By Huda Al-Marashi.
This essay originally appeared in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology
My husband and I moved to Cleveland from a high rise in Queens with bewildered giddiness. In the mornings, we woke to the sounds of birds chirping. No sirens, no honks. Although the downtown was eerily quiet, traffic moved. Parking was ample, and the grocery stores’ aisles were wide enough to accommodate carts with play cars attached—a dream come true for a mother of young children.
Still I had my reservations about our new home in the Midwest. My husband and I were both the children of Iraqi immigrants. We’d moved to Cleveland for his work, and I didn’t know how we’d fit into a region known for whiteness and farms. I doubted we’d find a Muslim community let alone a Middle Eastern supermarket.
It only took me one trip along Lorain Road and West 117th Street to realize how wrongly I’d assumed. Those two streets boasted more Middle Eastern supermarkets than I’d ever had access to my entire life. During my childhood in a California tourist town, we made monthly, hour-long drives to the closest Middle Eastern grocery. We came home with pounds of halal meat dumped into plastic bags that we then had to package and stack in the freezer. In New York, the scenario was the same, except now I was the one with children underfoot as I portioned meat into freezer bags.
In Cleveland, we had a row of stores only miles from my home. Even better, the butchers prepared their halal meats in trays just like mainstream grocery stores. They had a halal deli and frozen foods, fresh pita bread, and an assortment of cheeses, lebne, jams, and olives. I found the convenience of it all dizzying.
As I stocked my refrigerator at home, I told my husband we could live here forever. We mused about where all these Arabs had come from and why we hadn’t known there was a community here before. Maybe it was a spillover from Detroit? Maybe there were other Iraqis?
I discovered there were, in fact, many Arabs in Cleveland. At the Islamic Center of Cleveland — my first local mosque that actually looked like a mosque, complete with a gilded dome and minarets ― I found so many Arabs my head spun. Jordanians, Palestinians, and Syrians, but no Iraqis.
I didn’t understand why I sought out this community. I hadn’t been to Iraq since 1979 when I was two years old. During that trip, my parents were interrogated so intensely at the airport, they decided Iraq was changing for the worse and that it wasn’t safe to return. As a child, there had been only a handful of other Iraqi families in our seaside town, and in New York, the only foreign language I needed was the fragmented Spanish I used to communicate with my Colombian neighbors. I wished I could say that I missed speaking Arabic, but I didn’t have that kind of relationship with my mother tongue. I had always been far more comfortable with English.
Still I continued to search. I heard of a Shia mosque in a converted church in Brecksville. At the start of our first Ramadan in Cleveland, we went there to break our fast. We met Iranians, Pakistanis, and Afghanis. They were warm and welcoming, but I wished I’d met some Iraqis, just a few families whose dialect reminded me of home.
On our way out, an Iranian woman told me her neighbor was Iraqi and that she planned on attending the Eid party to celebrate the end of a month of fasting. “Come,” she said, “I will introduce you.” Without my having to tell her, she understood what my young family needed: people who looked and sounded like our relatives, people who’d stand in as aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents.
At a West Side recreation center, I met Lenna, the wife of a neurologist and the mother of three children. From the first lilting, “Hellow,” I knew Lenna was a real Iraqi, born and raised. Rather than introduce myself as an American who could barely speak Arabic, as was my habit, I had a radical thought. Try.
I surprised myself. By the end of our conversation, Lenna could tell Arabic was my second language, but still she complimented me, told me how well I spoke for someone born in the U.S. We exchanged numbers, and she introduced me to the other Iraqi families in the area, most of whom had immigrated in the 1990s after the first Gulf War.
I had found an Iraqi community without my mother translating or obligating me, without my differentiating between native-born and American-born Iraqis. As a child, I’d drawn a line between those two communities, the Iraqis born in Iraq and those born in America. Those born abroad were my parents’ friends — they loved gaudy furniture with gold trim, they arrived to everything at least an hour late, and they had little regard for posted rules (Seat belts were optional. Do Not Enter signs were mere suggestions.). I befriended their children who were like me ― accent-free, style-conscious, and rule-abiding.
In the company of my new friends in Cleveland, though, I discovered how many stereotypes I’d held of my own people. My notions of Iraqis were based on a single community, most of whom had immigrated in the 1970s, and much of what I’d observed had been generational. These women, however, were my peers, with similar interests and tastes. They dreamt of HGTV homes, arrived places on time dressed in the latest styles, and even if they didn’t always wear their seatbelts, at least they believed they should.
I became a full-fledged member of this new world. Now I was the one picking up the phone, inviting friends over and being invited places. We broke our fasts together during Ramadan in apartment-building party rooms. We picnicked in parks in the summer. We chatted and ate as our children played. All year long, there were social calls for deaths, hospital visits, and births that made the American in me rear her head at the endless socializing. But another part of me was proud. Every time I showed up with a cake in hand to welcome visiting relatives or to comfort those mourning a loved one was a small triumph over assimilation. My children would grow up knowing they belonged to more than just Cleveland; they were growing up as one more generation with ties to a country they’d never seen, with an understanding of the ravages of war.
