Two years ago, I had my very first American Thanksgiving Dinner in Newton, Mass. Relishing in the glory of finally being able to experience a Thanksgiving like the ones I’d seen in movies, I stuffed my face with turkey, pie, stuffing, mashed potatoes, popovers, and other all-American staples. Being raised in an immigrant household meant that my extended family lived an ocean away, and with no one to gather with, Thanksgiving break for us was just an extra long weekend during which we’d stay home, each in our own separate worlds with a book or a movie or a video game, in silence. I only came to know what a “real” Thanksgiving looked like during college through invitations from various friends. This year, however, I stayed on campus and Thanksgiving break became again an extra long weekend, spent mostly in silence.
Just like the old days, I picked up a book to escape into for the weekend. I’d been recommended Nawal El Saadawi’s memoirs’ by one of my professors during office hours and when he described her as a radical Egyptian feminist exiled from Egypt, I was immediately sold. For the weeks before break, I had been reading “A Daughter of Isis”, her first memoir, in the moments right before sleep. When the break came around, the quiet gave me the opportunity to explore her work beyond the first five pages that I found myself rereading while cocooned in my bed.
El Saadawi’s memoir was different than any other reading experience I’d ever had. This was my first dive into the literature of my family’s home-country and on these pages there was no need to draw parallels between my life and hers. Instead, our lives intersected at many key moments — from the food her family made to her reaction when she got her period to the dreams she had of fictitious lovers to her questions around her faith — her experiences were my own. For the first time I saw myself — my Egyptian self — on the printed page.
On every page was a key that unlocked some of my most distant memories from childhood. I could taste the ful she ate for breakfast each morning before she ran off to school — for her prepared from the green plant, for me prepared from the cans my family bought in bulk at our local Middle Eastern market. I could hear the azan that played for her from the minaret of the mosque in Alexandria and for me from the prayer time alarm clock my grandparents sent to us from Egypt. The pictures throughout the book — of men in sophisticated suits and fezes, of made up brides on the days of their weddings, of women with soft yet powerful smiles — looked so similar to the pictures in my family’s photo album that it felt as if I was holding its leather binding in my hands.
Unlike El Saadawi, though, my Egyptian childhood was a transplant in a foreign and hostile place. In my German magnet schools, during a War on Terror, in monochrome suburbia, I grew ashamed of my culture. Whenever my white friends from school came over to my house, I ran around the living room frantically trying to cover whatever could potentially expose our difference, always in vain because I never could reach in time the prayer rugs and Arabic calligraphy that hung high on walls painted vivid greens and reds and oranges. When some of the girls at school pointed out, laughing, the way my hair curled in on itself, I tried desperately to braid and twist and burn it into straightness, again in vain as curly poofs escaped my tight braids and the straightening iron never reached close enough to my scalp to eliminate its volume. I grew to hate our mushy ful and the grainy sound of the azan and the trashy makeup and outfits in the photographs from Egypt that my parents took so much pride in. I hated being Egyptian, wishing desperately that I could rid myself of it.
Reading “Daughter of Isis”, I was confronted with all the parts of myself that I had tried to tuck away for so long, parts of myself that were too Egyptian for the white world I lived in. The memories that had previously brought me shame emerged on the printed page and were described in beautiful language with a tone of nostalgia and pride. My mother, who greets her female guests in our sufra with big hair and bright hot-pink lipstick and a dress that fits a little too tightly, is transformed from a ridiculous caricature into a woman who resembles “the queen of Egypt”, with a voice “radiant and pure like fresh water in a stream”, a woman who holds her femininity with the power and poise that I inherited. Embarrassment turns into esteem when I see her through El Saadawi’s eyes, eyes that have not been colonized. Looking through her eyes, I learn there is a way to exist firmly and assuredly in my culture with all of its beauties, flaws, and imperfections, to love despite displacement. She does not throw away Egypt when Egypt exiles her.
Through El Saadawi and other Egyptian artists, I am growing my affection for the place that made me, recognizing it in all of its vibrance and confusion, all of its commotion and splendor. Is this what it means to decolonize your mind? To unlock memories stored in vaults? To relearn the correct pronunciation of your name? To remember the way your throat feels when you make the hard “ha” and “aa” sounds? To embrace the contradictions?
In the silence, I make out a faint song playing in my mind, the music that filled the air in our microcosm of Egypt ten years ago. This Thanksgiving, I dream of mulukhiyah served with warm pita and ma’amoul stuffed with ripe dates and pistachios and koshari that burns your tongue as you can’t stop eating it. I scroll through social media posts of families gathered over the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner and feel no envy. I taste hints of vinegary wara’ enab and the crispy outer layer of kibbeh and the sweetness of basbousa as it melts in my mouth. I keep reading, slowly turning up the volume until the sounds of my country overtake me, and I think to myself, “Egypt, my beloved.” Ya Habibti, Ya Masr, Ya Masr.
Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is a Sociology concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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