The Oklahoma Review Volume 18: Issue 2, Spring 2020
Published by: Cameron University Department of Communication, English and Foreign Languages
Managing Editor GARY REDDIN
WILLIAM CARNEY & LEAH CHAFFINS
Layout and Design GARY REDDIN
The Oklahoma Review is an electronic literary magazine published through the Department of English at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma. The goal of our publication is to provide a forum for exceptional fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction in a dynamic, appealing, and accessible environment. The magazine’s only agenda is to promote the pleasures and edification derived from high-quality literature.
The views expressed in The Oklahoma Review do not necessarily correspond to those of Cameron University, and the university’s support of this magazine should not be seen as any endorsement of any philosophy other than faith in – and support of – free expression. The content of this publication may not be reproduced without the written consent of The Oklahoma Review or the authors.
Call for Submissions
The Oklahoma Review is a continuous, online publication. We publish two issues each year: Spring and Fall. The Oklahoma Review only accepts manuscripts during two open reading periods. 4
•Reading dates for the Fall issue will now be from August 1 to October 15 •Reading dates for the Spring issue will be January 1 to March 15. Work sent outside of these two periods will be returned unread.
Submissions are welcome from any serious writer working in English. Email your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Writers may submit the following: •Prose fiction pieces of 30 pages or less. •As many as five (5) poems of any length. •Nonfiction prose pieces of 30 pages or less. •As many as five (5) pieces of visual art— photography, paintings, prints, etc. •All files should be sent as e-mail attachments in either .doc or .rtf format for text, and .jpeg for art submissions. We will neither consider nor return submissions sent in hard copy, even if return postage is included. •When sending multiple submissions (e.g. five poems), please include all the work in a single file rather than five separate files. •Authors should also provide a cover paragraph with a short biography in the body of their e-mail. •Simultaneous submissions are acceptable. Please indicate in your cover letter if your work is under consideration elsewhere. •Please direct all submissions and inquiries to email@example.com
Table of Contents Poetry
Mystique | 7 Letter From Upstate | 8 Flag Burning | 9 Her Chili | 10 Two Birds Around a Star | 11 Primer: Julie | 12 Before the Simple Storms of Living | 13 Appalachian Adages | 14 Time to Remember an Old Friend | 15 Importance of Words | 16 Unmade I | 17 Sam Fernandez | 18 “And the Patches Make the Goodbye Harder Still” of Felicitous Audio and the Dream of Life | 20 The County Seat of Wanting so Many Things | 22 The Season is Always Summer | 24 The Inside Outsider | 26 Limnology | 27
Speak American | 29 The Dishwasher’s Tale | 41
Nonfiction Veiled | 59
Daffodil Dawn |63 Epitaph Frida | 64 The King’s Hand | 65 Femme Fatale | 66 Severance | 67
Mystique I like myself best when branded with this word, proof that thereâ€™s more to me than anyone can see and hear, although more what is less clear, as the self I know and the one I show silence each other in the name of protecting loneliness.
- Michael Milburn
Letter From Upstate She writes from Fulton, New York in old lady cursive with good wishes and goings on in her neighborhood of Wilobob, then a few lines on the weather, indolent offerings a step up from someone in conversation pausing for a moment to notice a breeze, putting me in mind of what my meditation app says about resting on the breath, which I try to do with my mother-in-law’s weather references, just perch my thoughts there until they begin to feel less pumped up and over-reactive, subject to the sayings of one who knows how to make communication soothe: We woke up to something nice yesterday morning— a soft rain at 7:00 AM— (a little harder at times) and it kept up until 3:00 PM. Oh! How we needed it. Today is a perfect Wilobob day.
Flag Burning I’ll take a can of gasoline to the flag I swore I would protect against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I fought for that banner. My brothers and sisters died for that piece of fabric with a “Made in China” tag attached to that flag I’m risking my life for. America is dead. I want to buy a flag just so I can burn it, but I know that you’ll still manage to profit from it, both monetarily and politically. I’m just a crazy dude who spends too much time in books but, fuck that, you could stand to read a book or two about what we do to keep this country safe even when we fight a war that doesn’t actually exist. I cried when Lee Greenwood played on the radio. I cried when Toby Keith sang “American Soldier” at a concert in FOB Danger. Now, though. I hate what you’ve turned my country into. I hate that all you do is pander to those who believe in “freedom,” whatever the fuck that means anymore, but don’t quite realize that their sons and daughters, those who can’t afford not to fight a war, fulfill your capitalist wet dream while you ejaculate white stars all over our fucking stripes. I stay silent too often, but now I refuse. I will burn. This. Flag. This is not America. I love this land. But this? This is not the land I love.
-Nick Brush 9
Her Chili for Sharon Shelton
I never appreciated my grandmotherâ€™s chili, a taste and smell of home, until I joined the Army. When we planned what we would eat for dinner the first night I was home for leave, her chili was always my first request. Years later, when I finally asked for the recipe, I was surprised how simple it was to make: one pound of ground beef, one onion, a packet of Williams chili seasoning, a can of pork and beans, a small can of tomato sauce, and onehalf-bottle of the secret ingredient that redefined her recipe. It is about practicality, not refinementâ€”about feeding a family when you cannot afford a large meal. Her chili is family, and the simplest ingredient, one-half-bottle of ketchup, is all it takes to bring this soldier home.
Two Birds Around a Star waxwings in a buckled cedar thieves light as paper * a string slides on grass hermit thrush
- Seth Copeland
Primer: Julie he moves in close/polaroid grainy face bosky in devotion to chassidus sees chicago in his future/exodus from the southern baptist malaise that has parched our roots bothâ€” now he sits with me in our share of waste family drama explained over mint hookah w/ kush coronal diabetes/paranoia/visions/jesus & a pair of scissors teeth crumble/swaying alone in a back bedroom he holds up his phone says her name/dim room blurs behind the glare of her soft face/smile tired natural/sloshed docile as us & still living petition/phones to be renamed illuminated manuscripts new hermes/coffin contemplation/putting your life into the glowing oblong & then your bones a jet pitch night black one forever/says aunt julie hates cell phones/ has a Nokia brick that snake game remember/low battery icon waits to draw her back/sharpest light in the room dying please pray for her man/really do
- Seth Copeland
Before the Simple Storms of Living In college
the weather never felt bigger.
wider than the Nile. And the trees:
spent paintbrushes the city planted
A time of dreaming, and singing. Of blurry evenings where things disappeared.
Of dares, sex, and boozy wishes—
before the simple storms of living the heart.
I don’t know. I don’t know where
the weather ever went,
dropping beyond the blue water tower
east of town and falling over a million glowing magnolias.
College was all sidewalk.
Each crack and crosswalk
meaning only another day
just a little closer.
- Travis Truax
Appalachian Adages It’s the early nineties and my mother is happy as a cow in clover, on the phone, talking like a house on fire to her sister. The sun’s not up above the hills just yet, but the first bits of light are pretty as a speckled pup, falling across the yard. My father left for work two hours ago because he knows to not sit and fiddle while Rome is burning. His drive is long, heading to some research center outside Gainesville. I don’t know what he does, but it takes up time, and that’s all you know at five. We’re a penny short and a day late most months. My uncles get together on Fridays in the blue A-frame next door, drunk as a boiled owl and singing Eric Clapton. I’m still asleep at 7:00 when my mother wakes me for school, just as kindly as the day is long. She says to me, remember, trust to the lord and keep your powder dry. But I’m only five, half-asleep, and too wet behind the ears. I wouldn’t know the truth if it looked me in the face.
- Travis Truax
Time to Remember an Old Friend I want to say you are not lost forever. I want to say you are not a season that won’t swing back again. * In my way I remember a road called Shangri-la and how damp the woods were early in the mornings. Your mother’s timid cats never strayed too far. I remember that. And how deer met dusk each day in your neighbor’s pasture. * We used to be young, you see, like creek riffles, with summer-camp in our hearts. Now we have scars, regrets. * But tell me, friend, do you wish for anything now, like we did then, or have you settled into this? Have you bent the story far enough to resemble who we thought we’d be?
Importance of Words I first learned the importance, the weight and power and permanence, of words when I was three years old. Alone, breath razed, I cried and begged my father to stop beating me with his belt, Black and long and two inches thick, he bragged while he whipped me with intent to bruise and break and violate. He refused. He refused, used his arm to pin me, thin and unclothed, against his knees, his belt uncoiling, striking as he hissed, Shut up. Stop crying. Tell anyone, and youâ€™ll have hell to pay.
- Wendy Dunmeyer
Unmade I The tedium waits â€˜til a breath of fresh whispers its way past the skin of my palms, a perfect word, a grin, coaxing my boredom to become unmade.
