The island in my house is where buried secrets lie. Over coffee in our kitchen, with the American beans brewing, Abba and I talk about my big bright future, believing that if we drink American we will be American.
In 1952 a beautiful Arab woman flew to Israel on eagles’ wings with all of her village and the villages next to hers. They gathered in the belly of the plane like they must have around the mountain at Sinai, returning to the dream, the reality, of safety and sovereignty. When she landed, she would meet her cousin, a beautiful Arab man who escaped Iraq on the back of a fish truck twenty years earlier. They were lucky to be alive, and their government issued tent was in their eyes as great as the tent of Abraham.
The woman had brown Farrah Fawcett hair, a Marilyn Monroe beauty-mark above her lips and was adorned in Arabian scarves, gold jewelry, and dark lipstick. She was slender, short, and sixteen. Back home, they called her Toya, a diminutive of the name Victoria, after the Queen. Years later, when her husband predeceased her, she would reign over the family, though she would deny the Christian origins of her name.
The man was stubborn, short, and sturdy. The Middle Eastern sun darkened his skin, and the tobacco darkened his teeth and his lungs. Back home, they called him Yaacov, Jacob, the reclusive tent-dwelling father of tribes, well-meaning, hard-working, but absent. Years later his boys would become their father. Hard-working men obsessed with duty-fulfilling, but largely absent in day to day affairs.
In November 1976, the handsome offspring of Toya and Yaakov came to America with a dollar and a broken accent, leaving his pistol and motorcycle behind. He found salvation in Uncle Abraham’s Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn house, his proverbial tent, where Abraham and his Sarah took him in as a guest and helped him on his journey to America. The cherubim guarding Eden with a flaming sword stood outside that ocean block house on 281 Exeter Street. Week one: washing dishes and floors in bakery. Simple but laborious work, need the money. Earned $5.
In 1957, the beautiful Arab man worked as a fireman at the Haifa port, spending each day near the fish who accompanied him to his journey to the Promised Land. Saturdays which were once the Sabbath are now called work. The beautiful Arab woman is shocked to see women in trousers and exposed shoulders. Women didn’t walk around like that in Iraq. Years later, Yaakov’s grandchild would wonder how many fires actually occurred at the port. The Israeli government wondered the same thing, and at 50, offered Yaakov early retirement. The beautiful Arab man took it, and his handsome offspring would later vow to work to at least 70, to not die young like his father. Work keeps you alive. When handsome offspring would have his own family, on vacations he was known to beg to go back to work.
In 1976, week two: work at a car wash, 70 hours a week. Years later handsome offspring’s daughter would ask whether he washed cars by hand. “No, we had an instrument.” Week seven: security at a New Jersey port, two days a month during the week. Is this a joke? he wondered. I travelled 6,000 miles to go from one port to another? I will not become my father.
In January 1977, handsome offspring started school at Brooklyn Polytechnic University on a F-1 student and work visa. His civil engineering classes were filled with immigrants from all over the world. I didn’t understand the textbooks, he said.
Week twenty-three: the handsome offspring gets a job in security, easy work which he’s qualified for, having served in Israel’s combat engineering corps for over three years. Still working at the port two days a week on weekends. Watching Americans in a Manhattan office was tea and silan, beats the fucking cold nights in the West Bank on guard duty and the Golan Heights in the fall of 1973. Years later his smart-ass daughter laughs that her handsome dad can’t identify any places in Judea. It was one bloc back then with one name, the places existed; they just didn’t have names.
The beautiful Arab man and woman live in a house from which their Arab “cousins” fled in 1948. Beautiful Arab man and woman settle down with seven kids, naming their eldest Zion. They live in the Land of Zion, and they remind themselves of that.
The handsome offspring now lives with American roommates. He grows up teaching his kids how good of a student he was, reading two books a week, and buying all of the families groceries from Arab cousins with trucks selling 25 kilo bags of tomatoes and biking them home each week. Years later smart-ass daughter asks beautiful Arab woman for dad’s old report cards. Mostly Cs and Ds. Handsome offspring exaggerated a little bit.
Beautiful Arab man and woman are secular now. Beautiful Arab man is a smoker and a drinker, a hard-working but absent father. Beautiful Arab woman is uneducated but kind, a mother to all with a listening ear. Handsome offspring emulates her, happy to listen, but lacking her empathetic touch. Smart-ass daughter loves and respects beautiful Arab woman, eating up her soft words and tough kibbeh and tries to take her yelling in Arabic with a grain of salt. Beautiful Arab woman is not angry; she’s just Sephardic.
In 1989, handsome offspring goes to the candy store to buy a chocolate bar and the answers to life. In America, $3 buys you the key to life–the answers to the U.S. Citizenship test. How American! You can buy your way into citizenship, a single sheet of paper.