My grandmother arrived on a spring day in 1998, petite yet imposing in a wheelchair and embroidered thobe. Our moment of contact stands out in the blurred reel of my early childhood memories: the startling strength of her embrace, her soft breasts pillowing my face with the scent of sweat, spice, and rosewater. Dazed by her rapid-fire Arabic and torrent of kisses, I turned to search my parents for cues.
My father was transformed. His dark features filled with a boyish light at this reunion with his mother seven years after his immigration to the United States. Theirs was a bond forged in the wars they survived together, their flight from Palestine in 1967, and the poverty and displacement that followed. My mother hung back, her face less scrutable. Pale and blonde, her cheeks wore a tinge of pink, and I recall a tightness in her smile, as if, beneath her Midwestern politeness, she was bracing for something.
The changes began immediately. Though less than five feet tall and unable to walk upright, my Sittoo was a force of nature. (Among the many traditional Arabic words for grandmother, sittoo is common in colloquial Palestinian dialects.) Seemingly overnight, the axis of our quiet suburban home shifted, re-constellating into something more like a traditional Arab multi-generational household. She took command of the kitchen first, supplanting cans of Spaghetti-Os with jars of dried spices hauled from Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Thin mats replaced furniture on the floor, and our TV magically flickered on to Egyptian mosalsalat, or soap operas, beamed in from a new satellite dish.
Most of all, Sittoo’s arrival transformed the role of time in our lives. Previously, my siblings and I had followed the strict schedule set by my mother, guided through the day in fifteen- and thirty-minute increments for everything from personal hygiene to homeschool lessons to slots of PBS television and playtime, which we “earned” through completed tasks. We were given checklists, which we presented in response to my mother’s frequent question, “what have you accomplished so far today?” She taught us to embroider, insisting that we stitch during our allotted episodes of The Magic School Bus.
All this discipline was to ensure maximal productivity, a word she invoked constantly and with great solemnity. Descended from stoic German-Lutheran stock, my mother revered work as an unadulterated good, fondly repeating tales of after-school hours spent helping out at her parents’ struggling church supply store. In her telling, free time was scarce, but she and her siblings were afforded something more precious. “We learned how to work hard,” she’d explain, beaming virtuously.
This needed no exposition — to be hard-working, we understood, was to be good. Despite having never read Max Weber, my mother bragged often of her “Protestant Work Ethic,” subscribing implicitly to the ethos of the American Puritans who, per Weber, saw “labor as an absolute end in itself, a calling.” Toil was tautologically imperative — work was godly, and the godly worked.
But under Sittoo’s reign, the tyranny of time softened. If the arc of my mother’s days was an upward slope of accumulating tasks, my grandmother looped her hours around a loose collection of duties and diversions. In the morning, she woke early for prayers, prepared ingredients for the days’ cooking, and shared breakfast with my father. Throughout the day, she called to us frequently, coaxing us from our assigned tasks to join her on the floor. Delighted, we complied, watching television or practicing one of the card games she loved (and always won).
Most of all, Sittoo’s hours circled around the kitchen, where she expressed herself in the language of meat and dough, rice and stews. Dinnertime, once a forgettable and brief experience, was now the climax of the day, a lavish performance of enjoyment orchestrated by Sittoo’s ever-prodding ladle. The meal ended with a collective sigh as we all leaned back, declining for the final time my grandmother’s offer of more feta or jaj. Before us, an aftermath of rice, chicken bones, and wrung-out lemons sprawled across the communal tray.
After washing warm grease from faces and fingers, we made the short trip to the den to plant our purring bodies on the floor. My father switched on an Egyptian comedy, tuned to an Arabic-language music channel, or shuffled cards. The entertainment was secondary, interchangeable; the real centerpiece was simply presence. And tea.
Tea — the boiling of sage leaves, the anointing of Lipton with sprigs of fresh mint — is one of the few tangible ways Sittoo’s presence remained with me over the years. She passed away in 2016, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (We are diasporic Palestinians, first scattered in 1948 in the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” as Arabs refer to the foundation of the state of Israel. The event expelled between 700,000 and a million Palestinians, including my grandmother and her three young sons. Today, the Palestinian diaspora numbers an estimated 6 million.) I was living in Philadelphia when I heard the news. Afterwards, I walked for hours on chilly sidewalks, waiting for tears. My grief remained remote, muted by miles and all the ways we’d grown apart.