- Molly Sizer
Sam Fernandez Here’s Sam Fernandez, his place on this earth marked with a cross— metal pipes welded and brushed flat white by someone who loves Sam still. The fresh coat leaves chalk on our fingertips when touched. Great black birds of prey circle up high to see who visits out here with nothing but dry. Sam’s in the Bible, King James. His name Fernandez (from Spain) means a journey of the brave. Sam belongs to the desert— with brown, thicker, and stronger 18
skin, and scratches turned to scars. His death and his life were short. He died like he was marching up a long, steep hill, steadfast. Sam said Keep moving forward. Earth is where heaven and hell meet up with beauty and hate combined in equal measure. We walk back, leaving Samâ€™s cross in the wilderness, content.
- Molly Sizer
“And the Patches Make the Goodbye Harder Still”: Of Felicitous Audio and the Dream of Life
For Constance Squires
A military brat, I moved so often while young that songs became my truest friends: always there, especially when radio stations started packaging the past for my demographic like chips, and I started keeping myself awake nibbling on oldies until I was stuffed full of song. Syndicated call-in shows made nostalgia balloon into the sumo wrestler of the airwaves, and now even PBS trots out aging R & Bers and hustles the do-wop and rockabilly past. No matter how hard I tried to keep hearing them, vast distances and elapsed time reduced the voices of the people I met to whispers. I shied away from music videos in their heyday, recoiling from the arbitrary in favor of scenes fixed in the amber of my own memories, however mundane, sitting for example in afternoon sunlight in May in a bar I used to frequent and hearing a song that transports me to an October Saturday half a continent away and fifteen years before when the song was popular and burred unnoticed like a goathead to my socks while I played. I hadn’t realized until the tape unspooled in that bar that I loved the song that much. The singer’s voice connected me to a sunlit moment, rekindling the blaze of maple leaves I trudged through on that long ago Upper Midwest morning and transplanting them to the Southwestern desert in which I was living so that they flamed anew. More than any watch I’ve ever owned, music itself became the way I tell time, a tuning fork around which I order what came first and when and why, an aural marker that dazzled forgetful acquaintances. Humming along just now that I have reached an age 20
that any other voices are especially mute and time has started to run out, I am startled to realize how often I am alone in these recaptured moments, how Iâ€™ve become a hoarder of music, as much a basket case as the ratpackers who cannot bear to choose which trash to toss and reclaim houses, a relentless compiler of mixtapes who scavenges his vast collection as much for himself as to amuse others. Lyrics and music coil my mind when I wake in the middle of the night so much that I have trouble falling back asleep, have trouble turning the beloved sound off, the tunes wrapping around my thoughts almost the way that snakes twine themselves around their prey to squeeze the dream of life into airlessness. I was by myself that sunstruck Midwest morning, a freshman in college living in town who knew no one. I also find myself bereft of memories of that bar when it crawled with customers, the jukebox blaring over the rough laughter of the boisterous, the clinking of bar glasses, and the young couples huddling at dark corner tables rich with all their romantic plans.
- John G. Morris
The County Seat of Wanting So Many Things [An] ordinary . . . base town. Fast food. Neon lights. Pawn & Gun. [It] could be anywhere. . . . [It] . . . could be packed up and shipped to Georgia, New Jersey, California, Virginia, with little hint of disruption. - Rilla Askew Lord knows, even after the chain restaurant that many coveted opened doors a decade ago and the big-box store watering the mouth of others unfurled its many departments five years later, many citizens still suffer from retail envy of nearby cities. Almost all restaurants offer a buffet in order to appeal to airmen with outsized appetites, and the uncharitable might deem that our lusting after the latest and best gewgaws is insatiable, commercial hooting from what the trainees call Pervertâ€™s Row in the strip clubs. But our prayers are not entirely material ones. Appearing to suffer shyness akin almost to the adolescent, the townâ€™s locally owned stores always appear to be a block away from any major street, up the back stairs and hidden from view: the barbeque restaurant with the ancient sign half of whose letters have not worked in years, the art supply store with handmade frames and carvings alongside a convenience store and a discount liquor purveyor with barred windows and doors, the Indian food emporium just off the interstate in an otherwise empty pasture surrounded by cattle. Outside of the cookie-cutter mansions that huddle, fivecar garages stuck out like so many noses in the air, there are lovely smaller homes on older streets, cats snoozing on late-model sedans and lit up in afternoon sunlight, almost carmelized in their comfort. Open pasture and undeveloped Native property inside the city limits limit space devoted to commerce, permitting the land itself 22
to take deep unsullied breaths, but it is country as hard as it is beautiful. Farmers stew over soil long on sun and short on water, easy on weeds, tough on crops. Hardy trees might have to be brought down after blinding ice storms, house-rattling tornadoes, and long months of parching heat. And then thereâ€™s the ubiquitous wind that some nights seems to howl as if with some anguish of the dead, the road to Rainy Mountain dead-ending three miles from its snub-nosed summit, low-flying clouds hugging it like a knitted stocking cap. Within the town, churches dot nearly every block, and clerks wish all a blessed day. Indomitability and toughness seem to be in the DNA of most and nearly everyone gives till it hurts after natural disasters in almost an epitome of charity. Outside the commercial sprawl, anyone can see space not all that far away spin out from rolling plains to the low mountains and the answers to difficult questions just ahead and right around the bend. The utterly endless sky lights up at sundown with what must seem the bruised light of heaven running its rough and hazy fingers over the landscapeâ€™s stubbled Braille on which enough buffalo roam again to revive in some faint visions of the Ghost Dance and in others a sense of the last fallen word of a fallen worldâ€™s ability to nurture inhabitants through tough times until the better days to come.
- John G. Morris
The Season is Always Summer The kid next door plays the same seven notes on the school-borrowed flutophone, over and again. Teachers and parents, hopeless the boy will ever pass P.E., employed an ancient and secret math equation whereby a C in summer school music amounts to the same thing. His sister waits where their yard meets Wilson Avenue. She wears a too-long OP t-shirt, a bleach splattered beach towel draped on her left arm. She wishes up her ride to the city pool where for a dollar-fifty she can escape from things she cannot yet name. Jelly Crawford pulls his Z71 over, and the sister climbs in and over and onto someone’s lap. As soon as the car lurches off like an overweight dump truck, the kid next door blasts the TV over the labored shudder of the AC. Ownership of that car did not arise from any desire for social acceptance, so much as it served as answer to the question of what you could get for five hundred bucks last winter. Jelly loves his uncle like a brother, like a father if he’s forced to say it, so doesn’t mind taking his cousin’s friends to the pool. Truth told, Jelly doesn’t mind most things. Besides, he likes being given accomplishables. He drives, he says little, he accomplishes. But he’s got work at 10, so he leaves half a dozen almost-seventh graders under the pavilion outside the pool before it opens. At her house across from the park, Caroline Rhema sits out front. She deadheads the marigolds scattered in Mexican pots around her porch swing. She forgot to water the browned flowers yesterday, though she cannot think why. She was home. Most days she is home. She watches the horde of kids contained in the pool’s chain link wall, and those who spill into the pavilion and parking lot. A few siblings and fewer still parents keep careless watch. This is how Caroline kills the time until the peanut butter refrigerator pie she has made sets. She holds no truck with religion. But she figures misery loves company just enough she can endure another revival pot luck tonight. The girls, tired of swimming and with enough money between the five of them for three pops, huddle in the shade against the brick wall of the showers. They tuck towels across their legs, which stick out into the sun. They tell stories, ones they make up and true ones they will not remember even as they are spoken. Hair 24
entangles fingers as they attempt braids and up-dos of the chlorinated mattes their heads have become. They feel the tugs and pulls their friends’ efforts make, but say nothing in hopes some older kids—not just boys, any older kids— might notice and think them worth talking to. Late in the day, in the parts warehouse across from the drill bit plant shut down three weeks ago, Jelly’s boss tells him he doesn’t know how much longer they can make it. This, after Jelly already agreed to cut down to thirty-four hours a week so as to put Jelly’s benefits toward overhead. Outside, leaned against his car, he bums a cigarette from old Miss Pease, his boss’s forever and a day secretary, who tells Jelly she loves him, her face titled down, that she loves them all, before driving her Galaxy into the dust-laden horizon. The girls wait outside the locked chain link, a cluster of dampness and flip-flops. West of them is thunder. Out of fear of looking childishly disorganized they convinced the city lifeguard their ride was on its way. Tepid arguments flare over who was supposed to ask whom. They dig in what pockets they have for one leftover dime to call somebody’s mother when Mrs. Rhema waves them over. In her driveway she asks whose house first. From inside Mrs. Rhema’s gliding car, it was possible to think the entire town had emptied if not for the hollering coming from the baseball field, the voice of a phantom crowd lifting over the trees, like the ghost of 1979 or -8 or -6, or whatever year this town was last something. Weather is coming. Everyone in town is thinking about getting on home.
