A compelling collection of essays providing a comprehensive vision of immigration to the United States in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries—the indispensable companion to Immigrant Voices.
Filled with moving narratives by authors from around the world, Immigrant Voices: Volume II delivers a global and intimate look at the challenges modern immigrants confront. Their stories, told with pride, humor, trepidation, candor, and a touch of homesickness, offer rarely glimpsed perspectives on the difficult but ultimately rewarding quest to become an American.
From the humorous experiences of Firoozeh Dumas, author of Funny in Farsi, to the poignant struggles of Oksana Marafioti, author of American Gypsy, this collection travels from Burundi to Afghanistan, Egypt to Havana, and Cambodia to Puerto Rico, to present incredible contemporary portraits of immigrants and illustrate that America is, and always will remain, a fresh and ever-changing melting pot.
Featuring Firsthand Accounts by
André Aciman, Tamim Ansary, H.B. Cavalcanti, Firoozeh Dumas, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Reyna Grande, Le Ly Hayslip, Aleksandar Hemon, Rose Ihedigbo, Oksana Marafioti, Anchee Min, Shoba Narayan, Elizabeth Nunez, Guillermo Reyes, Marcus Samuelsson, Katarina Tepesh, Gilbert Tuhabonye, Loung Ung, Kao Kalia Yang
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
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As a kind of birthright, Americans grow up with the idea that theirs is a “nation of immigrants,” and of course it has been and continues to be. But does this phrase have the same resonance in every generation or even every century? Questions about what kind of and how many immigrants we should have are now as controversial a subject as they have ever been in our past. For at every stage of the history of American immigration, our vigorous welcome of so many of the world’s tired and huddled masses was not something about which everyone agreed. Despite our cherished ideal that this country should be understood as a grand melting pot, there have typically been great detractors throughout our history who have challenged this faith in the vitality of an ever-diverse nation. Yet for all the resentment sometimes greeting newcomers, we should also discern the nation’s abiding passion for the potential growth that immigrants carry with them, whether they arrive here to meet a labor shortage or to escape persecution in their homelands or merely to join in the American pursuit of happiness.
A century ago and longer, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Russia, Eastern Europe, and China were especially viewed as objects of suspicion. Immigration from Asia, the Middle East, as well as Central and South America, was, for many years, discouraged, even denied; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese laborers for ten years, a law renewed in 1892, made permanent in 1902, and not repealed until 1943. A similar statute, the Asian Exclusion Act (1924), forbade immigration from India, Korea, and Japan as well as from the Middle East. And immigration from Africa was nearly as difficult.
What was behind this atmosphere of mistrust? It was less the case, as it is now sometimes expressed, that immigrants would create an undue demand on U.S. social services, largely because social services were not yet federalized in the early years of the twentieth century. Instead, nativist anxieties hinged on two kinds of fears: economic and social. The first focused on the conjecture that immigrants would eventually develop and control wealth and that it would be disposed according to their loyalty to their church, if they were Catholic, or to their homelands, especially if they were non-Europeans. Immigration was also imagined to threaten social stability, especially through racial and ethnic mixing, which would contaminate the American gene pool. This fear of diluting the nation’s northern and western European “stock” is a biological and sociological fallacy that has long been discredited, though one can hear it articulated even now. Compounding such concerns was the worry that immigrants would also import dangerous political ideas from abroad, such as views opposing capitalism and the presiding understanding of the nation’s democratic ideals. That so many of these despised immigrants were Catholics, Jews, and Asians further contributed to this America-for-Americans prejudice, an anxiety that politicians readily exploited.
Despite these worries, the story of the successful assimilation of a multicultural immigrant population is among the most brilliant chapters in modern U.S. social history. And these immigrants’ rise from generally low origins—during the rise of industrialism, they were much more often peasants than people with trades or professions—into the middle class is an epic tale that gives the phrase “a nation of immigrants” its meaning, perhaps even its glory. This tale is recounted time and again in the novels and tales that immigrants wrote about the challenges of achieving cultural citizenship. Perhaps even more popular were the first-person chronicles of coming to America and of becoming Americans. For one crucial way of conducting the argument over who can and ought to be citizens—and who should not—is found in the rich literary record that immigrants have left behind.
Such autobiographies are often written partly as accounts of how to flourish in one’s adopted country. So it is unsurprising that they often include practical lessons: say this; don’t do that; dress this way. But their more enduring value lies in how they also address the mainstream populace, readers who took up these memoirs both for the vitality of the stories they told and for keeping up with changes in the culture. Written as they are in English, these accounts specifically appeal to the host culture’s interests, while also advertising an author’s mastery of the language as a sign of successful assimilation. Explicitly and implicitly, these books present their authors’ case for belonging, as if to demonstrate for the audience of the native-born that immigrants have a great deal to offer and that they in their own way have a vast potential to make the U.S. an even better place. In this sense, such autobiographies are both personal documents—the story of my exemplary past—and public ones—an understanding of our nation’s shared future. If so much immigrant writing was spurred by the need to model how success in the U.S. might be achieved, they were also written to inform the native-born how to value the ordeals that immigrants endured, how to appreciate the achievements that they might tally, and how fully the belief in the virtue of the nation’s diversity will be rewarded.
Autobiographers probably don’t begin with this larger purpose in mind. They begin instead with the hope that their stories might be illuminating and entertaining. And they are. Their narrative form is often drawn from the bildungsroman, a tale of a protagonist’s growth and education. Such memoirs start with a figure who must navigate between the crippling marginality of present circumstances and the promise of the future. Typically, these narratives begin with the struggle to leave native lands, where the autobiographer faces more or less intolerable social, economic, or political conditions or their combination. Often, there are hurdles that must be overcome. Sometimes, family is the only source of encouragement; other times, family discord worsens these circumstances.
Next, the writer is likely to describe the bewilderment and bedazzlement greeting the newly arrived immigrant in the U.S., first impressions that turn out to be illusions needing to be modulated or overturned. Writers are likely to record several of their most vivid scenes of instruction, tests that they go through with varying degrees of success, often related with a humorous eye at some bumbling misadventure. Frequently, newly arrived immigrants are aided by a guide of sorts—a kind stranger, a predecessor, a teacher, a benefactor, an investor—who appreciates their talent and helps them to find the opportunity they need to make the next step of their journey. Ultimately, these autobiographers manage to make the most of their chances and define themselves within a new cultural identity, although passing that threshold often comes at a price, like an adjustment in their family relations, and entails a diminishing of their previous sense of identity. By the close, they have come to know more about what America will make of them and what they will make of America.
This is the vision of immigration that has proven such an unshakable force in U.S. culture. In these pages, readers will find examples of many individuals whose stories more or less follow this basic scenario from the nineteenth century and that recount privations borne and persecutions withstood. But in ways both superficial and profound, immigration stories at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first differ from their predecessors.
A previous volume, Immigrant Voices, assembled some of those nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century stories of success and their animating trust in hard work and initiative that Americans believe in with all the force of a national creed. Those narratives of becoming Americans remind us that tales of personal striving are often punctuated with a lucky break, an unpredictable circumstance, even a coincidence, or the intervention of an informal support network, like a benevolent aid society such as immigrants from one country might set up for those who follow. Even so, the overwhelming feeling that such narratives convey is the solitude—the often profound loneliness—of the immigrant. And the first difference between contemporary immigrants and their predecessors may be this crucial one. Today’s stories more frequently begin as family tales: families uprooted by war and politics, families denied economic security or legal rights, families needing new opportunities so that they might stay together. Perhaps one family member, the author, has needed to split off and has come as a student or is sent as a sort of emissary to the future. An author’s connections to family and homeland may be troubled, but they remain sustaining, much more so than in earlier generations. Family ties and community connections assert themselves more forcefully now than they were generally represented to do in the past. Immigrant stories, at least in this crucial respect, are evolving.
