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?
It is not uncommon for Levantine men to use the word hurma when referring to a woman. It means “sacred,” but also “taboo” and “prohibited,” like a whore.
It’s the year before the amputation, and I tag along behind my father and his Iraqi client up the busy streets of Shenzhen feeling very much like a hurma, though I am halfway around the world, though I am nowhere near the Levant. Fresh hair, lean body, supple breasts, I am dangerous cargo for those two Arab men, a discomfort. It’s my second day in China and everything seems extraterrestrial, like I’ve tapped into an augmented reality. On my right, counterfeit Louis Vuitton and Gucci merchandise is lined up along the ground before a barrage of storefronts decked with the wackiest avant-garde streetwear; hip-hop inspired Chinese silhouettes, grungy tweeds, silk embroidered Goth corsets, anime and manga prints on American vintage T-shirts; and on my left, docks teeming with freight ships and black smoke, heaving with the stench of deep-fried chicken feet, hot and crispy in paper cones, and a rush of corporate types crossing the busy streets.
My father and his client enter a café and sit next to each other. I watch them order coffees and fill the ashtray with cigarette butts. I listen to them make deals, lock orders, discuss containers, shipments, commissions. I want to interrupt, to tell him it’s hot and humid and I am unprepared for this weather, I haven’t packed for it, that I want to go buy flip-flops instead of these socks and sneakers, but he wants me to listen, sit quietly, invisibly. They finish their meeting and a pack of Rothmans between them and carry their conversation back to the street. I tag along and spot a large tin container of vintage T-shirts. A cutout cardboard sign reads “3 for $1.”
Baba, can I have a dollar? I ask.
He stops, inconvenienced, and starts to haggle with the old Chinese woman. He wants all three T-shirts for 50 cents. She waves her hand, a firm no. He chucks the three T-shirts back in the tin container and carries on walking, talking, smoking.
I follow him until we reach his Shenzhen address, an office apartment on the 33rd floor of a skyscraper. At the entrance, the security guard gawks. We are a rare sighting, I get it, especially me. It’s the year 2000 and Chairman Mao might be long gone, but it’s still early days for China’s global emergence. There are no tourists in sight. Billboards, street signs and TV channels remain in Chinese. Middle Eastern traders like my father might’ve started to trickle in in search of prosperity, but me, I have no business being here.
I pick up my pace and ask Baba to slow down. I want to go back; I have some needs, I tell him, and he should stop and listen to me. He tells me I am here to learn the ropes of the business, but instead all I want to do is shop. He’s shouting and I hate the scene he’s creating in front of the gawking guard. I want him to stop. I use the Egyptian word for shouting, ga’ar. He mistakes it for the verb, “to bray,” like a donkey.
You’re calling your father a donkey, you little shit, he says, and before I know it slaps me hard right across the face.
The elevator shoots us up like mercury in a thermometer, and I am feverish. I am prepared to set everything on fire, and apparently so is he:
You can’t. You can’t do this. You can’t slap me.
You’ve fucked us up, fucked us all up.
Me coming to China was your one chance to make things right.
I’m going back to Egypt.
I want my mum.
Yeah, you go. You’re her children not mine anyway.
I look at you and see nothing of me. Nothing.
Don’t even understand your language.
Your mother’s language.
I’m just the cow you all want to milk for money.
He rages at a distant point beyond him and me, at the burnt fields, at the bombs once dropping down from the sky into Ayn al-‘Asal spring. He rages at the dynamite under Teta’s kitchen once ripping the vine leaves and women’s banter into a million shreds, at the fact that he will always be a renegade. Even among his family, a renegade.
Thirty-three floors up seems like ground floor to eternity, and I can never unhear what he’s just said. His words are dark, unnatural, shambolic, and this tight elevator we find ourselves trapped in is all those words, burning.
On the 33rd floor, the elevator doors finally open. Baba unlocks his office apartment. I storm in, into his scant kitchen stacked with canned fava beans and hummus, his bedroom for two, his office. I am howling, my voice is a deep earth rumble, and I begin to destroy. I smash everything in sight, his fax machine, his computers, throw all the files on the shelves on the floor. I unhinge his desk drawers and rip away at business cards, invoices, contracts, bank transfer slips.
Then I call +2 02, I call Egypt, my mum. I want to tell her of what he’s done, what he’s always done, that he’s done it again.