- Joey Brown
The Inside Outsider At the Hop and Sack the grandmother working the register tells me she likes my top, points with her hand full of my change. This is just before I remind her we went to high school together and she comes around the counter to give me a hug, longer and harder than what we both really feel. This is the place where they’re playing church league softball like it’s the meaning of life, where the festival of a minor god, a state politician or a basketball player, happens this Saturday, where tables of homemade crafts accompany $5 plates of fire department BBQ you can eat at the picnic tables crowding blocked-off streets. This is the place where once upon a time my mettle was measured by how far back into Fairlawn Cemetery I could make it from the road, where I was denied a badge because from the road to the back of Tucker Cemetery was never going to happen. This is the place where I am gifted reminiscences of people I don’t know and don’t remember with “You know her. Jamie’s sister’s kid?” And I say, for the umpteenth time, no. I never knew Jamie, who was five grades ahead of me, and never met her sister, who was grades ahead still, and I would not know any of their kids were they to plough into me now where I stand on the street, lost under the eaves of Grundy’s Drug. This is the place where my not returning after college to get a decent job, and to obsess about babies, and my babies’ babies, makes me a special kind of outsider, an inside-outsider, who knows them and is known by them but who doesn’t and who isn’t.
- Joey Brown 26
Limnology Lakes, tucked somewhere unmarked in my memories, unrecoverable, so they are just water, red mud water, and I am thinking back on nature and easy living that never happened. Then—when was this— I knew treeless section lines, wild elms invading bar ditches, and the handiwork of the Army Corps of Engineers. In Oklahoma they say with pride most of the lakes are man-made. They erect signs so you know who did it. I remember getting there, not being there, the lakes of my dreams always preferred to the port washes where we landed. I wanted to go north east, to the rivers that fed down, just to see. Once I’d heard the phrase “resort towns” the clay beds I knew would never serve. I imagined that phrase meant something like what I saw on television: sand and beaches and houses with porches that opened onto all. But the real places were closed-in and smelled like dead fish. Copperheads slept in the leaves. How is it that you go so long? I passed thirty before I understood about water and me, that the lakes swimming in my mind, drowning in tall green trees, would always lay somewhere else. How is it you get this far before the differences in how we wear place wear on us? For my many efforts at finding camp all I get is lost, off the map, and off the postcards, divining the way to memory but never arriving where water collects.
- Joey Brown
Speak American by Sandesh Pokharel
Unlike the past few months, today was a great day for Chandra. He wasn’t drooping over an empty glass of black tea like a broken drinking bird. Instead he was straight as an upright plane, his eyes fixed on the narrow pot-holed street of Nayabazar awaiting the arrival of his benefactor. Not that he could notice Dipendra dai from this distance. Every tall guy with sunglasses looked like Dipendra dai to him. “You need glasses. How many times do I have to tell you?” his wife used to nag him before she gave up. Even though his eyes had worsened after losing his job, they weren’t weak enough for glasses. He didn’t need to see that far anyway. After a few incorrect guesses, Dipendra dai showed up. He performed what Chandra guessed was a wave from afar before walking through the rolled-up shutter of Taja Café. “How are you, Chandra?” Dipendra dai removed his sunglasses and smiled at Chandra. Chandra could feel an urge to plunge to the floor, wrap Dipendra dai’s leg with his hand and thank him from the bottom of his heart. If Dipendra dai hadn’t turned his attention to the sahuni, he would have done it. “Black tea for me,” requested Dipendra dai to the sahuni with the hunched back. That was one of the reasons Chandra got along with Dipendra dai during college years. Dipendra dai was the only other student who ordered milkless tea because of gastritis. “Thank you,” Chandra said in English standing up from his chair, impressed with how he touched the bottom of his front teeth with the tip of his tongue. Just like the app Speak American instructed. “Thank you so much.” “You have nothing to thank me for,” Dipendra dai replied in Nepali to the disappointment of Chandra Prasad, who was hoping for at least a “Welcome” or any English word except “Thank you.” Maybe even an English conversation so Chandra could practice. But who cared? Chandra could speak in English for the rest of his life once he flies to America. Tall skyscrapers loomed above Chandra, their tips ready to touch the moon. Chandra imagined the red bridge hanging 29
above blue water. With his wife in his arms, he would inhale the magnificent view of these American achievements from a large window of his fiftieth-floor apartment. After paying the sahuni, Dipendra dai grabbed a seat in front of Chandra and continued speaking in the mother tongue, “Gods couldn’t have gifted me a better man even if I’d meditated under a banyan tree for hundred years.” “I don’t know what you see in me dai. I couldn’t even finish college,” Chandra replied. “Or hold a job.” “I told you I didn’t want to see that self-doubt again. Anyone can manage a restaurant.” Dipendra dai gripped the edge of his table with his face a foot away from Chandra’s. “I don’t care for expertise. Point me to a single soul with the courage to do what you did. With the level of commitment, dedication, respect you showed at your previous job.” “You exaggerate dai,” Chandra could feel his cheeks heat up with a blush. “No. It’s an understatement in your case. The thousand tongues of Sheshnag would fail in your praise.” “I’ll repay your faith Dipendra dai, you’ll see,” Chandra said with a nod. “I have no doubts about that. I am more worried about financial matters. Flying to America, Chandra, involves lot of procedures and procedures, it involves money. As I told you before, business wasn’t good when I left.” The sahuni walked towards them with a glass of tea in her hand for Dipendra dai. “That makes sense.” “And somebody has to pay for it,” Dipendra dai added. “Of course. How much is it?” “Three lakhs,” said Dipendra dai. Chandra sipped off his empty glass. “If only my ex-manager was not as deceptive as he was, I’d pay for it myself. But then we wouldn’t be talking at all now, would we?” Dipendra dai asked with his lips hidden behind his glass of tea. “Yes…yes,” Chandra nodded, rubbing his face with his hand. 30
“If that sum is a bother, I can—” “No, Dipendra dai. I will have your money. After all you’ve done…” Dipendra dai smiled and replied, “I suppose I don’t have to inform you but you also need your passport and a lawyer to approve your documents. Then we can finally apply for your visa.” “I will get everything done. You have nothing to worry about,” said Chandra with elation. After an obligatory chat about the good old golden years of their college days, the pair exited the café and headed to opposite directions. A bike passed by and stirred the layer of dust on the unpaved road to his home but Chandra was not bothered. He did not lift his wrist to cover his nose like usually did. “…you and I will fly to America,” the words nestled within his brain. No longer would he have to spend every day in bed, staring at the TV in front without watching it. The blabber of the same three channels without cable comforting in the background. Too frustrated to go looking for jobs. Too tired to do anything except steal ten rupees off his wife’s purse so he could drink tea boiled by sahuni. His wife wouldn’t need to work herself to death every day. God knows she had done enough. In America, Chandra would be rich in no time, after all a dollar equaled hundred rupees. He pictured himself visiting Nepal with a fat wallet full of green dollars riding taxis on the crowded roads of Kathmandu. To his father, he would hand a huge black briefcase full of cash. Finally end all his talk about exchanging Chandra with one of his cousins. Every nosy neighbor in the small village of Syang would ask, “What’s in the briefcase, ba?” “Dollar,” his father would answer with a smug. “Chandra sent it from America.” Chandra reached home around nine. He scowled at the view of his congested bedroom, reminding himself that he only had to stay here for few more months. On his right lay a double bed with the same length as the wall. His “Certificate for Successful Completion of Police Training” hung above it, covered with a yellow wooden frame. It had to face his father, who wore a mountain-shaped Dhaka topi on his head, glaring at it from the opposite wall. The picture included his mother smiling on the side with a bronze nose-ring on her nostril. Beside a green daraj for clothes on his left was a tiny CRT TV, quiet on a brown table. The distance between the bed and the TV made it watchable despite its size. Once in America, Chandra would have a separate living room and bedroom. Even a forty-inch TV that he’d seen in one of his cousin’s house. His wife was in the kitchen cornered by the walls in a room the size of a toilet. He looked at her looming above the stove table with her hair tied in a bun, wiping her hands in her burgundy kurta.