This book assembles, with just one exception, narratives of immigrants entering the U.S. under the Nationality and Immigration Act of 1965. This was the most important piece of immigrant legislation in the second half of the twentieth century, and it was cosponsored by Emanuel Celler, a long-standing congressman from New York City, himself the grandson of immigrants. Celler’s tenure in the House was so enduring that he actually began his career, forty years earlier, by opposing the notorious Immigration Act of 1924. Stirred by traditional nativist protest, along with the recent surge in distrust that World War I excited, this reactionary law curtailed immigration from eastern and southern Europe by establishing limits based on the 1890 census. The desired result was achieved by creating geographical quotas: the origins of 70 percent of all future immigrants would be limited to three countries—the United Kingdom, Germany, and Ireland. The Johnson-Reed Act, as it was called, continued to exert control throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century and was invoked to deny refuge to Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied countries. Hart-Celler repealed the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which had essentially sustained Johnson-Reed and which had passed despite President Truman’s veto—he called it “un-American.” The 1965 law struck down these obsolete discriminatory prohibitions, even as it gave new preference to immigrants with special skills. Perhaps even more significantly, it allowed immigration among those who had preexisting family relationships with U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Plus, the 1965 law set aside some 170,000 visas for immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and South and Central America, effectively reversing the percentages from the early part of the twentieth century. It was eventually supplemented by the Refugee Act of 1980, which significantly enhanced immigration for asylum seekers.
So many immigrants since 1965 have turned to the U.S. as a place to practice their talents; so many have come to reunite with their families or to avoid political suppression; and so many have come for their education or to escape poverty. Although many immigrants came from terrible poverty, readers may be surprised by how many enjoyed comfortable, sometimes affluent economic backgrounds. What doesn’t change is the exhilaration of freedom that these immigrants find in their new lives, nor does their pleasure in the expansive power of the American promise. We follow them wherever their careers—in business, in various professions, in service to others—may take them. They generally find some help along the way, but they often have to battle prejudice. Immigrant memoirs tend not to see the resistance these newcomers face as being systemic or debilitating, but rather as challenges to surpass. None of these authors cares to be seen as a victim. Especially is this so for women whose multiple sources of vulnerability—being female, being immigrants, being poor, being people of color—compound the obstructions they must surmount.
The stories that immigrants tell are always negotiating between the world they leave behind and the new life upon which they have embarked. “Life on the hyphen,” as one autobiographer has termed it, describes how hard it is for immigrants to feel wholly a part of either world. This split can be experienced in a person’s heart. Nowhere is that story more vitally encountered than in the tales of generational divide. An older, less malleable generation of immigrants—parents—finds adjusting to contemporary American life too demanding, whereas the children have an easier time making America their own. Often that assimilation is achieved through the grasping of popular culture, like music or slang, even though the child may be torn between full immersion in a new culture and loyalty to parents whose ways represent the values left behind. It’s the classic immigration plot. The Jazz Singer (1927), the very first “talkie,” is about a young Jewish singer who departs from the old-world religious tradition of his father, a cantor. Some of the narratives collected here tell similar stories of what it is like to come as children to the U.S., where they are socialized in school and grow apart from their families, while others record what it is like to start new in a new country without the double bind of opposing allegiances.
That new life is also a story of immigrants finding their niche, their new way of being. Whether they are coming into their own as writers or businesspeople or athletes, these figures make their presence in America felt in various ways. They may do so by cultivating an aptitude they already had or by gaining a skill or expertise they could only attain when given the chance to create themselves anew. Sometimes, the impact that these autobiographers make on the U.S. is modest, their success merely average. Still, the success of immigrants is not merely measured by fortunes or illustrious careers. Rather, we see how indispensable they are to American well-being as people who by reaching their best thus contribute to the sum of the nation’s happiness.
Perhaps the interest of these immigrant lives is merely to suggest that the U.S. is still the place where the everyday level of dreams achieved remains possible for newcomers. When this country first understood itself as a nation of immigrants, it was probably true that there really weren’t too many other places where immigrants were welcomed, where their lives might be improved and where they, in their turn, might benefit those countries. But now, more than two centuries later, more nations see themselves as heterogeneous and make room for immigrants suffering from upheavals and economic distress around the globe. Yet even as these nations are becoming more diverse, America remains the refuge so many millions continue to seek, certainly in its own hemisphere. The burden this creates can sometimes seem unsustainable. Perhaps, in the near future, another new law will enable the country to strengthen its capacity to bolster itself by absorbing new immigrants. If so, as these autobiographies demonstrate again and again, such a law will help to renew the nation’s faith in itself and in its most treasured resource. Once it does, new immigration narratives will then be written, new memoirs recording the rewards and consolations of becoming Americans.
The memoirs selected for this volume are stories we need to know, not just because they help us understand the new challenges facing immigrants, which they do, and not just because they familiarize us with an array of new countries and the reasons immigrants come to the U.S., which they also do. We read these new immigrant autobiographies because the more familiar we are with them, the more we understand this new America, an America made different—better and more fulfilled—as a result of immigration. We read these stories to appreciate the United States we are always in the midst of becoming.
André Aciman (1951– ) was born in Alexandria, Egypt, to a wealthy Jewish family of Turkish and Italian descent. His father’s successful textile business supported a luxurious lifestyle of tennis lessons, private tutors, and splendid vacations. As Aciman matured, he became aware of the family’s growing concern about the Egyptian government’s anti-Semitism, which had intensified with the creation of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent border tensions. Even before Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967, Jewish Egyptians faced increasing persecution and expulsion, and the Aciman family moved first to Italy in 1965 and then immigrated to New York in 1968.
Aciman soon enrolled at Lehman College of the City University of New York, where he earned a BA in English and Comparative Literature, followed by an AM and a PhD from Harvard. He has published two sets of essays, False Papers: Essays in Exile and Memory (2001) and Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere (2011), and two novels, Call Me by Your Name (2007) and Eight White Nights (2010). Aciman is currently the Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Published in 1994 to wide acclaim, Out of Egypt won the Whiting Award for emerging writers. Similar to many of the autobiographies in this anthology, Aciman focuses on his extended family and chronicles his own coming of age. The following passage comes from “The Last Seder,” the memoir’s final chapter. Before the nationalizing of their textile factory, Aciman’s father identified fleeing Jewish Egyptians by the smell of their luggage, linking the scent of leather with stigma and shame. Abattoir—slaughterhouse—becomes the word he uses to signal to his son that their own family will soon be leaving Egypt. When his father learns that he’s about to be arrested, fifteen-year-old André is thrust into adulthood and must learn to navigate the necessary web of bribes and encoded messages. Aciman’s father, however, was not the only family member preparing for their escape; unbeknownst to the author, what appeared to be an afternoon of running errands with his grandmother turns out to disguise her routine for smuggling money out of the country, an activity she had been performing for years. The Acimans thus found themselves financially, though perhaps not emotionally, well prepared for leaving their native country.
