Susan Muaddi Darraj’s story, “The Fall,” has been named a finalist a short fiction contest by Solstice Literary Magazine: A Magazine of Diverse Voices. The story will appear in the Summer issue of the magazine.
On July 16, 2014, I was sitting in the library of Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, reading and writing while waiting for my three children, who are attending a summer camp here. It’s a lovely campus, and last week, I enjoyed telling my children how this beautiful college was one of the first to offer serious programs of study for American women.
“So why couldn’t girls go to school?” my six-year-old son had asked before the camp started, after their orientation and campus tour.
“It was a different time, but things changed,” I told him. “They’re a lot better now.”
I even tried to make the connection to faith. We’ve been attending, as a family, a Quaker meeting back home in Baltimore, and I shared with my kids that Bryn Mawr College was founded by a Quaker. Last week in First Day School, they’d learned about Lucretia Mott and had even made little candles as they talked about her vision and ideas.
Fairness. Justice. And especially – compassion. All the things my husband and I try to emphasize to our kids. The world is better when we all show compassion.
So on July 16, I sent them off to their classes with their teachers, sat in the library and started writing. A few hours later, I took a Facebook break and saw my newsfeed filled with the latest headline out of Gaza.
Four boys, aged 9-11, all cousins, playing soccer on the beach.The beach is supposed to be a safe area. There aren’t many nice places in Gaza for kids to play and enjoy the summer sun, but the beach was supposed to be safe.
On July 16th, it wasn’t.
A shell hits an area close to the boys. It kills one. The other three begin running towards the al-Deira hotel, where journalists, who frequently stay there, yell uselessly at the gunner, “They’re only children!”
The gunner is unseen, but he can see. And seconds later, another shell explodes right behind these boys. It kills them, disfiguring their bodies in ways that most people hesitate to share on social media and others refuse to look at.
And still others have the nerve to ask, “Are these photos real? So many aren’t.” Such a comment was made when Anthony Bourdain, in his own expression of compassion, tweeted a photo of one of the boys, lying dead in the sand, his legs twisted horribly around his body.
People won’t look at these pictures. I know some of my friends have been annoyed with how frequently I have posted about this latest atrocity in Gaza.
The murder of children disquiets everyone. People want to demonstrate compassion, but they want news that makes them feel good. People respond when you post a picture of Jews and Arabs breaking their fast together. It’s an evening news headline, to round out the update on the “exchange” of fire between Israel and some nation called Hamas.
Say that you are praying “for both sides” and they will affirm. Say that you feel for “Israeli and Palestinian children alike” and they will agree.
I’m no longer interested in this kind of verbal pat-on-the-back.
I’ve been asked to speak at an event to raise awareness and to do some peace-building.
Because here’s what I’m not able, this time, to do: I am not able to be the representative Palestinian, to sit beside a representative Israeli, and to talk about compassion in an general way.
I don’t want to hear nice things, about how “we all just need to get along,” and how the Jews and Arabs are really so much alike.
“We’re cousins, for God’s sake. Our cultures are so similar.” They will nod.
“Both sides need to just stop the killing.” Yes.
And someone will inevitably say, “Salaam and shalom are really derived from the same Semitic root word for peace.”
I don’t care anymore about this “feel good” approach.
Here’s what I am interested in saying:
Israel’s government is trying to eliminate the Palestinian people, its infrastructure, its history and its culture.
That’s what colonialism means – to take over someone’s land, exploit his resources, and then erase any memory of his presence in it. And while you erase him, you tell yourself that he deserves it.
So, no, thank you. I’m not going to be speaking as part of a panel that is more concerned with representing “both sides” than with sharing factual information. Because if I leave that safe platform, and if I talk about the unequal death rates, and the stifling blockade of Gaza, and the occupation that has lasted six decades, people feel queasy.
They don’t want to get “too political.”
I’m interested in saying that no child deserves to die: Palestinian. Israeli. Syrian. Iraqi. No child anywhere. Nothing political about that.
I want to say: I’ve been telling my children that the world has changed. Things are so much better now.
And yet that’s not true.
Here’s what is true: Someone saw these little boys running, running for their lives.
Someone saw Ahed Atef Bakr, Zakaria Ahed Bakr, Mohamed Ramez Bakr, and Ismael Mohamed Bakr abandon the soccer ball and run. And this culture of hate – this product of years of occupation and colonialism – allowed that person to press the trigger anyway, to blow them out of the sand, out of their clothes, out of their skin.
