Firstborn children are good. Saturated, no doubt, with the anxiety of first-time parenthood, firstborns are rule followers, pleasers.
When I tell my firstborn, five-year-old daughter, Aidana Sabha, that she has to drink the juice covertly because the bouncy house does not allow outside food or beverages, she crouches, doubled over under the table, hiding the silver pouch underneath her arched body. Unable to go against the place’s regulations, she asks to leave; she is thirsty but would rather give up playing to go home and drink than break the rules.
In Jordan, to be a firstborn female child came with added pressure—to be m‘addaleh, sitt el-banāt, btiswi thuglik dhahab, worth your own weight in gold.
Whenever my grandmother uses this phrase to describe some woman or other, I keep a tally of the qualities she admires. When she uses it to describe my mother, though always in the past tense, it means that my mother had listened, obeyed, self-abnegated—the butter would not melt in her mouth.
When she uses it to describe my uncle’s wife, her daughter-in-law, it means that daughter-in-law is content with her lot, her dirty laundry unaired—her secrets in a well.
When she uses it to describe her neighbor, it means that the neighbor is chaste, never flirting, never yielding to men’s plying compliments and denuding gazes—as pure as yogurt.
But most importantly, to be worth your weight in gold means that your seira, your narrative, your story, is not on every tongue. A woman like this is given the highest compliment—she is, ironically, a man (zalameh) or the closest approximation, the sister of men (ukht zlām). My grandmother was definitely worth her weight in gold—zalameh. An illiterate Palestinian villager, she was married at nine and divorced by sixteen. After al-Nakseh, she crossed the River Jordan with two kids in tow, knit loofahs to make ends meet, made sure her children got an education, and rejected all suitors and offers of marriage. She prided herself on never once being a piece of gum, to be chewed up by gossiping mouths and spat out. Sumʿitha dhahab—her reputation was golden.
Growing up in Jordan, which used to be part of the British Mandate (1920–46), almost all of what I read and studied was British and American literature. And very early on I decided I was going to teach American literature at a Jordanian university. So off I went to graduate school in New Jersey, a dedicated Americanist. It seems like another life to me now—that plane ride to the vast Midwest on a research trip and the week spent in a small, depressing, fluorescent-lit room at the University of Minnesota, poring over confessional American poet John Berryman’s unpublished works, very diligently trying to decipher his abominable handwriting, made even worse by the burned pockmarks produced, no doubt, by his cigarette ashes falling on the delicate paper as he chain-smoked his way through writing about Shakespeare. And then September 11 happened. All of a sudden, people of all sorts—professors, other Ph.D. candidates, members of the local community—were asking me to speak about Arab and Muslim women.
Three interrelated problems presented themselves. First, I was not a spokesperson or an expert. I didn’t know, could not know, and knew even less than I should have because I was the product of a highly effective colonial legacy that privileged knowledge about Europe over that of my own country. I started reading then, and I remember how hard I cried after I finished The Story of Zahra by Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh, the first novel by an Arab woman writer I had ever read. It wasn’t because of the tragic ending but because for the very first time I saw myself reflected in a literary text. This is especially odd as the novel is about a Lebanese girl who sleeps with a sniper during the Lebanese civil war and ends up being fatally shot by him. And yet, so starved was I for recognition of my image that just the fact that the names were familiar was enough to produce a deep, nostalgic yearning for home.
Second, it was never clear what this speaking entailed. Was I supposed to explain in thirty minutes the lives of millions of women across two continents and twenty-two countries whose historical, cultural, political, and social contexts were as varied as they were similar?
And third, and perhaps most painfully, I didn’t know how to reconcile my feminism with my nationalism. By this point I had become deeply interested in the issues Arab and Muslim women face, but here I was, asked to expose the Arab and Muslim world’s dirty laundry in an environment already primed against them. As an Arab and a Muslim, that was very hard to do. And as a woman, it was very hard not to. Algerian activist and sociologist Marie-Aimee Helie Lucas once said to a group of women gathered at a symposium in Finland, “Probably most of the women present at this symposium take for granted that they belong to a country or a nation which does not have to prove its existence. For them, the concept of nation can be transcended and criticized. This is not true for Algeria nor for other decolonized and still colonized countries at war with imperialism. For us it is much more difficult to criticize the nation, and even the State which claims to represent the nation.”
And indeed, I felt that at every turn, I was betraying some aspect of my identity: if I privileged my feminist concerns, I was a national traitor, and if I privileged my postcolonial identity as an Arab and Muslim, I was being an apologist.
It is a relief when I return to teach in Jordan, American husband in hand. I so desperately want to be good for my grandmother Sabha. And for five years, the return carries with it none of the forewarned (by other Arab expats in the United States or in Jordan) and anticipated dislocation, the reverse culture shock, the frustration of in-betweenness. Every day, I talk with Tētā on the phone, and every Thursday I visit her on her farm in al-Libban, outside of Amman. On her cool flagstone front porch, under the zinc awning and the fig tree, we look over groves of olive and pomegranate trees.