Out of Egypt
“I want you to sit down and be a big boy now,” said my father that night after reading the warrant. “Listen carefully.” I wanted to cry. He noticed, stared at me awhile, and then, holding my hand, said, “Cry.” I felt a tremor race through my lower lip, down my chin. I struggled with it, bit my tongue, then shook my head to signal that I wasn’t going to cry. “It’s not easy, I know. But this is what I want you to do. Since it’s clear they’ll arrest me tomorrow,” he said, “the most important thing is to help your mother sell everything, have everyone pack as much as they can, and purchase tickets for all of us. It’s easier than you think. But in case I am detained, I want you to leave anyway. I’ll follow later. You must pass one message to Uncle Vili and another to Uncle Isaac in Europe.” I said I would remember them. “Yes, but I also want each message encoded, in case you forget. It will take an hour, no more.” He asked me to bring him a book I would want to take to Europe and might read on the ship. There were two: The Idiot and Kitto’s The Greeks. “Bring Kitto,” he said, “and we’ll pretend to underline all the difficult words, so that if customs officials decide to inspect the book, they will think you’ve underlined them for vocabulary reasons.” He pored over the first page of the book and underlined Thracian, luxurious, barbaroi, Scythians, Ecclesiastes. “But I already know what they all mean.” “Doesn’t matter what you know. What’s important is what they think. Ecclesiastes is a good word. Always use the fifth letter of the fifth word you’ve underlined—in this case, e, and discard the rest. It’s a code in the Lydian mode, do you see?” That evening he also taught me to forge his signature. Then, as they did in the movies, we burned the page on which I had practiced it.
By two o’clock in the morning, we had written five sentences. Everybody had gone to bed already. Someone had dimmed the lamp in the hallway and turned off all the lights in the house. Father offered me a cigarette. He drew the curtains that had been shut so that no one outside might see what we were doing and flung open the window. Then, after letting a spring breeze heave through the dining room, he stood by the window, facing the night, his chin propped on the palms of his hands, with his elbows resting on the window ledge. “It’s a small city, but I hate to lose her,” he finally said. “Where else can you see the stars like this?” Then, after a few seconds of silence, “Are you ready for tomorrow?” I nodded. I looked at his face and thought to myself: They might torture him, and I may never see him again. I forced myself to believe it—maybe that would bring him good luck.
“Good night, then.” “Good night,” I said. I asked him if he was going to go to bed as well. “No, not yet. You go. I’ll sit here and think awhile.” He had said the same thing years before, when we visited his father’s tomb and, silently, he had propped his chin on one hand, his elbow resting on the large marble slab. I had been asking him questions about the cemetery, about death, about what the dead did when we were not thinking of them. Patiently, he had answered each one, saying death was like a quiet sleep, but very long, with long, peaceful dreams. When I began to feel restless and asked whether we could go, he answered, “No, not yet. I’ll stand here and think awhile.” Before leaving, we both leaned down and kissed the slab.
* * *
The next morning, I awoke at six. My list of errands was long. First the travel agency, then the consulate, then the telegrams to everyone around the world, then the agent in charge of bribing all the customs people, then a few words with Signor Rosenthal, the jeweler whose brother-in-law lived in Geneva. “Don’t worry if he pretends not to understand you,” my father had said. After that, I was to see our lawyer and await further instructions.
My father had left the house at dawn, I was told. Mother had been put in charge of buying suitcases. My grandmother took a look at me and grumbled something about my clothes, especially those “long blue trousers with copper snaps all over them.” “What snaps?” I asked. “These,” she said, pointing to my blue jeans. I barely had time to gulp down her orange juice before rushing out of the house and hopping on the tram, headed downtown—something I had never done before, as the American School was in the opposite direction. Suddenly, I was a grown-up going to work, and the novelty thrilled me.
Alexandria on that spring weekday morning had its customary dappled sky. Brisk and brackish scents blew in from the coast, and the tumult of trade on the main thoroughfares spilled over into narrow side-lanes where throngs and stands and jostling trinket men cluttered the bazaars under awnings striped yellow and green. Then, as always at a certain moment, just before the sunlight began to pound the flagstones, things quieted down for a while, a cool breeze swept through the streets, and something like a distilled, airy light spread over the city, bright but without glare, light you could stare into.
The wait to renew the passports at the consulate was brief: the man at the counter knew my mother. As for the travel agent, he already seemed apprised of our plans. His question was: “Do you want to go to Naples or to Bari? From Bari you can go to Greece; from Naples to Marseilles.” The image of an abandoned Greek temple overlooking the Aegean popped into my head. “Naples,” I said, “but do not put the date yet.” “I understand,” he said discreetly. I told him that if he called a certain number, funds would be made available to him. In fact, I had the money in my pocket but had been instructed not to use it unless absolutely necessary.
The telegrams took forever. The telegraph building was old, dark, and dirty, a remnant of colonial grandeur fading into a wizened piece of masonry. The clerk at the booth complained that there were too many telegrams going to too many countries on too many continents. He eyed me suspiciously and told me to go away. I insisted. He threatened to hit me. I mustered the courage and told the clerk we were friends of So-and-so, whose name was in the news. Immediately he extended that inimitably unctuous grace that passes for deference in the Middle East.
By half past ten I was indeed proud of myself. One more errand was left, and then Signor Rosenthal. Franco Molkho, the agent in charge of bribing customs officials, was himself a notorious crook who took advantage of everyone precisely by protesting that he was not cunning enough to do so. “I’m always up front about what I do, madame.” He was rude and gruff, and if he saw something in your home that struck his fancy, he would grab and pocket it in front of you. If you took it away from him and placed it back where it belonged—which is what my mother did—then he would steal it later at the customs shed, again before your very eyes. Franco Molkho lived in a kind of disemboweled garage, with a makeshift cot, a tattered sink, and a litter of grimy gear boxes strewn about the floor. He wanted to negotiate. I did not know how to negotiate. I told him my father’s instructions. “You Jews,” he snickered, “it’s impossible to beat you at this game.” I blushed. Once outside, I wanted to spit out the tea he had offered me.
Still, I thought of myself as the rescuer of my entire family. Intricate scenarios raced through my mind, scenarios in which I pounded the desk of the chief of police and threatened all sorts of abominable reprisals unless my father was released instantly. “Instantly! Now! Immediately!” I yelled, slapping my palm on the inspector’s desk. According to Aunt Elsa, the more you treated such people like your servants, the more they behaved accordingly. “And bring me a glass of water, I’m hot.” I was busily scheming all sorts of arcane missions when I heard someone call my name. It was my father.
He was returning from the barber and was ambling at a leisurely pace, headed for his favorite café near the stock exchange building. “Why aren’t you in jail?” I asked, scarcely concealing my disappointment. “Jail!” he exclaimed, as if to say, “Whoever gave you such a silly notion?” “All they wanted was to ask me a few questions. Denunciations, always these false denunciations. Did you do everything I told you?” “All except Signor Rosenthal.” “Very good. Leave the rest to me. By the way, did Molkho agree?” I told him he did. “Wonderful.” Then he remembered. “Do you have the money?” “Yes.” “Come, then. I’ll buy you coffee. You do drink coffee, don’t you? Remember to give it to me under the table.” A young woman passed in front of us and father turned. “See? Those are what I call perfect ankles.”
At the café, my father introduced me to everyone. They were all businessmen, bankers, and industrialists who would meet at around eleven in the morning. All of them had either lost everything they owned or were about to. “He’s even read all of Plutarch’s Lives,” boasted my father. “Wonderful,” said one of them, who, by his accent, was Greek. “Then surely you remember Themistocles.” “Of course he does,” said my father, seeing I was blushing. “Let me explain to you, then, how Themistocles won the battle at Salamis, because that, my dear, they won’t teach you in school.” Monsieur Panos took out a Parker pen and proceeded to draw naval formations on the corner of his newspaper. “And do you know who taught me all this?” he asked, with a self-satisfied glint flickering in his glazed eyes, his hand pawing my hair all the while. “Do you know who? Me,” he said, “I did, all by myself. Because I wanted to be an admiral in the Greek navy. Then I discovered there was no Greek navy, so I joined the Red Cross at Alamein.”