From 2006 to 2009, the conditions in Iraq deteriorated, and the number of casualties rose steadily. During those years, we heard of new families arriving on a monthly, sometimes weekly basis. Most of the newcomers said the relief agencies had given them a choice of cities. Detroit, renowned for its Arab immigrant population, was full but Cleveland was open. They’d been told the winters were rough, but the price of living was reasonable. And so they came, nuclear families, extended families, and single mothers. Among them were doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and business owners, willing to flounder in a new country so their children could succeed.
Whenever the local Iraqi community got word of new arrivals, we showed up with gifts in hand. In apartments scattered all over Cleveland’s West Side, we heard harrowing stories brought from Iraq, of friends gone out to buy groceries and losing their lives to roadside bombs, fathers assassinated on their way to work, bodyguards shot at front doorsteps, children kidnapped on their way to school. We heard of suitcases packed haphazardly, a lifetime of belongings abandoned in houses far grander than the four walls they now called home.
These stories made the Iraq War more real to me than any of its past conflicts. I’d come of age learning about the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War and its sanctions by listening in on adult conversations. My siblings and I were never spoken to directly about Iraq. We were merely threatened to finish our plates with the mention of starving Iraqi children. We were told we’d have nightmares if we snuck peeks at the contraband Arabic newsmagazine circulating among my parents’ friends, the one with pictures of brutally wounded child soldiers. Growing up, the only impression I had of Iraq was one of vast, blistering suffering. Those of us born in America were the guilty survivors, raised on an excess of food and American television, distant from our culture, the owners of shamefully sparse Arabic vocabularies.
But within this community, I was useful in exile for the first time. I edited the resumes and college applications of our new arrivals, wrote letters, and made calls. Someone was benefitting from my English.
There was Khawla, a striking woman in her early forties and the mother of three boys. She had been a teacher in Baghdad and the wife of an engineer. Now she was a single mother living in a Lakewood apartment. Her husband had worked at a power plant and was suspected to have been killed by insurgents with something to gain from keeping the power off. Prior to this, she’d enjoyed a comfortable life, surrounded by family and friends, never wanting for money or help with her children. She never thought one day she’d be living in America without a husband, that she’d have to support her children alone and learn a new language.
At her second-hand dining-room table, we studied together. She tutored me in Arabic, and I tutored her in English. She was sharp, a fast learner who didn’t ask me to translate anything for her. She only wanted me to correct the essays she’d labored through with her “best friend,” the nickname she’d given to her Arabic-English dictionary.
The afternoon her ESL teacher assigned an essay on a terrible day in your life, Khawla told me of searching for husband and winding up in the midst of a car bombing. The blast picked her up and threw her against a wall. When she came to, she was certain she was in hell. Bits of blood and flesh from the exploded bodies had burrowed into her mouth and nose and clung to her face and clothes.
“In those days,” she added, “people would bring in their clotheslines and find the same kind of pieces of bodies on their clothes and sheets.”
Now I was the one on the frontlines, bringing home stories to tell my parents. I told them about Khawla, about our friends who’d just gotten word of cousins who’d left Iraq for London only to be caught in a roadside bomb on their first visit home. “They said the only way they recognized them was from the pounds in their pocket.” Then there was the horrific tale of the Sunni and Shia newlyweds, kidnapped on their honeymoon. Their parents got a phone call, telling them where to pick up their children. When they arrived, all they found were two bodies in garbage bags.
But as Iraq fell apart on sectarian lines, Cleveland’s little Iraq fused closer together. I wasn’t authentic enough to intuit from last names and cities of origin which of our friends were Sunni and which were Shia, and for our purposes, the distinction was irrelevant. Nearly half the couples we knew were of mixed sects. The eating, the visiting, and the gathering continued ― an occasional engagement party, a birthday party for a family’s first child born in America, a Qur’an ceremony for the deceased, a small tea party to distract a someone missing a wedding back home.
My parents and their friends had spoken of the siblings’ weddings they’d missed, the funerals they’d only imagined from afar. Now I was watching these emotions play out firsthand — the grief a missed happy occasion could inspire, the regret that could take mourning to excruciating heights, the nagging question of whether the costs of coming to America had been too high. Through the tears, I heard the same line over and over again, “If it was for me, I wouldn’t have come, but we have to endure this for our children.”
There is no word for “stress” in Arabic with the same connotation of strain on one’s physical and mental well being, and so many of the newest arrivals say of the American lifestyle “Kulla stress,” using the English word in an otherwise Arabic sentence. They have adopted the word “busy” as well. “Ani sayra haweya busy,” they say when they fall behind in their social calls. They say it with regret because there is a loneliness to their new lives they cannot shake.
Cleveland’s Little Iraq is becoming a hybrid just like this mix of Arabic and English, just like me. Every year that passes, I watch the Iraqi children’s accents drop away. They arrived not knowing more than a handful of words, but now their tongues have swallowed English, adore English, think and dream and play in English.
On New Year’s Eve, we gather in the apartment of friends. One of our recent arrivals plays the guitar. I can’t sing along to any of the Arabic songs our group belts out with relish.
In between songs, our hostess asks me, “Are you bored?”
Over the years, my friends have come to know the limits to my vocabulary; they can anticipate the cultural references that I will miss. They are sensitive to this, but I’m no longer. This is the gift Cleveland has given me. It has made me comfortable in my role as a translator, a bridge.
“Let’s find an English song,” she calls out.
Our guitarist strums the tune to “Hotel California.” The lyrics leave our mouths off-key, sometimes thick and accented, but familiar to everyone.