Experiencing Whiteness

Author’s Note: Names have been changed throughout this piece

The dawn emerges, and, as if straight out of a movie, a rooster begins to crow. The rooster in question belongs to my neighbor, who is lucky enough to own several chickens. I’m in Gondama, a small town twenty kilometers from Bo, the second largest city in Sierra Leone. It’s 2013, before the Ebola crisis plunges the country into further devastation.

As I walk to the well to fetch water, I hear children call out to me, poo-mui, poo-mui! White Person, White Person! I greet them in Krio (How de morning?) or Mende (Be-ay-ee, asking how they slept). In turn, the kids insist that I pump my water first, even though there is a long line of energetic children and exhausted mothers waiting their turn. After some protesting, I eventually give in. The gesture is too sweet to ignore. As I apply the maximum strength available in my puny arms, they giggle at the White Woman attempting to pump water. The children giggle as I struggle to carry my bucket a few meters back to my home, water splashing out the sides, going to waste. Even the smallest kids in Salone are experts in balancing heavy buckets of water precariously on their heads, somehow not spilling a drop on the longest walk home. Their laughing eyes follow me as I wrap myself in a towel and walk to the outhouse to take a shower.

“Turn around! That’s not nice!” I yell at them, annoyed, but also secretly overjoyed at the sound of their chortles behind my back.

As I walk to the well to fetch water, I hear children call out to me, poo-mui, poo-mui! White Person, White Person!

Later that day, I step into my office, a legal assistance center next door to the small room I sleep in. There, we spend the day meeting with clients, hearing their stories, and addressing their legal problems and disputes. Many of the community members who come in are young, unwed teenage mothers who are seeking child support. Survival itself is a chore in Sierra Leone, where well-paying and safe jobs are scarce. Ironically, having a child at least means that the child’s father might give the mother food, money, clothing, shelter, or even school fees. Prostitution is rampant too, especially with young girls going to the nearby military barracks. Often we meet young women who are victims of horrific domestic violence. Rarely do the abusers face any sort of accountability, despite our best efforts. There are few resources to prosecute someone in such a poor region; the police tell us they have no fuel for their motorbikes, no money to investigate crimes or arrest the criminals.

Between client meetings, the day is interspersed with conversations with friends, neighbors, children passing by, and anyone curious or bored. A military officer, friends with one of my co-workers, comes by to chat. “You must take a Sierra Leonean husband,” he insists, taking a seat. When I tell him that I’m taken, he guffaws loudly as he slaps his palm down on his knee. “Your husband can marry a Sierra Leonean wife. You can both live here. I know many beautiful girls,” he chuckles.

At the end of the workday, I inevitably find Kadiatou and her younger siblings waiting for me outside my small room. She works nearby selling snacks at the junction, but she comes by almost every day. Sometimes she brings me delicious jollof rice, since she knows that as a lifelong vegetarian, I’m having great difficulty adjusting to the meat-heavy food. She’s a friend, yes, but the relationship is complicated. The line is unclear: is she friends with me because she wants to be, or because she knows I’m from America? She, too, asks me if I have any cousins who want a wife. She tells me to take a photo of her so I can show it to my male friends and relatives when I get back to the States. Everyone seems desperate to go to America. Everyone views me as White.

But I’m not White after all. My skin can be anywhere between the brown of the soil and the brown of caramel, and my hair is thick and black. I’m American, yes, but I am Indian too.

In a development aid cliché, the neighborhood kids beg me to take photos of them and with them, using my camera. I ponder the ethics, but succumb to their persistent requests, their childish excitement. They pose for what turns into a photoshoot. In one image, a young girl holds a flower in her right hand and stands with one arm on her hip. In another, two young girls hug each other and smile, standing in front of a bush. I take videos of the girls gyrating to music played on their cell phones, using my hairbrush as a pretend microphone as they belt out their favorite tune. When I show them the shots, they laugh, thrilled to see their face on camera.