Everyone burst out laughing, and Monsieur Panos, who probably did not understand why, joined them. “I still have the Luger a dying German soldier gave me. It had three bullets left, and now I know who they’re for: one for President Nasser. One for my wife, because, God knows, she deserves it. And one for me. Jamais deux sans trois.” Again a burst of laughter. “Not so loud,” the Greek interrupted. But I continued to laugh heartily. While I was wiping my eyes, I caught one of the men nudging my father’s arm. I was not supposed to see the gesture, but I watched as my father turned and looked uneasily at a table behind him. It was the woman with the beautiful ankles. “Weren’t you going to tell me something?” asked my father, tapping me on the knee under the table. “Only about going to the swimming pool this morning.” “By all means,” he said, taking the money I was secretly passing to him. “Why don’t you go now?”
* * *
Two days later the third blow fell.
My father telephoned in the morning. “They don’t want us anymore,” he said in English. I didn’t understand him. “They don’t want us in Egypt.” But we had always known that, I thought. Then he blurted it out: we had been officially expelled and had a week to get our things together. “Abattoir?” I asked. “Abattoir,” he replied.
The first thing one did when abattoir came was to get vaccinated. No country would allow us across its border without papers certifying we had been properly immunized against a slew of Third World diseases.
My father had asked me to take my grandmother to the government vaccine office. The office was near the harbor. She hated the thought of being vaccinated by an Egyptian orderly—“Not even a doctor,” she said. I told her we would stop and have tea and pastries afterward at Athinéos. “Don’t hurt me,” she told the balding woman who held her arm. “But I’m not hurting you,” protested the woman in Arabic. “You’re not hurting me? You are hurting me!” The woman ordered her to keep still. Then came my turn. She reminded me of Miss Badawi when she scraped my scalp with her fingernails looking for lice. Would they really ask us to undress at the customs desk when the time came and search us to our shame?
After the ordeal, my grandmother was still grumbling as we came down the stairs of the government building, her voice echoing loudly as I tried to hush her. She said she wanted to buy me ties.
Outside the building, I immediately hailed a hansom, helped my grandmother up, and then heard her give an obscure address on Place Mohammed Ali. As soon as we were seated, she removed a small vial of alcohol and, like her Marrano ancestors who wiped off all traces of baptismal water as soon as they had left the church, she sprinkled the alcohol on the site of the injection—to kill the vaccine, she said, and all the germs that came with it!
It was a glorious day, and as we rode along my grandmother suddenly tapped me on the leg as she had done years earlier on our way to Rouchdy and said, “Definitely a beach day.” I took off my sweater and began to feel that uncomfortable, palling touch of wool flannel against my thighs. Time for shorts. The mere thought of light cotton made the wool unbearable. We cut through a dark street, then a square, got on the Corniche, and, in less than ten minutes, came face-to-face with the statue of Mohammed Ali, the Albanian founder of Egypt’s last ruling dynasty.
We proceeded past a series of old, decrepit stores that looked like improvised warehouses and workshops until we reached one tiny, extremely cluttered shop. “Sidi Daoud,” shouted my grandmother. No answer. She took out a coin and used it to knock on the glass door several times. “Sidi Daoud is here,” a tired figure finally uttered, emerging from the dark. He recognized her immediately, calling her his “favorite mazmazelle.”
Sidi Daoud was a one-eyed, portly Egyptian who dressed in traditional garb—a white galabiya and on top of it a grossly oversized, gray, double-breasted jacket. My grandmother, speaking to him in Arabic, said she wanted to buy me some good ties. “Ties? I have ties,” he said, pointing to a huge old closet whose doors had been completely removed; it was stuffed with paper bags and dirty cardboard boxes. “What sort of ties?” “Show me,” she said. “Show me, she says,” he muttered as he paced about, “so I’ll show her.”
He brought a stool, climbed up with a series of groans and cringes, reached up to the top of the closet, and brought down a cardboard box whose corners were reinforced with rusted metal. “These are the best,” he said as he took out tie after tie. “You’ll never find these for sale anywhere in the city, or in Cairo, or anywhere else in Egypt.” He removed a tie from a long sheath. It was dark blue with intricate light-blue and pale-orange patterns. He took it in his hands and brought it close to the entrance of the store that I might see it better in the sunlight, holding it out to me with both hands the way a cook might display a poached fish on a salver before serving it. “Let me see,” said my grandmother as though she were about to lift and examine its gills. I recognized the tie immediately: it had the sheen of Signor Ugo’s ties.
This was a stupendous piece of work. My grandmother looked at the loop and the brand name on the rear apron and remarked that it was not a bad make. “I’ll show you another,” he said, not even waiting for me to pass judgment on the first. The second was a light burgundy, bearing an identical pattern to the first. “Take it to the door,” he told me, “I’m too old to come and go all day.” This one was lovelier than the first, I thought, as I studied both together. A moment later, my grandmother joined me at the door and held the burgundy one in her hands and examined it, tilting her head left and right, as though looking for concealed blemishes which she was almost sure to catch if she looked hard enough. Then, placing the fabric between thumb and forefinger, she rubbed them together to test the quality of the silk, peeving the salesman. “Show me better.” “Better than this?” he replied. “Mafish, there isn’t!” He showed us other ties, but none compared to the first. I said I was happy with the dark-blue one; it would go with my new blazer. “Don’t match your clothes like a pauper,” said my grandmother. The Egyptian unsheathed two more ties from a different box. One with a green background, the other light blue. “Do you like them?” she asked. I liked them all, I said. “He likes them all,” she repeated with indulgent irony in her voice.
“This is the black market,” she said to me as soon as we left the store, the precious package clutched in my hand, as I squinted in the sunlight, scanning the crowded Place Mohammed Ali for another horse-drawn carriage. We had spent half an hour in Sidi Daoud’s store and had probably looked at a hundred ties before choosing these four. No shop I ever saw, before or since—not even the shop in the Faubourg Saint Honoré where my grandmother took me years later—had as many ties as Sidi Daoud’s little hovel. I spotted an empty hansom and shouted to the driver from across the square. The arbaghi, who heard me and immediately stood up in the driver’s box, signaled he would have to turn around the square, motioning us to wait for him.
Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at Athinéos. The old Spaniard was gone. Instead, a surly Greek doing a weak impersonation of a well-mannered waiter took our order. We were seated in a very quiet corner, next to a window with thick white linen drapes, and spoke about the French plays due to open in a few days. “Such a pity,” she said. “Things are beginning to improve just when we are leaving.” The Comédie Française had finally returned to Egypt after an absence of at least ten years. La Scala was also due to come again and open in Cairo’s old opera house with a production of Otello. Madame Darwish, our seamstress, had told my grandmother of a young actor from the Comédie who had knocked at her door saying this was where he had lived as a boy; she let him in, offered him coffee, and the young man burst out crying, then said goodbye. “Could all this talk of expulsion be mere bluffing?” my grandmother mused aloud, only to respond, “I don’t think so.”