Sweetheart, I am sorry, please.
He holds my small shoulders in his big hands to steady me, but everywhere is shudder, clatter. I redial and redial, but the mist over Shenzhen is boundless and the line won’t connect. Please. I am sorry. Please. This mist, it won’t let me dial home. I am stuck, cut off. I am homesick, whatever home means.
I have never been to the place where I am from, but I can imagine it for us, Baba, for you and me. Memory might fail us more than 70 years on, but I have read all the stories you denied me, tinkered with all the words, stored endless images I can now mix and match to piece it all together. I know what antiheroes are made of and that their journeys are on a perpetual loop. I know that space can be the one character in a story you can never forget. Your home, you were 4 years old when they chased you out through thousands of orchards. May 21, 1948, was the last time you saw Umm Ahmed, your nanny. Before that, she carried you everywhere she went, wrapped close to her chest, coiled like you would be in a womb, and the folks in your village mistook you for a girl. Yes, you had a nanny and long hair. You had cooks who pickled your olives and cleaners who cleaned a 10-bedroom-strong family home, washerwomen who soaked your soiled clothes in hot water and bay leaf, and farmers who sowed your land and milled your grains. The whole village was at your service, once.
Do you remember that man who arrived in al-Kabri with a map? He opened it before a farmer and asked him to show him the land of your father, Faris Serhan. The farmer folded the map and gave it back to the man, it was of no use, and said, all you see, as far as your eye can see belongs to Faris Serhan.
Don’t believe it when they tell you the Garden of Eden is a celestial place. It is not. Those four rivers running under Man’s feet, they were all right here, once. A spring in Arabic is called “Ayn,” as in eye. Look back and you will see. The eyes of our village, of al-Kabri: Ayn al-‘Asal, Ayn al-Mafshuh, Ayn al-Fawwar, Ayn Kabri. Together they watered the whole of Acre and formed the largest water source in Palestine. Ayn al-‘Asal was five meters wide by the ancient mill your father owned. It was ice cold in the summer and steaming hot in winter, like bubbling honeycomb. At night, Umm Ahmed would sing to you while the waters gushed through the meandering fields and formed a lulling circle around the village. In the morning, she would dip your toes in and you’d splash your happy legs, the way geese splash in the glistening sun, droplets forming diamonds on their feathers.
There were lots of mills; Al-Rayyis mill by al-‘Asal spring, one by Ga’aton where the ancient ruins were, al-Shufinneyeh, al-‘Assafiyyeh, al-Drabseh, Umm al-Far, al-Minwat by Abu Laziq canal north of the village, and al-Serhan, the mill that belonged to your father. In the meadows of Galilee, north of al-Kabri, was a water tank. It was 20 meters deep, 10 meters wide, and held all the winter rain that watered the tobacco fields on the hills. It was where the cattle went to quench their thirst.
There was enough water for all there, Baba, for the wild carobs Teta turned to syrup for her winter home desserts, for the bitter orange trees infused in your cold drink, for the catnip along the banks she plucked from its white flower to mix in a cool summer salad. “I made me gardens and orchards and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits.” Yes, all kinds. Seven kinds of figs, the all-summer sweet, the black-skinned with red flesh, the sour one with light skin, the green fig with a rectangular seed. The women in your kitchen mixed the figs with walnuts, almonds and sugar, then boiled the mix and stored it in clay pots for breakfast. Three kinds of olives also covered the eastern and northwestern hills — the big black one with a small pit, marinated in Acre sea salt and lemon, or pressed for extra-virgin olive oil, the one with a big pit, and the green one with a small pit. All these olives, soaked in winter rain right in time for the harvest in October. The farmers would beat the branches with long sticks and shake them until the olives dropped. They dropped on the large bamboo mats rolled out for them. The farmers would load them into sacks and head to the olive oil press, your press east of al-Kabri. When they were done, they’d make rosaries out of their pits to sell in Jerusalem and use the tree branches for home beams and village walls.
