Dreams from My Mother by Majda Gama

Could it be that my mother is actually cooler than I am? On Halloween night she breezed off to some party dressed as Cruella De Vil, while I bundled up for a four hour "get out the vote " shift handing out Democratic sample ballots to early voters in Mclean, Virginia.
She had borrowed my clothes, makeup, and accessories in order to transform herself into a younger version of me, a vision she'd loathed at the time. My Siouxsie worshiping, two-tone coiffed, animal print clad, post-punker self created a huge rift in my family. It was the young woman I chose to become after a childhood and early teen years in Saudi Arabia. With our move back to America, in the late Eighties, Arab standards of propriety in dress and behavior fell by the wayside. While this confounded my parents, in a strange twist it bothered my Arab father less than my American mother, a lifelong Republican. Her ramrod ideologies clashed utterly with my enthusiasm for punk shows and leftist politics. Hurtful words ricocheted on both sides, and we rarely appeared in public together. She ordered me to conceal my Saudi and Islamic heritage; at all costs, do not bring shame upon the family. There was no mother-daughter bond to speak of, but I swallowed the hurt, and the Arab in me went dormant.
I became adept at white lies. With a name like mine, an introduction is typically followed by "so, where are you from?" I hedged around the truth; born in Beirut, lived in Egypt, extrapolate from there. It wasn't until 9/11 that I came out of the Arab closet. The extreme violence of that event, along with the discovery that the majority of the hijackers were Saudi citizens, shattered me. I needed to talk about the sleepy desert Kingdom that I knew, and the moderate community of dual citizens in which I was raised, so that I could process and grieve. I was acutely aware of my Arab-American status, and felt incredibly foreign. My family, at the time newly settled in Dubai, was half a world away from me, and I was living in the small American town that my father’s government job brought me to when I was a child. America had been good to us, but not, it seemed, anymore. The new visa process, with its fingerprint scans and other invasive requirements, discouraged my father from visiting. My American life took a turn for the dark side; fortunately, the fallout after the attacks brought dialog and curiosity before it brought surveillance, hatred, and mistrust from the state.
The cultural abyss created by 9/11 also transformed my mother. Mama Bear is how I describe the woman who reared up in support of her Arab husband and daughters. Guantanamo Bay, the invasion of Iraq and Abu Ghraib drove her from the GOP forever. As she discovered her new voice, I fell silent. I had marched in pro-Palestinian and anti-IMF rallies, but took a backseat in the anti-war movement when DC police began indiscriminate round-ups of activists, and all bystanders within proximity of the protests. My neon hair branded me politico-punk activist, but my name gave away my ethnicity; and who knew what trouble my other passport and dual citizen status would cause? As an Arab-American, would I be detained and questioned? And where, and for how long? I joked about being the first to discover if a female ward at Guantanamo existed, but I was terrified of the place. From 2003 to 2008, I stayed out of all movements; the news cycle confirmed so many fears. Life was surreal, often nightmarish. The divide between east and west that I felt within myself was mirrored in US foreign policy.
During the primary season, I voted for Barack Hussein Obama, a man with a life story similar to mine. He fostered a sense of optimism in me that I’d thought long gone, stirrings of hope even, but it took the nomination of fundamentalist Sarah Palin to get my cynical ass back on its grassroots feet. Until then, I thought that the bar on my personal and cultural misery could not get any lower, but after the RNC I could literally taste an America to come that was far worse than the one I already knew. I decided to put my passion and time into the Obama campaign, only to discover that my mother had done the same months ago.
Overnight, my mother, the Bush voter, had become my mother, the Mother Jones donor. My feminist, radical, anti-war self was at risk of being left in the political dust by my own mother. I wasn't having any of that. We became partners in a cause that neutralized all of our differences. She bubbled over with a positive energy that swept me up in its wake. Initially I joined her in voter registration drives at the Metro. With my tattoos peeking out of my sleeves, I sat by her side as she proudly introduced me as her daughter, "the writer ". On that first day together, as I gave my rote explanation of the origins of my name to other Obama volunteers, an older lady expressed concern about my citizenship, "But you're American right?" I learned that my mother had left out certain background information about our family; basically everything involving the Middle East. My mother, the superwoman campaigner, canvassed door-to-door, phone banked, and trained for the polls under her Catholic name, Mary Margaret; tall, Germanic, blonde, blue-eyed Mary Margaret.
When I asked her why she was concealing half her life, she denied the concealing and said it just never came up. Yet she nixed the idea of fundraisers at our house when I pointed out Persian carpets lay on the floors, and on the wall hung photographs of family members in Arabic dress, watercolors of the Middle East, and Quranic calligraphy. Everywhere the eye traveled, the house screamed, Arabs live here. She laughed with other campaigners about her Republican years while confiding to me that our Arab side would harm the Obama effort. It's a peculiar hurt, believing your heritage could have a negative effect on the campaign of the candidate who embodies your American experience, but it was unsettling to watch my mother bow to accepted racial norms. She seemed shackled by the east-west flavor of our family while I was loudly praising our fusion in every medium that I could write in.
The McCain camp's Islamophobic fear mongering ultimately proved my mother's instincts to be correct. It took lifelong Republican, Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama to right the deep sense of wrong I felt as Election Day inched closer and closer. When Powell asserted that America holds a place for its Arab and Muslim citizens, I sat down in shock and cried. He not only endorsed Obama; he endorsed my family.
On October 31st, 2008, my mother inhabited a Halloween costume I doubt many 62 year old women could carry off. I was touched that she'd asked for my help in assembling it, because in the past she had scorned any such association. All resentment from our turbulent years fizzled away and I told her she looked wonderful, because she did. She looked daring and hip, and I simply looked like I was missing out. We stepped out the door together, one very much like the other. Change had not just come to America, change had come to my family.
CSPAN ran footage of Majda Talal Gama and her mother, Mary Margaret waving American flags on the final night of Barack Obama's campaign in Manassas, Virginia. Majda is a poet living in the DC area. Her current itinerary is Dulles to Dubai via London and back again.
First published on hipmama. com in December of 2008.