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Home Is Not a Country

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Notes From Black Reads

This beautiful novel in verse follows Nima, a Muslim American teenager who feels like an outsider in every aspect of her life. Vivid language captures Nima’s feelings in an authentic and meaningful way, and elements of magical realism make this book a true standout.


“Nothing short of magic.” —Elizabeth Acevedo, New York Times bestselling author of The Poet X

From the acclaimed poet featured on Forbes Africa’s “30 Under 30” list, this powerful novel-in-verse captures one girl, caught between cultures, on an unexpected journey to face the ephemeral girl she might have been. Woven through with moments of lyrical beauty, this is a tender meditation on family, belonging, and home.

my mother meant to name me for her favorite flower
its sweetness garlands made for pretty girls
i imagine her yasmeen bright & alive
& i ache to have been born her instead

Nima wishes she were someone else. She doesn’t feel understood by her mother, who grew up in a different land. She doesn’t feel accepted in her suburban town; yet somehow, she isn't different enough to belong elsewhere. Her best friend, Haitham, is the only person with whom she can truly be herself. Until she can't, and suddenly her only refuge is gone.

As the ground is pulled out from under her, Nima must grapple with the phantom of a life not chosen—the name her parents meant to give her at birth—Yasmeen. But that other name, that other girl, might be more real than Nima knows. And the life Nima wishes were someone else's. . . is one she will need to fight for with a fierceness she never knew she possessed.

ISBN-13: 9780593177082

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Random House Children's Books

Publication Date: 02-22-2022

Pages: 224

Product Dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.50(d)

Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

Safia Elhillo is the author of the poetry collection The January Children, which received the the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and a 2018 Arab American Book Award. Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, she holds an MFA from The New School, a Cave Canem Fellowship, and a 2018 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and listed in Forbes Africa's 2018 "30 Under 30." She is a 2019-2021 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Read an Excerpt

The Airport

once when i was small  we packed a shared suitcase

of bright cotton  floral prints  & something yellow

& silken i’d never seen my mother wear

& for the trip across the country she wore perfume

& her best red beaded scarf  & we clattered

into the terminal  my mother  collecting all the light

a wedding on another coast  its promises

of sunlight & gold  & her scattered schoolmates

& cousins & faraway friends  all crowded

into a rented hall  making it  with color

& incense & song  our country

& it all shone in my mother’s face

we approached the counter to check in  the family

ahead of ours handed their boarding passes with a grin

before the agent turned to us & his smile clicked shut

said  check-in is closed  & no

there is nothing he can do

& no there is no manager to call & please can we leave

this counter is now closed

my mother’s faltering voice  the soft music in her english

her welling eyes  her wilting face  her beaded scarf

& all she said was please  please  i have a ticket

& i’d never seen her so small  english fleeing her mouth

& leaving her faltering  frozen  reaching for words

that would not come  dabbing at her eyes

with the scarf  its red so bright  so festive

like it was mocking us

& all i could do was reach  for the suitcase with one hand

her limp arm with the other  & wheel us to the exit

& in our slow retreat i heard the last snatches

of that man’s joke  his colleague’s barking laugh

no way we’re letting

mohammed so-and-so near the plane

& that’s why we don’t go anywhere  anymore


my mother is so often sad  so often tired & wants mostly

to sit quietly in front of the television  where we watch

turkish soap operas dubbed over in arabic  

their sweeping landscapes & enormous romances

until she falls asleep

chin pointed into her chest & glasses askew

on bright days she plays music  pitches her voice high

& sings along to all the ones we love  abdel halim

& wardi & fairouz  sayed khalifa & oum kalthoum

gisma’s open throaty voice & frantic percussion

to which mama claps along  tries sometimes to teach me

the dances  the body formed like a pigeon’s

the chest arced proudly upward  head twisting helixes

against the neck  in a surprise to no one i cannot dance

but love to watch her  love that she tries anyway

to teach me

& sometimes  rarely  by some magic  the movement

will click fluently into my body  & she’ll ululate & clap

while i twist my head in time to the song  mama’s voice

celebratory & trilling  my nima  my graceful girl


is smaller than me  three weeks younger & always

a little disheveled  always dressed in something that

someone else wore first  & laughs

the most enormous sound

haitham passes me a drawing  during arabic class

full-color cartoon on the back of a worksheet

of our horrible teacher  spit flying from his

large mouth  with a speech bubble that reads


ZE ARRABIC!  eyes bulging & his bald patch

glistening in the light

i press my fist over my mouth to keep the laugh inside

& it builds until i think my eyeballs might burst

until the sound threatens to come pouring from my

ears  from my nose  until my face is wet

with tears

& haitham swipes the drawing  crumples it

into his notebook  right as the teacher turns

& thunders over  spits a little while asking

what on earth  (the only way teachers are allowed

to say the hell)  what on earth is wrong with me

i only manage to choke out    allergies

& haitham  from the row behind  offers me

a tissue with a grin


once  in arabic class  excited that the new girl’s name

luul  reminded me of the song i love  the pearl necklace

i sang a little of it when she introduced herself

& watched her smile falter  confused  before she finally

excused herself  & by the end of the day everyone

was giggling  nima loves old people’s music  pass it on

so even here among my so-called people i do not fit

here where the hierarchy puts those who have successfully

americanized  at the top  i’ve marked myself by caring

about the old world  & now i hover somewhere

at the bottom of the pyramid  (while our arabic teacher drones about ancient times  & the little-known fact

