Naema's Story

You know, last week I was with Naema, my daughter, on our way home when I stopped by one of the gas stations by our apartment. I know the attendant there- he is Muslim, he's said "salaam" to me several times before when I stop by, you know, he seems very nice. So Naema and I stop by, I go in to pay the attendant, and then come out to start filling up the car. My son Abdallah wasn't there with me so I was filling it up myself, with Naema staying in the car.

Anyway, I'm filling up my car with gas when this man drives up behind me and gets out of his car with this terrible look on his face. He is just looking at me with- with- with so much hate, you know?- and he takes out his card to pay, shooting me looks this whole time like I'm something evil and horrible. I was starting to feel so nervous, you know, so anxious to go, so I'm praying please, please, hurry up so the gas will finish pumping and I can leave. But as I'm finishing up and putting the nozzle back in the stall I hear his voice calling out to me, just covered in hate:

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"

I meant to ignore him, but I was so shocked by what he said that I turned instead.

"You ought to be ashamed!" he spat out again, this tiny little man with graying hair and work clothes on. "How can you even stand here looking like that? How can you even stand in this country looking like that, you goddamn terrorist?"

He started stepping towards me, and suddenly it seemed that with each step he was getting bigger and bigger, and in my fear instead of just walking away like I had planned to I started reacting to him instead. "I ought to be ashamed...? You should just...just shut up," I muttered, clutching for my purse.

"I feel sorry for your children, having to live with a person like you as their mother- is that her, is that your daughter in there, the one that you forced to wear that, that, thing on her head, too? A child and you're already suffocating her like that! You're a horrible person, a horrible mother! You should be taken out and shot!"

I looked back in horror at Naema sitting in the backseat looking out the rear window with her eyes round and popping against the brilliant white of her hijab, and suddenly all this protectiveness for my child shot my temper and my voice though the roof. I wanted to hide all of this from her; how could he be saying these things about me, about my child, even in front of her? She shouldn't hear these things! I can take them, you know- but her? "Shut up- shut up!!" I started shouting back. I cast a quick glance over to the register's window where the Muslim attendant sat. There was no one in there with him, he was just sitting there, alone. And I know he saw me- he had to have heard the terrible things that this guy was saying to me. But he didn't do anything.

"Terrorist!" He was screaming now, and I backed further and further away from him in fear and anger and frustration. I don't remember if he was actually moving in my direction or not, but he seemed to keep getting bigger and bigger, even more because nobody around was helping me. He was just sitting there screaming at me and I couldn't do anything and neither would anybody else. "Terrorist!" he screamed at me again. "Go back to where you came from! Take your dirty oil with you, too- we don't want your kind here! You ought to be ashamed- ashamed!!- of what you've done, destroying our country and forcing little girls like that one in the car to wear that- that- dirty towel!"

I was near tears now, clutching at my purse and trying to grab for my phone. "Shut up, shut up, shut up!!" I screamed back at him, even though I could hear my voice breaking and choking and knew it was nowhere near as loud and commanding as his. Who would listen to a voice like that over his? Desperate, I reached out to the only thing I could think of. "I'll call the police!!" I screamed back at him. "One more word-"


"One more word, I swear-"

"Your children should be taken away from a monster like you!"

"I'll call the police!" My voice caught in my throat at his threat and I was reaching for my cell. "I'll call them- I'm calling them! I'm calling them right now!"

"Fine! They'll deport your ass back to Iraq where you belong- get outta here, monster!"

"I'm calling!!"


Suddenly a loud angry voice interrupted him from behind one of the filling stations.

"The lady....said....for you....to SHUT UP!!!!!"

And- you won't believe this, you really won't believe this- this huge guy walks out from behind one of the pumps- huge! He had this long black hair in braids and a big black beard, tattoos all over the place- he looked really really scary, you know, but I, wallahi, right then, he was like an angel to me. Because he started walking over to the man who had been yelling at me and suddenly that man shrunk in size! He became like this little whimpering chihuahua where before he had seemed like a wolf!

And the big guy just walks up to him, the smaller one getting even smaller as he does, and he says to him in this deep booming voice, "The lady told you to shut up.......so SHUT UP."

The short one looks as if he is about to faint, and starts sputtering and trying to make excuses but he can't even get a single word out! The big one just leans in closer and tells him, "Shut up."

