Walk Outside the Rhythm


            Walk outside rhythm, and you'll just attract the worm.

You know- that worm that gnaws into you, feeding off of you and whatever you try to sustain yourself with, growing bigger and fatter and multiplying into a vast array of blind heads rearing up at the slightest provocation?

But damn, how do you even talk about where it came from or when was the first time its maggotty seed was able to burrow inside you since it comes from the inside? On her end, Fawz wouldn't have been able to truthfully recount the first time she felt it settling into her chest, or felt the nausea as it wound its way maliciously down into her stomach. Neither would Salem, her husband. Neither, in time, would their children.

Was it from the American invasion of Iraq, of watching her life, her home, her country crumble into a living hell so horrific she and her family had to escape to the dream of a slightly lesser layer of hell in Syria, only to be ridiculed and treated like second-class citizens relegated to the worst areas of the cities or else to refugee camps? No, there was more to it than that.

Having her son come home from school with headaches from the strength of pride clenching tight against tears of injustice threatening to explode out of taunts and belittling from Syrian teachers and students? The tearing away of herself and her family from their home in Baghdad because she and Salem both knew that with the war what little jobs they had available under sanctions were now gone and that trying to send their children to school amidst the brutality of the American troops was unthinkable? No, there was more to it than that.

Was it from seeing her people forced into prostitution by the Syrian government, seeing them kidnapped by American troops or American-sponsored militant schism sects, or forced from starvation and war into selling their children to black market vultures promising under oily smiles they would give them to good homes then killing them to harvest their organs? Was it from the astronomical leap into AIDS epidemics, high cancer rates, and monstrous birth defects from the use of rape, depleted uranium shells, and other banned weapons of war by the American- and later Iraqi- troops? No, there was more to it than that. Much more.

UN sanctions, the Gulf War, the Iran-Iraq War, the War of 1967, intentional poverty from a global economy, the Nakbah, refugee camps, Assad, Hussein, Nasser, Bush the first, Bush the second, Clinton, the fall of Arab Nationalism, colonialism, anti-colonialism, neo-colonialism, the Crusades, the political policing of mosques, forced sterilizations, Orientalism, Islamophobia, ages of attempts to defame Islam, ages of attempts to defame Arabs, American apartheid, growing up male in a patriarchal society, growing up female in the same patriarchal society, Israeli occupation, American occupation, martyrdom, chemical warfare, nuclear warfare, American funding of Islamic religious schisms and Al-Qaeda alongside the IDF and Saudi Arabia's military, the Iraqi government's expulsion of Iraqi Jews, secular Islam, radical Islam, racism, invasion, violence, kidnapping, rape, murder-

We used to think it was hell under Hussein, she and Salem would laugh with people, and now we realize that compared to what Iraq is going through now, we were in heaven then.

We were like people in a dream, she would continue, her face growing long and entranced by the flicker of memories. We were like zombies, we had no direction, we had no thought, we had no reason to think, we were just trying to survive. We were like people in a dream, and when we finally began to wake up and look around us we saw that we had been invaded and that this was hell. You think we would ever stand to have our country invaded, no matter how bad it was- do you think anybody would ever stand to have their country invaded? No way! This is our country! And so we began to fight, like dreamers struggling to shake off a nightmare. But, yanni....it is becoming even worse. Now, now we are trapped in the nightmare.

Fawz wondered sometimes if it wasn't all just her, if this maze of memories and continuously gnawing emptiness wasn't all just in her head since she saw other people everyday who seemed able to cope just fine.

            Maybe it was all just in her nationality.

No, because she knew other Iraqi refugees here in America who didn't seem to go through the same mental anguish as she did.

Then again, they also refused to talk about Iraq or admit they thought about their home at all sometimes at night, laying awake and having all the memories invading their heads and taking away their laughter, leaving cancerous holes that bored deeper and deeper in the wake of dreams about family gatherings with nieces and nephews smothering aunties and uncles in kisses, of poetry, of staying up late to watch Indian films, of competitions at teasing, or of street-corner tea vendors performing tricks with cut-glass cups and saucers. At first Fawz had wanted to shake these people, to scream at them, to demand they remember. Remember!

When the family that sponsored them had first come to San Diego themselves, within the first month Umm Wassim had stripped off her hijab, and her daughter's too. Within the second month she was wearing shorter skirts and noticeably more makeup. By the third her wiry, bouncing black curls had been bleached and straightened into an orangeish almost-blonde bob, and she was on her way back to nursing school since the state refused to accept her degree from the University of Baghdad and years of experience nursing back in Iraq and Jordan as valid indicators of requisite skill, insisting instead she start paying for classes at the local community college if she wanted to work in her profession.

