Becoming Halawa

My life had long been a story written in black and white.

I was a mixed kid with a black mom and a white dad. When Michael Brown was shot, I was black. My mom ordered me to walk home with the white kids because, “it doesn’t matter how white you are, you’re black, and none of us are safe,” she said to me at age eleven. In Ferguson, I was white. To them I spoke, “like them white folks up north,” and was never assumed to be a part of the rest of my black family when we were in public together. I always battled with my black and white identity. At that point, I had never looked in the mirror to see a brown girl staring back at me. 

The steely Chicago wind lashed at my toes and fingertips. My mom, step-dad, grandma and cousin walked beside me, hands in pockets, chins tucked into jackets. We were walking to the home of my Aunt Emman, whom I had never met before. I hadn’t met Aunt Emman, or Aunt Suzi, or Aunt Ann, or Aunt Shirley, or Aunt Nadia or any of our family from Palestine. This was because we hadn’t known we were from Palestine. But after weeks of internet sleuthing, my mom had found our lost family: the Halawas. 

When my great-grandpa, Omar Halawa, came to Ellis Island he took, or was given, the name of Halloway. Omar told his second wife, my great-grandma, that he was from Syria. In the early 1900s, when he emigrated, Palestine was part of Greater Syria, Sūriyyah al-Kubrá, but no one in my great-grandma’s family knew where he was truly from. When great-grandpa Halawa left my great-grandmother and returned to the Middle-East, she was pregnant with my grandmother. My grandma thought she’d never be connected to that side of her family again. Nor did she want to be. 

On Thanksgiving night, my grandma and I walked up the steps to a mahogany, wreathed door. Smells of tabouli and fresh pita penetrated the crisp, frosty air. Inside, I could hear the tangle of Arabic and English language. Heels clacked to the door. The door revealed over a dozen people: brown desert skin, midnight hair, hazel eyes, smiling faces. They sauntered out of the kitchen, rose from the couch, trotted down the stairs, all of them: lining up to meet me, embracing me, pinching my cheeks, kissing my forehead. 

They were all adults. I didn’t know what to do. Was I supposed to impress them like I was supposed to do at other adult dinner parties? Should I tell them about school like I did with my other family? Am I to endure yet another shallow conversation about something I’ll never bother to think about again? 

No. You are to eat. 

Displayed before me was an array of multicolored foods from a country I didn’t know existed. I was pushed to the counter and a paper plate appeared in my hands, already piled with food. I studied the plate. I didn’t recognize half of the things on it. I looked up at the people around me. I didn’t know half of their names. Yet, this was my food, my family, and my culture. 

My Aunt Suzi laid her hand on the small of my back and looked at me with her smiling eyes. “Let’s go sit on the couch, yalla yalla!” She sat down next to me with an air of elegance that can only be likened to that of an Arabian queen. “Listen, habibi,” she held my hands gently in her lap. “I know this must be overwhelming for you, yes?” I nodded. “But you are so beautiful, and we all just want to love on you. See how there are no kids around?” I scanned the room. Almost everyone was in their fifties. Suzi continued, “Everyone is going to want you, but they are all crazy, so you can just be my little monkey, promise?” I giggled, and Suzi pretended to shield me from the others. 

As if on cue, my Aunt Emman yelled to me, “Leah, come get some food!” I glanced down at my half-eaten plate, “I’m really quite full, but thank you,” Emman shook her head. “What kind of fruit do you like?” I told her I didn’t really like fruit. “Yes you do,”  she replied. I told her I liked pomegranates. Emman clapped her hands and began to dig through the fridge. She cut a pomegranate into four pieces and gathered a few others to help her take out the seeds. When they were finished, they presented me with the bowl of pomegranate seeds and watched as I ate. The thought of eating anything else made me nauseous, but I couldn’t bear to disappoint them.

 I was still processing where I was and who I was with. The house was decorated with shades of brown, gold and maroon. Every wooden chair had been carefully carved, every blanket meticulously woven. The pomegranate juice stuck to my fingers like my eyes were stuck to the colorful tapestries on the wall. After a while, all the hues around me became dizzying, and I delicately drifted off to sleep. 

I awoke to my mom’s gentle face telling me it was time to go. I asked her for the time. Around 1:30am she said. I was shocked. She tells me it’s called ‘desert time’ and that we should get used to it. I slowly stood up and my mom announced our departure. Relatives whose names I still could not remember came to say their goodbyes, which was more like persuasion to get us to stay longer. My mom pushed us all out the door and into the frigid night. 

My family walked back mostly in silence. Maybe because it was too cold to talk, but more likely they were exhausted from all the socializing. I couldn’t have felt more different. My head was overflowing with emotions. I was upset that I was just meeting this family now. They had just been a few hours away, and yet I never knew they existed. But mostly I was eager to call these people my aunties, my uncles and my cousins. I was enamored with the loud, vibrant and generous culture that I had been deprived of for most of my childhood. I never had a big family that wanted to hug me, kiss me, dance with me and even cry with me. This new lineage made me look at myself differently. It’s not just a percentage on AncestryDNA, it’s a community I identify with. And as I walked those icy sidewalks in downtown Chicago, I began to rewrite my life: a story written in black, white, and brown.