Main A Woman Is No Man

A Woman Is No Man

Year: 2019
Language: english
ISBN 10: 0062699768
ISBN 13: 9780062699763
File: EPUB, 754 KB
Download (epub, 754 KB)

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Dedication


To Reyann and Isah,

nur hayati





Epigraph


There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

—Maya Angelou


I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.

—Audre Lorde





Contents


Cover

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Prologue

Isra

Part I

Deya

Isra

Deya

Isra

Deya

Isra

Deya

Isra

Part II

Fareeda

Deya

Isra

Deya

Fareeda

Isra

Deya

Isra

Deya

Isra

Deya

Isra

Deya

Fareeda

Isra

Deya

Isra

Fareeda

Deya

Fareeda

Deya

Fareeda

Part III

Deya

Isra

Deya

Isra

Fareeda

Isra

Fareeda

Deya

Fareeda

Isra

Deya

Isra

Deya

Fareeda

Isra

Deya

Isra

Deya

Isra

Deya

Isra

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Copyright

About the Publisher





Prologue


I was born without a voice, one cold, overcast day in Brooklyn, New York. No one ever spoke of my condition. I did not know I was mute until years later, when I opened my mouth to ask for what I wanted and realized no one could hear me. Where I come from, voicelessness is the condition of my gender, as normal as the bosoms on a woman’s chest, as necessary as the next generation growing inside her belly. But we will never tell you this, of course. Where I come from, we’ve learned to conceal our condition. We’ve been taught to silence ourselves, that our silence will save us. It is only now, many years later, that I know this to be false. Only now, as I write this story, do I feel my voice coming.

You’ve never heard this story before. No matter how many books you’ve read, how many tales you know, believe me: no one has ever told you a story like this one. Where I come from, we keep these stories to ourselves. To tell them to the outside world is unheard of, dangerous, the ultimate shame.

But you have seen us. Take a walk in New York City on a sunny afternoon. Walk down the length of Manhattan until the streets become curved and tangled as they are in the Old World. Go east, over the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan’s skyline thinning behind you. There will be a heavy traffic jam on the other side. Hail a yellow cab and ride it down Flatbush Avenue, that central artery of south Brooklyn. You’ll go south on Third Avenue, where the buildings are smaller—only three, four stories high, with old faces. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge hovers on the horizon like a giant gull, wings spread, the sweeping view of the Manhattan skyline a distant mirage. Head south for a while, past the warehouses refurbished into chic cafés and trendy oyster bars, and the small family-owned hardware stores that have been there for generations. When the American cafés start to thin, replaced by signs in foreign tongues, you’ll know you’re getting close. Cross east two blocks to Fifth Avenue. There you will find Bay Ridge. Our three-square-mile neighborhood is the melting pot of Brooklyn. On our streets you’ll find Latinos, Middle Easterners, Italians, Russians, Greeks, and Asians, all speaking their native tongues, keeping their traditions and cultures alive. Murals and graffiti cover the buildings. Colorful flags hang from windows and balconies. The sweet smell of churros, shish kebabs, and potpourri fills the air—a stew of humanity converging. Get out at the corner of Seventy-Second and Fifth Avenue, where you’ll find yourself surrounded by bakeries, hookah bars, and halal meat markets. Walk down the tree-lined sidewalk of Seventy-Second Street until you reach an old row house no different from the others—faded red brick, a dusty brown door, number 545. This is where our family lives.

But our story does not begin in Bay Ridge, not really. To get there, first we must turn back the pages to before I found my voice, before I was even born. We are not yet in the house on Seventy-Second Street, not yet in Brooklyn, not yet in America. We have yet to board the plane that will carry us from the Middle East to this new world, have yet to soar over the Atlantic, have yet to even know that one day we will. The year is 1990, and we are in Palestine. This is the beginning.





Isra


BIRZEIT, PALESTINE

Spring 1990

For most of her seventeen years Isra Hadid cooked dinner with her mother daily, rolling grape leaves on warm afternoons, or stuffing spaghetti squash, or simmering pots of lentil soup when the air became crisp and the vineyards outside their home went empty. In the kitchen she and Mama would huddle against the stove as if sharing a secret, steam swirling around them, until the sunset cast a sliver of orange through the window. Looking out, the Hadids had a mountaintop view of the countryside—hillsides covered with red-tiled rooftops and olive trees, bright and thick and wild. Isra always cracked the window open because she loved the smell of figs and almonds in the morning, and at night, the rustling sounds of the cemeteries down the hill.

It was late, and the call for maghrib prayer would soon come, bringing an end to the cooking. Isra and Mama would withdraw to the bathroom, rolling up the sleeves of their house gowns, washing the dull red sauce off their fingertips. Isra had been praying since she was seven years old, kneeling beside Mama five times a day between sunrise and sunset. Lately she had begun to look forward to prayer, standing together with Mama, shoulders joined, feet slightly grazing, the only time Isra ever felt human touch. She heard the thick sound of the adhan calling them for prayer.

“Maghrib prayer will have to wait today,” Mama said in Arabic, looking out the kitchen window. “Our guests are here.”

There was a knock at the front door and Mama hurried to the sink, where she gave her hands a quick rinse and dried them with a clean rag. Leaving the kitchen, she wrapped a black thobe around her small frame and a matching hijab over her long, dark hair. Though Mama was only thirty-five years old, Isra thought she looked much older, the lines of labor dug deeply into her face.

She met Isra’s eyes. “Don’t forget to wash the garlic smell off your hands before greeting our guests.”

Isra washed her hands, trying not to dirty the rose-colored kaftan that Mama had chosen for the occasion. “Do I look okay?”

“You look fine,” Mama said, turning to leave. “Be sure to pin your hijab properly so your hair doesn’t show. We don’t want our guests to get the wrong impression.”

Isra did as she was told. In the hall, she could hear her father, Yacob, recite his usual salaam as he led the guests to the sala. Soon he would hurry to the kitchen and ask for water, so she grabbed three glass cups from the cupboard and prepared them for him. Their guests would often complain about the steep hillside pathway to their home, especially on days like this when the air grew hot and it felt as though their house sat only a few inches from the sun. Isra lived on one of the steepest hills in Palestine, on a piece of land Yacob claimed to have purchased for the mountain view, which made him feel powerful, like a king. Isra would listen quietly to her father’s remarks. She never dared tell Yacob how far from powerful they were. The truth was, Yacob’s family had been evacuated from their seaside home in the Lydd when he was only ten years old, during Israel’s invasion of Palestine. This was the real reason they lived on the outskirts of Birzeit, on a steep hill overlooking two graveyards—a Christian cemetery on the left and a Muslim one on the right. It was a piece of land no one else wanted, and all they could afford.

Still, Isra loved the hilltop view of Birzeit. Past the graveyards, she could see her all-girls school, a four-story cement building laced with grapevines, and across from it, separated by a field of almond trees, the blue-domed mosque where Yacob and her three brothers prayed while she and Mama prayed at home. Looking out the kitchen window, Isra always felt a mixture of longing and fear. What lay beyond the edges of her village? Yet as much as she wanted to go out there and venture into the world, there was also a comfort and safety in the known. And Mama’s voice in her ear, reminding her: A woman belongs at home. Even if Isra left, she wouldn’t know where to go.

“Brew a kettle of chai,” Yacob said as he entered the kitchen and Isra handed him the glasses of water. “And add a few extra mint leaves.”

Isra needed no telling: she knew the customs by heart. Ever since she could remember, she had watched her mother serve and entertain. Mama always set a box of Mackintosh’s chocolates on the coffee table in the sala when they had guests, and she always served roasted watermelon seeds before bringing out the baklava. The drinks, too, had an order: mint chai first and Turkish coffee last. Mama said it was an insult to invert the order, and it was true. Isra had once overheard a woman tell of a time she’d been greeted with a cup of Turkish coffee at a neighbor’s house. “I left immediately,” the woman had said. “They might as well have kicked me out.”

Isra reached for a set of red-and-gold porcelain cups, listening for Mama in the sala. She could hear Yacob chuckle over something now, and then the sound of other men laughing. Isra wondered what was so funny.

A few months before, the week she turned seventeen, Isra had returned from school to find Yacob sitting in the sala with a young man and his parents. Each time she thought of that day, the first time she’d been proposed to, what stood out most was Yacob, yelling at Mama after the guests left, furious that she hadn’t served the chai in the antique set of teacups they saved for special occasions. “Now they will know we are poor!” Yacob had shouted, his open palm twitching. Mama had said nothing, quietly retreating to the kitchen. Their poverty was one of the reasons Yacob was so eager to marry off Isra. His sons were the ones who helped him plow the fields and earn a living, and who would one day carry on the family name. A daughter was only a temporary guest, quietly awaiting another man to scoop her away, along with all her financial burden.

Two men had proposed to Isra since—a bread baker from Ramallah and a cabdriver from Nablus—but Yacob had declined both. He couldn’t stop talking about a family who was visiting from America in search of a bride, and now Isra understood why: he had been waiting for this suitor.

Isra was unsure how she felt about moving to America, a place she’d only seen in the news, or read about briefly in her school library. From them she’d gathered that Western culture was not as rigid as their own. This filled her with both excitement and dread. What would become of her life if she moved away to America? How could a conservative girl like her adapt to such a liberal place?

She had often stayed up all night thinking about the future, eager to know how her life would turn out when she left Yacob’s house. Would a man ever love her? How many children would she have? What would she name them? Some nights she had dreamed she’d marry the love of her life and that they’d live together in a small hilltop house with wide windows and a red-tiled roof. Other nights she could see the faces of her children—two boys and two girls—looking up at her and her husband, a loving family like the kind she’d read about in books. But none of that hope came to her now. She had never imagined a life in America. She didn’t even know where to begin. And this realization terrified her.

She wished she could open her mouth and tell her parents, No! This isn’t the life I want. But Isra had learned from a very young age that obedience was the single path to love. So she only defied in secret, mostly with her books. Every evening after returning from school, after she’d soaked a pot of rice and hung her brothers’ clothes and set the sufra and washed the dishes following dinner, Isra would retreat quietly to her room and read under the open window, the pale moonlight illuminating the pages. Reading was one of the many things Mama had forbidden, but Isra had never listened.

She remembered once telling Mama that she couldn’t find any fruit on the mulberry trees when in fact she had spent the afternoon reading in the graveyard. Yacob had beaten her twice that night, punishment for her defiance. He’d called her a sharmouta, a whore. He’d said he’d show her what happened to disobedient girls, then he’d shoved her against the wall and whipped her with his belt. The room had gone white. Everything had looked flat. She’d closed her eyes until she’d gone numb, until she couldn’t move. But as fear rose up in Isra, thinking of those moments, so did something else. A strange sort of courage.

