Monday, June 8, 2009

Building Ourselves in America

(Originally published on Minority Dreams.)

As far back as I can remember, my family’s life has stretched across two parts of the world: America and the Middle East. We tore our hearts in two and buried them on opposite ends of the globe, traveling between them as we chased after a higher cause my dad labeled i’mar al-ard. Although the phrase doesn’t translate very well in English, it means something like “building the world,” and was my dad’s way of dedicating his life to doing something – anything – that would leave a positive impact on this planet he called home.

As he taught us later, building the world was a simple cycle in which we learned as much as humanly possible about the world we were in, while simultaneously working to make that world a better place. It was a wonderfully vague life plan that could adapt to any dream, take root in any soil. It would propel us around the globe, where we would meet all colors of people, and would (at least I hope) make us quite colorful as well. But my dad would never have dreamed, as he lay on his balcony in Syria watching the sky like a teenage Ché Guevara, that it would take him and his future family to America.

In preparation for his bit of building the world, my father spent his youth chasing knowledge the way he used to chase soccer balls in the alleys of Damascus. From the clutches of his family he ran to college in neighboring Halab. From a war that rained bombs in Halab he ran to Saudi Arabia to explore the uncharted territories of computer science. When machines didn’t satisfy his curiosity about the world, he set his sights on a place across the globe that was said to have enough libraries to satiate even Averroes. He and his wife packed all of their belongings in two suitcases, grabbed their two infants and jumped across a few continents and an ocean before landing in the middle of Chicago. They had nothing but those two suitcases, three thousand dollars in their wallets, and countless prayers to God – who they called by His Arabic name, Allah – that things would turn out alright.

My parents, when they set out, had no idea what was waiting for them in the country that was home to Hollywood and the White House. They would have been shocked to hear that they were going to stay there for over a decade, rather than the five years they had envisioned. They couldn’t foresee the Muslim communities that would take them in as long-lost cousins, my mom’s discovery of teaching and addiction to Burger King, my dad’s multiple lives as student, car dealer and activist, or their children’s mastery of English at the expense of the language of the Quran.

They didn’t know that a few years later they would make another life-changing trip, this time halfway across the continent, after my dad discovered an unmatchable political science program and a liberal Islamic Center in Los Angeles. They would fall in love with the San Fernando Valley, which eased the pain of homesickness with of all the Muslims it held in its lap and with its mountains, sisters of the mountains that encircled Damascus. I only understood what they were talking about years later when I drove through Damascus for the first time, and felt a sudden pang for the LA home I’d left when I was fifteen.

By the end of my freshman year of high school, we had decided to move to the Middle East, this time to Dubai. With two master’s degrees and a PhD under his belt, my dad felt that the time for his formal education was over. It was now to be the era of building. Building bridges between the two parts of the globe dearest to him. And as for us kids, it was time for us to formally meet the other half of our hearts – the annual summer trips we’d taken back to the Middle East were not enough to make us Middle Easterners. So we carted ourselves off to Dubai, not knowing whether to laugh or cry the whole way there.

Years later in the Middle East, my family is still under the spell of i’mar al-ard: that endless cycle of learning and working. And we’re still torn between our two halves. My dad makes trips back to the U.S. once or twice a year, my brother and I are doing our undergrad at a local American university with our eyes on New York for work and grad school, and my mom is a lover of all things organic in the best tradition of California culture.

But while we’re each busy trying to build our own world, it’s important to stop and recognize what built us. Among the many forces in our lives, America had no small role in helping us with our i’mar al-nafs, our “building the self.” It is the privileges, challenges and pleasures of American life that made us who we are today. And from the many lessons America taught us, perhaps the most important one is this: new worlds can always be created from those already existing. It’s a lesson we hold tight to, no matter what part of this Earth we find ourselves in.

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