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When Ilene Haddad's Hair Got Braided, Cultures Also Intertwined

A woman in a red top and glasses smiles in front of a flower garden.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Ilene Haddad wrote about overcoming a difference she thought existed, with the help of her grandmother-in-law.

Earlier this year, we put out a call for your stories about overcoming differences — true stories about finding common ground.

Working with the Austin Public Library and The Library Foundation, we collected the submissions and helped writers shape their stories into pieces to read for the radio.

Then the pandemic hit, triggering an economic recession. Then there was the killing of George Floyd, which prompted a massive wave of protest against police violence and institutional racism. 

Add a polarizing presidential election, and these stories took on new meaning. Suddenly, the need for finding common ground felt even stronger.

Ilene Haddad wrote about overcoming a difference she thought existed — when she was shown we are all alike.

Read Ilene Haddad's story below:

Growing up, I didn't know much about Arab culture. Mrs. Shapiro never mentioned anything about it in Hebrew school. We stuck mainly to the classics — Noah, Moses, Lot. The most I ever learned was when I traveled to Israel with my synagogue’s youth group during my senior year of high school. We spent a week on a military base, living life like local teens. Rather than figuring out how to decorate their dorm rooms, Israeli high school graduates were preparing to go into mandatory military service. My traveling companions and I were told that all the lights surrounding us were Arab villages. We were so scared.

I never knew an Arab person until I met my future husband, Bill. He wasn’t very scary at all. At first, I didn’t even realize he was of Syrian descent, despite his last name. When I discovered his background, I thought my family would disapprove, so I hid it from them for a long time. But their knowledge of last names was stronger than mine, so they figured it out before I did. 

I was going to be a Jewish girl in the middle of an Arab-American family. Although Bill and I weren’t married at the time, I was worried I’d have to negotiate 3,000 years of disagreements should we ever decide to take the plunge. But that’s not how it played out. The turning point in our relationship was when Bill’s grandmother — “Situ” in Arabic — came for a visit. I prepared a big spaghetti dinner for her — the only dish I knew how to make.

Before we sat down at the table, Situ insisted on braiding my hair. Her own gray hair was worn tucked up into a bun. I never liked my hair pulled back. I was uncomfortable with my face so exposed, but I let her do it anyway. With the smell of spaghetti sauce in the air, I knelt on the floor in front of her. Her hands —gnarled and timeworn — braided as if it were second nature. It was. Those same hands, used to make round Syrian bread and test the heat of pots of food for nearly 90 years, had become calloused into flesh oven mitts.

After she was done braiding, Situ had me stand up so she could pronounce, “Now you are Arab, too.” We all had a good laugh. She then turned me around to look directly into my eyes and said, “It doesn’t matter, in the end we are alike.” And that’s how she treated me the rest of her life.

Such a simple act created a bond. 

Years later, Bill would confess it was when Situ braided my hair that he knew he wanted to marry me. Now I test our food with hands more delicate than Situ’s, but I’m on my way to making flesh oven mitts of my own. After all, in the end we are alike.

Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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