In a sense, I had been raised to feel this distance from her. Even as my parents taught me to revere Sittoo, they had insisted it was my destiny to supersede her. While my grandmother spoke of her past mainly in vignettes of people she’d known — quirky neighbors, mischievous children — my parents cast her experiences as a series of parables, spun to contrast with my life. Unlike me, she never had the chance to go to school. Unlike me, she was married as a young teen. Unlike me, she worked with her hands, tending to the land before losing everything in the Nakba.
From there, her life continued as an odyssey of losses. A second war, in 1967, drove her from a Gazan refugee camp to exile in a series of Middle Eastern countries. She endured a tumultuous marriage with my poverty-hardened grandfather, permanent separation from much of her family, multiple miscarriages, and a life of ailing health.
My father, however, managed a triumphant escape from poverty through the magic of a U.S. green card. It was here I was meant to see my origin — at the tidy starting-line painted by Sittoo’s survival and my baba’s miraculous migration. My life would be different— from theirs, and from my cousins’ back in the Middle East, where, my parents lamented, the schools were terrible and the job prospects bleak. I was the “lucky” one, born in a country where, I was told, I could (and would) achieve greatness.
But for all their talk of luck and fate, my parents would leave nothing to chance. Their origin myth had a pragmatic moral: Our good fortune was all self-made, the fruit of years of toil and tenacity. They wrapped labor in yet another tautology — not only did work and morality uphold one another, but so went luck. We are lucky to work, and we work to ensure our luck. If America was a land of miracles, the magic was elbow grease.
So began my exile from my Sittoo, and myself. Attempting to empower me, my parents instructed me unwittingly in ideas of Arab inferiority. When we moved to the Middle East, my parents enrolled us in the American school and sought out fellow expats. When looking for doctors, they sought out Westerners (once, we settled for an Arab dentist with a Harvard degree). My father complained about his Arab employers, comparing workplace “dysfunction” to his memories of American efficiency. On the roads, snarled traffic had him riffing on the beauty of U.S. highways (now, I see this as misguided but legitimate outrage at post-colonial inequity).
A line gradually formed in me, one with an insidious lineage well-captured by Edward Said: “a set of binary oppositions between Europeans and orientals which always worked to the detriment of the latter…between Western rationality and oriental irrationality, Western industry and oriental indolence, Western self-control and the oriental lack of it.” I began to view my Arab “side” as merely a personal cultural marker, a matter of vaguely feminine matters such as food and domestic language, unrelated to power. Like Sittoo, Arabness was a relic, beloved but irrelevant. The future was American.
So, like a good American, I worked. Goaded by duty and guilt, I excelled at school, burning through extra credit and leap-frogging over grades. I learned the art of conflating hard work and fun, honed the ability to mute my body’s language, and developed ulcers at 15. By then, I was taking a full slate of dual-credit college courses, editing the school paper, and snagging academic awards. (I also began waged work, first in the corn fields that abbutted our midwestern town, and later folding clothes under the fluorescent lights of Old Navy.) For all this, my parents, who had moved back to the United States largely for the sake of my education, gave only occasional and mild praise. Hard work, of course, was its own reward.
Outside our home, I heard the same equation of effort and good fortune. From mainstream feminist discourse to the convocation speech at my Ivy League university, I found women like me continually congratulated for being “lucky” enough to have the chance to struggle up the ladders of professional, academic, and economic success. As we did, the toll of this “success” went unacknowledged; our exhaustion was ignored or wielded as a status symbol, our neuroses hidden, or used as punchlines.
And so I found myself in the fall of 2019, doubled over with the pain of lesions that had flowered from my esophagus to my small intestine. A litany of tests returned only one explanation: stress. Stress and work-related PTSD also explained the slew of other health issues that followed and forced me into a sabbatical. A few months before the Covid-19 pandemic began, I was thrown into the inertia that would soon grip millions. My days, suddenly unstructured, loomed lumpen and obscure.
