Great-great-grandmothers, I am writing to tell you I made it. You made it.
Imagine that your Egyptian great-grandson met your German great-granddaughter. They had a couple of kids and immigrated to — wait for it — Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Now I (their daughter) live on the traditional and unceded territories of the lək̓ʷəŋən people— a place colonially known as Victoria, British Columbia.
You might not know where that is. You probably considered Canada as much as I think of Eritrea, Latvia or Uruguay; maybe you’d heard of it and thought of igloos. Now you’re here, and when (if?) my great-great-grandchildren trace their DNA, they will be surprised that you existed at all. Their future history is entangled into your mystery, and I am their unreliable bridge. I traffic deep time in a great storm, guilty of ignorance and omission. I write the lines of a third-culture immigrant whose sense of belonging was traded for new opportunities. My parents told me to be grateful and I am. Can you imagine yourself in a hijab? With that big mouth of yours? You’d have been stoned to death, you stupid girl.
I rewrite ancient tales of the Sumerian goddesses Inanna and Ereshkigal and how they navigate the Underworld. My sons stuff my stories into their pockets. I’ve met death enough to know that they’ll find my crinkled-up pages after I’m gone. They’ll bring out their flashlights and look for the meaning I’d hoped to impart. If they can’t find it, they’ll make something up. Something about hubris and climate change. Something about civilizations making the same mistakes over and over again. A bit about sacrifice and how much I love them. One of them might ask, didn’t she say something about reverence?
When asked where he was from, my father would say in his thick and ambiguous song, Eid-muhn-ton. You want to see my passport or something? My mother said nothing as to hide her accent. My sons say they’re from here and no one bats an eye. They grew up learning they were on stolen land and now grapple with their privilege.
I tell stories I’ve made up about us. Like, when I make bread, I pretend I’m from a long line of bakers. Maybe I’m a puppet, and you pull my strings. I want to believe that my hands hold your memories — that you followed us here.
But where are you really from?
I like to imagine that my real parents are the reeds between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, even though I was born in a coal-mining town called Gelsenkirchen and given an Egyptian passport. I’m from the coldest day of 1968, but not the psychedelic, free-loving, bra-burning ’68 of our California dreams. No, I’m from a sober, post-war, obedient virgin who jumped into action the second her angry man screamed. I’m from the grief of losing my father and the stories he took to his grave.
I remember my German accent and my father’s brown skin. I can count, swear and pray in Arabic, but don’t know the difference. I shocked my cousins when I unknowingly called their mother a whore, hoping I was counting to ten. Als ich fünf Jahre alt war, dachten die Deutschen, ich sei ein Einheimischer, but now I stumble over those words.
I grew up hearing about savage Indians who didn’t pay taxes. We were told we belonged to this country more than they did, but not as much as my friend Susan, who’s family came here in the ‘30’s. We were betwixt and between, working overtime to fit in.
By grade ten, I was so popular that I walked ten steps in front of my parents. It was like I’d never even met them.
This is how to become Canadian. Forget everything.
(Grandmothers, what were your names again? I’ve looked and I’ve looked, but I can’t find them.)