At home, the kitchen cupboard smells of zaatar and sage from the mountains of Palestine. The scent wraps itself around me and I feel safe, and I remember a place far away we call home.
The sitting room walls are decorated with Arabic calligraphy and a portrait of the Dome of the Rock.
The distant homeland, here in this house.
– Sorry, how do you pronounce that?
– It’s Amal.
– A as in a-pple. A-mal.
My kindergarten teacher looks at my name tag, wrinkles her nose.
– Oh… Umull!
– Yes. Umull.
I don’t correct her. And my school friends, I don’t correct them either.
My brother and I sit on the couch watching Video Hits and the telephone rings. He answers it.
“You want to speak to who?” he says. “Uh-mull? Who is Uh-mull?”
I grab the phone. My face is red.
He holds his sides, laughing.
“Do you know what a mull is? A mull? Look it up.”
He’s a teenager now, but I’m not. I don’t get the drug reference, and he likes that I don’t understand.
I lost some sort of wholeness, the day I stopped correcting people who said my name wrong. I lost a oneness, and I became two people instead.
Amal versus Umull.
I look up what a ‘mull’ is. Unlike my name, it does not mean ‘hope’.
The family goes to a fundraiser for Palestine.
A room full of exiles.
We stand for the national anthem of a country the world likes to pretend doesn’t exist.
But it exists. People inhabit its villages and climb its mountains under curfew.
The room is full of people who immigrated… but left a chunk of themselves in the homeland. Probably their hearts.
You can have a nice house in a quiet suburb, a good life, whatever that means, but the zaatar and sage, tucked behind the tea cups in the small kitchen cupboard, don’t smell quite the same.
And when we leave our house, and walk the streets they say: Go home.
You try to tell me “It doesn’t ‘exist’”.
At my high school, there are maybe three or four other Arabs. We look the same to the others, but we don’t really connect with each other.
Which feels like a double-displacement.
My parents are strict. I become strict. I’m the ultimate Good Arab Girl. Without a local tribe.
I cling to my Arab identity as though it will help me to make sense of things. I carry a keychain with a flag of Palestine on it. It feels like something. I hold it in my hand and I feel the indentation on my palm and when I pull it away I like the look of the red mark it’s made on my skin. It’s real. An idea come to life.
At university, I find my tribe. They’re religious, most of the time.
I put on the headscarf and feel more like… what I’m supposed to be. I’m not just the good Arab girl. I’m the good Arab-Muslim girl.
My religious friends celebrate. One gives me a headscarf as a gift, more giddy than a bridesmaid at her best friend’s wedding.
Maybe this is what feeling whole is like.
My Muslim friends are getting married.
The guys I meet in my parents’ living room are all duds.
Or maybe I’m the dud.
Who doesn’t want to be in love though?
I hide behind the headscarf. It’s convenient for someone who is becoming a loner.
My non-Muslim friends are travelling the world.
I ache to have that freedom to explore.
I go to the homeland. Is it a visit or a return?
I’m a foreigner there.
That’s me. My soul in two places, belonging nowhere.
Belonging is overrated.
I come back and I am a loner again. The suitors don’t knock anymore. I’m too old.
I’m relieved. It saves me having to say no.
I like my bubble.
I hide and I write and in my writing I hide again. I write things that aren’t real, and things that are… just not for me. I reinvent what I know and create characters to absorb my pain. I make sure it’s always funny and heartwarming because everyone wants a happy ending.
I take off the headscarf and shed chunks of visible, neat identity.
Exoticised. They always compliment my eyes.
I tell them when they ask: I’m Palestinian.
I wait for the confusion to fade.
They act like they’ve never heard of it.
But it’s funny how no one can figure me out now. Pale skin, light eyes.
Where are you from, they ask.
The truth is, I’m still trying to figure that out.
They’re bombing Gaza. They close off the West Bank.
A friend asks me when I’m going to write about it.
The idea of putting words to it sits in me like a stone. The place I know doesn’t feel real to me, here… so far away.
Do I write it about Gaza because I’m Palestinian or because I’m human? Is it a political act or a personal one?
I write it because I write.
I don’t read the comments.
Falling in love doesn’t feel like I thought it would. The madness of a crush dissipates into something deeper. Comfort, despite the fear that it’s not real.
You are yourself with this person. That’s how you know.
He doesn’t give me anything I don’t already have.
That’s how you figure out who you are.
I see myself when I look back at him. I see who I am. I see what I can be.
He’s not Arab.
I never could’ve imagined that back in my uni days… when I thought my only options were Arab Muslim guys.
But I’m older now. More individual. More me. Not living at home with my parents.
He would look out of place in their living room.
Another year and they bomb Gaza again.
He doesn’t feel the pain of it like I do. It hits me… I have this other side that has to be fed. That half of my soul that is stuck in a homeland I hardly know.
But he says my name right. The difficult pronunciation tripping off his tongue… it reminds me of who I am.
It reminds me of all I can be.
Belonging is overrated.
This piece was originally broadcast as a recorded narration by Amal Awad for ABC Radio National’s Life Matters program in a segment that aired on 22 August 2016.
Amal Awad is a journalist, screenwriter and author. She is a columnist for The New Arab, and has written for SBS Life, ELLE, Frankie, Daily Life, Sheilas and Junkee. Amal is the author of four books and is in development on several film and television projects.
Photo used under Creative Commons by Etienne Valois (via Flickr)