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Nonfiction

Nonfiction Issue #51

The Long Middle

By Joumana Altallal

 

I jokingly admit to my friend Yasin, over coffee at a bookstore downtown, that all I really want is to write a good Muslim rom-com. Inevitably, we begin the conversation with The Big Sick. And then a single question: “Have you ever been in love?” I’m nervous to answer…
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Image: “Across the Sky,” by Caroline Knickmeier, watercolor, handmade paper, thread on canvas, 30×48 in., 2020

The Long Middle

By Joumana Altallal

 

“…something you started in your [body] would finish in mine”

Calamities, Renee Gladman

 

I jokingly admit to my friend Yasin, over coffee at a bookstore downtown, that all I really want is to write a good Muslim rom-com. Inevitably, we begin the conversation with The Big Sick. And then a single question: “Have you ever been in love?” I’m nervous to answer. From the window, gentle snow piles atop the roof of a parked car. I find myself- as if another self entirely- saying no, despite being perpetually in love: with the bundled stranger who smiles at me as we cross paths downtown—half of her face wrapped in a thick wool scarf, eyes black. Glimmering. A week later, I find myself sketching the outline of her eyes on the blank side of a flashcard. In love too, with the man waiting to enter the bus who finds an infant balanced on the crook of its mother’s shoulder smiling at him. And so, he smiles back.

Watching the snow outside, Yasin says “I love Michigan.” And so, I love it too.

In The Big Sick, a Pakistani Muslim man falls in love with a white woman.

At 16, at a friend’s birthday party in Ruckersville, Virginia, I meet Ever. And it is my first time feeling desired. A few months later, I slip my hijab off in the small apartment Ever shares with his sister Dunia and brother Erlín. Slip is unintentional; slip is quiet. Dunia stands at the doorway of Ever’s room, excited, and compliments my hair. Before arriving, I spend forty minutes tugging a cheap flat iron straightener through my hair, the still-wet curls sizzling against the ceramic plate before finally falling limp. There is a picture Dunia took: 17-year-old me sitting on the edge of Ever’s bed, head tilted, hair past my shoulders-beginning to frizz. Slip is also: escape; blunder; a falling lower.

“The Hmong have a phrase, hais cuaj txub kaum txub,” Anne Fadiman writes in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, “which means ‘to speak of all kinds of things.’ It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point.”

During my first semester of grad school, I begin each day at 5:30 am. I wake up, pray Fajr, pack two lunches and take the earliest bus (the 28 at 6) to campus. I meet you on fourth floor Shapiro, a square table cornered by wall-length windows in a maze of book stacks. No matter how early I arrive, you are always there first, with at least two coding textbooks in front of you. Laptop open, black headphones on. Outside, a new apartment tower is being built. When we take a break from working, we track the progress from the windows behind us. Watch as the tiny speck of a mammoth crane quivers before extending forward and stilling. Before we decide we are in love, we watch a city we do not belong to erect itself around us.

* * *

Yasin asks what the plot of my rom-com would be. I say two people brought together by a shared violence. Then he asks, “Why does it have to be violence?”

I flail in my answer.

One evening, my parents and I find ourselves gathered in the living room, flipping through our IPTV receiver’s newly downloaded Arabic channels. My father pauses when he reaches MBC-the screen flashes from a commercial to a stage and then three red, throne-like chairs. Tamer Hosny, Nancy Ajram, and Kadhem alSaher stare blank faced at an audience we cannot see, backs turned to the stage. The music begins and almost immediately, in the bottom corner of a fast panning camera, Kadhem’s fingers tap along on the armrest of his chair. His face down, lost in thought, or lost perhaps in a music which takes him somewhere else entirely. A small girl with tight black curls, a wide brimmed hat and hands clasped at her waist opens her mouth, and out falls Zuhur Hussein singing to her beloved. Beautiful, beautiful, my God how beautiful. Beautiful… His black eyes… Kadhem looks up suddenly and smiles, the cameraman perhaps anticipating his reaction. Brown-skinned and blood of clay… and I’m enamored, enamored — Nancy Ajram sighs — by his beauty. Less than a minute in, Kadhem presses the large button that triggers his chair to face the stage. He begins snapping and singing along with the adorable and visibly excited contestant: Beautiful, beautiful my God… The entire audience rises in applause. “Good evening,” Kadhem greets her. Then again, “Evening of flowers! Evening of beauty! Evening of such beautiful brown skin!”

