This was presented at the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association Conference.
My mother used to say, “A dog will always be a dog, even if he is raised by lions.” That’s a Lebanese proverb. I wish I could say that I remembered the lilt in her voice as she said it, or the dog that she was talking about, or whether her eyes were soft as she looked down at me, but I left Lebanon in 1997 and I haven’t seen my mother since.
I say, “I left,” as if it were my choice, but I was only seven when the plane touched down in America. No one told me why I had to leave. As the youngest of four children and the only girl, I obediently shut my mouth as they put me on a plane. At the time, I was just fluent enough in Arabic, just versed enough in the Quran, and just hungry enough for my country to know that America would never be home.
The flight to the United States seemed to take days. When the plane finally landed, I sat sullenly in my seat until a flight attendant tugged me by the hand into the next airport. The air hung hot and heavy. Sweat dripped down my neck. People crowded the airport. They had black skin and yellow skin and pink skin, and some had matted hair, and some had no hair. The flight attendant was darker than anyone I’d ever seen before. I stared at everyone. No one looked at me.
I should have asked the attendant where we were going. I should have asked her if I were ever going to see my family again, and why this strange country was so hot and so dark. But my parents had instructed me to remain silent until spoken to, and even here, I obeyed.
We came to a halt in front of a man in loose, cream-colored clothes. He had the same pointed noise and steel-colored eyes as my father, but this man was shorter and broader and greeted me with a smile. “Ahlan! Targhib yaa Nasreen, I’m your uncle Hicham.” He spoke in a sing-song, muddled form of Arabic, and then said something in another language to the flight attendant, who left us alone.
“You’re coming home with me,” he said, in Arabic again. “Everything has been cleared.”
I stared up at him.
“You probably have a lot of questions. I don’t blame you, I would too,” he said, leading me out into the parking lot. I squinted up at the dry sun nailed to a cloudless sky.
“Your parents have sent you to stay with me for a while. You’ll like it here, because there’s water and sand and great music. You are in Amrika, the United States, now. You are in St. Thomas.”
I gazed all around. Buses chugged down the street, spitting out grey clouds of gas. Strange symbols covered signs and cars and shirts. As my stomach collapsed in on itself, Uncle Hicham opened the car door, and I climbed inside. I pressed my cheek against the glass.
Later, I learned that my departure coincided with an economic dip that sent a thousand men into the streets, begging for food. My father pulled my siblings out of school to work, which meant that I, the youngest, never had a chance. My father didn’t know what to do with me, and so behind his back my mother sent me to Uncle Hicham, who had a profitable fishing business in the United States Virgin Islands. Uncle Hicham lived in America, and America had universities, and America would make me an educated citizen. But a citizen of what, no one would say.
In the spring of 2011, when I was twenty-one and finishing a degree—when soft waves and bright music had dampened my desire to return East—a baseball changed everything.
In retrospect, my life may have been too quiet, but at the time the East was exploding with revolutions and I was grateful to be safe. In our neighborhood in St. Thomas, my uncle and two other Muslim families had started a mosque. Twice a week, my friends Salikah and Hiba and I gathered to study the Quran, and to bite our lips as the Middle East lit up with what would later be called the Arab Spring.
We sat in a circle around a radio. On this day, army tanks were rolling into Homs and Damascus, and we all shook our heads at the end of the BBC news report.
“Syria,” said Salikah, sucking her teeth. “Every other country rises successfully except Syria. What can you do with that?” She raised an eyebrow. Both of us ignored her. Her grandparents were Egyptian, but she’d been born in the United States and would never understand. She tucked a lock of hair behind one ear, popped her knuckles, continued: “Or maybe it’s not that something is wrong, but they’re in a civil war; they’re fighting themselves, for God’s sake. It’s like they’re having an identity crisis.”
“We can’t say anything about identity,” said Hiba, who had immigrated here ten years ago and repressed most of her Arabic. “I don’t exist in any country. Lebanon threw me out, and America won’t grant me citizenship.”
Salikah snorted. “Can you even call this America?”
“Of course this is,” I said, feeling suddenly weary.
Salikah frowned. “We might live in the Virgin Islands, but it’s a territory, not a state. The taxes are different. The voting is different. Even the people are different—they sing their words and are blacker than any Americans I’ve ever seen. I should know. I’ve lived in California, which is a real state.”
The room fell quiet. Hiba clenched her jaw, averting her eyes, and Salikah inspected her fingernails. I knew this silence well.
Something shattered behind us. I jumped up—Salikah shrieked. Glass sprayed.