That evening, the girls put me on the spot. “Dance,” they command me joyfully. They want to see if I can move my body to the music like them. I’m stiff, lacking their natural fluidity, but I make an attempt. A small crowd forms around me. I guess I’m the village entertainment for the evening. After a minute, everyone claps, cheers, laughs, and joins in, from the three-year-old toddler to the sixty-year-old grandmother. Every night in Sierra Leone somehow turns into a village-wide dance party.

The kids are also fascinated by something else that points to my foreignness: my hair. They want to touch my hair, feel its texture against their skin. They’re surprised at the novelty of it all: it doesn’t need to be braided? You just leave your hair like this? They insist on plaiting it to see how it looks and how long it lasts. They braid my hair rapidly, with hands that are clearly expert, fingers that are nimble and comfortable intertwined with hair. They insist on taking a photo with me and my new hairstyle, my single braid glossy and thick, framing my face and tucked behind my ear.

It is briefly beautiful, but begins to unravel only a few minutes later.

*     *     *

But I’m not White after all. My skin can be anywhere between the brown of the soil and the brown of caramel, and my hair is thick and black. I’m American, yes, but I am Indian too. My family hails from Andhra Pradesh, a state in Southern India, and we immigrated to the US when I was starting elementary school. There’s no getting around it: I’m a brown girl, through and through.

Landing in Freetown, I expect confusion about my origin and doubt that I’m truly American. I am fully prepared for endless questions about my skin color and ethnicity, questions like—Where are you from? But where are you really from? Where is your family from? These are the kinds of interrogations I experience regularly back home where I’m not seen as fully American and certainly never considered White. I’m not the type of American historically represented in pop culture or media, nor in the most popular movies or television shows exported to Sierra Leone.

For the first time in my life, I feel White. In a way, it gives me a thrill to be a mini-celebrity. After decades of never quite feeling fully accepted as an American, having my identity questioned and questioning myself in turn, this feeling of belonging is refreshing.

Somehow, this interrogation never comes. Throughout my two-month stay in Gondama, Bo, and Freetown, I’m treated with the adoration that the White Man usually garners in these communities. I’m the center of attention in almost every village I pass through. The chiefs come to talk to me, plying me with generators that can play movies and light up the dark, and with palm wine to taste in the evenings. Young women freely give me food and even lend me their clothes when I get caught in a sudden downpour. Okada (motorbike) drivers crack jokes with me, knowing they can charge me a higher rate. Everyone is willing to help me out, no matter how destitute they themselves are. I’m asked to give out graduation certificates to children at a local school. Everyone wants me to dance, sing, eat, and drink with them. Everyone wants photos with me. Everyone wants to be my friend.

Yet, I’m also treated like any other White person, which is to say, the site of deep-seated hopes, desires, and anxieties of communities affected by conflict, poverty, and the influx of development aid despite a struggling local economy. Every day I’m asked for money, food, water, clothing, pens and paper, and electronics. People start staking a claim to my belongings. You’ll give me your mattress when you leave town, right? Promise? Men are constantly flirting with me, asking me if I can marry them, take them to America, or if I can introduce them to someone, if I have cousins or friends who need a man.

For the first time in my life, I feel White. In a way, it gives me a thrill to be a mini-celebrity. After decades of never quite feeling fully accepted as an American, having my identity questioned and questioning myself in turn, this feeling of belonging is refreshing. In fact, the experience of Whiteness is more than that—it is intoxicating. There is a certain benefit of the doubt my “Whiteness” confers on me in the village. I am immediately loved, appreciated, and valued. My motives are not questioned. It’s assumed that I’m here to help. I’m automatically welcomed. To be White, I finally understand, is to have consistent privilege, to be looked up to, to be almost universally admired. But this love is mixed in with anger, jealousy, revulsion, and in the community I live in—dependence. The people I meet are trapped between submitting to the poo-mui and being realistic about their needs. At the end of the day, survival wins out.

