How I became American

Sunday, February 20, 2005

When Barbie Was Jewish

I met Sheila Kaplan at PS193 at the end of the fourth grade. I don't know how she became my best friend. Since I didn't even have a best friend in Cairo, I had no experience of being part of a girl pair. Sheila made me feel like I was a legitimate member of a club. She told me what she thought of other girls and boys, and let me in on school secrets, which gave me a much-needed break from being the outsider. Sheila had very blond hair and pretty blue eyes, and a hard, angular face. It was a luxury to be able to stare at her features, so exotically American, without feeling self-conscious or rude - something I couldn't do with strangers on the street, though I wanted to.

Sheila and I used to play with her Barbie dolls at her apartment on the 5th floor. Barbie and Ken went to Temple on Saturdays in a red convertible. Sheila and I agreed she would pick Barbie's tops and I would pick her pants or skirts. It wasn't important what Ken wore. I liked being in Sheila's apartment and seeing what they ate there. White bread that felt more like cake. Oscar Mayer balogna. Very thin cheese slices (although they didn't feel like cheese and had almost no taste) wrapped in their own individual plastic wrappers. I liked examining their furniture, her mother's shoes, her father's pipes and electric shavers.

It was Sheila who told me, under the building one night as we watched the boys play ball, how babies are made. The details seemed mechanically impossible, and therefore unbelievable. But the strangeness of it made me think that there was a grain of truth to it. Why else would parents go to such lengths to keep it a secret, if it were not both strange and unbelievable? I thought it would be best not to try to verify it with my parents at this time, I would just save it for future use.

Our summer of being a pair came abruptly to an end when one day Sheila said she couldn't play with me anymore. We were walking home from school. "I told my Mom you were Egyptian, and she said it wasn't a good idea for me to play with you."


"Because we're Jewish." She did not seem puzzled or upset. It was self-evident to her. And final.

I ran home and asked Mama why I couldn't play with Sheila. Mama said I'd have to go by what Mrs. Kaplan said. There would be other friends. But I didn't want another friend! I wanted Sheila. Why was it bad to be from Egypt? Weren't we Americans now anyway? Why does it matter if they're Jewish?

There was no satisfactory explanation in what Mama said. "Some people are hard-headed" or "some people take things too literally" or "some people are ignorant about us" or "it has nothing to do with you." Mama never offered concrete reasons, just words to hold on to when nothing makes sense. I wouldn't be part of a girl pair for a long time after Sheila.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The flying bagel boy and other players

When the first New York summer came, Rami and I had no trouble being accepted into the group of children whose headquarters was known as "Under the Building." The place received its name from the fact that our nine-story, square building sat on a stump at the center, which included a small lobby, the elevator shaft, the garbage chute, and a recreation room with vending machines and a pool table. Outside this lobby, and extending to the thick columns that held up the building at its perimiter, was Under the Building - a cool, continously shaded area where the kids could congregate.

The group of children began to appear during the last days of the school year, when the weather permitted us to stay outside in the evenings for longer periods of time. Bridget and Walter Hoffman were fraternal twins who lived on the Ninth floor. Their parents were German and made everyone take off their shoes before entering their house. Sheila Kaplan was my first exclusive girlfriend, that is, she was mine and I was hers, and all our other girlfriends were just the others. Janice Shub was the girl with the perfect body, as she explained to each of us in turn, because when she stood with her feet together, she had three oval-shaped empty spaces, at just the right places, between her legs. Mark Rosen was a blond rosy-lipped boy who walked many of the dogs in the building, and who was the object of my pre-teen fantasies.

Almost every evening before dinner, members of our group sat on the cool concrete and told stories (some of them true), ran around the lobby, played hide and seek, watched softball games played in the parking lot, and on rare occasions, decided which kids from the other buildings in the complex could be accepted into our group. Of course, Rami and I never judged new entries into the group, being just grateful to belong to it in the first place.

The first "other-building" kid under evaluation by the group was a stocky boy named Glenn, who lived on a high floor in the building next door. Glenn had two specialties that earned him consideration by our group. He was a self-proclaimed New York bagel connoisseur, and he could fly. Both claims were not believed at first. Glenn spent hours explaining, with equal zeal, the qualities of a true New York bagel and the intricacies of self-propelled flight. He would show up under our building with a paper grocery bag, warm and filled with bagels. "I just landed in the back parking lot, did you see me? Miles was there. He saw me." Miles, or whoever may have seen him, had already been called in to dinner, or was catching a flyball between some cars and didn't notice Glenn's landing.