Resting his right shoulder on the entrance of the kitchen, he called out to his wife, “What are you doing?” Rita let out a long sigh and gestured to the steel stove with her round brown face. The air smelled of turmeric and cumin. With her cupped hands, she picked up slices of potatoes shaped like half-moon from a large steel bowl on her side. “We’re going to America,” he tried to tell her. But the wet potatoes made the oil roar and drown his voice as she fed them to the circular karai. “Budi, we’re going to America,” he shouted. “What?” Rita asked, stopping the movements of her spatula to squint at him in confusion. He let the karai quiet down. “You remember Dipendra dai? The senior from my college days?” Chandra spoke rapidly before pausing and puffing his chest. “He confirmed me as his manager today.” Rita opened her mouth to reply but stopped. Ignoring Chandra, she sprinkled tablespoon of salt to the potatoes from a round spice box. The spatula stirred along the karai again. “This is your re—” The pressure cooker on the side of the karai thundered with its steam. Once it stopped Chandra could feel his annoyance between his brows. “I tell you we’re going to America and this is how my wife reacts.” “O yeah, let me light up some incense and get the hand-bell while I’m at it so I can worship my dear husband,” Rita replied with an overstretched smile across her face. “Will that please my lord?” “Think before you speak such nonsense. You know who you’re talking to right now?” At this, Rita pointed her spatula towards Chandra as if threatening him. “Of course I know. My lovely husband who steals ten rupees from me every day as if I wouldn’t notice. One who doesn’t look for job so his wife can fulfill her wish to wash hundred stranger’s undies in a week, you know, for this thing called rent.” She snorted. “You’re taking me to America? We don’t even have money to buy vegetables or lentils. Do you know anyone who eats potato soup with rice for dinner?” “I’m telling you, those bad days—” 32
“It’s been bad for months. Now some guy shows up and the idiot thinks he’ll fly to America.” Chandra punched the wall on the side of the door. “Stop. Don’t make me angry Rita.” Rita dropped the spatula in the karai and caught her stomach before laughing. She continued her pretentious laughter for a while. “What can you possibly do to me that my family hasn’t already done? I used to imagine myself in a white coat when I was a child. Now I don’t even have a decent husband.”
Chandra arrived at 6:30 in the evening to meet his previous boss. Even the thought of this asshole’s face infuriated him. But right now he was Chandra’s only hope. The richest man he knew beside his cousins, whom he couldn’t ask. They did not know that Chandra was jobless. If they did, his father would find out that his son couldn’t even keep his pitiful job as a police constable. His ex-boss’s house was guarded by a large square gate that opened from the middle, its pitch-black surface filled with thin, vertical golden vines trailing to the top. Chandra tapped the switch on the pillar that stood on his right. After a while his ex-boss’s housemaid asked from behind, “Who is it?” “Chandra,” he shouted back. She rotated the golden flower, the knob for the door carved onto the surface of the gate. “Namaste,” she said joining her palms in front of her black apron. “Namaste,” he replied, “Is Subash ji home?” Before she could answer he saw his ex-boss behind a white table, smoking on the front lawn beside his five-story house. The building looked majestic as the yellow rays of the evening sun tinged its purple walls. Until Chandra got fired, he had wondered how an inspector could build a house this large, own a Land Rover, send his daughter to medical school, and fly his son to Australia on his salary alone. As Chandra approached his ex-boss, he ignored his urge to raise his right hand and salute like he used to at work. Instead he stuck his hands together and said, “Namaste.” “Offo Chandra, what road brought you here? Grab a seat,” replied Subash stretching out his thick arm to at the empty plastic chair in front of him. “Sarita,” Subash shouted as if at nothing. “Bring him a glass of juice.” 33
It had been a long while since Chandra drank juice so he was glad. He couldn’t afford a pack from the grocery story. Even if he could, he didn’t own a fridge. Fridge with every corner packed with juice in America, he made a mental note to himself. “How are you doing these days?” Subash asked. Fucked because of you. “All good, all good. Flying to America in three months,” answered Chandra, holding his chin high. He looked for a reaction above Subash’s full jawline. “That’s great,” said Subash with a surprising enthusiasm before taking a long drag from his cigarette. “You deserve it after all that you’ve been through. If I had my way, that son of a bitch would still be in jail and you in your rightful place.” The odor of smoke overwhelmed Chandra’s nostrils. During his years in the police force, Chandra used to avoid his boss when he smoked his cigarettes. But now he didn’t have a choice. “These politicians, they can do whatever they want,” Chandra replied. Subash grabbed another puff. “Politicians and their family in your case. It was all better with the king in power.” Chandra gave into the irritation in his throat and coughed. Subash continued, “Twice, we’ve elected these idiots for our constitution, and what do we have? Nothing, only suffering for ordinary people like us. All they do is take our money.” Subash shook his head in anger and smashed the cigarette butt on the ashtray. Finally. “I need your help Subash ji,” Chandra blurted out. “Yes, go ahead.” Chandra scratched the back of his neck and replied, “It’s for ticket.” “Of course.” “I need three lakhs.” “Three lakhs, huh?” Subash tapped his chin with his fingers. “Two-and-a-half-lakhs, all I can lend. 34
Come back tomorrow and I should have the contract for you.” “Can’t we do it today?” Chandra asked. “I wanted to get started with the documents and passport.” “Show some patience Chandra. You can’t just pluck money out of a tree.” “Today would be easier but okay…okay,” Chandra didn’t have time to be disappointed. After all he’d taken care of two-and-a-half lakhs already. “You have no idea how much you’ve helped me,” Chandra put together his palms and bowed to Subash ji. “Thank you.” “I charge fifteen percent APR, and with fifteen, let me see…” Subash ji started counting on the rung of his fingers with his thumb. “That will be thirty-seven thousand and five hundred on top of two-and-a-half lakhs at the end of a year.” “Sounds good, Subash ji. After working in America, I’ll pay you back your money before the interest kicks in.” “I don’t doubt that,” said Subash ji as he lighted another cigarette from his pocket and smiled to himself. The housemaid placed a tall glass of juice in front of Chandra. Chandra emptied the whole glass in one tilt, satisfied with the sweet and sour liquid teasing his taste buds. He wiped his thick moustache with the sleeve of his yellow t-shirt. He now felt guilty about thinking of Subash ji as an asshole before. “Thank you, Subash ji.” “Sarita bring him one more glass,” ordered Subash ji, exhaling a puff of smoke.
It was around one in the afternoon and the sun swelled across the sky. The green shadow of the weak awning above could not shelter anyone from the heating air. Chandra felt his palm dampen the surface of a yellow CLEAR bag on his lap. It held his two completed passport application forms, original citizenship card and its two photocopies, and three MRP photos behind its white button. In front of him were rooms, styled like ticket-counters, with huge numbers marked on their top from 1 to 5. Several red and white plastic chairs in front of room 1 and 2 seated people in ten crooked rows and columns. Few people lined up in front of room 4 and 5. The policeman with a goatee shouted the roll call, “D 100 to 125 room 1, D 125 to 150 room two.” Removing his ticket from his warm pant pocket once again, Chandra glanced at the numbers as if they could 35
flip and change according to his need. The wait was unbearable. It wasn’t just the heat. The air reeked of sweat which had glued shirts to people’s back and stained their armpits with yellow spots. Everyone waited. Some sat with their chin on an upright hand and their cheerless lips behind clawed fingers. Others swiped across phone screens (unlike them, Chandra couldn’t afford data), cupping them behind their palm. Chandra could hear them chat about their future in some foreign land. He even felt sad looking around. Young students lined up to fly to America or Australia or UK. Others ready to toil away their days in the heat of Qatar or Kuwait or Saudi. At least Chandra was going to America. America, the land of dreams where you earned what you sow. Where politicians wanted their country to prosper unlike the fat-bellied corrupt sons of bitches here. “F 250 to F 275, room 1, 276 to 300 room 2,” shouted the policeman around 2:40. Chandra dashed to the front of room 2 with the ticket for F 250, while others seated themselves behind him. A woman with a thick mole on her cheek asked for his documents and five thousand rupees. Chandra handed her everything. She inspected them and Chandra before returning her eyes back on the documents again. “Okay. You’ll have to wait for your citizenship. Next,” she shouted after handing him a receipt. Chandra was dumbfounded. Why do they need his citizenship? She just looked at it. A woman showed up behind him, but Chandra didn’t care. “I have to wait? Again?” “Yes,” the woman said with raised brows. “But this is all stupid.” Chandra stared at the bureaucrat. “I’ve already waited for five hours and—” “Just like everyone else, so stop holding the line.”
He had handed the money to Dipendra dai, all cash. “I’ll be done with immigration and everything on my side within two weeks. You’ll apply for a visa and then—” He’d straightened one of his palms for a plane and ascended it slowly towards the sky, whistling for sound effect. Today was the fourteenth day after his last meeting with Dipendra dai. Rita was asleep next to him, her body turned to the wall. Chandra had put his phone by the side of his pillow first, hoping it would light up in the darkness and the screen would read “Dipendra Dai calling” above a green check mark. After a few restless hours he moved it below the bed. 36
Chandra knew Dipendra dai wasn’t awake, but still he couldn’t resist a final glance—he promised himself—at the blinker on top of his phone. It would light up in green if he had a missed call. He raised his head from the pillow and looked at his phone on the carpet. He waited for the blinker to turn green. He could not feel time anymore. Had he stared for a second or a minute? What was the blinker’s timing for notification? Maybe he couldn’t notice it from far away because of his eyesight. He picked up the phone again. He could not bring himself to use the home button for some time and lay there upright, his free hand on his forehead, his eyes searching in darkness for the green bliss. Finally, he couldn’t resist. He pressed the home key. The screen was empty but for the time. 12:45 AM it said in front of a full moon. He dropped the phone below again and covered his face in blanket. I’ll call him tomorrow after he wakes up. But one last glance wouldn’t hurt would it? One glance to confirm. He would be doing himself a favor. Next day, Chandra woke up late. He started calling Dipendra dai right away. But each time his phone repeated with a female voice, “The number you have dialed is switched off, please try again later.” Once in Nepali and once in English.