Tamer Hosny asks, “What is your name?”

“My name is Tara Salah Moneka.”

“Where are you from, Tara?”

“Iraq.”

Kadhem interrupts: “Salah Moneka?!” realizing something suddenly, “I knew I’d seen this smile before!”

Then, “Salah Moneka was my friend! This is my friend’s daughter! He was with me in the military theater group.”

“How is he?! How is he doing?” The camera turns backstage where Tara’s mother and brother stand stunned, laughing.

In the span of 30 seconds, Kadhem transforms from a legend back to the lanky teenager forced to perform nationalist songs during the Iraq-Iran war. A young Iraqi who, like every Iraqi, has been forced to bid farewell and flee.

“How is he?” Kadhem’s question echoes in my mind as I drift through Detroit airport. How even the simplest of questions exposes. How, without meaning to, Kadhem lays bare the entirety of Iraq’s history on MBC’s The Voice Kids.

 

My father offers an old Arabic saying: رُبَّ صدفةٍ خيرٌ من ألفِ ميعاد

Perhaps a coincidence is better than a thousand appointments.

* * *

One day, you ask if I want to see your hometown. Together, we watch YouTube footage of Pontiac’s Silverdome being demolished, once and then twice when the smoke clears, and the 42-year old stadium remains intact. Headlines declare “attempted implosions” and “Pontiac mayor compared the dome’s persistence to her city.” In the first page of the comments section, I count twelve different 9/11 jokes.

In The Big Sick, love is never demeaning. It is a challenge, a brief loss, and finally an immense opening. In The Big Sick, Islam is the agreed-upon loss.

Over dinner, I ask what advice my parents would give someone upon their arrival to the United States. My mother: “You must forget who you were.”

During the COVID-19 outbreak, I begin to attune myself to the times the virus is called unprecedented (“an unprecedented wake up call,” “the unprecedented stock market impact,” “in these unprecedented times”); novel; extraordinary. That one might never think to expect certain disasters. Unexampled. That other kinds of disasters belong to instanced pasts. For example: the invasion of Iraq set a precedent, or: the invasion of Iraq followed a precedent. In either case, never unprecedented. From the couch, my mother reads aloud a headline: “Those who intentionally spread coronavirus could be charged as terrorists.”

We look at each other, then laugh.

* * *

Days before I return to Virginia, you are seated in the passenger seat of my car as we drive through Ann Arbor. You nod at a burgundy Grand Marquis idling at the red light ahead of us. You say, “My brother used to drive a car like that.” What you don’t say is, before he died. I ask you what color it was, what year. You text me a photo the next day. Blurry, taken in 2013. The front bumper askew, right headlight smashed. Something splits my chest.

I call my father in the middle of his workday to ask what kind of car my uncle Hafiz was driving when he was shot in Najaf in 2005. Toyota Crown. White with orange paint. A taxi. My father doesn’t miss a beat.

As I begin writing what will become a collection of poems recreating my uncle Hafiz’s moment of death, I imagine myself as a marionettist, clutching a series of wooden rods connected to strings that segment each movement of my uncle’s puppet body. I find myself most interested in the legs. Was he sitting in his car? Was he standing outside? Was he leaning in to turn on the radio? I WhatsApp my cousin—Hafiz’s son—these questions when he asks What do you want to know?

Weeks later, he sends a 6-minute voice recording that does not answer any of my questions. I feel relieved.

* * *

The Plan for a Greater Baghdad was a utopian project envisioned by the American modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1957, Wright was commissioned to build an opera house, cultural center, and botanical garden on the outskirts of Baghdad. The opera house, the most developed portion of his plan, would be constructed on an undeveloped island in the middle of the Tigris River, housing the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra and up to 7,000 people. A year later, the Iraqi monarchy collapsed, King Faisal II was assassinated, and a new government led by Abd al-Karim Qasim took over. Deeming Wright’s plans overly grandiose, Qasim’s government put an end to The Plan for Greater Baghdad.

Wright would die less than a year later. But before his death, he is commissioned a final project: what would become Arizona State University’s Gammage Memorial Auditorium. With a series of budget alterations, Wright bases the auditorium’s design on the opera house conceptualized in his Plan for Greater Baghdad.

In a piece found in Prose Architectures, Renee Gladman draws in a looping cursive the phrase I went away but something drew me back before tangling it into a series of knots. During the final years of his career, Wright would develop extravagant plans for cities that were almost always too expensive or too impractical to construct.