With repetition, the flight stories seemed more and more plausible. Other kids started saying they'd seen Glenn in flight. Sometimes they'd say they saw him take off from his bedroom window. Sometimes they'd come running to report that he'd just landed. No one had ever seen Glenn's parents either, and he seemed to go anywhere at will. He had money, no one to answer to, and he showered us with bagels the way parents fed their kids' friends as a matter of course. Maybe he could fly too. After a while, kids stopped questioning it. Glenn became part of our group. In the end, a kid who never had to go in for dinner, and with his know-how to boot, could not be turned down.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The alternator king

While Rami and I played with Hani and Rafiq, and Mama and Tante Leila enumerated all the Egyptian food staples that can now be found in cans, Uncle Abadeer took Baba through a dark hallway to the den. The hallway was piled with large boxes up to the ceiling. Uncle Abadeer, who had a sweet tooth, had to turn sideways to go past the boxes. They closed the door to shut out the noise, since we four kids had found our way back to our former play patterns.

An hour later, Baba came out with a flyer and held it up in front of Mama. It had a black and white xeroxed picture of Uncle Abadeer in the center, with "The Alternator King" in large bold letters on top of it. In the picture, Uncle Abadeer's perfectly round head seemed to be floating since it was cut off right at the collar. He had a little bit of black hair just above each ear, but most of his head was bald, and due to his wide smile, this made his thick mustache the most prominent thing in the picture. I had not yet seen "Frosty the Snowman," but later I would see that Uncle Abadeer was merely a swarthy Frosty with a mustache instead of a pipe. Below the picture were details of how you can order alternators by mail or by calling a number, at prices that cannot be beat, guaranteed.

A couple of weeks later, our entry hall was also stacked with boxes of alternators, and Baba was busy copying American marketing techniques. He clipped ads from the classifieds and chose phrases from different ones to construct his alternator ads and flyers.

After the alternators, there was Amway, introduced by Mama's first American friend, Grace. Then there was Avon and Tupperware. It never seemed to matter to my parents whether or not these ventures were successful. It only mattered that in addition to their well-paid jobs, they had so many options for the creative and determined pursuit of the American dream.

Uncle Abadeer

Baba and Mama had no problems finding jobs in Manhattan. In Cairo, they had both been accountants in the international banking division of the English bank, Barclays. There, they had learned to pronounce the word "clerk" as "clark" and to call an elevator a lift. This was understood by their new managers in Manhattan.

It wasn't just because of their experience that they landed jobs, one at Chase Manhattan and the other at Wells Fargo. They had found an underground network of Egyptian Christian (Coptic) accountants, auditors, bookkeepers, bank clerks, and comptrollers who facilitated one another's entree into capitalist society.

Baba's and Mama's sponsor was Mr. Abadeer. He was Baba's dearest friend from Barclays in Cairo. In Egypt, we called him Uncle Abadeer, and continued to do so when we started seeing each other again in America. It's customary to call all grownups "Uncle" and "Tante" though I never understood why we used French for female grownups and English for male ones.

When we went for our first visit to see the American Uncle Abadeer and Tante Leila, Rami and I hardly recognized their sons, Hani and Rafiq, our former playmates. We used to visit them often in Heliopolis, a well-to-do section of Cairo, and play so noisily our parents would have to shout at us when it was time to leave. But when we saw them in Queens, we hardly knew what to say, or what language to say it in. It was definitely better to speak English so as not to regress in our quest to be "not different." But some things could not be expressed with English, and the kids were too shy with each other to go back to Arabic. As if speaking it would reveal a past that was incompatible with whom we were now trying to appear to be.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The man on the moon

One night at about 11 p.m., late in the first summer, an American man floated down the ladder of a space pod to stand on the moon. His friend floated down after him and they hopped around for a couple of hours, left things and took things, then went back up the ladder. This picture was received on our RCA solid-state color television set, a 25-inch deluxe console, made to stand on the floor like a piece of furniture. Mama had put a plate of mezza (pickles, olives, cheese and bread) on the plastic fowered place mat on top of the television.

Rami and I were riveted by the garbled voices, and the shadows of mechanical limbs of a spacecraft, seen as if through a peep-hole as the craft was landing. This must be the only show on Earth tonight, I thought. I stole glances at Baba to see what he was thinking. He looked back at Mama to make sure she dropped the food preparation and paid attention to the moment.

Finally when their eyes locked, he raised his eyebrows and shook his head while taking a deep breath. This was his unmistakable "can you believe what God has made" gesture. Sometimes the same gesture meant "I marvel at the universe in which I am but a powerless speck of dust" or "I cannot believe you could have drawn that conclusion." In tonight's context, it meant "can you believe what the inhabitants of our new home are capable of?"

