I was running in the sunlight. I remember that vividly, my skirt whipping in the breeze as I ran down the dust road in the buttery early morning light. My sisters were racing right beside me, and I had my doll clutched in one arm.
I was five years old, and we were on our way to morning lessons in Ma’bar, Yemen. I don’t remember a lot from then- the dust roads, the way the sun rose over the edge of our walled roof, the stained glass window with the name of Allah on it in red glass-but I remember strangely, sharply, running down the road in the morning.
We’ve been in America for nearly four years now, watching Yemen’s bloody ruin from across oceans-the homesickness never goes away.
Yemen isn’t even technically my home. I am American, about as American (in blood, anyway) as it gets, my ancestors Irish and German, African and Czech. I’ve spent a total of eight years in the U.S and about ten years in Yemen, so maybe that’s why; why my heart is a maze of dusty roads and the sunset adhan and barefoot children, why- when I can’t even speak Arabic anymore- hearing a San’aa accent touches me still, and why sometimes I weep for everything I had in childhood-had in Yemen- and lost. Why I really don’t mind when someone says I look Arab. Why all it takes is looking at old pictures of Yemen to bring tears to my eyes.
I didn’t want to leave. Warplanes thundered over in the weeks before we left, and protests were a daily occurrence. (Once my little brother was taking out the garbage and was overrun by a crowd of protesters, chanting the separatist slogan of the South.) I remember talking to my older brother on the phone one last time before we left. He was in a village under siege; they were running out of food, and as I tried to tell him how much I would miss him, I could hear the explosions in the background. Sounds of war.
After I got off the phone I collapsed in my bedroom and cried.
When we arrived in the JFK International Airport we were run ragged by two days of traveling. It was December, and out in the bitter cold everything was so different I was numb. My mother slowly folded up her coat and placed it in my baby sister’s pillowcase to nurse her- a little bit of home for my bewildered little sister. I looked down at my pale pink backpack, lumpy from being searched too many times to count, too many airports to count, and tried to think- I was too tired, exhausted by loss and jet lag.They were questioning my father when my older sister fainted from exhaustion.
It wasn’t the way I had imagined ‘coming back to America.’
I want to go back sometime. Maybe as an aid worker or a teacher, to help and slowly restitch Yemen’s torn seams. It’s not a dream likely to come true any time soon. Next best would be a different Gulf country, someplace where I could form memories new.
I was still running, gripping the doll, when I fell. Dust flew, the doll flying to land ignominiously on the road, and I stared a moment into the sunlight.
That was like Yemen, running with my dreams tucked under my arm. Coming back was falling, my dreams suddenly sailing out of reach. Gone.
Sometimes I feel like I’m still falling.