"Six Rules to Live the American Dream When You Are Not on American Soil" by Fatima Alahrthi

Fatima Alahrthi

Fatima Alahrthi

Fatima Alahrthi is a Saudi writer and translator. Her work appeared in The Southern Review, Denver Quarterly, Los Angeles Review and SmokeLong Quarterly among others.

Six Rules to Live the American Dream When You Are Not on American Soil


1. Make Your Breakfast

The vacuum bawl quickens my pace down the stairs, not minding the one slipping hot roller that banged on the staircase and announced itself a winner on the stairs’ landing. I pick it up, trying to locate the roller’s clip with my hasty eyes as I swerve to the salon. The vacuum is so loud that I ran down the stairs before I put on my slippers or a pair of socks. Parlor palm, dracaena, and snake plant stand like patient worshippers waiting for the sun to bow in synthesis. An orange line streaks the navy sky, not revealing the location of the monochrome birds flitting from the barren flowerbed to the palm tree fronds. Their morning salutation reminds me of the red hues of cardinals in North Florida. In the salon, Sona sways with the vacuum hose. A whirr from the washing machine solidifies the beginning of a new day. “Madam?”

“No need for the vacuum now. Sir and Yazan are asleep.”

I don’t tell Sona that Yazan got accustomed to Florida’s thunder, that the vacuum sound is nothing compared to the piercing sky shriek, or that the shrill of AMBER alert is by far the most unsettling sound that a person can ever handle since it puts every child on the brink of possible kidnap, but Arabian habit had it that vacuums start only after everyone is awake or at least at 9 am.

“Hadir, but I need a brooch.”

“Brooch, what is a brooch?”

She gestures to the ground with a sweeping hand. I nod, promising to get her one. Getting is not really the accurate word since a text message to the driver with the rest of the day’s groceries will deliver the broom along with plastic bags that have replaced the totes, I gave him a few months ago since our return from the States.

“They are not practical ya um Yazan.” The driver had said as I handed him wads of the reusable bags.

“They are safer for the environment. Plastic kills marine life.”

“Humans kill each other every day, ya Um Yazan. Let’s care about our brothers before the environment.”

“Just use the tote bags. Is that possible?”


Sona returns the vacuum to the storage and stands at the iron board in the opposite room, becoming one with the washer and dryer. On one shelf, the reusable bags wait like obedient children. A Fresh Market burlap bag with fading pink roses, an insulated green Whole Foods, a Trader’s Joe, and tens of plain paige that I intended to print the logo of my restaurant on but never did.

“Want coffee, madam?”

“Thanks, I’ll make it myself. Fini...”

She unplugs the cord, leaving the burgundy tee half-ironed. The side view of the Seminole’s gaped mouth carries a shout locked in my sternum. Not only because none of the supermarkets have Folgers classic roast on their shelves, but because my hands are tight in my own house, and the kitchen is now Sona’s claimed territory. Breathe, I tell myself. Think about the brunch with Hanaa. The toaster pops.

2. Hang the Plate of Your Car

Upstairs, Florida’s orange greets me from the plate hanging on the wall. The two oranges and three white blossoms surprise me. I’ve always seen it as a single orange, one plump ball that doesn’t reflect much sunshine as it does to appetite. The plate is part of America’s wall, as Omar called it. Yazan’s swaddle with the typical American pattern of diagonal blue, pink, and white stripes center the wall. Framing relics is easy, but reliving pleasant times is hard. A metal print has the map of Florida and a dropped pin of a heart shape on Tallahassee. Yazan’s baby handprint takes up a square space, and the USDA license of my restaurant stands above the plate. Afnan’s Kitchen, the American federal register acknowledges my name. Little did I know that a name needs to be appealing not only to Arabs but to Americans, Hispanics, and all ethnicities. People judge the names before tasting the cuisine. MYFLORIDA.COM, the plate reads.

I type the website into my phone, scrolling down to the State of Florida Directory. I type in “Afnan’s Kitchen.” No record was found. I type in my US number. Still, No record was found. I google my name. A fashionista appears who looks everything opposite from me, filler lips, taught face, fixed nose, Hollywood smile, and cheek dimples. I google Omar’s name. Ten results appear. Omar, in his doctoral graduation gown and ludicrous tam taking the diploma from the university’s president. Omar on the TV talking about his book, The Complete Guide to Study for the Ph.D. in America. Omar wearing the Saudi thobe and shemagh on the local university’s website–a headshot that accompanies his resume. The CV is accurate except for lacking a single line that should have said: Omar failed his promise to support his wife in establishing her business in the States.

Sona brings a tray of pot coffee, two cups, and toasted bread with a spread of peanut butter and banana slices. A sprinkle of cinnamon brings Tallahassee’s busy mornings to Jeddah’s quiet Saturday. The same morning when I was in the kitchen baking scones when the bell rang, and a petite woman wearing a purple scarf waited. The bell coincided with a phone call that I ignored. The bell rang again, then the driver knocked on the door with his sturdy palm.

