This poem has never been more timely and is republished here by special arrangement with the author.
Lisa Suhair Majaj (ليزا سهير مجاج) is a Palestinian-American poet, writer and scholar. Born to a Palestinian father and an American mother, she spent her childhood years in Jordan and attended college in Beirut, Lebanon before moving to the United States, where she lived for many years. Read more.
If they ask you what you are,
say Arab. If they flinch, don’t react,
just remember your great-aunt’s eyes.
If they ask you where you come from,
say Toledo. Detroit. Mission Viejo.
Fall Springs. Topeka. If they seem confused,
help them locate these places on a map,
then inquire casually, Where are you from?
Have you been here long? Do you like this country?
If they ask you what you eat,
don’t dissemble. If garlic is your secret friend,
admit it. Likewise, crab cakes.
If they say you’re not American,
don’t pull out your personal,
wallet-sized flag. Instead, recall
the Bill of Rights. Mention the Constitution.
Wear democracy like a favorite garment:
If they wave newspapers in your face and shout,
stay calm. Remember everything they never learned.
Offer to take them to the library.
If they ask you if you’re white, say it depends.
Say no. Say maybe. If appropriate, inquire,
Have you always been white, or is it recent?
If you take to the streets in protest,
link hands with whomever is beside you.
Keep your eye on the colonizer’s maps,
geography’s twisted strands, the many colors
of struggle. No matter how far you’ve come, remember:
the starting line is always closer than you think.
If they ask how long you plan to stay, say forever.
Console them if they seem upset. Say, don’t worry,
you’ll get used to it. Say, we live here. How about you?
—Lisa Suhair Majaj
from Geographies of Light