Mama replied with a satisfied expulsion of air from flaired nostrils. Her "You should never doubt that I'm always right" gesture.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

That girl

I made a decision that summer to take full control of my life. It was after the night I heard the desperate sobbing of my father, and started to suspect that Mama was the true driver of our family, even though Baba was sitting in the driver's seat.

First, I was never going to get married or have children when I grew up. Instead, I would be like Marlo Thomas in That Girl; I'd be an independent, fun-loving, professional girl (probably an opera singer or an astronaut). I would have a long series of boyfriends all my life, none of whom could make me go someplace I didn't want to go. Second, I would make my parents' pain go away by making them glad they came here. I would be everything they wanted to be. They would look at me and say "Yes, Habibti, it was definitely worth the sacrifice to come here."

The only problem was that Rami didn't make a similar decision. If my mission was to make my parents forget their fears, troubles, and uncertainty, Rami's mission was to remind them every day, with ever increasing abandon.

Friday, December 31, 2004

Summer of the accordion

I talked myself into thinking that the accordion was almost as good as a piano by virtue of the row of keys on the left side. That ended a week of sulking, then every Saturday that summer, Baba and I drove along Long Island Sound to the music studio. He dropped me off there and picked me up an hour later.

My teacher, Mr. Hecht, provided me with two valuable things: an intensive introduction to the New York accent, and the model for the hippie I would later sketch over and over in doodles in Junior High. At first I was his only student, then a few weeks later, I was joined by an unnaturally pale, small boy, with thick glasses and a stutter. The boy and I never talked; his seriousness was too intimidating. But I was glad he was there because the sounds he made with his accordion were obviously inferior when compared to mine. This further encouraged me to practice every day so that on Saturday, when Mr. Hecht asked us to play the pieces we were assigned that week, he would ask me to play mine again, so that I would be an example for the pale little boy.

After a while, I made peace with the instrument. In truth, I felt a bit cocky that my parents had spent six hundred dollars on an instrument for me, and then some more on the lessons. The accordion lessons introduced me to American songs that the rest of my family knew nothing about. I began to recognize music on the radio before they did. My English vocabulary exploded. I knew the words to songs we heard on TV, and when I sang along with them, I would look over my shoulder to see if they were impressed. This led to Baba letting me subscribe to the Record Of The Month Club. So I introduced my family to Western classical music, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Judy Collins, James Brown, and the Ray Coniff singers.

By the end of the summer, I was feeling as if I was home, as if I was meant to be here, and that it wasn't by some awful mistake that we left Cairo and the rest of our family. Now I had confidence in our new life. Until one night when I stayed up late after Rami had gone to sleep. We had our beds perpendicular to each other against two walls of our bedroom, which was separated from our parents' room by a small bathroom. I had pictures of David Cassidy and the Partridge Family on the wall above my bed, and Rami had posters of the Apollo space program on his wall.

The lights had already gone out in the apartment but I couldn't sleep because I could hear Mama and Baba having a discussion in their room, in tones I hadn't heard before. Something about it gave me a nervous feeling in my stomach, like when I've done something wrong and someone's about to find out. Mama's voice didn't sound like her. The voice was more commanding, more threatening even, than Mama's. Then I heard crying and something dropped or thrown to the floor. I sat frozen on the bed, my feet hanging off the side, not wanting to swallow too loudly so they wouldn't hear that I was awake.

As the crying went on, I realized it wasn't Mama. “I don't know what to do,” he said. “I don't know what to do.”

"We're leaving. We're not going to spend one more day here,” she said, over and over, or maybe it was just echoing in my head, along with the sound of Baba sobbing.

In the dark, my pearly, marbled white accordion shone in its open black case on the floor. The sound of Rami's breathing was slow and even. I picked up the accordion by the straps. It was almost too heavy for me to keep it silent, but I managed to drag it to the bed so I could hold it while sitting. I thought he knew where we were going. I unsnapped the metal latch that kept the bellows folded shut, and pressed the air button that lets the bellows expand without playing sounds.

I thought Baba knew where we would stay, what car we would buy, where we would go on vacation. I pushed the bellows in and out and heard the air swoosh out of them. He doesn't know what to do. Swoosh, in and out, swoosh. I let that echo in my head, pushing out the other sounds, the demands, and the crying. Swoosh, in and out, swoosh. He doesn't know what to do.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

All the kids are playing it

A few weeks into our first summer in New York, Baba told me he would buy me ten weeks of music lessons. Finally, I thought, I'm going to get my piano! Maybe, with all the new things we were buying these days, my parents thought this too was a necessity for our new home. I knew that meant that Baba sensed I had some sort of talent, and that he was was trying to help me both fit in, and to make my mark in our new life.

