My Mother Makes America Great
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My Mother Makes America Great

And you CAN'T convince me otherwise.

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My Mother Makes America Great
Pixabay

From the time I was old enough to understand that there are people who have a cunning way of making someone feel infinitesimal, my mother always repeated the same words to me: think bigger than them. Although, think came out sounding like sink because she was fluent in three languages, and English was the third.

My mother was a stubborn-minded Arab woman with a soft heart and a high-pitched ee-ee-ee *snort* ee-ee-ee laugh that was hilariously contagious. She’d always find the simplest things the most funny; like when she walked into the living room while my brother and I were watching The Lord of the Rings and mistook “elvish” for “elvis,” and for years after the phrase “Elvish Presley” made her burst into a fit of noise that sounded as close to a squeaky toy as a human can get. She came alone to the United States from Egypt in her early 20s before meeting my father, also an Egyptian. She was resilient and determined. I got my green eyes from her.

She always told me little anecdotes about her first experiences in America. She recounted the time she began learning how to drive, and didn’t understand that she wasn’t allowed to pass a stopped school bus on the road. The beginnings were lonely and filled with a longing for close family and friendships. She had trouble with her accent and pronunciations, and people would often ask where she was from--I don’t know when she became afraid to say it out loud. I used to get a kick out of telling my friends that both my parents were Egyptian, so of course I had to be, too. Suddenly, her advice became you don’t have to tell everyone everything about you and sometimes it’s better to be quiet. I’d watch the pupils in her eyes tense when she’d say this to me, and I could tell she was worried about something.

For a large chunk of my childhood, there was just me and her. My father took some time to visit Egypt, and my siblings were old enough to be on their own. If we were out in public together, she would replace Arabic with French (a language I understood less than Arabic), and if she had to speak in English, she’d speak it quietly. At home I’d hear her on the phone talking to her sisters, and I would try to follow the conversation as her breath exploded into an electric current that weaved around each word. Arabic was energetic, lively, and rhythmic--I wanted to speak it so badly, but never really learned. When I asked my mom why her and my dad had never taught me, she would tell me “You’re American,” and move onto something else. It was hard to change her mind.

My mom’s idea of being American mostly came from the glamorous and esteemed Americans she’d seen in magazines and on the television. She wanted me to be a famous artist, actress, writer--and she thought that might be easy in a country that presented itself as a place where dreams come true. She wanted to go to cooking school, and on Saturday mornings I’d often catch her nodding along to a Julia Child episode while feverishly scribbling the recipe on a loose piece of paper. She’d had dreams of her own, but cast them aside to prepare for all the ones I’d have throughout the years. She worked all week, always hoping for some overtime at a desk in the local hospital--at one point she even took up part-time work at one of the supermarkets in town on top of her full-time schedule. While I was trying to act and sing as good as Hilary Duff, she was watching me, helping me, and cheering me on. She instilled within me both her stubbornness and her strength. She gave me parts of my Arab-ness; kofta, mulukhiyah (my favorite meals), her Arabic cassette tapes, she even brought me to Egypt when I was five. Yet at the same time, she kept that side of me at a distance. She would never teach me how to speak Arabic, and apart from the food and the music, she never showed me much about Egyptian culture at all. It was always the same reasoning; somehow being "American" meant leaving our Arab side behind.

There’s this stigma in the United States that makes Arab-Americans afraid to be who they are. As an adult, I’ve realized my mom tried to separate me from it because she felt I’d be looked at differently. I know she has had her fair share of hardships, and I’ve seen people make fun of her accent or shift uncomfortably when they learn where she’s from. There are those who want to keep people like her out of the country--even simply for being of Arab descent--because of some kind of skewed worldview that seeks to villainize her and others in Western society. I know that being Egyptian is not the same as being Syrian, or Lebanese, or Pakistani. There are different dialects, different religions, different values, different people--and it's the fault of the government, the media, and just some citizens in general, for trying to portray them all as terrorists, or dangerous and conniving in some way. I think what my mom truly meant when she’d say think bigger than them is that people who are small-minded don’t leave much room to think at all.

I’m a first generation Arab-American, but my mother is an American too-- for who are we if not a country wholly built on immigrants? She came from a family with a total of six children--all females. Her father was an electrical engineer, and they lived in an apartment in Cairo with her mother and her mother’s mother. She used to trace the lines on her grandmother’s hands, thinking the tired skin had become a maze. She loved chewing on the sugarcane her mother used to bring home from the market. Her father died when she was only thirteen. She worked her whole life and was never able to attend college. She’s been through so much to get here, to raise her children, here, in a place that gives us more opportunities than she ever had. She is a human being who’s been trying to do her best, and no one can say that she is less American than anyone else.

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