“As a refugee, she leaves the familiar and safe homeground to venture into unknown and possibly dangerous terrain.”-Gloria Anzaldua
“Ma’salam!” I said, leaving my Barbie doll underneath the bunk bed and running to catch the ride to the airport.
“Bring the doll with you!” my sister yelled from outside.
“No,” I said, “I’ll come back for her.”
My five-year-old self had spent many months diligently saving money to buy this doll: I had saved money from Eid celebrations and from relatives who visited my family. But at that moment, I just knew that I would be back though to get my doll.
As a child in Kenya, the adults in the family had spent months talking about moving to the United States. The children talked about what would happen: we’d have a red carpet stretched out for us, there would be a fridge, and lots of chocolate and candy. My parents, worried that we’d change when we came here, had us promise that we would continue to be dutiful children who would respect them.
My first memory of being in America is landing at the airport in New York and having an agent from the airport waving at me. We had just been allowed in because we had all the necessary shots and tests taken prior to arriving here. We were then taken from the airport to a hotel. This hotel didn’t fail to live up to our fantasies: there was a red carpet and lots of well-polished granite, something that I was very unfamiliar with. We also had room-service, which we were very delighted about.
Of course, there were many things that we had to get used to that first night. For example, my parents tried to turn on the shower for us but they didn’t know which knob was for “cold’ and which was “hot.” So, we had spent a considerable amount of time just playing with the knobs, until, like Goldilocks, we found the right temperature for a shower. We also spent a lot of time just looking at the snow which had covered all of New York. It was beautiful and it was weather that was made just for sleeping in under a blanket.
“I stand at the edge where earth touches ocean
where the two overlap
a gentle coming together
at other times and places a violent clash”
“Go back to your country,” my neighbor’s child screamed from the comfort of her mother’s car. Their mom had just rolled the window down so that I could clearly hear what was being said. 9/11 had just happened and I had chosen to wear the hijab a year earlier so I could easily be identified as a Muslim, or for those who didn’t know better, an Arab.
When I told my parents about this incident and others that would follow, they asked my sisters and I, “Do you still want to wear the hijab knowing how dangerous it is in this political climate?”, we said that we would like to continue wearing the hijab. After a few weeks, my parents decided that since I walked to school, I could no longer wear the hijab until things had died down.
But things didn’t die down.
As a teenager and young adult, I came to see myself through the lens of others. A woman of the desert. The hijabi with sandy brown skin. Rather than finding a mirror being held up to me, a clear reflection of who I thought I was, I, instead, saw blocks of brick, all with the words “brown” screaming back at me. Only as an adult in college would I learn that identity is a fleeting concept that’s constantly being redefined personally and socially.
Here I was, a biracial Black woman, being classified by my hijab as an Arab or South Asian. I did, indeed, have Arab blood, but so did many coastal East Africans. That is, how could I explain the sandy brown skin of some East Africans? My mother’s grayish-brown eyes? My siblings varying hair textures and complexions? The features that made me and my family the Other. The features that, the post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha said about in talking about whiteness, made me “almost the same” but in this case, not quite black enough.
But I quickly learned that my experiences weren’t unique, that like Ruben Martinez says about the American West, where everything is possible, every identity supposedly changeable, “New Mexico, to me, was a place where difference became desire and our desire was consummated on a landscape that relieved us of difference, welcoming us back to Eden. Even then I knew it was a lie, but I indulged the magical mystery tour because I was in love. The America of my childhood dreams wasn’t just red carpets and room-service, it was a place where people rolled down windows and hurled insults, a place where I would learn about myself as an object.
“Volunteers are beginning to reconstruct the marshes just as I am trying to reconstruct my life […] I remember the country that I come from and how it informs my life”-Terry Tempest Williams
Finding Meaning in The Machine
“You have PTSD,” the therapist said. He paused and then continued, “You also have schizophrenia.”
“What?!” I said, shocked. I felt like I had been coaxed into coming into his office with the possibility of having something “mild” like anxiety or social anxiety disorder. I could accept PTSD, but this diagnosis of schizophrenia was far from what I had expected or wanted in my life.
“No,” I repeated, “I don’t hear voices and I don’t see things.”
“I’ve been through a lot,” I said, “Being sexually abused as a child by a neighbor in Kenya really changed everything for me. I think that people are trying to help me I said. They really care.”
He looked at me and said, “Who’s they?”
“People,” I said.
“What you’re experiencing,” he said, “is called delusions and ideas of reference.”
Shocked and afraid, I began researching schizophrenia. I asked lots of questions, but I also had moments when I felt smug and sure that my therapist was totally wrong. When I slowly started to realize that my delusions weren’t real, I started to feel like my brain was falling apart. No matter how much my therapist tried to remind me that I was more than my diagnosis, I knew that things had completely changed. I could no longer trust my mind. There was, according to what I was hearing, something wrong with it.
The borders between reality and fiction had sometimes merged in my mind and like the term schizophrenia suggest, there was also a break from reality. I thought about borders for a long time after my diagnosis and sat with the discomfort of being part of something so complex, strange, and disconnected from the terrain of normalcy, of being ordinary.
But this wasn’t A Beautiful Mind, and I wasn’t about to embrace my diagnosis as part of myself. I wanted to fight, prove to myself and others that I was not a schizophrenic.
As time went by, I would learn that I had bipolar disorder and that while my world had changed, it was also expanding.