A Writer’s Tragicomic Sensibility Shines


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Short stories by Ghassan Zeineddine, B.A. ’02, give literary tradition a contemporary spin and give voice to the Arab American experience.  




headshot of author Ghassan

After Ghassan Zeineddine’s debut collection of short stories was published last fall, it didn’t take long for good reviews to appear. “The Washington Post” included “Dearborn” on its list of “10 noteworthy books for September,” while “The New York Times” praised the stories as “funny and sincere.”

The collection’s 10 stories focus on Arab American characters in the eponymous suburb of Detroit where Zeineddine lived for some years after graduating from GW. They are set in various time periods, so that the city itself becomes a character moving through time. Zeineddine’s tragicomic sensibility is reflected throughout, sometimes with the emphasis on tragedy, other times with humor winning out. His characters include a butcher with a secret queer life; a woman anguished by the realization that her neighbor is a victim of domestic abuse; and a survivor of the Titanic looking back on an idyllic day in Marseille.

Though he was born in Washington, D.C., Zeineddine, who is of Lebanese descent, grew up in Saudi Arabia before bouncing back to Washington. At GW, he majored in psychology with a minor in creative writing. (His mother, Wafaa Al-Awar, B.A. ’76, and sister, Jana Abou-Zeineddine, B.A. ’99, are also alumni.) His years in Foggy Bottom were transformative, he said. It was the first place he made an Arab American friend and where he first began writing about specifically Arab characters and experience.

Zeineddine talked with “GW Magazine” from his home in Ohio, where he teaches creative writing at Oberlin College, about his affection for the city of Dearborn, his research methods and his love for the fiction of Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones, who started teaching at GW after Zeineddine graduated.

What did you like best about your time at GW?

What I most liked about GW was its very diverse student body. Because it’s in the capital, you get a lot of people who are interested in politics and hear so many different perspectives. I was there from between the ages of 18 to about 21. It was an important time for me not only because of the academics but because I had my first Arab American friend. Before then, I had never had that experience. And I made dear friends with people of many different ethnicities.

It was such a transformative experience at GW to finally have an Arab friend. My wife and I often talk about wanting our young daughters to have Arab friends. And when I lived in Dearborn, it was the first time in my life that I was living in an Arab American community. That was something I’d never experienced before, which I really loved.

I recognize that like any city, any community, Dearborn has its faults. But it’s still really dear to me. And I've been touched by the community’s response to the book, which after all is a love letter to the city.

Was there a story in the collection that felt at all dangerous to write?

There’s a story called “I Have Reason to Believe My Neighbor Is a Terrorist,” and it deals with Islamophobia, anti-Arab sentiment and FBI surveillance of the Arab American community following the attacks of 9/11. It also deals with domestic abuse. Those are just really heavy themes. And I think there are a few moments of levity in that story, but it’s more tragic than comedic.

Domestic abuse is a social ill in every community; I don't want people to associate domestic abuse with Arab men, but I thought it would be OK if I have domestic abuse in this particular story. It would have been a problem if every male character fits this stereotype of the Arab man who abuses his wife, but because it’s just one instance throughout the collection, it’s not a generalization. That was a tricky story to navigate.

The collection’s opening story, “The Actors of Dearborn,” also deals with serious subject matter; it’s set in September 2019, and there’s a strong presence of ICE agents in the community in the wake of Trump’s Muslim ban and his anti-immigrant rhetoric. That story is tragicomic, but I was able to get comedy out of it because of the characters, not because of the political climate.

Your characters are deeply researched. Talk a bit about your research process.

Dearborn has a very entrepreneurial spirit, with many small businesses. There are a lot of butcher shops around town, and they’re all halal butcher shops. I wanted to write a story about a character in this profession, so I went to one of the butcher shops and introduced myself to the owner. His grandfather and father were also butchers, and he emigrated from Lebanon to Dearborn in 1973 and ended up opening his own shop.

I shadowed him for several days. I saw how he interacted with customers and how he cut up meat. During lulls in the afternoon, I’d interview him and take his story down. One morning, I met him at his shop at 7 a.m., and he drove me in his van to Detroit, where there are a lot of wholesale meat markets. My intent wasn’t to fictionalize his story; it was more about just understanding what it takes to be a butcher in town and what the daily procedures are like.