Fawz wanted to yell at Umm Wassim, who now called herself Jasmine- not Yasmin, Jasmine. Even her son Wassim had followed suit, adopting the moniker "Wes" to make up for the red flag his real name would otherwise raise in people's imaginations. Fawz wanted to shake all of them and demand they remember who they were and where they were from- but she couldn't blame them. Fawz had kept her hijab on out of a sense o
f liberation but also from a feeling of anti-American identification with it. Could she let herself be like these people here, these people who had destroyed her country so completely? No way! But she understood Umm Wassim. She understood why she tried so hard to hide her background and name out in the American world and protect her children from that same hate Fawz herself could feel in her very bones at every excursion outside, at every flip of the channel, at every news article and at nearly every conversation with Americans- even Muslim Americans, can you believe it!- that touched on war, dictatorships, or notions of democracy. It ate away at her, joining older, more entrenched despairs to expertly riddle her with holes from the inside whose beginning she could never begin to work out and whose end she felt she'd never be able to see. Salem felt these holes, too, she knew- felt these holes in her and felt these holes in him. And a part of her that she tried not to listen to, tried so hard not to pay attention to but pushed away into darker, cooler portions of her mind, whispered that her children were feeling these holes as well.

It drove her and Salem deeper into themselves. Neither of them quite knew how to talk through the unstable pits they felt themselves becoming, and neither of them had any community or family here to help them work through it all with warm support or tearful cajoling. Salem's degrees meant nothing to the United States and so he found himself demoted from architect to a Goodwill cashier sneered at for his thick accent and taken to the manager for review at every minor infraction or miscommunication with his female coworkers. The money Fawz got from tutoring in Arabic and translating was what held up the household more than Salem's own contributions, and this rotted even more away at his feelings of duty and pride as a man, a husband, and father that were strengthened into rigid stereotypes of masculinity by the intense loneliness he and Fawz both felt between them. A chemical reaction would explode in him at times, spurring him on to lash out at her whenever he could. He didn't know how to express his emotions, so he would blindly yell and blame and accuse at random, seeking some outlet of release; Fawz had nobody to fall back on to cushion her own feelings of entrapment and isolation, and so she screamed back in equally voracious accusations and indictments of Salem. They yelled at each other across chasms of emptiness filled with painful memories boiling just beneath the surface whose worming presence whispered and goaded each of them on in their subconscious; and the whole time their children sat and watched or stared at each other knowingly from each other's beds and listened, trying not to hear. And the gaps between them grew wider, and the burrowing worms grew fatter.

After a year or so in America Fawz and Salem both started taking to saying, Forget Iraq. Forget there. Nothing can save there, it is just a bad dream, a bad memory. They repeated this while shaking their heads, Salem burying himself deeper into his computer, glued to the multiple open windows filled with Arabic headlines that formed his only stable link to memories of home and Fawz deliberately sat
as far from him as possible, burying herself deeper into her work and children that formed her only stable link to memories of family back home. If countered with the insistences that they shouldn't forget, that Iraq is their homeland, that they have to remember- Remember!- their faces would become pained and dark with melancholy. Yes, they would respond, it is...it is home. But sometimes it is better to forget.

Fawz still wore hijab, but she cut her thick greying curls short and dyed them an orangeish near-blonde beneath her veil. Salem worked the night shift in a factory making electronics, which gave her some peace.
Now most of the time that they were together he would either be asleep or absorbed in his news reports and she would be busy with her work and avoiding him. Then their son became absorbed in war video games- the whole family did except for Fawz- and each scream from Assassin's Creed or gunburst from Metal Gear Solid would stab sharp through her brain bringing searing flashbacks with it. Why did she alone seem to react so badly to these things? She wasn't the only one in the family who had witnessed war- how could they all have become so numb to their memories so fast?

It's not normal, it's not natural, she would desperately insist to guests who came over while the rest remained absorbed in the video games or the most recent news of violence from the Middle East. How can you make a game of killing, of war? How can you make a game of it, of killing human beings? A human is a human, whether an image on the screen or right there in front of you! It's not natural, I tell you, it's not right. It's a culture of war, a culture of violence- we've come to see it all as normal. From the Middle East to America, we are taught violence from the very beginning, we are immersed in violence and in killing, we are taught that this is the right way to be, the only way. We are all now becoming a people without guidance, only violence. And here they make it into a game, it's a game to kill people! Ntck, ntck, ntck, ntck! Her head would shake from side to side, bent down slightly under her thoughts. Astaghfirullah...

But ummi, it's fun! her younger daughter would call out in-between having her big brother explain the controls to her.

You see? Fawz's eyes would take on a glint of desperation and paranoia. Even my daughter. What is happening to us? Here she would laugh, trying to take the edge off reality. You know sometimes- yanni, I don't know, I feel like the world is against us. That it is being made this way- it is! How could it not be?- that it is all just because we are Arab. Not even because we are Muslim, it is because we are Arab, because other Arabs, yanni, Arab Jews and Christians, they get the same treatment as us! The exact same. It is in the name- they see the name and they immediately single you out. Because, you know, with the Iraqi Christians and Muslims, we all share many of the same names- we are the exact same except that one is Christian and one is Muslim, you know?- and they go through the exact same things as we do. It is not about hijab, it is not about being Muslim, although the Americans don't like those things either. It is about being Arab. They want to get rid of us because we are Arab.

Fawz would shake her head again, as if trying to blur her clarity of vision.

Astaghfirulla, but wallahi, it's true. Why do they do this? I don't know...May Allah help us all.

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