October 19, 2007

A short story by Ibrahim N. Abusharif

(Published in Mizna.)

This book would not have been written had it not been for many people in my life. When I completed the story months ago, the time had come for me to acknowledge these kind souls, and I was prepared to thank and praise. But what was supposed to be a simple matter evolved into an acknowledgments project with lengthy notes and outlines. Time dragged and my publishers grew impatient. They began to pressure me to invent any handful of words that convey some sense of gratitude, pretending with hubris book tradition that the author comprehends what these people have truly meant. The proposition, however widespread, is illusory. The pretension of our age has made it nearly impossible to attain a raw view of the influences that urge a writer to pursue literature and expose himself to the honesty native to the process. I’m afraid that our sense of cultural history on a personal level has been so undermined by the modern marketing imagination, we’ve become a people of imitation humility. I can produce a list of happy words and attach them to folks who have read the manuscript and given me advice and encouragement. But they dealt with a more or less finished outcome. After going through this narrative, however, and having been shown the grid of forces that informed in me that scandalous self-awareness that has driven me to tell this story, there’s no going back. To produce an ordinary tribute—to add to the gas of functional thanks—would be a betrayal of the covenants I made during the experience. Since I don’t have the wherewithal to pursue such a tumultuous act of honesty now, especially when threatened by what is loudly called a “deadline,” I’ve decided to do something else. I will acknowledge people who did nothing to further this work, who, on the contrary, nearly snatched its soul and hid it among the innumerable works that do not exist, invisible dunes of embargoed narratives with unasked questions. There are two people I will speak of—normal in flesh but emblematic enough to make my point.

For no reason but chronology, I begin with an elderly lady whose intersection with my life lasted not more than 15 seconds, on the same day I finally got an earnest feel for the main character of this story, Sammy. After months of false starts, at last I “saw” Sammy, forty years old with the gray of a much older man, standing in a suburban field of grass and flowers. I did not manufacture the scene; it appeared, as did the tape recorder Sammy held in his hand and the cars that swooshed by in the wet distance. Nobody around him except the interred beneath his feet, Sammy narrated his stories: the man with a hole in his throat, the pet rabbits, a stolen toy truck, the gray porch, folklore from Palestine, the lumberyard, the fishing, the funerals, and the religion. The arrangement became the spokes of this story, the technical break I had been looking for.

Sammy started with 1967, specifically one afternoon of the last week before summer vacation when he and his lanky cousin, Mukhlas, walked home from Clark Elementary School. But a warrior with an eye-patch and his Israeli armies routed Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in what was officially counted as six days. The small Arab community in Chicago was thunderstruck; fathers stayed home from the factories to work the knobs of the short-wave radios, hoping to learn that the reportage here was all a fraud. The pulse of the homes hastened and nothing was said unrelated to the war. The bond of the pan-Arab mind was snapped after nearly a century of hurried construction. These poor souls had become psychological orphans in less than a week. Foster ideals would be needed, and, eventually and awkwardly, one would come: religion. From nationalism to religion, the transition would not be smooth nor handled wisely. Coercing religion into a horizontal thing, its spiritual energy displaced by patterns of socialist ideologies recent to the region, would never set nor keep all the faithful on board. The artists and intellectuals eventually would move on, while the others and their heirs would largely accept what we casually call “extremism,” producing sermons, books, and anger that achieved canon status but that only now are being called into question.

What was forced on Sammy, and what he struggled to bring out about the “six days,” was the resultant isolation of the children, an issue shamelessly overlooked in academics, but whose effects show up years later in young men and women with unacknowledged wounds. Sammy recounted the school sociology of that June, the questions from teachers and peers. On the surface, it seemed logical: in an American Christian suburb, why not seek some perspectives from the only kids with roots to that part of the world? But for Sammy, whose psychological planks had buckled, there was no choice but to bypass school the rest of the week and slide into the mercy of summer. He deputized Mukhlas, and the two talked about forgeries, escape routes, and hidden forts—beginning a method of avoidance the two would bear for years, one of them forever.

This is where I had reached that morning before I stopped. It was abrupt and mid-sentence in fact. I was not tired and could have gone on. Yet I withdrew, a reckless impulse that defied every canon of writing I had come across. I had arrived at the kind of complication required in storytelling. In fact, I was pulled into a vortex. John Gardner calls it “a quality of strangeness,” a reality I denied the existence of when I first read it. He says more: “One must be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd parts of one’s being to take over the work from time to time.” The only thing I dare say is that most likely I had drawn too close to something that would have damaged me. That’s what I told myself, evoking phrases like “writer’s vulnerability.” This reasoning was dross because later I learned why I suspended operations, but only when I repeated it.

