You do not exist
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In the first days of a relocation, you’re not familiar to anyone. How do we recognize the moment that changes?
IN A RECENT EMAIL CORRESPONDENCE recounting our latest life developments, fellow Matadorian Priyanka Kher recommended Anthony Shadid’s memoir, House of Stone. Shadid is the late New York Times journalist who died of an asthma attack in February while covering the conflict in Syria, but his book is a rumination on family and the concept of bayt — “home” — in his ancestor’s native Arabic. I picked it up as I waited to board a plane to Tel Aviv via London, sitting on the floor of Denver International Airport’s A terminal and crying a little. Reading the first pages of it didn’t help much.
I had just finished talking to my best friend on the phone about saying goodbye to my parents, and how my mother wouldn’t walk away until I was through security and out of sight, and how my father held my face between his hands and looked me straight in the eye, something rare. Shadid wrote of his intrepid ancestors who left Lebanon after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the feeling of detachment all travelers feel when they leave home:
By the time we arrived in New York, or Texas, or Oklahoma, or wherever, much was lost. “Your first discovery when you travel,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “is that you do not exist.” In other words, it is not just the others who have been left behind, it is all of you that is known. Gone is the power of punishment of your family name, the hard-earned reputations of forebears, no longer familiar to anyone, not in this new place. Gone are those who understand how you became yourself. Gone are the reasons lurking in the past that might excuse your mistakes. Gone is everything beyond your name on the day of arrival, and even that may ultimately be surrendered.
The haze of jetlag and sudden detachment left me reeling for a few days, a clench of panic in my stomach that often haunts me in the early stages of a relocation. Deep in one of these panic sessions, I’m adept at convincing myself that the relocation I’ve looked forward to for months was a very grave mistake, a pipe dream that sounds ludicrous when spoken out loud. In a matter of a few lonely, sleepless hours, I can thoroughly convince myself that I was insane to think it was a good idea to leave the place that I know so well.
But this morning, I finally woke up feeling peaceful. Grateful for the day, for figs and hummus and coffee, for the sticky sheen of sunscreen and humidity on my shoulders, for the honking, screaming drivers outside my window on Hayarkon. I spent the morning hunting for an adapter for my three-pronged, American laptop charger, a small piece of wire and plastic that would allow me to write again.
I hadn’t had a reason to open my mouth and speak a word since I woke up.
Friday is Israel’s Saturday, when couples stroll, young fathers push strollers, and teenagers hop curbs with their bikes on the leafy, northern stretches of Dizengoff. A girl tried on a wedding dress in a bridal shop window. People lined the sidewalk in front of a juice bar at the intersection of Sderot Nordau. Hasidic men wandered down Havakuk Hanavi to the high walls surrounding the beach reserved for modesty, averting their eyes from their secular, bikini-clad counterparts. They wore long coats and fur hats and carried floaties for their sons. Everyone was relishing the free time leading up to Shabbat.
I hadn’t had a reason to open my mouth and speak a word since I woke up. After an hour of scanning street after street in my new neighborhood, I found a shop the size of a cubicle that sold adapters at Dizengoff Center. The 60-something owner sat in a chair that took up half the room, surrounded by lightbulbs, power strips, and electric fans dangling from the walls at all angles. He was eating a sandwich with his mouth open, the white cheese glistening at the corners of his lips. He looked at me straight in the eye, pointing his free pinky finger at me from above the sandwich.
“Are you American?”
“Are you Jewish?”
It took me a second to realize that this was a question missing the inflection, and not an exclamation to my non-Jewishness.
“Oh, am I Christian?” He nodded. “I’m…well…”
He cut me off before I could respond, looking bemused. “What is your name?”