The fictional character of the butcher, whose name is Yasser, bears no resemblance to the butcher I actually interviewed. To show how diverse this community is, I wanted to have LGBTQ representation in the story collection. There is an enclave of Detroit called Hamtramck. It’s like a city within a city, predominantly inhabited by Yemeni Americans and Bangladeshi Americans. I thought, “What if this butcher goes to Hamtramck, maybe because he’s trying to hide something? What if the butcher were actually queer and he goes to Hamtramck to embody his true self?”

People know the butcher as Yasser, but he has always seen himself as a woman named Yusra. When he goes to Hamtramck, he wears a niqab which covers his head and his body. You can only see his eyes. And underneath that niqab, he wears a dress, jewelry and heels. When he goes to the mosque, he prays in the women’s section. And so it’s really in Hamtramck, that city within Detroit, that he’s able to embrace his true self.

You have previously talked about your love of ethnic American short story cycles by writers like Amy Tan and Edward P. Jones, a professor of English at GW. What do you admire in Jones’s work?

His short stories really inspired me while I was writing “Dearborn,” specifically his second collection, “All Aunt Hagar’s Children.” Those stories are just so rich in detail and in capturing the African American experience. The characters are so complex, and each story is about so many different themes. You have the main narrative, but then it kind of splinters into these other narratives, and sometimes the omniscient point of view follows these other minor characters.

And having all these different minor characters in each story establishes a sense of community. I just find that so compelling. In Arab culture, society is not individualistic. It’s more collective. You have this web of different characters. For me to capture the Arab culture, I can’t just write about only one character. That character is going to be connected to so many other characters—family members, cousins, friends. I see that a lot in Jones’s work. I’ve always been interested in orchestrating a large cast of characters and seeing how they interact with each other in the confines of a short story.  


Cover of Dearborn

The following story is drawn from “Dearborn” (Tin House, 2023) by Ghassan Zeineddine.






It’s early afternoon and it’s been snowing since dawn. The young journalist from The Dearborn Post sits in the armchair before me, in the corner of my living room next to the frosty window, sipping from a mug of coffee that my caretaker made for him. His tape recorder rests on the side table between us. The neighborhood street and the roofs of the brick houses are powdery white now, turning this part of East Dearborn, where I’ve lived for most of my life, into a scene from a charming holiday postcard.

I light a cigarette with the one still burning in my mouth and put out the stub in the ashtray next to my glass of water. My gnarled hand trembles. The journalist seems surprised that a woman my age, one year shy of a hundred, is smoking. His name is Ibrahim and he’s writing a profile of me, a survivor of the Titanic sinking in 1912. Although eighty-six years have passed since the disaster, the majestic ship has been on everyone’s mind since the release of the new film before Christmas. I haven’t seen Titanic and don’t intend to for two reasons: one, I only leave home to visit the doctor; two, I’d rather not relive the horror of the sinking. I haven’t seen the 1953 or the 1958 films about the wreck, either.

“I’m ready when you are, Madame Ayda,” Ibrahim says. His dark bangs are brushed to the side in a floppy arc. He wears silver-rimmed glasses, a wool blazer, and corduroy pants. He removed his bulky boots in the entrance so as not to dirty my carpet. There’s a hole in his argyle sock, revealing the pink skin of his big toe.

I look at the recorder. My voice is deep and guttural. My Arabic accent clings to my English words like a stubborn child. The last time I tried to tell my Titanic story, I was in my late twenties, married with two children and pregnant with a third. My eldest daughter’s fourth-grade teacher had invited me to visit her class to share my experience. They were learning about the ship and wanted to hear my firsthand account. I stopped halfway through my presentation to the class; my memories became too painful. I didn’t want to break down in front of nine-year-olds, including my daughter. I grabbed my purse and walked back home.

But there’s another story I plan to tell Ibrahim, not the one he’s expecting. It’s a story I’ve never told anyone before, one that I’ve carried with me since I was fourteen, my age when the ship sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. I tell Ibrahim to press record.



I was born in 1898 in Sofar, a Druze village in the high reaches of Mount Lebanon. There was a train station in our village, not too far from the Grand Sofar Hotel. The trains passed back and forth from Beirut to Damascus. Every time I heard their mournful wails, I imagined myself on one, headed elsewhere. I had only visited the neighboring towns and dreamt of going west to Beirut and seeing the sea up close. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Sofar, loved walking down its narrow roads lined with limestone houses with red-tile roofs. In summer I’d play with my siblings and cousins in the pine forest. We’d creep into terraced gardens to pick fruits—our village had the most delicious plums and apricots. When we got thirsty, we’d hike down to the main square to drink from the communal spring. But the trains made me wonder about what lay beyond the mountain ranges.

