In the late 1990s, my husband and I moved to Guadalajara, Mexico as he was attending the local medical school. In our early twenties, California-raised children of Iraqi immigrants, we were both curious and delighted when we heard about a Tacos Arabes stand that had opened a short drive from our apartment.
Our first visit, we discovered Izzat, the young Lebanese owner, standing behind a small counter, ready with a hearty welcome, thrilled to see his newly-opened restaurant so full. We’d come with a group of friends from the medical school, still dressed in their school uniform white scrubs, and we stood in a pack, studying his menu in photographs taped to the wall, the rich smell of roasted meat and cooking oil heavy in the air. On one side were his “tacos,” his chicken, beef shawarma, and falafel sandwiches. On the other, he had kibbeh, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, lebne, hummus, babaghanoush, and baklawa.
My husband and I were pleasantly surprised by our falafel sandwiches. Izzat’s falafel was uncommonly good, crispy on the outside with a soft and doughy, green inside, rather than the dry and brittle variety sold elsewhere. He even had my favorite kind of turnip pickles, crunchy, tangy, and colored bright pink with beets. I carried mine with me from the Middle Eastern markets in California, but these were much better, firm and fresh.
I wanted to ask him where he’d gotten his pickles, but I hesitated over which language to use. He clearly spoke both English and Spanish with ease. Yet, I wanted to introduce myself in Arabic. I’d long admired the way that switch to Arabic created an instant friendship, calling for a sort of insider’s service, but I had not yet learned how to bend the Iraqi dialect I’d grown up with into a more universally-understood Arabic, nor did I have enough exposure to Lebanese Arabic to understand his. This left me with only a smattering of words I felt comfortable using, Marhaba for hello. Tislem eedik to praise his hands for his cooking. Ma’asalama to say goodbye.
As we took care of the bill, I introduced my husband and myself in English. I told him our parents were from Iraq, and when he asked if we spoke Arabic, I said, “Shweyya,” which means “a little” but felt like an apology and an admission of failure.
“Where did you find your pickles?” I asked, again returning to English.
“El lifit?” he said, pointing to the brightly pink colored turnips.
I nodded, noting the Lebanese dialect’s word for the vegetable we called shelghum, and he proceeded to tell me how easy it was, a little vinegar, garlic, salt and beets for color.
It was an incredibly brief conversation, but it nagged at me the rest of the afternoon. In the car on the way home, I asked myself, Why did I always jump to shweyya? Why did I never try to just talk? I knew how to say, “Where did you find your pickles in Arabic?” Or did I? Did Lebanese people use the word torshi for pickles?
Later at home, that simple dialogue again popped into my mind. This time, I translated the entire conversation into Arabic—in my mind only, of course. I harbored the fanciful wish that one day, with enough of these silent, mental rehearsals, fluent Arabic would simply hatch out of my mouth, perfectly-accented and error-free.
But that afternoon, this translation exercise left me with a sense of despair. I was on my own in this world now, a married woman, a young adult making my way in a different country, but I did not become Arab enough when I’d had the chance. I’d squandered my childhood at home, my opportunity to practice speaking Arabic with my parents and grandparents, and entered independent adulthood insufficiently prepared to carry on my culture.
Now that we were living in Mexico, it seemed I’d never be able to right that wrong. Here I was spending all my time studying and speaking Spanish. And although there was no actual contest between the two languages, I felt as if Spanish was winning. Days went by without my hearing any Arabic, and I hesitated to speak in Arabic in a way that I did not with Spanish. Spanish was not a language I was expected to have merely picked up from hearing it spoken around me. I’d had the advantage of teachers, of progressing through planned-out levels that covered all the verb tenses and major topics of vocabulary. But more importantly, Spanish wasn’t a language I felt as if I should have known or that I’d let my grandparents down for not knowing better. For the most part, speaking Spanish was a shame-free, guilt-free experience. Even when I made mistakes, people were mostly congratulatory of whatever level of Spanish I knew, but I only disappointed them with my limited knowledge of Arabic. Non-Arabs looked at me puzzled and said things like, “I thought you were from there.” “Oh, you didn’t grow up speaking to your parents?” Other Arabs scolded me for not putting more value on learning my mother tongue and slipped into mini-lectures about how important it was to learn.
It was these scolding from other Arabs that were the hardest to take. I didn’t need anyone to tell me how important it was to care about my language and culture. I cared. I cared so much it hurt, and seeking out restaurants like Izzat’s or cooking Iraqi food at home offered me little comfort. In some ways, it only compounded my shame. Anyone could go to a Lebanese restaurant and order a shawarma. Anyone could buy a cook book and attempt the recipes inside. Food was accessible, available to anyone with a mouth and an interest, but language was a code that granted entry to a special club. It was a way to greet someone and for them to instantly know you shared a common world.
