Michelle Obama and Melania Trump Peddle a False American Dream

When my daughter said she's tired of being poor, I scolded her and told her she doesn’t know what being poor really means. I didn't tell her that there are some obstacles no amount of hard work can overcome.

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua
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An illustration of a city with an American flag in the foreground.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

I can’t move, literally, and our summer vacation is just starting. After three days straight of being on my feet all day long, running after three energetic kids, it felt like my knees were starting to crack. My thighs were cramping up, my muscles were burning – and I was going broke.

“Hey, listen,” my brother had said, when he heard that our plans had changed and we wouldn’t be coming to Israel soon for a visit. “We’ve decided to bring Mom over and to come see you, so she can be with all of you and our kids can see a little of America. What do you say?”

“What do I say?” I replied joyfully. “I say you’re making my summer! And you’re saving me from feeling guilty and helping me get over my feeling of disloyalty.”

We were all really thrilled about the upcoming visit by my mother and brother. The kids were excited about seeing their cousins and grandmother again. My youngest asked again about Grandpa and why he wasn’t coming. After I explained to him once more that Grandpa was gone, he still insisted that he was just at work. Yes, he knows that Grandpa was in the cemetery, but then somebody came and gave him HEALTH, like in a video game, and he came back to life, and he’s not coming to visit because he’s just very busy.

“You haven’t explained it to him yet?” asked my brother on the phone when I told him about my son and his questions about Grandpa.

“I still haven’t explained it to myself,” I said. Sometimes I feel like I’m telling myself the same story my son is telling himself. And that maybe I don’t want to go back to Tira because I don’t want to discover that this same story might not be true.

It’s my brother’s first trip to America. And it’s going to be an expensive one. Very expensive. “But if we’re already coming, we want at least to feel like we got to see America,” he said.

“Of course,” I told him. “We won’t just stay in our town. There’s not that much to see here.”

“Umm,” said my brother, sounding a little hesitant. “Actually, I was just looking at a map of America and it took me an hour just to find your town and I don’t think that we ”

“What?!” I cried. “You don’t want to see our house? Where we live? How we live?”

“I do, I do,” he said. “But you know, it’s just a two-week trip and the tickets alone cost more than $8,000. So with all due respect to Champaign . You understand.”

I was deeply offended, and would not hear about any trip that didn’t include our town. Somehow I managed to convince my brother to fly into Chicago and come to us for one night. “You’ll be tired, you’ll want to rest a bit, to get over the jet lag. Then we’ll be ready to go.”

“Okay, fine,” he answered uneasily. “Meanwhile, I’ve prepared a list of the things we want to see. So listen: We’ll land in Chicago, we’ll stay with you one day, and maybe spend a day in Chicago, if we’re so close already. Anyway, after talking with friends, we decided we want to go to Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Niagara Falls, New York and Miami.”

“In two weeks?”

“Yes. If we’re making the trip already, we want to see it all.”

Somehow I got him to drop Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Miami from the itinerary. Now it’s been just three days since we left our peaceful little town, and I’m not at all sure that I can go. The kids – mine and my brother’s – are in seventh heaven. Though the cities and the trains and the flights and the museums and the architecture don’t interest them nearly as much as a clown who can blow up balloons and tie them in the shape of Pokemon or SpongeBob, and sell them off his cart for $10 apiece. The kids are most excited by the hotels. They’d be happy to stay in the room together all day, playing cards and watching TV and getting into fights and making up.

Maybe tomorrow they’ll enjoy it when we go to Universal Studios, in Los Angeles, and my nephews will finally stop saying, “Antalya is more fun.” This is a very pricey trip. According to my calculations, I’ll be lucky if I get away with spending less than $10,000. I hardly let my kids buy anything, though once in a while Grandma ignores my pleas and buys them what they want. My daughter remarked that she was tired of being poor, and I scolded her and told her she doesn’t know what it means to be poor, and that poor people don’t go on summer trips and get to stroll on the Santa Monica Pier.

I’m cut off from what’s happening in the world and barely following the news. Every once in a while, I hear about another killing spree. Germany, France, Florida, Japan. Sometimes I wonder about our security as tourists in crowded places, and as Arabic-speaking Muslims with a mother who wears a head scarf. Every so often I hear something about the American presidential election campaign, about the two parties’ conventions, about the warnings that the world is on the brink of destruction and that only racist and violent thugs can fix it.

One night at the hotel, I listened to various TV anchors and analysts accusing Melania Trump of plagiarizing parts of Michelle Obama’s speech from eight years ago, at the Republican convention. They compared the two versions, and showed how Trump, like Obama, spoke of being raised on the values of hard work, listening to others and respecting people who hold different views, and that the most important message to convey to children – and to the next generation of Americans – is that the only thing that stands between an American child and his dreams is hard work. The commentators showed Trump saying one line and then Obama saying a line, and so on, and wondered whether it was just a mistake by a speechwriter, or deliberate plagiarism.

Not one of the speakers, however, commented on the content of the two speeches. No one talked about the lie the two women both sought to peddle to the children and to the next generation. No one spoke about the numerous insurmountable obstacles that no amount of hard work can change; no one said anything about glass ceilings, about ghettos and about social status that’s passed on from one generation to the next.

“Before we came, everybody was saying: ‘Wow, America!,’” my brother said somewhat disappointedly before the first week was even finished. “Everybody said: ‘You’ll see, you’ll be so amazed Everything is big there, everything is larger than life.’”

“Yes,” I said, regretting the tour guide mantle that I’d assumed. “It’s the same everywhere. But, hey, tomorrow, we’re going to Universal!”

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