A few of our village men had left for the Americas in the late nineteenth century in search of fortune. One such man, Ameen Fayyad, returned from Buenos Aires with hemp sacks overflowing with gold and his skin blistered by the sun. No one knew how he had made this money, but with it he built an Arabian mansion with marble floors and arched windows.

I was the eldest child of five. My family rented a one-bedroom house down from the main road. My parents slept in the bedroom and my siblings and I in the living room, on thin mattresses we rolled out at night and laid side by side. At the age of seven I had already become a chain-smoker. I see the look on your face, Ibrahim. Let me explain. You see, at the time I suffered from severe nosebleeds—I bled so much that my parents feared I’d bleed to death. The doctor in our village failed to cure me. That summer, my parents took me to a nomad camp in the woods for treatment. An herbalist rolled me a cigarette and told me to smoke it. I coughed with every puff, and my eyes watered. The herbalist rolled me more cigarettes and instructed me to smoke them all. My nose never bled again. From that point on, I kept a pouch of tobacco, rolling papers, and matches in my dress pocket.

My brothers and sisters would beg me for a puff, but I told them to bug off. “I’ve got a medical condition,” I’d explain.

My father worked the fields as a hired hand, and I helped Mama clean the house and look after the younger children. I say the younger children even though I was a child myself. But back then girls my age were forced to become adults. At school, I was only allowed to smoke during recess. My classmates avoided me, saying I smelled like a stove. When I had free time, which was rare, I went to the train station and sat on a bench by the tracks and smoked alone.

My first husband arrived by train. I was fourteen and had already dropped out of school to work. I could sew, crochet, and even build things, like cabinets. Sometimes I cleaned houses. One day in early spring, as I was sewing a table cover for a customer, there was a knock on the front door. Baba was out in the fields and Mama was cooking in the kitchen. My siblings were at school. I rested my cigarette in the ashtray and answered the door to find a tall man in an overcoat and suit. His black hair was parted down the middle. He had a thin mustache and was clutching a handkerchief.

“Hello,” he said. “Hi.” He wiped his hands with the handkerchief. “Um, Ayda?”

“That’s my name. Who are you?”

“Nabil Fayyad.”

“Are you related to Ameen Fayyad, the millionaire?”

“I wish.”

Mama came to the front door. Nabil introduced himself to her without shaking her hand. He seemed embarrassed about his own hands, the way he kept fiddling with his handkerchief.

“You and your brother went off to America, correct?” Mama asked. He nodded.

“We live in a city called Dearborn. I’m here on a short visit.”

Mama looked down at me and then up at Nabil. “Please, come in.”

We sat in the living room. I put in an extra log of wood in the stove to warm up the room. Nabil kept looking at his shoes, afraid to make direct eye contact with us. Through his awkward small talk with Mama, I learned that he worked with his older brother at a dry goods store in America. He was twenty years old.

Mama understood what he was after, as did I: a wife to take back to Dearborn. You may wonder, Ibrahim, why a man with some money to his name would be interested in me. You can’t tell now, but I was a looker in my youth. My hair was black and reached down to my waist. I had the body of a grown woman. Even then my voice was husky. Some men like husky voices. Word of my looks must have reached Nabil long before he arrived at our front door.

He stayed over for dinner to meet my father and the rest of the family. Before greeting Baba, I noticed that he wiped his hand with his handkerchief. Mama served lentil soup and bread. Nabil was quiet throughout the meal, and he only spoke when Baba asked him questions about his work and life in America. My siblings couldn’t stop giggling. Once Nabil left, Baba said that he liked the man, though he thought Nabil had a weak, clammy handshake. “Felt like I was grasping a fish,” he said.

Later that night, Mama asked me to join her for tea in the kitchen.

“We’ll be blessed if the American asks for your hand,” she said.  

I sucked hard on my cigarette. Many girls my age had already been married off, mostly to their cousins. No one had shown interest in me because of my family’s poverty. It didn’t matter to me—I would have been fine with no husband. All I wanted from life was to ride the train every now and then.

“You can support us better by marrying him,” Mama continued. “You understand?”

I stubbed my cigarette in the ashtray and pulled a new one from my pocket and lit up.

“If Nabil comes back, don’t smoke in front of him. It might put him off.”