But still I cooked as many traditional foods as I could because it was all I had to make my apartment smell like home, to make myself forget even for just a moment that a border separated me from my family. I’d seen my mother make marga, the typical Iraqi tomato-based stew, day after day, year after year. As if by rote, I too, chopped onions, fried them golden brown, added tomato paste and a spoon of tamarind, and left my stews to simmer with a meat and a vegetable. I put on the basmati rice that I’d brought over in my suitcase and waited for a golden crust to form on the bottom before flipping the pot to turn out a perfectly-formed dome. On special occasions, I reached for our vial of saffron and colored a small bowl of rice sunny yellow, a burst of yolk to spoon atop a platter of white.
However, this illusion of home, created through smell and taste, was fragile and easily ruptured. It could be the sight of my neighbor’s maid in her pink and white uniform, brushing a straw broom against the sidewalk. Or, in the distance, the call of a street vendor offering steaming hot elotes shaved off the cob and served with cream, lime, and chile. Or discovering that the power had suddenly been cut off, or the gas tank emptied, right in the middle of cooking dinner, and I’d find myself making an obvious observation, that mere food simmering on a cooktop could never make here there.
I experienced this sense of disorientation, born of the striving for home and the evidence of its unreachable distance, without any resentment. It felt like a necessary education, as if it was my destiny. My parents and my husband’s parents had endured so much more, arriving in the United States in the early 70s, trying to forge a life oceans away from their families, with only prohibitively expensive long-distance phone calls and air mail letters to connect them to their loved ones. This temporary sojourn in Mexico was my chance to feel some of the displacement that dogged them, for me to experience the profound vulnerability of being an adult with a child’s vocabulary.
Growing up in California, I’d straddled two sides of a hyphen, Arab and American, but living in Mexico muddied my entire notion of a dual identity. As a child, I’d heard my parents and their friends tell stories of the street vendors in their hometowns, the roof-top decks, the multi-generational family lunches, the elaborate weddings with women decked out in formal wear, the patriarchal organization of their families, and the corruption in the government. For better or worse, so much of those cultural elements were already here. The dichotomy that defined my life would have been completely different had Mexico been on the other end of my hyphen, if my parents had immigrated here rather than the US. There may not have been a significant Middle Eastern population in Guadalajara, but there was still ample evidence of their presence. There was another longer-standing Tacos Arabes stall on the opposite side of town, a rather large restaurant named El Libanes, and even a small mosque with converts to Islam, many of them having sought out the Islamic center because they had memories of ancestors who’d arrived generations before from the Middle East. Most of these people were indistinguishable from the Mexican population now, and I wondered if it was easier to let yourself be absorbed into this culture, if there was simply less to resist.
Last summer, as our twentieth wedding anniversary approached, I got an itch to return to Guadalajara. I could think of no better way to mark this rite of passage than to nod to the girl I’d once been. A girl suddenly cut from the tether of her family and adrift in the world, to celebrate how far we’d come as a couple in the city where our lives together started. I was not looking for any sort of reckoning with the languages in my life. I was done wrestling with the Arabic language. I spoke it to whatever ability I had now. I let myself make mistakes and be corrected. And, my Spanish had deteriorated so much over the years that I understood even more clearly how unreasonable my expectations for Arabic had been. Languages are hungry animals, and now that we had settled back in California, I simply did not have enough daily interactions in either language to keep them healthy and well-fed.
We booked the same hotel we stayed in when we first landed in Guadalajara all those years ago, a high rise building overlooking Guadalajara’s grand roundabout, the Glorietta Minerva. While this return to our first beginnings had seemed like such a good idea when planning the trip, I’d forgotten how nostalgia trips conjure up the darker memories that the passing years had tucked away. From the hotel window, my children delighted in our view of the bustling roundabout at night, but I took in the busy streets and wondered, how had I made my way here? How had I navigated these streets and found the words I needed to communicate? How was I braver then than I was now?
I found myself overcome with sympathy and tenderness for the loneliness whose memory now returned to me with an unexpected force. Which then carried with it memories of how fiercely I’d berated myself for following my husband instead of staying in California to go on to graduate school. For years I told myself I wasn’t accomplishing anything by being in this city. I wish I’d known that later in life I would remain profoundly grateful for everything I’d learned during this uncomfortable adventure.
The next morning, we headed downtown in our small rental car. Crammed on either side of the backseat was our tall fourteen-year-old son and our six-year-old son in his booster seat; our twelve-year-old daughter was squished in between. Even though we now had Google maps on our side, we still missed streets and bickered over the directions. My normally patient husband implored me in almost desperate tone, “Please don’t just repeat what street it’s saying to turn on. There aren’t always streets signs. I need you to look at the map. Tell me where we are going on the map.”
His exasperated rebuke transported me back to the arguments we used to have twenty years ago, trying to navigate ourselves through these same poorly marked streets with a well-worn map. I’d forgotten how rattled these drives would leave us both, but time had not made me a better navigator. When our oldest offered to hold the phone, I was relieved to not only be free of my duties but to be free with my thoughts, with the regret that was pounding me. I could have picked anywhere to go on vacation, but I chose to come here and take all the memories that had settled so neatly in mind and shake them up as if my head were a giant snow globe.
