Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


Article excerpt

Cornell was a challenging academic environment. When I look back on my education, 1 can see that other students at Cornell were far better prepared than I was for the coursework. By preference, I took courses in art history and foreign languages. When a requirement came along, like a political science course, I was completely lost. While, to anyone who talked to me, I seemed completely fluent in English, my ability to navigate intellectually demanding English-language materials was not up to the level of my fellow Ivy League students.

Even worse, I had to work to be able to afford school. Many were the mornings when I would watch my dorm roommate awaken nice and spry and head for her classes while I was barely able to get out of bed. I worked in the Willard Straight Hall cafeteria, where most students ate, bussing tables late into the night. What remains with me from that period of my life is the sense of exhaustion with which I awoke most mornings and with which I fell asleep almost every night.

That first year, and to my great surprise, I also began to receive letters from Aunt Najla addressed directly to me at the dorm. I kept those letters for years. Aunt Najla had no idea of our family situation with Michel. I never wrote to tell her or Mama Hana about the physical and emotional abuse my brother and I endured. My memories of Aunt Najla had always been positive. But when I began to receive her letters during my first year at Cornell, I had to readjust my understanding of her. She wrote me in English and not Arabic or French, something that surprised me at first but to which I became accustomed.

At first, I did not think very much about her addressing letters to my Cornell address. But as the letters piled up, I realized that she was working in collusion with my uncle. How else would she have known my dorm address? Her words were often harsh, and I barely recognized the Aunt Najla I knew from my days in Deir el-Amar. Her missives were short and to the point: she understood that I was missing some of my classes, she chastised me for not staying in close contact with my uncle, she repeated over and over that Michel and his family had brought me and Costy to America so we would have the wonderful life we could not have had had we stayed in Lebanon, and so on, and so on. 1 never wrote back to Aunt Najla. What would have been the point? Besides, I was certain that whatever I wrote, be it about life with Michel or life at Cornell, would have simply made it back to my uncle. I felt more isolated than comforted by these epistles from someone I had trusted and loved as a child.

More dramatic was my fall one gorgeous summer day (I believe it was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years). I was walking from the Olin library with a fellow student worker to have lunch in the Straight. The scene is so alive in my mind that I remember exactly what I was wearing: a lime-green, short-sleeved jersey shirt and a flowered skirt that I bought at a five-and-dime store. With this outfit, I wore flat cotton sandals from the same store. It was a work outfit, perfect for those hot and often humid Ithaca days.

My colleague and I were talking as we walked, and before I knew it, I had fallen in the middle of the street, with cars passing me by. I had inadvertently tripped on the edge of the sidewalk and had a cut on my right leg that stretched from my knee almost to my feet. I was in great pain and could not move. Blood was flowing everywhere. My colleague ran back to the library and called an ambulance.

The next thing I remember was being in a hospital bed, my colleague by my side and my right leg full of stitches. How long was I in the hospital? Did they pump me full of pain killers? The details of that fall pale compared to what I had to do next. Michel held the money I had earned in Miami as well my earnings from Cornell in the Florida account he controlled. I had some money for daily expenses, but a hospital bill required more. …

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