On Sunday, Baba’s only day off from work, Nabil appeared with his parents. He carried a bouquet of wildflowers and handed them to me as soon as he saw me.

“Flowers!” he said, as if I didn’t know what they were. He laughed nervously, which I found endearing. Here was a man six years my senior who had sailed halfway across the world and was anxious in my presence. Did I have that kind of effect on men, I wondered?

In the living room, my family and I sat on one side and Nabil and his parents on the other. After an exchange of blessings, Nabil asked my father for my hand. Details were then worked out. The wedding would be held in a week, and two days later, Nabil and I would sail for America. As soon as Nabil and his parents left, I lit a cigarette and didn’t stop smoking until dawn. My future had been arranged without my consent, and yet I couldn’t blame my parents. At least I’d get to travel. I smoked on my mattress, surrounded by my siblings.

“Please don’t go,” one of my sisters said. “We’ll miss you too much.”

“Have a puff,” I said, and let them each smoke. They all coughed. It was easier this way, distracting them.

I spent the next few days sewing myself a long-sleeved satin wedding dress. Mama sat next to me; since Nabil’s proposal, she had become my shadow.

“I’ve never been in love before,” I told her.

“There’s no such thing as love, ya binti. There’s only obedience. You need to cook for Nabil and wash and iron his clothes; you have to wake up in the mornings before he does to prepare his breakfast; you have to smile and never question anything he asks you to do; you have to pray for him; you have to accept him into your bed when he’s in the mood; you have to bear him children. Do you understand, habibti?”

I nodded.

On the eve of my wedding, Mama could hardly look at me. When she did, her eyes filled with tears.

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “In a few years’ time, I’ll return from America with more gold than Ameen Fayyad. I’ll build you the biggest house this village has ever seen.”

The next day, I waited in my wedding dress for Nabil to arrive with the male members of his family. According to Druze custom, Nabil would take me back to his house for the wedding. My family wouldn’t be in attendance. The groom’s family was now responsible for the bride’s well-being; they had to be trusted.

I heard the beating of drums from the living room. I peeked out the window and saw Nabil at the top of the road, perched on his father’s shoulders. He was surrounded by a ring of dancers stomping their feet, their scimitars glinting in the sunshine. Nabil’s arms were raised high; he was snapping his fingers. He looked handsome in his white suit, even though his movements were forced.

On our way to Nabil’s house, he and I sat on the back of a mule, me up front. A relative held the reins and directed the beast of burden down the road. The troupe led the way, singing and dancing and beating on their drums. Villagers stepped out of their homes and onto their balconies and showered us with rice and rose petals and blessings and ringing ululations. At one point, I tilted to the side and nearly slipped off the saddle before Nabil caught me by the waist. He kept his arm around me for the rest of the journey. I hoped he’d always catch me when I fell.

In Nabil’s bedroom later that night, we lay next to each other on the bed, under thick blankets. I was wearing lingerie that Mama had packed in my suitcase, along with dry foods.

“The first time will hurt,” Mama had said. “Pretend to enjoy it. A few moans will do.”

Apart from the winter room, which had the stove, the rest of the house was icy cold. A kerosene lamp cast everything in shadowy light. We had to get up early in the morning to take the train to Beirut. From Beirut we’d sail to Marseille, and from Marseille, we’d take a train up to Cherbourg. We’d board the Titanic at the port there. There was then a brief stop in Liverpool before making our way across the Atlantic to New York City.

“Mind if I smoke?” I asked Nabil.

“Not at all.”

I lit up. He asked me when I had started smoking, and I told him about the herbalist and my nose bleeds.

“Do you think your nose bleeds would return if you ever chose to quit smoking?”

“You want me to quit?”

He shook his head.

“Good,” I said, and lit another cigarette.

We didn’t kiss that night, let alone make love. I was terrified to undress in front of him, but I wouldn’t have minded a kiss. I was curious about how his mustache would feel against my lips.  

“I’m a married woman,” I thought to myself before drifting off to sleep. I could hardly believe it.

I'm a married woman, I thought to myself before drifting off to sleep. I could barely believe it.








I hack up phlegm and spit it out into a wad of tissues. Ibrahim stops the recorder and combs his fingers through his bangs. He tells me he’s seen the film three times. “Just breaks my heart,” he says. I take a sip of water, adjust my false teeth, and continue my story.



My parents and siblings, as well as our neighbors and a handful of villagers, met us at the train station in the morning to bid us farewell.