A baseball bounced twice, hit the wall and then rolled away. In unison, the three of us turned toward the window. The ball had blown right through it. I clutched my heart and realized I’d been holding my breath. Is this what it’s come to? Soldiers in the East are fighting for freedom, and I’m scared of a baseball?
I stooped to pick it up. “Salikah, get the broom.”
Her eyes flashed, but she obeyed, and as she swept, someone knocked on the door front door. Hiba eyed it warily. “Whoever it is, make them pay for the window.”
I opened the door. A young woman stood in the doorway, gripping a little boy by the shirt collar. I held out the baseball. “Looking for this?”
“Poor me one,” he mumbled in Creole.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
The boy took the ball. I looked up at the woman who held him. “Is he yours?” I asked in Standard English, refusing to stoop to the level of Creole. Like Arabic, English was to be preserved.
She shook her head. “Not a chance. I don’t breed.” She turned the boy around, smacked him on his rear, and sent him scampering away. I stared at her with my arms crossed.
“Sorry about the window.” She laughed. “That boy vexes me, but he’s a cute one.”
“But he’s not yours?” I repeated.
“I volunteer at St. Martin’s Home for Children right up the street, and their baseball game got out of hand. I’ll fix the window.”
She walked inside—without being invited, and with her muddy sneakers still on—and inspected the damage. Hiba and Salikah edged out of the room, eying me suspiciously, and their lack of hospitality irritated me more than the broken window. “Don’t worry about the window,” I said finally. “The kids were just playing around.”
“I’ll buy some new glass.”
“There’s no rush.”
She shot me a strange look, as if she didn’t know whether to trust me, especially since St. Martin’s was a Christian organization and she’d just stepped into a mosque. Her hands were shoved into the pockets of baggy shorts, and a t-shirt hung loosely from her shoulders. In contrast, I wore a button-up and jeans even in the heat.
She held out her hand. “I’m Mariana.”
I grasped her hand, and she pulled me in to kiss my cheeks. “Glad to meet you.”
“Yeah, um, you too. Are you new to the mosque?” I asked.
“You could say that.”
“Then let me take you out to lunch.” I forced a smile. Because she looked surprised at the offer, I added, “In Islam, there is a hadith that says, ‘Let him who believes in Allah and the Last Day be generous to his guest.’”
“I appreciate the generosity.” When she smiled back, dimples burrowed into her cheeks. “And I will return it.”
For lunch, we went to Mahmood’s, an Arab-Caribbean restaurant that sold everything from falafel to salt fish in shallow brown dishes. Something about Mariana drew me to her, and I found myself catching her eye more often than not as we sat at a table by the shore. Ocean waves lapped against the sand. Around us, tourists and islanders chatted in a blend of English, Creole, French and Spanish. People often think the Caribbean is homogenous, but it’s not: It’s Indian and French, Lebanese and Nigerian, all tossed together.
As we dug into a platter of banana fritters and gutu, conversation picked up. Mariana wiped her hands on a napkin. “How long have you lived here?” she asked.
“Fourteen good years?”
“Just years.” I tucked my hair behind one ear, trying not to think about my father, who never called, or my mother, who had passed a decade ago. “Nothing can be entirely good or entirely bad. I miss what I can remember of Lebanon, but least here I can attend a university and make my uncle proud. I’ll go back one day.”
“So what are you going to do with your education?”
I sat, unsure. In the back of my mind, I had always felt guilty about leaving my parents, so I’d thrown myself into studies. Now that graduation was around the corner, I felt like I should have done more with my time here. “Eventually, I think I’ll get married, maybe do a little teaching and then return East.”
“What do you mean?”
“Call me a feminist, but you seem like a smart girl. I think you’re meant for more than ‘a little teaching’ and having some chulo man’s kids.”
“Well, what are your plans?”
She bit off a chunk of fritter. “I already graduated from university, Vanderbilt, class of 2010. Now I’m staying with my grandparents and doing social work in Charlotte Amelie—without a husband, in case you were wondering.” Her eyes shone. Something in my chest tightened, and I pushed down a breathless, excited feeling that I couldn’t name.
“There’s nothing wrong with a husband, Mariana.” My voice came out as a squeak, because these were the same things I’d told myself over and over, for six years. A husband was good. A husband was halal. Love wasn’t about physical attraction but mutual commitment. I felt my smile crack.
If she noticed anything, her shrug dismissed it. “I don’t fall in love with men.”
“You could,” I said quickly. “You just haven’t met the right man. You’re a Christian; you know that God created men and women to complement each other.”
She shook her head. “People have told me that my entire life, but that doesn’t make it true. You can’t speak on behalf of God if you don’t understand what it’s like to love the way I love.”
“Don’t make assumptions!” I snapped, and her eyebrows shot up. I doubled back. “About my religion. Don’t make assumptions about my religion or what I believe if you don’t understand Islam.”
“Then teach me.” She held out her hands palms-up in surrender. “Islam means submission, right? I’ll learn from you, and you can learn from me. I submit.”
“What can I learn from you?” The question came out more sharply than I meant, and I cringed at my own words.
“I like to think that I have something worth teaching. Will your mosque let in someone like me?”
“Someone who loves women?
“Yes,” she said, looking me straight in the eye, turning up the edges of her mouth in a smirk. “A zamy, as my grandmother calls it. Will that be a problem?”
“It’s complicated. But—I mean, if you really want to submit to God and learn, I don’t see why you couldn’t come. Islam calls everyone.” I took a fast sip of water and dribbled it down my shirt. She handed me a napkin. I swallowed hard. “Besides, I’m a Muslim, so am I still allowed in your church?”
That dimpled smile lit up her face again, and all of my ribs crunched together. “Of course,” she said.
We talked until lunch was over, and then we walked along the beach, walking so closely that our hips touched, slipping through a blur of subjects: My family and her family, my country and her state. What was her favorite food? Rum cake. What was my guilty pleasure? Sautéed pork on a bed of rice. Although our years at university had standardized our English, she dipped in and out of Creole like a child splashing in the waves, and Arabic crept back into my speech.
We sat on the shore with our toes in the water. She let me prattle on about my uncle while she traced circles on the back of my hand, laughing when her touch distracted me and made me speak twice as fast. As the air cooled and the sky turned a flustered red, I realized that it was almost evening. I jumped up.
“Are you okay?” said Mariana, pulling her hand back. She looked me up and down with an expression that I couldn’t place, inciting an emotion that felt strange and familiar at the same time. I struggled to gather my thoughts.
“My uncle wants me home before sunset.”
“I’ll walk you home.”
“You don’t have to—”
“It’s common courtesy.” She offered her elbow and, without thinking, I took it. We dragged our feet the half-mile back to my house, feeling the time pass too quickly, thinking of all the words we could fit between our fingertips.
Once home, I slipped inside and shut the door, then peeked out of the window: Mariana was gazing up at my house with her hands in her pockets. Her hair had fallen out of the ponytail. Her lips curved upward. She waved as if she knew I were watching, then turned and walked away.
That night, sleep came fitfully as I dreamed about baseball, civil war, and university—but it was my memories, not my nightmares, that horrified me the most. The past returned every time I closed my eyes.
Now I’m sixteen and standing in the mosque, awestruck: Despite the splintering walls and grimy windows, the building’s holiness creeps under my skin. I kneel. The girl kneels beside me. She wears a scarlet dress and has burning lips and I close my eyes against her image, pressing my forehead to the mat in prayer, silently repeating the hadith, “Sihaq of women is zina.” Lesbian activity is illegitimate; lesbian activity is adultery. In my heart, I scream, Allah, preserve me, purify me and take away my affliction. I ask you with the asking of him whose neediness is intense, whose strength is frail, whose sins are many. When I open my eyes, the girl takes my hand. I shake her away and run out of the mosque. The feelings remain for two more years.
I’m eighteen and trying not to watch my roommate get dressed. Eighteen and her flowery smell clouds my head. Eighteen and I’m letting a man kiss me, and then I’m kissing a girl, and then I’m moving back in with my uncle. I’m nineteen and repentant. I wear a hijab. I take off the hijab.
When the morning finally came, I touched my forehead to find it slick with sweat, and my cheeks to find them wet with tears.
Later that day I pored over books at the kitchen table. Hiba cooked lunch, kneading cornmeal, flour and okra between her palms as salt fish boiled on the stove. The air was warm and thick. She wiped her hands on her dress and then opened the window to let a breeze billow through the curtains. I watched her out of the corner of my eye. Her hair flowed in thick brown waves down her back, and a white scarf—which she would drape over her hair when entering the mosque—fluttered around her shoulders. She was beautiful, but she had never made my heart speed up or stolen the air from my lungs. Was that because she had always been like a sister to me? Or had God answered my desperate prayers five years ago?
I snapped back to reality. “What?”
“I’ve been calling your name. What are you reading?” Hiba plopped down beside me, and when I instinctually swept the books to one side of the table, she curved an eyebrow upward. “Something naughty?”
“Not a chance.”
She plucked a slim volume from the top of the pile. “’Sexuality in Islam’? I knew you were a good little Muslim, but since when do you read Islamic theology?” Or think about sex? was the question that hung unspoken between us. I’d always been the pious one, and she’d always been the skeptic.
“Hmm,” said Hiba, after a long breath. I looked at her. She was still staring at the book. Finally, she handed it back. “Well, let me know what you learn. I could stand to learn a thing or two. Do you want red peppers or eggs with your saltfish?”
As she returned to the stove, I felt a strangely sad mixture of relief and disappointment that she had dropped the subject so quickly, because if anyone could help me navigate sexuality, it was she. I arranged and rearranged the books, and then asked, “Do you know the story of Lut?”
She didn’t answer at first. When I worked up the courage to look at her, Hiba’s back was still toward me and her spine had stiffened. “Yes,” she said, “I think I know that story.”
In the story, Lut—who’s called Lot in Hebrew Scriptures—visits the province of Sodom and Gomorrah, witnesses men having sex with each other, and then says to them, “You approach men with desire, instead of women. Rather, you are a transgressing people.” That wouldn’t be so frightening if God hadn’t destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah soon afterward, proving that hell is the only thing that people like me have to look forward to. I bit my lip.
Wordlessly, Hiba passed me a cup of water, and I asked, “What did you think of Lut?”
“What’s there to think?”
“Wasn’t God too hard on everyone?”
“Who am I to say? I’m not God.”
“Yes, but don’t you think it was too extreme? Maybe it wasn’t the sex that was forbidden. Maybe the men were using sex to take advantage of each other, so God hated the pride and deception, or maybe the men were abusing each other—”
“Sodomy is abuse,” said Hiba, with a small shake of the head. “I know it’s taboo to say that nowadays, but someone has to speak the truth. It’s unnatural for two men or two women to be together. They’ll just end up hurting each other.”
“Men and women can hurt each other too.”
“Yes,” she said, “but that’s different. Now try this fish and tell me if it needs more salt. You wanted eggs and not pepper, right?”
I wanted to ask her, “What if two men are in love? Is it still a sin if Allah the compassionate, the merciful, has created human beings to be with each other?” I wanted to ask her, “What about the fact that the Quran never specifically mentions two women?” But more than anything, I wanted to ask, “What about me?”
Instead, I said, “Eggs are fine.”
She rummaged through the refrigerator.
“Do you remember the second semester of my freshman year at UVI?” I asked. She set a plate in front of me and placed a steaming platter of fish on the table, then returned to the frying pan. “Do you remember why I stopped living on campus and starting living with Uncle Hicham again? I was a wreck. I almost dropped out of school. You and Salikah had to pick up my pieces for month.”
Her back was to me again. “I remember.”
“I never told you why.”
“I assumed that you were just overworked from school. College can be a very stressful time, I should know. I’m still not sure that it’s for me, because really, what would I study? English? Criminal justice? Did I tell you I was thinking about helping my father with the family restaurant?”
“I left college because I sinned, Hiba.”
She used a spatula to push around the eggs in the frying pan. “My other sister can’t cook and my brother wants to go into business management, so that leaves me, my cousin and my father to look after everything. I’m thinking of updating the menu.”
I wanted to stand up, but my knees shook violently beneath the table. “Are you even listening to me?”
“Of course I’m listening. Pass me a saucer for the eggs.”
I stood my ground. “Hiba, I was in love, and it was with a girl. Her name was Yasmin. We lived together. She was my roommate.”
“I don’t know anyone named Yasmin.”
“I thought about her all of the time. I would have done anything for her.” I clenched at a napkin and stared down, down at my plate, down at my floor, down at the shameful hopes that I still had locked away inside of me. “The whole time, I was torn between believing that God loved me and believing that I was broken.”
“You’re not broken, just confused.”
“God in his mercy has granted me wisdom.”
“Good,” she said. “Now use it.”
I opened my mouth. I had to say something, anything. I wanted to shake her by the shoulders and tell her that a broken girl couldn’t know what true love was—but sinful or not, I had known love, and a small part of me wanted to know it again. But is it worth losing my family over? Hiba sat down across from me and passed me a fork.
“Remember to wash your hands before you eat,” she mumbled, slicing the fish into thin pieces.
“It’s disgusting when you forget to wash your hands.”
“I’ve never forgotten to wash my hands.”
“Hiba, I already washed my hands.”
I glared at her. She kept her head down as she ate. I picked at the food and focused on everything else going on around us: the gentle hum of a lawnmower next door, the rattling of tree branches against the window, car engines coughing their way up the road. She finished eating before I did. And then someone knocked on the door.