Isra arranged the steaming cups on the serving tray and entered the sala. Mama said the trick to maintaining balance was to never look directly at the steam, so she looked at the ground instead. For a moment, Isra paused. From the corner of her eye, she could see the men and women sitting on opposite sides of the room. She peeked at Mama, who sat in her usual way: head bowed, eyes studying the red Turkish rug in front of her. Isra glanced at the pattern. Spirals and swirls, each curling up in the exact same way, picking up where the last one ended. She looked away. She had the urge to steal a glimpse of the young man, but could feel Yacob eyeing her, could almost hear him in her ear: A proper girl never lays her gaze on a man!

Isra kept her eyes toward the ground but allowed herself a glance across the floor. She noticed the younger man’s socks, gray and pink plaid with white stitching across the top. They were unlike anything she had ever seen on the streets of Birzeit. She felt her skin prickle.

Clouds of steam rose from the serving tray, covering Isra’s face, and quickly she circled around the room until she had served all the men. She walked over to serve the suitor’s mother next. Isra noticed how the woman’s navy-blue hijab was tossed around her head as if by accident, barely covering her henna-stained hair. Isra had never seen a Muslim woman wear her hijab this way in real life. Maybe on television, in the black-and-white Egyptian movies Isra and Mama watched together, or in Lebanese music videos, where women danced around in revealing clothing, or even in one of the illustrations of Isra’s favorite book, A Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales set in medieval times. But never in Birzeit.

As Isra leaned in, she could see the suitor’s mother studying her. She was a plump, stooping woman with a crooked smile and dark almond eyes that squinted at the corners. From her expression, Isra decided the woman must be displeased with her appearance. After all, Mama had often said that Isra was a plain girl—her face as dull as wheat, her eyes as black as charcoal. Isra’s most striking feature was her hair, long and dark like the Nile. Only no one could see it now beneath her hijab. Not that it would’ve made a difference, Isra thought. She was nothing special.

It was this last thought that stung Isra. As she stood before the suitor’s mother, she could feel her upper lip trembling. She walked closer to the woman, clutching the serving tray in her hands. She could feel Yacob glaring at her, could hear him clear his throat, could see Mama dig her fingers into her thighs, but Isra leaned toward the woman anyway, the porcelain cup trembling, and asked: “Would you like some Turkish coffee?”

But it hadn’t worked. The Americans hadn’t even seemed to notice that she’d served the coffee first. In fact, the suitor had proposed soon after, and Yacob had agreed at once, smiling wider than Isra had ever seen.

“What were you thinking, serving them coffee first?” Mama yelled when the guests had left and she and Isra returned to the kitchen to finish cooking. “You’re not young anymore—almost eighteen! Do you want to sit in my house forever?”

“I was nervous,” Isra muttered, hoping Yacob wouldn’t punish her. “It was an accident.”

“Sure it was.” Mama unwrapped the thobe from around her thin frame. “Like the time you put salt in Umm Ali’s chai because she said you were as thin as a lamppost.”

“That was an accident, too.”

“You should be thankful their family isn’t as traditional as we are,” Mama said, “or you might’ve blown your chance of going to America.”

Isra looked at her mother with wet eyes. “What will happen to me in America?”

Mama didn’t look up. She stood hunched over the cutting board dicing onions, garlic, and tomatoes, the main components of all their meals. As Isra inhaled the familiar scents, she wished Mama would hold her, whisper in her ear that everything would be okay, maybe even offer to sew her a few hijabs in case they didn’t make them in America. But Mama was silent.

“Be thankful,” Mama eventually said, tossing a handful of onions into a skillet. “God has presented you with a good opportunity. A good future in America. Better than this.” She waved her hands over the rusted countertops, the old barrel they used to heat water for bathing, the peeling vinyl floors. “Is this how you want to spend your life? Living with no heat in the winters, sleeping on a paper-thin mattress, barely enough food?”

When Isra said nothing, staring at the sizzling skillet, Mama reached out and lifted her chin. “Do you know how many girls would kill to be in your shoes, to leave Palestine and move to America?”

Isra dropped her gaze. She knew Mama was right, but she couldn’t picture a life in America. The trouble was, Isra didn’t feel she belonged in Palestine either, where people lived carefully, following tradition so they wouldn’t be shunned. Isra dreamed of bigger things—of not being forced to conform to conventions, of adventure, and most of all, of love. At night, after she had finished reading and tucked her book beneath her mattress, Isra would lay in bed and wonder what it would be like to fall in love, to be loved in return. She could imagine the man, even if she couldn’t see his face. He would build her a library with all her favorite stories and poetry. They would read by the window every night—Rumi, Hafez, and Gibran. She would tell him about her dreams, and he would listen. She would brew mint chai for him in the mornings and simmer homemade soups in the evenings. They would take walks in the mountains, hand in hand, and she would feel, for the first time in her life, worthy of another person’s love. Look at Isra and her husband, people would say. A love you only see in fairy tales.

Isra cleared her throat. “But Mama, what about love?”

Mama glared at her through the steam. “What about it?”

“I’ve always wanted to fall in love.”

“Fall in love? What are you saying? Did I raise a sharmouta?”

“No . . . no . . .” Isra hesitated. “But what if the suitor and I don’t love each other?”

“Love each other? What does love have to do with marriage? You think your father and I love each other?”

Isra’s eyes shifted to the ground. “I thought you must, a little.”

Mama sighed. “Soon you’ll learn that there’s no room for love in a woman’s life. There’s only one thing you’ll need, and that’s sabr, patience.”

Isra tried to curb her disappointment. She chose her next words carefully. “Maybe life in America will be different for women.”

Mama stared at her, flat and unblinking. “Different how?”

“I don’t know,” Isra said, softening her voice so as not to upset her mother. “But maybe American culture isn’t as strict as ours. Maybe women are treated better.”

“Better?” Mama mocked, shaking her head as she sautéed the vegetables. “You mean like in those fairy tales you read?”

She could feel her face redden. “No, not like that.”

“Like what, then?”

Isra wanted to ask Mama if marriage in America was like her parents’ marriage, where the man determined everything in the family and beat his wife if she displeased him. Isra had been five years old the first time she’d witnessed Yacob hit Mama. It was over an undercooked piece of lamb. Isra could still remember the pleading look in Mama’s eyes, begging him to stop, Yacob’s sullen face as he struck her. A darkness had rumbled through Isra then, a new awareness of the world unfolding. A world where not only children were beaten but mothers, too. Looking in Mama’s eyes that night, watching her weep violently, Isra had felt an unforgettable rage.

She considered her words again. “Do you think maybe women have more respect in America?”

Mama fixed her with a glare. “Respect?”

“Or maybe worth? I don’t know.”

Mama set the stirring spoon down. “Listen to me, daughter. No matter how far away from Palestine you go, a woman will always be a woman. Here or there. Location will not change her naseeb, her destiny.”

“But that’s not fair.”

“You are too young to understand this now,” Mama said, “but you must always remember.” She lifted Isra’s chin. “There is nothing out there for a woman but her bayt wa dar, her house and home. Marriage, motherhood—that is a woman’s only worth.”

Isra nodded, but inside she refused to accept. She pressed her palms against her thighs and shook her tears away. Mama was wrong, she told herself. Just because she had failed to find happiness with Yacob, that didn’t mean Isra would fail, too. She would love her husband in a way Mama hadn’t loved Yacob—she would strive to understand him, to please him—and surely in this way she would earn his love.

Looking up, Isra realized that Mama’s hands were trembling. A few tears fell down her cheeks.

“Are you crying, Mama?”

“No, no.” She looked away. “These onions are strong.”

It wasn’t until the Islamic marriage ceremony, one week later, that Isra saw the suitor again. His name was Adam Ra’ad. Adam’s eyes met hers only briefly as the cleric read from the Holy Qur’an, then again as they each uttered the word qubul, “I accept,” three times. The signing of the marriage contract was quick and simple, unlike the elaborate wedding party, which would be held after Isra received her immigrant visa. Isra overheard Yacob say it would only take a couple of weeks, since Adam was an American citizen.

From the kitchen window, Isra could see Adam outside, smoking a cigarette. She studied her new husband as he paced up and down the pathway in front of their house, a half smile set across his face, his eyes squinting. From a slight distance, he looked to be about thirty, maybe a little older, the lines on his face beginning to set. A finely trimmed black mustache covered his upper lip. Isra imagined what it would be like to kiss him and could feel her cheeks flush. Adam, she thought. Adam and Isra. It had a nice ring to it.

Adam wore a navy-blue shirt with buttons lined up the front and tan khakis, cuffed at his ankles. His shoes were shiny brown leather with tiny holes pricked in them and a solid black heel of good quality. His feet caressed the dirt with ease. She pictured a younger version of him, barefoot, kicking a soccer ball in the streets of Birzeit. It wasn’t hard to imagine. His feet balanced on the uneven dirt path as if he had been raised on land like this. How old had he been when he left Palestine? A child? A teenager? A man?

“Why don’t you and Adam go sit in the balcony?” Yacob told Isra when Adam came back inside. Adam met her eyes and smiled, revealing a row of stained teeth. She looked away. “Go on now,” Yacob said. “You two need to get to know one another.”

Isra flushed as she led the way to the balcony. Adam followed her, looking uneasily at the ground, both hands in his pockets. She wondered if he was nervous but dismissed the thought. He was a man. What could he possibly be nervous of?

Outside, it was a beautiful March morning. Ideal weather for fruit picking. Isra had recently pruned the fig tree that leaned against the house in preparation for the summer bloom. Beside it grew two slanted almond trees, beginning to flower. Isra watched Adam’s eyes widen as he admired the scenery. Grapevines covered the balcony, and he traced his fingers across a cluster of buds that would swell into grapes by summer. From the look on his face, she wondered if he had ever seen a grapevine before. Perhaps not since he was a child. She wanted to ask him so many things. Why had they left Palestine, and when? How had they made it to America? She opened her mouth and searched for the words, but none came.

There was a wrought-iron swing at the center of the balcony. Adam sat on it and waited for her to join him. She took a deep breath as she settled beside him. They could see the graveyards from their seat, both dilapidated, and Isra blushed at the sight. She hoped Adam wouldn’t think less of her. She tried to take strength in what Yacob always said, “It doesn’t matter where you live as long as your home is yours. Free of occupation and blood.”