After a second round of mango ice cream, she said, “And now we’ll buy you a good book and then we might stop a while at the museum.” By “good book” she meant either difficult to come by or one she approved of. It was to be my fourteenth-birthday present. We left the restaurant and were about to hail another carriage when my grandmother told me to make a quick left turn. “We’ll pretend we’re going to eat a pastry at Flückiger’s.” I didn’t realize why we were pretending until much later in the day when I heard my father yell at my grandmother. “We could all go to jail for what you did, thinking you’re so clever!” Indeed, she had succeeded in losing the man who had been tailing us after—and probably before—we entered Athinéos. I knew nothing about it when we were inside the secondhand bookstore. On one of the stacks I had found exactly what I wanted. “Are you sure you’re going to read all this?” she asked.
She paid for the books absentmindedly and did not return the salesman’s greeting. She had suddenly realized that a second agent might have been following us all along. “Let’s leave now,” she said, trying to be polite. “Why?” “Because.” We hopped in a taxi and told the driver to take us to Ramleh station. On our way we passed a series of familiar shops and restaurants, a stretch of saplings leaning against a sunny wall, and, beyond the buildings, an angular view of the afternoon sea.
As soon as we arrived at Sporting, I told my grandmother I was going straight to the Corniche. “No, you’re coming home with me.” I was about to argue. “Do as I tell you, please. There could be trouble.” Standing on the platform was our familiar tail. As soon as I heard the word trouble, I must have frozen on the spot, because she immediately added, “Now don’t go about looking so frightened!”
My grandmother, it turned out, had been smuggling money out of the country for years and had done so on that very day. I will never know whether her contact was Sidi Daoud, or the owner of the secondhand bookstore, or maybe one of the many coachmen we hired that day. When I asked her in Paris many years later, all she volunteered was, “One needed nerves of steel.”
* * *
Despite the frantic packing and last-minute sale of all the furniture, my mother, my grandmother, and Aunt Elsa had decided we should hold a Passover seder on the eve of our departure. For this occasion, two giant candelabra would be brought in from the living room, and it was decided that the old sculptured candles should be used as well. No point in giving them away. Aunt Elsa wanted to clean house, to remove all traces of bread, as Jews traditionally do in preparation for Passover. But with the suitcases all over the place and everything upside down, nobody was eager to undertake such a task, and the idea was abandoned. “Then why have a seder?” she asked with embittered sarcasm. “Be glad we’re having one at all,” replied my father. I watched her fume. “If that’s going to be your attitude, let’s not have one, see if I care.” “Now don’t get all worked up over a silly seder, Elsa. Please!”
My mother and my grandmother began pleading with him, and for a good portion of the afternoon, busy embassies shuttled back and forth between Aunt Elsa’s room and my father’s study. Finally, he said he had to go out but would be back for dinner. That was his way of conceding. Abdou, who knew exactly what to prepare for the seder, needed no further inducements and immediately began boiling the eggs and preparing the cheese-and-potato buñuelos.
Meanwhile, Aunt Elsa began imploring me to help read the Haggadah that evening. Each time I refused, she would remind me that it was the last time this dining room would ever see a seder and that I should read in memory of Uncle Nessim. “His seat will stay empty unless somebody reads.” Again I refused. “Are you ashamed of being Jewish? Is that it? What kind of Jews are we, then?” she kept asking. “The kind who don’t celebrate leaving Egypt when it’s the last thing they want to do,” I said. “But that’s so childish. We’ve never not had a seder. Your mother will be crushed. Is that what you want?” “What I want is to have no part of it. I don’t want to cross the Red Sea. And I don’t want to be in Jerusalem next year. As far as I’m concerned, all of this is just worship of repetition and nothing more.” And I stormed out of the room, extremely pleased with my bon mot. “But it’s our last evening in Egypt,” she said, as though that would change my mind.
For all my resistance, however, I decided to wear one of my new ties, a blazer, and a newly made pair of pointed black shoes. My mother, who joined me in the living room around half past seven, was wearing a dark-blue dress and her favorite jewelry. In the next room, I could hear the two sisters putting the final touches to the table, stowing away the unused silverware, which Abdou had just polished. Then my grandmother came in, making a face that meant Aunt Elsa was truly impossible. “It’s always what she wants, never what others want.” She sat down, inspected her skirt absentmindedly, spreading its pleats, then began searching through the bowl of peanuts until she found a roasted almond. We looked outside and in the window caught our own reflections. Three more characters, I thought, and we’ll be ready for Pirandello.
Aunt Elsa walked in, dressed in purple lace that dated back at least three generations. She seemed to notice that I had decided to wear a tie. “Much better than those trousers with the snaps on them,” she said, throwing her sister a significant glance. We decided to have vermouth, and Aunt Elsa said she would smoke. My mother also smoked. Then, gradually, as always happened during such gatherings, the sisters began to reminisce. Aunt Elsa told us about the little icon shop she had kept in Lourdes before the Second World War. She had sold such large quantities of religious objects to Christian pilgrims that no one would have guessed she was Jewish. But then, at Passover, not knowing where to buy unleavened bread, she had gone to a local baker and inquired about the various qualities of flour he used in his shop, claiming her husband had a terrible ulcer and needed special bread. The man said he did not understand what she wanted, and Elsa, distraught, continued to ask about a very light type of bread, maybe even unleavened bread, if such a thing existed. The man replied that surely there was an epidemic spreading around Lourdes, for many were suffering from similar gastric disorders and had been coming to his shop for the past few days asking the same question. “Many?” she asked. “Many, many,” he replied, smiling, then whispered, “Bonne pâque, happy Passover,” and sold her the unleavened bread.
“Se non è vero, è ben trovato, if it isn’t true, you’ve made it up well,” said my father, who had just walked in. “So, are we all ready?” “Yes, we were waiting for you,” said my mother, “did you want some scotch?” “No, already had some.”
Then, as we made toward the dining room, I saw that my father’s right cheek was covered with pink, livid streaks, like nail scratches. My grandmother immediately pinched her cheek when she saw his face but said nothing. My mother too cast stealthy glances in his direction but was silent.
“So what exactly is it you want us to do now?” he asked Aunt Elsa, mildly scoffing at the ceremonial air she adopted on these occasions.
“I want you to read,” she said, indicating Uncle Nessim’s seat. My mother stood up and showed him where to start, pained and shaking her head silently the more she looked at his face. He began to recite in French, without irony, without flourishes, even meekly. But as soon as he began to feel comfortable with the text, he started to fumble, reading the instructions out loud, then correcting himself, or skipping lines unintentionally only to find himself reading the same line twice. At one point, wishing to facilitate his task, my grandmother said, “Skip that portion.” He read some more and she interrupted again. “Skip that too.”
“No,” said Elsa, “either we read everything or nothing at all.” An argument was about to erupt. “Where is Nessim now that we need him,” said Elsa with that doleful tone in her voice that explained her success at Lourdes. “As far away from you as he can be,” muttered my father under his breath, which immediately made me giggle. My mother, catching my attempt to stifle a laugh, began to smile; she knew exactly what my father had said though she had not heard it. My father, too, was infected by the giggling, which he smothered as best as he could, until my grandmother caught sight of him, which sent her laughing uncontrollably. No one had any idea what to do, what to read, or when to stop. “Some Jews we are,” said Aunt Elsa, who had also started to laugh and whose eyes were tearing. “Shall we eat, then?” asked my father. “Good idea,” I said. “But we’ve only just begun,” protested Aunt Elsa, recovering her composure. “It’s the very last time. How could you? We’ll never be together again, I can just feel it.” She was on the verge of tears, but my grandmother warned her that she, too, would start crying if we kept on like this. “This is the last year,” said Elsa, reaching out and touching my hand. “It’s just that I can remember so many seders held in this very room, for fifty years, year after year after year. And I’ll tell you something,” she said, turning to my father. “Had I known fifty years ago that it would end like this, had I known I’d be among the last in this room, with everyone buried or gone away, it would have been better to die, better to have died back then than to be left alone like this.” “Calm yourself, Elsica,” said my father, “otherwise we’ll all be in mourning here.”