Sierra Leone struggles with a complex relationship with the White Man. In 1787, British abolitionists and philanthropists settled about 450 former slaves in Freetown. Under the guise of empowerment, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, a charitable organization, played a crucial role in signing up indigent Black people in London to form a colony in Sierra Leone. But the project’s aim was mixed in with a heavy dose of racism: there was also a desire to remove the Black poor from the streets of London. Exporting them off to West Africa seemed a way to kill two birds with one stone. Sierra Leone earned its nickname, the “White man’s grave,” for the high mortality rate of colonists and missionaries due to infectious disease and lack of sanitation. The new Black settlers, unfortunately, were not immune, and many died from exposure to malaria and yellow fever. In 1807, the slave trade was outlawed. The British established a naval base in Freetown primarily to intercept slave ships and rescue and resettle the freed people at the base. In 1808, Freetown became a British Colony and a stronghold in efforts to end the slave trade. Over time, more than 50,000 former slaves were eventually resettled in Sierra Leone. The descendants of these liberated slaves became known as Krios. They lived alongside members of various tribes and ethnic groups, such as the Temne, Mende, and Fula. In 1961, Sierra Leone finally gained its independence from the United Kingdom.

Though the country was colonized, its citizens also take pride in the role Freetown played in ending the slave trade. Sierra Leoneans began their relationship with the White Man as purported philanthropist, and today continue to be dependent on the White Man. The White Man enslaved them, deported them, liberated them, colonized them, and yet, created them. Today, too, the communities I work with know that as much as they seek liberation, the poo-mui is a vital source of development aid and financial support. Without aid from the poo-mui, even more children might die before the age of five from malnourishment and easily treatable diseases. Even more young women may drop out of school because they can’t pay school fees, buy uniforms, or because they don’t have pads when they start their periods. Perhaps even more women will die in childbirth without foreign-funded hospitals. It’s a fraught relationship, but one that ultimately succumbs to the harsh reality of poverty and development in this country. Survival wins over emancipation. So today, many Sierra Leoneans equate Whiteness with foreignness, which means the potential influx of development aid, wealth, support, and opportunity.

Though I am the “Other” back home, I am still rich enough to take a flight to Sierra Leone, which is enough to make me a poo-mui here in Mende land.

*     *     *

The summer is ending, and it is time for me to leave Sierra Leone. I give away as many of my belongings as I can. My mattress goes to Kadiatou, who fed me many delicious dinners; the mosquito net to Fatmata, who is caring for three young children, one with a disability; a few clothes to Mariama, who took me on walking tours around town.

I hug everyone I know in the town, and I’m broken in two, racked with guilt, knowing that I can never repay the acts of kindness I have received over the past few months. I don’t mean to, but I feel like I’ve stolen too much—their images, and now, their stories. There’s very little I was able to give them in return. Continuing the legacy of the White Man, I think to myself bitterly.

This summer, I’ve been forced to dwell in the uncomfortable space between confronting my own privilege and reconciling it with my identity back home. I always knew I was privileged, but in America this somehow felt mitigated by a pervasive undercurrent of Otherness. Here in Sierra Leone, I confront my privilege multiple times a day. Here, as a poo-mui, I’m never allowed to separate myself from my privilege. Instead, I tried to make the most of it. I tried to capitalize upon it when speaking to the police, when advocating for our clients who are victims of domestic violence, in making presentations in Freetown about the problems people are encountering in this community, in campaigning for greater financial support to grassroots organizations in Sierra Leone. My privilege is not just in a vacuum; it’s a political tool. And yet, I’m no savior. As much as I want to believe I am different, the reality is that I parachuted in and out like any other aid worker. With my limited knowledge of the context, the politics, the actors, and the language, and my short time in the country, there was only so much influence I could have. All the privilege in the world doesn’t mean that change comes easy.