“Ya Um Yazan, open the door. Your mom is on the phone.”

“How’s the surprise?” Ommi’s voice comes from the driver’s scratched screen.

“This is a maid, a gift from your mother.” The driver whispered.

“It’s your coming back gift. I planned it for months,” my mother said.

“Oh, thank you. I didn’t see that coming.”

“Just rest and let her do everything.”

A message beeps on my phone. Sorry for the last-minute change of plans, but I can’t make it.

3. Weed Your Garden

I sip my coffee as I look at America’s wall and see myself in the rental backyard with a brown picket fence that I wished to paint white to start the American saga of a happy family, a white picket fence, then a mortgage, but the Ph.D. yanked Omar to the university’s library diving in research papers or recording notes on the book he appointed a ghostwriter to compose leaving no time to consider buying a house. The satsuma tree hasn’t borne any fruit other than the one that blossomed the year Yazan was born, and the giant oak tree dispels one carcass after another from June to November until death sickens it, making it stop abandoning more twigs.

There was a shovel in my hand, organic soil, and tiny pots of mint.

“What are you doing?”

Omar perched from the deck in his shorts and pajama tee, squinting.


“Planting in Ramadan? See how hot it is.”

The yard had a shaven part adjoining the Satsuma tree-like Yazan’s head when a week after birth, I caught Omar in the bathtub shaving the boy’s head without my consent, a white trail on the bushy greasy hair mocking thoughts of remorse. I held the giant potting soil bag. Omar descended the deck’s few stairs taking the bag from me and emptying some on the weeded track.

“What do you want to put here?”


“Oh, that’s the avocado?”

I nodded. The avocado’s pit looked like a Mercedes Benz symbol on a jar saved from the marinara sauce. Three toothpicks supported the pit from three sides, letting it hover over the jar’s mouth. Beneath the pit, roots extended in water. Above it, a thin stalk spouted three leaves. Omar flipped the two pots of mint, then mixed their collapsing pot shape with the dark organic soil. Specks of green appeared on the reworked ground that, in my eyes, spread to cover the entire dug path.

“Where do you want to put the avocado?” Omar asked.

Omar arched, transplanting the avocado gently from the tip of the jar to the face of the earth; a journey that, in the coming days, as I sat in front of the computer viewing my IELTS English Proficiency score, a squirrel devoured the mint and the avocado leaving the stalk bereft of leaves. Homar, I shouted from behind the windows. The screen flickered an overall score of 5.4 with a score of 3 in writing. Homar, son of the dog, and idiot. I cursed once more, dividing the slurs between the squirrel and IELTS.

Two soft palms covered my eyes.

“Guess what I got you? Omar asked.

“Moulokheyya seeds?”


“Master acceptance offer?”

“No. Much more important.”

“Tickets to the Bahamas.”

“I should do that next. Something you really wanted. Do you give up?”


I want the same palms that uncovered my eyes to see the USDA certificate to take me around Jeddah, pointing out opportunities. No one tells you that being a trailing spouse is a failure; that unless your status changes from an ex-trailing spouse to a master’s or a Ph.D. student, your place back home is compromised. The coffee has a bland taste to it. Local supermarkets deemed Illly to be a better brand. The heart-dropped pin transitions into a tear-shaped blood drop. We bleed places that made us feel home. Florida’s map looks like a giant scar, more prominent than the almond shape on my forehead from swinging high to reach the branch of the camphor tree, plainer than the amorphous triangular scar on my elbow crease, and more furrowed than the iron mark my brother stamped on my left hand. How can a home become reduced to scars?

4. Install a Ceiling Fan

The cuckoo bird trills at 6.25 am. Before our travels to the States, it used to strike on the hours. Neglect causes readjustments. I see it chiming on the top of every hour in an empty house until alkaline froths at its battery sockets. Only if I can change batteries and return to the lively entrepreneur in North Florida. I check my Instagram account. 60 followers only– mainly family and friends. The page has a photo of white and yellow rice with chunks of lamb and slices of lemon circumventing the plate. Another of grape leaves, a third of Lotus cake. Instagram suggests Noor Alsalim’s account. Sharp photos of high resolution justify her 1.4 Million followers. Her bio reads: a Ph.D. candidate at KAU. Scrolling down, her photos are not crowded like mine. A single plate with two pancakes, a gold fork, and powdered sugar sprinkled on top with three raspberries. Two layered plates housing potato balls and a garnish of rosemary, slices of lime, and a red chili. Marble cake on a wooden base contrasting with the white Formica countertop. 1.4 million for only 1588 posts?

Eating my toasts, my thighs look like imported body parts, like those of my aunt but never me. I feel like the dead fly trapped in the ceiling lamp above. I’ve always been a bamboo stalk, but these thighs speak of comfort enlarged with every samosa order I received back in the States, with the child that has an American passport and I don’t, and every packaged lunch I prepared for Omar in the morning. I tap the crumbs on my leggings with a wet forefinger, sip more coffee, and look again at the black stain on the white bowl-like ceiling light. Yazan comes running; a frown races him. He sobs.