A culture that brews hate is not a culture that will thrive. Pretty words and feel-good gestures will not bandage this ugliness.
We need compassion that is informed.
The world, and every child in it, deserves better.
My new short story collection, A Curious Land: Stories from Home, has made the shortlist for Butler University’s Pressgang Prize. The winner, to be announced in August 2014, will receive publication and a reading at Butler University.
Last month, a friend of mine, who happens to be serving on a work committee, offered to do a bigger share of the workload. “It’s okay,” he insisted, when I protested. “You have three kids. I have only one.”
At the grocery store, where my children were causing havoc in the cereal aisle, a mother with a toddler sitting in the cart and sucking on a bottle, smiled sympathetically at me and said, “I don’t know how you do it with three. I can barely manage and I have only one.”
Sometimes, when I’m venting with friends about how difficult my mornings are (waking up the kids, making sure everyone’s dressed, preparing their breakfasts while yelling at them to brush their teeth, the chaos of shoes, bookbags, hats – okay, I’ll stop), those with a single tot at home will shake their heads and say, “Wow, I mean, I think I have a hard time, but I have only one.”
I know they’re offering their support, their respect. These words are intended to be the parental version of a fist bump. And I’m grateful to be surrounded by fellow parents who are sympathetic and supportive, rather than judgmental and competitive (because I’ve been around that crowd too, and they’re complete jerks).
But it bothers me that they’re somehow downplaying their own experiences, that it somehow makes you more of a parent if you have more kids (because by that logic, Jon and Kate Gosselin would be child-rearing experts). So that’s why I’ve started to reply, in this way, “Whether you have one or five, it’s always a challenge.”
Because parents of “only one” child have known the trauma of waking up to find a crib splattered with vomit.
You’ve seen your toddler’s face flushed red with fever, watched that thermometer creep up to 102 and been launched into a state of total, drive-to-the-ER panic.
You’ve had to deal with the drama of self-esteem and risk-taking that is potty training.
They’ve smiled convincingly at a kid who’s tasting pureed green beans for the first time.
You’ve hushed and consoled a preschooler who’s just been given four vaccinations at once and is outraged at such a low-down trick.
And you’ve had to grapple with the stuff, the endless stuff you need to foray into the world with a child – the stroller, the carseat, the diaper bag, the sling, the juice bottle, the sippy cup and its stupid valve that pops out whenever the thing falls and hits the ground.
These experiences are minor when considered individually, but they accumulate, like grains of rice, until you are startled to realize that you have a sack filled with parenting wisdom.
These experiences are valid. They do not lose legitimacy because they have happened only once.
My own mornings and evenings and drop-offs at daycare and storytimes at the library are not more legitimate because I am juggling the needs of three. I asked for this situation and even on those days – those days, when I’m looking to the heavens to drop some patience on me – I know that I have been blessed.
I am also blessed to be friends with parents who give me props, who salute my efforts. All I’m saying is this: don’t dismiss your own efforts, or shrug off the value of your own parenting experiences. Because we’re all in it together.
And you’re doing a fantastic job.
On this Mother’s Day, I am grateful for a beautifully-produced, slim volume of poems by my friend, Lalita Noronha. The book is dedicated to her own mother, Agnes Mary Noronha, who passed away in 2006.
Her Skin Phyllo-Thin describes the relationship between mother and daughter, strained over time, stretched across an ocean, but resilient. It is also a book that celebrates the strength of women across generations. In one poem, “Across Bones,” Noronha writes:
But when, on moonless nights,
I start to cry,
my grandmother reaches far
across my mother’s bones,
gathers my tears. […]
I inhale her breath,
and her mother’s mother’s breath,
vapors of ten thousand years,
and years before that.
When today becomes yesterday,
and days before that,
she knows I will stretch across
my daughter’s bones,
touch my granddaughter’s cheek…
Noronha, a native of India, a scientist and fiction writer, is also a gifted poet, who finds inspiration for her verse in her “search between continents, between sky and sky, between then and now for home.” She folds other themes – immigration, new worlds, marriage, family – into her poems, and many of her images are stunning in her accuracy. In “Sponge Bath,” she describes her mother’s hair, “a silver puff of dandelion”; in the same poem, we have the image that titles the collection. Several poems in this volume are also inspired by artwork housed at the Baltimore Museum of Art, by Gauguin and Rodin and others.
Her Skin Phyllo-Thin is a lovely gift from Noronha to her own mother, illuminating all the roles that mothers play and the tragedies they bear, as well as portraying how layered and complicated mother-daughter relationships can be.
