August 20, 2013 | by Alia Akkam
Everywhere I look there is paint. In the bristles of the brushes, hastily run through the sink, that bake atop the windowsill, on the collage of red and black splotches staining the metal table, filling bottles on the back shelf with tempera greens and blues, and dirtying the smocks my classmates gleefully slip on. To them, making papier-mâché panda bears out of old newspapers is a reward for practicing rows of cursive Ks and struggling through multiplication quizzes. I am the one who stares at the clock waiting for a sluggish second hand to make its orbit so I can be a minute closer to the well-worn marble notebooks tucked inside my desk.
Mrs. Grigg is our art teacher. She has a mane of gray curls, wears long, flowing skirts, and smells of musk. I discover that her first name is Yolanda, an ethereal departure from the Pats and Joannes who preside over the PTA bake sales, and I think maybe I can ask her what is wrong with me. Yolanda will tell me the truth. But I see the way she scowls when my ruler fails to prevent crooked lines, and when my green, left-handed scissors leave ragged edges, maligning what could have been a perfect triangle. So I remain silent. One day we are making Santa Clauses out of construction paper. For the artistically average children they will become centerpieces at the Christmas dinner table. I will toss mine into a garbage can on the walk home from school. As I curl strips of white paper around a pencil to make Santa’s beard, frustrated they aren’t half as springy as those the kids around me are churning out, I sulk.
“Are you miserable?” Mrs. Grigg asks me as she shifts the glasses from around her neck to the bridge of her nose and peers at my deformed Santa. I nod. Finally, I tell myself, Yolanda realizes no good can come from me sitting in this room pretending I have a shred of artistic talent. I fear art class almost as much as gym, where I can’t dribble a basketball and am picked last for teams. Even when the kickball is placed on home plate instead of rolled to me, my foot fails to make contact. Surely, being uncoordinated is punishment enough for an elementary school girl surrounded by ruthlessly laughing children. But Mrs. Grigg does not tell me I can sit in the corner and read my language arts textbook as I have dreamed. “You should have told me. You could have made a dreidel,” she says. She leaves me choking in the mist of her earthy perfume before I can tell her I am not Jewish. I continue winding shreds of paper around the unsharpened No. 2, one eye on the clock. Read More »
April 17, 2013 | by Alia Akkam
Every morning, I would start the day with the Smashing Pumpkins—haunting “Disarm,” anthemic “Today.” Over and over, in a bedroom still mired in childhood, where a mound of carelessly tossed stuffed animals crept up my white wood dresser, I relentlessly played Siamese Dream. This, I thought, is how one becomes a teenager.
When the sun was at its hottest, late in the afternoon, I would stand at my front door, forehead pressed against the mesh screen, waiting for some friend’s mother to pull up in a beige Nissan and carry us to the mall. Here, I would spend hours in too-short shorts in too-cold air conditioning deliberating between pungent Plumeria or Freesia lotions at Bath & Body Works, scarfing down greasy slices of food-court pizza, and buying a hideous glittery cropped tee my mother would take one look at and matter-of-factly proclaim I would never wear. Until I was called for dinner, I’d read Seventeen, wondering if, once my dreaded braces came off, I’d be as beautiful as the young girls staring back at me with their wisps of charcoal eyeliner rimming their almond-shaped eyes, the ones who looked like they hadn’t cried since they fell off pretty pink bicycles with white baskets and streamers flowing from the handlebars. After that night’s iteration of chicken and rice, the phone would ring. For the next hour and a half, I would talk about nothing with the person I had had nothing to say to at the mall just a few hours before.
It was the summer of 1993, and I was bored. Read More »
November 8, 2012 | by Alia Akkam
My first encounter with Patrick Swayze was not, like many of my classmates’, in a suburban movie theater, watching his robust muscles seductively grip Jennifer Grey’s tiny pelvis to the sounds of Mickey & Sylvia. The night I met him on the small television in the kitchen, my mother washing dishes in the background, instead of a form-fitting tank top Swayze was wearing the distinguished gray uniform of the Confederate States Army. Before he played the Catskills dance instructor of teenage girls’ dreams, Swayze was Orry Main, a good ole fighting South Carolina boy whose best friend is a damn Yankee, in North & South, the melodramatic 1980s miniseries that reduced one of the country’s most devastating slabs of history to coquettish glances thrown from beneath floppy straw hats and above buxom gowns. At age six, too young to comprehend the definition of secession, much less the horrors of slavery, I watched the scenes of sprawling plantation estates with the same intensity as an afternoon fix of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. It was the first time I heard the words civil war.
Years and textbooks later, the intricacies of this defining upheaval continued to compel me more than any other period in our country’s history. Each moment of the war—those first foreboding booms over Fort Sumter, the hundreds of thousands of lives replaced by bloody corpses, Abraham Lincoln’s searing call for freedom—seemed fraught with political, economic, and moral complexity. Patrick Swayze ushered me into this suspenseful drama, Ken Burns’s The Civil War took me deeper, and I didn’t want to leave. Read More »
October 11, 2012 | by Alia Akkam
Liquor has never touched my Middle Eastern father’s lips. Or so he claims. In the late sixties, when he lived a spell in Munich, embarked on spontaneous sojourns to Italy, and dated a Finnish broad named Helvi I once saw in a faded wallet-size photo—activities that made him sound so much more alluring than the stern killjoy I remember—I like to think he nursed a few carefree beers just like any lonely expat. When he made his way to New York a few years later, renting a dingy studio on the upper reaches of Broadway, when he was still the man my mother fell for—an Arab version of Adrian Zmed with a rustling gold chain around his neck and swarthy looks that back then meant you were handsome, not a possible terrorist—he used to smoke cigarettes, my mother tells me. Perhaps he also took nips of whiskey from a flask.
But the only father I know, the real one, returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia when I was eight years old a sudden gung-ho Muslim. He was no longer the aggressive moderate who was content with me just saying Bissmilah at the start of each meal. Now, every moment he wasn’t holed up in a Hilton for work or stuffing fried eggplant into pita bread at the dinner table was spent hunched over a miniature Koran, recapturing the lost Islam of his youth, of his family, of the native Syria he hadn’t called home for more than two decades.
Freshly brewed mint iced tea. Distilled water from the Poland Springs gallon bottles that lined our laundry room. Dr. Pepper, when its effervescence became a salve for the wheezing that permeated my bronchitis-ridden childhood. These were the beverages welcome in our teetotaler home. Although my mother, a Catholic girl from Queens, didn’t have religion propelling her consumption habits, she harbored something worse: distaste for even innocent bubbles. “Champagne burns my ears,” I remember her whining—and she rarely invited company over for anything more than a cup of Earl Grey.