“What’s wrong?”

“I had a nightmare.”

“Come on.”

I push the coffee table to the side–the surface is sparkly clean. No coffee rings or scribbles of permanent marker, but white as pristine as a new coffee table can be. His seven years old body rests on my lap. I chafe his shoulders, pantomiming three saliva-free spits.

“Spit on your left side three times and say Aaothu billah min al shaytan alrajeem.”

He spits and says the prayer mostly in vowels and broken Arabic, of what his short memory allows.

“Want to eat with me, or do you want to go back to bed?”

“I’m hungry.”

He looks at the toast, then shifts his gaze behind us at the window. The sun is not yet fully up. “Actually, I’d like to sleep.”

I kiss him, and he vanishes through the corridor. What had I been thinking about? Uh, Instagram. No, it was something else. Something that annoyed me. Hanaa’s ditching me. No, something different. My thighs. Still no, something more significant. The USDA license mocks my inability to palpate the source of anxiety. I take a bite into the second sliced toast and send a message to Hanaa.

“Is everything all right?”

She types, deletes the words, and leaves the question unanswered.


“Don’t freak me out. What happened?”

I call. Her phone is turned off. What greater harm can possibly inflict a Saudi woman who knows how to drive roaming the city freely whenever she wanted, I wonder.

5. Leave Your Door Unlocked

Shutters elongate nocturnal sleep splitting the house into daytime for Sona, me, and the indoor plants. The ticking of the clock is inaudible. I scroll down to see Noor Alsalim’s first misfitting posts; a side view of a large tray of rice, a Pyrex of basbousa soaked in sugar syrup, or her plump hand stirring a soup. Firsts had to be a mess. The backgrounds are black at the bottom, a post with three stacked tart dates zoomed out, and another has a potato, red onion head, and ribs. All of poor resolution. The first post is of a waffle in a restaurant, the second of sunset, and the sixth and seventh are similar to mine, with an orange cloud tinting the images. A scream bounces me from the comfort of my flesh. Sona runs up the stairs, panting. “Madam, there is a man downstairs.”

“What do you mean by there is a man?” I startled, cocking my head.

Heavy steps tread the ground floor, and a coarse voice calls for some Salwa. “Ya Salwa, fainik ya Salwa?

If I were in my rented American home, I would pull a knife from the kitchen or reach for the pepper spray from the side pocket of my purse. I would send the retriever we wanted to have but never did, yet here everything is spaced out. The kitchen is closer to the intruder than me, and the pepper spray has long been lost.

“Take this, Madam.”

Sona extends her hand with a bug spray carrying a picture of a topsy turvy cockroach surrendering to death. The intruder’s tenor gets harsher, his voice louder.

“Salwa, where is the dinner? Why is the table empty?”

For a moment, I consider waking up Omar. His CrossFit workout must be applied to good use, but his late sleep attending his friend’s wedding makes me brush the idea off. Sona stands near the corridor leading to the bedrooms, biting her nails. I’ve never seen an afraid person before. She appears smaller than her actual size, and tears gathered in her eyes.

“We’ll be okay,” I whisper.

“Madam, no.”

Sona holds out her hand, but I am already descending the stairs. The pre-United States Afnan would have woken her husband, taken the rollers down from her hair, put on her hijab, and called the police. Instead, I’m holding out my phone, videotaping, and using my voice as a weapon walking down the stairs with a straight posture. Armed with Omar’s eight-year-old advice to act strong if a stray dog comes close, to brandish a twig and threaten to attack even if the walls of my heart collapse in ultimate fear.

“Who is here? Haven’t they taught you it’s impolite to break into people’s houses?” I roared.

6. Stock on Jolly Rancher, Amazon Packages, and Cocofloss

The look on the man’s face communicates puzzlement. A puzzled face freezes at the sight of a female claiming authority in a space a male thinks his own. Perhaps my hair rollers frightened him, or my big thighs suggested somatic power, or perhaps it is the phone in my hand capturing the incident appearing like a pointing gun. The man lowers his head, averting his gaze. He prepares to leave saying in a low voice:

“Forgive me, sister. I got the house wrong.”

I say nothing. The phone captures his back bowing in departure; a gesture I take as a collective apology from the driver, Omar, Hanaa, IELTS examiners, US termination of our F1 and F2 visas, and fate. I feel Sona’s shadow standing on the staircase, and a smile the width of the Arabian desert engulfs her. I take two jolly ranchers from the bowl on the entree, handing one to Sona. Although I know the wrapper has become stuck to the hard candy, that it will take us a minute to lick our viscus fingers, that I will rub soap hard enough to get rid of the candy’s stickiness, that mornings are not the ideal time for candies, and that Hanaa is calling me now to vent the four red-fingered marks on her arm from her physician husband, I face the phone down letting it vibrate in isolation as I unwrap the candy with both hands reflecting on how unfeasible to pack a pair of lively Northern cardinals, of strangers’ hands waving on a clean sidewalk, or of an emerald landscape precipitating droplets of hope.