My father teaches ethics at a university. My mother teaches ethics at a university. They save. Their money. Buy a large bungalow in Connecticut. They continue. Saving. Enough to support the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and their baby. They read the news and wish kindness into our laws. One of them will say Sweden hasn’t been to war since 1812. The other says you can start a business in Sweden and get free healthcare. They’re excited. About my arrival. They remain. Calm. When midnight cries wake them. My father waits. For my mother to heal. Before asking for sex. She’s good. At saying no. She throws meditation and exercise and intense therapy at her trauma. Still goes to AA. When wrong. She promptly admits it. Every night she arrives home from the university. Her soft. Low voice. Builds a replica in my throat. She wears minimal. Makeup. Cuts her nails down because who needs the fuss. When I walk. Into a room. And see my father. I continue walking in. When my father and I leave. The house. Lots of women introduce themselves. When we get back he tears. Their numbers over the trash. On weekends my father and I dig in the dirt. I watch him plant lilac bulbs around the spruce. He lets my small hand pack the ground. Affirms it as help. When my father puts. me to bed with true stories of him sewing clothes for new mothers in Ukraine. I fall asleep fast.
Water. At the shore we don’t build anything. Behind our sunglasses, our eyes dart in every direction. A man carries a sandcastle on his back. A fish. Or is that a tattoo of a fairytale palace? His arms are full sleeves of ink. Maybe he’s been working in the financial district for years. Maybe he’s only here for three days.
In the water we talk salaries and offices and how much saltier this sea is compared to ours. Ours? We talk about hunger, the likelihood of lunch. On my left, Burj Al Arab juts forth its belly of glass and steel.
This was Arabia as a romantic imagination might have created it; nights so mellow that they lay out under the scatter of dry bright stars, and heard the silence beyond their fire as if the whole desert hung listening.
—Wallace Stegner, Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil
“When we arrived there [Aramco], it was no Arabian Nights at all. It was just a kind of shack, it seemed to me.… Air-conditioned shacks with a great big swimming pool in the middle with a canvas over the top.”
—Mary Stegner to her husband’s biographer, Jackson J. Benson
“It was No Arabian Nights at All”: Coming of Age in America’s Kingdom
A slight wind picks up and moves over the lake, clinking rocks together in the wash. Salvador squints into the darkness. The way his fellow construction workers talked about America’s proximity, he’d half expected to sight the faintest outline of one of its cities’ skylines as a shimmer set deep against the horizon. Instead, there’s only the night and, stretching to meet it, the mumbling water.
Sitting on a green couch in what is now a bedbug-infested Brooklyn apartment, I suddenly realized that my flight to meet my family for the first time in five years was actually tonight, not tomorrow; 12:30 a.m., not 12:30 p.m. I had planned to wake up early in the morning, make two cups of coffee, and pack a small bag with the few gifts I managed to buy last minute for my siblings. I thought I had more hours to sit with my heavy feeling, which I assumed to be a mix of excitement and longing, but which was rather a combination of wariness and fear, of things going wrong, of encounters no one can prepare for.
In front of the couch, there was a round coffee table, which I circled around in panic, not sure if I could make it to JFK on time, to Kiev on time, to Tbilisi on time. For months, my sister and I had saved and borrowed so we could have this one-week reunion trip in a country we knew nothing about. A few months after my arrival in the United States, the Kuwaitis had denied my application for passport renewal, subsequently making me an asylee. My family’s attempts to get U.S. visas were repeatedly denied, so we began to make different plans. We called embassies every morning, in the United States and in Kuwait. I asked, “Do you accept a U.S. refugee travel document? How long to issue a visa?” while they asked, “Do you accept a stateless travel document? How long to issue a visa?” The mutually closest country was Georgia, a place Arabs have come to discover in the past few years, this time not as conquerors, but as refugees in transit, hoping to infiltrate Europe from her eastern side.
Mapping Exile: A Writer’s Story of Growing Up Stateless in Post-Gulf War Kuwait