It was a quiet morning. For a while they just sat there, lost in the view. Isra felt a shiver down her spine. She couldn’t help but think of the jinn who lived in cemeteries and ruins. Growing up, Isra had heard countless stories of the supernatural creatures, who were said to possess humans. Many of the neighborhood women swore they had witnessed an evil presence near the two cemeteries. Isra muttered a quick prayer under her breath. She wondered if it was a bad omen, facing a graveyard as she sat with her husband for the first time.

Beside her Adam stared absently into the distance. What was he thinking? Why wouldn’t he say something? Was he waiting for her to speak first? Surely he should speak first! She thought about the interactions between men and women she’d read about in books. Small introductions first, personal tales next, then affection grew. That was how two people fell in love. Or at least how Sinbad the Sailor fell in love with Princess Shera in A Thousand and One Nights. Except Shera was a bird for most of the story. Isra decided to be more realistic.

Adam turned to look at her. She swallowed, tugging on the edges of her hijab. His eyes lingered on the loose strands of black hair poking out from underneath. It occurred to her that he had not yet seen her hair. She waited for him to say something, but he only stared. His gaze moved up and down, his lips slowly parted. There was something in his eyes that troubled her. An intensity. What was it? In the glassy tint of his gaze, she could see the days of the rest of her life stacked together like pages. If only she could flip through them, so she knew what was to come.

Isra broke his gaze and returned her eyes to the graveyards. Perhaps he was only nervous, she told herself. Or perhaps he didn’t like her. It was reasonable. After all, she had never been called beautiful. Her eyes were small and dark, her jaw angular. More than once, Mama had mocked her sharp features, saying her nose was long and pointed, her forehead too large. She was certain Adam was looking at her forehead now. She pulled on her hijab. Perhaps she should bring out the box of Mackintosh’s chocolates Mama saved for special occasions. Or maybe she should brew some chai. She started to offer him some grapes but remembered they were not yet ripe.

As she turned to face Adam once more, she noticed his knees shaking. Then, in a flash, he zoomed closer and planted a kiss on her cheek.

Isra slapped him.

Shocked, she waited for him to apologize, to muster up something about how he hadn’t meant to kiss her, how his body acted of its own accord. But he only looked away, face flushed, and buried his eyes between the graves.

With great effort, she forced herself to look at the cemeteries. She thought perhaps there was something between the graves she could not see, some secret to make sense of what was happening. She thought about A Thousand and One Nights, how Princess Shera had wanted to become human so she could marry Sindbad. Isra didn’t understand. Why would anyone want to be a woman when she could be a bird?

“He tried to kiss me,” Isra told Mama after Adam and his family left, whispering so Yacob wouldn’t hear.

“What do you mean, he tried to kiss you?”

“He tried to kiss me, and I slapped him! I’m sorry, Mama. Everything happened so fast, and I didn’t know what else to do.” Isra’s hands were shaking, and she placed them between her thighs.

“Good,” Mama said after a long pause. “Make sure you don’t let him touch you until after the wedding ceremony. We don’t want this American family to go around saying we raised a sharmouta. That’s what men do, you know. Always put the blame on the woman.” Mama stuck out the tip of her pinkie. “Don’t even give him a finger.”

“No. Of course not!”

“Reputation is everything. Make sure he doesn’t touch you again.”

“Don’t worry, Mama. I won’t.”

The next day, Adam and Isra took a bus to Jerusalem, to a place called the US Consulate General, where people applied for immigrant visas. Isra was nervous about being alone with Adam again, but there was nothing she could do. Yacob couldn’t join them because his Palestinian hawiya, issued by the Israeli military authorities, prevented him from traveling to Jerusalem with ease. Isra had a hawiya too, but now that she was married to an American citizen, she would have less difficulty crossing the checkpoints.

The checkpoints were the reason Isra had never been to Jerusalem, which, along with most Palestinian cities, was under Israeli control and couldn’t be entered without a permit. The permits were required at each of the hundreds of checkpoints and roadblocks Israel had constructed on Palestinian land, restricting travel between, and sometimes within, their own cities and towns. Some checkpoints were manned by heavily armed Israeli soldiers and guarded with tanks; others were made up of gates, which were locked when soldiers were not on duty. Adam cursed every time they stopped at one of these roadblocks, irritated at the tight controls and heavy traffic. At each one he waved his American passport at the Israeli soldiers, speaking to them in English. Isra could understand a little from having studied English in school, and she was impressed at how well he spoke the language.

When they finally arrived at the consulate, they waited in line for hours. Isra stood behind Adam, head bowed, only speaking when spoken to. But Adam barely said a word, and Isra wondered if he was angry at her for slapping him on the balcony. She contemplated apologizing, but secretly she thought she had nothing to apologize for. Even though they had signed the Islamic marriage contract, he had no right to kiss her like that, not until the night of the wedding ceremony. Yet the word sorry brewed on her tongue. She forced herself to swallow it down.

At the main window, they were told it would take only ten days for Isra to receive her visa. Now Yacob could plan the wedding, she thought as they strolled around Jerusalem afterward. Walking the narrow roads of the old city, Isra was overwhelmed by sensations. She smelled chamomile, sage, mint, and lentils from the open burlap sacks lined up in front of a spice shop, and the sweet aroma of freshly baked knafa from a nearby dukan. She spotted wire cages holding chickens and rabbits in front of a butcher shop, and several boutiques displaying myriads of gold-plated jewelry. Old men in hattas sold colorful scarves on street corners. Women in full black attire hurried through the streets. Some wore embroidered hijabs, tight-fitted pants, and round sunglasses. Others wore no hijab at all, and Isra knew they were Israeli. Their heels click-clacked on the uneven sidewalk. Boys whistled. Cars weaved through the narrow roads, honking, leaving a trail of diesel fumes behind. Israeli soldiers monitored the streets, long rifles slung across their slender bodies. The air was filled with dirt and noise.

For lunch, Adam ordered falafel sandwiches from a food cart near Al-Aqsa Mosque. Isra stared at the gold-topped dome in awe as they ate.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Adam said between mouthfuls.

“It is,” Isra said. “I’ve never seen it before.”

Adam turned to face her. “Really?”

She nodded.

“Why not?”

“It’s hard getting here.”

“I’ve been gone for so long, I’d forgotten what it was like. We must’ve been stopped by half a dozen roadblocks. It’s absurd!”

“When did you leave Palestine?”

Adam chewed on his food. “We moved to New York in 1976, when I was sixteen. My parents have visited a couple of times since, but I’ve had to stay behind and take care of my father’s deli.”

“Have you ever been inside the mosque?”

“Of course. Many, many times. I wanted to be an imam growing up, you know. A priest. I spent Ramadan sleeping here one summer. I memorized the entire Qur’an.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“So is that what you do in America? You’re a priest?”

“Oh, no.”

“Then what do you do?”

“I own a deli.”

“But why aren’t you an imam?” Isra asked, emboldened by their first conversation.

“I couldn’t do that in America.”

“What do you mean?”

“My father needed me to help him run the family business. I had to give that up.”

“Oh.” Isra paused. “I didn’t expect that.”

“Why not?”

“I just always thought . . .” She stopped, thinking better of it.

“What?”

“I just assumed you’d be free.” He gave her a curious expression. “You know, because you’re a man.”

Adam said nothing, continuing to stare. Finally he said, “I am free,” and looked away.

Isra studied Adam for a long time as they finished their sandwiches. She couldn’t help but think of the way his face had stiffened at the mention of his childhood dream. His tight smile. She pictured him in the mosque during Ramadan, leading the maghrib prayer, reciting the Qur’an in a strong, musical voice. It softened her to picture him working behind a cash register, counting money, and stocking shelves when he wanted to be leading prayer in a mosque. And Isra thought for the first time, sitting there beside him, that perhaps it would not be so hard to love him after all.

Isra spent her last night in Birzeit propped in a gold metal chair, lips painted the color of mulberries, skin draped in layers of white mesh, hair wound up and sprayed with glitter. Around her, the walls spun. She watched them grow bigger and bigger until she was almost invisible, then get smaller and smaller as if they were crushing her. Women in an assortment of colors danced around her. Children huddled in corners eating baklava and drinking Pepsi. Loud music struck the air like fireworks. Everyone was cheering, clapping to the beat of her quivering heart. She nodded and smiled to their congratulations, yet inside she wasn’t sure how long she could stave off tears. She wondered if the guests understood what was happening, if they realized she was only a few hours away from boarding a plane with a man she barely knew and landing in a country whose culture was not her own.

Adam sat beside her, his black suit crisp against his white button-down shirt. He was the only man in the wedding hall. The others had a room of their own, away from the sight of the dancing women. Even Adam’s younger brothers, Omar and Ali, whom Isra had only met minutes before the wedding, were forbidden. She couldn’t tell how old they were, but they must’ve been in their twenties. Every now and then, one would poke his head in to watch the women on the dance floor, and a woman would remind him to stay in the men’s section. Isra scanned the room for her own brothers. They were all too young to sit in the men’s section, and she spotted them running around the far corner of the hall. She wondered if she would ever see them again.

If happiness were measured in sound, Adam’s mother was the happiest person in the room. Fareeda was a large, broad woman, and Isra felt the dance floor shrink in her presence. She wore a red-and-black thobe, with oriental patterns embroidered on the sleeves, and a wide belt of gold coins around her thick waist. Black kohl was smeared around her small eyes. She sang along to every song in a confident voice, twirling a long white stick in the air. Every minute or so, she brought her hand to her mouth and let out a zughreta, a loud, piercing sound. Her only daughter, Sarah, who looked about eleven or so, threw rose petals at the stage. She was a younger, slimmer version of her mother: dark almond eyes, black curls flowing wildly, skin as golden as wheat. Isra could almost see a grown version of Sarah sitting as she sat now, her tiny frame buried beneath a white bridal dress. She winced at the thought.

She looked around for her mother. Mama sat in the corner of the wedding hall, fidgeting with her fingers. So far she had not left her seat throughout the entire wedding, and Isra wondered if she wanted to dance. Perhaps she was too sad to dance, Isra thought. Or perhaps she was afraid to send the wrong message. Growing up, Isra had often heard women criticize the mother of the bride for celebrating too boisterously at the wedding, too excited to be rid of her daughter. She wondered if Mama was secretly excited to be rid of her.

Adam pounded on a darbuka drum. Startled, Isra looked away from Mama. She could see Fareeda handing Adam the white stick and pulling him down to the dance floor. He danced with the stick in one hand and the darbuka in the other. The music was deafening. Women around them clapped, glancing at Isra enviously as if she had won something that was rightfully theirs. She could almost hear them thinking, How did a plain girl like her get so lucky? It should be my daughter going to America.