“The number you have daile—” he cut off before the voice could finish its sentence just as Rita arrived
home from work in the evening. After changing her clothes, she ate the leftovers from the morning’s lunch that she had cooked and left for Chandra too. Chandra had tried eating but couldn’t down his meal. Once she finished her food, Rita sat on the foot of their bed and said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you yesterday, but my friend’s sister is getting married tomorrow. She invited us.”
Chandra called Dipendra dai once again. “I’m not going anywhere. You can go.”
“I know I can go. I’m asking if you’ll join me? For decency?”
“Do whatever you want then,” said Rita and got up. Chandra rubbed his face with his hand without lifting his head up from the phone. Squeezing his lips in-
ward, he started scrolling through Facebook instead of calling. He couldn’t remember Dipendra dai’s last name at all. With only his first name typed in, he started going through each Dipendra on the search result. Even the ones who looked way younger. He checked their profile pics and a few photos from their gallery to confirm they 37
were not Dipendra dai’s kids. After a while, the search exhausted him. Putting his hands on his back, he bent and cracked his bones. Dipendra dai could never be a fraud. Why would a man from America—who joined Chandra for tea every morning of their college days—come to Nepal and rip him off for three lakh rupees? For three thousand dollars? His plane ticket for his whole family must have cost more. He had even shown Chandra his pictures from America, each with backgrounds of American places he’d named one by one. The only one Chandra could remember now was Statue of Liberty. “Where are they?” Rita blared.
Chandra looked up. In front of the open daraj, Rita stood glaring at him, her lips trembling with anger.
Her hands clasped her red box of jewelries. She stood in the middle of their shirts, saris, kurtas, jeans like a wrathful deity that had emerged out of the mess.
She let the box flip open from her hand and asked again, “Where are my jewelries?”
Chandra scrunched his nose at her, irritated. “I will buy you everything once we’re in America.”
“I told you I’ll buy you new ones. Better than anything you’ve ever worn. Now don’t bother me.”
She stepped towards him, crushing his white shirt between them.
“You steal my jewelries—gifted by my family for this worthless marriage—but I should not bother
you?” Chandra stood up from his bed to calm her down, to make her understand. “I sold it for us, so we can go to America, so we can buy our tickets. I had to do it. After your reaction last time—”
She flung the box towards the carpet in front of Chandra. It missed his feet by a few inches. Chandra
pushed her back, reacting to her insolent behavior, and moved to the door. As he was about to leave the room he heard a snicker behind him. When he turned back, Rita was on the floor. She laughed, a sense of menace in her chuckle, raising her head to the ceiling. Chandra wondered what the hell was wrong with this woman now. “I can finally divorce you.” She interrupted herself with more laughter, laughter at him. “There is absolutely no way, no way my family will say no. Not after this.” 38
Chandra banged the door on his way out and left her alone. He didn’t have time to deal with crazy emotions of women. Dialing Dipendra dai again, he climbed the stairs to the upper floor. He opened a tin door and hurried out on the terrace, his phone repeating the words, “The number you have—”
Once again, “The numb—”
He wanted to hurl his phone off the terrace but controlled his arm already in motion. Instead, he kneeled
below the darkening sky with his palms together for the Gods. He promised to shower every morning in America. Offer water to the Sun God before he takes his tea or breakfast. He would worship the Gods twice a day and fast every Ekadashi. Hell, he would even go vegetarian. But please, please let me fly out of here.
Bamboo muzzles were locked on the two oxen’s face to cage their desire for the surrounding bushes and trees. Chandra guided the oxen with one arm on the handle of a plough as long as his waist. It directed the thick yoke above the oxen’s necks that locked them under a wooden bar. The bar itself was tied with two vertical sticks each for the two large animals. Chandra sweated in his white undershirt after working the land sprinkled with mustard seeds. His free hand held a bamboo stick to strike the oxen if they strayed their path. He wished he could beat Dipendra with the same stick. He conversed with the oxen, complementing and shouting and guiding them like humans, “Not there, here, here” or “Good job.” Regretting his lengthy sleep this morning, Chandra thought to himself that he needed more organization. Especially after his wife left for her parent’s house. Especially with two-and-a-half lakhs unpaid to his ex-boss. If only he’d listened to Rita. Maybe he would have if she’d not called him an idiot. A month ago Chandra had travelled with his male cousins to persuade his wife to come back. He had promised to get his life sorted without the careless errors of his past. Her family had been adamant though. Rita’s brother had even pointed his thick forefinger at Chandra and said, “Easy to talk but hard to act. I can say whatever I want, I’m the prime minister of Nepal.” He’d raised his pinched face and arms to the sky and waited. “See, didn’t make me one, did it?” His wife had bought up divorce. With his hand readied for a slap, the same brother shouted at her, “Shut up Rita. Nobody likes second-hand goods.” Rita stood and left without a word. Chandra wanted to punch the brother for those remarks. 39
But nothing hurt that day as much as his father’s words once he returned. “What a son I’ve raised. A real
wifeless man with a huge debt. The whole village is laughing at me, the father of a loser.” Remembering his words Chandra increased the force on the plough. Exhausted after a while, he took off his glasses and stood still. Dirt had gathered on his lenses. He wiped his glasses with the end of his undershirt and put them back on.
The Dishwasher’s Tale By George McCormick 1. Begins in 1986 on the night the United States bombs Benghazi, Libya. Hamza bin Saud is nine years old and lives with his mother and father in a comfortable one-bedroom flat in the Sidi Younis neighborhood just north of the city’s center. His mother, Aya, works during the day as a receptionist in a dentist’s office. His father, Faraj, is a well-known butcher and cook, and for several years has worked as the personal chef for Al-Ahly SC football club (nicknamed “The Long Journey”) who have won, recently, their first Libyan Premier League title in many years. In Hamza’s corner of the living room, above his bed and bureau, are several red and white Ahly Benghazi scarves and pennants stapled to the wall. On this night Hamza, like most of the city, is asleep when the first explosions hit. The nearest is a dozen blocks away. Hamza wakes to the sound of something he can’t name, a low whump, followed by all the windows in the flat rattling. Maybe it’s a thunder storm, he thinks, or the wind, and falls asleep again. A moment later he is awoken by his father pulling him out of bed and carrying him to the bathtub where he tells him he must lie down flat and not move. Hamza does as he’s told and once prostrate his father drags the mattress from his bed and places it over the top of the tub. You must remain still, you must remain here until I get back, he says. When his father leaves his mother comes in and gets under the mattress with him. For a longtime they listen to the sirens howling from the minarets. Then, sometime near dawn, they fall back asleep.
Five days later Hamza rides his bike downtown to see the bomb craters. He follows a network of alleys and narrow streets until they connect with Fourth Ring Road which he follows south, crossing September 1st and connecting with Masr (the easiest way, on bicycle, to get to July 23rd Lake and, beyond it, the beach) which has broad sidewalks and runs downhill all the way to the al-Urubah neighborhood, where some of the bombs landed. It is a warm and cloudless spring day, and as he coasts down the hill he can see the container ships in the bay, which only look like they’re moving if you stare at them in tandem with the old squat Italian lighthouse; beyond that the purple Mediterranean faces the sky. Hamza zig-zags through the smaller neighborhoods of al-Urubah until he finds the spot. A perimeter of traffic cones and yellow police tape keep a couple of dozen people, including a European film crew, from getting too close to the craters. Hamza rides as close as he can get along the tape and peers down into the first crater. There are three in all and they mark a path like the footprints of a colossus. All of the windows 41
in a nearby school are blown out, but the buildings are still standing. Down the street is the burned-out husk of a warehouse that suffered a direct hit. The craters are wider and shallower than what Hamza was expecting, from what he gleaned from TV. He gets off his bike and for a moment he squints and imagines them as the footsteps of a great cyclops burning the city on his march to the sea. Whenever he sees the cyclops he sees it carrying a sack with a severed head in it, but never the head itself. Whose head? he wonders and gets back on his bike and completes his circle around the craters. Suddenly he notices a woman in the European film crew point to the satellite towers, still intact, several blocks to the south. The cameraman slowly turns to it while she reads something from a notebook into a microphone. Understand that Hamza has never known anybody to die. Not a grandparent, not a distant uncle, not even a pet. He knows almost nothing of the feeling of human loss, and therefore no understanding of tragedy. Which is basically what every parent wants for their child. But know too that while Hamza has never experienced death he isn’t naïve, he understands that in his daily life there is violence all around him and that almost all of it is state sponsored and supposed to go unseen. This isn’t the Libya of the 70’s, as he will come to learn through his studies, where dissidents are publicly hanged in the gardens of the Benghazi Cathedral. There are kidnappings and prisons and torture chambers and Hamza knows this because all the kids know this. Which is why these craters, so out the in the open, are so exciting. And which is why when the European journalists go from filming the satellite towers to filming the small crowd, including Hamza, it brings such a rush of excitement to him. He imagines their broadcast bouncing off the radar towers and traveling through all of North Africa. Everybody sees us now, he thinks, they see me on my bike right here on this street. He pushes off from the crowd and rides toward the camera. He can feel its focus tightening on him as he accelerates. He thinks, I am famous.
