Two Chapters from "Love is an Ex-Country"

December 21, 2020   •   By Randa Jarrar

THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE DOMESTIC ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO.28.

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 “MAGIC”


I guess most people newly freed from responsibilities take naps. But not me. What I did was, I drove 14 hours to Arizona, which I realized was a huge mistake as soon as I arrived in Flagstaff. My dog and I slept in a motel room that inexplicably had four beds of varying sizes. We were Goldilocks. My dog, who has thick cataracts and is blind, sniffed at the walls. The next morning I tried to drive us to Sedona, but I realized halfway there that the terrain and view were replicas of Kings Canyon, which was 40 minutes from my house in Fresno. But by then it was too late. I was behind a row of cars whose drivers were elderly, their feet fluttering constantly against their brakes. When we pulled into the resort area, I found a way to turn around and began making my way to New Mexico.


An hour in, I stopped at the gas station; my dog hates the car so I took her with me to the restroom after I pumped gas. We squeezed into the restroom, which was busy with a matriarch and her daughter and her daughter’s daughter, all Native women, all instantly kind to me and my dog. The stalls were full except one, and when I got out, the women were gone. Instead a white woman in a uniform was washing her hands. I stood by her and washed my hands, too.                


This place is a shithole, she said.


I think it’s rather nice, I said.


The bathrooms across the street are like a four-star hotel, but I can’t go there, she said, because I’m a truck driver, and we don’t get to decide where we stop.


She was wearing a pair of wraparound metallic blue trucker shades.


Some people just shit in their trucks and throw the bag out the window, she said.


They do? I said, amused.


Yes, well the people they got driving now, they’re not from here. They’re not American. They’re Syrians. Might as well hire monkeys to drive trucks now.


I’m glad they got out of Syria, I said, now that I understood that this woman had waited for all the Brown people to leave the bathroom, and that as soon as she saw me, a light-skinned woman who she assumed was white, she was able to be comfortable and vocal in her racism.


Are ya? she said, vaguely disgusted.


Yes, I said. They’ve been through hell. I’m Palestinian, I said, and for the first time, I realized I was taller than her.


She walked away and said, Well I hope you’re okay with spending your tax dollars on them.


I am, I said. My tax dollars pay for my son’s school, for the roads I drive on, and for bombs that kill Arabs, by the way.


She didn’t say anything. I could have left, but I went after her. She had hidden in the convenience store’s aisles. When I saw her, I said, I’m not a monkey. You’re a racist. You have no idea what it’s like to be a refugee.


It has happened before: a person thinks I’m cool with their racism, or, more confusingly, when they find out I’m queer, with their sexism.


I got back to the car and held my dog and shook.


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Children get their first taste of invisibility before they can even remember. Then, they thrill in magic tricks. A parent can hide and then surprise them with their sudden return. Birthday clowns make coins disappear. Children watch cartoons where a mouse takes a dip in a paint pot that holds invisibility ink. Harry Potter wears a cloak, women in Canada and America and Afghanistan and Lebanon and France wear niqabs, humans are surveilled through closed-caption video cameras, drones can spy activities from high above and can also strike men dead, or hit a wedding party. Once the wedding party is gone, so are the children. If you kill all the children in one family, you have made invisible all the more Arabs, because now the entire lineage has been erased. Death becomes, as my mother says, a return to that amniotic nothingness.


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To be Arab in America is to be a mouse unwittingly dunked into a paint pot of invisibility ink. It’s not that Arabs don’t exist. It’s that you prefer that they remain invisible unless you can trot out a good one or an especially bad one. It’s against your best interests — I almost wrote “our best interests”! You’ve convinced me that my own erasure is good for me — to allow other Arabs to appear. You say, Arabs are only 1.5 percent of the American population. Why must you hear from them or see them more than 1.5 percent of the time?


  ¤


The first magic trick: we are nothing. In the womb, we are invisible to everyone, even to our mothers. Women report intense dreams for weeks before they give birth. For months we carry them, not knowing what they look like, and within them, worlds are already forming, more worlds that we can’t see. Here, I am employing the royal we. For what are mothers if not sovereign?


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A short, incomplete list of ways to make it so that when anyone in America pictures an Arab, that Arab is dead:


Ensure that their governments do nothing to help them. These governments disappear people; they imprison, torture, and kill. There are many ways they kill — I won’t bore you. You already know all of them.


