by Nada Samih-Rotondo
While CNN broadcast the Iraqi army’s invasion of Kuwait City to the world, I was trying to tune into my morning cartoons. That morning in August, I struggled to find a working station on our newly defective television for my cartoons. My mother received a long distance phone call from her younger brother studying in the United States. Her older brother smoked a cigarette outside in the parking lot of the apartment building they were born and raised in. Simultaneously, my mother blurted an incredulous rebuttal on the receiver, I smacked the uncooperative screen streaked with brightly colored bars, and my uncle burst into the living room exclaiming.
“What do you mean an invasion?”
“This isn’t working, where’s my show?”
“There are tanks outside! Iraqi soldiers!”
At the height of the cacophony, a realization.
Two weeks later my mother packed up her red Honda and we followed the surge of bodies and vehicles squeezing through heavily patrolled borders to Jordan.
“Pretend to sleep,” I was warned whenever we went through an army checkpoint. Ancestral gold was carefully hidden in a package of menstrual pads in plain sight on the passenger side floor waiting to be pawned for plane tickets.
A pause. Braiding Jasmine vines. Fragrant necklaces of delicate white flowers. Bleating goats and swinging seats shaded by grape leaves. Plethora of cousins.
A buildup. Long lines at the embassy. A neighbor hired by extended family to drive me back to my father still in a smoldering Kuwait. Abrupt movement. My mother stole me away yet again. Sleeping in different places. Vertigo.
An acceleration. Amman to London, London to New York, New York to Rhode Island. A misty October evening. Finally, a landing. Cold dewy pine scented mornings.
Growing up, I was sustained by limited early childhood memories and my mother’s side to the story. Insatiable hunger temporarily satiated by new details thrown in occasionally; crumbs. I spread my roots deeper, absorbing nutrients from family stories I had access to, hoping to ignore the gaps from missing narratives.
Ard is the Arabic word for land, but also for earth, ground, soil, property, place. Arabic is multilayered, like the earth. Crust, mantle, outer core, inner core. We landed in the small New England town of North Scituate. Much unchanged since it was settled a couple hundred years ago, it managed to maintain a quaint country setting through a controversial reservoir project that flooded fledgling mill villages and displaced long time residents after World War I. A ten acre rule was instilled for any new construction to ensure the town maintained its country setting.
The water sharks of Providence
Good judgment seem to lack
If they will take a trip up here
They’ll find us on the map1
Two centuries of developing, building, and farming uprooted and washed away. By 1916, condemnation notices went out: “They came to your house with liens. They served them personally.”
Seven documented cases of farmer suicide, hundreds of families uprooted.
This strikes me as personal, this severing of land. It hits too close to my core. My cousins, who continued to grow up in this small town knew all of the unseen points of entry into the drinking water supply for illegal swimming and fishing. The water, shockingly cold even on the hottest day, erased what once was.
It seems as though my family’s catastrophe left a mark on my gravitational field. Years later hiking around Carrs Pond in East Greenwich, I nearly tripped over an old gas line sticking straight out of the earth in the middle of the forest. Looking around I noticed an old stone foundation, the remnants of a home. I paced the perimeter, excited by the new discovery. I later learned that similar to Scituate, residents here were forced out to make way for a reservoir, it was called The Big River Reservoir Project and it was never completed. Further down the path, I spot a cut down tree with sap oozing down the trunk like blood from a freshly cut limb. The sap is all forward momentum, oblivious to the axed trunk, completely unaware of being cut.
Both sets of grandparents were forced from Palestine. Not through personally delivered liens but through airdropped leaflets and later, bombs. Over 750,000 souls forced out. We call it the Nakba.
When I was seven years old, after my first year in the United States, my uncle bought a single story house in Johnston, the next town over from where we were staying in North Scituate. The land the house is on was once part of a one hundred acre farm owned by the Coffin family, famous for a patented invention of a stone remover to make clearing the land easier. The historic stuccoed-stone mid-nineteenth-century house stood directly across the street from my uncle’s house. Stones from the farm were used for his house and stone walls.
