The butcher won’t cut the meat for my husband. It’s been 15 minutes now. I’ve already picked out all the produce for the week and I’ve been waiting for him at the register. I just need 2 kilos of lamb shoulder, cut in chunks. I want to make his favorite stew. But they won't cut it for him. I find him, standing at the butcher’s counter, staring at the back of the man who seems to be ignoring his presence. We meet eyes. I already know what’s happening. I walk past him and approach the counter. The clerk looks at me and smiles, “salaam alaikum, Madame, how can I help you?” I launch. Why did you make my husband wait? What’s wrong with you?! His face turns pale. My eyes never leave his. My husband stares. We’ve been through this before. They don't believe that we’re together. His is a face chiseled from ebony with cheekbones ancient and sharp. My skin is a dull yellow, an amalgamation of Catalonia, Alabama, Mexico, and some unknown West African land. Did he not see the child my husband is carrying: the one with his eyes and my smile? He cuts the meat and hands it to me. “‘Asif, Madame, ‘asif.” I’m sorry. I forget my manners and snatch the package from the counter. I hand it to my husband. “Kwasia”, he says under his breath in his elegant native tongue. Fool.
During our 5 years living in Saudi Arabia, my husband and I faced similar episodes. The culture wanted to dissociate us, keep us apart. We had left America for a while to regroup. He wanted to seek refuge from the daily stress of life as a West African immigrant. Even though my husband is a citizen who came to this country as a teenager, graduated from high school here, received two degrees from American universities, and worked as a public school teacher, he still felt the pressure of being constantly identified as other. He chose Saudi because it is the home of our holy places, a place where his grandparents once ran a thriving import business. He had roots there; I didn’t. But I needed to be there with him. And so, we left. But we found ourselves, not in a place of respite, but in an ever evolving state of turmoil and mistaken identity.
Growing up in inner-city Detroit, the first Arabic words I ever learned were racial slurs. I caught them as they dripped from the lips of Arab shopkeepers when I bought penny candy and bottles of pop at the corner store. I caught it, ‘Abd, ringing in my ears as my friend pumped gas. Slave. Even as a child, I knew that the people I encountered didn’t represent the majority of Arabs. So I wanted to see for myself what it was like to live among them.
In Jeddah, for the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to have privilege. I watched as scowls turned to smiles and disdain to respect when people realized that I was not Habeshi, Sudani, or Nigerian. I was a plain old Black American girl, and that, in itself, was odd. The gas station owners in my neighborhood weren’t able to see me because I was one of many. I was a means to an end, a part of the money pot that was inner city Detroit. But here, I was, the only Black American woman for blocks in my Jeddah neighborhood. I was odd and that, in itself, conferred some semblance of cultural privilege.
But where I once naively assumed that I would have very little, besides religion, in common with my new neighbors, I began to realize that we shared a fervent bond forged by the communal atrocities we mutually faced. It took time for us to open up to each other; my neighbors and colleagues were as apprehensive as I was. They allowed me to sit and talk with them for morning coffee, a heady mix of caffeine and cardamom. Our topics were many: Aleppo, Ferguson, Duma, Baltimore. We lamented the bodies of Syrian children washed up on lonely shores. We talked about the irrationality of Black men killed for riding bicycles and selling cigarettes, of cousins who died in their sleep, just as bombs rained down on quiet Yemeni neighborhoods.
Tragedy became an unlikely unifier between me and my Arab friends. We chose to stand united in friendship. My friends were fighting for land and the freedom to move. My people are fighting for the right to breathe and exist as sovereign beings in our whole Black bodies. Even though we may not share the same skin color, many of my friends in my new home shared an understanding of what it is like to feel hunted.
We’ve kept in touch over the last 2 years since I’ve been back in the United States. They ask about my children and I, theirs. They send me photos of the beach in Obhur and I regale them with tales of sighting the Ramadan moon on South Mountain. We are friends now, even though the waters divide us.
The morning after the presidential election last year, I woke to the buzz of WhatsApp notifications, prayers and frantic messages pleading for me to return overseas. It almost feels like I’ve rushed headfirst into a burning building; America is set ablaze everyday with news from a toxic administration bent on alienating, annihilating, and ostracizing people who look and pray like I do. When the ban was instituted, I listened to the news as the administration rattled off country after country, the homelands of my friends. They aren’t welcome here. Our planned summer reunions are placed on indefinite hold. We end our long distance calls making du’a for each other because we are living in dangerous and unpredictable times.
I ran away from America to escape grief but I met it at every turn while abroad. America doesn’t own the copyright on oppression; people are under siege in many places around the globe. And as troubled as it may be at times, America is, and always will be, my complicated and beloved homeland. I have learned that I cannot escape the reality of what it means to be Black, pray as a Muslim, and live in a surveilled body. But just like I made it through with the love of strangers abroad, so too will I make it through with love in this new strange land I call HOME.