Then Adam and Isra were dancing together. She didn’t quite know what to do. Even though Mama had always nagged her about dancing at events, saying it was good for her image, that mothers would be more likely to notice her if she was onstage, Isra had never listened. It felt unnatural to dance so freely, to display herself so openly. But Adam seemed perfectly comfortable. He was jumping on one foot, one hand behind his back, the other waving the stick in the air. With the Palestinian flag wrapped around his neck and a red velvet tarboosh on his head, Isra thought he looked like a sultan.

“Use your hands,” he mouthed.

She lifted both arms above her waist, dangling her wrists. She could see Fareeda nodding in approval. A group of women encircled them, moving their hands to the rhythm of the darbuka. They wore patterned red thobes with gold coins attached at their hips. Some held up round, flaming candles. Others placed a lit candlestick over each finger, waving their shimmering hands in the air. One woman even wore a tiered crown made of candles, so that it looked as though her head were on fire. The dance floor glistened like a chandelier.

The music stopped. Adam grabbed Isra by the elbow and led her off the dance floor. Fareeda followed, carrying a white basket. Isra hoped she could return to her seat, but Adam stopped in the center of the stage. “Face the crowd,” he told her.

Fareeda opened the basket to display a wealth of gold jewelry within. There were oohs and aahs from the crowd. She handed Adam one piece of gold at a time, and he secured each item on Isra’s skin. Isra stared at his hands. His fingers were long and thick, and she tried to keep from flinching. Soon heavy necklaces hung from her neck, their thick coins cold against her skin. Bracelets laced her wrists like ropes, their ends shaped like snakes. Coin-shaped earrings pricked her ears; rings covered her fingers. After twenty-seven pieces of gold, Fareeda threw the empty basket in the air and let out another zughreta. The crowd cheered, and Isra stood before them, wrapped in gold, unable to move, a mannequin on display.

She had no idea what life had in store for her and could do nothing to alter this fact. She shivered in horror at the realization. But these feelings were only temporary, Isra reminded herself. Surely she would have more control over her life in the future. Soon she would be in America, the land of the free, where perhaps she could have the love she had always dreamed of, could lead a better life than her mother’s. Isra smiled at the possibility. Perhaps someday, if Allah were to ever grant her daughters, they would lead a better life than hers, too.





Part I





Deya


BROOKLYN

Winter 2008

Deya Ra’ad stood by her bedroom window and pressed her fingers against the glass. It was December, and a dust of snow covered the row of old brick houses and faded lawns, the bare plane trees lining the sidewalk, the cars parallel-parked down Seventy-Second Street. Inside her room, alongside the spines of her books, a crimson kaftan provided the only other color. Her grandmother, Fareeda, had sewn this dress, with heavy gold embroidery around the chest and sleeves, specifically for today’s occasion: there was a marriage suitor in the sala waiting to see Deya. He was the fourth man to propose to her this year. The first had barely spoken English. The second had been divorced. The third had needed a green card. Deya was eighteen, not yet finished with high school, but her grandparents said there was no point prolonging her duty: marriage, children, family.

She walked past the kaftan, slipping on a gray sweater and blue jeans instead. Her three younger sisters wished her luck, and she smiled reassuringly as she left the room and headed upstairs. The first time she’d been proposed to, Deya had begged to keep her sisters with her. “It’s not right for a man to see four sisters at once,” Fareeda had replied. “And it’s the eldest who must marry first.”

“But what if I don’t want to get married?” Deya had asked. “Why does my entire life have to revolve around a man?”

Fareeda had barely looked up from her coffee cup. “Because that’s how you’ll become a mother and have children of your own. Complain all you want, but what will you do with your life without marriage? Without a family?”

“This isn’t Palestine, Teta. We live in America. There are other options for women here.”

“Nonsense.” Fareeda had squinted at the Turkish coffee grounds staining the bottom of her cup. “It doesn’t matter where we live. Preserving our culture is what’s most important. All you need to worry about is finding a good man to provide for you.”

“But there are other ways here, Teta. Besides, I wouldn’t need a man to provide for me if you let me go to college. I could take care of myself.”

At this, Fareeda had lifted her head sharply to glare at her. “Majnoona? Are you crazy? No, no, no.” She shook her head with distaste.

“But I know plenty of girls who get an education first. Why can’t I?”

“College is out of the question. Besides, no one wants to marry a college girl.”

“And why not? Because men only want a fool to boss around?”

Fareeda sighed deeply. “Because that’s how things are. How they’ve always been done. You ask anyone, and they’ll tell you. Marriage is what’s most important for women.”

Every time Deya replayed this conversation in her head, she imagined her life was just another story, with plot and rising tension and conflict, all building to a happy resolution, one she just couldn’t yet see. She did this often. It was much more bearable to pretend her life was fiction than to accept her reality for what it was: limited. In fiction, the possibilities of her life were endless. In fiction, she was in control.

For a long time Deya stared hesitantly into the darkness of the staircase, before climbing, very slowing, up to the first floor, where her grandparents lived. In the kitchen, she brewed an ibrik of chai. She poured the mint tea into five glass cups and arranged them on a silver serving tray. As she walked down the hall, she could hear Fareeda in the sala saying, in Arabic, “She cooks and cleans better than I do!” There was a rush of approving sounds in the air. Her grandmother had said the same thing to the other suitors, only it hadn’t worked. They’d all withdrawn their marriage proposals after meeting Deya. Each time Fareeda had realized that no marriage would follow, that there was no naseeb, no destiny, she had smacked her own face with open palms and wept violently, the sort of dramatic performance she often used to pressure Deya and her sisters to obey her.

Deya carried the serving tray down the hall, avoiding her reflection in the mirrors that lined it. Pale-faced with charcoal eyes and fig-colored lips, a long swoop of dark hair against her shoulders. These days it seemed as though the more she looked at her face, the less of herself she saw reflected back. It hadn’t always been this way. When Fareeda had first spoken to her of marriage as a child, Deya had believed it was an ordinary matter. Just another part of growing up and becoming a woman. She had not yet understood what it meant to become a woman. She hadn’t realized it meant marrying a man she barely knew, nor that marriage was the beginning and end of her life’s purpose. It was only as she grew older that Deya had truly understood her place in her community. She had learned that there was a certain way she had to live, certain rules she had to follow, and that, as a woman, she would never have a legitimate claim over her own life.

She put on a smile and entered the sala. The room was dim, every window covered with thick, red curtains, which Fareeda had woven to match the burgundy sofa set. Her grandparents sat on one sofa, the guests on the other, and Deya set a bowl of sugar on the coffee table between them. Her eyes fell to the ground, to the red Turkish rug her grandparents had owned since they emigrated to America. There was a pattern embossed across the edges: gold coils with no beginnings or ends, all woven together in ceaseless loops. Deya wasn’t sure if the pattern had gotten bigger or if she had gotten smaller. She followed it with her eyes, and her head spun.

The suitor looked up when she neared him, peering at her through the peppermint steam. She served the chai without looking his way, all the while aware of his lingering gaze. His parents and her grandparents stared at her, too. Five sets of eyes digging into her. What did they see? The shadow of a person circling the room? Maybe not even that. Maybe they saw nothing at all, a serving tray floating on its own, drifting from one person to the next until the teakettle was empty.

She thought of her parents. How would they feel if they were here with her now? Would they smile at the thought of her in a white veil? Would they urge her, as her grandparents did, to follow their path? She closed her eyes and searched for them, but she found nothing.

Her grandfather turned to her sharply and cleared his throat. “Why don’t you two go sit in the kitchen?” Khaled said. “That way you can get to know each other.” Beside him, Fareeda eyed Deya anxiously, her face revealing its own message: Smile. Act normal. Don’t scare this man away, too.

Deya recalled the last suitor who had withdrawn his marriage proposal. He had told her grandparents that she was too insolent, too questioning. That she wasn’t Arab enough. But what had her grandparents expected when they came to this country? That their children and grandchildren would be fully Arab, too? That their culture would remain untouched? It wasn’t her fault she wasn’t Arab enough. She had lived her entire life straddled between two cultures. She was neither Arab nor American. She belonged nowhere. She didn’t know who she was.

Deya sighed and met the suitor’s eyes. “Follow me.”

She observed him as they settled across from each other at the kitchen table. He was tall and slightly plump, with a closely shaved beard. His pecan hair was parted to one side and brushed back from his face. Better-looking than the other ones, Deya thought. He opened his mouth as if to speak but proceeded to say nothing. Then, after a few moments of silence, he cleared his throat and said, “I’m Nasser.”

She tucked her fingers between her thighs, tried to act normal. “I’m Deya.”

There was a pause. “I, um . . .” He hesitated. “I’m twenty-four. I work in a convenience store with my father while I finish school. I’m studying to be a doctor.”

She gave a slow, reluctant smile. From the eager look on his face, she could tell he was waiting for her to do as he did, recite a vague representation of herself, sum up her essence in one line. When she didn’t say anything, he spoke again. “So, what do you do?”

It was easy for her to recognize that he was just being nice. They both knew a teenage Arab girl didn’t do anything. Well, except cook, clean, and catch up on the latest Turkish soap operas. Maybe her grandmother would have allowed her and her sisters to do more had they lived back home, in Palestine, surrounded by people like them. But here, in Brooklyn, all Fareeda could do was shelter them at home and pray they remained good. Pure. Arab.

“I don’t do much,” Deya said.

“You must do something. You don’t have any hobbies?”

“I like to read.”

“What do you read?”

“Anything. It doesn’t matter what it is, I’ll read it. Trust me, I have the time.”

“And why is that?” he asked, knotting his brows.

“My grandmother doesn’t let us do much. She doesn’t even like it when I read.”

“Why not?”

“She thinks books are a bad influence.”

“Oh.” He flushed, as though finally understanding. After a moment he asked, “My mother said you go to an all-girls Islamic school. What grade are you in?”

“I’m a senior.”

Another pause. He shifted in his seat. Something about his nervousness eased her, and she let her shoulders relax.

“Do you want to go to college?” Nasser asked.

Deya studied his face. She had never been asked that particular question the way he asked it. Usually it sounded like a threat, as though if she answered yes, a weight would shift in the scale of nature. Like it was the worst possible thing for a girl to want.

“I do,” she said. “I like school.”

He smiled. “I’m jealous. I’ve never been a good student.”

She fixed her eyes on him. “Do you mind?”

“Mind what?”

“That I want to go to college.”

“No. Why would I mind?”

Deya studied him carefully, unsure whether to believe him. He could be pretending not to mind in order to trick her into thinking he was different than the previous suitors, more progressive. He could be telling her exactly what he thought she wanted to hear.

