Prologue A Question
“Is your dad dead?”
Leila doesn’t make eye contact. Her five-year-old legs stretch out over mine. We’re still in pajamas, our labneh-smeared plates stacked by the sink. The kitchen floor beneath us is cold after a long winter. Her question is a gut-punch.
“No.” I clear my throat and turn her face to mine. “Why would you ask me that?”
“Because we only talk to Taytay and Namo and Khalo,” she says, meaning her grandmother, aunt, and uncles.
“We just don’t talk to each other,” I offer, already knowing it won’t be enough.
Emily had warned me this might happen. Leila had been asking questions, she said, maybe I should be ready for them. But how do you tell your daughter that some families, in fact, disown their daughters? That mine did it twice? That you can still love a country even when it does not love you back?
If there are answers to these questions, I don’t know them. So I go with something simple. “Because he doesn’t understand me.” I work my fingers through her hair, tangled from the kind of deep sleep I must have had once. “He doesn’t like that I married Mommy.”
“Why doesn’t he like Mommy? Everyone loves Mommy.” Leila’s eyes narrow like she’s ready for a fight. I’ve said the wrong thing.
“In Jordan, two women can’t get married.”
“What would happen to you?”
“I’d probably be killed.”
“But you said Jordan is beautiful!”
“It is beautiful, Leiloushti.”
Leila goes quiet. Next to us, my phone is dark. I imagine my mother in Amman, waiting by her own phone, halos of cigarette smoke around her sunny-brown hair. It’s been half a dozen years since she and my father moved from the palatial estate of my childhood and into an apartment nearby, more appropriate for the two of them and their small staff. I will likely never see the room that she waits in for our calls, but I can picture her fussed-over houseplants, the throbbing reds and blues of the Persian rug at her feet.
I think about what Leila knows: about the time my cousin Omar and I drank the “magic potions” we made from our uncle’s chemistry set, how my grandmother rushed us to the hospital so quickly she forgot to put on her hijab. I’ve told her about sneaking the car out when I was eight years old and crashing it into a tree. I’ve explained all the Muslim holidays to her, the best pastries for Eid, what it’s like to float in the Dead Sea. She’s learned how to cook using her nose. She’s heard about the soccer games in the streets, about the two tortoises we used for goalposts and how they would wander off midgame. She knows about the pistachio rolled ice cream that I ate with my cousins during Amman’s endless summers.
I think about what Leila doesn’t know: The suicide attempts. The policeman pointing a gun at the back of my head. My first sexual experience, a terrible secret with a much older woman. The honor killings. The asylum hearings and weeks spent alone and shivering on a Greyhound bus. Emily’s and my wedding, when not a single member of my family showed up. All the years I would call home, only to hear the click of the dial tone. The parts of my story I’ve left out to protect my daughter’s innocence, the version of the world I would like her to live in.
I take a deep breath.
“Do you want to talk to Jiddo?”
Leila’s body stiffens against mine. She calls my bluff. She doesn’t even hesitate. “Yes!” she says with the enviable confidence of a child. I don’t want to stand in the way of her getting to know her grandfather. I want her to believe that all people are good. I want to believe the same thing.
Technically, the last time I spoke to my father was seven years before that morning on the kitchen floor. Before Leila, before the new house and school in Columbus. In many ways my father and I were strangers to each other even then, still navigating a tense reconciliation after our first seven years of silence.
I asked Emily to marry me in Illinois, conspiring with her family to surprise her. Her sister scattered Ring Pops—I had always threatened to propose with one—like rose petals along the sidewalk that led to Emily’s favorite breakfast joint. It was a Midwestern April, bright and wet. The ground soaked through the knee of my pants; the sun burned my eyes as I looked up at her.
“Did you say yes?” I asked, practically panting, my face pressed against Emily’s shoulder.
“Did you ask anything?” she teased. I didn’t know if I had.
The restaurant was full of relatives and friends—when Emily saw them, she put her hands over her heart, her curls swung with wild laughter. We collected hugs and clinked glasses and reveled in the hours made, it seemed, just for us. Even her divorced parents set aside old resentments for the morning. Looking at them, I wondered how I could be so good at mending other people’s families, but never mine. Amid so much joy, that familiar loneliness found me; all I could see were empty chairs where my own family should have been.
Later, in the quiet of her mother’s guest bedroom, Emily wanted to know if I had told my parents about our engagement yet. “You always think worst-case scenario,” she said. I didn’t know how to tell her that the scenarios I thought about were so much worse now that her feelings were at stake.
In the email to my parents the next day, I wrote, I know this is hard for you to hear, because this is not what you expected for your daughter. But I have never been happier, and I hope I can have your blessings.