My friends and colleagues hold one last dance party in my honor. The radio is on, the palm wine is flowing, and we are all dancing as the sun descends beneath the horizon. For a moment, one sweet moment, I no longer feel like a White Man. Instead, I’m a Brown Woman, shaking my hips to the music, letting myself slip into the song, together with the whole town, rapt in ecstasy under the moonlight.


Akhila Kolisetty is an Indian-American lawyer and advocate in Brooklyn, NY, where she provides free legal representation to survivors of domestic violence in family law. Previously, she worked with human rights organizations in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone. Her poetry has been published in Rigorous Magazine, Lily Lit Review, and Sky Island Journal. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

Economic Anxiety

My college decision was a compromise of impulses. These were my most important criteria: not close to home (so I would grow more and have more independence); located in or in immediate proximity of a large city (where there’d be a decent amount of Black people who existed who were not me); top-notch academics (since my mind deserved a challenge and I’m a competitive person deep down); prestige (translation: respect). My father didn’t really care what I did, but not in a lazy way we expect of men—he just trusted I was already thinking of the right things, as he’d always done. My mother was all about practicality: “make sure you can go out there and get a job when you graduate.”

What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s such a White-ass question, if we’re being honest.

She had a point, a point that would be repeated hundreds of thousands of times by the time I actually graduated, though I understood it even as a high school senior, and I understood it years before, in fact. I was always a practical kid, I’m a practical adult now, and I hate that about me. Being practical is a way to survive, but it’s probably no way to live.

In any event, I ended up enrolling at Wharton where so many of the big financiers went (the ones who tanked the economy back in 2008). I don’t regret it, really; I’m still here after all. I have a job that provides for a fairly comfortable life. A lot of folks like me can’t say that. A lot of folks like me can’t say anything anymore.

*     *    *

A list of people to hold the most powerful job in the world, April 2008:

  1. George Washington (White guy, slave owner)
  2. John Adams (White guy)
  3. Thomas Jefferson (White guy, slave owner, Black baby mama)
  4. James Madison (White guy, slave owner)
  5. James Monroe (White guy, slave owner, Liberia dude)
  6. John Quincy Adams (White guy)
  7. Andrew Jackson (White guy, slave owner, slave trader)
  8. Martin Van Buren (White guy, slave owner)
  9. William Henry Harrison (White guy, slave owner)
  10. John Tyler (White guy, slave owner)
  11. James K. Polk (White guy, slave owner)
  12. Zachary Taylor (White guy, slave owner)
  13. Millard Fillmore (White guy)
  14. Franklin Pierce (White guy)
  15. James Buchanan (White guy)
  16. Abraham Lincoln (White guy, Illinois, Civil War, Emancipation, shot)
  17. Andrew Johnson (White guy, slave owner)
  18. Ulysses S. Grant (White guy, slave owner)
  19. Rutherford B. Hayes (White guy)
  20. James A. Garfield (White guy, shot)
  21. Chester A. Arthur (White guy)
  22. Grover Cleveland (White guy)
  23. Benjamin Harrison (White guy)
  24. Grover Cleveland (wait, again?)
  25. William McKinley (White guy, shot)
  26. Theodore Roosevelt (White guy)
  27. William Howard Taft (White guy)
  28. Woodrow Wilson (White guy, super-duper racist)
  29. Warren G. Harding (White guy)
  30. Calvin Coolidge (White guy)
  31. Herbert Hoover (White guy)
  32. Franklin D. Roosevelt (White guy, Depression, WWII)
  33. Harry S. Truman (White guy)
  34. Dwight D. Eisenhower (White guy)
  35. John F. Kennedy (Irish Catholic White guy, shot)
  36. Lyndon B. Johnson (White guy, Vietnam, Civil Rights)
  37. Richard Nixon (White guy, crook)
  38. Gerald Ford (White guy)
  39. Jimmy Carter (White guy, Mr. Nice Guy)
  40. Ronald Reagan (White guy…)
  41. George H.W. Bush (White guy)
  42. Bill Clinton (White guy. First Black President?)
  43. George W. Bush (White guy)

*     *    *

What do you want to be when you grow up?