“Send us gifts from America,” my siblings said.

When Mama and I embraced, we spared each other the agony of making eye contact. If we had, we would have lost ourselves.

As sad as it was to leave my family, the train ride to Beirut was marvelous. I sat by the window, looking out at the passing landscape. At a bend round a mountain, I glimpsed the blue sea. We were sitting in the second-class carriage. Perhaps Nabil didn’t have as much money as I thought, but I didn’t mind. Traveling with us was a contingent of villagers also headed to America. We were all taking the same route.

“Is there a sea near Dearborn?” I asked Nabil.

“There are lakes—they call them the Great Lakes. I’ll take you to Lake Michigan, which is so big that it looks like a sea.”

I turned away from the window to look at him. He smiled.

“You have zaatar stuck in your teeth,” I said.

He immediately cupped his mouth, and then reached inside his coat pocket and removed a metal container of toothpicks. He covered his mouth with one hand as he worked the toothpick between his teeth.

We got off the train in Mar Mikhaël, on the east side of Beirut, and took a horse carriage to a boarding house up from the port. The weather was much warmer, so I removed my winter coat. By the time we’d checked in at the boarding house and dropped off our chest and belongings in a communal bedroom, it was dusk. We had supper with our fellow villagers and boarders in the dining room. Instead of going upstairs to bed, I wanted to see the sea up close.

Nabil took me down to the port. The streets smelled dusty, as if they hadn’t been washed in years. The air was humid and salty. We walked through pools of lamplight and arrived at the Mediterranean. Our ship, the Lotus, was docked in the harbor. It was too dark to see the horizon, but flickering lights dotted the calm waters. Nabil told me those were lanterns swaying from fishing boats. We strolled down the boardwalk. I inhaled the smell of fish and seaweed. Stars glimmered above. In the distance the silhouettes of mountains loomed large. Somewhere up there was my family. I hoped I’d see them again.

It took a little under two weeks to reach the port of Marseille. Those first few days on the Lotus I was green with seasickness. I could hardly speak or eat I was so sick. How strange, I thought, to spend my first week with my husband feeling like I wanted to die. He, however, was used to the rocky waves. When I felt my stomach turn, I pushed him aside and ran for the toilet.

We shared a third-class cabin with three other couples from Sofar. There were four bunk beds in the room. I slept on the bottom bunk, Nabil on top. When I started feeling better, I joined our roommates in games of backgammon and cards. We sat in a circle on the floor. At night, we snacked on salted pumpkin seeds and exchanged stories. I was the youngest in the group, but no one knew my exact age except for Nabil. On my official documents it said that I was eighteen. I rolled cigarettes for the men, noting that I’d have to buy more tobacco and papers in Marseille.

Nabil didn’t participate in the games and remained on his bunk, reading. He loved American poetry; Walt Whitman was his hero. He had told me he once tried growing out his beard to look like Whitman, but couldn’t stand getting food caught in his facial hair. Our roommates kept pestering him to at least play a hand of cards, but he refused.

“My wife will play on my behalf,” he said.

“My wife,” I thought to myself. It still sounded strange to me.

During the day I sat on deck, gazing out and enjoying the sun on my face. I could look at the sea for hours, letting my thoughts roam. Nabil would sit next to me, his nose buried in Whitman. I wondered if he was more interested in the poet than me. But then I’d catch him staring at me, and when our eyes met, he’d quickly look away.

Having to share a room with others, Nabil and I had had no time to ourselves. Believe it or not, we still hadn’t kissed yet. It would have been haram, improper, to kiss in public. Especially when we were surrounded by our fellow villagers and countrymen.

We arrived in the Vieux-Port de Marseille on a cold, stormy day in March. The pounding rain reminded me of the winter rains in Sofar, which was now thousands of miles away. Nabil took out two umbrellas from our chest and opened them on deck. We had to yell over the sounds of the storm to hear each other. The port was massive, with all sizes of ships and boats. Warehouses towered over the water.

Customs officials came on deck and set up a table to check our papers. Once our papers were stamped, we were permitted to walk down the plank and step foot in France. Before we disembarked, Nabil instructed me to wait on deck with the other women while he and the men went to look for a carriage to take us all to the Syrian Inn northeast of the port. The Syrian Inn was owned by a Beiruti man who had immigrated to Marseille years earlier—as you must know, Ibrahim, back then there was no Lebanon; our land was called Syria. Almost all Arab voyagers stopped at his place en route to sailing west.