At that point, Abdou walked in and, approaching my father, said there was someone on the telephone asking for him. “Tell them we are praying,” said my father. “But sir—” He seemed troubled and began to speak softly. “So?” “She said she wanted to apologize.” No one said anything. “Tell her not now.” “Very well.”
We heard the hurried patter of Abdou’s steps up the corridor, heard him pick up the receiver and mumble something. Then, with relief, we heard him hang up and go back into the kitchen. It meant she had not insisted or argued. It meant he would be with us tonight. “Shall we eat, then?” said my mother. “Good idea,” I repeated. “Yes, I’m starving,” said Aunt Elsa. “An angel you married,” murmured my grandmother to my father.
After dinner, everyone moved into the smaller living room, and, as was her habit on special gatherings, Aunt Elsa asked my father to play the record she loved so much. It was a very old recording by the Busch Quartet, and Aunt Elsa always kept it in her room, fearing someone might ruin it. I had noticed it earlier in the day lying next to the radio. It meant she had been planning the music all along. “Here,” she said, gingerly removing the warped record from its blanched dust jacket with her arthritic fingers. It was Beethoven’s “Song of Thanksgiving.” Everyone sat down, and the adagio started.
The old 78 hissed, the static louder than the music, though no one seemed to notice, for my grandmother began humming, softly, with a plangent, faraway whine in her voice, and my father shut his eyes, and Aunt Elsa began shaking her head in rapt wonder, as she did sometimes when tasting Swiss chocolate purchased on the black market, as if to say, “How could anyone have created such beauty?”
And there, I thought, was my entire world: the two old ones writhing in a silent stupor, my father probably wishing he was elsewhere, and my mother, whose thoughts, as she leafed through a French fashion magazine, were everywhere and nowhere, but mostly on her husband, who knew that she would say nothing that evening and would probably let the matter pass quietly and never speak of it again.
I motioned to my mother that I was going out for a walk. She nodded. Without saying anything, my father put his hand in his pocket and slipped me a few bills.
Outside, Rue Delta was brimming with people. It was the first night of Ramadan and the guns marking the end of the fast had gone off three hours earlier. There was unusual bustle and clamor, with people gathered in groups, standing in the way of traffic, making things noisier and livelier still, the scent of holiday pastries and fried treats filling the air. I looked up at our building: on our floor, all the lights were out except for Abdou’s and those in the living room. Such weak lights, and so scant in comparison to the gaudy, colored bulbs that hung from all the lampposts and trees—as if the electricity in our home were being sapped and might die out at any moment. It was an Old World, old-people’s light.
As I neared the seafront, the night air grew cooler, saltier, freed from the din of lights and the milling crowd. Traffic became sparse, and whenever cars stopped for the traffic signal, everything grew still: then, only the waves could be heard, thudding in the dark, spraying the air along the darkened Corniche with a thin mist that hung upon the night, dousing the streetlights and the signposts and the distant floodlights by the guns of Petrou, spreading a light clammy film upon the pebbled stone wall overlooking the city’s coastline. Quietly, an empty bus splashed along the road, trailing murky stains of light on the gleaming pavement. From somewhere, in scattered snatches, came the faint lilt of music, perhaps from one of those dance halls where students used to flock at night. Or maybe just a muted radio somewhere on the beach nearby, where abandoned nets gave off a pungent smell of seaweed and fish.
At the corner of the street, from a sidewalk stall, came the smell of fresh dough and of angel-hair being fried on top of a large copper stand—a common sight throughout the city every Ramadan. People would fold the pancakes and stuff them with almonds, syrup, and raisins. The vendor caught me eyeing the cakes that were neatly spread on a black tray. He smiled and said, “Etfaddal, help yourself.”
I thought of Aunt Elsa’s chiding eyes. “But it’s Pesach,” I imagined her saying. My grandmother would disapprove too—eating food fried by Arabs on the street, unconscionable. The Egyptian didn’t want any money. “It’s for you,” he said, handing me the delicacy on a torn sheet of newspaper.
I wished him a good evening and took the soggy pancake out onto the seafront. There, heaving myself up on the stone wall, I sat with my back to the city, facing the sea, holding the delicacy I was about to devour. Abdou would have called this a real mazag, accompanying the word, as all Egyptians do, with a gesture of the hand—a flattened palm brought to the side of the head—signifying blissful plenitude and the prolonged, cultivated consumption of everyday pleasures.
Facing the night, I looked out at the stars and thought to myself, over there is Spain, then France, to the right Italy, and, straight ahead, the land of Solon and Pericles. The world is timeless and boundless, and I thought of all the shipwrecked, homeless mariners who had strayed to this very land and for years had tinkered away at their damaged boats, praying for a wind, only to grow soft and reluctant when their time came.
I stared at the flicker of little fishing boats far out in the offing, always there at night, and watched a group of children scampering about on the beach below, waving little Ramadan lanterns, the girls wearing loud pink-and-fuchsia dresses, locking hands as they wove themselves into the dark again, followed by another group of child revelers who were flocking along the jetty past the sand dunes, some even waving up to me from below. I waved back with a familiar gesture of street fellowship and wiped the light spray that had moistened my face.
And suddenly I knew, as I touched the damp, grainy surface of the seawall, that I would always remember this night, that in years to come I would remember sitting here, swept with confused longing as I listened to the water lapping the giant boulders beneath the promenade and watched the children head toward the shore in a winding, lambent procession. I wanted to come back tomorrow night, and the night after, and the one after that as well, sensing that what made leaving so fiercely painful was the knowledge that there would never be another night like this, that I would never eat soggy cakes along the coast road in the evening, not this year or any other year, nor feel the baffling, sudden beauty of that moment when, if only for an instant, I had caught myself longing for a city I never knew I loved.
Exactly a year from now, I vowed, I would sit outside at night wherever I was, somewhere in Europe, or in America, and turn my face to Egypt, as Moslems do when they pray and face Mecca, and remember this very night, and how I had thought these things and made this vow. You’re beginning to sound like Elsa and her silly seders, I said to myself, mimicking my father’s humor.
On my way home I thought of what the others were doing. I wanted to walk in, find the smaller living room still lit, the Beethoven still playing, with Abdou still clearing the dining room, and, on closing the front door, suddenly hear someone say, “We were just waiting for you, we’re thinking of going to the Royal.” “But we’ve already seen that film,” I would say. “What difference does it make. We’ll see it again.”
And before we had time to argue, we would all rush downstairs, where my father would be waiting in a car that was no longer really ours, and, feeling the slight chill of a late April night, would huddle together with the windows shut, bicker as usual about who got to sit where, rub our hands, turn the radio to a French broadcast, and then speed to the Corniche, thinking that all this was as it always was, that nothing ever really changed, that the people enjoying their first stroll on the Corniche after fasting, or the woman selling tickets at the Royal, or the man who would watch our car in the side alley outside the theater, or our neighbors across the hall, or the drizzle that was sure to greet us after the movie at midnight would never, ever know, nor ever guess, that this was our last night in Alexandria.
