I was born without a voice, one cold, overcast day in Brooklyn, New York. No one ever spoke of my condition. I did not know I was mute until years later, when I opened my mouth to ask for what I wanted and realized no one could hear me. Where I come from, voicelessness is the condition of my gender, as normal as the bosoms on a woman’s chest, as necessary as the next generation growing inside her belly. But we will never tell you this, of course. Where I come from, we’ve learned to conceal our condition. We’ve been taught to silence ourselves, that our silence will save us. It is only now, many years later, that I know this to be false. Only now, as I write this story, do I feel my voice coming.
You’ve never heard this story before. No matter how many books you’ve read, how many tales you know, believe me: no one has ever told you a story like this one. Where I come from, we keep these stories to ourselves. To tell them to the outside world is unheard of, dangerous, the ultimate shame.
But you have seen us. Take a walk in New York City on a sunny afternoon. Walk down the length of Manhattan until the streets become curved and tangled as they are in the Old World. Go east, over the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan’s skyline thinning behind you. There will be a heavy traffic jam on the other side. Hail a yellow cab and ride it down Flatbush Avenue, that central artery of south Brooklyn. You’ll go south on Third Avenue, where the buildings are smaller—only three, four stories high, with old faces. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge hovers on the horizon like a giant gull, wings spread, the sweeping view of the Manhattan skyline a distant mirage. Head south for a while, past the warehouses refurbished into chic cafés and trendy oyster bars, and the small family-owned hardware stores that have been there for generations. When the American cafés start to thin, replaced by signs in foreign tongues, you’ll know you’re getting close. Cross east two blocks to Fifth Avenue. There you will find Bay Ridge. Our three-square-mile neighborhood is the melting pot of Brooklyn. On our streets you’ll find Latinos, Middle Easterners, Italians, Russians, Greeks, and Asians, all speaking their native tongues, keeping their traditions and cultures alive. Murals and graffiti cover the buildings. Colorful flags hang from windows and balconies. The sweet smell of churros, shish kebabs, and potpourri fills the air—a stew of humanity converging. Get out at the corner of Seventy-Second and Fifth Avenue, where you’ll find yourself surrounded by bakeries, hookah bars, and halal meat markets. Walk down the tree-lined sidewalk of Seventy-Second Street until you reach an old row house no different from the others—faded red brick, a dusty brown door, number 545. This is where our family lives.
But our story does not begin in Bay Ridge, not really. To get there, first we must turn back the pages to before I found my voice, before I was even born. We are not yet in the house on Seventy-Second Street, not yet in Brooklyn, not yet in America. We have yet to board the plane that will carry us from the Middle East to this new world, have yet to soar over the Atlantic, have yet to even know that one day we will. The year is 1990, and we are in Palestine. This is the beginning.
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