By Lydia Haile ’19. Photography by Shuyan Wang ’20.
You can see the beam from my house, if you look out from the right angle at the right time of night. Anytime from 7 p.m. to sunrise, light projects out, straight, scraping out an outline in an ashen sky. And it goes, goes, goes, for foreseeably forever. Some say you can see it from the space station. At the very least, Los Angeles- four hours east on the I-15. Pure light, in a city washed with darkness.
It emerges from a pyramid base, plated with black tile. In front of is lies a small white Sphynx entrance, almost awe-inspiring to anyone who has not seen the actual thing. Behind lies a variety of strip malls and commercial centers. In the desert sun, surrounded by parking lots and plots of dirt, it is stupidly gaudy; at night, not as much. Light pollution, you could call it. Its reach over the sky, erasing any potential childhood stargazing memories. It is my singular night star.
Some nights, when I drive past the pyramid on the I-15, I imagine it is mine- that I am a Nubian queen in the modern day. It is my own Black Egypt hypothesis- that my people built the pyramids. If not in Egypt, surely here. My aunts, uncles, cousins, hair braiders, church members, corner-store owners are a labor force plucked from East Africa, migrating to the Vegas strip to clean its hotels, pools; drive its taxis, valet its luxury cars, service its patrons. We are a new desert royalty.
I wear gold necklaces, gold earrings, gold bracelets, gold earbuds. I say it is because I have a warm complexion, and gold brings out the undertones. That is true. Yet I wonder if it is to bring out the royalty in myself. My hair is braided most weeks, in the same vein as Queen Saba and Queen Cleopatra. It is an African queen aesthetic, maybe forgotten by an upbringing in a different land, with a different spoken tongue. But it is there.
Perhaps that is why, when I sit on the floor of my room, disassembling my braids, I feel as if I am disassembling myself.
ምን ተፈተረ/ algebinyem/ I don’t understand
The secrets of this world are tucked beneath the loose corners of my grandmother’s smile. In the glaze of her eyes when the air is full of English, the stretch of her skirts from waist to ankle. The soft folds in the skin surrounding her elbows; her fingers, locked in fervent prayer each night. A tattooed orthodox cross on the back of her left hand. Her skin is a light brown. Probably much darker in Addis Ababa, almost touched by the equator. Her melanin seems to have snuck away. We live in a desert, but she does not go outside. She is here, but she is not really here.
We exchange phrases. Endatenesh. How are you. Timert endatenow. How is school. Dena. Good. Egzabieyher emesgen. Thank God. Thank God. Brief laughter, a mix of confusion and joy. And that is it.
She cooks, pours coffee at lunch. She is up at 7 to go to church on Sunday — 9 on Thursdays. She dials numbers with a phone card, to talk to the friends she still has at home. She carries a small Bible around with her, reads it before prayer. And this is where my knowledge of her stops.
We are the same blood, the same skin and family, and we are not the same. She will never know me- my thoughts, opinions, true friends, loves, joys. I do not know hers.
I imagine her birthed into my culture, and me into hers. She speaks more English and I speak Amharic. We can understand each other more, not just in conversation, but in heart. We watch the same TV shows (she now watches TV), laugh at the same jokes. I wear skirts that stretch from waist to ankle, lock my hands in the same way she does. She goes out more, wears sunscreen. I stay in. I understand the feeling of the sun in Addis Ababa, the different way it scorches in Ethiopia than in Nevada. I walk the same neighborhoods, understand all of her prayers. I play this game until my brain searches for an image and cannot find one. I realize that there are limits to my imagination.
ልዩ/ liyu/ different
I am walking, from one part of campus to another. Recently I have taken to heels, or at least the respectable wedge. This is a new development, knowing how to rise into a space instead of reducing. Head up, chest up, back straight. Hair out, a blowout, the size of it the largest Providence has ever seen.
I cross the street, notice the slowing of the car beside me, the open window. What are you? He calls out, speeds away. Does not wait for an answer. He sounds genuinely confused. I do not know what he means.
What am I. I am the Haile in my name, the same one in my father’s and grandfather’s. Ethiopian genealogy is fairly straightforward, based on the naming system. You can count back for centuries if you tried, hopping from one suburb of Addis Ababa to another. That is what I am.
I am what-
a collection of features, maybe-
a prominent nose, like my father’s. My mother’s high forehead. My own mixture of brown, my undeniable African roots. An amalgamation of wiry hair, coarse, taken to with a wide-toothed comb and a thin-toothed comb (in that order). 5-feet-9 inches, more with the right pair of shoes. A puzzle that does not quite solve right- is it the hair, my nose, my confidence? What is off? What is different?
I am desert meets suburb meets Ivy meets Africa (without ever truly meeting Africa)-
what am I if not the child of quiet immigrants and a bootstrap philosophy. A living scheme for upward mobility.
I am “interesting”/ “that’s funny”/ “different”/ “diversity”/
But I am not able to scream all this at a car window, so he never knows.