Well, I didn’t go for a walk in the woods or anything imperturbable like that. I opted for a shopping mall, the antithesis of the imaginal world. I realized the mistake as I drank a milkshake and watched folks carrying bags and self-satisfaction. I rushed back to my car and sped away. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, this lady pulled in. It is conceivable that in my haste I had breached the center line, but there was room for her to pass. She stopped and rolled down her window, as I prepared a light apology. Her front teeth pressed against her lower lip, she shouted the F-word: “Foreigner! Go back home!” She then sped off. It was, I admit, an innocuous event, but given my occupation that morning, I left home without the breastplate that deflects from our notice the syndicated blights of our world that we write off as amusing peccadilloes of a great nation.

Back at home, in my chair and the story, I lost Sammy, finding instead a stiff cardboard character, a silent screen actor who must exaggerate the simplest of motions to get a point across. Something had changed. I noticed it when I tried to retrieve that strangeness. I read the pages I had written that morning, hoping for a clutch start. But a reaction started that disabled the story. I found myself loathing what I had written, feeling, in fact, foolish for writing it. The altercation created whispers in my mind, eagerly narrated by a roused imp within me: “Why write? For whom? It will be used against you. What you want to say isn’t safe enough. It has humanized Palestinians who live with personalities that confound the sculpted image and raise such forbidden questions as, Why such a good-hearted people, born centered, pushed to the edge?

More strings were pulled. My third-grade teacher, a case in point, Mrs. Roselee, came to my mind. She had always liked me and trusted me to take messages to the office, pass out quizzes, and collect them. I was her class darling. In December she asked the class to make paper cutouts of either a Christmas Tree or a Menorah depending on the obvious. After passing out the colored construction paper, I took my seat and looked around the room as I held my rounded scissors motionless. I raised my hand and caught Mrs. Roselees’s attention. She ambled over to my desk, and I told her in all innocence that I was neither a tree nor a candlestick and that I was a Muslim. She paused for a second or two, as if to check her hearing. Her eyebrows then met, and she exclaimed, “A what? There’s no such thing, child!” She walked off with no further instruction. All the scissors in the class stopped as small eyes bore down on me. Without any reason I was able to understand at the time, Mrs. Roselee never once asked me to do anything the rest of the year. I lost curiosity and never raised my hand. I couldn’t spell a word, read a poem—not even “Jabberwocky”—or carry a number over.

Emotional memory is powerful. It took months before I was able to silence the imp and consider the story again. On my blue recliner, I read Gardner, Ueland, and others, trying to gather the motivations that once provoked me to tell a story. With time, I did resume my “collaboration” with Sammy.

Back in the field, Sammy continued his story, coming around to a time when he was jobless and unsure of his future, having just graduated from college. He set up his office in the same room he had grown up in. One afternoon, at his desk, a six-foot folding table that held up a wreckage of notes, coffee mugs, and a small Sony shortwave radio, Sammy stared at a photograph of his late father: broad nose, thick lips, large eyes, crescent shaped eyebrows—a man close to trees and the earth, passive against encroachment, a denier of evil in people, a player of the flute.

Interrupted by commotion and voices outside, Sammy lifted his head toward the window and saw a moving truck in the driveway of Mr. Staton, a full-time screen door salesman and part-time Baptist preacher. One day, when Sammy walked by the Staton yard, Mr. Staton turned off his electric mower and started to speak to Sammy as he emptied the grass catcher. Mr. Staton offered the boy a carrot at the end of the cross—free White Sox tickets and transportation to Comiskey Park if he would attend just one Church service of any Sunday of his choosing. A devoted baseball fan, Sammy was twelve years old and had gone to only one professional baseball game in his life and had thought about it all the time. He now was offered a chance to go again with the minor complication of going to some church. But Sammy looked down at his oversized Rawlings mitt, shook his head, and walked on. “No offense to the Statons or Christendom,” Sammy wrote in his room, “I consider my resistance to Mr. Staton’s temptation as an act of divine guidance, for God had chosen me to be a Cub fan.”

I went on with the story each day. I knew when to stop. I was able to break from the novel and pick up from where I had left off. It had been this way for weeks. I was excited about my project and feeling happiness that adults despair of. I saw a context for what I was doing. But I couldn’t stop there, could I? For some ungodly reason, I started to sabotage again my writing. I called it curiosity: I wanted to know what was possible within a certain context. It became a full-blown interest, which I would soon satisfy to my detriment.

Eid al-Adha, the grand Muslim holiday, came around. So I went to the holiday morning prayer on a sunny winter day. After the prayer service, per tradition, people milled around the mosque grounds to greet each other with embraces and established holiday phraseology. I saw a gentleman I didn’t really know, standing alone outside near the entrance. Our eyes met, so I walked his way and greeted him. It turned out that he was the ummah, the Muslim nation, standing right there, a man burdened with the woes of the world. If I weren’t unsure about a word or two, I would swear that part of the conversation went exactly this way:

[Me]: Isn’t a joyful day?
[Him] Joyful? [He bobs his head up and down musingly.] What is joy when the Muslim nation is hurt? There will be time to rejoice, my brother, when the Muslim nation rises from the ashes of its days gone by and becomes that nation that pokes through the soil like a flower, blossoming and speaking to the world, condemning all evil and singing the praises of God.
[Me]: You know, the sun doesn’t often shine like this during this time of the year.
[Him] Shine? Do we deserve warmth? When will we shine, hand in hand, marching to the gates of victory? When will we shed our defeats and ascend to the promised station of greatness?