The following day, we set out for lunch at Izzat’s. I sat in the backseat this time, grateful that my son was still willing to assume the role of family navigator. I wondered if this visit would also taint another set of fond memories. The weather did not portend anything good. Rain spilled from the skies, turning the gutters to shallow creeks. There was nowhere to park on the narrow one-way street out front, and after we circled twice, we decided my husband would stop at the corner to let us out while he looked for a spot. I fiddled with an umbrella too small to shelter us all from the pounding rain, but I tried to cover the youngest, at least. We scurried up the steps to the covered patio, and I caught sight of Izzat behind the counter. With the exception of the middle-aged pounds we’d all gained and a few grey hairs at the temples, he looked the same. Nothing had changed on the inside either. He still had the same tables and chairs, the same plastic plates, but the menu in-photographs on the wall was different. It was now a printed graphic rather than the pictures that I remembered, and the name on top of the menu said Shawarma, Comida Libanesa. I wondered if his place had ever been called Tacos Arabes or if that was how it was known to us.
The continuity was comforting, but I did not know where we’d sit. The three tables inside were all occupied, one taken by a couple, and two that had been pushed together for a larger family. The rain continued to come down hard, splashing us with cold, wet drops that made the youngest plead to leave. I was tempted to grant his request. I did not want to eat lunch, cold and uncomfortable. But then Izzat nodded in my direction, without a pause or a glimmer of recognition, and said in Spanish, that he’d be right with us, sending over his kitchen helper to pull together a table and chairs on the patio.
Now that we’d been acknowledged, we could not leave. I sat down and pulled my youngest onto my lap, wrapping him up in my coat to protect him from the occasional splash and drip. All the while I eyed the family at the larger table inside, hoping they’d leave so we could take cover inside.
Izzat came to our table to take our order. This time, I said in Arabic, “Do you remember us? My husband went to the medical school here many years ago, and we came back to show our kids.”
He cocked his head to the side, as if trying to place us.
I offered him our names and a little more explanation, “We were here the year you first opened, and then came back one year, when I was pregnant this one.” I gestured to our oldest, and Izzat nodded as if it was all coming back to him.
I could not tell if the memory was genuine or fabricated, but I appreciated his willingness to play along. He followed-up with the kind of welcome you give a long-lost friend and offered the same welcome to my husband when he bounded up the steps, followed by an extra little nod as if to say, “Of course. It’s you guys.” When he served us our falafel sandwiches, I told him that we always tell people the best falafel is in Mexico. He had a quizzical expression, but thankfully this memory held true, as well. The food was good, exactly how we remembered it, but still our youngest would not eat, troubled by the rain and the cold. The family seated at the tables inside was still chatting over their empty plates. I willed them to leave.
But they did not leave, and before long, we were done with our sandwiches and ready to leave ourselves. We paid our bill and asked Izzat to take a picture with us. He turned to the father at the chatty family’s table and asked if he’d do us the favor. Then in Arabic, he shared with us that this gentleman’s grandfather had been Lebanese, as well, that he brought his family here often.
I would have never suspected it—I’d watched them all through lunch and they seemed like such a typical Mexican family, speaking in Spanish, calling their children by Spanish names. This man was exactly where my children’s generation would land in our family’s immigration pattern, and although I had made some peace with the Arabic I knew, I still did not want this. My grandchildren completely absorbed into the dominant culture with not a word of Arabic left on their lips, indistinguishable from the rest of the population. I felt a tug to try harder, do more. When I got home, I had to find an Arabic tutor or enroll the kids in a class. I had to start speaking more Arabic at home and ask their grandparents to do the same.
To my surprise, the gentleman then turned to us and asked us to take a picture of him and his family with Izzat, as well. I snapped their photograph and felt that desperate tug release. So much of how and when we assimilated was beyond our control—it all came down to the communities we had around us, our ability to travel to our native countries. This man no longer spoke any Arabic and his children had Spanish names, but he was here, drawn to memories of what he ate at his grandparents’ house, bringing his children to eat this food with him, marking the outing with a photograph.
People had been moving about the earth since the beginning of time, changing each other’s foods, languages, architecture, and art. This dissolution of one culture into another was as natural and fundamentally human as eating. (Like food, our ancestors’ languages and cultures were digested by our bodies, absorbed into our blood streams, but they nourished us all the same.)
We said our goodbyes. My husband ran down the street in the pouring rain to retrieve our car. As soon as he pulled up, Izzat directed him into the covered driveway of the auto shop next door. He then grabbed an umbrella from behind the counter and added another layer of shelter over our heads. When he opened the car doors for the kids and helped our youngest with his seatbelt, my heart warmed at the chivalrous hospitality that was so familiar, so unmistakably Middle-Eastern. We bid him a warm Ma’asalama. I hoped that of all the traditions we stood to lose to assimilation, these generous gestures would find a way to stay.