All We Know by Latifa Ayad
My father gave me my mother’s last name. Kirsch. A good, white-sounding name. I inherited nothing from him. I have gray eyes, light brown hair, skin that burns easily on trips to the gulf. They named me Chi, for the Cochiti pueblo, where my parents first met as part of a tour group. They didn’t name me Zara, my grandmother’s name. Zara was supposed to be an apology, because he missed his mother’s funeral, and because he was never going back to Libya, not after he tasted freedom, the sweat that beaded on my mother’s upper lip in New Mexico, and the fry bread they served at the pueblo, hot, drizzled in honey.
When the first plane hit the towers, they didn’t have the heart to tell Shadaydah that they saw a hijabi tackled in the airport, or that they had named his granddaughter Chi Kirsch instead of Zara Al-Bouri. My grandfather still calls me Zara when he phones.
“How are you?”
“Hamdullah,” I reply. “Keef halik?”
“Good, good,” he says. I hand the phone to my father. This is all we know of each other’s languages.
My father only answers the phone when I make him. The home phone exists for Shadaydah to call on, yet whenever it rings, my father shakes his head, mouthing, “Not home.” But when I hear the sad resolve in Shadaydah’s voice, as if he knows my father is standing three feet from me, I say, “Na’am,” to Shadaydah’s question of, “Baba?” then yell, “Dad! Phone!” as if he were across the house, giving him time to glare and nervously flatten his hair before answering.
When I’m eight my father tells me that we’re going to Italy, just he and I. “Your grandfather got a visa.”
“Why can’t he just get a visa here?”
“Because the U.S. hates everyone.”
I pack carefully, long, loose skirts, things I think make me look Muslim. I stand before the mirror, tucking my hair behind my ears, untucking it. Do I look like Zara? I know this is impossible, because I’m the spitting image of my mother. Still, I wish my father had a photograph on display, so I could wear my hair like Zara did, or practice her smile.
When the big fight happens, my father leaves and takes Italy with him. The next time Shadaydah calls, and says, “Baba?” I say, “Not here. Not here,” and then once more, “Not here,” hoping he understands that I mean “not here” forever.
Still, Shadaydah continues to call. We speak softly to each other, never in shouts like my father always did when he talked with Libya. There is no need to hear our words, only our inflections. It sounds always like he is clearing his throat, and perhaps to him I sound like I am humming, from all the times I said, “Mmhm,” and “Hmm,” as if I could understand him.
Latifa Ayad is currently an MFA candidate at Florida State University. Her short-short, “Arabic Lesson,” was published in audio format for Fresh-Picked Prose on WFSU’s National Public Radio.