At seventeen Hamza goes to college. He studies architecture at Garyounis University and in this way the city comes alive to him. He learns about form and function and aesthetics, the way houses and buildings and mosques and bridges can speak to each other, or the way that their juxtaposition can create incoherence; he learns how the constructed spaces we live in carry history, sometimes prophecy; other times fear and hysteria. He learns to love, in a campy and ironic way, the old squat Italian lighthouse. On a walk from his parents’ flat to the beach one day he shows his mother the structural remains of several buried cities: a Greek wall that dates back 2,500 years; ruins from a Roman outpost; a Byzantine Church. Imagine Benghazi as a medieval Arabic City, he says, the influence the Ottomans bring, the vaulting, the domes, the vast interior spaces. Above all, he says, they bring an awareness that light falls differently here than in other parts of the world. This boundary city where desert meets the sea. 42
And think too, Hamza says, about what has been erased, or masked, or made into camouflage. When Mussolini first landed here the city leaders intended that he see the Catholic Cathedral first, right there on the water’s edge; behind it the sprawling city ready to be remade in Italy’s image. A tremendous amount of work went into preparing for his arrival. It was decreed that not one minaret or dome be seen from the landing point. Not one, lest Il Dulce’s sensibility be offended. —Mussolini was a monster. —Of course he was, Mom. That’s the point of the story. But it is in practice, not theory, that Hamza distinguishes himself at Garyounis. He grasps and applies pragmatic ideas in standardization, capacity, materials, and cost. And it is by the strength of his thesis (his argument: poured-concrete as a material serves public space by its utility, but the potential for its aesthetic qualities has yet to be explored) wins him a summer internship (and student visa) with an Italian architectural firm. Three weeks before he leaves he falls in love with a classmate, a woman studying Arabic languages and literature. Her name is Sara Mahmoud and they meet by chance at a public screening of Moustafa Akkad’s Lion of the Desert in Benghazi’s only cinema. They agree to return the next night when the film will be shown again. In all they do this for five straight nights, each night going on long walks after the screening. On the fifth night he admits that the one film he wished he could see on the big screen is Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Sara agrees, she’s only seen the second-rate bootleg VHS copies that circulate around campus. Immediately they fall into an intense conversation about why the film isn’t on the Ministry of Culture’s very short list of what can be played in a cinema. Hamza argues that since the movie depicts Arabs resisting a western colonizer you would think it would square with Qaddafi. You’re overthinking it, Sara says. You forget how paranoid the ministry is. Any image of resistance on the screen is already too much for them. They talk on into the night about the film, about Morricone’s score, about Pontecorvo’s relentless depiction of suffering at the hands of French and RLN violence. They cross a footbridge over an estuary that marks the western edge of campus. They agree on the importance of the scene toward the end of the film where some Algerian women, in response to French propaganda being read over a PA system in the city’s center, break into an impromptu chorus of chanting and wailing. So terrifying and unsettling is their sound that it blots out all other sounds in the marketplace. Yet, says Sara, there’s no transcribing it, there are no words to their song, only sound and feeling. A high-pitched staccato, broken and strange, she says, and Hamza nods. The pizzicato of insane birds, he says, birds driven to insanity. No, she says, they’re not crazy. They’re ecstatic. They talk like this all night, circling the campus and crossing the bridge, over and over, and in 43
so doing they convey to each other that these are the kind of people they are—cautious, alert, unafraid—and in this way they also share a secret because not all Libyans take such risks. Hamza’s own mother and father, for instance, would never allow Hamza to discuss the merits of an illicit Italian film in their home. Not because they are nationalists but the opposite, because they fear what they have already seen happen in the name of Libyan nationalism. Having lived through ’69 and ’77, could he blame them for the caution they took? That night, before they go their separate ways, Sara kisses him. It’s a kiss that keeps Hamza up all night. The next morning he flies over a silver sea, from Benghazi to Rome, and by that night he has moved into his tiny studio apartment on the outskirts of the city. From his sole window he has a view of an auto parts store across the street. He unpacks his two suits and hangs them in a closet that otherwise remains empty. The next morning he takes a bus to the city’s center, finds the firm’s offices, and begins a daily routine he will fall into for the next four months. What he learns most at the firm has to do with software that he’ll never have in Libya. He learns many things that are technical and important, but he’ll learn just as many things—things he won’t realize he learned until years later—that have to do with management and people. The firm pays well, keeps a strong day-to-day morale, and while there’s no reason for corruption or bribery, he sees some here and there. But it’s not the norm, or if it is it is below a surface he can’t detect. Either way he scrapes by on a small intern’s stipend and takes the bus and buys another suit, this one more functional in the heat, and fills notebook after notebook with design ideas. On the weekends he goes to the cinema and watches American movies that are absurd (many have Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise in them) and French and Italian ones that, for the most part, are not. He joins a film society. He volunteers and rips tickets for a film festival celebrating the work of Kurosawa. All week, after the last patron has found his seat, he sits in the aisle and watches Drunken Angel, Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Ran. He imagines he is Italian and this is his real life and Sara is here watching these films with him. Afterward they walk along the Colonnade, or they go from the Spanish Steps to Trevi Foutain, or to Trastevere Piazza; even on the path that leads from his front door through the vacant lot to the McDonald’s, he imagines them walking and discussing Kurosawa. He hears her talking about how truth and logic work in Roshomon; the use of color and texture in Ran. One Saturday he finds himself in front of a painting in the National Museum. It is Salvatore Meli’s triptych Galatea and the Cyclops. In the first panel beautiful Galatea, ensconced on the back of sea serpent, is writing a letter on a piece of parchment. In the second we see a cherub, letter in hand, drowning among storm-driven waves. In the final panel we see the Cyclops, in a pastoral scene, among his sheep; he is staring out to the thin line of the sea on the horizon. His yearning is focused in the gaze of that single, awful eye. Hamza is so moved by the painting that he needs to sit on the gallery room’s sole bench. Then it occurs to him how absurd he is, on the brink of tears, emoting so whole-heartedly with this sad 44
Cyclops. As much as falling in love emboldens the heart, he thinks, it seems to render it equally foolish. He stares again at the painting and begins to laugh. How wonderful it is to be alive, he thinks, to feel everything so deeply. He laughs and several patrons glower at him. They glance at him and then at the painting he’s been studying. Clearly, he’s gone mad. That night he writes Sara a letter. In it he describes Meli’s painting and his melodramatic response to it and his subsequent response to his own melodrama. How he’d laughed aloud. The letter’s tone assumes that Sara understands the comedy therein, and it’s something of a gamble. Between the lines he’s saying he’s in love with her—how else to explain his foolishness? He is taking a tremendous risk here but distance and time has made him desperate. As soon as he drops the letter in the mail he regrets it. How stupid to come on so strong. He thinks, I’ve screwed it up again. Every day upon returning to his tiny flat the first thing he does is check the mail. And then almost two weeks later it is there: a handwritten, ten-page letter on green stationary. In it Sara is cheerful and confiding. She tells Hamza that the story about the Cylops made her laugh. She talks about her summer job working in the University’s library. The solitude of all those books in an air-conditioned space. She talks about a book of essays on Battle of Algiers she’s reading, and quotes extensively from it. And then towards the end she says she misses him. Hamza carries the letter, folded twice, with him everywhere. He writes her every few days and every few days thereafter he receives a response. But it’s this first letter that he’s tucked into the left breast pocket of his new sport coat, where it fits like a jaybird in the hand.