She straightened in her seat, avoiding his question. Instead she asked, “Why aren’t you a good student?”

“I’ve never really liked school,” he said. “But my parents insisted I apply to med school after college. They want me to be a doctor.”

“And do you want to be a doctor?”

Nasser laughed. “Hardly. I’d rather run the family business, maybe even open my own business one day.”

“Did you tell them that?”

“I did. But they said I had to go to college, and if not for medicine, then engineering or law.”

Deya looked at him. She had never known herself to feel anything besides anger and annoyance during these arrangements. One man had spent their entire conversation telling her how much money he earned at his gas station; another man had interrogated her about school, whether she intended to stay home and raise children, whether she would be willing to wear the hijab permanently and not only as part of her school uniform.

Still, Deya had questions of her own. What would you do to me if we married? Would you let me pursue my dreams? Would you leave me at home to raise the children while you worked? Would you love me? Would you own me? Would you beat me? She could have asked those questions aloud, but she knew people only told you what you wanted to hear. That to understand someone, you had to listen to the words they didn’t say, had to watch them closely.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Nasser asked.

“Nothing, it’s just that . . .” She looked at her fingers. “I’m surprised your parents forced you to go to college. I’d assumed they’d let you make your own choices.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You know.” She met his eyes. “Because you’re a man.”

Nasser looked at her curiously. “Is that what you think? That I can do anything I want because I’m a man?”

“That’s the world we live in.”

He leaned forward, resting his hands on the table. It was the closest Deya had ever sat to a man, and she leaned back in her seat, pressing her hands between her thighs.

“You’re strange,” Nasser said.

She could feel her face flush, and she looked away. “Don’t let my grandmother hear you say that.”

“Why not? I meant it as a compliment.”

“She won’t see it that way.”

There was a pause, and Nasser reached for his teacup. “So,” he said after taking a sip. “How do you imagine your life in the future?”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you want, Deya Ra’ad?”

She couldn’t help but laugh. As if it mattered what she wanted. As if it were up to her. If it were up to her, she’d postpone marriage for another decade. She’d enroll in a study-abroad program, pick up and move to Europe, perhaps Oxford, spending her days in cafés and libraries with a book in one hand and a pen in the other. She’d be a writer, helping people understand the world through stories. But it wasn’t up to her. Her grandparents had forbidden her to attend college before marriage, and she didn’t want to ruin her reputation in the community by defying them. Or worse, be disowned, banned from seeing her sisters, the only home and family she had ever known. She was already abandoned and alone in so many ways; to lose her remaining roots would be too much to bear. She was afraid of the life her grandparents had planned for her, but even more afraid of the unknown. So she tucked her dreams away, did as she was told.

“I just want to be happy,” she told Nasser. “That’s all.”

“Well, that’s simple enough.”

“Is it?” She met his eyes. “If so, then why haven’t I seen it?”

“I’m sure you have. Your grandparents must be happy.”

Deya tried to keep from rolling her eyes. “Teta spends her days complaining about her life, how her children abandoned her, and Seedo barely comes home. Trust me. They’re miserable.”

Nasser shook his head. “Maybe you’re judging them too harshly.”

“Why? Are your parents happy?”

“Of course they are.”

“Do they love each other?”

“Of course they love each other! They’ve been married for over thirty years.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Deya scoffed. “My grandparents have been married for over fifty years, and they can’t stand the sight of each other.”

Nasser said nothing. From the expression on his face, Deya knew he found her pessimism unpleasant. But what should she have said to him instead? Should she have lied? It was already enough she was forced to live a life she didn’t want to live. Should she really begin a marriage with lies? When would it end?

Eventually Nasser cleared his throat. “You know,” he said. “Just because you can’t see the happiness in your grandparents’ life, that doesn’t mean they’re not happy. What makes one person happy doesn’t always work for someone else. Take my mother—she values family over everything. As long as she has my father and her children, she’s happy. But not everyone needs family, of course. Some people need money, others need companionship. Everyone is different.”

“And what do you need?” Deya asked.

“What?”

“What do you need to be happy?”

Nasser bit the inside of his lip. “Financial security.”

“Money?”

“No, not money.” He paused. “I want to have a stable career and live comfortably, maybe even retire young.”

She rolled her eyes. “Work, money, same thing.”

“Maybe so,” he said, blushing. “Why, what’s your answer?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s not fair. You have to answer the question. What would make you happy?”

“Nothing. Nothing would make me happy.”

He blinked at her. “What do you mean, nothing? Surely something must make you happy.”

She turned to look out the window, feeling his eyes follow her face. “I don’t believe in happiness.”

“That’s not true. Maybe you just haven’t found it yet.”

“It is true.”

“Is it because—” He stopped. “Do you think it’s because of your parents?”

She could tell he was trying to meet her eyes, but she kept them fixed on the window. “No,” she lied. “Not because of them.”

“Then why don’t you believe in happiness?”

He would never understand, even if she tried to explain. She turned to face him. “I just don’t believe in it, that’s all.”

He looked back at her with a glum expression. She wondered what he saw, whether he knew that if he opened her up, he would find, right behind her ribs, only a fist of rot and mud.

“I don’t think you really mean that,” he eventually said, smiling at her. “You know what I think?”

“What?”

“I think you’re just pretending to see how I’d react. You wanted to see if I’d make a run for it.”

“Interesting theory.”

“I think it’s true. In fact, I bet you do it often.”

“Do what?”

“Push people away so they won’t hurt you.” She looked away. “It’s okay. You don’t have to admit it.”

“There’s nothing to admit.”

“Fine. But can I tell you something?” She turned back toward him. “I won’t hurt you. I promise.”

She forced a smile, wishing she could trust him. But she didn’t think she knew how.

Fareeda hurried into the kitchen as soon as Nasser left, her almond brown eyes wide and questioning: Did Deya like him? Did she think he’d liked her? Would she agree to the marriage proposal? Deya had said no to a few proposals, her answer ripe on the tip of her tongue. But mostly the suitor was first to withdraw his offer. On these occasions, after the parents had politely informed them that a match had not been made and Fareeda had cried and slapped her face, her grandmother had only become more persistent. A few phone calls, and she had found a new suitor by the end of the week.

But this time was different. “Looks like you didn’t scare this one away,” Fareeda said with a grin from the kitchen doorway. She was wearing the red-and-gold dress she wore when suitors visited, with a cream scarf draped loosely around her head. She moved closer. “His parents said they’d like to visit again soon. What do you think? Did you like Nasser? Should I tell them yes?”

“I don’t know,” Deya said, shoving a wet rag across the kitchen table. “I need some time to think about it.”

“Think about it? What’s there to think about? You should be thankful you even have a choice in the matter. Some girls aren’t that lucky—I certainly never was.”

“This isn’t a choice,” Deya mumbled.

“Why, of course it is!” Fareeda ran her fingers against the kitchen table to make sure it was clean. “My parents never asked me if I wanted to marry your grandfather. They just told me what to do, and I did it.”

“Well, I don’t have parents,” Deya said. “Or uncles or aunts, or anyone besides my sisters for that matter!”

“Nonsense. You have us,” Fareeda said, though she didn’t meet her eyes.

Deya’s grandparents had raised Deya and her three sisters since she was seven years old. For years it had just been the six of them, not the large extended family that was the norm in Arab households. Growing up, Deya had often felt the sting of loneliness, but it stung the most on Eid celebrations, when she and her sisters would sit at home, knowing there was no one coming to visit them on the most important holiday. Her classmates would boast about the festivities they attended, the family members who gave them gifts and money, while Deya smiled, pretending that she and her sisters did those things, too. That they had uncles and aunts and people who loved them. That they had a family. But they didn’t know what it meant to have a family. All they had were grandparents who raised them out of obligation, and each other.

“Nasser would make a fine husband,” Fareeda said. “He’ll be a doctor someday. He’ll be able to give you everything you need. You’d be a fool to turn him down. Proposals like this don’t come around every day.”

“But I’m only eighteen, Teta. I’m not ready to get married.”

“You act like I’m selling you off to slavery! Every mother I know is preparing her daughter for marriage. Tell me, do you know anyone whose mother isn’t doing exactly the same thing?”

Deya sighed. Her grandmother was right. Most of her classmates sat with a handful of men every month, yet none of them seemed to mind. They slicked on makeup and plucked their brows, as though eagerly waiting for a man to scoop them away. Some were already engaged, wrapping up their final year of high school as if by force. As if they’d found something in the prospect of marriage so fulfilling that no amount of education could compare. Deya would often look at them and wonder: Isn’t there more you want to do? There must be more. But then her thoughts would shift, and uncertainty would kick in. She’d start to think maybe they had it right after all. Maybe marriage was the answer.

Fareeda moved closer, shaking her head. “Why are you making this so difficult? What more do you want?”

Deya met her eyes. “I already told you! I want to go to college!”

“Ya Allah.” She drew out her words. “Not this again. How many times do I have to tell you? You’re not going to college in this house. If your husband allows you to get an education after marriage, that’s his decision. But my job is to secure your future by making sure you and your sisters are married off to good men.”

“But why can’t you secure my future by letting me go to college? Why are you letting some strange man control my fate? What if he turns out like Baba? What if—”

“Not another word,” Fareeda said, her upper lip twitching. “How many times have I told you not to mention your parents in this house?” From the expression on her face, Deya could tell Fareeda wanted to slap her. But it was true. Deya had seen enough of her mother’s life to know it wasn’t the life she wanted.

“I’m afraid, Teta,” Deya whispered. “I don’t want to marry a man I don’t know.”

“Arranged marriages are what we do,” Fareeda said. “Just because we live in America, that doesn’t change how things are.” She shook her head, reaching inside the cabinet for a teakettle. “If you keep turning down proposals, the next thing you know, you’ll be old and no one will want to marry you, and then you’ll spend the rest of your life in this house with me.” She caught Deya’s eyes. “You’ve seen other girls who’ve disobeyed their parents, refusing to get married, or worse, getting divorced, and look at them now! Living at home with their parents, their heads hanging in shame! Is that what you want?”

Deya looked away.

“Listen, Deya.” Fareeda’s voice was softer. “I’m not asking you to marry Nasser tomorrow. Just sit with him again and get to know him.”

Deya hated to admit Fareeda was right, but she found herself reconsidering. Maybe it was time to get married. Maybe she should accept Nasser’s proposal. It wasn’t as if she had a future in Fareeda’s house. She could barely go to the grocery store without supervision. Besides, Nasser seemed nice enough. Better than the other men she’d met over the months. If not him, then who? Eventually, she’d have to agree to someone. She could only refuse for so long. Unless she wanted to ruin her reputation and her sisters’ reputations as well. She could hear their neighbors in her head. That girl is bad. She isn’t respectable. Something must be wrong with her.

