A Border Crossing
It is dark, and the seat is empty.
To my right, Joe Somebody, head-to-toe business-serious, taps-taps-taps at the keys of his keyboard, even though the pilot has already reminded us it is past the time to stow electronics. Beyond him are the glowing fulvous lights of O’Hare International. I wish them good-bye. Ahead is the utter blackness of city-sky. Have you tried to sit and see the stars from the heart of any downtown? City-sky. Utter blackness. And then home.
Joe Somebody had glanced at me as he had shimmied into his small seat, swallowed my ratted hair, my puffy face, my wrinkled Egyptian tunic. The mess. A far-cry from his perfect world. He had sighed, taken his seat, never double-looked. Now he taps. He has the same computer as my father.
The seat to my left is empty.
Assuming the cabin door had closed, I had settled in for the short flight: crossed ankles, head tilted back, and eyes closed. Exhaustion. Four months. Too many memories swirl in front of my nose if I dare to open them, so I dared to sleep.
I open my eyes to see a woman and flight attendant, shuffling bags, shuffling bags. There is no room in the overhead bins. -Can we use your under-seat space? Thank you, sir. Ma’am. Ma’am. You need to sit down ma’am. This is utterly ridiculous. I will put your bags away, ma’am. You’re late, ma’am. Ma’am! The flight attendant kicks the woman’s purse, hard, under the seat. Something shatters inside, the flight attendant walks away. Joe Somebody grunts as he looks up from his Mac, brow furrowed.
The woman drops into the seat. I swallow her puffy eyes, wrinkled dress. Exhaustion.
I notice two things:
1. I like her headscarf.
“Welcome to Egypt!”
“Welcome to Egypt!”
“What’s your name, what’s your name?!”
Forty school girls stand in front of me, stare me down.
Bright headscarves bob to better see my blonde hair. There’s something pleasant about being welcomed that puts me at ease. Just like the welcome calls in Turkey and Morocco, they make it easier to call Egypt home, even temporarily.
“What’s your name?”
“Welcome to Egypt!”
Still, I just want to see the pyramid behind them, please.
I’ve never enjoyed packing. Packing means leaving something familiar behind in pursuit of different, and, in my past, different is not always good.
Divorce stings of this matter. My dad moved out, my mom moves. Almost overnight, I am faced with redefining home in the context of dichotomy. My parents: supplying my oozing ego with silky dresses, fancy paint colors, casual greenbacks, and mud-slinging power words aimed to defame their old flame. Quickly, two places become home. Quickly, neither place become home.
I am stuck - geographically, metaphysically, spiritually, figuratively, unreliably and reliably - between the here and there. In my case, the here and there both try to claim me. Most days. There are, of course, moments where mother and I stand, toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose, our spittle splashing on each others’ cheeks, words that sting like vipers striking into each others’ throats. Life is unfair, she is unfair, I am unfair. I want nothing more than to leave forever, and yet I want nothing more than to stay forever, wrapped in the warm, happy arms of comfort that I know hides somewhere between these walls. When you know a place could be good for you, but you are not good for it. These are moments of hatred, rage, jealousy. On these days, I am only welcome in one home, even if I yearn desperately to be welcomed in both. These days, these days are the worst.
What if that was everyday?
A first trip to Kadikoy. No expectations. Some expectations?
After all, one is heading to Asia. A new continent. A new experience. What can one expect? Visions of dancing dragons, or spices, or silk, or new architecture, a far cry from the Ottoman-influence in European Istanbul. Sitting on the ferry, one waits in limbo between the known and the unknown, settles between place and dream. A simit for lunch. Maybe jasmine rice for dinner? A street performer instead of a shoe-shiner. An exotic change into the realm of invasions, movement, lotuses and black ink. A step away from the basic bakery outside the dorm hall.
And then one steps off the boat.
Simits. Shoe-shines. Ramshackle buildings and women in the veil.
Nothing is new.
Here is a doner kabob. There is a mosque. Here is a scarf shop, there is a scarf shop, everywhere a scarf shop. There’s a bakery, and there’s a bum. One crossed the Bosphorus to change perspective, only to find that a change of pace doesn’t change a place. You cannot move from shore to shore, be it the Bosphorus or the Atlantic, and expect to find a different humanity. And here one stands on the ferry dock, stuck with reality:
No straight is wide enough to highlight this distinction.
