boats

Boaters

By

For the longest time, I intensely disliked the word naturalized. It made me feel as if my family’s very existence was unnatural, and would only change once they became citizens. I looked up the word to avail myself of this feeling, and enjoyed the biological definition—that to naturalize a plant was to make sure it could live wild in a land where it was not indigenous. The wild part was the part I adored. We were living wild in America. Until we were not.

*

I’m still trying to sort out my feelings after last week’s Boston bomber manhunt. The feelings about the bombing itself have been sorted—sadness, anger, all the stages of grief for the dead and wounded. The image that later surfaced, of the eight-year-old who died, holding a sign that says, no more hurting people, is seared indelibly on my memory.

*

“He looks like our son,” my husband said, when they released a photo of the younger Boston bomber. I looked at the photo. My son is darker skinned, but yes, there is a slight resemblance. The eyes, for one. The nose, too.

*

Walking with the Palestinian poet S. once through Jersey City, we talked about our historical and present uprootings. She was being kicked out of her apartment after over a decade and a half of living there. In her kitchen, she pointed out of her windows at where the towers used to be. She had seen them burn from where we stood. I have recurring dreams that I will be forced to move from my house. Just last night, I dreamt that people came for me, that I didn’t have time to pack, that I moved to a room with flooded sewage. My mother showed up in the dream in one of her nylon nighties and helped me clean up.

*

I am an American, Chicago-born. Just like Bellow said. I left with my family 6 weeks after my birth, and we returned thirteen years later. My brother is still a Jordanian citizen—because he cannot be a citizen of Palestine, since there is no such state—and a legal US resident. My parents left my brother and I behind a few years after our immigration and went back to the Middle East. My entire family is awful with paperwork, so much so that my brother never filed the paperwork he was supposed to file or showed up to the places he was supposed to show up when it was time for him to become a citizen. Consequently, he and I are the only ones in our family who were not naturalized.

*

S said that all of us children of immigrants are terrible with paperwork. I told S that our friend L, who died of breast cancer a few years ago, was good with paperwork. I clarified that L told me she had become better with paperwork after she survived the first bout of cancer. “That’s why she made peace with paperwork,” S says. “She knew she was going to die.”

*

“But Boston isn’t a war zone,” I hear people say when they are asked to have empathy with Syrians, Palestinians, victims of drone strikes. “Have you been to Boston?” my friend J. says. “Every corner of that place is historically a war zone.”

*

I’m filing back taxes and looking through my old receipts. I moved to TX briefly before moving to California three years ago, and I used Mayflower to move. That was the only time anyone in my family has had anything to do with anything named Mayflower. We didn’t move to America on the Mayflower, we moved to America on Egyptair.

*

The last time I took my son to Egypt, he was only eight. I left him for two nights with my mother and went to Cairo to hang out with some writers. One of those writers, a graphic novelist, was arrested last week during a protest. I found out on my twitter feed in between updates about the Boston bombing. He was my driver during those two days in Cairo, and we commiserated over our children’s other parents, over the awfulness of divorce. I became angry with him later, at a coffee shop, when I’d taken my hair out of a ponytail and he’d said that my hair looked better down. I was hot, I’d shouted at him, and you don’t know me. He was released on bail today.

*

In 1999, a pilot of an Egyptair flight let go of the controls and left God to be pilot.

But since God doesn’t know how to fly a 767, everyone on board perished. I was living in Texas, in a family housing unit with my son, then 3 years old. We were hanging out on the playground with dozens of friends, all of us from different backgrounds. It was the America I had always thought I would live in. When she found out about the flight, a fellow mother, a Latina from a border town, said, “God, those people who cover their heads.” I had stopped sleeping with a man the previous week because he’d said that this woman and her husband were having babies young because they were from Brownsville.

*

My brother was in INS jail for two months, when the government tried to deport him in 2005. He had left the country for the first time since 9/11, and on his way back, was interrogated by Homeland Security and, when they found out he’d sold weed a few years before —a crime of “moral turpitude”—they told him he had two weeks to get out of the country. In the jail in Virginia, they let him and other Muslims pray in a taped off area, inside a yellow line. He said the lights were always on and he slept with a towel on his face. My father called me in a panic, saying my brother was turning into a fundamentalist.

*

My brother lives in New Jersey and participates in body building competitions. The last time we talked, I complained about how much money I spend when I travel. “I spent five thousand dollars in Miami last weekend,” he said, and we laughed.

*

In August of 2001, I moved with my son into a trailer on a little piece of property in a small Texas town outside of Austin. On 9/11, our White landlord came by and strung up a giant American flag. “This is for your protection,” he said, because I’d told some neighbors I was Arab-American. Those first nights, I made my son, then almost five, sleep in my room, not in his, which was closer to the main road.

*

Last night, my son dreamed that he was in a classroom full of people, and his Chemistry teacher asked all the Black, Latino, Asian, and White students to stand off to one side, and everyone else to stand on the other.

*

I watched the interview with the bombers’ uncle; the uncle’s insistence that they were losers who couldn’t assimilate. My heart breaks for this uncle, and even for the younger brother, and I feel guilty for feeling this way. I think of the younger brother and his older brother. My sister is ten years younger than me. There was a time when she would have followed me to the ends of the earth. Once, when she was eight, she invited a friend of hers, a girl named Heather, over. I’d hurriedly greeted them, saying, “Hey, Heth!” The next day, when I looked out the window, my sister had drawn, with sidewalk chalk, in giant letters, “Hey, Heth!” It was a single White female moment, except we weren’t White, and the stalkery weirdness was coming from my eight-year-old sister. It was adulation, plain and simple.

boat sketch1-1

After hanging out with Egyptian writers for two days, my mother brought my son out to Cairo from Alexandria on the train, and we all went to dinner near the Nile. My son and I took a ride in a small canoe after the sun set, a man rowing us through the water. My son asked me if he could leave a wish in the water. I gave him a piece of paper and he scrawled, happiness for everyone, folded the piece of paper, and released it in the river.

*

 “Boaters,” I’ve heard young Arab-Americans call their parents and their parents’ friends in Dearborn, Michigan. “Ten years in America,” the younger Boston bomber had once tweeted, “I want out.”

When they finally found him, out of all the places he could have hidden in Boston, he was curled up inside a boat. 

***

Image by Margaret Ramsay.


Randa Jarrar is the author of the novel A Map of Home, which won the Arab-American Book Award, and was named one of the best novels of 2008 by the Barnes and Noble Review. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Five Chapters, Guernica, The Oxford American, The New York Times Magazine, The Utne Reader, Salon.com, and The Progressive. More from this author →