Vassar Student Review

Vassar Student Review

Peace was intermittent in that time. More often than not we could hear missiles trailing through the air or bombs going off. Nowhere was safe and we lived with the knowledge that at any moment our small house, made of rough white rocks bridged by a thick mortar, could soon become our tomb. I was a young boy then and so the knowledge never gave way to fear. It was the only life I knew.

We were among the lucky; we had a garden. It was my father’s garden and he showed it intense care. He kept the arid soil watered, red peppers neatly placed, never intermingling with the cucumbers. The grapes he allowed to grow up the back of the house, and we would eat them one-by-one in the summertime, spitting out the large seeds that could ruin a bite if you weren’t careful. He sometimes grew jasmine flowers for my mother, the seeds of which he collected on short walks he took alone when the fighting died down, briefly. His pride, however, rested on the thick-branched fig tree that grew in the center of the garden with its smooth trunk and plump fruit, consistent in the puzzle-patterned shape of its leaves and protected by the patchwork of wire and wooden slats he had repurposed into a tall-enough fence. I would oftentimes peer out through the holes in that fence, a good way to watch the world without truly stepping into it.

The garden was my father’s safe haven. Anything important sent him out to the garden, and usually us with him. At his most worried he worked the soil, he brought us out there for holidays, he spent an hour there just looking over what he had grown when he learned my sister would be born, and most of his prayer he did facing the Western wall of that makeshift fence.

By the time I was twelve years old, I was praying daily out in the garden with my father. It was a meditative experience in peaceful moments. You could hear both near and far, the sound of bees buzzing among the flowers, birds in the fig tree, as well as trucks rolling down the street and the ezan phasing in and out from the speaker at the top of the minaret so tall it even overlooked our little garden from so far away. The smells were pushed by a gentle breeze, soft thyme mixing with the sharp mint and the sweetness of fallen figs. In the middle of the day the sun shone down powerfully and you saw the dull red of your eyelids, even as you put your head to the ground.

We laid on our mats as we always did—not a monotonous task, but a grounding one—when we heard the high-pitched whine of a missile. I continued to pray; in a situation such as this there are always three options. The first is prayer and the missile passes you by. The second is again prayer and the missile strikes you and you die closer to God than at any other time. The third is the revocation of prayer in which case I do not think it matters whether the missile misses or not. And so I continued to pray.

The whine grew louder, and seconds later I heard a swish and a thump. I was compelled to look up to see that the branches of the fig tree were swaying, jostled by a huge gust of wind. I looked down at the earth below it and there in the soft soil that my father had only just hoed and aerated was a large hole. Neither of us moved. I turned to my father for what to do next but he was fixated on that hole. For entire minutes we sat in this posture, my eyes fixated on my father’s, his on the indication that, no matter whether we were actually in imminent danger, something important occupied that hole in our garden. Years later, at an American university, I attended an introductory philosophy class in which we discussed Schrödinger’s cat. Placed in a box with a poisonous gas released at an unknown and random time, the cat could be said to be both alive and dead at the same time. Only the observation of the cat released it from its prison. Sitting under the bright fluorescent lights, I could think only of this moment where, without moving, without reacting, my father and I could remain both alive and dead—could remain unaffected by that aftermath—and my eyes never wavered.

Finally, he looked up from that hole, then down at his mat, and began to roll it up. I was still rooted in place but I watched as he walked inside the house, leaving the door open behind him. He walked back out, holding a filled watering-can which he brought over to the hole and immediately emptied into it. The circuits, he explained, like the hot plate. He spoke in reference to the hot plate my mother used for cooking which I had ruined the month before when I spilled a bottle of water, sending sparks flying and earning a curt, well-deserved slap across the face. With that I was freed. My father understood the situation fully, its inner machinations and exactly how to deal with the problem. I rolled up my prayer mat and followed him back inside.

We never called anyone to remove the missile. There were no police and no bomb squad and, even if there were, they would have had much more important bombs to worry about. My father continued to love his garden. He watered his peppers and his cucumbers, the grapes and the flowers and the fig tree, and he began to water the dormant projectile, too. After a few days the hole fell into itself and closed up, but he continued to soak the area in hopes that it would rust and eventually break down into just a memory.

Slowly, the bomb became a part of the garden. On days when my father was sick or could find work, someone else had to take care of the watering and weeding, and we all knew that this empty spot was a stop that had to be made. Years passed and, though we did not forget about it, we no longer worried about it. It was our unspoken secret, no longer recognized as a threat, only as a responsibility.

The fighting ended at around the same time. It took months, trickling out of the suburban areas first and then slowly, at last, receding from the bigger cities. But peace came with a price. You could no longer watch television, listen to music, keep family pictures. There was only one channel now that played, and I found it exceedingly boring. The adult programming we watched on our little black-and-white TV was dull and one-note (propaganda, as I later learned) and the children’s programming which generally involved a rabbit chasing a carrot, I found too immature. We didn’t have many pictures of the family. Those we did, we hid behind paintings on a thin canvas, stuck between the glass, the paper, and the frame. Our family sat safely behind these perfect patterns, blossoming from singular points and rapidly expanding into colliding hexagons, squares, and triangles that eventually made every shape imaginable, only infinitesimally small. We watched over our own lives through that infinity of shapes.