Leave gaping vacuums of power in their homelands so that any violent group can plant itself in those vacuums and take over. When this happens, it’s wonderful, because this group then kills the locals for you. When they start killing your own, you now have the perfect excuse to go in and kill them and even more Arabs.


If Arabs make their way outside of their native lands, it’s imperative that they remain erased. This is done by hoping they’ll stay home. Segregation in housing and land works perfectly this way. When Arabs live next to white people, sometimes they get killed. The men who kill them are wolves, but they are not alone. Not at all.


Create a trope of what an Arab is. That image is the only one people can see when they think of an Arab that’s alive. Make sure that image is as wildly inaccurate as possible. Make sure it’s someone who is not an Arab, dressed in a costume you create to signal Arabness. Give them eyebrows. A nose you can hang a coat on. Hair everywhere. Culturally inaccurate gowns and headdresses, plus weapons you built or sold to them hanging from their waists. If they don’t use those accessible weapons and instead use what they can source — swords, knives, bombs, airplanes, rocks from the land itself — they are the savage ones.


Once the trope is created, it functions as a giant subconscious eraser. (For example: An Arab goes on a date with a white American. The Arab tells the white American, “I’m Arab.” The white American says, “Well. You don’t look like an Arab.”)


The next step is to make it so that Arabs themselves begin saying this to each other. The authentic Arab in their minds is the Arab trope you created. Now, Arabs in Detroit, Paris, Toronto, Palestine, London, Lebanon, Egypt, and many other places will say, “Well. You don’t look like an Arab,” when they see an Arab that doesn’t fit in with what the Arab trope looks like. There is then an enormous deficit of authentic Arabs. In this way, you get Arabs to erase other Arabs.


See?


No?


Well. That’s the point.


 


“MONUMENT”


From Texas, I drove on to Oklahoma City and checked into an old hotel. In my white-walled cavernous hotel room, I heard the news about Alton Sterling, a Black man shot point blank in the head by police. I watched the video knowing that it would make me rageful.             


White men with money sat across the hotel lobby from me in red velvet chairs and sofas, under a painting of white men sitting on sofas. The real white men talked about Donald Trump, and the longer I looked at them, the longer their bodies seemed to be surrounded with red blood.


My hotel was built in the 1800s by enslaved Black people. Now a white bartender was complaining to another bartender, a woman, who had to emotionally massage his pain: he said he’d been captured on film by a news crew and that they’d asked his permission to use his likeness and he’d said yes. But when he watched the news that night he’d been cut out of the segment.                           


He was very upset telling the other bartender about this.                  


I thought I was going to be on the news, he said, but they cut me out.


I got cut out of the news.


They cut me.


Out of the news.


Alton Sterling dying, being murdered, every minute on the news. Over and over again. Palestinian children in white burial cloth. Black and brown bodies wishing they weren’t on the news. Mothers wishing they didn’t live in an empire or under the thumb of one, an empire that depends on the myth of their resilience.           


  ¤


Before breakfast I walked outside the hotel with my dog, and the valet parker wanted to talk to us. He liked my dog. He reached over to pet her, and I noticed a tattoo on his wrist. I asked him if it was a tattoo in Arabic. He said yes and showed it to me. It said I love. I told him, “It says, ‘I love.’” He said, “It says, ‘my love.’” It said I love. But I nodded. He said an Iraqi friend wrote it for him. An Iraqi guy, he said. He used to work here. I asked him if he heard of the bombing in Baghdad a few days ago. He nodded, sadly. I said the Global North was fucked-up for living in comfort at the expense of the Global South. He said, yes, and we acted like our lives were so hard. He shook his head. I wanted to embrace him.          


I drove through Bricktown. There was a Flaming Lips Lane. I drove past bars shut down because it was morning, and the fanciest Sonic I have ever seen—a brick building, no drive-through.


I went north and wound my way to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, to the site of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. It was no longer a bombed-out building at all. Years of living in the Middle East, of growing up around sites of trauma and war, made it difficult for me to process memorial sites.     


The serenity, cleanliness, sterile slate gray tile, water, life replacing horror.    


This site had all of that. It is across the street from a church. There is a small painting of a Jesus who appears biracial, Indigenous and white. He embraces the nineteen children who died in the bombing.