I was so relieved, I was almost fainting myself. I started thanking the man over and over and over again- "Thank you, thank you, thank you, you have no idea- thank you"- and his face grows very gentle as he looks over at me, gives me an understanding nod and then waves me away, saying in a softer voice now, "No problem, no problem, don't worry bout it ma'am, s'okay. You can go now." Then he turns back to the man and his voice becomes harsh. "What, you can't say anything now? You were saying so much just a minute ago. What happened? Go on, I'm listening, go on, tell me exactly what you were telling her."

Overwhelmed with relief and anxious to get out of there I rushed back into my car and left. While I was driving away I looked back in my rearview mirror and saw the big guy still yelling at the little one and the little one getting smaller and smaller by the minute.


Funerals for the Living

The other day- now this was the strangest thing- I woke up to my own wake. I thought at first perhaps I'd overslept, miscounted the weeks or something and forgot that the day was supposed to be a Holy Day from all the noise everyone was making. I jumped out of bed and threw on a dress, running outside to see what was happening. But even while everyone was dressed in their Sunday best, they were all wailing instead, as if these bright colors and suits and frills were all mourning dress.

A small altar had been set up in my house, and spilling, crowding, flowing over it in a jumbled mess were a collection of pictures, clothes, shoes, toys, art, and other random paraphernalia. Everybody was ignoring me when I tried to greet them or ask questions, acting as if I didn't exist. Now, this is a fairly frequent occurrence for me, so I accepted it with a shrug and carried on up to the altar to see for myself what this was all about. I frowned as I got closer, an electric shock of remembrance running tracks up and down my spine. Suddenly, with a jolt I realized that this was all my stuff from the past!

Wildly I looked around. Women- those kinds that always seem to be at funerals, so much so that you wonder if they get paid to be there, wailing, carrying around pictures of the dearly departed at their best and crying "Oh Lawd, You took 'em away too soon!!" even if they were a hundred and eight at the time of their last breath- were shuffling around keening, clasping baby pictures of me to their breasts. Crazy with confusion I ran up to them, demanding what was the meaning of all this, but they just kept to what they were doing, wailing, screaming, holding the pictures above their head. Aggravated, I began snatching the photos away, but they kept lamenting my death and shuffling up to the altar to go get more pictures.

I didn't know what to do- it felt like a dream. My actions, my rage, all my efforts at communication had no effect. It was as if I didn't exist. In a daze I looked down at the picture and dropped it in horror. It was a picture of me as a child, but laying gruesome and gutted, green brown and black decaying spreading all over my face and body. I looked over at the next and it was more of the same- my napalm-charred corpse laying in a morgue, me with a bullet in my head, brains oozing out over my father as he screamed, me with a section of my head sliced clean off laying in a hospital bed, or with shackles chained down to a bed, or sitting facing away from the camera and thick, heavy masses of scars covering every inch of my back. I dropped all the pictures and pushed my way through the crowd to the altar. The pictures up there were more of the same, but intermixed were pictures of my brothers and me standing in noble, divine dignity, or else just my brothers burning and hanging from trees or gruesomely castrated and eviscerated, strung up in various positions. Hardly were there any pictures of us- of who we were, or even of just me and my sisters and mother- without it being a gruesome tragedy or a gathering of us looking like we were in a forced pose, an overwrought display of what made us.

Scattered everywhere were things we had made when younger, art I had dedicated myself to and then moved on from, toys we had all played with, weapons my brothers used to use for fun or sport and who tried to teach me their ways but never got very far. As I started picking up different pieces of myself and my past that I had forgotten about I heard the murmur of the crowd getting lower in the background and suddenly one voice came up louder than the rest.

"And here, here, we can see the beautiful designs, the beautiful shoes they made, the beautiful art," the voice proclaimed. "Back before the genocide, back before all of this was destroyed and they were forced to loose their culture and die out."

I reeled about. The voice came from the commanding presence of a tall, light-skinned woman with bleached-blonde hair, and was echoed by different women in the crowd in nods and murmurs as the men stoicly sat on and watched, some bowing their heads in assent. The woman was holding one of my baby slippers that had been bronzed in one hand, and a pair of sandals we had decided once to carve out of bolsa wood, so proud of our skill and ability at being able to do so. I ran up and tried to grab them out of her hands, but it seemed every time I moved she psychically knew which direction to shift to keep me away.