My first impression of the house was that it was haunted because my mother and my grandmother, teta in Arabic, were given the underground basement to set up home. The stairs lead down into the open living room, with a tiny kitchen and laundry area off the left. Beyond the living room was a narrow hallway that was pitch black even during the day. The ceiling light almost never turned on when you wanted it to and sometimes wouldn’t turn off either. Water damage was the official claim, but I suspected something else. Off the hallway were small interior rooms. The first was the one I shared with my mom. It had space enough for two twin beds separated by a nightstand and two small rectangle windows atop carpeted window seats that served as shelves. Looking out onto the street, they were dressed with frilly curtains attempting to distract from their nature as dirty basement windows. After family fights, I often consoled myself with the image of climbing out of the ground level windows and escaping down the street unnoticed to take cover in the unfinished tree house the neighbor boys and I built.
I have vivid memories of sitting crosslegged in a circle with Mom and Teta in a room in my uncle’s house with a Catholic altar built into the wall. Once the home of some benevolent saint, it now housed a container of Secret deodorant, a saint of freshness. I imagined Catholic deities tsk, tsking at the new Muslim inhabitants. I listened intently as the women talked about various topics: the thinning ozone layer, djinn, protecting oneself from dark magic. I learned one must always evoke Allah if discussing djinn for protection since some were pious but others were not. These beings, created from smokeless flame, are attracted to the mere mention of their existence and it was best not to speak of them at all, to remain silent. Silence was protection.
The final room down in the furthest corner of the basement was undoubtedly the most haunted as it was the site of my teta’s ghastly encounter. At face value it seemed to be a regular room, even desirable with its ample closet space and sense of privacy in the corner. When they first bought the house from an elderly Italian couple, it was decided that my teta would have that room, but she didn’t have it for long. Her first few nights she slept in the basement alone since my mom and I still hadn’t moved in. On the day we moved in, she met my uncle, mom, and I on the steps and declared the basement safe for us. She said that she was spoken to by an angry djinn who demanded she leave.
“Get out,” it whispered in her ear, rousing her from sleep. The voice got louder and angrier and finally started to drag her out of bed and across the room. I looked over to my mom and uncle to gauge their reactions but they were just as shocked as me. In a fright, my teta did what any self respecting Muslim woman would do: recite the Quran. Teta was convinced she drove out the djinn, but the question still remains whether this was a special Johnston djinn, roused by decades of stone removal, or one she brought with her.
My mom and I were on our way to my stepdad’s aunt’s house for his uncle’s wake and the house happened to be haunted. I was thrilled to learn that the ghost that haunted her old house was not the uncle’s ghost, even though it was housing his body in the open casket downstairs in the parlor. She explained it was a child ghost and she often left toys out for it to be appeased. I never heard of a child being a ghost before and this new information aroused the caretaker in me. I laid out some toys at the top of the stairs with the hope that it would show itself to me and we could float around together for a while. A ghost around my age sounded like a perfect playmate, like the sibling I never had. I silently pleaded with the ghost child to come home with me. I promised it entertaining toys and lots of company. Even though we lived in my aunt and uncle’s house and had younger cousins, my mom and I were often treated like strangers. The “others” in the basement that brought shame on the rest of the family. A ghost friend, I thought, would never look down on me for sounding too American or for unabashedly playing outside with messy hair and dirty knees. I tried to lure it, but alas, I remained alone.
“Your father remarried, and he has a girl and a boy.”
My mother announced news from my uncle as he returned from a trip to Jordan.
He has a girl and a boy-–not, You have a brother and a sister.
“How old are they?
“Where do they live?”
“Who is his new wife?
Zero is a placeholder. Airspace void of sound her only response.
We invented math.
By 1740 BC, the Egyptians had a symbol for zero in accounting texts.
The symbol nor, meaning beautiful.2
My mother never put pictures on the wall. Left them blank white all the years we lived together. Kept photos in shoe boxes and stuffed them in the bottom of suitcases. Decades of never totally unpacked. One year I bought her a picture frame for Mother’s Day. Her favorite color, purple. With dried flowers pressed into the corners. Finally, I thought, a frame for this old photograph of us. I was three, sitting on a wooden horse, holding a lollipop and she was sitting behind me, glowing in red, only twenty-three. I still remember the lollipop, round and slippery. A couple years later she gifted the photograph back to me, it arrived in the mail cushioned by blank white sheets of paper missing the frame. She wanted me to keep it. She never really took to putting anything up on her walls.