2. Hamza is recruited by the Arab Union Contracting Company to work as a senior engineer designing a cement clinker plant to be built outside the coastal city of Zliten. It is a good job, his first big break, and he accepts it. Six months later he and Sara are married in Benghazi in a modest ceremony where they’re surrounded by family and their closest friends. His father tresses a goat, soaks it in orange juice for two days, stuffs it with garlic and hot peppers and slow-cooks it the entire day of the wedding. That night they eat it garnished with pomegranate relish. And the good news just keeps coming: two months after moving into a spacious two-bedroom flat in the Abourguih neighborhood of central Zliten, Sara lands a job as a Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Al-Asmariya Islamic University. She teaches Standard Arabic to students whose first tongue is Urdu or Hausa and who have traveled here to hone their ability to not only understand the original language of the Quran and the Hadith, but to be able to write and converse in the lingua franca of their faith. And for the next decade Hamza and Sara live meaningful, relatively happy lives marked by promotions and career advancements. The cement plant Hamza 45
designs is a success and he designs two more in Tripoli while also bidding on a massive national project—a desalination plant, also to be built by the AUCC—for which he is rumored to be the front runner. Hamza and Sara try on several occasions to charter a film society (there are no public screens in Zliten) but, despite the reassurance of community leaders, they get nowhere. What is particularly frustrating is how pervasive bootlegged VHS tapes have become; why not have a real screen to watch films on? Sara moves through the ranks at Al-Asmariya. She is an engaging and dedicated teacher, publishes in her field, and is respected by both students and colleagues. One year she writes an essay that is translated into French and appears in an academic journal published in Marseille. To her dismay a handful of Islamic jurists claim it to be an act of heresy. Her essay doesn’t have a central argument so much as a central question: what might we learn about the roots of early Bedouin Arabic by applying Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar? The essay asks a bigger question towards its end, namely, what does something as technical as syntax reveal about a culture? The Islamic jurists claim that Arabic unequivocally is a sacred language. It is the language Allah recited the Quran to the Prophet Mohammad. But I never argued it wasn’t, Sara writes in a response published in a Moroccan newspaper. You’re accusing me of a claim—that the Arabic language isn’t sacred—that I never made and don’t believe and certainly can’t be found anywhere in my body of work. Sara is mistaken here in thinking that the jurists have read her essay. Her mistake is thinking that their critique is a textually based one. It isn’t. It’s political, and in the coming years she’ll come to understand— by paying very close attention to the world around her—how the clergy will single out academics with whom to pick public fights. These fights are always on issues easy to score populist points with. She learns that the point of these articles isn’t dialectics, but to reassert the jurists’ power over intellectual culture. In the end their assertion fades because there’s no point in it sticking: soon enough there will be another essay or interview or book that they won’t read and that the public won’t read, but which they will assail all the same. Always indignant, always righteous, always in the name and disguise of the purity of Islam. Sara closes her notebooks, waits a semester, and then goes back to writing.
The self-deprecating joke they tell to well-wishers on the phone is Hey, let’s get married and have a kid in fifteen years. Their baby daughter, Aya, is born in the fall during a sand storm that cripples the city for days. When it it’s over they go home, a family now. For the first year it is unbelievably hard. As careerists, Sara and Hamza are used to working long hours and focusing all of their energy and concentration on their projects. Now they come to realize that in the rearing of a child nothing in their professional lives is beyond sacrifice. And as with almost every 46
sacrifice, no matter how righteous, there is resentment, recriminations, passive-aggression. But around the time Aya takes her first steps Hamza and Sara simultaneously go through a kind of transformation wherein the spell cast by the child’s goodness seeps into every crack of their lives. They discover new structures to work within; certain hours of the day that had always been meant for one thing are now repurposed for another. The beautiful child gives a meaning to their marriage that they hadn’t known they’d craved. And as Aya begins to speak her first words they realize that they are good at this work, this life, too.
After years of working with AAUC, Hamza feels good about his chances of winning the bid for the desalination plant project in Zliten. Civic leaders and clergy have endorsed his plan. The response, too, through certain back channels in Tripoli, has been encouraging. And while Hamza and Sara know better, sometimes late at night, when Aya is asleep, they indulge in fantasies of the future. They imagine moving back to Benghazi and buying a flat on Omar al-Mukhtar Street in the old downtown. Then Hamza gets the news on a Friday afternoon via fax machine that the bid for the plant has been rejected. He is crushed. On Monday, in a call from the Ministry of Justice, he learns why: Tripoli wants to build two massive new prisons in western Libyan and they want Hamza to design them. He travels to Tripoli to talk to the Minister in person who explains that the most important component of the project is haste. Ideally, he would like it finished in six months. Impossible, says Hamza. We’re not building the Taj Mahal, the Minister jokes, but houses for dogs. Then why, asks Hamza, bring me in? I’ve never designed a prison in my life, I’ve never even seen the inside of one. The minister goes to a nearby table and returns with three tubes of blueprints. He rolls one out. Hamza studies the design. It is so crude, so brutal, as to be a joke. The only thing he can compare it to, professionally, are blueprints of cold storage warehouses. The minister puts his finger down inside a cell block. See? he says. Now you’ve seen the inside of one. A week later Hamza lies to Sara, tells her they’re working on a new clinker plant in Tripoli. For three days he travels and visits prisons. He tours the Mager prison in Zliten and the Al-Jawiyyah prison in Misrata. Mostly he spends time in the Wardens’ offices asking questions and taking copious notes in his notebook. It’s not exactly the Taj Mahal, one Warden jokes. But inevitably he must see it. As a professional he knows the gulf between design and construction, knows he must see the material choices that were made, at times, by the pragmatism of the contractors themselves. Each of the Wardens tell him that whatever he wants to inspect he may. In Tripoli, in an unnamed prison, the Warden opens every single cell and leaves the doors open to show Hamza something that isn’t about architecture. He sees bodies in these spaces but sees them only dimly. He keeps his eyes searching the ceiling. When other bodies come into 47
light later, he sees welts and bruises and lacerations; some of the bodies are bent with broken arms and legs. The eyes in the bodies he sees are either dead or terrified, watching him, this man in a suit who must certainly give the torturer, the executioner, his orders. As buildings the prisons make no sense: hallways lead to nowhere, load-bearing walls run parallel to joists; nothing drains correctly, there isn’t any light anywhere, even in the Warden’s office. This incoherence takes on a human face when Hamza notices a young boy who cannot be more than ten who’s come to feed some of the prisoners. The boy wears a hood, a crude and ragged piece of cloth with slashes at the eyes. Why is he concealed? he asks a guard but the guard ignores him. The boy walks past him with two greasy sacks smelling of lentils. He pauses at each cell and kneels and opens the sack and spoons steaming piles into the palms of the prisoners. Hamza can smell the seasoning and spices. Why does he feed them? he asks, but the guard just nods. Later, in the parking lot, after shaking the Warden’s hand, he goes to his car, unlocks the door, and gets in. He puts his seat belt on, turns the ignition, puts the car in gear, and exits the parking lot. He turns onto the throughway. Ten minutes later he pulls to the side of the road, gets out. There are no clouds in the sky. He is not in charge, he realizes. He is being tested. Later in his hotel room he thinks, so what is coming that the nation needs new dungeons? But in his notebook, which he knows can be confiscated at any moment, he writes, how many beds would the facility need? (though he didn’t see a single bed in Tripoli). He writes, cell pods in irregular spaces, control rooms, surveillance vectors.
It doesn’t start as a revolution. It begins as a dispute over government housing and corruption in the eastern city of Al-Bayda. There is a small protest march, a cop gets hurt. But when it reaches Benghazi it explodes. When the first openly anti-Qudaffi protests begin in February of 2011 Hamza and Sara receive almost hourly updates from friends there on the ground. In Zliten, so close to Tripoli, Qudaffi’s influence and control are unquestioned, and in this way, in the coming months, the country rips in two: a civil war between western Libya, centered around the metropoles of Tripoli and Misrata, and eastern Libya, focused mostly in Cyrenaica, in the cities of Benghazi, Al-Bayda, Derna, and Tubruq. On February 17th, when Qudaffi security forces gun down 14 opposition protesters, Sara spends the night writing and revising an essay she sends to a newspaper in Algiers. It is translated and published under a pseudonym the next day. In it she argues that just because one has been oppressed or has grievances that this does not in itself lead to revolution. We know that oppressive conditions can be tolerated for years, for a lifetime, without resistance, with a belief that such a life is the natural state of things, she writes. She writes that this is why what is happening is historic. Two weeks ago nobody would have imagined this happening, yet here 48
it is, and that in itself is a sign of a revolution. The next day a funeral procession passing the gates of the Katiba military compound in Benghazi is fired upon and 24 protesters are killed. Two pro-Qudaffi policemen are captured by the opposition and hanged. That night Sara talks on the phone to a dozen protesters then works until dawn writing and revising an essay that she sends again to the Algerian paper. It is translated and published the next day, only this time it is picked up in syndication and published in newspapers in Tunisia, Egypt, and France. In it she writes about epistemology and the nature of revolutionary knowledge, how the violent rupture of the status quo creates not just a demand for a change in material conditions but intellectual ones as well. There is a thirst for ideas that have never come before. A revolution is not just a change, but an experience of enlightenment, a gnosis of a new type, she writes. It is only those who are on the outside of the revolution who are concerned about what systems and structures will be used to replace those being torn down. She writes, this knowledge is immaterial at this juncture for the revolutionary subject. Similarly, we know that for things to go forward, to reify, we must remain leaderless yet organized. We must retain the kind of spontaneity and lightness that sparked the revolution on the 15th in the first place. We must honor, she writes, that minute, that very second, when the scales began to tip.
