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Image: Rajia Hassib/Submitted

I keep a bowl of fine white sand studded with seashells in my office. The shells are a collection of mixed origins: some from Egypt’s beaches, others from Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island, and a few from the local crafts store. The sand is there to remind me of my city of birth, Alexandria, which has been thriving by the Mediterranean ever since Alexander the Great landed on Egypt’s northern coast in 331 B.C. and decided the location was worthy of a great city to bear his name. My beautiful city of birth is now home to 5 million inhabitants, and I am no longer one of them. 

Yet, I still remember the city well enough to know that the sand in my bowl is not truly representative of its beaches. Alexandria’s sand is darker and a bit more coarse. Not as coarse as the sand I’ve walked on at various beaches on the Atlantic and Pacific shores, but still thick enough to build a sturdy sandcastle. The white sand like the one in my bowl can be found along beaches west of Alexandria, including the one a four-hour drive away in Marsa Matrouh, where my family and I like to go on vacation whenever we are in Egypt. I took the photo below there a few years ago. 

Image: Rajia Hassib/Submitted

The exact consistency of the sand is only one of many things I still know about my city of birth. I know what the air smells like as you leave the city’s depth and head toward the sea – the scent of iodine and fresh air different from any other beach city I’ve ever visited. I know at least three different ways to get, by foot, from the University of Alexandria’s Faculty of Fine Arts, where I studied Architecture, to my parents' apartment – a walk that can take from 25 to 35 minutes, depending on whether the route traces the seashore or goes parallel to the street tram. Twenty-three years after leaving, I still know which store sells the best vanilla ice cream and which one is known for the best rice pudding with its topping of roasted hazelnuts. I know it rains from September to April, but never in the summer. 

In Appalachia, summer rain is the norm. The air smells different here, but the thick humidity ushering in a shower is like what I grew up with in Alexandria. In Alexandria, a winter downpour means that driving can be tricky, both because of high wind and low visibility and, more importantly, because street drains get overwhelmed and dips in roads that slope under bridges quickly fill up with water, disabling vehicles. In Appalachia, a summer drizzle is a blessing after days of allergy-inducing dryness but a potential danger if it turns into a downpour. 

I know that rain can race down the sides of mountains, filling seemingly harmless narrow creeks and overflowing onto the banks, flooding homes nearby. A friend once saw his shed carried away by the creek water that rose in minutes, washing off onto his backyard. “I just stood there and watched the shed I had just built float away,” he told me, and I could picture that, because I know what the creeks running at the feet of Appalachia’s hills look like. I’ve even been thigh-deep in one before, clad in waders. 

Photo: Rajia Hassib/Submitted

I know sea water looks different from ocean water, which looks different from lake water. In Appalachia, my knowledge of nature expanded from water and sand to include trees growing on mountains. I’ve watched those trees for years. I may have grown up believing that trees need the moist clay soil of the Nile banks to grow, but now I know that they can shoot their roots through the rocky terrain of the Appalachian Mountains and stand strong, that they survive icy winters and are resurrected each spring, that their fall colors are more beautiful in person than anything I have ever seen in photos before. 

I know my home cities and towns, and I’ve had quite a few of them. Moving from one place to the next, I’ve learned that I need to feel anchored to something to feel at home, and the easiest way to achieve that is to learn the geography, to turn new surroundings into familiar ones, to form an intimate relationship with the place even if the people in it refuse to believe that I can ever fit in. 

This geographic anchoring is the first step toward making a home partly because it’s the easiest. It requires no collaboration with others. It’s a step I can take on my own, one that gives me comfort even when people choose to remind me that I’m an outsider, like that time a man overheard me speaking Arabic on the phone in public and told me to learn to speak English.

That day, I yelled at his back as he walked away from me. Then I drove home as quickly as I could, returned to the safety of the walls I know so well, the place that isolates and protects me. Sometimes, I tell myself that this kind of anchoring is enough. 

I have learned that one can get so immersed in this self-sufficient system of identifying with the place and its nature that one almost forgets the need for other people. Almost — until something unexpected happens. For example: being asked to write a newsletter about Appalachia to an audience of fellow Appalachians, being recognized as one of them, one of you, simply, with no need for explanation or justification. Being embraced like that, as if it’s the most natural thing. 

It is a wonderful, precious gift. 

To all of you who read my newsletters, and to all of you who made these newsletters happen: Thank you. 

It’s great to be home. 

Below, you’ll find an excerpt from my second novel, “A Pure Heart,” where the trees of Appalachia make an appearance. Scroll further down for my final reading recommendations.

