What you’re about to read is a journey—and I launch it with the most famous line in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Today, many question just how self-evident America’s commitment to equality is. Good. Questioning this, and much more, is every American’s unalienable right. But for me, a migrant to these shores, equality means something beyond the binary of black and white. Equality means recognizing that we’re all “plurals”: multifaceted and mongrel. Each of us has a unique back story.
That includes the Statue of Liberty. Besides being a champion of the pursuit of happiness, she’s also the queen of quirk. And I feel personally connected to her.
Lady Liberty’s back story has uncanny parallels with that of my Muslim grandmother. Both women came from Egyptian stock. Both spent years in Europe. Both settled into their final homes after crossing the Atlantic. Above all, both taught me the power of wonder.
Conventional history has it that France presented the Statue of Liberty as a gift to a fellow lover of Enlightenment values, the United States. Well, yes and no. It’s true that a French sculptor, Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, carved the statue. But he conceived of her in Egypt, at the opening of the Suez Canal. Awed by ancient Egyptian architecture and inspired by the canal as a passage to possibility, Bartholdi let loose his imagination. He envisioned a monument, taller than the Sphinx and radiating noor—Arabic for “light”—as ships entered the Suez en route to Asia.
Bartholdi thus knew his mission: to erect “the likeness of an Egyptian peasant woman holding aloft a torch of freedom,” as historian and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren puts it.
Having found an Arab philanthropist to finance the lady of light, Bartholdi began sculpting her. But the dream nearly flamed out: The donor went bankrupt. Crestfallen, broke, and bereft of a Plan B, the artist needed distance from the woman who almost was. So he set sail for America.
Unexpectedly, Bartholdi felt ecstatic as he cruised into New York harbor. This, he realized, was where the torchbearer belonged!
He secured more financing. He also found an American chief engineer who had once served in the army that tried to liberate Egypt from her British colonizers. You can take the lady out of Africa, but not the other way around.
Which brings me to my grandmother, Leila Noor Nasser. She was the daughter of dirt-poor farmers from Egypt. At the time, Britain ruled much of that country and transported hardworking families like hers to its colonies in East Africa, where their labor could be exploited for the immediate benefit of Empire.
So Leila Noor wound up raising her family in still another colony, the Belgian Congo. However, in the early 1970s, wars of independence spread across much of Africa, and she fled to Belgium with her youngest children. But no beacon, no noor, greeted Leila. Most Belgians didn’t want exiles from their conquered, still “savage” periphery. Indeed, my grandmother would wait many more years to find a home.
Finally, following her eldest son to Montreal, she received her welcome in Canada. It’s the country that also embraced my family and me as refugees from my birthplace, Uganda. What Canada gave all of us—safety—then allowed us to become curious about the wider world.
One afternoon, Leila Noor noticed me messing around with my mobile BlackBerry, an early version of the smartphone. She zeroed in on the screen and asked, “Is that a TV in your hand?” It hadn’t occurred to me that my device could someday play video. Her question foretold my mission, not unlike that of Bartholdi, to communicate the wisdom of being open to diverse points of view.
Later that same day, my grandmother confided to me her endless fascination with “Amrika.” I had no clue that I would end up in America. Today, I’m the holder of a green card, which puts me on the path to becoming a dual citizen of Canada and the United States.
Which brings me back to the Declaration of Independence. Its stated values—“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”—serve as the unum to our pluribus, unifying aspirations in our otherwise divided body politic. Every July 4, we can do more than cite those values. We can animate them by taking the time to ask about our neighbors’ journeys, whether they’re born of mass migration or individual transformation—or both.
I, for one, will share with all and sundry that an “Arab peasant woman” lit my way to America, her flame inviting self-government as well as governance of the self, ideals kindled by the Declaration. May more of us discover the full glory of Lady Liberty’s story. And one another’s.