Tamim Ansary (1948– ) was born in the capital city of Kabul in Afghanistan to a Pashtun Afghan father, Amanuddin, and an American-Finnish woman, Terttu. Identified as an “American” by his classmates, Ansary was part of a large, close-knit clan and grew up as a Muslim in a comfortable bicultural household. His father had studied in the U.S. through the support of the royal family and was later the dean of the College of Literature at Kabul University, while his mother taught English at a girls’ school. At the suggestion of an American friend, Tamim applied for and won a scholarship to Colorado Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colorado, and then left Afghanistan in 1964, at age sixteen, with his mother and siblings. After graduating high school and college, he went on to become a senior editor of educational publications and an author.
Between 1953 and the 1970s, only 230 Afghans are estimated to have immigrated to the U.S. to become citizens, but it’s debatable whether the Ansarys should be considered a part of this group. As Tamim explains, according to the Afghan government, he and his siblings were Afghan by birth through their father, but they could assert U.S. citizenship through their mother. Immigration from Afghanistan to the U.S. would dramatically increase in the wake of the Soviet invasion in 1980, resulting in a steady annual stream of up to four thousand immigrants through the decade, leading to an estimated forty-five thousand to seventy-five thousand refugees by 1990. A second wave of immigration to the U.S. began in 1996 with Afghans fleeing the Taliban, an increase halted in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks.
In the wake of those attacks, many Afghan immigrants experienced discrimination and felt isolated. Ansary was moved to try to put the situation into context for “anyone who [would] listen.” An e-mail sent to friends on September 12 denounced Osama bin Laden and the Taliban before going on to distinguish them from the majority of impoverished Afghans. The message went viral, and he was soon being called on by media outlets to “interpret the Islamic world for the West.” Ansary’s timely, well-received memoir, West of Kabul, East of New York (2002), charts his family’s history in Afghanistan, his formative years in the U.S., along with his sobering 1980 trip through Islamic countries and his experiences surrounding 9/11. Ansary continues to work as an editor, in addition to directing the San Francisco Writers Workshop. In this excerpt from the prologue of his memoir, Ansary recalls the “volcanic moment” that changed his life.
West of Kabul, East of New York
For many long years, my siblings and I thought we were the only Afghans in America. When I introduced myself to people, they’d say, “Interesting name. Where are you from?” When I said Afghanistan, I could feel myself changing, not unpleasantly, into a curiosity. Few knew where Afghanistan was, and some were amazed to learn it existed at all. Once, in a college gym class, a coach found my free-throw shooting form humorous. “Where have you been all your life,” he guffawed, “Afghanistan?” When I said yes, he was taken aback: he thought Afghanistan was just an expression, like ultima Thule, meaning “off the map.”
The Soviet invasion put Afghanistan on the map, but it didn’t last. By the summer of 2001, a new acquaintance could say to me, “Afghanistan, huh? I never would have guessed you’re from Africa.”
That all changed on September 11, 2001. Suddenly, everywhere I went, strangers were talking about Kandahar and Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif. On September 12, the abrupt notoriety of Afghanistan triggered a volcanic moment in my own small life.
I was driving around San Francisco that day, listening to talk radio. My mind was chattering to itself about errands and deadlines, generating mental static to screen me off from my underlying emotions, the turmoil and dread. On the radio, a woman caller was making a tearful, ineffective case against going to war over the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The talk-show host derided her. A man called in to say that the enemy was not just Afghanistan but people like that previous caller as well. The talk-show host said thoughtfully, “You’re making a lot of sense, sir.”
The next caller elaborated on what should be done to Afghanistan: “Nuke that place. Those people have to learn. Put a fence around it! Cut them off from medicine! From food! Make those people starve!”
More than thirty-five years had passed since I had seen Afghanistan, but the ghosts were still inside me, and as I listened to that apoplectically enraged talk on the radio, those ghosts stirred to life. I saw my grandmother K’koh, elfin soul of the Ansary family. Oh, she died long ago, but in my mind she died again that day, as I pictured the rainfall of bombs that would be coming. And I saw my father, the man who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, leave when the Soviets put the country in a clamp. He was long gone, too, but if he’d lived, he would be in Kabul now, an eighty-three-year-old man, in rags on the streets, his ribs showing, one of the many who would be starving when the fence was flung up around our land.
I didn’t begrudge those callers their rage, but I felt a bewilderment deeper than shock. No one seemed to know how pitifully harmless Afghans were, strong contenders for the Poorest People on Earth award, overrun by the world’s most hardened criminals, and now, it seemed, marked out to suffer for the crimes of their torturers.
I wanted to call that talk show, but when I came home, I felt too shy. I’d never spoken to the media at any level. So I went downstairs to my office and wrote an e-mail to a few of my friends. I poured out to them what I would have said to the public if I could have mustered the courage to call that talk show. The moment I clicked on SEND, I felt infinitesimally better.
Later that day, some of the people on my list asked if they could pass my note on to their friends, and I said, “Sure,” thinking, Wow, with luck, I might reach fifty or sixty people.
That night, I logged on to my server and found a hundred e-mails in my in-box, mostly from strangers responding to the message I’d hammered out earlier. It boggled my mind. The power of the Internet! I had reached . . . hundreds.
The next day, I realized something bigger was rising under me. At noon I got a call from my old friend Nick Allen, whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. Somehow, he’d received the e-mail and had felt moved to track me down and say hi.
An hour later, I heard from Erik Nalder, the son of an American engineer, whom I had last seen in Afghanistan thirty-eight years ago. He’d received my e-mail—I couldn’t imagine how—and had felt moved to track me down and say hi.
Then the phone rang again. A caller from Chicago. A hesitant voice. “My name is Charles Sherman. . . .” Did I know this guy? “I got your e-mail. . . .” I couldn’t place him. “You don’t know me,” he said.
“Then how did you get my number?”
“I looked you up on the Internet—anyone can get your number. . . . I just wanted to tell you that . . . your e-mail made a lot of sense to me.”
I thanked him and hung up, but my heart was pounding. Strangers were reading my e-mail, and anyone could get my phone number. What if the next caller said, “Hi, I’m with the Taliban”? What if Al Qaeda knocked on the door? How long before some hysterical racist sent a brick through my window?
I wanted to cancel my e-mail. “I’ve reached enough people, thank you; that will be all.” But it was too late. I couldn’t withdraw the e-mail. I couldn’t issue corrections, amendments, or follow-ups. My e-mail spread like a virus throughout the United States and across the world. My e-mail accounts overflowed with responses, and the servers had to start deleting messages I had not read. Radio stations started calling—then newspapers—then TV. By the fourth day, I found myself putting World News Tonight on hold to take a call from Oprah’s people—inconceivable! I have no idea how many people received the e-mail ultimately. A radio station in South Africa claimed it reached 250,000 people in that country alone. Worldwide, I have to guess, it reached millions—within a week.
What had I written? I wondered. Why the response? I barely had time to ponder these bewildering questions. The media seized on me as a pundit. The questions came at me like hornets pouring out of a nest, and all I could do was swing at them. From those first few insane weeks, I only remember Charlie Rose’s skeptical face looming toward me with the question, “But Tamim . . . can you really compare the Taliban to Nazis?”
I tried to tell him about that guy I’d met in Turkey, the one in the pin-striped suit who had wanted to convert me to his brand of Islam, and the horror that had filled me as I read his literature afterward, but my long-winded digression wasn’t appropriate for that or any TV show. I stumbled out of the studio, my mind reeling. What did I mean? The words I had used in that e-mail were so brutal. The Taliban, I had written, are a
of IGNORANT PSYCHOTICS.
