A language of one's own

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Looking out over Muharram Bey neighborhood in Alexandria, Egypt.


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SEPTEMBER 12, 2011

“Do you speak English like them, like the Americans?” my grandmother asked, puzzled, as though she had never contemplated the prospect before.

“Yes, Grandma, I speak English like them, I actually study language. I write, too,” I responded, watching as the expression of bewilderment on her face grew into a smile. I wondered what thoughts, what questions could have been going through her mind.

That night, as I gazed at the glistening chunks of pink watermelon my aunt had piled before me, it hit me.

My grandmother could not fathom the distance, the caliber of the displacement her children and grandchildren had faced.

She shed tears of joy that summer as I walked through – as I always had — the doorway of the home in which all of my aunts and uncles had been born. My great aunt died on the couch over to the right. As a toddler, I spilled moisturizer all over the tile floor. My sister and I cut up old fabric to sew into doll clothes. We threw paper airplanes out of the apartment’s balcony with cousins who knew little more about us than our names and our favorite soccer teams. We drank Tang swirled in tall glasses, posing as orange juice for an unimpressed audience. But it was tradition.

For my grandmother, the world is confined to a fifth-floor apartment.

That night, I realized that my grandmother could not imagine who I was outside of her world. She did not comprehend the concept of a son, of his family, speaking English, like the Americans she saw on her television set. She could not comprehend that those children were American, like the Americans. She did not imagine that her granddaughter could aim to master a language other than the one in which she spoke to her now, telling stories of a university far away and of friends whose names she wouldn’t try to pronounce.

American. She smiled. The thought was odd to her – as far as she was concerned, Angelina Jolie was Egyptian – dubbing was another story.

How could her own granddaughter have another native tongue? How had she, an old woman in a small apartment in Alexandria, Egypt, sent children throughout Europe and North America? What tricks could fate have played on her?

American, like the Americans.

I would listen to her stories for hours late at night – she spoke of neighbors, children at war and occupation. She spoke of pregnancies, engagements and love stories. She spoke of movies, phone calls overseas, of medical emergencies – she told me stories I was sure the world would never have the chance to overhear.

Her stories are more vivid than those in books I’ve read. She detailed colors, dreams and emotions as I blinked sleep away, following the whirling blades of the fan across from me. I sat cross-legged on a small plastic chair she and my grandfather had bought in Saudi Arabia. That was the farthest she had ever ventured from her homeland.

My grandmother glides across the living room like a vision – she’s quiet, shy. She listens intently as I speak of newspapers, books I’ve read and friends I’ve made. She smiles, as though someone has just told her a secret she can’t bear to keep hidden.
She doesn’t want me to watch her take her medicine, her shots, her insulin. She tries to shield me from her pain. She loves, unconditionally, a granddaughter she has surely spent fewer hours with than her neighbor’s grandson.

An American, like the Americans.

I see my grandmother holding up a copy of the newspaper I have brought with me. She smiles at it, as though welcoming an old friend. I’m sure the characters mean nothing to her – empty squiggles on a darkened page – but she holds it dearly, turns the pages carefully, afraid to tear an edge or bend a corner.

My grandmother cannot read or write. She would not know English from French or Chinese. She does not know what I’ve written about, where my byline is.

And yet she smiles at my copy of the newspaper, as though I have returned to her from the land called America with a sheet of gold, something to be treasured.

I tell her to keep the paper. She tucks it under her mattress, where it will join relics from worlds away. This time, however, she knows there’s something special, something different. Somehow, her granddaughter is a part of this set of gray sheets.

Thirty years ago, hard times and a lack of opportunity in a country that still begs for change sent a son away from her.

She watched him and his family grow with time – they sent photographs, visited during summers. She knew they lived kilometers away, across the ocean. She knew she had to yell into the phone to ask about her grand-children’s grades, her daughter-in-law’s health and her son’s emotional well-being.

To her, they were visitors in that faraway land, renting a lifestyle she only saw in movies.

Thirty years later, she smiles to learn the effect of the displacement, the fate of her own progeny, the truth with which she has never been confronted.
Her granddaughter speaks English, like the Americans.
Her granddaughter, an American, like the Americans.


Image Source: Sarah Mohamed, Daily Cal

Contact Sarah Mohamed at 


SEPTEMBER 12, 2011