My father’s family lived in Safed, Palestine for over four centuries, overlooking the lake where Jesus was said to have walked on water. In April 1948, when he was five years old, his family fled from Palestine on foot. Like so many families, they believed that they would return once the fighting had ended, but never did. They lived in refugee camps in Damascus, for a few years before going to Kuwait where my grandfather was hired as an engineer. At 17, my father went to Italy, and some years later moved to, and remained for 20 years in New York. He was a taxi driver when he met my mother in a Tribeca bar. After a life of abrupt departures, my father finally settled with my mother in Arizona in the early 1990s.
They were married in Andalusia, Alabama, perhaps the first marriage to lend weight to the town’s namesake, the region in Spain in which Jewish and Muslim coexistence flourished before the Inquisition. But this was only coincidence. They were married there because my mother grew up in a small town named Florala thirty minutes southeast of Andalusia. Hers was the only Jewish family in that town, their estrangement further intensified by her father’s vehement support of the Civil Rights movement, and on the eve of Trump’s presidency she told me for the first time that neighbors would steal into their yard in the middle of the night and poison their dogs. My mother sometimes says she believes her mother died of longing for her hometown of New York, that this was why she passed so young of complications related to Alzheimer’s. My mother and her siblings left early for boarding school, but my grandmother remained without many friends, tending mostly to her garden. My grandfather, on the other hand, played the piano on Sundays at the local Baptist church. My mother has not been to Florala since my grandfather passed away though it is in that town where a burial plot awaits she and my father. Where I too could go to rest, should I be inclined. My mother shudders when she speaks of that town, asking me if I think she has become just like her mother, living far from New York as she is now in Arizona, longing for New York still.
New York City, this great dream, smashing us together as we grip the poles of our ever stalled trains, managed to bring my mother and father together, two people of seemingly incongruent faiths and backgrounds. But it also bankrupted them. Collections agents hounded my father, he believed, because he was a Palestinian. He was taken in for questioning after the NYPD found letters written in Arabic in the trunk of his cab. They were letters from a friend who had remained in Italy about a very dangerous thing: the end of a love affair. The Middle East would follow him everywhere, except, he thought, to the desert. The desert was cheap, expansive, entirely separate from the rest of the planet and its cursed politics.
Hannah Lillith Assadi received her MFA in fiction from the Columbia University School of the Arts. She was raised in Arizona by her Jewish mother and Palestinian father. She lives in Brooklyn. Sonora is her first novel.