It is take-off, and the baby wails.
Joe Somebody rolls his eyes, stares out window, even glances at me. Suddenly, I am not such an imposition on his perfect life. Two of me in this row would be calmer than the hurricane of sound from over my left shoulder.
-Babies, I smile at him, comfort him. -What can you do?
He looks at me intently.
-How many children do you have? A genuine question. A sudden interest.
It seems really important that I answer this question correctly.
I constantly am mixed up in spectacle. A man on the street yells at the banana salesman. The screamer creates a spectacle, and I immediately reduce his meaning to eyesore, hostility, a stereotype. A ruin springs up before me on the Aegean coast. A spectacle, an anomaly in the open greenland, and yet I glorify its existence, pay twenty lira to sit on its steps. Both stick out from their surroundings, and both claim to belong there. But I lift one in praise while another is shoved into the muddy mess of my judgement.
Both are home, and both stand out, defying their placement by drawing attention to themselves. If you picked them up and moved them, put the ruin back in Rome, put the man in the privacy of his home, I wouldn’t look or think twice. But I still see one as ruining its environment, and one as celebrating its environment. I let one feel at home, and beg the other just to leave.
I think my judgement stems from a familiarity.
But I can’t be sure.
...it is difficult to overstate the humanitarian impact of the Barrier. The route inside the West Bank severs communities, people’s access to services, livelihoods and religious and cultural amenities. In addition, plans for the Barrier’s exact route and crossing points through it are often not fully revealed until days before construction commences. This has led to considerable anxiety amongst Palestinians about how their future lives will be impacted...The land between the Barrier and the Green Line constitutes some of the most fertile in the West Bank. It is currently the home for 49,400 West Bank Palestinians living in 38 villages and towns.
—Introduction, The Humanitarian Impact of the West Bank Barrier on Palestinian Communities, United Nations
On the borders of Israel and Palestine, workers clamber at a fence. They are waiting, hours and hours, to get to work, to pick up a meager paycheck, and then they will turn around to wait some more, waiting, waiting, to return to their families on the other side - home.
The uprisings of Hamas and anti-Palestinian sentiment in Israel recently is causing even longer border delays as workers are checked and rechecked by gate officials, questioned, interrogated, and only finally sent along. Even in the West Bank, where ruling authority is the Palestinian National Authority, and not Hamas, anger runs high. Walls and fences border territories, to keep the unwanted out, and the chosen ones in. In 2006, Palestinian militants used an 800-meter tunnel under the Gaza strip buffer zone to infiltrate Israel, kill two Israeli soldiers, prove that they cannot be defined by someone else’s definition of homeland. It wasn’t the first time, and it wasn’t the last time.
The 700 km border with the West Bank causes more problems. Crossing the Green Line, extending into the prescribed territory of the Palestinians, the wall sits as a symbol of division. Some Jews wish to annex the whole land, their promised homeland from God. The Palestinians wait in mercy to the Israelis and the US’s militant force.
One can feel at home in a foreign land, but what if the foreign land does not wish to be their home?
I’m sitting on a bench, staring down at the Nile. I smile to it.
It winks back at me.
For a moment, this is home.
-I’m sorry for my baby.
The words drip, so much effort in so small a statement. A hint of accent.
-Where are you coming from?
-I’m coming from Egypt. And Turkey and Morocco. I’m good with kids.
I open my arms. She sighs in relief. There is a baby in my lap.
-She doesn’t speak much English.
But that’s okay. I crumple up a plastic cup and hold in front of the baby’s face.
Mom is almost asleep.
-Her name is Rala.
Skype Log. Show messages from: Yesterday. 7 days. 30 days. 3 months. 6 months.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Majda Elmarzouki: Skype?
Mourad Hattach: Yes.
Call from Mourad Hattach, duration 1:02:57.
They talk like usual. Usual isn’t so usual anymore though.
Rewind a few years, when they were still in school, practicing English through thick Darija accents. Love sparks from a funny place, even between two studious, bright Moroccan youth. Fast forward. Talk of marriage, a future, a family. Fast forward aaannddd roadblock.
