My family came to this country when I was five, and we settled in York, Pennsylvania.
I was born in Cairo. My mom married my dad knowing that he was going to come to America. My mom was crazy about culture, and super interested in languages — she studied four languages in college. I inherited that from her.
Initially they thought they couldn’t move to America until 1997 or ’98, but my mom is very bullheaded — she’s a Capricorn — and she just pushed the process through, and they were able to have a date to leave in 1993. We left in April. My birthday’s in March, and I remember distinctly my mom telling me that moving to America was my birthday present.
Do you have a favorite expression in Arabic? There’s something my mom always says, and it means, “You can have it”: khudihaa. My sister and I have talked about this for years — how important it is, that feeling of exchange, where everything that I have I give, I give to you. It’s this gesture of “What’s mine is yours.”
Can you give me a sense of how it might be used? There have been a lot of times when my sister or I will see something [of our mother’s] that we like, and my mom’s immediate reaction is, “You can have it. It’s ours. There is no mine or yours. Everything is ours.”
My life in Egypt was very, very small. In Egypt, there was no freedom at all — you couldn’t go out, have friends, have time for yourself, enjoy your life. My sister and I could not go anywhere. Maybe you had one friend — but that’s the only one. You could go back and forth to their house, and that’s it. We didn’t go to parties. We didn’t have any kind of freedom — but you guys had it. I was always watching American shows like Dallas — I dreamed about a life like that.
It’s very hard being away from your family — being away from my parents when they died, or my brother, when he died. The longer you’re away from them, the longer you feel like you’re alone, that you don’t have enough. I miss my sister. It’s not a good idea, to be away from your family for many years, because you get to the point that you feel like a stranger to them.
This was the only way to start a new life on my own — my own life, with my own kids, my own husband. I think it was for the best for my kids. They’re really good girls — I’m so proud of them. They are very, very tough girls. They’ve grown up so strong. They build their own future. That’s what I told them — to stand up, then to look for someone to stand up with them, not to be dependent on them. The best thing is to be independent — to get a handle on everything in your life, then find a person who can be a part of your life. Not to depend on him. So if something happens, you don’t get lost.
That’s what my goal was — to let them be strong, to stand up, to deserve their life on their own. And that’s what they did.
Do you have a favorite expression in Arabic? Yes. I say it to my daughters all the time: habibi. It means “sweetheart.” You can say it to your boyfriend, you can say it to your parents, you can say it to your kids — I say it to my daughters, my brother, my sister. Everything I say, I say “habibi”: “How are you, habibi? How are you?”