Call me Ismail, not Ishmael, which rhymes with wish fail, or Tom, Dick, or Harry, which rhyme with nothing that rings true to me, just because you cannot be bothered to learn to pronounce my name. It goes like this, three separate syllables: Is—like the prolonged break of a wave; ma—half of Mama; il—like a sea snake, or the French word for island. IS-MA-IL, stress on the island.
Now that you have been properly introduced to Ismail, and know how to pronounce his name properly, allow him to tell you a short fairy tale.
Once upon a time, there was a sunny country whose long coast was bathed by a turquoise sea, where a barefoot boy had an important job, of which he was proud, and which he performed with both pleasure and ceremony. Every morning except one, the one designated as a rest day, he was entrusted with a gleaming tray dotted with soft, doughy, fragrant pastries and bread protected by dust and dirt by a tea towel, which he balanced on other clean towels coiled atop his dark, curly head, as it was heavy and his walk to the village bakery some distance.
This fairy tale is a grim, modern one. It does not end with the proper restoration of position or property or future. Does not end with reconciliation or love or fortune.
His step was joyous and his eyes bright as he glanced at his ample, color-wrapped grandmother seated on their kitchen step and humming her habitual, unrecognizable tune, sifting dried grain rhythmically through the round, wood-bound sieve resembling a large tambourine. The busy, cheerful, chatter of his mother and sisters wafted up on wisps of smoke, while he stepped lithe and sure from one orange grove through the next, inhaling the perfume of spring as his birthright while receiving casual smiles and nods of approving recognition from his neighbors in passing.
Turning toward the village, he glanced up the hill, whence had vanished the baby Rhim gazelle he had thought he’d domesticated until it grew old enough to object, impaling his forearm with a perfectly spiraled, long, slender horn. He rubbed the scar; to the hill where his father sometimes took him to buy honey and Geminus mint for their tea from the old German lady who kept bees. While the bread was being baked, he would drop by his uncle Saleh’s house, where sometimes men gathered to smoke, drink tea or whiskey, and recite the formal Italian poetry they had learned while in school, educated by convent nuns, some of whom had stayed on after the Italian colonization gave way to the British occupation. Soon, his grandfather would gather them together for an annual feast, the high point of which was Grandfather’s recitation of the Al-Hilali epic, the 1,000 year-old oral poem recounting the heroic feats of Bedouin ancestors during their migration from Arabia to North Africa. If they were lucky, and harvests prosperous that year, they would find musicians to accompany the performance with rababa, tampura, or tabla. Not many men were left who could perform the epic. It was an honor to attend.
The boy thought that growing up in this, his land, was as sweet as halwa.
* * *
Then came hard times, the trials and tribulations that must be surmounted in every fairy tale, when his family and neighbors, the people he loved and trusted, were suddenly and inexplicably crushed like sesame seeds. First came the earthquake on his part of the eastern coast, which flattened his village and damaged much of the nearby city of Benghazi. The boy’s mother and sisters had run quickly out of the house as soon as pictures began to fall off the walls, calling for him to get out. He had been reading in his room that evening and slow to shift consciousness, was trapped in the corridor when the ceiling began to crumble. Recalling a story his mother had told about sheltering under tables during World War II bombing raids, the still slight boy recovered his wits enough to dive under a nearby table. When the world ceased roaring and trembling, the women’s wails slipped into cries of relief and gratitude upon sight of the boy’s dusty apparition emerging from the rubble that had been their home only minutes before. Witnesses said that the tower clock in town stopped at 9:20 p.m., just as in an Agatha Christie mystery. The family moved to Tripoli.
The capital city was daunting at first, though, by degrees, the boy became accustomed to their greater prosperity, two-story house, and American television reception. This marvel was accessible because of the American military bases nearby. Once, after watching I Love Lucy, the teenaged boy impudently chided his parents for their primitive custom of sleeping in one large bed together. Lucy and Desi, if they had observed, slept in twin beds, both in primly buttoned pajamas, which must be the way civilized people behaved. Dad and Mom were less than amused.