An hour later, Nabil and the men returned. The men carried our luggage down to two carriages and then came back for us. They were all drenched, despite the umbrellas. It was too rainy to see anything clearly through the carriage windows. We were wet and shivering.

We shared a room with the same Sofar villagers at the Syrian Inn, which was old and made of brick with creaking wood floors. The cramped room held several bunk beds and an old chiffonier. After we arrived, the women and I took turns bathing in the women’s restroom while the men did the same in theirs. By the time I bathed, the water had turned lukewarm.

That evening, we sat in the lobby, waiting for supper. A man played sonatas on a grand piano. The walls were decorated with framed landscape paintings of the Levant. I would have preferred to tour the city, but it was still raining hard and none of us wanted to risk getting sick. We were scheduled to spend two nights here in Marseille before taking the train north to Cherbourg, on the English Channel.

Nabil and I barely spoke that day. We were cold and exhausted after our sea voyage. We waited and waited, listening to the pianist. Finally, we headed to the cafeteria, where we were served a terrible roast beef; we were too hungry to care. I remember dipping pieces of a stale baguette into watery gravy.  

The following morning the sun was shining, and the sky was bright blue. I told Nabil that I wanted to see Marseille. I wasn’t interested in spending the day in the lobby playing cards, which was what our group intended to do. They preferred to rest up before the long train ride. Nabil and I needed time alone together, I thought to myself. We still hardly knew each other. Thankfully, he agreed to tour the city.  

We asked the receptionist for tourist recommendations, explaining that we only had the day. He suggested we head a few blocks west and walk down La Canebière, the city’s main avenue.




It was chilly outside, but with the sun out, it was perfect weather for a stroll. The air was fresh and smelled of budding trees. We walked down the pavement in search of a café. I lit a cigarette and raced to keep up with Nabil’s pace. He had big strides; I took three steps for each one of his. The buildings reminded me of the ones I had seen in Beirut.

Nabil must have been nervous by our silence, because all of a sudden, he said he had a joke for me. “What did the wall say to the other wall?”

“Tell me.”

“I’ll meet you at the corner.”

I laughed sympathetically.

“You’re laughing to make me feel better,” he said.

“You’re right. That was a lousy joke.”

We stepped inside a café. The floor had black-and-white tiles, wooden tables, and wicker chairs. The garçon dropped off paper menus. I had learned French in school and still remembered it.

“Do you read French?” I asked Nabil.

“Only English and Arabic. But I can say croissant. I feel like having a croissant.”

“Me too.”

When the garçon returned to our table, I ordered croissants for us and two black coffees. The croissants came with strawberry jam and creamy butter. We devoured them.

“You’ve got jam stuck in your teeth,” I said, leaning back and lighting a cigarette.

“Get used to it,” he said, and smiled.  

Beads of sweat glimmered on his fingers. When he saw me looking at his hands, he put them in his lap.  

“No reason to be embarrassed,” I said. “You’re my husband. We’re supposed to tell each other everything. Or something like that.”

“I wouldn’t know. This is the first time I’m married.”

“Did you ever have a girlfriend in America? Tell me the truth, I won’t be jealous.”


“How come? You’re a handsome man, Nabil.” He blushed.

“You’re beautiful.” More people started to enter the café, mostly businessmen.

“I’ve always been shy around girls,” he said. “I’m shy around everyone.”

“Because of your hands?”

“Yes. They sweat constantly, since I was a boy. Whether I’m happy or anxious, they drip with sweat. I can’t help it. My underarms and feet also sweat uncontrollably.”

“Who cares if your hands sweat?”

Whenever he was forced to shake someone’s hand, he said, he’d notice how they’d then wipe their hand against their thigh, as if they were disgusted. He dreaded social occasions where the shaking of hands was required. He had avoided participating in the games of backgammon and cards on the boat because he didn’t want to touch the game pieces with his sweaty hands.

“I have a smoking problem and you have a sweating problem,” I said.

He looked at me intently. “I’m glad my hands sweat and not yours.”

