Searching for a Ziploc bag and being Arab in America

CHAMPAIGN (Illinois) • I had another fight with my daughter on a recent Saturday morning. It's her attitude that makes my blood boil sometimes.

"I'm not going shopping at Target," she announced when we were all ready for our big day out to buy school supplies.

"But we've already made plans," I told her, "and I'm not going to let you ruin this special day for everyone. Your little brother's going into first grade."

"You didn't tell me we were going to Target. They don't have North Face backpacks."

"I'll buy you a North Face backpack the day you get into Harvard," I retorted. "Now get in the car."

"I don't want to hear about Harvard! Do you even know what Harvard is?" she yelled, before slamming the door to her room.

"Did you have to start up with Harvard now?" asked my wife. She handed me a list of school supplies. "Take the boys, I'll deal with this."

"Who am I even doing all this for?" I mumbled to myself as I walked to the car with our two sons. I wasn't even sure what I meant by "all this", but it's something my father used to say. Recently, I find myself repeating lines I had heard from my parents as a kid.

It's not that I'm putting pressure on my daughter. Not at all. But she is 16, after all, and she has to realise that life is no picnic, and America is no Jerusalem. So yes, Harvard. It's a legitimate request. If I'm going to pay tens of thousands of dollars I don't have for her US college education, then it might as well be Harvard. Although I'd settle for any Ivy League school.

To make things worse, last week she declared she wanted to be a historian. At first, I laughed, but when I realised she was serious, I was furious: "History? You must be joking. What exactly are you going to do with that? Write a thesis about unemployed historians in the 18th century? Is that what I'm doing all this for?"

As we drove off, I listened to a story on (US radio network) NPR about Syrian refugees who arrive here without a word of English and are given three months of aid from various organisations. After that, they're left to their own devices. But they are so thrilled to be in the land of opportunity. The teenage son of the family, who could already string together a few sentences in English, talked about how happy he was because now he was in the United States and he could be whatever he wanted to be - an engineer, or a doctor.

"Daddy, what language do you talk with Mommy?" My little boy has been speaking to me exclusively in English since shortly after we came to America from Israel.

"Arabi," I answered him, in Arabic, as I always do. I don't want him to forget his language and his Palestinian roots.

"So Daddy, you and Mommy are Arabis?"

"That's right, sweetie. Me and Mommy talk Arabi."

"So, Daddy," he continued, "that means you and Mommy 'haaave the meats!'"

"What?" I was baffled.

"He thinks you're saying Arby's," my older son explained. Then he set matters straight for his little brother: "Mom and Dad are Arabs, not a sandwich place."

I'd never seen the parking lot at Target so full. I managed to locate the office supplies, but my heart sank when I studied the list my wife had given me. What on earth was a pocket folder with prongs? I thought my English was good - after all, I can give a 90-minute lecture on racism, gentrification and Middle Eastern politics. But I was stumped by "fine-point black felt-tip marker". I had no idea what I was doing. I broke into a sweat, and then, faking a smile, I pretended to text a friend while, in fact, I frantically Googled the items on the list to see their pictures. If my daughter - God bless her - had been with me, she would have helped me decipher the list. But I wasn't about to call her and ask for help. As it is, she makes fun of my English and my accent.

I remember once we got into a fight in a restaurant when I ordered salmon, which I'd eaten a million times in Jerusalem. She insisted that Americans drop the "l" and pronounce it as sa-mun. I yelled that she was wrong because instead of reading T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare, she got her English from Rihanna and Drake.

It took me two hours, but I finally figured out the school supplies. The only thing left was a backpack for my little boy who doesn't know he's an Arab. "I want the Star Wars backpack," he demanded as we stood gazing at the rows of bags.

"But sweetie, it says here very clearly that it has to be a 1-gallon Ziploc bag," I explained and showed him the list he couldn't even read. "We have to get a Ziploc, that's what the teacher said."

I couldn't find anything called Ziploc, despite inspecting every single bag. My older son was getting desperate: "Dad, maybe we should ask someone?"

"No," I insisted. I wasn't going to ask anyone. I didn't want some US sales clerk knowing I couldn't understand simple English. We'd look for that Ziploc bag in another store. I wasn't about to let anyone think we were Middle Eastern immigrants coming here to steal jobs from honest Americans. I would not be responsible for a surge in Islamophobia over a Ziploc bag.

"They don't have it here," I declared. "Let's go to a different store." "But Dad, Star Wars! You promised!" "Sorry, sweetie, it has to be a Ziploc."

They didn't have any Ziplocs at the second store either, but I did find a North Face backpack for US$160 (S$219), before tax. I bought it and asked for a return receipt.

My daughter doesn't understand that everything has changed since we came here. She doesn't understand that her mom and I are planning to sell our apartment in Jerusalem - which we spent more than 20 years working for - so she and her brothers can go to school. That we came here to get them away from racism and interminable war, in the hope that those don't follow us here, too.

"Why is he crying?" my wife asked when we got home.

"Because I couldn't find a Ziploc bag."

"Dad, Ziplocs are plastic bags for the fridge," my daughter groaned, but her disdain gave way to a grin when I gave her the new backpack. "Thanks!"

"Just so you know, this backpack has to last you through eight years of medical school."

"Come on, Dad …" Then I handed her another gift: a biography of Abraham Lincoln. "Did you know he was a Republican?" she asked.

"Who? Lin-ko-len?"

"It's Lin-con, Dad. The 'l' is silent." NYTIMES

  • Sayed Kashua is a visiting professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author, most recently, of Native: Dispatches From An Israeli-Palestinian Life. This essay was translated by Jessica Cohen from Hebrew.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 18, 2016, with the headline 'Searching for a Ziploc bag and being Arab in America'. Print Edition | Subscribe