Deya agreed. There was something wrong with her: she couldn’t stop thinking, couldn’t make up her mind.

“Fine,” she said. “Okay.”

Fareeda’s eyes sprung wide. “Really?”

“I’ll see him again. But only under one condition.”

“And what’s that?”

“I’m not leaving Brooklyn.”

“Don’t worry.” Fareeda forced a tight smile. “He lives right here in Sunset Park. I know you want to be near your sisters.”

“Please,” Deya said. “When the time comes, will you make sure they marry in Brooklyn, too?” She spoke softly, hoping to elicit some sympathy. “Can you make sure we stay together? Please.”

Fareeda nodded. Deya thought she saw the wetness of tears in her eyes. It was an odd sight. But then Fareeda looked away, twisting her scarf with her fingers.

“Of course,” Fareeda said. “That’s the least I can do.”

Fareeda might have forbidden Deya from speaking of her parents, but she couldn’t erase her memories. Deya clearly remembered the day she had learned of Adam’s and Isra’s deaths. She had been seven years old. It was a bright autumn day, but Deya had watched the sky turn a dull silver through her bedroom window. Fareeda had finished clearing the sufra after dinner, washed the dishes, and slipped into her nightgown before creeping downstairs to the basement, where they had lived with their parents. Deya knew something was wrong the minute her grandmother appeared at the doorway. As far back as she could remember, she had never seen Fareeda in the basement.

Fareeda had checked to see if Amal, the youngest of the four, was asleep in her crib, before sitting on the edge of Deya and her sisters’ bed.

“Your parents—” Fareeda took a deep breath and pushed the words out. “They’re dead. They died in a car accident last night.”

After that, it was all a blur. Deya couldn’t remember what Fareeda said next, couldn’t picture the looks on her sisters’ faces. She only remembered disparate bits. Panic. Whimpering. A high-pitched scream. She had dug her fingers into her thighs. She had thought she was going to throw up. She remembered looking out the window and noticing that it had started to rain, as if the universe was grieving with them.

Fareeda had stood up and, weeping, went back upstairs.

That was all Deya knew about her parents’ death, even now, more than ten years later. Perhaps that was why she had spent her childhood with a book in front of her face, trying to make sense of her life through stories. Books were her only reliable source of comfort, her only hope. They told the truth in a way the world never seemed to, guided her the way she imagined Isra would’ve had she still been alive. There were so many things she needed to know, about her family, about the world, about herself.

She often wondered how many people felt this way, spellbound by words, wishing to be tucked inside a book and forgotten there. How many people were hoping to find their story inside, desperate to understand. And yet Deya still felt alone in the end, no matter how many books she read, no matter how many tales she told herself. All her life she’d searched for a story to help her understand who she was and where she belonged. But her story was confined to the walls of her home, to the basement of Seventy-Second Street and Fifth Avenue, and she didn’t think she’d ever understand it.

That evening Deya and her sisters ate dinner alone, as they usually did, while Fareeda watched her evening show in the sala. They did not spread a sufra with a succession of dishes, nor set the table with lemon wedges, green olives, chili peppers, and fresh pita bread, as they did when their grandfather came home. Instead the four sisters huddled around the kitchen table together, deep in conversation. Every now and then they’d lower their voices, listening to the sounds in the hall to make sure Fareeda was still in the sala and couldn’t overhear them.

Deya’s younger sisters were her only companions. All four of them were close in age, only one or two years apart, and complemented one another like school subjects in a class schedule. If Deya was a subject, she thought she would be art—dark, messy, emotional. Nora, the second eldest and her closest companion, would be math—solid, precise, and straightforward. It was Nora who Deya relied on for advice, taking comfort in her clear thinking; Nora who tempered Deya’s overspilling emotions, who structured the chaos of Deya’s art. Then there was Layla. Deya thought Layla would be science, always curious, always seeking answers, always logical. Then there was Amal, the youngest of the four and, true to her name, the most hopeful. If Amal was a subject, she would be religion, centering every conversation around halal and haraam, good and evil. It was Amal who always brought them back to God, rounding them out with a handful of faith.

“So, what did you think of Nasser?” asked Nora as she sipped on her lentil soup. “Was he crazy like the last man?” She blew on her spoon. “You know, the one who insisted you start wearing the hijab at once?”

“I don’t think anyone’s as crazy as that man,” Deya said, laughing.

“Was he nice?” Nora asked.

“He was okay,” Deya said, making sure to smile. She didn’t want to worry them. “Really, he was.”

Layla was studying her. “You don’t seem too happy.”

Deya could see her sisters watching her intensely, their eyes making her sweat. “I’m just nervous, that’s all.”

“Are you going to sit with him again?” said Amal, who, Deya realized, was biting her fingertips.

“Yes. Tomorrow, I think.”

Nora leaned in, pushing a strand of hair behind her ear. “Does he know about our parents?”

Deya nodded as she stirred her soup. She wasn’t surprised Nasser knew what had happened to her parents. News traveled like wind in a community like theirs, where Arabs clung to each other like dough, afraid to get lost among the Irish, Italians, Greeks, and Hasidic Jews. It was as if all the Arabs in Brooklyn stood hand in hand, from Bay Ridge all the way up Atlantic Avenue, and shared everything, from one ear to the next. There were no secrets among them.

“What do you think is going to happen?” Layla asked.

“With what?”

“When you see him again. What will you talk about?”

“The fundamentals, I’m sure,” Deya said, one eyebrow cocked. “How many kids I want, where I want to live . . . you know, the basics.”

Her sisters laughed.

“But at least you’ll know what to expect if you decide to move forward,” Nora said. “Better than being taken off guard.”

“That’s true. He did seem very predictable.” Deya looked down into her soup. When she raised her eyes again, the corners crinkled. “You know what he said would make him happy?”

“Money?” said Layla.

“A good job?” added Nora.

Deya laughed. “Exactly. So typical.”

“What did you expect him to say?” said Nora. “Love? Romance?”

“No. But I hoped he’d at least pretend to have a more interesting answer.”

“Not everyone can pretend the way you do,” Nora said with a grin.

“Maybe he was nervous,” Layla said. “Did he ask what made you happy?”

“He did.”

“And what did you say?”

“I said nothing made me happy.”

“Why did you say that?” said Amal.

“Just to mess with him.”

“Sure,” Nora said, rolling her eyes. “That’s a good question, though. Let’s see. What would make me happy?” She stirred her soup. “Freedom,” she finally said. “Being able to do anything I wanted.”

“Success would make me happy,” Layla said. “Being a doctor or doing something great.”

“Good luck becoming a doctor in Fareeda’s house,” Nora said, laughing.

Layla rolled her eyes. “Says the girl who wants freedom.”

They all laughed at that.

Deya caught a glimpse of Amal, who was still chewing her fingers. She had yet to touch her soup. “What about you, habibti?” Deya asked, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder. “What would make you happy?”

Amal looked out the kitchen window. “Being with you three,” she said.

Deya sighed. Even though Amal was far too young to remember them—she’d been barely two years old when the car accident had happened—Deya knew she was thinking of their parents. But it was easier losing something you couldn’t quite remember, she thought. At least then there were no memories to look back on, nothing hurtful to relive. Deya envied her sisters that. She remembered too much, too often, though her memories were distorted and spotty, like half-remembered dreams. To make sense of them, she’d weave the scattered fragments together into a full narrative, with a beginning and an end, a purpose and a truth. Sometimes she would find herself mixing up memories, losing track of time, adding pieces here and there until her childhood felt complete, had a logical progression. And then she’d wonder: which pieces could she really remember, and which ones had she made up?

Deya felt cold as she sat at the kitchen table, despite the steam from her soup against her face. She could see Amal staring absently out the kitchen window, and she reached across the table and squeezed her hand.

“I just can’t imagine the house without you,” Amal whispered.

“Oh, come on,” Deya said. “It’s not like I’m going to a different country. I’ll be right around the corner. You can all come visit anytime.”

Nora and Layla smiled, but Amal just sighed. “I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m going to miss you, too.” Deya’s voice cracked as she said it.

Outside the window the light was getting duller, the wind settling. Deya watched a handful of birds gliding across the sky.

“I wish Mama and Baba were here,” Nora said.

Layla sighed. “I just wish I remembered them.”

“Me too,” Amal said.

“I don’t remember much either,” Nora said. “I was only six when they died.”

“But at least you were old enough to remember what they looked like,” said Layla. “Amal and I remember nothing.”

Nora turned to Deya. “Mama was beautiful, wasn’t she?”

Deya forced a smile. She could barely recall their mother’s face, just her eyes, how dark they were. Sometimes she wished she could peek inside Nora’s brain to see what she remembered about their parents, whether Nora’s memories resembled her own. But mostly she wished she would find nothing in Nora’s head, not a single memory. It would be easier that way.

“I remember being at the park once.” Nora’s voice was quieting now. “We were all having a picnic. Do you remember, Deya? Mama and Baba bought us Mister Softee cones. We sat in the shade and watched the ships drift beneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge like toy boats. And Mama and Baba stroked my hair and kissed me. I remember they were laughing.”

Deya said nothing. That day at the park was her last memory of her parents, but she recalled it differently. She remembered her parents sitting at opposite ends of the blanket, neither saying a word. In Deya’s memories, they rarely spoke to each other, and she couldn’t remember ever seeing them touch. She used to think they were being modest, that perhaps they loved each other when they were alone. But even when she watched them in secret, she never saw them show affection. Deya couldn’t remember why, but that day in the park, staring at her parents at opposite ends of the blanket, she’d felt as though she understood the meaning of the word sorrow for the first time.

The sisters spent the rest of their evening chatting about school until it was time for bed. Layla and Amal exchanged goodnight kisses with their older sisters before heading to their room. Nora sat on the bed beside Deya and twisted the blanket with her fingers. “Tell me something,” she said.

“Hm?”

“Did you mean what you told Nasser? That nothing can make you happy?”

Deya sat up and leaned against the headboard. “No, I . . . I don’t know.”

“Why do you think that? It worries me.”

When Deya said nothing, Nora leaned in close. “Tell me. What is it?”

“I don’t know, it’s just . . . Sometimes I think maybe happiness isn’t real, at least not for me. I know it sounds dramatic, but . . .” She paused, tried to find the right words. “Maybe if I keep everyone at arm’s length, if I don’t expect anything from the world, I won’t be disappointed.”