I could almost hear my mother’s kitchen clock again, ticking each moment of my incriminating idleness. I could not bring myself to sleep in, to read for pleasure, to binge TV — things I had once fantasized about in my previous, frenzied life. Instead, I clawed around my apartment for any sense of usefulness. I needed work simply for its own sake, to assuage the emptiness I felt. Against doctor’s orders, I kept busy. I woke early, cleaned relentlessly, studied foreign languages, researched for projects I had no prospect of completing. And, when the pain in my abdomen overwhelmed me, I brewed tea.
I did not intend to resurrect my grandmother. I turned to tea for its utility — the maramiya she used to brew does wonders for the stomach. I’d discovered a bag of the dried sage one day during one of my bouts of kitchen organizing, a forgotten gift bought by my father during a visit to Jordan. He knew how much I loved it. I prepared a hasty cup, hoping the herb would hush my achy body into compliance, help get me back to work.
I took the first slurp while still standing at the stove — then paused. I sensed a trespass, something unholy in my hurry. Through my haze, the image of my grandmother coalesced — her soft body rocking gently beside a steaming pot. For the first time in hours, I sat down.
Each night, as we sprawled on the floor, Sittoo would set out a plastic tray with a weathered teapot and several peanut butter jars filled with dried leaves. She kept watch over the steeping brew, stirring as she and my father floated sporadic conversation. Eventually, she strained away the tea, sprinkling in some na’na’, spearmint, or sage. This was followed by more intermittent stirs, an occasional sip to test her progress, more waiting. I recall wondering how, after taking so much time, the tea still arrived hot.
Yet the pace was exactly as it should be — the perfect ornament for our unabashed, collective idleness. The clinking of the spoon, the flamboyance in her pour, the languid, almost careless pause between stirs — each part of the ritual accumulated to a lavish expenditure of time. The moments grew thick and wide around us, and we let them burn, warming us for an instant before they wafted into the past.
And the shay, when it did arrive, was perfect too, filling small glasses with red-gold hue, gritty sugar dancing at the base.
During all of this, my mother was a conspicuous exception. Preferring furniture to the floor, she would often draw a chair to the margins of the room. Usually, she’d bring some task with her , some darning, paperwork, or laundry. She sat absorbed in this private activity, performing it with seemingly deliberate slowness. It was as if, like my grandmother, she was determined to take all the time she could. But I sensed her motive was the opposite of Sittoo’s — rather than a performance of leisure, hers was a repudiation of it, a refusal to finish working.
I see them now, these two women from whose bodies and spirits I am made. From my vantage on the floor, my mother’s perch on the chair appears as an effort to hold herself above the instinctual pleasures of rest and comfort. I see her adversarial relationship to time, her determination to wrest output, a sense of purpose, from every minute. I think about the weariness she must have felt, if only in private, sidelong moments. It’s a weariness we share, a sensibility engraved in me from the lining of my worry-worn stomach to the riotous neurotransmitters I’ve spent years trying to soothe.
I begin to wish better for her, for us.
What exactly my Sittoo would say to my adult anxieties about productivity, time, and identity, I cannot say for sure. Although my Arabic did catch up with hers, our conversations were never so theoretical. And perhaps therein lies the answer — that she saw no need to mediate her life through such abstract assessments. In work, she was beholden to neither feminist ideals nor delusions of an optimized existence. Hers was a strict logic of means and ends. She labored not for self-worth but for survival, salvaging again and again from the wreckage of circumstance.
Perhaps this also explains her freedom from self-seriousness; she laughed often, even through pain. Her past had taught her that the future was untellable, capable of swift catastrophe and world-ending turns. In this light, she celebrated the fleeting simplicities of food and talk and tea, and never once asked me about my grades or accolades. Her questions aimed instead at the heart of life, though it took me years to see this. She wanted to know: am I eating enough? Am I safe and warm? Has my stomach ache gone away, or do I need some more yansoon?
Sarah Aziza’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, Harper’s, and The Intercept, among others. She splits her time between New York City and the Middle East, and is currently working on a book.