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Read an extract from Behind You Is The Sea by Susan Muaddi Darraj

Read an extract from Behind You Is The Sea by Susan Muaddi Darraj

Behind You Is the Sea brings us into the homes and lives of three main families – the Baladis, the Salamehs, and the Ammars – Palestinian immigrants who’ve all found a different welcome in America.

Their various fates and struggles cause their community dynamic to sizzle and sometimes explode: the wealthy Ammar family employs young Maysoon Baladi, whose own family struggles financially, to clean up after their spoiled teenagers. Meanwhile, Marcus Salameh confronts his father in an effort to protect his younger sister for ‘dishonouring’ their name. Only a trip to Palestine, where Marcus experiences an unexpected and dramatic transformation, can bridge this seemingly unbridgeable divide between the two generations.

Behind You Is the Sea faces stereotypes about Palestinian culture head-on, shifting perspectives to weave a complex social fabric replete with weddings, funerals, broken hearts, and devastating secrets.


Maysoon Baladi

When Reema tells me the lady lives in Guilford, I charge her an extra fifty dollars. My sister tells me haram, she’s Palestinian like us, her parents are down-to-earth people, and God doesn’t like cheating, but I answer that she lives in fucking Guilford. God understands.

The streets in Guilford slide and curve like secrets, hiding homes from the public eye the way these people hide their money. I turn into Dalia Ammar’s driveway and steer the Buick up the smooth blacktop, no cracks, no dips, thinking about how Mama goes outside at 4:30 every day and puts a chair in the street to save a spot for Reema. Here it’s easy sailing, right to the top. The house is gray and white stone with shiny dark green shutters like dollar bills hanging off the facade. The glass sparkles on the windows, like eyes watching me. Around the front walk, I’m surprised to see clusters of daisies—something simple and sweet.

It’s a double door, with a wreath bigger than my whole torso hanging on it. Before I can knock, a thin woman with sleek brown hair opens it.

“Assalamu alaikum—”

“Park in the back, habibti,” she interrupts me with a nervous laugh, and I’m startled. Arabs have a reputation for being hospitable, but I know, based on the church people, that this is a myth. I wonder if she doesn’t want a shitty Buick to be seen in front of her house. As long as she pays me what I quoted, I’ll park wherever the fuck she wants.

I get back in my car and follow the driveway behind the house. The lady has opened a back door, which leads right into the kitchen. “That’s where you’ll park every time,” she says, standing at a wide marble counter the color of an elephant tusk. “I am Dalia. Imm Amir.”

The kitchen looks like the ones in my YouTube videos, where the chefs have a huge counter like a canvas to make their art. The rest of the house looks like Dalia walked into a showroom at Pottery Barn and said, “I’ll take it all.” As she begins to give me a tour, I know I will do that thing I hate, where I’ll go home this afternoon to our little apartment, with our mismatched Goodwill décor, and I will despise it.

She shows me the six bathrooms I’ll be cleaning. She has three kids, two girls and a son, and each one has their own. She points out the crown molding that will need dusting in the dining room, the hardwood floors throughout, the silky white rugs. Downstairs in the basement, which she calls the “lower level,” she shows me the theater. “This room is always a mess because Amir has his high school friends here a lot.” The theater has eight reclining leather chairs with built-in cupholders and charger stations. She shows me the extra kitchen in the back wing. The outdoor patio with its brick oven.

“This is the workout room. It’ll just need basic dusting,” she says, pushing open a door and startling a man doing leg lifts on a machine. He’s wearing shorts and a tank top. His head is shaved bald and his eyes are dark. And he looks pissed.

“Jesus Christ—”

“I didn’t even know you were home,” she snaps back. “This is the new cleaning woman, Maya.”

“Actually, it’s—”

“This is Demetri. Abu Amir.”

“Sharafna,” he says, standing and wrapping a towel around his neck.

“Come on. I’ll show you the girls’ playroom,” Dalia says to me and marches away. Demetri turns without a word and adds another weight bar onto the leg machine.

“She’s nervous,” he says, not looking at me. “You’re Arab, so she’s worried you’ll talk about her.”

“I’m not like that. I don’t even talk to most other Arabs around here, Mr. Ammar.”

“Demetri,” he says. He looks back and, because he smiles, I tell him my name is actually Maysoon.

Out in the hallway, Dalia mutters, “He’s hardly ever here. Usually he’s at work or at the narghile bar downtown.”

“Oh? Aladdin’s? My sister works a night shift there.”

“Why would she do that?” Dalia looks horrified, and I’m not sure why I do this, but I say that I don’t really go there. I feel it would make it worse if I told her my father used to wash dishes there long ago, whenever our food stamps ran out. That’s what Mama and Reema told me—I don’t remember.

Dalia nods as if she’s accepting an apology. Her own parents are nice people, but her married family, the Ammars— they’re not like mine; we’re the family on the fringes that all the wealthier Arabs like to talk about. We are the “look what happened to” example. I imagine people telling their daughters, “Don’t get mixed up with bad kids; look what happened to Boutrous’s daughter. She has a child and she’s still un-married. Her mother’s touched in the head and her poor sister cleans houses.”

Behind You Is The Sea by Susan Muaddi Darraj is published by Swift Press

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