Queen Esther


My Jewish Grandmother spoke Arabic.

Let me explain.

I am half “J-Dub” and half “S/Y.” For those of you out of the Sephardic loop, “J-Dub” is short for “JW” or “Jew,” the slang term used in the Syrian Jewish Community to describe Ashkenazi Jews, and “S/Y” is the term Syrian Jews use to refer to themselves. My mother’s family is from Aleppo, Syria, and my father’s family is from Russia.

I grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which is comprised predominantly of “J-Dubs.” A few Sundays a year my mother would take my sister and me out to Brooklyn, to be with the “S/Y” side of my family. A land that seemed so far away, with exotic food and dark curly-haired girls. Then I'd return to my Manhattan life, with Zabar’s and roller-disco. This life reflected grandmothers who used Yiddish phrases such as “Oy Vey” and ate herring and lox. It became confusing to me that my Grandmother used Arabic phrases such as Anabahebek (I love you) and prepared sambussak and m’jederah.

My mother’s sister, Aunt Essie, who also lived on the Upper West Side, inherited the Syrian features of brown skin and thick, unruly hair. When my friends saw pictures of her in my house, they’d ask, “Who’s that?” “My aunt,” I’d tell them. “She looks Dominican!” they’d retort. It was true. Maybe she would not have stood out in Brooklyn’s “Little Syria,” but on the Upper West Side, her brown skin pegged her Latina. She did not, to them, look “Jewish.”

But Aunt Essie did not love her thick hair. My mother told me she spent years battling and straightening those locks that I thought were so beautiful and exotic. “She wanted fine straight American hair like yours,” she’d say. All I wanted was to look more Syrian.

Aunt Essie died of ovarian cancer at the young age of 43. Though I never got to know her in my adult years, I remember her clearly. This poem is a tribute to her, and to my Sephardic roots that continually feel so present and distant all at the same time.

Queen Esther

Esther. Named after the queen. Known to her family as Essie, Esuseh.
Esuseh, Esuseh, who swallowed Syria whole
and the day she left us
the sky rained desert sand
the earth smelled of cumin and rosewater
and our tears tasted of olive oil.
Esuseh, Esuseh, pointing to your picture strangers deny my relation to you
For I stand so pale in comparison to your olive stained hue
Because you Esuseh
you swallowed Syria whole
while I, I—was granted mere licks of
her tamarind belly.
Oh, Esuseh, Esuseh, so cheated I was
to know you the least of everyone
I youngest niece, clasped your hand on bodega stuffed streets
where people spoke to us in languages we do not speak.
Because they do not know us
The Sephardim, Arab Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Spanish Jews
The Unknown Jews—
who baked on the lands of Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Syria
Curling ancient tongues on hot Damascus sands
Grapeleaves melting in our pockets, clutching hamsas in our superstitious hands.
I hear stories of you Esuseh
of your narrow feet, wide humor, dancer dreams, sullen moods
Of your thick hair you compulsively straightened and hated.
Wishing for "American hair" that blew in the wind
Wishing For a smooth ponytail that swung from side to side
Wishing for hair that was fine
Hair that was fine.
Hair that looked… like mine.
Oh Esuseh, if you could only be here to see how all textures of hair are now reveling in their natural style!
You were so close, one day you set the iron on low and let tresses run wild!
But the real irony was that just when you began to love it,
you began to lose it
To chemotherapy, cruel and brash,
clumps lay at your bedside,
exotic scarves hid your losses,
as we collected your locks to show unborn grandchildren.
Oh, Esuseh, Esuseh, you left too soon for me to tell you my secret,
That I stand in front of mirrors with sharp scissors close to my skull,
Ready to massacre American hair that is parched for my olive oil.
Ready to massacre blowing locks that may have caused any woman turmoil, Ready to massacre swinging ponytails in honor of your name.
For this fine hair has done nothing, but remind me of precious, wasted days
you could of smiled, Esuseh.
Beautiful Esuseh,
who swallowed Syria whole
and left me starving
I—Displaced parched, desert girl, blindly tracing home on Atlases that Lie
Wildly spinning globes to feel only the billowing wind -of your too fast exit from my eye.
And too bad if they can't see the relation- cause I think I look just like you
Cause I'm riding camels bareback on Bedouin trails beside you
Cause my heart beats fast when I hear Habibi tunes and dance with you
And sometimes I awake choking from all the sand castles in my bed
Then giggle to know you are throwing magical grains from that crown upon your head
I'm Sweating Zatar and allspice, that only my lovers taste on barefoot,
sultry nights
I'm shredding birth certificates; one taste of my hot blood will suffice
And look closely people; see my fine hair is gnarled in stubborn
and my eyes are tearing with sharp memories of evil cancers afflictions
So hear me Esuseh!
with each passing year, I sunbathe in our rich history
to internally bronze myself, a rock statue for my ancestry
See my hamsa forever on my chest for the utmost protection
See, my blood and my memories not defined by complexion
I—displaced, parched, desert girl
paying homage to the
Daughter, Sister, Mother, Aunt, and never met Grandmother: Esuseh.
Esuseh, Esuseh,
who swallowed Syria whole
And the day she left us
The sky rained desert sand
the earth smelled of cumin and rosewater
and our tears still taste of olive oil.
enabahebek Esuseh.