“But you know it’s not healthy, living with that mindset,” Nora said.

“Of course I know that, but I can’t help how I feel.”

“I don’t understand. When did you become so negative?”

Deya was silent.

“Is it because of Mama and Baba? Is that it? You always have this look in your eyes when we mention them, like you know something we don’t. What is it?”

“It’s nothing,” Deya said.

“Clearly it’s something. It must be. Something happened.”

Deya felt Nora’s words under her skin. Something had happened, everything had happened, nothing had happened. She remembered the days she’d sat outside Isra’s bedroom door, knocking and pounding, calling for her mother over and over. Mama. Open the door, Mama. Please, Mama. Can you hear me? Are you there? Are you coming, Mama? Please. But Isra never opened the door. Deya would lie there and wonder what she had done. What was wrong with her that her own mother couldn’t love her?

But Deya knew that no matter how clearly she could articulate this memory and countless others, Nora wouldn’t be able to understand how she felt, not really.

“Please don’t worry,” she said. “I’m okay.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

Nora yawned, stretching her arms in the air. “Tell me one of your stories, then,” she said. “So I can have good dreams. Tell me about Mama and Baba.”

Their bedtime story ritual had started when their parents died and continued throughout the years. Deya didn’t mind, but there was only so much she could remember, or wanted to. Telling a story wasn’t as simple as recalling memories. It was building on them and deciding which parts were best left unsaid.

Nora didn’t need to know about the nights Deya had waited for Adam to come home, pressing her nose against the window so hard it would still hurt by morning. How, on the rare nights he came home before bedtime, he’d scoop her into his arms, all while scanning the halls for Isra, waiting for her to come greet him, too. But Isra never greeted him. She never met his eyes when he entered the house, never even smiled. At best she’d stand in the corner of the hall, the color rushing out of her skin, the muscles in her jaw clenching

But other times it was worse: nights when Deya would lie in bed and hear Adam yelling on the other side of the wall, her mother weeping, then even more terrible sounds. A bang against the wall. A loud yelp. Adam screaming again. Deya would cover her ears, shut her eyes, curl up in a ball, and tell herself a story in her head until the noises faded in the background, until she could no longer hear her mother pleading, “Adam, please . . . Adam, stop . . .”

“What are you thinking about?” Nora asked, studying her sister’s face. “What are you remembering?”

“Nothing,” Deya said, though she could feel her face betray her. Sometimes Deya wondered if it was her mother’s sadness that made her sad, if perhaps when Isra died, all her sorrows had escaped and settled in Deya instead.

“Come on,” Nora said, sitting up. “I can see it on your face. Tell me.”

“It’s nothing. Besides, it’s getting late.”

“Pretty please. Soon you’ll be married, and then . . .” Her voice dwindled to a whisper. “Your memories are all I have left of them.”

“Fine.” Deya sighed. “I’ll tell you what I remember.” She straightened and cleared her throat. But she didn’t tell Nora the truth. She told her a story.





Isra


Spring 1990

Isra arrived in New York the day after her wedding ceremony, via a twelve-hour flight from Tel Aviv. Her first glimpse of the city was from the plane as they approached John F. Kennedy Airport. Her eyes widened and she pressed her nose against the window. She thought she had fallen in love. It was the city itself that captivated her first, immaculate buildings stories high—hundreds of them. From above, Manhattan looked so thin, like the buildings could just crack it in half, as though they were too heavy for that small sliver of land. As the plane neared the earth, Isra felt herself swell up. The Manhattan skyline turned from toylike to mountainous, its towers and citadels shooting upward like fireworks bursting into the sky, overwhelming in height and power, making Isra feel small, yet at the same time bewildered by their beauty, as if they were something out of a fairy tale. Even if she had read a thousand books, nothing could compare to the feeling she had now as she inhaled the view.

She could still see the skyline when the plane landed, though now it was a faint outline with a bluish hue on the far horizon. If Isra squinted, it almost seemed like she was looking at the mountains of Palestine, the buildings like dusty hills in the distance. She wondered what else she would see in the days to come.

“This is Queens,” Adam told her as they waited in line for a cab outside the airport. Once inside the minivan, Isra sat near a window in the back row, hoping Adam would sit beside her, but Sarah and Fareeda joined her instead. “It’s about a forty-five-minute ride to Brooklyn where we live,” Adam continued as he sat beside his brothers in the middle row. “If we’re not stuck in traffic, that is.”

Isra studied Queens through the taxicab window, eyes wide and watering in the March sunlight. She searched for the immaculate skyline she had seen from the plane, but it was nowhere in sight. All she could see were endless gray roads, curving and looping back in on themselves, with cars—hundreds of cars—zooming along them without stopping. Adam said they were two miles from the exit to Brooklyn, and Isra watched as the cabdriver merged to the left lane, following a sign that read BELT PARKWAY RAMP.

They sailed along a narrow highway so close to the water Isra thought the cab might slip and fall in. She didn’t know how to swim. “How are we driving so close to the water?” she managed to ask, eyeing a large ship in the distance, a cluster of birds soaring above it.

“Oh, this is nothing,” Adam said. “Wait until you see the bridge.”

And then it appeared, right in front of her, long and silver and elegant, like a bird spreading its wings over water. “That’s the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge,” Adam said, watching Isra’s eyes widen. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“It is,” she said, panicking. “Are we driving on it?”

“No,” Adam said. “That bridge connects Brooklyn to Staten Island.”

“Has it ever fallen?” she whispered, eyes glued to the bridge as they neared it.

She could hear his smile in his reply. “Not that I know of.”

“But it’s so skinny! It looks like it could snap at any minute.”

Adam laughed. “Relax,” he said. “We’re in the greatest city on earth. Everything here is built by the best architects and engineers. Enjoy the view.”

Isra tried to relax. She could hear Khaled chuckle in the passenger seat. “Reminds me of the first time Fareeda saw the bridge.” He turned back to look at his wife. “I swear she almost cried in fear.”

“Sure I did,” Fareeda said, though Isra noticed that she still seemed nervous as they drove under the bridge. When they came out the other side, Isra exhaled hard, relieved it hadn’t collapsed on them.

It was only after they exited the parkway that Isra had her first glimpse of Brooklyn. It wasn’t what she had expected. Magnificent was a word you could put to Manhattan, but Brooklyn seemed plain in comparison, as though it didn’t belong alongside. All she saw were dull brick buildings covered in murals and graffiti, many of them dilapidated, and people pushing their way through the crowded streets with solemn looks on their faces. It puzzled her. Growing up, she had often wondered about the world outside Palestine, if it were as beautiful as the places she read about in books. She had been certain it would be, studying the Manhattan skyline, had been excited to call that world home. But now, eyeing Brooklyn through the window, seeing the graffiti scrawled on the walls and across the buildings, she wondered if her books had gotten it wrong, whether Mama had been right all along when she’d said the world would be disappointing regardless of where she stood.

“We live in Bay Ridge,” Adam said as the cabdriver stopped beside a row of old brick houses. Isra, Fareeda, and Sarah stood on the sidewalk while the men unloaded the suitcases. Adam held Isra’s suitcase in one hand and gestured around the block with the other. “Many of the Arabs in New York live in this neighborhood,” he said. “You’ll feel right at home.”

Isra surveyed the block. Adam’s family lived on a long, tree-lined street with row houses stacked against one another like books on a shelf. Most of the homes were made of red brick and curved in the front. They had two stories and a basement, with a short, narrow staircase leading to the front door on the first floor. Iron gates separated the houses from the sidewalk. It was a well-kept neighborhood—there were no open gutters or garbage littering the street, and the roads were paved, not dirt. But there was hardly any greenery—only a row of London planes lining the walk. No fruit to pick, no balcony, no front yard. She hoped there was at least a backyard.

“This is it,” Adam said when they reached the front gate of a house numbered 545.

Adam opened the front door and led her inside. “The houses here are quite cramped,” he said as they walked down the hall. Isra silently agreed. She could see the entire first floor from the hall. There was a sala to her left, and farther down, a kitchen. To her right was a stairway leading to the second floor, and behind it, almost hidden, a bedroom.

Isra looked around the living room. Though it was much smaller than her parents’ sala back home, it was decorated as though it were a mansion. The floor was covered with a Turkish rug, crimson with a gold pattern in the center. The same pattern was on the burgundy couches, the red throw pillows, and the long, thick curtains lining the windows. A worn leather sofa sat in the corner of the room, as though forgotten, with a shiny gold vase nestled beside it.

“Do you like it?” Adam asked.

“It’s beautiful.”

“I know it’s not bright and airy like the houses back home.” His eyes settled on the windows, which were hidden behind the curtains. “But this is how things are here, what can we do?”

There was something in his voice, and Isra found herself thinking of the day on the balcony, the way his eyes had chased the grapevines, taking in the open scenery. She wondered whether he longed to return to Palestine, whether he wanted to move back home one day.

“Do you miss home?” The sound of her voice startled her, and she dropped her eyes to the floor.

“Yes,” Adam said. “I do.”

Isra looked up to see that he was still staring at the curtains. “Would you ever move back?” she asked.

“Maybe one day,” he said. “If things got better.” He turned away and walked down the hall. Isra followed.

“My parents stay here on the first floor,” Adam said, pointing to the bedroom. “Sarah and my brothers sleep upstairs.”

“Where will we stay?” she asked, hoping her bedroom had a window.

He pointed to a closed door down the hallway. “Downstairs.”

Adam opened the door and signaled her to go down. She did, all the while wondering how they could live in a basement. If there was barely enough light upstairs, what would the basement be like? She peered down the shallow steps. At once, she was overwhelmed with darkness. She put both hands in front of her and descended, the light cast from the doorway fading with each step. She reached the bottom of the stairs and fumbled against the wall in search of a light switch. Cold crept through her fingertips until she found it and flicked it on.

A large, gold mirror hung on the wall directly in front of her. It seemed odd that anyone should place a mirror in such a dreary, uninhabited place. What good was a mirror in the middle of the dark with no light to reflect?

She entered the first room of the basement, surveying the dim space. The room was narrow and empty—four gray walls, bare with the exception of a window to her left and, in the center of the wall ahead, a closed door. Isra opened it to find another room, slightly larger than the first and furnished with a queen-size bed, a small dresser, and a large mirror. Beside the mirror was a small closet, and beside that, a doorway that led to a bathroom. This would be their bedroom, Isra knew. It didn’t have any windows.