That’s such a White-ass question, if we’re being honest.

*     *    *

In business school, I gravitated away from more quantitative subjects like finance and accounting, and toward topics like management and marketing. It wasn’t a loathing of math that steered me in this direction, but an appreciation for the more human elements of things. This had always been true for me.

I hear quite a few side conversations analyzing what went wrong, everything from African American voters not turning out to James Comey’s memo to deeply rooted sexism and misogyny, but none of this is indicative of something “going wrong.” No, this is how things work around here.

Kindergarten through twelfth grade, my favorite subject in school was history: I loved ancient history, loved European history, loved world history. Above all else, though, I loved American history, how it read like a fairy tale, how I’d snicker to myself at just about everything the teacher would say. See, I knew a whole lot of Black historians, enough to understand the jokes that flew over other kids’ heads (first Thanksgiving, ha!), though they weren’t recognized as such by anybody in academia. They had no doctorates. They had no master’s degrees. They had no college at all, actually. But their eyes had seen it all. Their eyes had seen all they could handle. My parents, my grandparents—they never wanted that for me. Instead, they wanted me to be secure. Physically secure. Financially secure.

The day after Trayvon Martin went out for Skittles and the day after Michael Brown was left laying in the street for hours and the day after Tamir Rice held a toy gun for the last time and the day after Walter Scott was left lying in the dirt and the day after Sandra Bland got pulled over and the day after Clementa Pinckney oversaw his last Bible study and the day after Eric Garner’s daughter was crying on the news and the day after Jordan Davis didn’t turn down the music fast enough and the day after Dajerria Becton went to the pool party and the day after Korryn Gaines last saw her child and the day after Freddie Gray was snapped in half and the day after they lit up Laquan McDonald and the day after Philando Castile served students lunch for the last time, I went to work.

And the day after.

And the day after.

And the day after.

And because I did, I got paid.

*     *     *

The day after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I went to work as if nothing had happened. And it hadn’t, at least in the sense that what occurred was not out of the ordinary or impossible to have predicted, but perspective is a funny thing. A lot of folks around the office were visibly concerned, hanging their heads solemnly, talking with a decided lack of energy that stood in sharp contrast to what they demonstrated less than twenty-four hours before when so many felt they would be voting for the first woman to ever hold the presidency in this nation’s history. I hear quite a few side conversations analyzing what went wrong, everything from African American voters not turning out in high enough numbers to James Comey’s memo to deeply rooted sexism and misogyny, but none of this is indicative of something “going wrong.” No, this is how things work around here. Around America, all areas thereof. Where have these people been? Why are they crying today if I never have? What do they have to lose except something I’ll never attain to begin with? Why can’t they just put on a good face about this?

*     *     *

I have a vivid memory of when I’d learned a cousin of mine had been killed. I had school, and my mother was dropping me off at my granny’s house, where the bus would come collect me, before she headed to work. The room was dim with only a single strand of light that fell through the gap between the curtains providing any sort of warmth. My granny was sitting down in that green, patterned chair pressed up against the wall on the left side of the room, my mom standing just past the doorway and me, floating in the vicinity like a thought bubble ultimately left unfilled. There was nothing to be said, but there were things to be done by each of us. And we did them. Even as a child, I had a job to do.

*     *     *

“Also among the slightly odd findings of the poll, 18% of respondents who felt that Mr. Trump was not qualified to be president nonetheless voted for him, as did 20% of those who felt he did not have the necessary temperament.”

Edison Research

*     *     *

From the very beginning, what they always expressed to my parents was how nice and well mannered I am. Teachers. Neighbors. Complete strangers.


Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival, and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared in POETRYThe American Poetry ReviewNew England Review, AGNITriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He serves as a poetry editor at The Rumpus.



Souvenir is one of the first French words I learned in childhood, before taking any language lessons at school. I was enamored with its luxurious vowels, its music. I learned the Arabic-accented pronunciation of it from my mother and her friends, women of the Levant, as the French would designate their homelands, living in Saudi Arabia, polyglots, multicultural exiles and expatriates, whose conversations, like their wardrobes, were layered in silks smooth and raw. The word was lavished on their pretty lips, gathered into a bouquet and then unfolded in two more elegant pouts of different shapes, a series of kisses, long and short.

Souvenir is also a verb. It is an act. A series of decisions that require us to reach into memory and elevate something to the status of keepsake.

In the climate-controlled snow globe of my childhood, souvenir was a noun, the treasure to be found or selected at the end of a journey to a place visited for the first time. In childhood, the world unfolds as a series of sensory adventures, from visits to friends’ homes so different from our own, to cities only recently named in geography class. From Athens, I brought home a postcard depicting the Evzones at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in their pleated skirts and pompom shoes. From our Aleppan friends’ home, a candied quince from a tray of fruits glistening, bejeweled with sugar crystals. From Vienna, a tin of chocolates emblazoned with the image of a blushing Mozart. And in the kingdom where we lived, a birthday invitation to a real princess’s palace. My third-grade classmate, a decidedly ordinary girl who took tennis lessons and dreaded math class as I did, handed out the gilded invitations one Tuesday afternoon. She was one of us, and like many of my classmates, she was picked up from school by the family driver. Her family’s driver, however, arrived in a Mercedes, its back window obscured by pink velvet drapes.

The gilded invitation is long lost, but I have another souvenir of the birthday party I attended at her family’s home. There was a pet peacock roaming the grounds. Possibly two. The tail feathers flashed before my eyes, unraveling a game of tag in which I was engrossed. I remember the sound the girls made, almost in unison, when the elusive pet sauntered past us, and the nanny cautioned us not to chase it, her voice trailing behind our quickening steps. From that evening with twenty third-grade girls in their best dresses playing in a marble-floored minor palace among several on a compound ringed by a high stone wall and heavy metal gates, my souvenir is a Polaroid photograph. I am smiling, grasping the edge of my new dress with one hand and holding my blue paper bag of treats with the other. In childhood, the souvenir that mattered most was the treat bag. This one had, among other wonders, a pack of melon-flavored chewing gum. My mother preserved the Polaroid that commemorates this temporary suspension of everyday life in a photo album. Much like the ubiquitous gold bangles of the Saudi souks, my yellowing artifact only grows more valuable with age. A souvenir of a world now inaccessible, that seems almost imagined.

But souvenir is also a verb. It is an act. A series of decisions that require us to reach into memory and elevate something to the status of keepsake. Its Latin predecessor subveniresuggests that the remembered must be brought up from the depths in order to come over, to cross into our memory, which lives in the present. Souvenir as time travel.

During the winter of tenth grade, at the height of the first Intifada which unfolded on our television screens in Amman every night, my friend’s parents decided to take her to visit relatives in Jerusalem. My father scoffed at what he deemed dangerous, to take children to a place that was even more unstable than it had already been, not even a wedding or a funeral to justify such risk. I had inherited his fear or had been raised in it. That fear, manifesting in an instant bile that floods the throat and reduces all words to sour shards, was the souvenir of my only childhood visit to Palestine. I was one or two years old, too young to claim any of the memories for myself, just water-color drifts from my parents’ narrations. We travelled across the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Palestine. The crossing involved a series of transports, as it does today, the hyper-management of our bodies from station to station for careful inspection, from the security forces of the Jordanian government to those of the Israeli military occupation. My parents had only been married for a few years, and so did not yet share the same citizenship. My father, already a US citizen, and I, his Seattle-born daughter, were placed in a different queue than my mother, who had nothing but her Jordanian passport to speak for her. I was predictably distraught. And in the retelling of my loud meltdown and the methodical insistence of the Israeli soldiers to keep me from my mother are many souvenirs.

