness at a young age, I don’t think I would be able to do my favorite things like writing or painting.

          My earliest memories are of laying awake in the mid afternoon Kuwait heat, holding still for fear of waking my mother only a few feet away.  Nap time was sacred in my house, despite repeated protests ( I was never an on-demand napper), I was still ordered to lay down with everyone else.  It was assumed that sleep would eventually win me over.  However, the majority of the time I remember ‘nap’ time as an adventure;  a time to decipher a secret map hidden in the shapes of my patterned sheets, discover hidden tunnels leading to a garden in the folds of my window curtain, or create stories staring my favorite stuffed panda bear, Dabdoob.  All of this had to be done in silence, holding as still as possible for fear of reprimand…or capture by an evil pirate.

These stillness skills came in handy shortly after acquiring them.   A couple weeks after Iraqi bombs rained down on Kuwait city, my mother decided to pack us up and leave.   It was just the two of us since her and my father divorced when I was very young.  It took me years to process how giant an undertaking this was for her.  She was a young woman traveling alone with a small child and limited resources, ( besides the gold she later pawed for plane tickets to America which she kept hidden in pita bread and maxi pads as to avoid having them confiscated by soldiers.)  I was only allowed to take one toy for the sake of saving space in the back of her bright red Honda.   For endless hours in that backseat, it was just me and Dabdoob, on a top secret mission to get through all security checkpoints by interpreting  mustache twitches of burly soldiers.

“Just hold still.” My mom would say whenever approaching a check point.

“Dabdoob wants to know if they will put us in jail?”  He was always a bit of a pansy.

“Not if we don’t give them a reason to.  Just hold still!”

I would pretend I was asleep and look up just in time to see dust kick up from under the tires, the checkpoint already behind us, Dabdoob clearly relieved.

         Stillness also came in handy that time in the middle of the desert somewhere between Kuwait City and Baghdad when  our car ran out of gas and my mom and I had to wait on the side of the road for our friends to come back with a filled gas can. I passed the time reading The Little Mermaid to Dabdood till the sun came down and millions of stars came out in the desert sky.  I still remember how beautiful that sky was, there was literary nothing but stars.   After we finally got going again,  I sat still watching red and white lights from surrounding cars swim across the top edge of my window, lulling me to sleep.

Once arriving in Jordan, I still had to do a lot of  waiting.  First there were the long lines at the Jordanian embassy and the hours spent sitting in the  waiting area that was packed with people, all of whom recently fled Kuwait.  Advancing in my stillness skills, I found things to look at in the distance, cracks in the wall that took the shapes of animals or shadows that became a jungle.    As the weeks wore on in Jordan, my cousins were headed back to school, and I was jealous.  I wanted to decorate book covers, sharpen pencils and layout school uniforms on my bed,  but I had to stay home with my great aunt and wait…  Wait for someone at the embassy to sympathize with my mother long enough to issue me a passport and visa, despite their being no male guardian to grant permission.  Everyone knows waiting for someone to break that rule in 1990 Middle East is like waiting for Punky Brewster’s comeback show in 2011. ( I am still holding on…)

The situation was deteriorating as conservative family members were losing patience with my mother’s stubborn independence.  They urged her to return me to my father in Kuwait.  After all, can you imagine the immoral and heathen woman I will turn out to be without the firm hand of a father…?   Apparently, my future looked bleak.  My great aunt even went as far as hiring a driver to take us all the way back to Kuwait in the middle of the war, luckily my mom’s fist full of cash was more convincing than the driver’s sense of  morality and he happily turned around and dropped us off at a hotel in Amman. It wasn’t till we were finally reunited with my uncle that my waiting neared it’s end.  We returned to the same employee at the embassy, he flashed his American passport and Poof! I watched as the man held the stamp in the ink and pressed it on a page in my passport book.  Now off to America, land where you are free to be a single parent.

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I’ld like to think my stillness-skills puts me at an advantage in places like the DMV, the post office, or heaven forbid, DHS.  Enjoying stillness actually has various uses; I have always been one who can just sit and wait at a bus stop or train platform, no need for headphones or a gadget to thumb. I can get lost in my own thoughts, or more importantly, no thoughts at all, often finding myself simply being.

I wonder if we are putting ourselves at risk for a decrease in  artistic expression with all these personal gadgets? Kids now seem to be perpetually plugged in.  Many teenagers have confessed to me that they reach for their phones when they feel an awkward silence at a bus stop, or in line somewhere.   I cringe to think what might happen if this generation ever had to do the kind of waiting I had to and their gadgets ran low on battery.  There is nothing worse than a gang of sugared-up tweens who were recently forced to unplug themselves from their electronic umbilical cords.  If this was 1990 Kuwait, the collective wails would have been obnoxious enough to send Saddam running back to Baghdad, locking his palace doors tightly behind him ( I spent last year working with 5th graders, believe me, I know)

These kids are different.  Not like us  ’80’s babies…we knew how to stand still somewhere…and appreciate window seats….