Majda is Arab. Mourad is Amazigh, a minority population struggling for survival and national acceptance. Mourad’s parents are proud of their heritage, and are not so proud of their ancestors’ relationship with Majda’s. Overnight, Mourad is shipped to Belgium to work, find a nice girl whose family wasn’t so oppressive to his family’s people, grow up, please.
Mourad crosses a border, Majda stays home. But technology crosses that border and they remain connected. Even in one place, people wish to create borders between them and others, like Mourad’s parents try to do with their son and his trashy tramp of a friend. After all, Majda is his home, in a way. Not Belgium. And Mourad is still welcomed in her metaphysical house, even if it is through wires and a LCD screen.
Mourad, even in a pixelated sense of honor, becomes Majda’s safe space. If Majda were to Skype Mourad’s mother (a complete hypothetical, because she only speaks Tamazight), the airways would darken and suddenly home wouldn’t feel like home.
Love transcends space, but only so long as both parties are welcome to it.
It is night. The sky is not city-black, but is, instead, covered in stars. The sand beneath my feet, once gold and glowing in the sunlight, shines icey silver in the moonlight. I sit on top of the desert dune, and it extends forever to the horizon, never changing. Desert is desert, no matter where you stand.
I can almost see the mountains in the distance still.
I wave to Algeria.
Rala and I play crumple-the-cup for forty minutes. When we’re done, we read a picture book, backwards for me, forwards for her. We take all the pamphlets out of the seatback. We put all the pamphlets back into the seatback. Press the volume button on the armrest a few times. Back to crumple-the-cup.
Joe Somebody has stopped talking to me.
Mom wakes up, flags down a flight attendant, who lazily meanders up and checks her wrist. She and I have the same watch. Target.
-Excuse me, can I get some water?
-We’re not supposed to serve people right now, ma’am. The flight is almost over.
Four rows up, a pale woman in pearls sips from her recently-refreshed plastic cup.
I have entered the lair.
In the heart of Istanbul, I am a shut-out with a shutter out.
My precious Olympus Pen EI-1, bought brand-spankin’-new for my trip with optimal guarantee from Mickey at National Camera Exchange has ceased to function, the screen flashing black with each shuttering click. Research on the Internet brought me to this gadgetry neighborhood, shops littered with gizmos and trinkets with gears and chains. I wander through back alleys, following an undetailed map and men gaze at me with glass eyes from behind the window frames of their shops, cold.
I wander up to one older gentleman - old means gentle, right? - and point to my map with a quizzical expression. I laugh goofily, try to make myself seem silly, careless, likeable.
His lip snarls.
“Hayir. Siktir git.”
I don’t even want to know what it means.
The next salesman at least opens my camera, looks at it with a magnifying glass.
“Shit. All shit.”
He tosses it back, with little care. It thuds on the counter.
Lip quivering, I type into Google translate on the computer: Can anyone fix it.
He types back: Not for you.
The next man leads me deep into the maze, round dark corners, through dusty overhangs. The sterile, modern technological streets of Istanbul I knew are lost and gone, and I am in the ancient, where I stick out like a tall tree in the middle of a desert. There are no women, and all the of the men are dressed in traditional Muslim dress, unusual for this very Western city.
Then there are two men. Then three. I feel them closing in on me. One touches my shoulder and snarls. Another fingers my hair. My blood pounds into my cheeks and my breathing goes heavy. I fear the worst and I cannot run. My limbs have gone numb.
One spits at me. It lands on my white t-shirt.
The largest one then mutters something in Turkish, and they all laugh with one another, still at my expense. Then they disperse. One by one wandering away.
I’m not even worth the trouble.
Today, Istanbul rejects me. When I need her the most. Today, I cannot call this home.
I sit on the street corner and cry.
Mom asks me to hold out my wrist. I do. And she drips perfume from a small, cracked bottle into my cupped flesh. She puts some behind Rala’s ears to calm her during the descent. Rala reaches up and pulls the scarf from Mom’s head. Mom adjusts it. I’m curious.
-So why are you going to Minneapolis?
-My husband just moved here. It is our turn.
-Is Rala your only child?
She nods. -For now.
We begin our descent. Rala wails. The flight attendant runs by, once again kicking the purse under the seat. Joe Somebody covers his ears and snarls our direction.
Mom and I, we are both on our way home.