I had a good stretch of joyful composition, and I needed nothing to interrupt my pretending that a literary voice was possible among “my community.” That’s what I’d been wanting to know, whether or not something literary could be sparked within a specific and new religious context. Can it be done? Are we trapped in the modern insistence of separation? Must the secular experience be an unquestioned proposition in the arts? And must the conjugation result in self-righteous din like Christian rock or apocalypse fiction?

Elsewhere, I tested the questions on my brethren. Some seemed befuddled by the mere proposition of religion, Islam really, provoking a culture of art in a Western context. Others were threatened because the concept was too “American” and would do nothing to liberate Palestine or re-establish the Caliphate. Others patronized me in their dismissal of what I had to say. Realizing this, however, I eventually turned my attention another way: why I was asking those questions in the first place? Why was I walking around with the pretentious aura of “mission,” the holy strain to write for some activist purpose—compelled to tell a story as some service to the community as a literary flint? Where did this bloated self-importance come from? How did I consent that my mind be colonized be stenciled sentiment that pressured one to mechanically find a forced sacred reason in everything.

What made my chat with the Nation that morning so disconcerting was that at an essential level the only difference between us was a matter of degree, not of kind. It became clear why I had stopped my writing. It wasn’t sabotage after all, but a psychological immune response directing me somewhere important. With the power of an epiphany, I knew I needed separation from the likes of the Nation and his mental tribe that evoked religion, but it was less about God and more about political ascension and prophesies. These folks lived with a doctrinal view of the universe and a loss of intellectualism—symptoms of acute spiritual insecurity.

My dear readers, it took me nearly two years to get back to this story and tell it for no reason other than it was important to me. What others did with it was of no concern. However, when I did get back, things had seriously changed. When two towers collapsed in September 2001 and the post-trauma opportunities and circuses ensued, it became apparent that an opening had closed, maybe permanently. The cultural paralysis of a burgeoning community beforehand had been the result of complicated meshes of psychology and forged paradigms. But that analysis was no longer relevant. Things became political. Whatever Muslim Americans had to say was either part of a continual apology and genuflection; or it was forced effrontery against all things Islamic, thus ensuring the interest of publishers.

The underpinnings were not complicated. Religion cannot survive as an abstraction. As soon as it alights itself someplace, there is a pressure to produce along with it a bona fide culture. Oppression never destroys a religion, a sage once said. It is “indifference” that threatens it the most. A religious presence without art is indifference, a severe and impossible understanding of the relationship between religion and culture—between the heaven and the earth, the hidden and the manifest.

In telling you all of this, there is obviously something very personal. I had achieved the kind of apathy that the mystics write poetry of, a calmness of heart unflappable to provocations of the world. If no one on the face of the earth read my story, it would not have produced a reaction in me. It was perfect, the truest condition in which to be authentic without a hint of performance. And with this living epiphany did I finally complete the novel. I sent it to a publisher at the urging of very few people I think highly of. And behold! Some priests of publishing thought it was pretty good.

In the end, for me the fictive dream broke with fiction. I told a story, and in the potholed process the fraud of the created assumptions all around me collapsed. I now keep very few paradigms, but they are important to me, inviolable, and, ultimately, unprovable. In time, when I feel ready and unrushed, I’ll turn my attention to the kind of “acknowledgments” I spoke of above, with elaborations that are fair and just. But in doing so, I will not be surprised at all if I thank, in addition to others, the two folks I highlighted here on these pages.

# # #



  1. UmmFarouq said

    I am so moved by your words, brother. Even writing “I am so moved by your words” cannot begin to explain how moved I am by your words. Does that make sense? Congratulations on your achievements.

  2. ABUSHARIF said

    Thank you very much for your generous comment, Umm Farouq.

  3. Maliha said

    You pack so much in few words, I really admire that. Some parts had me laugh out loud; the “nation”, cute 🙂

    Take care and I look forward to reading some (more) of your longer pieces 🙂

  4. Maliha said

    agggh…i hate smiley faces 😦

  5. ABUSHARIF said

    I’m not into emoticons either, nor stuff like: lol, , arrgh, and so on. Thanks, Maliha.

  6. ABUSHARIF said

    Someone know the real difference between wordpress and blogspot, and how to change the size of the header “Mecca” to make it bigger? Confused.

  7. […] Clay, another insightful soul, has started a new blog to put his longer writings. Do read Mere Acknowledgments when you get a chance. It’s a short story that has been published in Mizna. I have wanted to […]

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