that our country has 255 pyramids remaining today)

the bottom of the pyramid with those recently arrived

dusty-shoed & heavy-tongued  & though i’m born here

though my love of the old songs & old photos

doesn’t translate to my spelling  my handwriting

my arabic pronunciation  or grammar  or history

or memorization of the qur’an  i recognize

in their widened eyes  that feeling  that shock

of being here instead of there


lives in my building  which isn’t actually surprising

since it seems everyone from our country immigrated

to this same block of crowded apartments

it’s saturday morning & he’s ringing the doorbell

frantic    & falls inside when i answer

sweaty & rumpled & still in his house shoes  coughing

with a little joke in his eye

his grandmother opening his t-shirt drawer to put away

the laundry  found his secret pack of cigarettes  which

he doesn’t even really smoke  which he tried to explain

away  while dodging the slippers aimed at his head

who knew mama fatheya was so athletic

everything always so funny to him

she chased him out with cries of


was he going to go

my mother hasn’t left yet for work  & makes us tea

boiled in milk  poured into mismatched mugs

& hands us packs of captain majid cookies she gets

from the bigala that haitham & i call  ethnic wal-mart

where we buy everything  from bleeding legs of lamb

to patterned pillow covers  & cassettes

covered in a layer of dust

she never seems old enough to be anyone’s mother

so pretty & unlined & smelling always of flowers

she clears the cups & wipes the crumbs from the table

& our faces in quick movements  pins her scarf

around her face & leaves for work

haitham isn’t wearing shoes so we cannot go outside

we instead spend the day playing our favorite game

calling all our people’s typical names out the window

into the courtyard mohammed! fatimah! ali bedour!

to see how many strangers startle  & look up

when they are called


haitham’s grandmother once asked us  suspicious

what do you two do all day?  & by the middle of the list

had already turned her eyes back to the television

as haitham continued to list our every microscopic act

music videos  snacks  monopoly

even though half the cards are missing  five-dollar tuesdays

at the movie theater after school

concan even though nima thinks i cheat

& we don’t really know the rules

& in truth i do not know what we really do

with our time together

because it’s always been like this

my every day is filled with haitham

his laughter pulling my own to join it

our nonsense jokes & riffs

& misremembered lyrics & laughing & more laughing

i see him every day & somehow still have so much to tell him

every time one of us rings the doorbell to the other’s apartment

& crosses the threshold  already beginning whatever story

already unfolding whatever thought  & he’s never

joined the other kids in making fun

of all my strangeness  makes it feel instead

like a good thing

even when he calls me the nostalgia monster

he makes it sound like a compliment

full of affection & pure joy  has never

made me feel that there is anything wrong with me at all

An Illness

through the bathroom door i hear haitham singing loudly

in the shower  stretching each note with a flourish

i perch next to mama fatheya on the couch

while she watches  intent

as a woman on the television pulls a glistening chicken

from the oven  i am so bored  & haitham

is taking his time  the mantel above the television

is crowded with photographs

haitham’s mother  khaltu hala  younger & first arrived

her hair cut short & eyes haunted

haitham a bundle in her arms  mama fatheya,

tell me about back home  she glances up from

her program  irritated at first & then softening

nostalgia is an illness, little one  she says gently

turning back to the television  but continues

ours is a culture that worships yesterday over tomorrow

but i think we are all lucky to have left yesterday

behind  we are here now

dissatisfied  i press on  wait, you actually

like it here?  & she faces me again  a sadness hitched

behind her eyes  here i have lost nothing i could not

afford to lose

just as haitham squawks the last notes to his song

& shuts off the shower  i look at the lost country

in mama fatheya’s face  & recognize it

from my own mother’s face  the face of every grown-up

in our community  a country i’ve never seen

outside a photograph

& i miss it too


always laughing & pulling laughter from anyone he meets

has interests that keep him here instead of dreaming

of a lost world  for a while he tried to get me

to play video games  but i could not make myself care

& now i mostly sit on the plastic-covered couch

& watch him play while i daydream  & when he’s done

or tired of losing  he’ll put on one of the old movies

from the box under his grandmother’s bed  though by now

we’ve watched them all dozens of times  we each

pick a favorite character & recite all the dialogue

long since memorized  & squawk off-key

to all the songs  though secretly we are each belting

them out in earnest

i think that  secretly  he loves

this old world almost as much as i do

Khaltu Hala

haitham’s mother  her hair cut close around her ears

though in the old pictures she wore it long  puffed out

around her shoulders  curls halfway down her back

i like her  her gruffness & briskness & her short bark

of a laugh  the books shelved floor to ceiling

in the little apartment  each one of them hers

traced for years by her fingers until the ink

began to gray  the way she coaxes a smile

from my mother  & clears the shadow from her face

the way she growls out every letter of my name

in approval  how i can’t imagine her ever afraid

though when she is home we don’t watch the old films

or sing the old songs or ask too many questions

my mother never talks about it except the one time

after khaltu hala heard me humming the song

about the pearl necklace  &  eyes bulging

voice hoarse  told me to leave  & go home

knocking gently on our door hours later

a little pearl ring passed from her hand to mine

her embrace bright with the smell of oranges & soap

apology muffled by my sweatshirt’s thick fabric

that night  my mother  voice hushed  told me

about the officers that cut khaltu hala’s hair  the long scars

striped down her back  the thousand things

she will not talk about  in hopes of erasing

that whole country  & starting again here

brand-new  & i almost wish she hadn’t told me

& for weeks after i did not want to listen

to the songs  & every photograph looked sharper & ugly

& gave off the faintest smell of copper  of blood

& now i mostly try to forget the story  & return to loving

the dream of home  & the pearl never leaves my finger


though the story about khaltu hala hurts  i do not

want my mother to stop telling stories  she who

so rarely tells anything at all  i ask

about my grandmother  loved flowers  about

my mother as a young girl  i wanted to be

a dancer  & when i ask about my name

she frowns a little  squinting as she chooses

the words  i had a whole other name picked out,

did you know?    but when your father died

i don’t know  it felt like that name belonged to him

& i couldn’t bear to keep it without him   so i picked

something else  & i feel that old pang  of being

second-best  to that other girl  my ghost-self



my mother has guests over & i am hiding in my room

humming to myself & looking through my tin box

of artifacts  the photographs again  my mother as

a painted bride  my parents dancing  i put the pictures

away  the cassettes  & hear my mother calling me

to greet her guests  hello  fine thank you

i’m almost fifteen  school’s fine

arabic’s fine  alhamdulillah  you too

& i duck back into hiding

& i hear khaltu amal with the tattooed eyebrows

who is not actually my aunt & who always smells like ghee

purring to my mother  she could be such a pretty girl

& my mother mourning my unkemptness  sometimes

she won’t even brush her hair  & i don’t know why

she insists on wearing that sweatshirt all the time

i have to pry it away to wash  & khaltu amal again

her cloying voice  remember when we were girls?

the daughters we imagined we’d have?  & i hate her

& her pink-gray face  her still-brown neck she hasn’t

bothered to bleach to match  i hate her armful

of clattering bangles  the way she touches my mother’s

arm & pretends to be her friend  the way she wrinkles

her nose whenever she enters our apartment  her own

apartment large & expensive but filled with awful gaudy

objects  i giggle a little to myself at the memory of haitham

saying to her  straight-faced

aunt amal, would you agree that money can’t buy

taste?  though my laugh dies as i hear her continue

to mama  remember the girl you wanted to name

yasmeen?  with yellow ribbons braided into her hair

such a pretty name  i never understood

why you chose the other

& in the mirror i try to unknot the hair tangled at my neck

& of course there’s no point  i give up & stare

into my blurring reflection  my body filled

with strange static  & see only a smudge where my nose

& mouth should be  only the eyes

large & blinking & intact  & when i blink again it’s back

the same unremarkable face


of course i know my mother is lonely

her days & nights spent mostly in the company

of ghosts  so much of who & what she’s loved

she speaks of only in past tense  though mostly

she keeps quiet  i can’t help but imagine

that her life was enormous before we came here

loud & crowded & lively as any party

& then the final notes of the song  & everyone

is gone  except me  & i feel my own smallness

as i try to fill her life’s empty spaces

though they gape around me like the one pair

of her high-heeled shoes i used to love

to play with when i was little  so much of our life

feels like sitting at a table set for dozens

who will never again arrive  the two of us surrounded

by empty chairs  my mother is lonely

& i am her daughter her only i think that might be why

i’m lonely too

The Photographs

the photographs are how i piece together

my imagining of my mother’s first life

when she was aisha  life of the party

a girl in a yellow dress who was going

to be a dancer  loved & laughing

& never lonely  a whole life stretched

before her in the company of friends

& family & the man she chose

who chooses her & knows all

her favorite songs  who watches her

with awe  & never dies  his life

braided tightly to the long bright ribbon of hers

i don’t think she even knows i have them

these pictures  i’ve had them for years

in the box i keep under my bed

& she’s never noticed  because she never

asks for them  because she hasn’t looked

at them in years