The theme of this – the first online issue of Barrelhouse – is superheroes, and I feel obliged to explain why this is so.
The History: Of course, Wonder Woman was my favorite superhero when I was a kid, growing up in a South Philadelphia rowhouse with three brothers. She had to be, because she was the only regular, worthy and female superhero available to me. When Saturday morning cartoons were over and the local news came on, my brothers and I re-enacted whatever battles we’d seen, as I assume most impressionable children did, and Wonder Woman could seriously do some damage to her enemies, who were all men. She could also be a valued team member, because her strength and her lasso were legit. Her bracelets? Fashion and strength, in one package? Oh my god. Nobody wanted to mess with her.
The Confusion: For years, I remember thinking she was an Arab woman. I’m not sure why I thought this, but I do distinctly recall that I believed it for a very long time. And this confusion did lead me to dress up in a Wonder Woman costume when I was seven. I was proud of it, despite being horribly uncomfortable in the thin, plastic one-piece over my sweatpants and sweatshirt, my face sweating under the plastic mask with the nose holes and the rubber band stapled to the sides. Maybe I thought she was an Arab because she often said “Hera, give me strength.” Growing up in a bilingual household, I remember that I heard this as “Allah, give me strength,” which is just the dramatic type of thing an Arab woman might say. Plus, she could pass for an Arab woman, with that black hair and that attitude. And those eyebrows! Or maybe it was just because there were no Arab heroes on television when I was growing up (there still aren’t.) and I really longed for one.
The Legacy: Since then, I’ve loved the whole superhero culture. Even after clarifying that Wonder Woman’s ethnic identity is Amazonian-American. Having three brothers facilitated this interest nicely – we often discussed our favorite superheroes in detail, compared their powers and their weaknesses.
I developed a theory, still in the early stages, that most people have some kind of definable superpower. My power was realized when I got to college and discerned that I was ethnically malleable. This is an amazing power to have. Nobody knew “what I was,” but as a friend once told me, “I know you’re something.” It was like being a ghost who could pass through walls; I could hang out with the Latino kids on campus, then phase out and reappear with the African American students, or join in a discussion with the Indians and be totally accepted every time.
Frankly, I loved it, felt empowered and welcomed, even though I was often struck by the strangeness of the experience. It was akin to being that fourth kid on Barney – there was the obligatory White kid, around whom the story usually centered (he was the one lost in the woods, or it was her grandmother’s house they were all going to). There was the obligatory Black kid, as well as the Asian kid who could occasionally be swapped out for a kid with a physical disability. But that fourth child … that fourth one was ethnically ambiguous: was she Latina? Greek? Black? Pakistani? Who knew? But she satisfied the producer’s wacky quota and need to appeal to a wide, and misunderstood, viewing audience.
Anyway, here I am, editing my first issue as Barrelhouse’s online editor. I’ve joined the ranks of some of the best writers and editors I know, whose goal it is to demonstrate that pop culture is no small thing, that good literature is not an elitist enterprise. If I may wring this metaphor out some more, I view this mission as one well-suited for superheroes. And I contribute whatever powers I may have to it. Allah, give me strength.
Last week, I attended a conference on teaching pedagogy and strategy, which was generally uneventful and filled with such in-the-box phrases as “thinking outside the box” and “we must empower students.” During one panel, a tutoring center director spoke passionately and earnestly about college students who are “at risk” – presumably, they are at risk of failure, of flunking out of college, of spending their lives working at Target or living in their parents’ basements.
But this woman intrigued me. I was impressed by her lovely, multi-slide PowerPoint, filled with dense text and colorful graphics, but even moreso by her slinky black outfit and patriot-red lipstick. (Wow. I mean, I hope that I can look like that when I’m 60 too. Hell, I’d like to look like that when I’m 40.)
But I digress.
She described these at-risk students as kids who typically “lack a stick-to-it-iveness” (swear to God). They are also “non-persisters.” She was far too polished and professional to have typed “lazy fools” into her glittery PPT, so instead she wrote that they demonstrate a “tendency not to follow through with assignments and appointments.” That’s the next bullet point.
By the time her presentation ended (she cleverly allotted 20 minutes for Q&A – I almost asked her if she does pilates? Zumba?), every college professor in the room is in full complaint and distress mode. These poor students, these lost children of Generation Y, these Millenials who were never stimulated in high school and who were pushed through anyway, these kids who are struggling with part-time jobs and uncertainty about academic majors – what can we do to help them? I have a theory that almost every college professor, at least the ones in the Humanities – well, at least the ones in the Humanities whom I know – are Catholic school survivors. We’re always obsessed with how we are responsible for everything wrong in the world.