Nabil paid the bill and we continued down the street until we reached La Canebière. The wide avenue was bustling with horse carriages, men in suits and hats, and some women in crinoline dresses. I had never seen such dresses in Sofar and wondered how they were made. Shops, cafés, bakeries, saloons, and restaurants lined the avenue on either side. The columned buildings were massive, the sun reflecting off their windows. We walked down the pavement, looking up at this new world like the obvious tourists we were. We came across theater houses, grand hotels, and historic churches; shoeshiners, barbers, and beggars. Vendors pushed carts of dry goods and merchandise. We bought fresh orange juice from a stand and stopped at a tobacconist so I could replenish my supplies. We heard French, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic being spoken. A woman in a long black coat stood on a wooden box and sang patriotic songs in French. A metal bowl lay at her feet for tips. We sat down on a bench to rest our feet.

“The winters in Dearborn are gray and cold,” Nabil said. “But summers are beautiful.”

“Are there Arabs in Dearborn?”

“There’s a small community. We all live in an area called the Southend with other immigrants.”

“Do you have many friends?”

“A few. I’m not as social as my brother. He can walk into a room and capture everyone’s attention. I rather cower in a corner.” He looked at me. “Maybe now you regret marrying me.”

“I didn’t have a choice.” When I saw the concern on his face, I said that I was trying to be funny. He didn’t laugh.  

I asked Nabil if I could work at his and his brother’s dry goods store. I didn’t care to be a housewife.

“We need an accountant,” he said. “Are you good with numbers?”

“I can learn.”  

“I’m sure you won’t have any problems adapting to America.”

“What was it like for you?”

“Terrible. I was only ten when I left Sofar. I cried myself to sleep every night, missing my mother. I had to sob into my pillow, because if my brother heard me, he’d yell at me and accuse me of being a sissy. I didn’t continue my schooling and instead worked with my brother. When I was seventeen, I found comfort in the poetry of Whitman. I read him every night before I went to sleep. I even tried to write free verse myself, but everything I produced was horribly sentimental.”

“I’d like to read your poetry.”

“It’ll only make you seasick again.”

For lunch we ate cheese sandwiches from a street vendor and then had coffee and chocolate éclairs at an outdoor café. As we were sipping our coffees, Nabil revealed that he remembered his former life—you may not know this, Ibrahim, but Druzes believe in reincarnation. It’s one of our main tenets. I grew up listening to stories of family members who remembered their previous lives and, in some cases, had reconnected with their loved ones from them. It’s said that one remembers their former life if they had died tragically.

When Nabil was a toddler, he kept telling his parents that he wanted to visit the white house with the pomegranate trees. His parents had no idea what he was talking about and suspected he was remembering his former life. Some days he’d weep and weep, and no matter what his mother did to comfort him, he couldn’t stop crying. Over time, his family came to understand that he was weeping over the loss of this past life.

With each passing year, Nabil’s visions intensified. He saw himself climbing up a pomegranate tree, brushing a young woman’s hair, playing with a pistol in a shed. In each vision he remained a boy. The visions continued while he was living in Dearborn. He wrote letters back home asking his parents to survey the neighboring villages to determine if any boy who had lived in a white house with pomegranate trees had been tragically killed around the time Nabil was born. His parents asked around but came back with nothing. Whatever had happened to the boy, whoever he was, his soul now belonged to Nabil.  

“Do you remember your past life?” Nabil asked me.

“No. I must have died an old woman.”

We crossed the avenue and made our way in the direction of the port. As the sun started to set, the streetlights came on, and La Canebière lit up. Pedestrians flooded the pavement. I was sad that our day was coming to an end, and that tomorrow we’d be leaving Marseille.  

We dined at a bistro in a narrow alleyway off La Canebière. The tables were packed next to one another. We both ordered steak and potatoes. Nabil also asked for a bottle of red wine. I had never had alcohol before. When I took my first sip, it tasted terribly bitter. But the more I drank, the warmer I felt. I poured myself a second glass. In the dim light, I noticed that Nabil’s hands were dry. When I pointed that out to him, he looked down at them and a moment later they began to sweat.

“It’s that quick,” he said.

I extended my own hands across the table. “Hold them.”


“It’s me, your wife.”

He held my hands.

Nabil ordered a second bottle, and we drank it down. We stumbled out of the bistro and into the cold, laughing hysterically—over what I can’t remember. We held onto each other so as not to lose our balance. Under a streetlight, Nabil stopped, held my face in his hands, and kissed my lips. We kissed with hunger while pedestrians walked around us. Our breaths tasted of wine.

We strolled down to the port. The icy wind coming off the sea was refreshing. To the east was the Levant, to the south Africa, and to the west the opening to the Atlantic.

“Can we come back to Marseille?” I asked. “I love this city.”

“Yes,” he said.

