On Dec. 20, 2016, I exited my last final in Science Center B, ran back to Weld, stuffed one last pair of shoes in my overstuffed suitcase, and hurried to the Harvard Square T stop to catch the Red Line to South Station. Over the course of the next 48 hours, I would find myself in Miami, Frankfurt, and finally in my grandparents’ apartment in Alexandria, Egypt. Teta and Gido greeted us with nectarines and sweet guava fruits, which they had just bought fresh from the vendor who ran a shop right under the balcony in their apartment building. It was the first time my family had stepped foot on Egyptian land since we emigrated to Miami in 2001.
I didn’t remember Egypt at all. I was only three years old when we relocated. It came to me in dreams sometimes, through fractured images of crowded marketplaces selling hijabs and abayas, cold water on my small hands, washing the butter and honey off after stuffing my face with more feteer than my stomach could handle. But in a state of consciousness, the country was a story my parents told me to remind me that the palm-lined streets of Miami, no matter how reminiscent they were of our m0ther land, were not home — not really.
In 2000, when my parents decided that life in Egypt was not sustainable, they began their visa application, hoping to move to the United States. After a year of drawn-out paperwork and immense amounts of luck, we finally received our golden tickets. From there we didn’t waste any time. Within a week we had packed up our essentials and cleaned our apartment. We were, as Gloria Anzaldúa describes in her collection of essays and poetry “Borderlands/La Frontera,” turtles, carrying home on our backs. When we finally left for the airport, we simply locked the door behind us as though we’d be back after a long vacation. That “vacation” lasted 15 years.
When we finally came back to the apartment we left behind, it was like opening a time capsule. Besides the layer of dust that had settled on every surface, it looked exactly as it had on the day we left it. As I surveyed the apartment I had once called home, I found puzzle sets and card games that were presumably mine on the shelves of a bedroom that I had supposedly called my own. The bed was made, and remarkably well considering it had not been touched for over a decade. As I ran my hands along the spines of books my three-year-old self had collected, small dots of tears rolled down my face. I did not know the person who these objects belonged to. I didn’t remember her at all. She was me, and simultaneously not.
Throughout my time in Egypt, I was continuously confronted with moments like these — of a life I would have lived had my parents not been granted a visa. I met another version of myself. I saw the school she would have attended, met the cousins she would have befriended, walked palm-lined streets her parents would have permitted her to call home. And I came to realize very quickly the arbitrary nature of the identities I myself held: “Muslim-American,” “Arab,” “Black,” “justice-oriented,” “activist.” All the parts of me that are so central to who I am today may never have developed had we stayed. The people we build ourselves up to be depend so much on where we do that building and what raw materials are available to us in that endeavor.
I struggled, then, with the discomfort I felt in Egypt. Despite my parents’ insistence that this was the place our family originated from, the place we truly belonged, Egypt was still a foreign world for me. It belonged mostly to the other Salma. And my Arabic betrayed me. Any claim I made at Egyptian identity was automatically suspect when I could not remember the Arabic words for “freedom” or “hunger”. When I, in a moment of wishful thinking, attempted to lay claim to my Egyptian identity once and for all by proving to myself that I could, like any other Egyptian, drink water from the tap, my body betrayed me, too. Despite the arbitrary nature of identity, I had built a self in a different place, one that was not compatible with the home I was supposed to claim.
And yet, my brown skin, my Muslim prayers, and the syllables in my name disallow me from making the U.S. a home either. I am faced with rejection at every turn. There are no homes I can call my own.
I was introduced to Anzaldúa’s “Borderlands” this past summer in a moment of intense loss of home, both literal and metaphorical, and her writing served as salve on deep cuts. Her ability to live in the Borderland, the space in between, so confidently and with such wisdom has given me guidance, hope, and resilience. She has given me the language I need to understand my own narrative. I think, like her, I’ve been a turtle since the day we moved, endlessly carrying home with me. She writes to me: “I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine.”
While Anzaldúa speaks to these experiences, she is five steps ahead of me in a process I’m still working through. I am still struggling to make sense of the parts of myself that do not fit together. I feel grief and heartbreak towards the destruction of one version of myself to make room for another. I resent migration for creating rifts in my family that do not feel reconcilable. Each day my inability to claim a home leaves me feeling lost and ungrounded, like a balloon that will float away. The Borderland is “una herida abierta,” an open wound, a “thin edge of barbed wire.”
I don’t have many answers, but Anzaldúa has given me some: There is no need to pick between countries, spaces or identities. The in-between world can be home, too. And the pain I feel here is valid.
The Color of PiraguasBeing the product of mixed heritage – Puerto Rican and Portuguese - I was the aggregation of two diverse cultures clashing together, a tsunami that rose within a little girl with eyes the size of two very different worlds.
From Community College to HarvardWould the pride of coming to Harvard be worth the struggle of transferring?
'White Enough'I am trying to decolonize my mind. I am trying to reclaim my Latinidad. I am trying to take myself out of this white mold into which I have tried to force myself.
Egypt, My BelovedIn my German magnet schools, during a War on Terror, in monochrome suburbia, I grew ashamed of my culture.
Final Stop: Woodley Park Station