Photo: Rajia Hassib/Submitted

Excerpt from “A Pure Heart”

Rose loves the trees. She loves all trees, mainly because Egypt has so few of them. Not that this is something she complains about: the sprawling desert is, after all, the main reason the temples and tombs of the Pharaohs remained intact, the dry climate of southern Egypt preserving them over millennia. All the palaces, towns, and living quarters that once dotted the humid Nile Delta in the north are eroded now, as her exasperated colleagues working on the new delta excavation projects keep lamenting. But these trees—the West Virginia trees she is taking in as she stands on Mark’s parents’ deck—are different from any other trees Rose has seen: wild, spreading endlessly in waves that hug the curves of the mountains ahead, claiming ownership of the land. The trees belong here with an authority that the Central Park trees can never boast. Rose reaches over and touches the rounded, lobbed leaves of an ancient white oak, its branches extending to within inches of the deck. During her first visit here, Mark dug up a massive folder containing a tree identification project he completed in seventh grade. Flipping through the pages, he acquainted her with trees that had stood in place since his childhood: the white oak to the left; the two sugar maples ahead; the row of thuja trees forming a privacy screen to her right. The backyard sloped down in a neat lawn that eventually gave way to an untamed forest of maples, oaks, and beech trees, among others, many of them overgrown with climbing vines and weeds that rivaled the trees in height. Sometimes, Mark told her, you could see a family of deer strolling out of the forest and onto the lawn. Every time Rose was here, she looked out for deer, almost squealing in delight whenever she saw one. They, too, belonged here in a way that Rose envied.

She leans against the deck’s railing, watching a pair of squirrels chase each across the lawn. Now more than ever does she believe Mark’s claim that belonging starts with an identification with the place, not the people. “The natives may take you in, or they may refuse to do so, regardless of how long you’ve lived among them,” he had once told her as they strolled along the Nile. “But places are always more welcoming. Places don’t care where you were born or how long you’ve lived in them. If you like them and make the effort to know them, they make you feel like you belong there. It’s their gift to you. Their way of liking you back.”

Throughout his travels, Mark had made it a priority to know the place that was to become his home. In his first years in New York and, later, in Lebanon and Egypt, he had kept journals with folded-up maps nested within their pages, had scribbled descriptions of the most random of spots—the corner of Thirty-sixth and Broadway where he tried honey-roasted nuts for the first time; the brick-paved stretch of Hamra Street in Beirut where he often stood under the same palm tree and watched the stores light up at dusk; the row of shops bordering the Zamalek Sporting Club in Cairo; the first bench on the right-hand side as one walks off the Qasr El-Nil Bridge; the coffee shop a few steps below the sidewalk on El-Moez Street. The more of these random nooks he could claim an intimate knowledge of, the more he felt at home.

Now, looking at the forest beyond the deck, Rose understands. She closes her eyes and thinks of her own nooks, the places where she feels the happiest: her desk at the Met; the stoop in front of Mrs. Kumiega’s apartment building where she keeps her geraniums in the spring; the table by the tennis courts in the Gezira Club, where she used to eat breakfast and go over her course work during her college years in Egypt; the hall at the Egyptian Museum where she often sat, cross-legged, and sketched in front of the statue of Akhenaten, the Pharaoh who called for the worship of one god only and angered the priests. Her places, collected, are as unique and individual as Mark’s. Her places make her who she is. And now, strangely, she realizes that this spot on her in-laws’ deck is one of her places, too.

Photo: Rajia Hassib/Submitted

Book Talk  

Here I’ll highlight what I’m reading now, have read, or want to read, featuring Appalachian, Muslim and Arab writers, in celebration of my complex identity and their excellent work.  

For my last newsletter’s reading recommendations, I’m using an anthology as a guide: “Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia,” edited by Laura Long and Doug Van Gundy. I’m lucky enough to have a short story included in it next to wonderful works by 62 other Appalachian writers and poets — another instance when being included made me feel like I was home. 

The list of contributors is long and uniformly excellent; they include some writers I’ve mentioned in previous newsletters, like Marc Harshman and Marie Manilla, and others. I wish I could mention every book published by writers featured in this anthology, but, for the sake of space (and to avoid overwhelming readers), I’ve picked out four novels and four collections of poetry to highlight below. If you want to discover Appalachian voices you may not know about or read more by old favorites, then I highly recommend you look up this anthology. 

Photo: Rajia Hassib/Submitted

The novels: John Van Kirk’s “Song for Chance,” seeped in 1970s rock and roll, love and loss, and complete with a fictional discography, including a rock opera called “The Enchanted Pond.” Laura Long’s lyrical and poetic novel in stories, “Out of Peel Tree.” Jessie Van Eerden’s “My Radio Radio,” where secrets abound, and a young girl wishes for a headstone to mark her brother’s grave. And Ann Pancake’s “Strange as this Weather has Been,” the story of a coal mining family living in West Virginia. 

Photo: Rajia Hassib/Submitted

The collections of poetry: Mary Barbara Moore’s “Flicker,” A.E. Stringer’s “Asbestos Brocade,” Jeff Tigchelaar’s “Certain Streets at an Uncertain Hour,” and, as a fitting ending to my immigration and finding home themed newsletter, Laura Treacy Bentley’s “Looking for Ireland: An Irish-Appalachian Pilgrimage.

That’s it! It’s been an honor and a pleasure to share my stories with you over the past four weeks. Thank you for reading. I wish you health, happiness, and all the good that this world has to offer. 

With love,

Rajia Hassib

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