In بور سعيد there is a pedestal missing a statue.
A tall concrete beginning with no end.
What crumbling culminated in this break?
On my first and only trip to Egypt I walked to this beginning with my younger cousins. They stood and hung on the chains surrounding the pedestal, I captured their young selves in a picture. I had no idea myself as to what these chains circled. What history left off here.
Over a decade later, reading the final chapters of The Open Door by Latifa al-Zayyat, a fragment of this history found its way to me.
The translation by Marilyn Booth describes members of the Egyptian resistance to British imperialism placing dynamite on the statue of French diplomat turned Suez Canal designer Ferdinand de Lesseps. How the initial blast did not destroy the statue, so more dynamite was placed, until only the concrete base remained.
This base is now all that remains. My cousins and I walked around it in 2010 and it’s still there today. An absence that is also full of history.
I only learned about this history a decade later, reading a novel by an author who had lived through the tumultuous times from the late 40s to the 70s in Egypt. The gaps in my own education become more apparent the older I get, particularly, my knowledge of Egyptian history.
As I was reading the Open Door I realized, not only would Latifa have been alive during the times she was describing, my dad would have been a young boy. His siblings would have been teenagers or young adults.
How had I not heard anything about any of this? It was one thing to not have mastered Arabic since my mom didn’t keep up her practice of it, making my dad the sole speaker in our home, but it was something else that the immediacy and personal experience within documented historical moments was never discussed or mentioned..
In this way, my siblings and I ultimately missed out on big parts of our dad’s history and therefore, our own history.
Since history is a major component of heritage, many things seem to add up to a negative sum.
While I know that a parent should not have to be a culture bearer, should not have to be a transmitter of all things, it is unfair to expect that of someone who is also figuring out how to be a parent, working tirelessly to support a large family. It still felt searingly disturbing that more “recent” histories, of the 50s, 60s and 70s could still be lost, entirely through their not being mentioned.
In our قلبون there are diasporic dissonances.
And also attempts
To make bridges out of breaks.
Language was something I had to seek out. I was the one in college courses who people would ask “why are you even in this class, you’re Arab, don’t you speak Arabic?”
My linguistic life was forever spent stumbling between bravery and fear. Between attempting to speak while having no confidence in my pronunciation. Parts of me were compelled by seeing all the white kids around me, with no ties to Arabic beyond seeking jobs in “national security,” who were excelling.
If there could be space in learning for folks with no connections beyond future employment prospects to this language, there had to be space for me. I’d learn by trying to have tiny conversations with my aunts when they called to talk to my dad.
To this day, I struggle. I am an assistant organizer of a small group of folks who meet virtually to practice Arabic once a month (or whenever we can). I try to embrace and feel satiated by the joy I feel when learning new words. Even if my pronunciation never reaches perfection. Even if some days feel like a masquerade. I like to remember that while a zero sum feels at times like an impossible starting point, zero is also a grounded place from which growth can begin. Zero can be a starting line. Zero can be a beginning instead of a signpost of lack.
Those whose parents encompass different histories, different first languages- we have chances to learn and discover. This is not to idealize the mixed heritage experience, because it is a challenge. This is to acknowledge there is more of a complex spectrum than simply ‘UN babies’ or the “tragic mixed” binary. If we are lucky, and our parents share some of their histories with us, we can acknowledge the gift. If we are not fortunate in those same ways we can rest assured, knowing there are plenty of other humans who learn their own histories from books, and who cook the recipes they yearn for from YouTube tutorials.
Turns out many of us are starting to realize that healing is a meandering and not-so linear road. And zeros can only add up to what we put into them.
Pronounced “sifr” meaning Zero – صفر
بور سعيد – Pronounced “bur sai-eed’ meaning Port Said – A city in northern Egypt overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and Suez Canal.
قلبون – Pronounced “kalboon” meaning hearts
This piece was edited and finalized during the 2023 conflict and refugee crisis in Sudan and the genocidal attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. As a daughter of the Egyptian diaspora, the interconnected histories of Egypt, Sudan and Palestine are not lost on me. I encourage you to learn about the situations (check out eyesonsudan.net and Afikra on YouTube), contact your elected officials and let them know that genocidal actions are an unacceptable use of tax dollars or donate to causes like Sudanese American Physicians Association and Medical Aid for Palestine.
Mary Barghout is a multidisciplinary artist living in Minneapolis. Her experiences as a mixed heritage Arab American woman are often where she draws inspiration, exasperation and strength from. You can connect with her via snail email at Mary.email@example.com.