That was already after Nestlé baby formula exports and Italian tomato paste had inundated their shops and brains and habits, causing the Underdeveloped local population to stop breast-feeding, and throw their bumper crops of tomatoes into the sea, prefiguring its transformation from turquoise to iron red. Though, still before the dictator paved the seaside promenade, painted rocks green, imprisoned the boy’s father, uncles, cousins, and hanged his friends from lampposts.
Before the boy had grown into a man, before the American buffoon actor-president issued a decree forbidding the man to rejoin his American wife and child in relative safety. You think the anti-Muslim travel ban is new? You think there is anything new under the scorching sun? But that is another story.
No, this was still when the boy was enamored of Rembrandt’s etchings, Impressionist painters, Brecht plays, and bell-bottomed jeans. When he tried to practice his English with American girls on the fashionable, white Tripoli shopping streets. Tapping a blonde one on her shoulder, and politely asking if he might help her translate, she had brushed off her skin where his finger had touched it, saying “Ooh, cooties!” The teenaged boy had mistaken the word for “cuties” at first, and had smiled shyly, pleased at what he thought was flirtation. Then she had flicked him away with her pale-pink painted nails, giggling derisively with her light brown-haired girlfriend. He made it his business to learn what cooties were.
The shriveled, ancient one calls my name faintly, swathing it in soft appeal from her room down the hall, “Ismail.” Three polished, worn, caressing syllables.
When the pockmarked, square-headed young Demon seized power in a military coup, the usual suspects were rounded up and imprisoned, among them the boy’s father. The only son, the boy left high school in order to devote all his time to waiting in the lines of bureaucrats who might be able to pull strings, if the bribe and connections were sufficient, or waiting at the prison gates to try to gain visitor’s access or news about his father, or deliver the man’s much needed Insulin. When the heat pushed the overdressed soldiers over the edge, or their appetite for brutal sport hadn’t been satisfied, the boy endured their taunts and “roughing up” in prudent silence. It was a full time job for about a year and a half, until his father’s remand to house arrest, whereupon the boy returned to his formal studies.
Five years of channeled engineering study, in which the boy had scant interest, might have earned the young man a degree and marketable profession had he completed the final semester and taken the required exams. However, when his father saw members of his son’s university circle, his friends, brutally murdered and hung up to dry like prosciutto in the sun along the city’s straight, modern boulevards, unmistakable warnings to all who opposed the Demon’s oppressive regime, he shipped the young man off to study in the United States of America, where the young man tasted some elusive freedom and license, as well as some more discrimination and insult. There, he studied art instead of engineering, painting pictures, taking pictures, making love among pictures, memorizing pictures.
Some years later, those men who had remained in other countries, with jobs, with new families, with new habits, were publicly and privately recalled home to the no longer sweet, fertile Mediterranean land become awash with oil and grimy oil money, threatened with assassination on foreign soil if their duty was ignored. And the family arrests had begun again in earnest. A cousin appeared as an emissary one day, and shortly thereafter, another, on the beautiful hill in San Francisco, to shatter the crystal idyll where the young man had been amassing pictures. These pictures, too, trembled and fell off the wall when the cousin told him with firsthand knowledge and frank description of torture, show trials, the condition of his own now blind father in his cell, as he awaited, without his Insulin, his military trial. For what? For being a journalist. A dangerous profession to be avoided, truth telling.
The emotional blackmail practiced with a twilit, lilac view of repetitive ocean spray proved far more hypnotic, and eventually, effective than dictatorial edicts and threats had done. The image of the young man’s pleading mother was invoked. He took a leave of absence from his pregnant American wife, with the promise that he would return in three weeks, after his uncle’s trial. Her pleas had been more easily set aside, as his guilt toward her had not yet sought its spirit level. The young man was, of course, arrested upon arrival in the land no longer cleansed by the turquoise sea, transforming his odyssey into absence without leave.