My grandmother kept a mountain of notebooks, filled with her scrawled handwriting, towering along the back closet wall. She kept a handful of old black and white photos, artifacts of a life left behind, not once, but twice. Her survival a near miracle. Her escape from the war in Yaffa was retold so often it has become legend. The showers of leaflets etched with warnings. Body parts in the city square, the mysterious stranger directing refugees amidst a blinding sandstorm. She was convinced it was the angel Gabriel in human form.
The day my grandmother ripped up the black and white portrait of her on her wedding day, she told my mother it weighed her down. Her dress was made by her sisters, hand beaded, embroidered. Not white, but ivory because it was her second wedding when she married my grandfather. I never met him. He died of a brain aneurysm on the Jordan Land Bridge. Waiting to be let back into Palestine. All those years he stubbornly held on to the notion that the land would be returned. They had to bury him in his family plot in Tulkarem. Land wasn’t returned, but he had been returned to the land. A final act of stubborn rebellion.
A fortune teller told my aunt that the women in our family were cursed. Never to be truly happy, never to find good husbands. Never satisfied. How to lift it, I ask as a nine year old, already too much knowing coursing through my scrawny limbs. Lift it? They laughed at me. There are no curses. Only Allah has that type of power. It’s sacrilegious to believe in curses, they repeated. Yet, I still spent the better part of the summer of my twelfth year dragged around to palm readers and store fronts with the words “Tarot Cards” lit up in tiny windows. The women greeting my mother often spoke in hushed whispers as though not to disturb the wall-sized portraits of Jesus framed on the wall.
“Does he still love me? Will he come back?”
She was married to him less than four years but he left and cheated on her countless times. He would disappear for weeks, sometimes months at a stretch. We would have to move back to my uncle’s house every time, since she couldn’t afford rent on her own.
About halfway through their relationship she called me to where she was standing in the living room in my uncle’s basement to her wooden bureau. She was rummaging through the top drawer. I was already familiar with the drawer as that was the one that held the yet unattained wonders of womanhood—perfume, eyeliner, red lipstick.
She pulled out a pack of blue Gillette razor blades. My favorite part of that drawer was her department store eyeliner that I would steal to practice on myself. I loved the way the dark line around my eyes made me look like Queen Nefertiti, at least until I put my thick rimmed glasses back on. Eyeliner was worn to shield from the sun, my aunt once said, and for spiritual protection. At the time I didn’t understand what she meant. A couple months later my mom would notice her dulling eyeliner pencil and buy me my own, brown and not black. I wasn’t old enough for the black, she said, but yet somehow old enough for her to share her carefully crafted plan to slit her wrists at my stepdad’s family’s house.
“Not really deep.”
“Just to teach him a lesson.”
“To get his attention.”
She went on explaining her motive to physically manifest the consequences of his actions, or some such nonsensical adult rule. The plan was very clear. I remember there might have been notebook paper with her scribbles but can’t be sure. Memory is a fickle thing. I do remember the plan though. I was given strict instructions to pretend shock but not so dramatic as to cause someone concern for me. She was to slit her wrists, but not really slit them, remember? Just enough, not too much. Always in control.
“I will be okay.”
“No, it won’t hurt that much.”
“They will call here around four PM time, you should be waiting by the phone but don’t pick it up till the second ring.”
“Their voices will be sad and upset, don’t let that bother you, it is all part of the plan.”
“They will take me to the hospital.”
“Don’t be upset.”
“I will probably need to spend the night there, but not because I am actually hurt, it’s just the rule in the hospital.”
I remember asking:
Why hurt yourself?
What if he doesn’t take you back after all that?
Why do you even want him back after all he’s done?
I don’t remember if she had a response.
I remember her coming down the stairs after her night at the hospital, her face yellow and wan. Her wrists wrapped up with thick gauze, tales of only such and such amount of stitches, an order to see a psychiatrist or a psychologist. I didn’t know the difference because I was eleven. It didn’t matter, I remember thinking as I swept freshly sharpened eyeliner over my lash line. She wasn’t going to see them anyways.
I wrote my very first letter to my cousin and best friend Heba when I was five. We were in the same kindergarten class at school and did everything together. It was mostly pictures but I spent a lot of time decorating the paper. I snipped the bottom edge of the paper with scissors to give it fringes. My grandfather, who I remember as being endlessly patient and kind with me, was driving with the windows down.
I held the letter out when a sudden gust of wind snatched it out of my hand and swept it out of the car window. Instinctively, I reached out but it was quickly out of reach. I was frozen momentarily, hovering over a feeling of disappointment and awe at the strength of the wind. My grandfather finally broke the spell.
“Did you do that on purpose?”
I hesitated, considering the implications. He gave me an out, an opportunity to look at my situation differently, he gave me a different storyline.
Yes, I meant to send it by mail.
I had full faith that the gust of wind would deliver it to her door. He laughed graciously, probably relieved that I didn’t have a crying fit over the letter I spent so long laboring over.
Scheherazade told one thousand and one nights’ worth of stories to save her life. King Shahryar, heartbroken and enraged after witnessing his wife engage in sexual acts with his servant, had her violently killed. Still blood thirsty, he developed a ritual of deflowering a virgin bride at night and beheading her in the morning. Then he married Scheherazade.
I am eager to hear a new tale from Scheherazade, for she is a formidable storyteller. I shall let her live a little longer, and hear this new one.
After nearly thirty years and over ten thousand nights, a reveal: My father never stopped looking for me. A new story: My younger half siblings were raised to know me, to try to find me. Social media proved to be a useful tool for them and despite my name change, time and distance: An opening.
I was found.
The day I heard my father’s voice on the receiver after thirty years I lost my short term memory.
“The last time I saw you was the twentieth of August nineteen ninety.” He recited as though it was a scripted line from someone else’s life.
I just left my teaching job for the day to pick up my boys from childcare using a familiar route in a city I have called home for decades. I nearly forgot the way. Fully entrenched by the sound of his voice coming through my car speakers, I stayed in the parked car to listen to his side of the story.
My grandparents and my father went to check up on me at my mother’s house shortly after the Iraqi invasion and found the house empty. No word of our departure. Shortly after, my grandfather suffered a heart attack. I heard a Ted Talk by cardiologist and author Sandeep Jauhar about how emotions change the shape of our hearts. I learned that “fear and grief can cause profound cardiac injury,” and that the “emotional heart intersects with the biological one.” My disappearance amidst the bombs proved to be too much for him. He survived the heart attack but passed away almost a decade before I reconnected with my father’s family.
My mother’s distant relative worked at the United States embassy during the time of the war. Between his influence, an uncle’s citizenship papers, and my mother’s persistence, my visa got stamped and I was granted entry into the United States. That part of the story I was already aware of. What I was not aware of, however, was that somewhere along the way a death certificate got drawn up for my father and kept on file in Jordan. A falsified document aimed to allow my mother full custody, no need to get a father’s permission if he was deceased.
At the childcare center, I typed in what I thought was the building’s access code, the same code I had been punching in for over a year—mindlessly and often in a rush while wrangling two kids—and completely went blank. It took me several failed attempts before finally calling my husband for assistance. I experienced what might be described as a mild case of dissociative amnesia, which can lead to dysfunction in daily activities associated with normal life. Usually caused by trauma or stress, in my case it was triggered by the sudden shift in storylines. I imagine my brain pausing its regularly scheduled programming for rewiring.
At the conclusion of One Thousand and One Nights, the king awakens from a story induced stupor surrounded by his wife and children and asks, What kind of a world is this?
Why, King, a very wonderful world indeed.3
From horizein “bound, limit, divide, separate“4
The boundary between sea and sky before sunrise is indistinguishable; it is only after the passage of time that divisions become clear, limits understood.
I remember the brightness, the heat, the relentless Kuwaiti sun. There were sandstorms that turned the sky a particular shade of saturated orange. I remember being in the hospital recovering from dysentery contracted on a trip with my father’s family to Basra. I was surrounded by a team of vigilant nurses.There were bloody stool samples and scratchy hospital sheets. I remember asking my mom about my dad and noticing her tone change, making me feel like I said something wrong. I remember swarming cockroaches and the nurses pouring hot water over the walls and feeling too exhausted to be squeamish.
Months before, or was it after? There was a fire in the next yard over. I remember foolishly listening to my friends and scaling the stone wall. I remember being pushed back by a powerful current of hot smoke. I don’t remember how but I ended up in a warm tub in my father’s house with my grandmother combing the knots out of my hair.