Wright dies five years before ASU’s Gammage Auditorium opens to the public.

Did Wright feel a pull to Baghdad upon leaving? Did he want to see Baghdad somewhere close?

* * *

One quiet night, your body curled against mine, head resting on my stomach, you ask me to tell you a secret. I tell you I was engaged before I came to Michigan.

You say, “That’s not a bad thing.”

You say, “I’m homeless.”

I sketch on graph paper a blueprint and title it: Plan for the City of Grief. In it, stairwells that lead to nothing. A hidden bench. Grief as hideout, as both entrance and exit.

* * *

As we walk through downtown Ann Arbor, you become frustrated with a group of white men who walk in a horizontal line, taking up the entire sidewalk as they converse. You say, “Excuse me” but they do not hear, or they choose not to hear and so you call on them. You say something firmly and then walk past, angry at having to do this. They laugh. Everywhere the city erects itself around you.

I slow down, panicked by the immediacy with which I am rendered hypervisible. How carefully I have lived my life. For you, my panic is an instinctual betrayal. You call it self-preservation. You say you would never do that to someone you cared about. You do not ask what I call it.

Where in a city does shame belong?

While watching Djiboutian filmmaker Lula Ali Ismail’s film Dhalinyaro, I catch myself waiting for violence to happen: between lovers, between fathers and daughters, between siblings. Three Muslim girls fall in and out of love and nothing happens. They pass their final exams; they stay or leave and still: nothing happens. The call to prayer sounds and then wafts through the air, not as a punchline or setting marker, but an inextricable part of life. Deka tells the married man she’s seeing she no longer wants to see him. He says, “If what you’re worried about is someone seeing us, we can be more careful.”

She says, “I don’t want to be more careful. I want to be happy.”

* * *

Like a bewildered child, my father presses his face against the taxi’s window in Najaf and repeats, “Which street is this? Tell me the name again. Where are we?” As if after spending 20 years away, the city might still be recognizable, might welcome him back to a distant childhood. He takes me to his elementary school and weaves us through what is left of a courtyard. “Here is where we played.” Sensing our unfamiliarity, the taxi driver drops us off miles away from where we ask. Puzzled, we begin to zigzag through the cemetery and then, giving up, hail another cab.

This time, we remain quiet.

In 2017, I bring home Latif Al Ani’s collected book of photographs and my father and I flip through the crisp black and white images of Iraq in the 50s and 60s. We both stop at one particular photograph captioned “Haidar-Khana Mosque, Rashid Street, Baghdad, 1961.” The bustle of the street. Neatly lined apartments; latticed balconies. My father begins to weep.

Baghdad has a history of unbuilt designs, so it is no surprise that Wright’s plans never came to fruition. Nor was he the only architect envisioning such radical changes for the city. Rifat Chadirji, the father of modern Iraqi architecture, is responsible for hundreds of buildings and monuments across Iraq, though much of his work has been destroyed since his departure from the country. In an interview, Chadirji’s wife Balqis Sharara admits their 10-day trip back to Iraq in 2009 “saddened [her husband] – just seeing what became of the country, what became of al-Rasheed Street in Baghdad, was enough to send us back…” Nothing is made clearer by measuring time in Iraq. The city’s decay is at once immediate and unmoving. The long middle of loving someone you cannot love.

“At the end,” Sarah Manguso writes, “unless you are vaporized in an explosion, the heart stops and the blood still moves in the veins, then the blood stops and the tissues still live, then the tissues die slowly, and at some point the last neuron in the brain dies.

How long this takes depends on too many variables to count.”

When you text me “I can’t see a future with you,” I think of how many times you have said and unsaid this. I think too, of how it is always this problem of seeing. In some relationships, there is no moving on. Only a repeated dance between panic and shame; a world that chooses to see you when you least want to be seen. And then, living with the anticipation of such exposure, you decide, finally, it is too scary to be loved.

Joumana Altallal
By Joumana Altallal

Joumana Altallal is a Zell Fellow in Poetry at the University of Michigan's Helen Zell Writers Program. She works with Citywide Poets to lead a weekly after-school poetry program for high school students in Metro-Detroit. Her work appears in Glass Poetry, Poets Reading the News, and Rusted Radishes, among others. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference, Napa Valley Writers Conference, and the Radius for Arab American Writers. You can follow Joumana on Twitter @joualt.