It might seem to you that life is an inferno you cannot escape, but there once were four seasons. Look, wherever your eyes fall, your heart drops too: In winter, rain pours with the velocity of a waterfall bringing in the mudbrick, red as deer blood. Your brothers, beautiful with big eyes and brilliant teeth, strip down and jump in the spring. Their bodies made of mud, covered in mud, drift with the water and soak in the rain. They soak with the jojoba and oak trees that leave a perfume trail in the breeze. Spring, a multicolored terrain of citrus yellow and henna red, and a green flying carpet to the east and the northwest. You are on the rooftop under a fountain of stars, on your father’s lap watching your siblings and cousins jump from neighbors’ roof to roof. Summer, nature’s wedding and harvest time for lentils, sesame and corn. At sunset, lights the color of peach orchards, and the road is lit with candles made of honey wax. At dawn, the farmers load the trucks with the land’s bellyful of flowers and head out to sell to the neighboring towns. Fall, a northern wind brings dust and dry leaves. The villagers raise their hands in prayer, asking God to calm the gust for the sake of the bobwhite, the starling, and the fowl. The fowl, they each hatch five to 10 eggs a go, enough to feed your entire household every morning.
Baba, your house, Acre’s command post of old Jerusalem stone, delicate arches and elegant pillars, is 10 bedrooms strong and surrounded by cinchona trees 15 meters high. The cinchona flowers are pink and red, and they rise above the courtyard and the divan where the village elders meet, over the 10 balconies and the stairway windows. There’s enough view for all bedrooms. The one for you and your siblings and the ones for all your uncles and aunts, and all your cousins, Ahmed Serhan, Amina Serhan, Zakiyyeh Serhan, your aunts, Amto Fatimeh, Amto Khayriyyeh, Amto Umm Yassir, Amto Umm Bassem, your grandmother, Sitti Umm Faris, and the 10th room reserved for the chief, Faris Serhan, and his wife, Ibtihaj al-Qadi.
People marry for different reasons. Some meet and fall in love, some tick all the right boxes for each other — religion, wealth, education, family name — and some are arranged. My parents married in 1969, for no good reason.
My mother’s nickname is Nana. She was a pretty girl from Cairo, only 20, her body wafer-thin. Daddy’s girl, she had never lived anywhere but home. Her mother with rollers in her hair would sew her dresses and, on an ironing board with floral prints, press their frills warm. My father, Nizar, was a college dropout. No job, no land, but a big family name, once, and an afterlife in Beirut.
Beirut in the 1960s, glamorous, infamous. Five-star hotels by the Mediterranean Sea, nightclubs on Rue de Phénicie, and casinos in the Jounieh mountains with Brigitte Bardot and Omar Sharif in the corner table. Nana, still green, saw the world through rose-tinted shades. Wowed by the unknown, she must have thought Beirut a fancy place, and so what if this suitor was without a land? She made homelessness into an exotic place, and out of his Levantine ways, a novelty. Something cool to tell her friends who had a home, like her. Nizar, he should’ve known after losing home that forever is never a way of life. Yet he saw Nana and dialed +961; he called his mother, Ibtihaj, in Beirut to say, I have met the one, and so what if she’s Egyptian, so what if she’s never lived anywhere but home? I won’t come back unless you let me marry her. Ibtihaj al-Qadi could not take another loss, and so she hopped on a plane bound for Cairo with two wedding bands and a diamond ring to keep her son.
Nizar went back to school, for Nana. He studied television directing in Cairo, not because he had any interest in it, but because he had no interest in anything else. Nana was all he was interested in, and a degree, any degree, was how he was going to build a home with her.
Finally, he graduated.
They celebrated their wedding at the Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, and his family flew in from Beirut to meet the pretty Egyptian bride. In a black-and-white photo, they all stand pretty in 1960s hairdos and eye makeup like Twiggy. She seems to fit right in among her new Palestinian sisters-in-law, a perfect addition to the lineup of beautiful women the Serhan sons had married. In that same photo, the famous belly dancer Soheir Zaki shimmies before a smiling bride and groom. They didn’t smile for long. Their honeymoon in Beirut is where his hands revealed all their hidden strife. But Nana, she was Daddy’s girl, she was wafer-thin, homesick, morning sick. She was nauseated before she vomited once, two times, before the gynecologist confirmed she was pregnant.
They moved to the Gulf, to Abu Dhabi, where he worked as a television director, and she, knowing by now that forever is never a way of life, had one child, then two. They had Nermin and me.
