The other night at the taraaweeh prayers at the masjid, a woman sitting next to my teenage daughter took the opportunity of a rest between sets of prayers to talk to her.
“Where are you from?” My daughter and I often get this question- she has my light skin and blue eyes, so it is near impossible to blend in anywhere we go here.
“America” she answered. I sometimes think its sad that when most of my children answer that question they do so with no memory or idea of what “America” really is. I think that Mu’aadh and Maryam picture it as a giant store where Grandpa Abel and Grandma Gretchen shop and send nifty things that don’t fall apart within days, like most of the things here do. But Sukhailah has a few memories of America- our garden, being chased by a dog, sitting in the kitchen with her brothers and sisters eating a meal- things like that.
“Where are you now?” asked the old woman, her wrinkled face crinkled up in thought. Sukhailah just looked at her, unsure of what it was she wanted to know.
“What do you mean?”
“Here, now, where are you?”
“You mean, Shihr?” she asked, naming the town we live in on the coast of the Arabian Sea.
“Yes.” The woman nodded. “Do they know that there is a place here called Shihr, over in America?”
After Sukhailah related this conversation to me, I got to thinking about place, and how we see ourselves in the world. A few years ago very few Americans had ever heard of Yemen- yet it is an ancient world unto itself, full of beauty and alive with history and a vibrant culture all of its own. We had heard of it because there was a scholar here, Sheikh Muqbil ibn Haadee al-Waadi’ee, whose efforts in teaching and spreading Islaam were gaining attention amongst the Muslims in the West. But when we chose to move here, we found ourselves explaining again and again where exactly it was, and what was there to make us give up almost everything we had to go there.
And now here- to try to explain to a Yemeni the sheer size and diversity of America is almost impossible. You tell them it takes days to drive across, and they can’t get their minds around it. They tell you they have an uncle or sister or distant cousin in Detroit, and ask if you know them- as if you must know them, being as you are from the same country. They ask about what tribe we are from, and don’t understand at all how we can live without that tie which underpins whole communities and societies here.
We always seem to see ourselves as a part of the place we come from, and we expect others to understand the importance and nature of that place, somehow or other. How could it be that a person in Shihr has never heard of Minneapolis? How can it be that a person in Minneapolis has never heard of Shihr? Place is such a bedrock of our personalities- to try to relate to others without relying on it for context and understanding is almost impossible.
So here we are, in this place, and when asked where we are from, we all say America- even little Maryam and Mu’aadh, who have never seen it, and the other children, who have lived in Yemen for most of their lives and consider themselves almost Yemeni. I wonder at the ties that bind us to that place, and I feel the tug of home every day, when drifting off to sleep in the hot, muggy darkness of night, or when some sight or smell brings me a breath of home. I wonder, as I look out at the stars and search for Orion or some other constellation that anchored me to place as a child, if I’ll ever stop feeling this call of home.