The site was an outdoor memorial, with an artificial and shallow reflective pool where the building once stood. Visitors were encouraged to sit near the field of empty chairs, which were a physical representation of the chairs of the dead. Near this, there was a small section of the original building left. Salvaged granite. It was beautiful. The top of it was devastated, cracked, burned, and bombed. It reached up toward a tree, which was labeled “survivor tree” by the memorial, and up to the sky.


The bombing was the deadliest act of “domestic” terrorism at the time. One hundred and sixty-eight people died; hundreds were injured. The white perpetrators were sentenced to death (McVeigh) and prison (Terry Nichols). McVeigh was executed three months before 9/11. He remains the only terrorist who received an official execution sentence by U.S. courts. 


¤


In the shower that morning, I started my period. When I looked down at my feet on the ceramic bathtub, I saw a small blood clot between them, dark brown, a long Y: the shape of the Nile.


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From Oklahoma City, I drove to St. Louis. As I wound through Missouri, I heard on the radio that there was a city nearby, in the Midwest, whose electricity ran on the skin of women. The city power plant was almost shut down, but strippers in the district kept it on with their donations. When the lights were on at night you could gaze out at the place and understand how women’s bodies literally made the city shimmer.


  ¤


In Springfield, every billboard screamed, “This is a country fair.” One said, “visit the Uranus fudge factory.” There was a series of Dixie Stampede billboards, and a series of Fantastic Caverns billboards that feature weird Okie people, in strange and obvious costume getups. Basically, people performing whiteness. Then miles of grass. The only representation of a person of color I saw for two hundred miles was a giant Cherokee statue outside a travel center back in Eastern Oklahoma. It felt as if I was in a temporary place, the way a carnival sets up and then leaves. That’s what I was getting from this part of America. Outwardly not committed, temporary. There were no homes. I drove past huge trailer-home lots. Nothing was here to stay.


  ¤


Signs along the way:                        


Leaving Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation


Leaving Sac and Fox Nation


No sign welcoming drivers to the nations and reservations, which I loved. You are not welcome here. We’ll let you know when you’re wanted, which is never.


As I drove I remembered the story inside Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 classic, Ceremony, about a Native man who returns from World War II, and the ways his trauma was healed by Native history and folklore. In one section of the book, a group of Indigenous American witches hold a contest hundreds of years ago about who can cast the best spell or create the best ceremony. And the one that does is the one that calls the white people over, the one that predicts Signs along the way: colonizers. It’s always been such a hair-raising and terrifying idea, one that places power back in the hands of the oppressed, as if to say to the colonizer, “We sent for you.”


I was pulled over by a Missouri police officer for speeding. There was a larger SUV going the same exact speed as I was, but I was the one who got pulled over and my hair was extra frizzy and big this day. The cop approached my car very gingerly—he was slim, pale, and short, and wore a wide-brim hat. As soon as he saw my face, his body language changed. If I seemed like a light-skinned woman of color from behind, I seemed like a white woman from the front. My dog climbed up on the window frame, and the cop asked if she was friendly. I said she was very friendly. He asked for my license and registration. I reached into my bag. I brought out my wallet. I leaned over and gave him my license. At no point did he seem threatened or pull a gun on me or kill me. I even asked if he could give me a warning. I was going 86 in a 70. I understood my privilege and actually requested a warning. He said I was receiving a citation because 86 was too high for a warning, but his inflection was apologetic. He gave me my ticket, which said I was going 85. I went along my way, alive. In one piece


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From my notes the next morning:


Philando Castile was shot dead yesterday in a routine traffic stop. He’d been stopped forty-six times up until that point. He paid off every single citation. The police officer shot him anyway. I walk around Soulard and go to the farmer’s market. An elderly man wants me to sit with him to talk about my dog, so I do. On the way into St. Louis there were signs: PASS WITH CARE. My fat Arab body continues to pass for white.


 


Copyright © 2021 by Randa Jarrar, from Love is an Ex-Country. Excerpted by permission of Catapult.


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Randa Jarrar new book is Love is an Ex-Country (Catapult, 2021). She is also the author of A Map of Home (Other Press, 2008) and Him, Me, Muhammad Ali (Saraband, 2016). Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Utne Reader, Salon.com, Guernica, The Rumpus, The Oxford American, Ploughshares, and Five Chapters.