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Confession of Character

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People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

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Cleanse Him with Water, Snow and Ice: an Islamic Prayer for the Dead

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In my childhood line of sight, his brown legs ended in thick leather sandals, the kind with big brass rings and tire-tread soles. He wore them tending the garden, by the pool.

I called him by his surname, Ishaq. The Ishaqs were the only family we knew when I was growing up, the weekend-in-the-cabin family, the camping family, the chicken curry family (Ishaq was Pakistani), the family with whom we shared Thanksgiving dinner.

If Ishaq wasn’t in the yard when my mother’s car pulled up, he might be reading the paper in his fake plycraft recliner, goldish tan, tire treads on the ottoman, the first thing I’d see when we stepped in the side door.

When his children, Serina and Rashid, and I were too much, he’d expel us from the room imploring us to “Go play in the traffic.” 

Circa 1971, ’72, ’73, ’74,  ad infinitum, I sat in a swiveling barstool across from the stove, flanked by Rashid on one side, Serina on the other. The three of us hitched and twisted in our chairs like roughly spinning tops. Ishaq and his wife Ann cooked chicken curry as we three watched, pan simmering, heady, foreign spices, splatter of oil. I can hear Ishaq saying, “Wonderful.” One night, my drunk mother started screaming he had put a chicken anus on my plate. I shrank in horror, feeling sorry for Ishaq. I knew little of chicken anuses, only gratitude that someone had cooked for me.  And I knew Ishaq was kind. I always knew this.

When he was pleased or amused by some turn in conversation, he’d say, “Beauty, beauty!” 

Circa 1975, I was mad at Rashid and threw his towel in the play pool. Ishaq chased me to swat my butt.

Circa 1979, swerving down a steep hill on my bike, a tennis racquet balanced on the handlebars, I took a terrible, high-velocity fall. That evening at the Ishaq’s, I noticed blood seeping from the flesh above my pubic bone. Nine or ten years old, I stood in the bathroom humiliated and unable to hide, dead silent as Dr. Ishaq cleaned up my privates. He weighed the need for stitches. He decided on a butterfly bandage.

In past years, I regularly ran into him at the grocery store. “Ishaq!” I’d call, “Dr. Ishaq!” a little louder. He face beamed, his arms spread wide. “OH-my-GOD!” he’d say—Pakistani accent—as if surprised every time, as if seeing me were the most wonderful thing in the world. He’d hug me. So much love.

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‘O Allaah, forgive and have mercy upon Ishaq, excuse him and pardon him, and make honorable his reception. Expand his entry, and cleanse him with water, snow, and ice, and purify him of sin as a white robe is purified of filth. Exchange his home for a better home, and his family for a better family, and his spouse for a better spouse. Admit him into the Garden, protect him from the punishment of the grave and the torment of the Fire.’

-Islamic funeral prayer

Choudhry Mohammed Ishaq, rest in peace. Thanks for the beauty.

#MeToo: Why I Hate Germans

WHY I HATE GERMANS

Dance music pumped up through the floor— the African students threw the best parties in the basement. I followed the music downstairs, entered the large room. I was not pretty there among cocoa-, blue- and ink-black women dancing. But I danced, maybe with every man there, even with the fat Tunisian guy who beat his wife across the hall from me. This must be what it feels like, I thought, other and conspicuous. Desirable as I had never been desirable, passed around like a dirty magazine, but always back to Yves. Yves, who once sat in my dorm room, his long legs crossed at the knees, limbs draping, so elegant against the water-stained wallpaper, the windows duct-taped to keep out the cold. 

“Tea?” I asked.

“If you are having tea, I will have tea for harmony’s sake,” he said, his smile stopping under the ledges of his cheek bones, his answer seducing me. For harmony’s sake.

At the dance, I ate too much Ethiopian bread. Went to the bathroom, threw it up, wiped off my shoes, the exquisite African women in there with me not knowing this was 20 and American and beautiful. This was not extraordinary. I washed my hands, went up the two flights to my room.

I have no memory of what happened in between. My back pressed hard into the open door, door halfway open against the little rocking refrigerator in the anteroom between my room and the German girls’. Where was Liza? One leg reached past Yves, braced against the thin wall, wall flexing. Tights so miserable to peel on, stretch the crotch to my crotch—beautiful tights, blessed obstacle.

I had kissed him on Christmas Eve when we walked hand in hand through snowy Moscow streets. Kissed him when the conga drums at midnight Mass made me cry. Now all of him suddenly against me, his mouth distorting, sexualizing my cries to the uppity west German girls in the next room who turned up their radio politely, not wanting to eavesdrop on the untidiness outside.

I entered an icy concentration, every breath, thought, pulse leaning into the open door, all his strength pulling it closed, music still pulsing up through the floor. If a short skirt is not an invitation it is an unlocked garden gate.

Again, I don’t remember what happened in between. I was out in the hall, out of breath, standing with my back against the closed door. He faced me.

“Go in,” he insisted. French accent, smile, cheekbones. “Go ahead. I won’t follow you.” For harmony’s sake. “Are you afraid of me?”

I ran. Running for any German girl. I trembled and wept.

Multilingual beauty and harmony have just tried to rape me. “I’m afraid he’s still in my room. . .”

A German girl looked me up and down: short skirt, disheveled hair, tears. “Have you been drinking?” she asked.

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Dorm room, Russia, 1990.

Sexual assault goes beyond the initial incident. The fear didn’t end that night. The first week after he assaulted me, Yves approached me at school a few times.  My heart beat fast. I couldn’t speak. I stared at my shoes as I kept walking. He seemed to genuinely not understand my rebuff.

My long blonde hair, which drew a lot of attention in Moscow, I cut that off. For the rest of the year, I glanced over my shoulder as I walked to the subway, every time I went to unlock the door of my room, walking to the showers down the hall.

There’s grief—grief for the person you thought he was, for the sudden death of a relationship. There’s self-blame. I mean, really, I was dancing. A lot. Did he think I was leading him back to my room?

And shame. I was a new Christian. I had aspirations to religious life. What had I just done? I didn’t tell anyone.

This is not my only, and not even my worst, experience of sexual assault. This is the one I am able to write about.

Believe the women around you.