To her, I am a zalameh. I don’t wear makeup, I dress modestly, I didn’t stay in the West even though I am married to an American, I hold my own and interact with men like other men would—ʾad ḥālī—I am up to the task of myself.
So how could I tell her that after years of ghurbeh followed by years of ʿawdeh and thinking the return was forever, I had come back from vacation, from whitewashed rooms carved into sloping mountains atop the blue-green waters of Santorini, to an email with a foreboding, though ambiguous, title: “Official Notification”? How could I tell her what I could not have imagined? That it contained in its belly the Arab and Muslim woman academic’s death blow.
Dear Dr. Diya Abdo,
I have been asked by the Director of the Jordan Branch to inform you to submit your resignation as your publications and ideas are unacceptable at Arab Open University and are not in accordance with Arab Islamic values, which are an essential part of this institution’s philosophy and mission. Your emphasis on queer theory, sexual fluidity and attack on Arab/Islamic culture and values are in direct opposition to the philosophy of this institution. Thus, in order to avoid action being taken against you at Headquarters in Kuwait, we are asking you to submit your resignation as soon as possible.
I cannot tell my grandmother, the woman who raised me and was elated that I had returned to Jordan to teach, that I am being accused of anti-Islamism and behavior unbecoming a respectable woman.
They had come to this determination of my very being while I was on vacation. In a few days I was supposed to return to teach my summer classes, but those had mysteriously vanished from my schedule when I checked online from a small Internet café in Athens. At the time, I had no idea why that had happened; I thought it was simply a glitch in our online system. I realized later that they were erasing every trace of me; I am a toxic poison to be cleansed, a tumor to be excised.
The “publications” in question: a forthcoming paper titled “ ‘Tell Me What’s between Your Legs’: Redefining the Warring Self through the Nation’s Sexual Others.” All they had available to them was that title and this abstract:
Carthaginians by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness and The Story of Zahra by Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh delineate the ways in which political conflict (in this case the Northern Ireland conflict and the Lebanese civil war) is largely dependent on sexual inequality and oppression. I further explore the creation of a potentially transformative/alternative national and individual self through the overt and conscious gendered and sexualized performances of the nation’s sexual “others.” Ultimately, however, this freeing sexual performance of the nation’s “Others” (women and homosexuals) is doomed to failure. In each case, the nation is too embedded in its masculinist performances to change its ways.
And then I recall bits and pieces of conversations I’ve had with the chair of the department, with whom I shared an office and who would later send me the death blow. I thought I was having innocent chats with a trusted friend, but she was carefully watching and keeping track: “Do you fast?” “No.” “Bit’amnī?” “Not really.”
I loved the title—a quote from McGuinness’s play. Hark, the IRA “hard man,” threatened by Dido, the queer drag queen’s sexuality, mocks what he perceives to be Dido’s failure to live up to gendered ideals: “Tell me what’s between your legs. Is there anything between your legs? Is there one between your legs?”
To appease the administration, I remove the quote I love from the title and my university affiliation from the publication. In the final version, I am institutionally homeless. Under my name, simply “Amman, Jordan.”
I love the women students at the Arab Open University. Mostly older women, some my mother’s age but many my own or a little older, they come back after years of caring for small children, ailing parents, chaotic homes, and overworked husbands to do a little something for themselves. And they come from all over—from ‘Abdun, the Beverly Hills of Amman; from the small hillside villages scattered around Irbid, the Bride of the North, Hartha, Kufr Rahta, and Kufr Sum; from the shantytowns of downtown Amman, al-Hashmiyyeh; or the zinc-roofed refugee camp, al-Baq‘a, erected as a temporary home for the dispossessed crossing the river but now more permanent than Petra. The Open University lives up to its name; in the same classroom I have women who have just parked a Lexus on the uneven pavement outside the buildings and will return to grand homes, well-kept by Sri Lankan or Filipino maids, and women who will take three or four buses and then walk down dusty side streets to their small rooms. I love these women, and they love me. In the office I share with the chair, they sit and tell me about their families and husbands and hopes and dreams. They bring me warm hugs and kisses and chocolates. Sometimes I meet with them at the women-only café in Der-Ghbar, the one with the blind musician. He is male, but he cannot see them. This makes him almost a woman or not a man.
I ask them to call me Diya. How do I ask these women to call me Dr. Abdo? How do I erect a wall where intimacy has been carved?