Back at the inn, we tiptoed into our room. Our roommates were asleep and snoring. Nabil crept into my lower bunk. Under the covers, in that darkness, we kissed in silence. And then we made love. I bit on Nabil’s shoulder so as not to cry out in pain and in pleasure. When we were finished, he soon fell asleep. I kept my palm on his chest, feeling his heartbeat, the sense of his skin on mine.

The next morning, my feet were blistered and sore. We slept for most of the train ride up to Cherbourg. When we were awake, we could hardly keep our hands off each other, despite Nabil’s sweaty palms. I ached for him.  

We spent two nights in Cherbourg, and on the third day we boarded the Titanic.




It’s stopped snowing. The plow trucks will come out soon, disrupting the picturesque scene. And yet I’m not in Dearborn. I’m in Marseille, with my husband Nabil, walking down La Canebière.

Ibrahim sits at the edge of his chair. “Are you all right? Do you need to rest?”

“I’m fine,” I say. Eighty-six years have passed since that day in Marseille, and yet it still feels like yesterday. How’s that even possible? Are my memories to be trusted?

“Where were you when the ship struck the iceberg?” Ibrahim asks. “What happened to Nabil?”

We were asleep in the third-class cabin when we heard the commotion, I say. When people found out about what had happened, they began to scream and push one another. It was mayhem. Somehow Nabil and I made it up top to the deck. It was pitch-dark and cold. Only women and children were allowed to board the lifeboats. Officers were shooting men who tried to get on. I refused to go without Nabil, but he promised he’d follow me in the boat for men. He was standing on deck as I climbed down to the lifeboat and put on a life jacket. That was the last time I saw him.

We were on the lifeboat, freezing, as I saw the ship sink into the frigid waters, its stern up in the air. Hours later, we were rescued by the Carpathia. The seamen provided us with blankets and hot tea, but I couldn’t stop shivering. I’ve felt cold ever since then.

I was never able to board a ship again, let alone approach a large body of water. I haven’t seen my family since I left them all those years ago. Most of them are dead now. God rest them.

I ended up working at Nabil’s brother’s store on Dix Avenue, in the Southend. I lived with Nabil’s family in a bungalow. I was given Nabil’s room, which still had his clothes hung up in the closet, his socks and underwear in the cabinet drawers. A stack of books lay on his desk. I asked Nabil’s brother and his family for their stories about him. I asked neighbors. They all mentioned his painful shyness, his long silences, his love for reading, his kindness. I craved these stories, always wanting more.

When I was twenty-six, I married a Lebanese man and moved to East Dearborn, to this house, where I raised three children.  My second husband knew that my first husband had died in the sinking of the Titanic. I didn’t mention Nabil’s name and he didn’t ask any questions. When my children were old enough, I told them a brief version of my story, hardly mentioning Nabil. I wanted to keep my memories of him to myself. But there were times when I was overcome with sadness and withdrew to my room. My husband and children knew to leave me alone.

My children are now all grandparents and live in Michigan. My eldest daughter resides nearby and keeps insisting that I live with her. I prefer to remain in my house.



I ask Ibrahim when he intends to publish the article. In two days, he says. He’ll go back to his office and begin typing it up.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he tells me on his way out.

I doubt he’ll have enough space in his article to capture the story that I’ve told him. But I’m glad that I’ve shared it and that Nabil will live on in Ibrahim’s recording, for anyone who cares to listen to it.  



My caretaker makes us dinner and then retires to her room. I sit by the window and sip tea. My children call to check up on me. We have brief conversations, as I’m in no mood to talk. I light a cigarette and look out onto the snowy lawn bathed in yellow streetlight.

For years, I often pictured Nabil’s reincarnation appearing at my front door in Dearborn and asking for me. Although I had only known Nabil for about a month, my intense longing for him was a feeling that I never experienced with my second husband, a decent man who died of pancreatic cancer more than twenty years ago.  

When I arrived in New York City in 1912, Nabil’s brother was there to greet me at Pier 54. He was a beefier version of his younger brother; the moment I saw him I rushed into his arms and wept. We had lunch in lower Manhattan and then went to Grand Central Station and boarded the train for Michigan. As we journeyed west through woods, I looked out the window, imagining myself on the train to Cherbourg sitting next to my love, holding his sweaty palm.   




Story from Dearborn    //    Ghassan Zeineddine
Question & Answer    //    Greg Varner
Illustration    //    Maria Lucia Carbone