I keep quiet during the Q&A. I don’t want to rain on everyone’s liturgy. But in my head, I’m thinking: we’re a little late to save this essay. The paper deserves an F. you can get it to a C. Maybe. But not to an A. Because the only thing that could have done that, could have made sure that the non-persisters developed a “stick-to-it-iveness”, is solid parenting.
Oh, you’ve heard this one before? Well, let me explain my perspective. Humor me.
Let me say, though, that I’m not a Tiger Mom. Remember her? Professor-I-Hired-a-Violin-Teacher-on-a-Family-Vacation-Thereby-Disrupting-Vacation? (Yes, I read the entire memoir, instead of just gasping about it. It took about four hours.) But, a confession: I thought, in the end, that she really was a dedicated mom, not a tyrant. She wanted to make sure her kids were achievers, and that they understood that success is the result of hard work, not natural genius.
Here’s the opposite of the Tiger Mom, someone that many of you will recognize as a typical “mommy”: a few years ago, I walked into Borders Bookstore (God, do I miss Borders), and held the door open for a young mother pushing a baby stroller. An older boy, maybe 4 or 5, held onto her shirt. She perkily thanked me, and we exchanged that weary “Boy, isn’t mothering hard work!” look.
But then, as she entered a pool of sunshine on the sidewalk, she turned to her older boy and said, “Oooh! Look! Look! Our friend the sun! Say hello to the sun, honey!”
Yes, I know.
And yet, seemingly used to obeying such bizarre demands, her boy dutifully called out, “Hello sun!” And he giggled. She giggled too, missing the fact that he never looked up into the clouds at his pal the sun. “Good job, sweetie,” she said.
What did he learn, then, from his attentive mom? That being cute is enough. Effort not required. It’s an example in action of the current mantra in American parenting and education, that “trying is half the effort.”
The problem is that, of course, it’s not true. “Knowing” is actually half the battle (according to what I learned from GI Joe cartoons as a kid). Trying is nice. It’s necessary. But it’s the eventual knowledge and success that counts.
Kids are cute. They also try to get away with the craziest things. My son, who knows that the Wii is only played on Saturday mornings in our house, once tricked me: he turned off the volume and shut the door to the playroom while I was upstairs cooking dinner. I caught him and reprimanded him. He did it again the next day. The third time he did it, the Wii disappeared for a month.
Harsh? But that month was harder for me than it was for him, believe me. I had to hear, the first Saturday, that initial scream of disbelief: “What!? But… but… Mawwwwm! Pwease!”
Pause for ten seconds, then repeat.
My steady, soothing stream of replies included things like: Here’s a puzzle. Here’s a ball and bat. Here’s your bike helmet. Have fun doing something else. But no Wii. This is called a consequence, honey: c-o-n-s-e-q-u-e-n-c-e.
He hated me. His five-year-old mind found me completely revolting and horrible. I wasn’t happy about that, but as I pitched him the ball and we talked, he was fine. At least, for an hour or so. But after a mere six days, he barely talked about it. He’s followed the rules ever since. He will grow up, I hope, to be a persister.
My children do not say hello to the sun. Instead, they look at it to try to figure out what time of day it is based on its position in the sky – they think that the ancient way of telling time is “super cool.” I think it’s super cool that they think it’s super cool.
But then, of course, all children are intrigued by learning. To them, the coolest thing of all is whatever their parents are doing in that moment – if mommy is talking on the phone, they want in on the action. If dad is gardening, they want to yank out some weeds too. If mom and dad struggle with something, but keep at it until they succeed, that becomes a habit too. Rewards for “effort” or accolades for being cute result in young adults who are “at risk” for coping with reality.
This essay was read on WYPR’s weekly show, “The Signal,” produced by Aaron Henkin.
This Christmas, I’m surprising myself.
I’ve just purchased a doll for my daughter that costs more than any outfit I have ever purchased for myself. In fact, it costs more than I’ve ever paid for leather boots, a college textbook, a handbag, or a color-cut-and-blowdry. It costs more than any gift I certainly received as a child.
Why am I doing this? It goes against every fiber of my avoid-materialism-at-all-costs core.
But I’m doing it. I’ve entered my Mastercard digits and the 18-inch doll is on its way. The reasons are multiple:
Number 1: My daughter wants it. She’s been asking for one for almost a year.