"Give them back, they're mine!" I shouted at her. "They're just pieces of the past- I still wear shoes, they're just different now. Like yours, but mine. I'm still alive, I haven't died- give me my stuff back!"

The woman continued to twist and evade my reach until another one stood up, a woman with surgically softened East Asian features and blonde streaks in her hair. In her hands she held up pictures of me and my family in stiff unnatural poses of presence, waving them about as she called out, "We must not forget the people they have been! We must not forget their past, their presence- it still lives on with us through their memories of who they have been and what happened to them!"

I ran towards her, but she reacted as if I wasn't there.

"I am still here! Why do you need to look through me like that to these other things? Why not look at me as I am now and give me back my things for me to remember and teach you about it?"

The crowd was getting louder and louder in their agreement with the two women, and a third stood up of a sudden with tanned olive skin that had been darkened by make-up, straightened hair fashionably decorated with colorful beads and headband, and full lips that opened to cry, "These things should never happen again! These things should never be allowed to happen again! We must all band together to keep this from happening, to preserve the memory of the horrors that occurred and fight against all who have perpetuated them and who would continue to oppress and destroy! We must remember, and act!"

The crowd roared in approval, and even the men stood up in applause, all now rushing up to the altar, rushing past me and overpowering me. I screamed, I cried, I shouted, I pushed- but they bowled me over in their excitement to run up and grab pieces from the table. They grabbed, they feasted, they grubbed, they fingered, they clutched and snatched and ripped and then left in a rush. They left, leaving me and my altar covered in tattered and torn pieces of whatever they couldn't take because it had been destroyed too much to be of interest.

I lay on the floor for a while, too numb to cry but too in pain to move. Pieces of cloth and pictures floated around me with the dust, and I worked up the strength to sit up and reach out for some of them. Nothing was recognizable anymore. Not even I could tell what had been what, or what different records of time that had tried to preserve for posterity's sake said what. I sat, gathering the scraps about me in numb desperation, trying my best to piece them together. If not a picture of what they once had been, at least I could try to make something new of it, something for me to use right now to remind myself and give me new strength to go on.

I worked and worked because I couldn't do anything else. Late into the night I tried to put back together the pieces of where I had been and what made me, but they were too ephemeral, too incomplete. Each breath of wind scattered them about again, some of them torn to such shreds that trying to move them too much caused them to collapse into dust. But still I worked, because I couldn't do anything else. I worked, and, using what I could, I built back up a ramshackle ghostly shadow of a picture of how I saw myself now, of something I could survive with for the time being and that vaguely reflected things I took from my past. There was no room for who I could be, but I was so tired I decided this, at least, I could work with for now. I lay down amidst the reconstructed ruins and was just about to fall into some well-needed rest when the front door opened with a blast of wind.

Horrified at the implications it carried with it I began clutching at all the pieces around me, trying to keep them in place. In spite of my efforts, however, most of them blew away out of reach again. As I sat trying to hold together what was left a young teenager came in dressed in fashionable brand-name street wear and stopped before me and my work. Looking up with tears blurring my vision so I couldn't see who exactly it was, the youth seemed to look straight through me and down at what little I had been able to piece together for myself. They bent down and tenderly picked up what I had left, reverently raising it up to themselves.

"This," they proclaimed in a clear-ringing voice that carried in it tones of respect and heavily colored with idealistic pride. "This, we shall take back, we shall take this and show it to the rest, for them to understand."

And with that they turned their back to me and left, gingerly carrying these incomplete things of mine that I had tried so hard to make into a shelter for myself and my own to survive, carrying them away in their arms for others to see and point at and wave in demonstration.

I sat with nothing left, wondering where to go from here. I sat, not waiting, not in desperation, but in emptiness. I had nothing of my own left, only what others had given me to use. I sat until this very morning wondering what to do. And I still don't know, but I do know this: that whatever I make they'll come in and take anyway, whether in my name or theirs, but in spite of all this I need something to survive, something for my soul to eat and my heart to feel complete when it looks at it. Even if I use the secondhands they pushed on me or left behind for me, I need to make something of my own to live with. And they've never seen me in the first place, so they'll just keep coming to take, take, take. But if I don't do this then all I can do is sit here, sit here, sit here without even my own rubbish to console me- and if I do that, I know I'll really die.