Abu Dhabi is desert roads, expat compounds and sports cars in 1981. That’s where we all are living when we are still “we.” Everything else is just one in a vast and untouched desert. One international school, one supermarket, one hospital. But there are a lot of us in that compound too, flanked by Palestinian uncles and cousins left and right. Home doors open day and night and Turkish coffee doing the rounds for family and extended family. They take over the dining room, the kitchen, the living room. They cook, gossip, fight, belly dance, talk politics, the television always on in the background with a war blazing.
It’s late when the doors finally close on the four of us. Nermin is 10 and I am 4. We both wear scratch-and-smell T-shirts in strawberry and raspberry. She kneels upright, the light of the TV a silver flicker on her face. Baba has me on his lap and whispers in my ear:
Tell her, Hey, TV head.
Hey, TV head, I repeat after him.
I want to tell you something.
He wants to tell you something.
Nermin is used to it. She tries her hardest to ignore it. He goes on:
Tell her I am not her father. Tell her I found her under a tree.
Baba is not your real father, I repeat, he found you under a tree.
Please stop, she says.
Tell her her real name is not Nermin, it’s Fawziyya.
I laugh, Fawziyya, Fawziyya, Baba is not your real dad.
Tell her, if she doesn’t answer, she’ll find herself back under the tree.
Baba laughs. She starts to cry. Baba laughs even more. I am jig-jogging on his lap. I have no idea why he’s laughing, but I repeat after him.
Nermin and I share a bedroom in Abu Dhabi and many times over in Cairo. We share a bedroom until she marries, and until then we fight like cats and dogs from home to home and room to room. While we do, our father moves from country to country chasing the buck. He tries his hand at a few jobs and recycles failures with no luck, then comes back. When he comes back, I wait for him by the window, for his head and bags to pop out of some car pulling up. Nermin and I fight like cats and dogs until one day it’s my mother, Nermin and I together, and my father is puff, gone.
He’s in China now, or on Mars, finally making it big, busy building an empire in the export business. He comes to Cairo from time to time with bags full of Chinese catalogs, product samples and scraps of cloth. I wish for gifts, which he never brings, and yet I rummage through his bags, nevertheless. I search his suitcase once and find a photo in a picture frame. The photo is of a young Chinese woman carrying a baby girl. I ask him who they are. Is she his wife? Is it his baby? But Baba lowers his gaze and slips from room to room.
The apartment here is bare, except for the necessities. The ceramic floors are rugless, the walls are naked, and there are no plants to tend. My mother, no longer Daddy’s girl nor any man’s woman, goes to work to make a living, for us.
He calls one day, he dials +2 02, he calls us.
Listen, I am getting old and I’m running a huge business here now. If I go, it goes with me, unless you come and I show you the ropes.
If you come, it’s going be yours one day. If you don’t, we lose it all. You’ll have everything you want here.
Baba, I studied literature. I have nothing to do with business.
Literature? What are you gonna do with that? Be a writer? Ha!
I go to China.
I go because where I’m from is not on the map no more, so I seek the edges and overlook the borders. I go because I’ve inherited a gene that roams, and the restless foot is mine to bear too. The ghosts of the past are calling me, they are asking me to follow in their footsteps, to keep walking out and out. To stop is to know I am out of place, so I move from place to place. Perhaps in the strangest lands I might cease to be a stranger. Perhaps my father’s got it all worked out, so I follow him. Two Palestinian renegades running toward the outposts, thinking we can leave ourselves behind. Thinking we can run until we vanish, like all our ghosts.
Some Chinese men grow their pinkie nails long as a sign of wealth and prestige. The custom is a holdover from China’s dynastic days, to let it be known that they, the men, are fine species, too precious to be engaged in any kind of hard labor. Today the tradition has been tweaked. The pinkie nail remains as long as ever, but many men don’t sit idle because they can afford it, they sit idle because they’re broke, while the women, short-nailed, are in the big-buck business.
I am about to be introduced to Xiuying Huijuan, a billionaire who prevails over a global high-end handbag brand. There are five of us going to meet her; a Palestinian client living in Brazil, a Chinese interpreter, an assistant, Baba and me. Baba hits the top floor button in a glass elevator that overlooks the Shenzhen River, and we shoot up through a cool mist until the river disappears from sight.