The music ban hit my father especially hard. He had a large plastic bin of cassettes—Ahmad Zahir, Mehri Maftun, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan—that he often pulled from at random and dropped into our tape player, another luxury of ours. When general peace began, however, personal peace disappeared. Anyone could expect a raid at all hours of the day and, fearing for our lives, my father sealed the bin, making sure it was watertight, and buried it in the garden, not far from the bomb. The tapes, too, entered our routine, only now we knew where not to water so as to preserve them. We never ended up unearthing them.

The other big change was in our schooling. I was permitted to attend the same school, but we now studied many more religious texts and many of my teachers left or had disappeared. Women were not allowed to study, however, and my sister who had recently completed her sixth grade was relegated to secret study in our garden with my mother or my father, whoever had more time available to spend with her that day. This worked for a while, a few months even, but they found us out as they always seemed to find out. Perhaps it was a neighbor, or someone walking by who happened to peer through one of the many holes in our fence but it does not matter how, only that they knew.

On a late Thursday afternoon, two men walked through our open front door, both carrying large assault rifles. These I had seen only on the adult TV programming, but I associated them with a familiar sound—a sound that was supposed to be heard exclusively from far away. I was in the kitchen, making myself something to eat and as they walked by I was unable to move. In my memory I believe I was cordial, greeting the men with a good afternoon, but I forgot to ask them if they wanted something to drink.

They asked if my sister lived here. She does. They asked me if my parents were home. They were not. One of them asked me if I had prayed this morning. Of course. The other asked me if I was scared of them. I did not know. I said nothing. They asked me where my sister was and I could think of nothing but to point to the sliding-glass doors.

They walked out to the garden where my sister was watering the jasmine flowers and, wordlessly, one of them pulled out a knife and killed her with a cut across the throat. Then they stood there, enjoying the garden, enjoying the smells and the shade and the beautiful sights that we so lovingly tended to and created in our haven of a backyard. Then they left as quickly as they had come, causing no real disturbance in the daily routine. I never even thought to shout for help.

We buried my sister in the garden, beside the cassette tapes, beside the missile. Above her body, my father planted more jasmine, shaded by our enduring fig tree. She too became a part of the gardening routine.

I spoke of this incident in an English class I attended at the American university where I discovered living-dead cats. I found it relevant to the conversation, but my classmates simply stared at me and, after a quick aside from the professor that truly meant nothing, no one responded to what I had said. They felt no need to engage with my life—indeed they felt an internal pressure, I believe, not to engage—because if you don’t give thought to something, you don’t have to make a moral judgement. And so my sister’s death passed for them as fact, not something good or evil, rather something that simply was. Or maybe that made it both; in their minds I think she might have been both dead and alive.

In my second year at university I lived with my friend Jason, a tall blonde man from Arizona. I brought up this moment from my English class, marveling at my peers’ inability to even briefly ponder an event that was so integral to my life. We’re at war with you, he said. I had no response to this. It struck me as quite reductive, placing me with “them” and him with “us,” even as we slept and ate and studied under the same roof. We were pursuing the same major, we often pined after the same women, we enjoyed watching the same television shows together. I began praying in my room rather than next to the couch in the living room, where there was more space.

Still, Jason became one of my very best friends, and we travelled together during breaks in our schooling. On a trip to Germany I was detained at the gate. I was asked to step aside as Jason made his way helplessly onto the plane. Two security officers brought me to a nearby windowless room where they asked me the normal questions. Did you pack your own items? Did anyone give you anything to take on your flight? Why do you grow your beard? A woman on the same flight believed that she recognized me from a list of terrorists she had seen on television. I missed the plane and the airline paid for me to take the next two hours later. They’re even upgrading you to business class, said the woman who printed my new ticket. Thrilling. Now when I travel I build an extra two or three hours into my itinerary. This is a product of fear.

When I arrived in Germany, Jason was waiting in a black taxicab. He lamented my treatment by the airport staff so profusely that by the time we reached our hotel I was apologizing to him for the worry he had felt. He eventually got over it and we went to bed as the sun peeked over the horizon. We had a wonderful time in Germany.

I was hired as an associate professor of anthropology at Iowa State University: Iowa State’s first Middle Eastern, Muslim, non-American, associate professor in the anthropology department, that’s how they introduced me. My mother passed away of tuberculosis a little while before that as I was earning my Ph.D. and she wouldn’t let me come home to see her—or ratherI could not leave the United States and be readmitted due to my stupid oversight and my unrenewed visa. I said goodbye to her by phone. I felt so alone.

A year later, visa successfully renewed, I travelled home to see my father. We had horrifyingly little to talk about. I told him about my work, the wide berth people gave my academic interests due to my Islamic background. I was never questioned when I proposed the study of Middle Eastern relations because why should I not be interested in the one thing they felt defined me?

My father spoke of the garden. It was wholly the same as when I had visited some three years before. The routine was unchanged: water the bomb, skip the tapes, tend to the jasmine. There was now also a small headstone in my mother’s memory. On the flight over I had had a premonition that I would reach my childhood home, walk through the kitchen to the garden, and find that the missile had finally exploded. It never did and it still has not.

We still prayed together, outside among the fruits and the flowers, shaded by the fig tree. Its branches had continued to lengthen since I’d left for university more than a decade before, and it now covered that entire area, with patches of sunlight shining through. We prayed there with my sister and my mother, with the growing plants and the memory of flowing music, we prayed with the bees and the ants and the snakes and the birds, and we prayed with the missile, whose sharp whine had long diminished to a dull trill: the trill of the garden.


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