I’m from a place where flamingos naturally migrate to in the winter. A place that saw so much change between my mom’s generation and mine, it seems as mythical as orcas coming into the Arabian Gulf.

As children, my mom and her cousins would play in the courtyard of the cinema while the adults napped. One cinema showed Indian films, and another showed Westerns. A third cinema, perhaps, was their neighbor who would screen films for everyone outside of their house.

My parents were both born in Sharq, Kuwait. They lived in beautiful mud houses made with materials from the sea. Where archways were thoughtful and there were methods to keep the water cool. The Kuwaiti word for basement, sardab, comes from 13th-century Farsi, “cold water.” The interchange of cultures thrived for centuries. Streets were small and people walked to see each other. They could meander through the streets to the sea. The sub-dialect of Farsi that both of my parents could speak, particular to Kuwait, thrived in this community.

I, however, was raised in the less mythical Ardiya. A newly constructed suburb far from everything my parents loved and knew, extracted from their community, where most of our neighbors were Bedouins. I love the variety of tents they pitch in and around their homes. My parents got this house at a time when Kuwaiti women married to non-Kuwaitis were given property. Why was my dad non-Kuwaiti? Born there in 1948 and buried there in 2016.

A blue whale washes up to the Kuwaiti shore. There used to be a saying that a cat could cross all of Kuwait’s shores without ever touching the ground, jumping from dhow to dhow. The water is such a bright turquoise, it pains my heart to see so much beauty. Do orcas swim in the Arabian Gulf?

I wrote a book about the confusion of having to leave my home as a child, about not wanting to leave, and the luck of arriving in a place where people treated me like I belong. It addresses statelessness. I’m a non-Kuwaiti because my dad was a non-Kuwaiti because his dad was a non-Kuwaiti in the 1940s, working as a cook for the British Embassy. They called my grandpa Ali-Baz, meaning “Ali the funny” or “open guy.” Three of my grandparents were Kuwaiti citizens, one wasn’t, rendering me “wasn’t.”

There was a rare sighting of orca pods in the Arabian Gulf. Sometimes I’m in disbelief that I was born without a country, that living 8,000 miles away from my roots was the way it had to be.

Baba loved tangerines. He was a large man who danced light on his feet. We would be invited to so many places because of his booming stories and laughter. You would never think he had to claim and carry his younger brother who was killed by a grenade. A soldier who fought for Kuwait when Iraq invaded. When Baba would open a tangerine, he would give me half. He would tell me that there are so many reasons to love living this beautiful life.

My family are mostly Kuwaiti citizens, some are still stateless. I’m American. All of us are so fond and proud to be Kuwaiti. Culturally, generously, temperamentally, sleepily, with all heart, even those of us who slipped through the theoretical absurdity of the suffocating bureaucratic policies.

I eat a tangerine by myself. I have so many strange dreams about whales.

I get to talk about my book on BBC Arabic Radio, which airs in Kuwait. My Kuwaiti is broken yet I remember a linguist had told me, “We don’t have to be sorry or ashamed of our tongues. They reveal what we have lived.” I talk about statelessness and say, “I feel like no matter what is written on my papers, I am Kuwaiti, and that I will have affection for my home until my last days, even if I’ve become different than Kuwaiti’s now. I feel like I’ve become rich culturally to have had the chance to grow in these two places.” A stateless stranger contacts me.

Last December in Kuwait, I go with my friend Deema to Ikea. Another day she drives me to see flamingos. A bright pink clump in the turquoise water. I gasp, she smiles.

The stateless stranger is like me. Ayam of Kuwait, from the Qambar family. He says, “I just wanted to tell you that I heard the clip on BBC and I was moved by your sincerity and words. Thank you for bringing light to our situation, the situation of the stateless. I wish they would find a solution. I hope there’s foreign pressure to find us a solution because it feels like there’s no hope left. I really hope the best for you and your future. You did right to leave, your parents did you well to leave. Sorry I didn’t think of what to say, but when I heard the interview, I thought I would try to find you.” My book hasn’t been published yet, but this feels like a success.

What happened to the carcass of the blue whale that arrived on Kuwait’s shore? The sub-dialect my mom and her sisters speak is predicted to be extinct in one generation. There was no room for it in society. There was no room for us in society.

I tell the stateless stranger that I’m sorry he’s still suffering, that he deserves a better life.

I visit my mom, who lives in Kuwait, in the winter of 2021 when borders reopen. Some of my cousins who had been abroad were flown home by the government when the pandemic started.

My mom and I go to the shore in Sharq. I buy ice cream and Turkish coffee for us for three dollars. The Egyptian working the stand asks if I’m Tunisian. Sometimes people ask if I’m Lebanese. I don’t know what to say standing in the neighborhood my parents grew up in. One hundred cats casually lounge on the shore.

Under New Mexico’s endless blue sky, I’m in the only home I know where I can legally live. I have quiet, stressful dreams about whales, and bite into a tangerine like my dad and sometimes wonder, “What am I doing here?”

How many orcas have seen tangerines? Have the waters of the Rio Grande ever crossed the Tigris and Euphrates after they spill into the Arabian Gulf? What has led me to live here is abstract, as mythical as orcas in the Arabian Gulf. 

Editor’s Note: We have used the term “Arabian Gulf” instead of the more conventional and common term “Persian Gulf” in this post at the request of the commissioned artist.

The Latest

Opportunities in July 2022

From grants, open calls, and commissions to residencies, fellowships, and workshops, our monthly list of opportunities for artists, writers, and art workers.

Zahra Marwan

Artist Zahra Marwan enjoys small narrative illustrations and magical realism, and is inspired by women of small physical stature who are otherwise larger than life. She is fond of her cultural roots in...

2 replies on “Like Orcas and Tangerines”

  1. Fabulous watercolors and insights! Thank you for enlightening us and sharing the truths of your world. You make mine richer.

Comments are closed.