And before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of thirty-five,
Uncle Dawud was known as the youngest of her uncles, the spoiled one. Zaina remembered how he’d drive her to school and back, cursing out all the drivers: “Ya hamar, get out of the street. Does your mother know she birthed a bastard?” Then a moment later, he’d say peacefully: “Look at the way God made the trees, so tall and protective.” Language came easy to him, and one day it would make her a poet. Even when they no longer spoke, he lived in her work. “Arrive at yourself on your own terms,” he wrote to her in an email, the subject line left blank.
And for her birthday,
my sister Zenab dropped a basket out of her window, held by a string, the way we did as kids in Cairo, Egypt. Back then we’d wait for the bread man to fill the basket with bread and then send the basket back down with money. In Cleveland, no one knew what to do with the basket but walk around it, as if it was infectious. Homeless people left trash inside it. One dad thought it was funny to temporarily put his baby into it. What are you waiting for, Zenab? I asked her. She shrugged. She said I’m not sure. She said someone to look up.
And one time in my aunt’s apartment in Al-Haram, Cairo,
the electricity was cut off for hours and there was nothing to do about it but wait. This was before the Arab Spring. Uncle Basem told a story in the dark to distract us, about the earthquake of 1992, when he forgot his wife and kids in the building and ran out into the street in his underwear with his favorite cheeses. We were all in tears from laughter, our own mode of survival. “The birds outside chirp chirp, my wife chirp chirps, I get no rest,” said Uncle Basem. He coughed after he chain smoked; there was always some story stuck in his lung.