He invited the music lesson salesman to come to our apartment in Queens. Mr. Hecht, a tall, lanky, long-haired young man, had been knocking on doors in our building and had found a fascinated listener in my father. The night he came over, my parents entertained Mr. Hecht with desserts and tea as I watched from the kitchen. He was the first American guest in our home.

It was almost an hour of Mr. Hecht's friendly laughter, and my parents nodding, before I realized he was selling accordion lessons. “Most American kids nowadays are taking up the accordion,” he said to Baba with sudden seriousness. “It’s extremely beneficial to their physical and mathematical development.” He turned to Mama and added “Tends to keep them out of trouble.”

At this, Mama offered him more baklava, and he helped himself to two more pieces. I stayed in the background hoping that the transaction wasn't final, that my parents would see that this wasn’t a substitute for a piano. But the more Mr. Hecht ate and drank, the more my parents laughed. I don't know if they were laughing at him (they thought most Americans were funny), or if they were feeling more comfortable with him and the lessons. But when I saw Baba take out his checkbook, I knew it was over. There would be no piano.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

American cars

When we lived in Cairo, we had a German car. It was an orange Borgward Isabella, a mid-sixties model, big, round, and chromy. We called it Isabella. Baba was very proud of the car and often posed for pictures with it. When I'd realized that we would be leaving Isabella behind, Baba said "Don't worry, Habibti. Our American car will be ten times better."

Rami and I couldn't wait to get an American car. When we were flying to New York for the first time, Baba already knew which car we'd buy. It was going to be a Buick Skylark, 1969. During the flight, he explained to us about the eight-cylinder engine and how American cars had to be handled very carefully, because their engines often raced. He'd read about racing American engines in his all-about-America book, USA. You had to know a special trick with the gas pedal, otherwise, you could lose complete control of the car.

A few months later, we had a white Skylark with a black top. We parked it in the large parking lot outside our high rise building complex in Queens. Baba was the first to get a job, but Mama was first to get a driver's license. We would be depending on her for driving until Baba got his license. The day we were going for the first drive in our new car was a warm, sunny day in June. Rami and I got in the back seat, and Baba sat in the passenger seat. Mama, who was usually enthusiastically pointing new things out to us, sharing her recent dreams, or her latest business ideas, was silent with the weight of the new responsibility. All eyes were on her. She slowly turned the motor on as Rami and I sat holding our breath in the back seat. We’d never seen Mama behind a steering wheel before.

Baba silently encouraged her with a firm resolve not to give her instructions, and shot us glances to say "you two better be very quiet." She shifted into drive and took her foot off the break. But before she touched the gas pedal, the car lurched forward. Before she knew it, Mama had hit the car parked in front of her. Instead of stopping there, the car continued to lurch and also hit two cars parked on the other side of the parking lane. The Skylark was seemingly driving itself. Before she found the break pedal again, Mama had also hit the New York Times delivery truck double-parked at the entrance of the parking lot.

Apparantly, nobody went out that early on Sunday, so noone came to see what happened, or to see Mama crying with her head on the steering wheel. The only sound I heard was a seagull. Baba, Rami, and I all sat silently for a while before Baba grabbed Mama's wrist and said, “A racing engine. It's not your fault, Habibti. It's American cars.”

Friday, December 24, 2004

Are you colored?

PS193 - April, 1969 - Conversation in the hallway outside assembly:


"YOU shaddap!"

I turn my head to each of the girls in turn as they yell the word. To my ears, it sounds like sharab, the arabic word for socks. I laugh to myself. I'm wearing a ribbed cotton tank undershirt underneath a white starched shirt. I lean into the wall and keep my shoulders hunched, because the undershirt is not tight enough to flatten my growing chest. I seem to be the only girl of my size with this problem.

One of the girls turns to me. "Are you colored?"

The other says, "You don't ask somebody that!"

"Why not, I just want to know."

"Can't you tell?"

I go through all the colors I know in my head: red, brown, green, blue, purple, yellow. The ball is red. My eyes are green. My hair is brown. Yes, I have color.

"Well, are you colored?"

What is she asking me?

"Leave her alone. She doesn't speak."

"Someone should tell her she needs a bra." Giggles in the hallway.

Bras. French word for arm. Make a note of it.