Even though I also wrote, I haven’t told anyone else in the family—I want to share it with you first,
it was my brother who called a few days later, after Emily and I had returned home to Atlanta.
“How could you do this?” he asked, and I wondered which part he thought was more audacious: that I had fallen in love or that I expected anybody to be happy for me. “Couldn’t you wait until they died?”
“Until they died? Seriously, Ali? That’s the best you’ve got?” I raged at him. I smacked the steering wheel of my parked car, baking in the Georgia sun.
“Jews and Muslims have a lot in common. We don’t eat pig—”
“This is not funny.”
“It is a little funny,” I taunted.
“Why are you doing this?”
“The same reason you did it. We’re in love. We’re going to have kids.”
“Kids? Are you crazy? You can’t have kids.”
“Why? Because she’s a woman? Or because she’s Jewish?”
“Just don’t expect them to call you,” he warned.
“Kul kharah,” I told him. Eat shit.
We hung up on each other.
Months later, in a hotel room in California, where Emily and I were looking at wedding venues, my mother’s number appeared on my cell phone.
“Answer it!” Emily urged, a wellspring of hope. She perched on the edge of the bed during the call, smiling and searching my eyes as if they might translate Arabic into something she could understand.
“Well! What did she say?”
“She said that it’s hot there.”
My mother continued to call me to report on the weather, a heat wave or a cloudy day. Before the wedding, and after. After Leila was born, then Zeina, then Yazan. When the girls were old enough, we began our Saturday morning video chats. She never mentioned the email. Looking back now, I can see that her phone calls were her way of being there for me in the only way she knew how. Those mundane calls were a radical defiance. She was still there.
My father never responded.
My mother’s Saturday is seven hours ahead of ours. She looks elegant as always, and I’m sure the tag in her shirt says dry clean only
. I try not to glance at my own tiny portrait in the corner of the screen. My T-shirt. My disheveled hair. I know my mother won’t say anything; she doesn’t need to.
“Mama, is Baba there?”
“Seriously?” A wide Syrian smile spreads across my mother’s face.
“Yes, get Baba.”
She is replaced by a tilted view of the ceiling. I give Leila a squeeze. She bounces in excitement. Emily is nearby. I can feel her listening. A commotion of light flashes across the screen, and then my father’s face materializes in my outstretched hand. My mother’s after that.
I have seen pictures of him during the silence. When my mom or sister sends photos of vacations, family gatherings, or weddings, sometimes my father’s face appears in them like a phantom. It has always made me feel numb, as if I am looking at a person I have met but whose name I don’t remember. Now, before me, I can see how much older he has gotten. Thinner, though, maybe even healthier. There’s a new beard. I’m not sure how I feel about it.
“Baba, this is Leila—”
“I’m Leila!” she interjects. I don’t know if she is rescuing me or simply unable to restrain herself. I move my face out of frame.
“I know! Hello, Leila!”
The three of them gaze at one another for long, happy seconds.
“I have a brother and a sister,” she announces.
“I know, habibti.” I search my memory for a smile this big on my father’s face. I turn up nothing.
“Today we are going to the park, and maybe swimming.”
“You know how to swim?”
“Yes, Mama taught me and Zeina how to swim. We love to swim. Do you know how to swim?”
“Yes, I like to swim.”
My chest is tight, and my throat is dry. “Okay, we have to go now,” I manage with what I hope might pass as a cheerful tone.
When the screen goes dark, Leila, satisfied, jumps off my lap, ready to find her younger sister and share the happy news—they have another grandpa.
“Are you okay?” Emily asks. She’s tucking chairs under the kitchen table.
“I’m fine.” If anyone knows about my powers of compartmentalization, it’s Emily. “Time to get ready! Socks and shoes! Who wants cinnamon rolls?”
Both girls appear in the doorway, each trying to be louder than the other: “I do!”
“How many cinnamon rolls today, Zeina?”
“Forty-four.” She grins, ready for our game.
“How about one hundred
and forty-four?” Zeina is becoming something of a folk hero in our neighborhood, downing huge cinnamon rolls like mere dinner mints.
We gather jackets, wrestle with the stroller. A few minutes later we are a brigade of sneakers and mismatched socks, marching to the bakery. I try to forget my father’s face, to push it down deep and hide it, like I always do. I try to tuck the past away in its assigned compartment and rejoin the present moment. But as we walk, my mind is racing, and I know that, at some point, I will have to tell Leila everything. She will never truly understand herself if she doesn’t know her family’s history and the complexity of her identity. If she does not know about the scars, the strength, and resiliency she has inherited.
As I watch my children wolf down their pastries, I am overwhelmed with all the things I need to tell them. What has shaped me and what has saved me, and how I found purpose, belonging, and home in the most unexpected places.
This is what I want them to know.
Copyright © 2023 by Luma Mufleh. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.