Not From There: Nonfiction by Lydia Yousief

“What She Asked Me and What I Said”


She asked me, “Where are you from?”

And I hesitated. I was born in New Jersey to Egyptians whose English was churned, but they knew how to say, “God bless America.” They had picked themselves up and moved across swallowing depths of water to breathe, moved across to a land where they believed the air would be sweeter. They had no family here, no saving branch—only themselves, and now me. They carried me to the World Trade Centers, Arabic on their lips, when a white girl approached me and wanted to play. Mama took a photo. That was New Jersey, but I am not from there.

We moved to Tennessee, where Mama put me on the floor to sleep while she waited for Baba to return from his first job. Nine months unemployed and finally, they found a merciful Copt to sell us his store—no bank needed, just brothers. So Mama would open the store while Baba kept his day job and his children slept on the floor, since they could not afford daycare. “Baraka,” Mama said when she counted the money. “We can pay the rent now.”

Later, when we bought our first house and Mama and Baba were getting what life was like in America for their kind, Baba got his citizenship. He said: “I am going to Egypt.”

We went together, but not for pyramids or the Alexandrian shore, but for the people whose faces we had forgotten or never knew. They marveled at Mama’s clothes and gifts and Baba’s sophistication. We went to the monasteries—the secret golden palaces of our ancestors, a trove of art and literature, a space singing peace in a dry and thirsty land. We watched the streets light up for Ramadan. We were taught the art of molokhiyya, and we were told, “Ah, this is the Egyptian way.”

We came to Tennessee again with gifts for the Church and for our family to commemorate our travels back home, and I grew up with Egypt as a memory, unlike my parents who knew Egypt in a way one knows oneself.  That was Egypt, and I am not from there.

Then came the need to explain everything. “Coptic Orthodoxy is not Islam; I am not Muslim. What my mother means, sir, is—. Baba, it’s complicated history—something you probably didn’t learn in Egypt; it’s okay, let me explain. Don’t you see my cross? It’s January 7th, so I won’t be in school. It’s our Good Friday—we go by the Judaic calendar, you know, by the calendar used in the Bible. I am not white. Egyptians are not black in the racial sense, and also, Jesus wasn’t black. I’m fasting. Church doesn’t end until 12 pm—I can’t make it.” It was an endless list of repetition, of comparing, of explaining to everyone except myself.

That was Tennessee, and I am not from there.

What I should say to her is: “I do not know.” I am a flower plucked and thrown to the wind’s desires, waiting for the drift to end, so that I may land somewhere. And worse, a flower plucked is a flower gone-already. Someone should have known that: a flower plucked is a flower gone.

Instead, I blink and wait until she tells me.

Lydia Yousief. Coptic. 21. Undergraduate. Franklin, TN. 


Curated by FORTH Nonfiction Editors.

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