When you think BIN LADEN, think
I never would have used such language if I’d thought millions of people were listening. I’m sure I would have measured my language more carefully. But in that case, probably no one would have listened. And had I misspoken? Would I now renounce my words? I decided the answer was no.
* * *
Two weeks later, my cousin’s wife, Shafiqa, called to tell me there was going to be a memorial service for Ahmed Shah Massoud that night, complete with speeches, videotapes, posters, and more speeches. I should come.
Massoud was the last credible anti-Taliban leader in Afghanistan, the man who put together the Northern Alliance, a towering figure, assassinated by Arab suicide bombers two days before the attacks on the World Trade Center. I admired Massoud, and his assassination disheartened me, but I was just too spent to go to his memorial service. “I need to rest,” I pleaded.
Shafiqa was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Listen, Tamim, we are all proud of what you have done. You have written a letter. That’s good. But Massoud slept with only a stone for a pillow for twenty-three years. He scarcely knew the names of his children, because he would not set down the burden of liberating our country. I think he was tired at times, too. I think you should be at his memorial service.”
I hung my head in shame and said I would be there.
The following week, a representative of the Northern Alliance phoned me. “You have the ear of the American media. You know how to say things. We know what things must be said. Let us work together. From now on, you must be the spokesman.”
“The spokesman? For what? For whom?”
“For our cause. For our country.”
I could feel my ears shutting down and my eyes looking for the back door. Was Afghanistan really my country?
Dear reader, let me pause to introduce myself properly. Yes, I was born and raised in Afghanistan, and I know Islam intimately, from the inside, in my very soul. Yes, I learned to say my prayers from my Afghan grandmother; yes, I know the flavor of sundown on the first day of Ramadan, when you’re on the porch with the people you love, waiting for the cannon that will mark the moment when a white thread can no longer be distinguished from a black one and you can put the day’s first sweet date in your mouth.
But my mother was American, and not just any American, but a secular one to the max, and a feminist back when there hardly was such a thing—the daughter of an immigrant labor agitator in Chicago who would have been a Communist if only he could have accepted orders from anyone but his own conscience. And I moved to America at age sixteen, and graduated from Reed College, and grew my hair down to my waist, and missed Woodstock by minutes, and revered Bob Dylan back when his voice still worked. I made a career in educational publishing, and if you have children, they have probably used some product I have edited or written. I am an American.
How could I be an adequate spokesman for Afghanistan or for Muslims?
“Look, I have nothing to tell people but my own small story,” I told the fellow from the Northern Alliance. “Maybe I can help Americans see that Afghans are just human beings like anyone else. That’s about all I can do.”
“That is important, too,” he said, his voice softened by anxiety and despair.
In the weeks that followed, however, the media kept punching through to me, and I kept answering their questions. It turned out that I did have plenty to say about Afghanistan, Islam, and fundamentalism, because I have been pondering these issues all my life—the dissonance between the world I am living in now and the world I left behind, a world that is lost to me. And as I kept talking, it struck me that I was not the only one who had lost a world. There was a lot of loss going around. Perhaps it wasn’t really nostalgia for the seventh century that was fueling all this militancy. Perhaps it was nostalgia for a world that existed much more recently, traces of which still linger in the social memory of the Islamic world. Lots of people have parents, or grandparents, or at least great-grandparents who grew up in that world. Some people even know that world personally, because they were born in it. I am one of those people. . . .
My friend Roger Fritz went to a private high school in Colorado called CRMS—Colorado Rocky Mountain School—but he spent summer vacations with his family, which had moved to Lashkargah. In the summer of 1963, he told me that CRMS would give me a scholarship if I wrote to them. “They’d even pay your way to America,” he said. “They did that for a couple of boys from Africa.” It was a throwaway comment on his part, but it lodged in my brain like a worm.
I had big plans that summer. The swimming pool was back in operation and I hoped to better my record of swimming forty continuous laps. I had started on this project when the bombshell dropped.
The king seized power.
From whom does an absolute monarch seize power? Well, Zahir Shah (King Zahir) had been a figurehead ever since he was nineteen, when the assassination of his father put him on the throne. Normally, his adult uncles would have eliminated him and then fought among themselves, but the Mohammedzai uncles broke the pattern. They put the prince on the throne and took turns running the country as prime minister. Various royal relatives held all other top posts in the government. This civilized autocracy gave Afghanistan forty years of stability. King Zahir, formerly the prince, got to live in a palace, ride in a Rolls-Royce, and take vacations in Italy. But he did not get to order troops into battle, set policy vis-à-vis Pakistan, or go eyeball-to-eyeball with the Soviet ambassador.
When the last uncle died, the king’s cousin Daoud took charge, and this must have chafed. The king was getting on toward fifty, and no doubt he wanted to be a real king at last. And then Daoud screwed up. He forced a macho showdown with Pakistan over a border dispute—and lost. When he backed down, Afghanistan lost face. This gave Zahir Shah an opening.
The king moved swiftly to fire his cousin and all the rest of his relatives. He announced that he was launching Afghanistan on a path to democracy. He convened a committee of “wise men” (including my uncle Najmuddin) to draft a new constitution, and they came up with a document that prohibited—strong language!—any member of the royal family from holding any cabinet-level post in government. Henceforth, only commoners could hold these posts.
In 1963, the king accepted this constitution, which then became the law of the land. Commoners like Dr. Kayeum and my father had been groomed to administer the country. Now they were being invited to step up and rule it. The Western-educated technocrats began jockeying for power.
My father did not get in on the jockeying. He was in the United States on government business at the time, and his best friend did not save him a seat at the show. The scrambling must have been intense, and Kayeum no doubt had his hands full securing his own seat. Nonetheless, when my father returned to Afghanistan and discovered that all his friends had moved up and he was an unemployed has-been, he felt betrayed.
His “best friend,” Dr. Abdul Kayeum, was now Minister of Interior. In Afghanistan (as in most Third World countries), this ministry did not concern itself with recreation and parks. It was in charge of keeping the “interior” under control. It mirrored the foreign portfolio. The minister appointed governors, operated the police force, and conducted diplomacy with the ever-dangerous tribes. A comparable office in the United States would run the state governments, the National Guard, and the FBI. On paper, then, Kayeum was roughly the fifth-most-powerful man in Afghanistan.
Kayeum promised to get my father a post in the Ministry of Interior, and he did, a few months later, but not the post my father expected—that of deputy minister. My father got a job one rung lower down, director of administration or some such.
His government-issue car served as a visible emblem of his fall. Cabinet ministers and their deputies each got a Mercedes. We got a clunky cast-iron Soviet-made Volga. We were Volga-class officials now. It could have been worse. We could have gotten a Moscovitz, the Soviet version of a Ford Escort. Or no car at all. Or we could have fallen out of government service altogether, back into Neolithic Afghanistan.
But I could only see what we weren’t. My teenage years in Afghanistan were dominated by the shame of my father’s fall, even though in truth he was not such a failure. He was four tiers down from ruling the country, maybe five. What did I want of him—that he lead a coup d’état? I don’t know.
My father’s appointment meant we had to move back to Kabul. Our quasi-American life in Lashkargah was over. My mother was depressed. We children were depressed. At the last of several going-away parties, Rona cast off all pretense of doling out her favors equally and chose Matt, clinging to him during the last dance. I was not jealous. It was Matt I loved—our camaraderie, our trips to the island, our explorations of the ruined city, our swimming competitions at the pool. Competing for Rona was just an element in our great friendship, now ending.
Excerpted from "Immigrant Voices, Volume 2"
Copyright © 2015 Gordon Hutner.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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