The boardroom is a latex-white-on-latex-white vision of the future, and my father is high on adrenaline and steroids. He’s been raving about this woman for days, which makes me wonder, what makes her less hurma than me. I hear her heels like a drumroll, and they all stand, so I do too. She is short, the youngest in her entourage, in a two-piece designer suit, and with a firm handshake. She takes her place at the head of the table first, then we all sit. I watch Baba slouch in a fake Tommy Hilfiger windbreaker double his size and turn his gaze down. The door opens and Ms. Huijuan’s staff brings in a collection of designer bags for our viewing. The bags are beautiful, wrapped in tissue, placed in boxes, tied in ribbons, slipped in posh bags. In my notepad, I judiciously write the date, November 3, 2000, her name, our Palestinian client’s name, and the brand. Only soon after, I realize, there are no notes to take really, just a show to sit back and watch.
There is a game in China that ancient politicians used to play. It’s called Qu Shui Liu Shang, and it involves floating a full glass of wine down a shallow creek. Whoever sits where the glass lands must drink and write a poem. Today, the game is played across boardrooms in China to win deals and establish hierarchies of power. The idea is to drink your opponent under the table with a silver tongue. If you can prove your eloquence, negotiating power and trustworthiness after the umpteenth drink, then you preside over a deal or win a promotion.
I watch as baijiu, a clear white spirit, is served. The coffee boy places a cup in front of me, but a sideway glance from my father tells me to stay out of this. Ms. Huijuan stands up and makes the first toast, the gan bei as they call it, or the dry glass. I continue to fiddle awkwardly with my pen as they raise their glasses and shoot the first cup down. Ms. Huijuan slams her cup on the table and calls for my father to go next, make a toast, but he doesn’t stand up or make a toast. He remains slouched in his seat and in monotone introduces his Palestinian client as a billionaire in his own right. I know how this will go because I have witnessed his ways before.
When he lived with us in the apartment back in Cairo, he and I would often play Monopoly. He would buy me out of every property from Old Kent Road to Mayfair, then relentlessly tease me for losing until I broke down in tears. It didn’t matter that I was a child, that I was his child, or that it was just a game. Now he’s at it again. Never mind the traditional Chinese saying that when one drinks with a friend, a thousand cups are not enough. He’s not here to make friends or play nice. He is here to win his own way, and fuck everything else.
Ms. Huijuan takes note, and for the next four hours or so has one mission in mind, to drink my father under the table at any cost. I watch him steadily slam one cup after the other as she falters, as her team falls one after the other. But the woman is determined. She asks for the Shaoxing, the red rice wine, and the beer to drink between toasts, then moves our shrunken party to a smaller all-glass room. They drink more and more and talk business less and less, until her red Shaoxing spills on her white suit. My father stands up, and we all do too. She is slouched in her chair when he shakes her warm hand, man to man.
Tell her we have a lot more to discuss, he tells his interpreter, let your people call me when you’re ready. We have 48 hours in Shenzhen before we fly out.
I am 17 when I leave my mother in Cairo to reunite with the entire Serhan family in Beirut. The Lebanese Civil War has just ended, and my Palestinian clan descends on the city from all corners of the earth, from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, and from Cyprus, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Bullets on building facades expose abandoned war sites. The windows are gaping holes that look into rooms ripped in two. Rubble, rust and peeling paint line the streets where big black dogs still prowl. Beirut, however, has turned its ravaged buildings into nightclubs where everyone dances on tables and flaunts the scars of war.
I tag along to a taverna where the family orders everything on the menu and copious amounts of araq, a Levantine spirit made of anise. Araq clouds cups and minds fast, as I am about to learn. I am intimidated by this international set called my family. My male cousins are handsome and worldly. They’ve been sent to private boarding schools in England and Ivy League universities in the United States. The girls are brazen and beautiful. They color their hair with Sun-In and have boyfriends called George and Jean-Michel, who behind our family’s back pick them up on motorcycles. My uncles have an easy elegance about them. They sit back and smile while their wives cackle. The party is boisterous as they make toast after toast.
Long live Lebanon!
To Palestine, one day!
I watch quietly, invisibly, and squirm as I sip the bitter-sweet drink. I’ve never tasted alcohol before. My father never allowed it, but he seems happy surrounded by all his family, probably the happiest I’ve ever seen him. A few cups down and a sound finally comes out of me. I stand up and ask everybody to be quiet, shhhh, I have something to say. I am awkward and still scrawny and no one’s used to me initiating talk. They stop to listen. I get up on the table, raise my cup, and knock the chandelier. My cup cracks. My father is amused, brings me another cup and pours me another drink. I take another sip and proceed to tell a joke in my dainty Egyptian accent. They love my Egyptian accent. It conjures up the golden age of Egyptian cinema, legends such as Abdel Halim Hafez, Faten Hamama and Adel Emam, as well as the glorious years of Pan-Arabism and Gamal Abdel Nasser. I am more than the sum of my parts to them right now.