Months turned into years, during which a few attempts had been made to reknit the rent in life’s rich fabric, including appealing to the steely American powers that be. Rather like trying to give a hollow, tin man a heart. In the end, our hero, no longer so young, acquiesced to his stronger, more numerous, more powerful, more present family, settling into decades of dreary, unartistic routine, where he scarcely noticed the iron red, or then the battleship gray of the sea. We could speak of bombings, when his small apartment windows rattled, were dislodged, and splintered on the floor of a blacked-out kitchen, while his present children and current wife pretended to sleep in the next room. Of more bombings, when they were able to borrow enough money to flee the worst for a time. Of the torching of his sister’s house by black clad criminals, who succeeded in killing her husband and son, and severely burning her and her other children. Of the rape of certain of his nieces, and shooting of his nephews. Of the crucifixion of… But why prolong the trials and tribulations? This fairy tale is a grim, modern one. It does not end with the proper restoration of position or property or future. Does not end with reconciliation or love or fortune. Let the tale end there, hanging by a tail. Now old, and too defeated to flee anymore, our prince will not live happily ever after.
* * *
The shriveled, ancient one calls my name faintly, swathing it in soft appeal from her room down the hall, “Ismail.” Three polished, worn, caressing syllables. In the darkened house, she may not know what time it is, that it is only evening. As soon as the terrifying commotion, the barking shouts and hammering on doors began down the street some minutes ago, all of the buildings in our neighborhood went instantly dark, as if on cue. As if we could hide from evil, like children, by turning off the lights or closing our eyes and holding our breath. There is nowhere to hide, no place to escape. Some time ago, I read some jokes about human smugglers posted on the Net. There were even cartoons showing hijabbed women clutching swaddled infants, crammed in leaky boats. Even if I could raise the money to get into one, would I rather spend it entertaining the Developed nations, watching my family drown in sham lifejackets, or wait here at home for my head to be chopped off? At least the Worldwide Web has been disconnected. That’s some consolation. I sit in my immovable chair facing a black, rectangular picture window like a darkened screen, waiting soundlessly, and smoking, dragging the nicotine poison deep into my scarred lungs. Anyway, what would we do with the ancient one?
“Ismail,” she repeats, she who suckled and protected me, once upon a time before Nestlé. I can do nothing for her now except guard her bed.
“Don’t worry, Mama. Everyone will be back soon. They’ve just gone out.” I lie soothingly, softly, adding, “There’s been a power cut.”
My stalwart, intrepid wife has gone to the city center looking for the kids, no longer kids, who failed to come home as expected, putting on a headscarf in hope of anonymity, or slight protection. About as useful as a white flag in our present situation. I must not leave the house. “Mama, if strangers come to the door, don’t say anything. I’ll take care of it, all right? Be patient.” Don’t give yourself away.
Someone from another house entreats Allah. Then I hear a shout. “Libya!” Libya. Long ago, I used to feel the word on my cheek, as if it were a warm kiss blown from the desert, a promise. Later, it resounded like a slap, or a wail, down the blood stained lanes, where a young boy’s spirit had been sensed, wafting aimlessly, humming a bygone tune, blowing soothingly on sweaty, fearful foreheads. I wish I could remember at least one stanza from the Al Hilali epic. Not a line. I am not the man my grandfather was, and this debacle is not his heritage.
Staring blankly past the balcony, through the black window, I try to conjure a slideshow: the low fog rolling across the mauve Golden Gate like a fluffy bolster; my first ever snowflakes cloaking in white feathers, the wings of the storks in a fountain on a square in Copenhagen, golden Prosecco bubbles flickering like fireflies on Lake Como. I see nothing. Blackness. All that is left is a distant, beckoning whiff of Geminus mint and the eternal aroma of freshly baked bread.
Special Guest Judge, Gayle Brandeis:
“Arabian Night” implicates the reader from the very first sentence—“you cannot be bothered to learn to pronounce my name”—yet also takes us by the hand, invites us deeply into the writer’s lost world. This essay-meets-fairy-tale holds so much pain—the anguish of atrocity, of displacement, of layer upon layer of injustice—yet it also leaves space for tenderness, for remembrance of how the word “Libya” had once felt like “a warm kiss blown from the desert” before it became “a slap, or a wail.” A stunning, necessary, gut punch of an essay.
—Gayle Brandeis is the author of the poetry collections The Selfless Bliss of the Body and Dictionary Poems, novels The Book of Dead Birds, Delta Girls: A Novel, Self Storage, and My Life with the Lincolns, and a recent memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide.