How to Make a Person: A Recipe

As published in v.1, Fall 2018, and RISD XYZ Fall/Winter2018/19.

Thirteen centuries ago, an alchemist wrote a recipe for making humans.

Jābir Ibn Hayyan scribed hundreds of books about chemistry and alchemy, astronomy and astrology, engineering, geography, philosophy, physics, and pharmaceuticals and physiology. But it was his thoughts on Creation that attracted me to his work. Jābir talks of three tiers of being—inanimate, simple life, and intelligent life. When I first encountered a reference to his recipe, I wondered: What ingredients turn inanimate matter into a self-determined life, a life with a body granted movement, agency, and personhood?

I wondered about this as I began to dig deeper into my own person, into the liminality of a third-generation refugee body. I was struggling with giving myself permission to talk about politics in my studio work, and finding reprieve where I could speak with my body—with a physicality that exists, skin and flesh and bones, a person—undeniably.

I finally found Jābir’s recipe.

He instructs: “Begin by placing the bones then the flesh and veins and blood vessels and cartilage.”

Could I reverse the recipe, pull the prerequisites of personhood from it and check them against myself? Find proof that my body exists, make its agency indisputable?

But what were my bones? What is my flesh and veins? My bones were kneaded with the Ka’ak1 of every Eid. My flesh baked with the Fatayer2 of every Friday morning, the veins brewed with the ‘Ahwé3 after every Maghrib prayer. I think I congealed in small crucibles of family gatherings.

“Place,” Jābir writes, “each part in its designated location.”

My designated location? I grew up between the sun and the waters of the Arabian Gulf.

I was made Palestinian-Syrian, in a pot two thousand and six hundred kilometers away from Palestine, two thousand and nine hundred kilometers away from Syria. Left to simmer for as long as the road to either place, bound by the sand of Emirati beaches, created an Aristotelian Perfect Mixture that didn’t exist in either place. No hyphens, no capitals, insoluble: palestiniansyrian.

I was fifteen when I first visited Mukhayyam4 AlNeirab to get my ID card. On it was listed my official “place of origin”—AlNeirab Refugee Camp.

I remember entering the camp underneath a wooden arch, the flags of Syria and Palestine on either side of it. I remember the streets were dusty, and the sun was glaring and hot. I remember my dad walking quickly, talking excitedly, the way he does when his day is running on schedule. I don’t remember much else. On that day, I hadn’t wondered what it would’ve been like to grow up there, I hadn’t connected that desolate place to the one my dad’s stories were often set in, to the Damask rose and strawberry farms that bordered it. Would ripe strawberries have dotted the soil with red dust? Would the hot air smell like the soft petals, taste like the rose jam that spills in our suitcases when we fly back to the Emirates?

I was nineteen when I first heard “rejected because of your passport.” A small part-time job I had for months, until the company applied for my labor card and asked me to leave. That, I think, was the first time I was conscious of a need to defend… defend what? I wasn’t sure then.

“Then affix each part of it in its place,” Jābir says.

Once this desire to defend surfaced in my consciousness, I started to see it in everything I did. Over the next few years I found myself pulling close parts of my parent’s culture, like someone collecting the contents of a spilled bag on a crowded street. I did it in a rush to reconcile who I am. I ate more levantine food, I switched from espresso to ‘Ahwe, I spoke more Arabic each day. It was as though I was proving to myself that I am who my papers say I am, justifying the obstacles they represented. I further began to see this urge to defend in every decision my parents had made raising me. Choosing my name, selecting my schools: everything was an ingredient they carefully picked, prepared, and dropped into a cauldron. Everything a defense against eradication, a resistance to self-erasure. To prove we are who we are.

“Make the body out of a glass vessel.”

A body that is hollow, see-through. Not invisible, but almost.
Out of glass, A material of multiple states, often in constant movement, hot and glowing and flowing, but here: still, cold, a container to contain, not to move.

I was twenty-three when I applied for my first travel visa, and when I realized it was my body’s agency I’ve been trying to defend. A body that isn’t, actually, hollow, not see-through. Stateless, yet always of multiple states, always in constant movement. Not hollow, not still, not invisible.

1. Semolina-based, date-stuffed holiday cookies.
2. Open-faced baked breakfast pastries.
3. Coffee, as pronounced in a Levantine dialect.
4. Mukhayyam: Camp