I am named after a Quaker’s daughter. Diya. In English, it is a slight thing, like the sound you might make absentmindedly as you shake your head in dismay over a thing annoying but not too serious. In Arabic it is heavy and gruff, with a harsh final glottal stop. And though it means “light,” the first letter is a very hard D—al-dād. To pronounce it, the fullness of your tongue must rise up to meet both your upper palate and your teeth, pushing gently but firmly from back to front, tip of tongue ever so slightly emerging from behind the upper front teeth. You would really have to hear an Arab pronounce it. The Arabic language is sometimes called lughat-al-dād; there is no other language that contains this particular sound. It is uniquely Arab. But this American Quaker, a close friend of my maternal grandfather, lived in Ramallah for a time. They called him el-mukhtār because the townspeople would often go to him to resolve their conflicts. He was married to a Lebanese woman, and they had a daughter. My mother liked her name, and when she gave birth to me in the darkness of the morning, well before dawn, she thought that the light of the moon was made for me. As the Arabs say, our names are born with us. I was born under the light of the moon, but I have journeyed to this Quaker place called Guilford College. This is how it makes perfect sense (even in my body) that a first-generation Palestinian born and raised in Jordan finds a piece of home in Greensboro, North Carolina.
As it turns out, my namesake is a director at an organization that funds Palestinian youths’ education in American colleges, including Guilford. And as it turns out, she is also named after another woman, her maternal grandmother, an Arab woman whose father wanted a boy so badly that when his wife gave birth to a girl, he was so ashamed, he named her Diya, hoping that the neighboring villagers, upon hearing of his child’s birth and its name, would think he was blessed with a son.
The moon and its light, ḍiyāʾ ul-qamar, are both gendered male in the Arabic language. But it is mostly women who, in being described as beautiful, are likened to the moon. A man woman.
Thrice reflected, light diluted—infinitely removed from “goodness.”
I sang to Aidana, in utero and every day thereafter at bedtime, my favorite Arabic song. It is so old that many of my Arab friends don’t know it:
O violet, why do you bloom when you are such a melancholy flower?
The eye follows you and finds you
Demure and chaste.
When I first sing it to Seira, my secondborn daughter, she tilts her head, her eyes unfocused still but searching, as if she recognizes it. A distant familiar sound, a call to sleep, heard through darkness and water.
In Greensboro, with my sister here for a short while attending graduate school, we’ve settled into a life that reminds me of the streets of Jordan. The girls play outside her apartment with the hordes of Saudi kids who live at the complex; their fathers attend the universities and language academies nearby. In the park at the center of the buildings, the Saudi men drink coffee and chat well into the night on woven plastic mats. They’ve got plenty of ice cream for all the kids who might be playing outside and hand them out whenever a child, sugar-crazed (like my niece Alana) or stranger-shy (like my daughter Aidana), asks for one. The Saudi women sit on the iron table next to the small park, shelling watermelon and pumpkin seeds, drinking Saudi coffee, and fiddling with their iPhones.
I sit with my sister on the stoop of her apartment just overlooking the park, swatting away the flies, my generous thighs feeling the warmth of the brick under me, keeping a distant eye on Aidana. I rest my Seira, now eight months, in the bend of my arm, elbow digging into the soft spot above my knee, legs as far apart as possible, and nurse her. Occasionally, I yell at Aidana to watch out as the kids weave in and out of the men playing volleyball in the sand. It pleases me to think that my grandmother would have done it just like this—squatting on the ground under the olive trees, gossiping with other women, a baby on the breast and a child playing in the groves. I sit in the sun and nurse my Seira the way a good Palestinian village woman would.
But this isn’t Jabal al-Mukabber. Aidana wants long blond hair like Elsa, the Icelandic Ice Queen, and tomorrow, I will go to Guilford and teach American kids how to write in English and how to analyze literature in English. Last summer I published an article I am proud of: “My Qarina, My Self: The Homoerotic as Islamic Feminism in Alifa Rifaat’s ‘My World of the Unknown’ ” in the Journal of Lesbian Studies.
She is much more relaxed, this secondborn, this Seira. And I am more relaxed with her. The anxiety of first parenthood is all but gone. And already, I hold her less accountable than the firstborn, the second Sabha. I am not occupying her every waking minute with Arabic words and Arabic music and Arabic smells. We sit in prolonged silence, which, because of the Quakers, I have come to love, as I pass her one toy after another and play a game she loves, the one where I raise and lower my eyebrows, conspiracy in my eyes and a mischievous smile on my lips. She laughs hard at my expression, like we’re in on a secret that only the two of us know. A fun secret—like maybe, we can be good even if we’re not perfect. Maybe we can be ʾad ḥālnā even if we falter, sometimes, at the task of being the selves that others have constructed for us, expect of us, want for us. Maybe we can go easy on ourselves.
How great the relief. How great the loss.
Diya Abdo is associate professor of English at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is founder and director of Every Campus a Refuge, an organization that advocates for housing refugees on campus grounds and assisting them in resettlement. This essay is excerpted from Bad Girls of the Arab World, edited by Nadia Yaqub and Rula Quawas.