Ahmed put his fork down and looked at me across the dinning table.
“Baba, why am I different?”
I told him everyone is different.
“You know what I mean. Why are we different? Why can’t we be the same as everyone else? Why can’t we believe the same things as they do? Why do we have to sound different? Why do we even have to look different?”
He was right, we did look different. I remembered the first thing I noticed when my parents and I came to Australia was the way everyone wore hats and sunscreen. We didn’t need any of that. Our skin was pretty sun-tolerant.
“You’re an Egyptian, you should be proud of that.” I told Ahmed.
“It’s hard to be proud of being different.” He was right again. I knew he would feel this way sooner or later.. I remember the first time I felt it. Different. I was seven. My parents and I had just moved in to 5 York St, in the Brisbane city suburb of Morningside.
Compared to the other houses on the street it was small, but it was the biggest place I had ever stepped foot in. It even had a back yard. I couldn’t believe it. It was just like in the American movies. The boys in the movies would play football in their back yards with their friends. I could do that. I would do that. I was so excited. I was unpacking my clothes while my parents were in the living room speaking in increasingly louder and tenser voices. My mother came into my room.
“Khaled,” she said, “you know what I saw on the way here? A football field, just down the street. How about you go and see if there’s anyone to play with.”
My mother knew exactly how to distract me; talk about football. So I went to find the field.
I walked down the street and came to a small, peeling white painted bridge that crossed over a creek. I could see the football field on the other side of the bridge. I ran over to it. There was no one there. I guessed that all the kids were at school. So I turned and walked back over the bridge. Looking down, I noticed strange-looking little fish swimming around in the creek. Funny country, Australia was. With funny fish. I sat down on the edge of the bridge.
“What are you doing?” said a voice from behind me. I jumped. I turned to see a girl standing on the bridge. She had the blondest, brightest hair I had ever seen. That was the first thing I noticed. It really did shine like the sun. I said nothing.
“What are you looking at? ” she said. I was looking at her but I guessed she meant the creek.
“The fish,” I responded. Lucky my parents spoke English and Arabic to me at home “what are they?”
“Tadpoles” said the girl. I had no idea of what Tadpoles were. I guessed she could tell that from my face. “Baby frogs.”
“Woah.” I said
“What’s your name?” the girl asked as she sat down on the bridge beside me.
“Khaled” I said.
“Car-led” she repeated. She couldn’t pronounce the “kh”. “My name’s Hannah.”
“Hannah, is that like henna?” I asked. She looked at me blankly. “You know, henna. The paint that ladies put on their hands. ” She didn’t understand. How could she not know what henna was? I loved henna. Which was strange. Boys aren’t supposed to like girl things like that. Not many boys would care about things like that, but I love the way it looked. I’d watched my mother many times painting it on her skin. I thought it was beautiful. I thought Hannah was beautiful. They must’ve meant the same thing. We sat in silence for a while, watching the tadpoles swim in circles.
“Mama has henna. She likes to paint it on her hands. She keeps it in her room. I can get some and show you.” I told her.
“Maybe tomorrow, I have to go, it’s dinner time,” She got up. Her straight hair swung with her movements. ” See you tomorrow” she said.
I’d see her tomorrow. I couldn’t wait.
The next day I snuck into my mother’s room. She kept her henna in a small wooden box that looked a lot like a treasure chest. It sat on the top shelf in her wardrobe. I knew I’d get in trouble for taking it but I didn’t care. I needed to show Hannah. I used the shelves to climb and grab the box. I opened it. The smell of earth filled me.
I ran down to the creek and Hannah was there. She was wearing a white dress. I remember it because it almost matched her hair.
“I brought it.” I said, and opened the box.
“Smells funny.” she said. I picked up a twig and dipped it into the box. I painted a “H” on the back of my hand. “See,” I said “isn’t it cool?” Hannah looked at it, then held her hand out towards me. I dipped the twig back in the box and painted a “K” on hers. It stained her white skin in a way I’d never seen henna stain a hand before.
“Will it rub off? I don’t want to get my dress dirty” she asked.
“It won’t rub off for a while.” I said. I’d seen it last on my mother’s hands for weeks. Hannah got up to leave again.
“See you tomorrow” she said
I’d see her tomorrow. I couldn’t wait.
I went down to the creek again. Hannah wasn’t there yet. So I sat on the edge of the bridge and dangled my legs over the side. The “H” on my hand had dried into a dark mud colour, unlike Hannah’s blood orange “K”. I sat and waited for her to come. After a while of sitting and watching the fish in the creek, I heard a laugh coming from the field. I looked up and saw Hannah, but she wasn’t the one laughing. There was a boy with her. He wore a hat. I could see the sunscreen on his nose. It hadn’t been rubbed in properly. I saw the “K” on her hand. It had faded. Like she had tried to scrub it off. I looked at my “H”. I needed to get it off. I rubbed at it hard, but the colour wasn’t going anywhere.
“Baba?” said Ahmed, bringing me back to the present. “Why?”
He was still looking at me across the dinning table. I could see my reflection in his jet black eyes. I felt that “H” burn back into my skin.
“Be proud of who you are.” I said. “Always be proud.”