2017 Barrett Winner
4th Place Bashair Pasha
In Egypt, there’s a popular nationalistic song my mom used to play around the house when I was a kid called what translates to "Egypt is My Mother." It’s patriotic, sung in a serious, deep baritone, and uniformed kids in school listen to it sometimes after singing the national anthem. Whenever I heard it playing through the tinny speakers in our small Chicago apartment as a kid, there was a line in it that captured my imagination out of all the lyrics: Even my skin is the h ue of wheat. I never considered this might mean to have tan, North African skin. My mind always conjured the image of wheat colored skin as something much more special. To me, it meant golden skin, it was skin that was kissed by the sun, even in darkness. I always imagined this as I lay my back on our cheap, scratchy carpet listening to old Arabic women crooning through the radio.
I leave my homeland at the tender age of three and come to America, and for so many years of my life I spend my time trying to truly leave my country behind me. I watch American movies, and dread talking to my relatives back home. Two times a year I get handed a phone, and try to have conversations in a language I rarely speak with a grandmother or an uncle, people who have fond memories of the day you were born, the way you took your first steps, and I try to connect to them. I don't know how. In school, I am one of the two colored girls, and I try to avoid the required questions someone like me gets asked in a predominantly white area. I am ten years old, and I don't want to answer. I always pretend I don't know.
When I turn seventeen, I go back to Egypt for the first time in fourteen years, and find it waiting for me in all its glory: a grand old lady, with a history so complex I cannot begin to understand it. As I step out of the airport and into Cairo, I am overcome with a desperation. I feel the earth beneath me warping itself to make space for me, like my footsteps are softer here. I wish, so unexpectedly, that I had never left. That I had never become a stranger to a place I pushed away, but had never left me.
I meet my family again, and hear the same stories I heard over the phone for so many years, only now I am not yelling over the phone trying to comprehend someone as their voice cuts out every two words. Instead, my grandmother is holding my hand, and telling me about the day of my birth. Instead, my uncle is taking me to the Nile, the river everyone in my village calls the ocean. We sit and watch the women washing their dishes on the shore, and the young kids skipping rocks. I meet a boy, and I learn more about what I have left behind, and try to forget that I'll be leaving soon.
He stands tall, looking like six feet of eternal sunshine and I am the ground beneath his feet. He gives so much, and I take and take. He takes my breath away. His fingertips leave fingerprints on the curves of my wrist, and I can think of nothing but tracing the small galaxy of scattered freckles across his cheeks. I can barely see them where we stand outside the Cairo airport, faces washed out in the warm glow of the old street lamps. We're lucky tonight, that the electricity is running. We lean against a railing outside, waiting for my flight to be called. It is humid, but the night is incredibly calm. I ignore a sadness I know is within me: I know this is the last time I will be in Egypt for a very long time, but he does not. I want to tell him. Instead, we play silly games to pass the time until I must go. We can’t sit inside, the security guard standing outside the doors tells us, because there is no room in the airport. Through the glass doors we can see that all the seats are empty. I want to be angry. He laughs, because being a second class citizen in his own country is something he's grown used to, and I am still learning. He dares me, childishly, to ask the guard in English why we can’t wait inside. I do, and the guard stumbles in his reply to me, surprised at my fluent English, another reminder I am not really from here. I don’t notice in the moment. I am caught up instead in the awe with which he watches my lips form words that are foreign to him, and I try not to forget what I’m saying.
I tie knot after knot within myself every time I look at him, and I realize I am in the middle of this thing before I know it has begun. Even after this is over, after I have left and I assume he has forgotten, he is a poem I am constantly changing; he is the ghost heart of the empty space next to me, he is, time after time, the pen I put to paper and put back down without writing. He is.
In the small second I hear my flight called on the loudspeaker, I panic. He turns to look at me and I pretend I don't see, looking straight forward. In that second, there is something small in me, something small and naïve and bare that stops me from saying anything. It climbs up my throat, crawling slowly until it reaches my tonsils. It has fish hooks for fingers, and they sink into the soft of my throat. I never say what I want to. I say goodbye, kiss him on his cheek, and the world reels. Maybe it is just me. Years later, I begin to forget, slowly. I forget that the best times of my teenage years are in my memories of Egypt with him. I slowly lose pieces of the memories I have: Arabic poetry scribbled quickly on torn notebook paper, pressed into my palm quietly, shyly. Waking up at 5am to sit outside the bread bakery, watching the world wake up. Late night adventures on the Nile. It is all with him. There is something precocious about being a teenager. There is a knowledge in that age young children have yet to learn, and adults end up forgetting, that I realize I am beginning too, to forget. Today, I am reminded sometimes, so softly, in flashes and razor sharp moments, of Egypt. A broken curbside will be overgrown with grass, or a street will seem to smell of mango, or the light from the sun will hit the side of a building in a certain way, and I am reminded. I wish to never forget.