It took years to recognize the smell of smoke without flinching. I remember being frozen stiff at the magic show performed at my school after immigrating to the United States. The kindhearted teacher hoped that taking me backstage for the magician to show me the tricks behind his magic would somehow bring me back to my senses. She had no idea it was the fire from his match that shook me. I didn’t have enough words in the English language to tell her and cried instead, shaking my head when he tried to approach me.
It took me years to recognize my visceral reaction to fire as a succor to my recently uprooted sense of self. After all, it gave me a direct lifeline back to that moment in Kuwait and served as a much needed reminder of where I came from and from whom.
My newly rediscovered father–my baba–sent me worn photographs of us and our extended family. Looking at those pictures, seeing my tiny familiar face on Baba’s lap, such an unfamiliar scene sent me into a disarming cognitive disconnect; my mind couldn’t form the memories, but every bone remembered.
Another old photo. He has kept it in his wallet all these years. I remember cutting my bangs crooked when I was five, but I don’t remember what they looked like growing out. I don’t remember those pigtails but I do remember always wearing ribbons in my hair. I remember that school uniform, the white Peter Pan collar with the ABC embroidered in the front. I don’t remember those earrings, but I remember what my mom told me about my grandmother having my ears pierced as a newborn in the hospital without my mom’s knowledge and the rift it created in their relationship.
What is the name of the emotion that is deeper than grief and wider than longing? Unearthed after thirty years of living without a parent that cared for me enough to carry this small photo with the trimmed white border around in his wallet next to similarly worn photos of other children he did get to raise. I can’t help but wonder how I am talked about in his circle of close or even casual friends. Was I ever referred to? Photo pulled out often as proof of my existence? Or did he just keep it there for himself? A quiet prayer that I was safe somewhere out there. Somehow I was found at the tip of Narragansett Bay, at the small point where the tidal river meets the open ocean.
The study of algebra, which itself is derived from the Arabic word, means completion or “reunion of broken parts.”
Recovering from my bout of dysentery, I woke up alone in my hospital bed to watch the yellow sun lift fluidly out of the Persian Gulf. I remember the way the horizon gradually appeared—a distinct line—deepening the separation between Heaven and Earth. The sky boundless, the day yet to begin.
The Islamic golden age, dating roughly from the eighth to the fourteenth century, ushered in a period of technological advancements such as the Astrolabe, or “star-taker.” It was used by astronomers and those traveling by land or sea to measure the altitude above the horizon or a celestial body, to identify stars or planets, to find one’s way.
The layout for my new house is open. With a circular first floor, it is fun for the kids to run around. They giggle as they find themselves exactly where they started. What a luxury to have such solid footing, a clear horizon. Is it progress they get to take this for granted? The house is on Windmill Hill, one of the highest points in Providence. This is not enough. I need to know how high. Exactness, the thrill of discovery, giving way later to the smugness of knowing. The satisfaction of being aware of my surroundings. The illusion of control. I unpack everything, frame everything. I nail all frames into the walls, fill the space with smiling faces and black and white ancestors.
Past traumas collect like oily residue in a glass of water. It becomes difficult to distinguish my debris from that of my mother, my aunt, my grandparents. They must be abandoned on their own pieces of driftwood if I am to catch my breath. With each unloaded box, framed photograph and unzipped suitcase, new growth. I keep a framed map of the city, my astrolabe, on the wall. Providence; God’s Grace. The rivers cut through the middle like veins through a heart. Like all maps, it serves as an anchor, a reminder, “You are here.”
1. The Scituate Reservoir by Jane M. Bamberg
2. Wikipedia: Egyptian numerals
3. One Thousand and One Nights by Muhsin Madi
4. Online Etymology Dictionary
Nada Samih-Rotondo is a writer, teacher, and mother who is inspired by the relationship between personhood and place. She is interested in the slippery concept of home, local histories, and monster folklore. Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, she immigrated to the United States at the age of six. She currently is working on a memoir spanning three generations and several continents. Her writing has been featured in the Masters Review, Squat Birth Journal, and Frequency Anthology.
Sam Aleks is an Armenian artist and writer living in Los Angeles, CA. His writing is featured in The Abstract Elephant Magazine LLC and The Raw Art Review. His art is featured in Canyon Voices and RAR and was displayed in the Northridge Student Art Exhibit and The NOVA Art Gallery.