When I was little, I used to think that when the sun went down it would take the clouds with it, clearing the sky for the stars. I used to sit outside with a man, who looked like my father and sounded like my father but was not the man I came to know as my dad. Baba would point to the sky and say “Do you see that Intisara?” I would look up with widened eyes,
“Aalat al-Naqqash,” he said pointing to a cluster of stars,
“Then there’s Az-zarafah and D’that al-Korsi, ” and he would continue naming the constellations and stars he knew. His American accent clear and evident through his Arabic words.
“What’s that one Baba?” I asked pointing to the biggest and brightest star; it seemed to shine bigger and brighter than the others in the sky. My father didn’t know the answer, but being Baba, he always gave me one right or not.
“That one habeebti is called Intisara; it is Allah’s most favorite star that’s why it shines the brightest.” My six-year-old mind couldn’t fathom that God himself had named a star after me, little Intisara sitting in the dirt in a city full of tragedy.
There were shots in the distance and a loud scream, my father, immediately went for the gun at his side and told me to go inside and wash up for bed. I walked to the door but turned around at the sound of tanks driving past our house. There was a man sitting on top of one with a helmet on and I couldn’t see his eyes, but I knew he was looking at me as he gripped the gun attached to the roof tighter, I shuddered and hurried inside.
I always tell people that I spent the beginning of my childhood with hands over my eyes, those hands interchanging between mine, my mother’s, my brother’s, and my father’s…
My mom used to tell me that when she was young, she dreamed of America, she named me Intisara after that same dream. In Arabic the literal translation of my name means triumphant, figuratively, however it means reckoner, yielder, and giver of triumph and goodness. I’d like to think that my soul up in Janna kept my young mother company in her dreams. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t get to America until well into her thirties, and I would already be born.
She didn’t want my brother and I to grow up like she did in a place full of war and death, where every day we would receive word that a neighbor or a cousin had been shot and killed “from the war” which meant “by an American.” That always confused me, because I was an American even though I had never lived in America, Baba was American and passed his citizenship onto me, something of a burden in Kuwait at this time. So did that mean I was safe from the bullets and bombs? Because I held this imaginary card of safety that my loved ones didn’t… Or did that sign my death warrant because I was not exactly the American they wanted?
By “this time” I mean the late nineties and early two thousand when I lived there, a time that people know was one of the Gulf wars that no one wants to talk about, and often they confuse the first with the second. There was only so much the hands could cover and shield me from, in a time and place where war is a part of your daily life things start to peek through the cracks between your fingers.
Images that I can’t regurgitate for the life of me and although it is against the wishes of my therapist I tend to suppress into the tiny black hole in the back of my mind. Images full of monsters in uniforms with guns pointed at the innocent. What did those 3,7, and 10 year olds do in their short lives to deserve the slow painful deaths they experienced bleeding out on the streets?
Sleepless nights I would lay awake and count the constellations of sticker stars on my ceiling, waiting for sleep, waiting for life, waiting for America where everything would be better because anything is better than this. The land where I could just be myself without the crossroads I currently found myself, an idea that I didn’t understand at the time, I was like everyone else around me but not really, not truly, I was not pure, and therefore I was treated differently.
I am a reminder to my mother of the man my father once was and the man he will never be again, and of the hope, she dreamed of when she was a girl. My face is one of those my Baba fought to protect, for his country and for his family (as different as those ideas may seem), and on that day that we finally came to America, the man that I called my father changed and morphed into the man I know today.
I learned quickly that being an Iraqi Arab-Muslim Woman in America was a taboo, in a post 9/11 America the immigrant’s idea of the American dream had changed drastically. As I grew up, I learned that I would never escape the ‘different’ treatment I had gotten as a child, if anything it increased as I reached adolescence and adulthood. I never fit in completely with the Arab community because of my father’s African American heritage, I never fit in wholly with the American community because of my Arabian roots, and as a Muslim, my experience was even that much more separated from others who grew up here. My outlook on religion wasn’t the same as other Muslim-Americans and at times that made my family outcasts from the community that once took us in with open arms.
As I watch the Texas sunset, the sun disappearing over the western horizon I imagine again the clouds going with it to make room for the stars, although now there are no stars, but lights. I miss my desert night sky that seemed vast and endless with constellations; it’s hard to name the stars when all you see are lights, and the only names you can think of are the ones lost to you in death.