My father’s anxieties, exacerbated by the crying of his child, raised the slow simmer of his experience of lining up to return to his occupied homeland to a rolling boil. The heat of the summer near this lowest point on earth, with its stretch of barren hills and military checkpoints awaiting us even after we crossed, all shimmer in the crystal of this souvenir like the beads of sweat I can imagine on my father’s brow. My mother’s narrative of this day is imbued with intention. Her attempts to reason with a soldier as a woman, as a mother whose baby is crying. Her attempts to reason with an occupier from the line reserved for Arabs whose presence is grudgingly tolerated on good days. Her attempts to reason with a very young man toting a large machine gun, someone whose hatred for her she could feel on her skin, someone towards whom she actively resisted full-fledged contempt.

Memory is the work of the present for young and old alike. In Amman, my grandmother, herself an expatriate from Damascus, spent the last few decades of her life devoted to curating the memory of places that were vanishing.

In the pantheon of border-crossing experiences, my own is a non-story. Nothing really happened. I cried and was miserable. My parents were powerless to do anything other than sit through the exercise of abject power by the occupier. And then we made it through. The souvenir of the story is a cautionary tale, a long string of what-could-have-beens clicked like worry beads every time a relative narrates their own journey.

When my tenth-grade friend returned from her trip to Palestine in the winter of 1989, she wore a kuffiyeh around her neck every day well into the warm months of spring. “It’s my uncle’s,” she told me, new stars dancing in her eyes. The headlines of nightly news reports were of teenage boys and girls our own age, wrapped in kuffiyehs like her uncle’s, hurling stones the color of which I had preserved in my mind. “Weren’t you scared?” I asked her as we lined up to buy our za’atar sandwiches for lunch. It was not the right question, one that was inappropriate in Palestinian company. Fear was a scarlet letter, the privilege of those who did not live under the boot of soldiers in the Yitzhak Rabin era of Broken Bones. But my soft-spoken friend, the accomplished pianist, the thoughtful writer just said: “You can’t believe how beautiful it is there.” And she looked at me as if to pour into my eyes what she had seen, the way she had seen it, the fullness of its rain-drenched beauty, beyond the tear gas and rubble of news. “You have to go one day and see for yourself. You just have to.”

I asked my friend why her father thought now was the right time for her to visit. Her answer was surprisingly simple. The people inside Palestine and the hundreds of thousands of refugees waiting to return to Palestine bled and suffered and wasted away, but in neighboring Arab capitals, we engaged in prose, not wars of liberation or any substantive solutions. We waged our battles in gymnastic flourishes of speech and hyperbolic proclamations. Governments expressed their devotion to the cause in an unending stream of adjectives, an exhaustion of abstract nouns. So, I was disarmed by her very matter-of-fact choice of verb: “To remember.” James Baldwin tells us that “history is not the past. It is the present. We are our history.” My friend’s act of remembering was a journey not into a fabled past, into the landscape of her parents’ youth before it was scarred by the violence of dispossession and occupation. It was an act of resistance in the present. To remember was to insist on her, on our history in this place, the history made of this moment. To remember is to resist the transformative powers of violence. If occupation tries to reduce a homeland to collapsing camps and ominous military checkpoints, resistance is remembering its beauty, is seeking out the stones and red anemones and wild thyme of the hillsides.

