I never knew that cold could burn. It was a wild wind and my fingers were numb and clumsy. I fumbled with the sheet of paper, turning the page over and over. It was little more than tatters now, covered in smeared ink. My mother wrote all the instructions for me on this page and I held it in the palm of my hand since the day I had left home. Now it seemed the words had dissolved in the ship’s mist and the heat of my skin. I stood on the pavement, still feeling the pulse of the waves in my legs. I stared at the shell-curves of her Arabic letters, intricate as nautilus chambers.

I had forgotten how to read Arabic.

I remembered sitting with my mother over an old primer, the smell of the pages like dust on a moth’s back. I remembered the wing of candle wax, when there was flame to read by. I remembered that I was supposed to study medicine: that was the plan.

I had forgotten my mother’s name.

The cab driver thrust his hand out the window and I saw pinpoints of sky whirl over his jacket and melt on his gloves. He took the paper out of my hand, turned it over, shook it, and said, “Naah, naah, this ain’t right!” As if there was another, correct paper somewhere inside my dress. I touched my ring.

But the door to the crowded cab popped open and there were hands pulling me in, the smell of rich leather shoes and stale breath, the whole car rocking with wind. “There!” The driver swung around to face me, his big arm over the seat, a wind-burnt, glossy face. “See, right there!” He pointed to tiny letters written in one corner of the page, West 121 and Amsterdam Avenue. I didn’t know who had written those words.

A whole family from another boat was already packed inside the cab. A floss-haired woman squeezed next to me pulled something out of a waxy paper in her bag. “Hello, hello, hello!” she cried. She patted my knee. Oil seeped through the paper and the spicy smell went directly to the back of my head. She fished a tiny pocketknife from her cleavage and shaved off slices of meat. Everyone took a piece, including the driver.

I put the meat between my teeth and the taste dizzied me. I could hardly chew; the spices and fat were dense and rolled on my tongue, hot as flesh. The woman wanted to feed me; she passed slices of the meat along with scraps of bread torn from another parcel in her bag. I chewed mindlessly, watching New York open up. I saw children run around corners and down strips of alleyways. The buildings closed up the sky like a clutch purse.

I was suddenly sick. The cab pulled over so I could regurgitate meat into the gutter. The woman climbed out beside me and held my head while I retched. I felt her cool palm on my forehead.

The sky burns with its fever-cold. I have never seen a city before. We arrive at West 121 and Amsterdam Avenue. Buildings the color of dried blood, the sky quaking with this weather that no one has explained to me, windows, steps the color of ashes. A railing that leads below the earth. I get out; a hand waves through the blurred glass and the cab rushes away. I don’t know where I am. The paper has melted. The sky flies into my face so I can’t see, can barely breathe. The only sound is that of my own body — or is it the street, dull and steady as an anvil?

A door opens. I am confused enough to think for a moment that I see myself standing in the doorway, but the woman smiles and says, “New girl. Hello.” Then I see the plaque by the door: Mdm. Saltress Prop. Boarding For Ladies. The young woman comes outside in sandals and bare arms. She touches my face and says, “Look. Snow.”

It turns out she is only one of the boarders; I lose track of her in the gray shadows as soon as we enter the house. Daughter of the friend of a friend, Mdm. Saltress is straight and still as a broomstick. Her eyes are black darts, her hands white as lamp shades. She emerges, it seems, from behind a tall chair, and fixes me with those eyes. “Oh yes, the new girl. I don’t suppose you speak French.”

I stare at my shoes; they are cracking. “Only Arabic and English,” I whisper.

“Well, we’ll have you out of here soon enough,” she says, and turning like the whisk of a whip, she is gone.

Shukri Sikoon, the baker-barber in our refugee camp, had a cousin from Lebanon whose daughter had sailed to America and opened a boarding house for young women. Despite the fact that my mother refused to marry him, Shukri kindly contacted this relation and arranged for me to stay there. It was dark and humid with piped-in heat. It stood five stories high and its rooms were filled with girls from India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Korea, 50 or more at a time. We waited as men pinched into suits came to look us over. Sometimes they brought friends, children, sometimes their mothers. Every day we waited, the doorbell ringing, our hearts settling into ice and granite, so we wouldn’t feel their fingers brushing our skin. It was our chance at a green card. These suitors grabbed my jaw, my neck, prodding at parts of my body until I was printed with bruises. They were not allowed to uncover us or take us to a separate room, but I had blue marks on my arm from where a man with marbled skin bit me.

I shared a room with six other girls. When the men were not visiting, we were expected to wipe down the old window panes, scrub away the swipes of mud left by the visitors’ boots, wash piles of dishes and laundry, and to leave no traces of our existence. If by chance there was an unscheduled knock, we would rush into the back rooms as Mme. Saltress emerged. She would glare at the immigration officers, indignant, scolding, outraged. They argued a bit, ruffled some papers, accepted the tidy dollar rolls from between Madame’s fingers, then went away. In my weeks there, I never saw a girl move out of the boarding house on her own, but I heard stories of careless girls captured on the wild streets outside.

By day there was work, but at night my time in the house was another ocean passage: my narrow bunk, my solitude inside a press of strangers. I hadn’t wanted to leave my mother — this much I remembered. I spent the nights retracing my steps. I reached for memories and they retreated just beyond touch — a silver shadow down an alleyway.

I forgot the faces of friends, I forgot places and lessons. It was as if the ocean mists that had dissolved my letter had worked on my mind. The hood of waves, the songs of air and fish had chanted away half or more of my previous life. I discovered this slowly — like a person whose house has been robbed, suddenly recalling yet another lost possession months after the robbery. Every day I remembered part of something else I’d forgotten. I retained fragments like glass bones, slivers of shell: the edge of our tent, the entryway to the market, my mother’s face. I didn’t know why the memory had spilled out of me, only that now what dim recollections I had were hot to the touch, too painful to hold.

I occupied myself with work — the porcelain of the tub, slippery dishes in the sink — I swept a rag over white tiles, and tried, again and again, to tell myself the story of what had happened to me. I listened to the other girls’ stories of home, only partially told in English, partially understood, but filled with the scents and flavors of their countries. I was ashamed to admit my amnesia to them. I decided that my attempts at recollecting would have to burn and work in secret.

The sky thickened to lead outside the windows or whirled with thin clouds, dirty snow, a witches’ brew. I wiped the panes, dusted ledges, imagining that if I could only remember my mother’s name, everything would be all right. I folded back the bed covers, startled by the warmth of the sheets, and thought about my days on the boat, then to the time before leaving — recent yet distant, always returning to the point of my departure.

How to cite this article:

Diana Abu-Jaber "Memories of Birth," Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).
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