Shh, listen. I’ll tell you a joke: A mummy covered in chocolate has been discovered in Egypt. Archeologists believe it may be Pharaoh Rocher.
I watch them laugh so hard they nearly fall off their chairs.
Nizar, your daughter is drunk!
On the way back to my aunt’s apartment in Tallet al-Khayyat, Baba warns me not to tell my mother he let me drink. He tells me to lower my voice, but I’m neither listening nor walking straight. He carries my limp body on his shoulder five floors up to my aunt’s apartment while I sing and sway my upside-down head of hair. Israeli missiles have slammed into the hills of Beirut recently, destroying two power stations and plunging the city into darkness, but Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal says he will pay the full cost of rebuilding them. Until then, my father has to walk up, with me on his shoulder.
The next morning over a breakfast feast of all kinds of manakeesh and knafeh, my father’s heart is full from last night’s communion. He summons all my cousins, my sister and me to line up in front of him.
When I call on you, he says, I want you to step forward and tell me your full names and where you’re from.
When it’s my turn, I step toward him, and feel confusion. I do not know if the words rolling off my tongue are ancient or utterly new.
Mai Nizar Fares Nayef Mohamed Ali Kheir Serhan, I say, Palestinian from al-Kabri.
Baba, you taught me my name is land and lineage. You told me I am from a place I might never see yet must always call by my name, but you did not really elaborate on any of it. We had horse stables and a wine cellar, you once said to me as I followed you from room to room, your eyes lowered, avoiding my gaze. Perhaps the rest of the story was a scream stuck in your throat, or locked up in a black box, which left me to assume horse stables and a wine cellar was all there was to it.
Zeinab Hanem Anis is my maternal great-grandmother, hanem being an aristocratic Ottoman title conferred on women of noble descent. She and her sisters were educated and groomed in Circassia and Turkey during the Ottoman rule, which controlled Southeastern Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. In 1916, the purebred siblings were sent to Egypt to marry into wealthy families. Zeinab Hanem Anis married Mustafa Bey Salama, bey being an honorary Ottoman title equivalent to “sir” in English. She lived in Cairo and was a writer, signing off with the pen name Sina, which is her family name, Anis, written backward. Zeinab Hanem also hosted a cultural salon at her home, which is now, more than a century later, the French Cultural Center in the Mounira neighborhood of Cairo.
Zeinab Hanem and Mustafa Bey had five children together: Mohsen, the eldest son, then three girls, Camelia, Shayanne, Isis, and finally, their youngest son, Anis. Family legend has it that on the occasion of the birth of Anis, Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa al-Nahhas Pasha paid the family a home visit. Zeinab Hanem was ill at the time, having just given birth, and bed rest was advised. Yet, this was no ordinary guest. Despite being sick, the lady pulled herself out of bed, dressed to the nines, and went out into the garden to receive her special guest. Zeinab Hanem died a few days later of childbed fever, a postpartum infection of the reproductive tract.
Following her death, the children were scattered, forming a little diaspora of their own, among other relatives in other homes. Mustafa Bey Salama would ride his horse down the streets of Cairo in a state of mournful stupor, stopping at one brothel after another, where he would tie the reins of his horse to the trees. He died shortly after too, of a broken heart.
In a black-and-white photo in my possession, Zeinab Hanem Anis sits in a satin dress with leather riding boots peeping beneath its hem, while her sisters and brother stand around her. The boy is blond under a tarboosh. The sisters are in identical black-and-white dresses. Zeinab has a small waist, and her hair is tied in a long, thick braid. She is a sight to behold in a wealth of lace and satin, delicious, desirous, like layers upon layers of crumbling pastry, her eyes fixed on the camera with both merriment and mystery. She almost fools me into believing I can reach out my hand and bridge the hundred-year gap, touch all that life force, her hand.
(Author’s note: I’ve changed a few of my family members’ names here to respect their privacy. “Xiuying Huijuan” is also a pseudonym as I don’t recall her real name.)