Memory is the work of the present for young and old alike. In Amman, my grandmother, herself an expatriate from Damascus, spent the last few decades of her life devoted to curating the memory of places that were vanishing. Damascus was not yet a war-torn capital, but it had long ceased to be the palace of her childhood. She lamented with equal ardor the security regime that suffocated its citizens and the slow collapse of a style she had consecrated as authentic. She was powerless over the changes that swept across her city, the old homes with mosaic tiles and jasmine vines perfuming the fountains in their courtyards giving way to sprawl, the honeyed apricots and plump almonds of the ghouta valley shriveling in the drought.  Her only power was to transmogrify—memory made word. Her language—her voice and its inflections, the stories of her childhood—were dusted to shining, placed on the highest shelf, and gifted to us. Souvenirs of a place we were yet to learn we could never visit again.

A few summers ago, I returned, in a way, to a souvenir of my grandmother’s city. In Spain’s southern province, Andalusia, the city of Cordoba is home to the largest mosque in the West. Like all Levantine Arabs, people whose homeland French colonizers of previous centuries labeled the native land of sunrise (levant, French—to rise), there was a memory rising in me, forging a path into the now. The mosque, like all great monuments, is the site of layered stories. Many conquerors have etched their names on the place. Under the stones of the courtyard, ruins of Janus’ temple sleep, and the caverns of Visigothic shrines are buried beneath a forest of rose-colored double arches in the Muslim prayer hall.  A cavalcade of golden saints and angels burst from the altar of the chapel installed by a Catholic king in the heart of the mosque. A Spanish guide with a healthy sense of humor walked us through the onion of the place, peeling back the skins of architecture and sacred geometries. The Umayyads who built the mosque were Arabs from Damascus, and the courtyard of soft-singing ba7ras—octagonal fountains shaded by citrus trees—recalls the homes of my grandmother’s stories.

At the Mihrab, the altar of Muslim prayer, the guide stopped to explain at length. She had been rapid-fire, hurling information and anecdotes quickly as we followed her around the building. She seemed bemused by the history she was narrating up until this point. At the Mihrab, a wistfulness befell her, her gaze travelling over the tesserae of the arch, and toward the ribbed dome above us. “This Mihrab is a mistake” she said softly. In the translation void between Spanish and English, the Qur’anic verses glinting around us, a silence filled me. “When you build a Mihrab, you are supposed to face Makka, all Muslims face to Makka when they pray. But where is Makka? It is not in this direction.” The Khalifa who commissioned the mosque, Abderahman I, was a Syrian refugee. He fled a homeland that he loved and longed for. He commissioned a tribute to his beloved city, of marble columns and sinewy arches, ornate wooden panels and stones the color of his, of my skin. A monument of memory, raised up from the heart of his longing. He sent for the trees and flowers of his homeland and nurtured them in the grand courtyard of the mosque. “This mihrab would have faced Makka if he was still praying in Damascus,” the guide explained. The heart’s stubborn coordinates. Was is it a mistake? Or was it a final love letter to his city?  Until I heard that story I had assumed the resonance I felt in this place was due to the familiarity of architectural elements, the sensory delights of sunlight falling in familiar hues on limestone, or the calligraphy of prayers. But maybe this Khalifa had a rebel heart? A rebel heart that quietly subverted mosque-building tradition in favor of his love for Damascus. Who can resist, even across centuries, the magnetic pull of a rebel heart? And so, I found myself walking the cobble stone streets of a city that was not his beloved, a city that was not mine, touching the walls and looking for souvenirs of the refugee khalifa’s memory, like a jasmine vine, and the mirror of a ba7ra, waiting to receive its falling petals.


Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is an American writer of Palestinian, Syrian, and Jordanian heritage. Her book of poems, Water & Salt, is published by Red Hen Press. She is the winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Prize for her chapbook Arab in Newsland. She has been published and has work forthcoming in journals including Kenyon Review Online, World Literature Today,Black Warrior Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Redivider, Tinderbox, and New England Review. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and also anthologized in books including Being Palestinian and Bettering American Poetry v.2. She holds a BA in comparative literature from the University of Washington and an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University. Visit her at www.lenakhalaftuffaha.com.