Through strong meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choice, Hammad's poetry evokes on us emotional response.
In this column, which takes an intimate look at diverse cultures, a Palestinian poet, Suhair Hammad, who was raised in Brooklyn discovers that her mother's dreams once mirrored her own.
THE HANDS WITH WHICH I WRITE are a gift from my mother. Of course, my life is a gift, but these hands, specifically, have her spirit in them. long fingers, delicate wrists, a child's ring size. So much of Mama is evident in me. Her voice travels from my throat. My body is beginning to settle into her shape (though I'll never have her wonderful backside).
I talk to myself and look in the mirror when I miss her. And there she is.
Mama is a survivor. Born in exile, she and my father moved from Jordan to New York in 1978. Mama was 25 years old, with three daughters, and a son in her belly. She raised five children in Sunset Park in Brooklyn, a neighborhood of Puerto Rican and Black and a handful of White families. My father worked as a street vendor, car-service driver and neighborhood grocer. Baba made sure we never went hungry, but it was my mother who made a nickel into a dime.
Mama had strict rules. No short skirts, tight clothes or makeup. No hanging out and no boys. I was the original homegirl--as in "keep your butt at home." Like many immigrants, my parents saw education as key to a better life and demanded that we study hard. After all, this was America; anything could happen. But this was also the America that didn't take kindly to others.
A Palestinian who had never seen Palestine, Mama was familiar with the label other. Her whole life she'd seen Palestinians portrayed as terrorists and fanatics, so she understood what her children faced from kids who ridiculed our religion and teachers who expressed racist views about Palestine.
But I didn't realize back then how much Mama really understood. I just knew I was different from my peers, that I didn't fit easily into categories of Black and White. My response was to challenge the world around me, taking as my own the realities of all those groups historically excluded from the mainstream.
In particular, I found myself drawn to African and African-American culture, including the Yoruba faith, which I quickly learned was not so different from Islam. For example, there is a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: Heaven is under the mother's feet. And Yoruba believers bring flowers and gifts to Yemoja, the ocean orisha (goddess) who is "the mother of us all." Both faiths honor the wisdom and the blessings that flow from the archetypal mother.
And yet I never thought to look to my own mother as I tried to figure out who I was. Instead I embraced my otherness as a kind of liberation from my parents' expectations. They told me often that I was to become a doctor, and indeed as a child I was taken with the idea of saving lives. But during a hip-hop adolescence in which I explored my otherness among mostly Black and Latina girlfriends, I began to understand that what I wanted to do most was write our stories.
I tried to explain this to Mama. She wasn't convinced. "What kind of life does a woman writer live?" she admonished. "Traveling, meeting strangers, no stability." Mama didn't realize that those things tempted rather than discouraged me; I saw them as opportunities to explore who I was. Mama and I continued to be at odds, and relations between us were strained. During one of our tearful debates, my mother blurted out, "You think you're better than everyone? Where do you think you get this desire to write? I was a writer first, and I made you."
Mama a writer? I was stunned. I had never considered that Mama might once have harbored dreams that had nothing to do with me. But after she came to America with my father, she found herself with five children like the fingers of her hand, and she chose her family over her art. Hands which once wrote out her heart's secrets now signed report cards, braided hair, cooked meals, paid bills and spanked unruly behinds.
I began to understand Mama's love of ballads in a new way--as a passion for poetry. And I can still see the tears in her eyes as she recited Islamic scripture, calling God's word "the original, perfect literature." Even her dedication to watching soap operas was an attempt to get stories into her life.
These days Mama is resigned to my "impractical" dream of writing. She does not know that I keep photographs of her on my desk, to remind me of my purpose and of the fact that she made my life possible.
Mama, you were my first inspiration. I see you not only in my hands but also in my heart and in my work. You are God's perfect poetry. I love you.