On Birth Names & Birthrights

October 13, 2020
a girl surrounded by olives and a colorful background
Art by Kim Salac

The first time I heard the word “diaspora,” it fit perfectly into my mind's holding place for funny words. Diaspora. I would try it on like a cloak-and-veil, whisper it under my breath, and brush it through my dark eyebrows. I’d write it down in cursive; Google it incessantly every time I forgot its perfect definition. The first time I heard the word diaspora I was looking in the mirror.  

Being Arab American means I have a nose that precedes me, and sideburns that adorn my olive-toned face. It means that agarwood (عود) is my olfactory train, and that every event is a wedding. 

It means politics are my birthright.

So are chin hairs and bushy eyebrows. And so is my Hejazi-Levantine hybrid Arabic. 

This mess is my birthright. 

I was born to a Palestinian mother and Saudi father in Dekalb County, Georgia. I was also born to a name: Ibtehal (ابتهال), the Arabic word for invocation: a deep spiritual ask.

 

What other fruit am I to share with my Palestinian grandmother, separated by oceans and tongues, if not the olive? If not the puckering pickle and squint, the rootedness in that land she grew up in?

 

It’s a name that seems to foreshadow who I am becoming; how I sometimes arrive at a moment in the form of a question: toes curling, torso concaving, head tilting, eyebrows furrowing; how I sometimes call for too much, a tall order to the world and a burden on its warm chest, and other times, much too timid to ask for what I deserve. Every glance is an invocation, every thought a prayer, every step forward and backward, every mouthful of words a query. 

Besides a name too large for a child, these are some of the seemingly uncomplicated pieces of my childhood: Kool-Aid, Nedo, za’atar (زعتر), Oreos, rice, olive oil, buckets of water dripping from the air conditioner, mosquitos, lizards, black tea, Turkish coffee, and olives.

In adulthood, I will myself to love olives (previously uncomplicated and objectively bad) because it is too shameful not to. What other fruit am I to share with my Palestinian grandmother, separated by oceans and tongues, if not the olive? If not the puckering pickle and squint, the rootedness in that land she grew up in?

 

I mobilize myself to care about this world, to honor this tree; I do it with barrels of oil on my back and diaspora on my mind.

 

What do I hold onto, if not the olive branch? Symbol of peace and resistance, symbol of politics, symbol of the mess. I see no olive trees here, just American elms, magnolias, and chestnuts. I wonder what it might be like to lean up against an olive one to embrace the branches of my familial tree. 

I mobilize myself to care about this world, to honor this tree; I do it with barrels of oil on my back and diaspora on my mind. I ask about Black lives and climate justicereproductive injustice at our nation’s border, human rights abuses of Uighurs, conflict in Armenia; I cast ballots, I read, I challenge, I organize; I pucker and squint when it’s hard and sour, but I know this to be my pipeline to that land, to those arms, to the future. 

In that holding place in my mind sits an olive tree. Drought resistant and rooted, diaspora is its fruit and its cold-pressed essence. Its twigs catch in my hair and eyebrows, its biting olives and questions fill my mouth.  

I grasp onto its branches and take bitter bite after bite. 

 

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