In October 1988 Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian writer, won the Nobel Prize for literature. When I first heard the news I was ecstatic. “Finally. I told my husband. Now the rest of the world will know him and read his works.” As a teenager, I had read his books in Arabic and their English translations. I loved his style, his humor, his simplicity.
Later on during his interviews he told reporters:
“The Arab world also won the Nobel with me. I believe that international doors have opened, and that from now on, literate people will consider Arab literature also. We deserve that recognition.”
How true, I thought. It’s about time that people know about the Arab world through its literature. I can’t wait to see more works from different authors get translated into English.
After only a few months, I was scheduled to meet with the headmistress of a British school to talk about the math and science curriculum. On the day of the meeting I reached the school on time and waited to be called in. The British secretary, a woman in her early thirties, announced my presence on the speakerphone, saying the teacher with the Arabic name is here. She didn’t even bother to read my name. I was beyond upset. For heaven’s sake, my name was written in English, can’t you read English? I thought, but of course being me I couldn’t say anything to her.
When I first started teaching in Dubai in 1986, I realized that people were having difficulty pronouncing my first name, so I went by my married name. Mrs. Hanissian. How hard is that for a school secretary to read? It is not an Arabic name, and even if it was, would that make me an outcast in this world? I was so mad and by the time the headmistress walked out of her office to greet me I was feeling miserable. The meeting over, I went back to my school and met with my principal and told her the whole story.
“I’m worn out,” I said, “how do you do it?”
“One foot in front of the other,” she replied.
I went home wondering how would they recognize the Arab world with this attitude. I know one person does not represent all but the feeling of being discriminated was so disgustingly ugly.
Years went by and I continued teaching, one foot in front of the other. Then one day in September I had just come out of an after school meeting when I heard about the attack on the twin towers. When I got home I found my children glued to the TV screen. I sat to watch with them. It broke my heart and I started crying and praying for all those innocent lives caught in that terror. I had lived through civil war and I was familiar with the horrors. And then I remembered the incident with the English secretary and how she had made me feel that day and I thought how this would make it a lot worse now. I thought how unwelcome we, the people of the Middle East, would be to the rest of the world. Even more than a decade later, I felt:
“Behind me there are already so many memories (…) Lots of memories, but no point in remembering them, and ahead of me a long, long road with nothing to aim for … I just don’t want to go along it.” Ivan Turgenev