She studied her reflection in the mirror. Her face looked dull and gray in the fluorescent light, and she stared at her small, weak frame. She saw a girl who should’ve kicked and screamed as her mother tightened her wedding gown, should’ve begged and hollered as her father secured her in the taxicab to the airport. But she was a coward. She turned away. This is the only familiar face I’ll ever see again, Isra thought. And she couldn’t stand the sight of it.

Upstairs, the earthy smell of sage filled the kitchen. Fareeda was brewing a kettle of chai. She stood over the stove, back hunched, staring absently at the steam. Watching her, Isra found herself thinking of the maramiya plant in her mother’s garden, how Mama would cut off a few leaves every morning to brew in their chai because it helped with Yacob’s indigestion. Isra wondered if Fareeda grew a maramiya plant, too, or if she used dried sage from the market instead.

“Can I help you with something, hamati?” Isra asked as she walked over to the stove. It was the first time she had called Fareeda mother-in-law.

“No, no, no,” Fareeda said, shaking her head. “Don’t call me hamati. Call me Fareeda.”

Growing up, Isra had never heard a married woman called by her first name. Her mother was always referred to as Umm Waleed, mother of her eldest son Waleed, and never Sawsan. Even her aunt Widad, who had never borne a son, was not called by her first name. People called her Mart Jamal, Jamal’s wife.

“I don’t like that word,” Fareeda said, reading the confusion on her face. “It makes me feel old.”

Isra smiled, resting her eyes on the boiling tea.

“Why don’t you set the sufra?” Fareeda said. “I’m making us something to eat.”

“Where’s Adam?”

“He left for work.”

“Oh.” Isra had expected him to stay home today, to take her for a walk around the neighborhood perhaps, introduce her to Brooklyn. Who went to work the day after his wedding?

“He had to run an errand for his father,” Fareeda said. “He’ll be home soon.”

Why couldn’t his brothers run the errand instead? Isra wanted to ask, but she was afraid of saying the wrong thing. She cleared her throat and said, “Did Omar and Ali go with him?”

“I have no idea where they went,” Fareeda said. “Boys are a handful, going and coming as they please. They’re not like girls. You can’t control them.” She handed Isra a stack of plates. “I’m sure you know—you have brothers.”

Isra smiled weakly. “I do.”

“Sarah!” Fareeda called out.

Sarah was upstairs in her bedroom. “Yes, Mama?” she called back.

“Come down here and help Isra set the sufra!” Fareeda said. She turned to Isra. “I don’t want her thinking she’s excused from her chores now that you’re here. That’s how trouble starts.”

“Does she have a lot of chores?” Isra asked.

“Of course,” Fareeda said, looking up to find Sarah at the doorway. “She’s eleven years old, practically a woman. Why, when I was her age, my mother didn’t even have to lift a finger. I was rolling pots of stuffed grape leaves and kneading dough for the entire family.”

“That’s because you didn’t go to school, Mama,” Sarah said. “You had time to do those things. I have homework to catch up on.”

“Your homework can wait,” Fareeda said, handing her the ibrik of chai. “Pour some tea and hurry.”

Sarah poured tea into four glass cups. Isra noticed that she didn’t hurry like Fareeda had asked.

“Is the chai ready?” A man’s voice.

Isra turned to find Khaled in the doorway. She took a good look at him. His hair was thick and silver, his yellow skin wrinkled. He wouldn’t meet her eyes, and she wondered if he was uncomfortable because she wasn’t wearing her hijab. But she didn’t have to wear it in front of him. He was her father-in-law, which, according to Islamic law, made him mahram, like her own father.

“How do you like the neighborhood, Isra?” Khaled said, scanning the sufra. Despite his faded features and the iron-colored hair across his jaw, it was easy to see he had been handsome as a young man.

“It’s beautiful, ami,” Isra said, wondering if perhaps calling him father-in-law would irritate him the way it had Fareeda.

Fareeda looked at her husband and grinned. “You’re ‘ami’ now, you old man!”

“You’re no young damsel yourself,” he said with a smile. “Come on.” He signaled them to sit down. “Let’s eat.”

Isra had never seen so much food on one sufra. Hummus topped with ground beef and pine nuts. Fried halloumi cheese. Scrambled eggs. Falafel. Green and black olives. Labne and za’atar. Fresh pita bread. Even during Ramadan, when Mama made all their favorite meals and Yacob splurged and bought them meat, the food was never this plentiful. The steam of each dish intertwined with the next until the room smelled like home.

Fareeda turned to Khaled, fixing her eyes on his face. “What are your plans today?”

“I don’t know.” He dipped his bread in olive oil and za’atar. “Why?”

“I need you to take me to town.”

“What do you need?”

“Meat and groceries.”

Isra tried to keep from staring at Fareeda. Even though she was not much older than Mama, they were nothing alike. There were no undertones of fear in Fareeda’s voice, nor did she lower her gaze in Khaled’s presence. Isra wondered if Khaled beat her.

“Do I have to go too, Baba?” Sarah asked from across the table. “I’m tired.”

“You can stay home with Isra,” he said without looking up.

Sarah exhaled a sigh of relief. “Thank God. I hate grocery shopping.”

Isra watched as Khaled sipped his chai, unfazed by Sarah’s boldness. If Isra had spoken to Yacob like that, he would’ve slapped her. But perhaps parents didn’t hit their children in America. She pictured herself raised in America by Khaled and Fareeda, wondered what her life might have been like.

After a moment, Khaled excused himself to get ready. Isra and Sarah got up as well, carrying the empty plates and cups to the sink. Fareeda remained seated, sipping her tea.

“Fareeda!” Khaled called from the hall.

“Shu? What do you want?”

“Pour me another cup of chai.”

Fareeda popped a ball of falafel into her mouth, clearly in no hurry to obey her husband’s command. Isra watched, confused and anxious, as Fareeda sipped her tea. When was she going to pour Khaled another cup of chai? Should Isra offer to do it instead? She looked at Sarah, but the girl seemed unconcerned. Isra forced herself to relax. Maybe this was how wives spoke to their husbands in America. Maybe things were different here after all.

Adam came home at sunset. “Get dressed,” he told her. “I’m taking you out.”

Isra tried to contain her excitement. She was standing in front of the living room window, where she had been for some time, studying the plane trees outside, wondering if they smelled woody or sweet or a scent she had never smelled before. She kept her eyes on the glass so Adam wouldn’t see her blushing.

“Should I tell Fareeda to get ready, too?” she asked.

“No, no.” Adam laughed. “She already knows what Brooklyn looks like.”

Downstairs, in front of a square mirror propped on her bedroom wall, Isra couldn’t decide what to wear. She paced around the room, trying one color of hijab after another. Back home she would’ve worn the lavender one, with the silver beads stitched across it. But she was in America now. Perhaps she should wear black or brown so she wouldn’t stick out. Or maybe not. Maybe a lighter color would work better, would make her seem bright and happy.

She was studying the color of her face against a mossy green headpiece when Adam entered the room. He eyed her hijab nervously, and through the mirror, she could see the straining in his jaw. He moved closer to her, not once looking away from her head, and the whole time he was walking, she felt her heart swelling inside her chest, inching toward her throat. He was looking at her hijab the way he had looked that day on the balcony, and it was only now that Isra understood why: he didn’t like it.

“You don’t have to wear that thing, you know,” Adam finally said. She blinked at him in shock. “It’s true.” He paused. “You see, people here don’t care if your hair is showing. There’s no need to cover it up.”

Isra didn’t know what to say. Growing up, she had been taught that the most important part of being a Muslim girl was wearing the hijab. That modesty was a woman’s greatest virtue. “But what about our religion?” she whispered. “What about God?”

Adam gave her a pitying look. “We have to live carefully here, Isra. People flee to America from war-torn countries every day. Some are Arabs. Some are Muslims. Some are both, like us. But we could live here for the rest of our lives and never be Americans. You think you’re doing the right thing by wearing this hijab, but that’s not what Americans will see when they look at you. They won’t see your modesty or your goodness. All they’ll see is an outcast, someone who doesn’t belong.” He sighed, looking up to meet her eyes. “It’s hard. But all we can do is try to fit in.”

Isra unwrapped her hijab and set it on the bed. She had never once considered not wearing it in public. But standing in front of the mirror, eyeing the long black strands of hair as they wilted off her shoulders, she found herself feeling hopeful again. Perhaps this would be her first taste of freedom. There was no reason to reject it before she had tried it.

They left the house soon after. Isra fingered a strand of hair nervously as she stepped out of the front door. Adam didn’t seem to notice. He told her that the best way to truly experience Brooklyn was not by car or train but by foot. So they walked. The moon shone above them in a starless sky, illuminating the budding trees that lined the street. They strolled down the long, narrow block labeled Seventy-Second Street until they reached the corner, and suddenly Isra felt as if she had been transported to a new world.

“This is Fifth Avenue,” Adam said. “The heart of Bay Ridge.”

Everywhere Isra looked, lights were flashing. The street was lined with an assortment of shops: bakeries, restaurants, pharmacies, law offices. “Bay Ridge is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Brooklyn,” Adam said as they walked. “Immigrants from all over the world live here. You can see it in the food—meat dumplings, kofta, fish stews, challah bread. You see that block?” Adam pointed into the distance. “Every single shop on that block belongs to Arabs. There is a halal butcher shop on the corner, Alsalam, where my father goes every Sunday to get our meats, and then there is the Lebanese pastry shop, where they bake fresh saj bread every morning. During Ramadan, they stuff the loaves with melted cheese, syrup, and sesame seeds, just like back home.”

Isra scanned the shops, mesmerized. She recognized the smell of meat-stuffed kibbeh, lamb shawarma, the thick syrupy musk of baklava, even the faint hint of double-apple hookah. And other familiar smells lingered in the air, too. Fresh basil. Piping grease. Sewers, sweat. The scents merged into one another, became whole, and in an instant Isra felt as if she had fallen through the cracked cement and landed back home.

Around her people strolled down the block, pushing strollers and carrying grocery bags, swirling in and out of shops like marbles. They looked nothing like the Americans she had imagined: women with bright red lipstick, men in polished black suits. Instead, many of the women looked no different than her, plain and modestly dressed, many even wearing a hijab. And the men looked like Adam, with olive skin and rough beards, clothes meant for tough labor.

Isra didn’t know what to think, eyeing the familiar faces floating down Fifth Avenue. These people were just like them, living in America and trying to fit in. Yet they still wore their hijabs; they didn’t change who they were. So why did Adam insist that she change who she was?

After a long time watching them, Isra was no longer thinking of her hijab. Instead, she thought of all the people drifting under the lamplights, people who lived in America but weren’t Americans at all, women who were just like her, displaced from their homes, torn between two cultures and struggling to start anew. She wondered what her new life would be