Pauline Kaldas was born in Egypt in 1961 and immigrated to the United States with her parents in 1969 at the age of eight.
She is the author of The Time Between Places, a collection of short stories; Letters from Cairo, a travel memoir; and Egyptian Compass, a collection of poetry. She also co-edited, with Khaled Mattawa, Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction.
Her work navigates the geography of immigration, exploring issues of culture, identity, language, and home. Pauline Kaldas is currently an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia.
- The Time Between Places (short stories), University of Arkansas Press, 2010.
- Letters from Cairo (memoir), Syracuse University Press, 2007.
- Egyptian Compass (poetry), Custom Words, 2006.
- Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction (co-edited with Khaled Mattawa), University of Arkansas Press, 2009.
Official Website: www.paulinekaldas.com
By Pauline Kaldas
My father taught me to swim on my back, his hands beneath me to align my body against the surface. I struggled to keep my head back, trust the buoyancy of salt water. Cautiousness made me lift my head, and my body caved into the sea till I caught my balance and again found breath.
My mother entered the water with trepidation, hand held tight to my father’s. The lapping of sea at the sand’s edge tickling her ankles made her tighten her grip and hesitate her steps. As each wave receded, she edged forward, wary of the next one’s approach. The sea’s calling enticed her only to her waist, until a wave reached higher to caress her face, then she would dash back to safety.
The waves leaped against us. We bounced to avoid their impact, but sprinklings of salt still slapped our taste buds.
Those summers, I learned the freedom of the sea’s expanse. In the distance, a boat’s silhouette traced the edge of the water’s horizon till it faded into a place beyond my imagination. My small life between school and home in Cairo and the sea in Alexandria were enough to satisfy my desires.
But like the refrain of waves, forces push against my world, and the tug of childhood begins to release. In 1969, the war remains a layer beneath our lives. I see it in my great aunt’s eyes that look beyond to a place where she imagines her son still alive. I sense it in the diminished ambitions that fray at the tapestry of my parents’ generation. Their gaze longs toward a new landscape, roads paved in metallic hope.
America is a word void of images. Here coarse sand trickles between my toes, salt stings my tongue, fish snatch at my nostrils, rising voices blend my ears, and waves tapping against shore capture my sight.
And I find myself again, as one photograph holds me. I am just five, maybe six. My body turns to the camera, eyes slightly lowered to shield from the sun’s strength, arm bent and hand on my hip in a gesture almost aggressive against the camera. In my other hand, I hold the red bucket with a picture of a sailboat. My hair frames around my face with short curly bangs that hover above my eyes. Standing in my two piece bathing suit, my toes curl into the slippery water and my body pushes forward in a gesture of defiance against this intrusion. This is all I had to carry across the ocean with me—the sand of my homeland and the defiance held in that pose, that arm placed on my waist in daring. But in this moment, I am as yet unaware of how the sea will beckon me to cross beyond the horizon’s edge and reach a world that stretches beyond my vision.
I am held in the trance of this world that circles desert and sea. My feet slap tight in hard leather against the concrete streets of Cairo, and my arches sway over the sand shifting on these Alexandria beaches. I am eight before we leave and I have learned to carry my weight across these terrains.
Text in this post: © Pauline Kaldas
Published with the permission of Pauline Kaldas