Number 2: My daughter is an awesome, sweet, smart kid. (Obvious.)
Number 3: I have, till now, denied her most girly-girl doll toys. And I’ve always felt conflicted and guilty about this. My daughter has spent half of her life (about 3.5 years) wanting a Barbie doll, and I have always said “no.” I’ve also generally staved off the Disney Princess mania. We have only seen one princess movie, Beauty and the Beast, because it was on TV one afternoon, but I have resisted buying things emblazoned with the faces of Belle, Cinderella, Aurora, and the rest of the gang (thanks to Disney, by the way, for making the only Arab girl doll – Jasmine – look like a harem kitten and therefore un-buyable for my child).
My house is not Princess-free, however: I admit that, as author Peggy Orenstein noted in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, princess stuff has somehow made it into our home – we have at least 10 or 12 princess items, including a coat, a stationery set, a lunch bag, jumbo crayons, a pillow and sleeping bag, and other things. However, I’ve generally been vigilant, explaining to her that I don’t like the way some Barbies are dressed, that a little girl doll shouldn’t be wearing so much makeup, as well as other things. My poor daughter has never dared ask for a Bratz or a Monster High doll (don’t get me started), but she does have some of the other staples of girlhood – a couple of tea sets, a chest of dress-up clothes, fairy wands and wings, etc.
Oh, and we did take her to see Brave and Tangled, so we are reasonable people.
Number 4: Like losing presidential candidates, like desktop computers, like books in print, I am trying to stay relevant.
In trying to stay ahead of negative influences on my daughter, I have had to say “no” to a lot of things. I wouldn’t let her watch Hannah Montana, for example, when a lot of her friends were doing so (although I am vindicated by recent news that Miss Miley Cyrus is trying to stay relevant herself by dancing with strippers at a recent performance). I don’t want my daughter immersed or sucked in a culture that tells her that her worth is based on her looks and her appearance: to this end, I rarely let her paint her nails or wear makeup other than lip gloss or some blush during her dress-up sessions. Like many parents, I compliment her for her strength when she gets across the monkey bars, and for her cleverness when she figures out a challenging puzzle.
But I do say “no” a lot, and I worry that “no” is getting old – it’s not my fault that our commercialized culture is actively marketing to kids, but I have to find ways to stay ahead of the game, to let her know that I understand how hard it is to be a kid these days.
And so we’re now into American Girl dolls. There is really not much I can say “no” to – they are even accompanied by a book, for Christ’s sake. They are well-made, interesting, and sweet. I don’t care for how expensive they are, but then again, I realize that harem-kitten Jasmine costs a mere $10. Recently, in reading some online discussion postings by some American Girl moms, I was turned off by an argument a few were having: Some moms were complaining about the company’s lack of free shipping on Cyber Monday. They got some rude responses: one mom indignantly told the others that “American Girl dolls are not for everyone” and – to paraphrase – “If you can’t afford one, then there are other, cheaper versions available for you and your budget.” Seriously? Did I want to enter this world?
Despite the attitude of this and a few other moms, who were getting way too invested, I decided to just buy one. This was the easy part: We’d been getting the catalogs since she was practically born, and rather than throw them in the recycling bin, I kept one and asked her to look through it. Her eyes lit up like those of a starving man who’s just spotted a five-star buffet. Clothes, hats, shoes, beds, matching pajamas!
“Which one will you ask Santa for?” I asked her, amazed by the selection. “Molly? Cecile? Jenna?” There was no Arab American doll, of course, which brought back my own childhood memories of seeing endless rows of blonde Barbies and her blonde friends – there was no doll who looked like me, and PJ just didn’t cut it.
After three days of careful deliberation, my daughter picked her doll. From the catalog, she selected Rebecca Rubin, who “loves to celebrate the traditions of her Russian-Jewish family.”
“Are you sure you want Rebecca?” I asked her, utterly confused.
She lifted her beautiful brown eyes to gaze at me solemnly: “Mama, Rebecca looks like me.”
And, of course, she does.
So, this Christmas, my Arab-American daughter will be the proud “parent” of a Jewish-American girl doll, Miss Rebecca Rubin, with whom she will share matching pajamas. It seems fair: if Israelis can pretend that hummus and falafel are their cultural foods, our family can pretend that Rebecca is an Arab doll.
As Langston Hughes once wrote, “… you are a part of me, as I am a part of you. /That’s American.”
Merry Christmas, and peace to the world.