Hamza goes to work and sits at his desk and is, at least in theory, prepared to do his job. He organizes a few files, clears old messages from the answering machine. He picks at an orange and then peels it in one piece. When he goes to throw it in the garbage can he notices that the orange peel from last Friday is still there. Apparently, the cleaning service failed to come over the weekend. Or perhaps the custodian just missed one waste basket. Hamza goes to the bathroom out in the hall and finds that that wastebasket hasn’t been emptied either. Benghazi is over three hundred miles away, but Hamza assumes that Quddaffi’s security forces will smother the opposition protesters, as they have every other time, by the end of the week. He goes back to his desk and makes a phone call to the Justice Ministry but nobody answers. He leaves a short message on the machine. At lunch he buys a newspaper but finds no mention of the Benghazi protests. Perhaps their friends have made too much of it. Maybe their minds are cluttered by false hopes and ideology. That afternoon he leaves and picks up Aya early from her day school. On the drive home she sings fragments from songs Hamza doesn’t recognize. Then she takes the words from one song and tries it with the melody of another. You sing too, dad, she says. I don’t know the words, sweetie. Okay, she says, let’s just count and sing. At home Sara is on the phone in her study. There are books and papers on the floor, which is how it always looks when she’s working, but something is different now. Usually she works slowly and is easily distracted. But what she’s doing now has all of her attention and energy, and conveys to Hamza what 49
he already knows: that she’s writing about the protests and that the two of them have tacitly agreed not to talk about it because there would be an argument and there is nothing they are worse at than arguing. It is one thing to offer support to their friends and engage in dialectics in the home, it is altogether different to put that in print. A world of difference, Hamza thinks while preparing bowls of yogurt and honey for Aya and himself. They sip on glasses of orange juice. He can hear Sara speaking rapidly through the wall. Aya wants to do a puzzle with him and once she finishes her yogurt she goes to the closet where the puzzles are stacked and brings back one she says they haven’t done in a long time. She empties the pieces from the box on the floor and they go about finding the corners and the edges. Hamza strains to make out the words from the other side of the wall. Aya assembles a few clusters before Hamza suddenly sees before him the Taj Mahal. A chill runs down his spine. But when he picks up the box it’s not the Taj Mahal. It’s Humayun’s Tomb. He stares at the image of it until Aya pulls on his sleeve, come on come on, she says, you got to help me.
The third essay Sara writes is about revolution and subjectivity. She writes and she revises and calls friends in eastern Libya to read to them over the phone. They offer corrections and suggestions. She is trying to write in an active, even kinetic, voice. She eschews quotation and digression. Here essays are deliberately short; she writes ten pages and immediately begins the work of cutting them down to three. Her words are translated from French into Spanish, Portuguese, English, and German. When her essays are published in the West they go through a pronounced digital transformation: on the one hand they are published in their entirety in on-line newspapers and media sites, and on the other they are cut up and repurposed on blogs and in social media. Some of her words stay in their original Arabic and are circulated by hand as Xeroxed broadsides or in little mimeographed magazines. In the third essay she writes that revolutions are not caused, or do not begin, by tyranny per se, but the unusual reaction to tyrannical acts. A reaction that itself gives participants a sense that what they are doing is extraordinary. Extraordinary, that is, in the sense that it expresses a decision to respond to an insult in a new and different way. The fact that one day one simply does not swallow an indignity in the same way one has for years means that a subjectivity of a new kind has emerged. In this case, she writes, the oppression under which one has been living suddenly feels clearly undeserved. Be it the rule of petty thieves, dour autocrats, or visionless functionaries—all of it becomes intolerable, she writes. The revolutionary subject knows she is infinitely more noble than a government known now only for unaccountable thuggery. In the revolutionary climate, she writes, a sense of self-worth is discovered and simultaneously seen in others, and in this light pre-revolutionary life appears to mimic death: 50
frozenness, separation from others, etc.
Videos of protests and acts of defiance are smuggled into Egypt and posted on YouTube and Facebook. Libya’s flag under King Idris—black, green, and red, with a crescent moon in the center—reappears everywhere in the east. Once the revolution starts it spreads quickly through Cyrenaica. Tobruk falls in twenty-four hours. By the first of March most major eastern Mediterranean cities are flying the tri-colored flag of the opposition. The Saharan city of Kufra, forever a Bedouin outpost, flies it in solidarity. Qudaffi launches a counter-attack and the siege of Misrata begins. By the 17th the revolution is now a month old and Qudaffi pushes east and is on the edge of the Benghazi before the international community, led by France, begins discussing intervention via NATO. In Zliten Sara stops writing. There is no way to send anything out. It is now impossible to communicate to the outside world except by way of a satellite phone. The idea of continuing to write privately, say in a notebook or journal, seems defeatist and antithetical to the revolution. Yet being visible is suicide: in Zliten a protest march is a walk to the grave. She knows it and Hamza knows it, and when they speak quietly at night, after Aya has fallen asleep between them, they wonder if they should try and flee the city and make their way back to Benghazi. They agree it is too dangerous and instead develop a plan. If the rebels win Misrata and enter Zliten on their way to Tripoli then they will join the rebels in whatever capacity they are asked. Until then they will go to work and keep up appearances. Hamza arrives each morning at eight. He has not heard from the minister in three weeks. Soon that won’t matter because the line will be dead. But he works all the same. If the minister were to show up he has the working documents before him. Also, even though the staff has been decimated—many having been conscripted to fight for the state—it is important that he be seen working at his desk. There he drafts his prison designs. But if you were to look more closely you would find that his pencil marks are more autobiographical than institutional. Yes, he’s drawn up a central observation tower with standard open distance radii to the cellblocks surrounding it. And yes, in the cellblocks he has designed honeycombs of cells that maximize space. But if you look more closely you begin to see irregularities and chinks in the symmetry. It is here that Hamza is sketching from memory the rooms and interior spaces, as best as he can remember them, from his life. The armory opens to the flat he was raised in Sidi Younis. The tiny kitchen and its unnecessary door. He draws the rectangular room in the barracks he and six students lived in his first year at the university. He remembers that the studio near the McDonalds in Rome had one of its two windows bricked over. He draws his grandfather’s house he used to visit when he was a boy, in the oasis of Hun; he draws its weird round windows and porticos. He draws the absurd room that Sara 51
was living in when they met (essentially a closet stripped of its shelves), and he draws the flat they live in now with bedrooms on opposite ends of a long hall, the sunken living room between. Hamza likes to end his day in the middle of one of his pencil lines, leaving the pencil right there on the desk so that the next morning he can begin the day by picking up the pencil and finishing the thought. Similarly, Sara’s working life empties. Despite the fealty that Al-Asmara University has always given the Qudaffi regime, the semester is dissolved by mandate from Tripoli. Because university campuses have served as centers of recent dissent, not just in Benghazi, but in Cairo, Tunis, and Tehran, the regime moves swiftly. Sara spends a week tidying her office. She shelves a stack of books that have stood beside her desk for a year. She organizes files. One day she realizes she is the only one in the building. Whatever has been communicated to the faculty she seems to be the last to understand. At home she tries to distract herself with the endless tasks involved with raising a three-year old. There is talk in the neighborhood of the rebels sieging the city so as to create a distraction for the loyalists in Tripoli. One day Sara gets an idea. In the closet she finds a box of tape cassettes from college and rummages through them until she finds what she’s looking for: an old recording of “Ya Beladi,” a song which had been a political anthem of sorts under King Idris but which had immediately been banned following Qudaffi’s coup in ’69. She takes the tape to the stereo and plays it quietly. She takes a blank tape from a shrink-wrapped stack Hamza keeps beside the speakers and places it into the auxiliary deck and presses record. On the new cassette she records twenty minutes of silence then “Ya Beladi” as many times as she can, over and over, until the tape clicks. In the morning she puts the cassette into a small, single-speaker tape player she used in college for recording lectures, and stuffs it into a sack full of garbage. Of late the garbage pick-up has been infrequent and the city is beginning to stink. Sara walks a couple of blocks from their flat to a street corner where garbage is piling up. She tosses the bag on the heap and walks away. Twenty minutes later “Ya Beladi” begins to play. It is faint, but discernable, and of the handful of pedestrians that walk by one stops and listens, and recognizes the music in the air. A week later Sara lays out a dozen white rags which she spray-paints with the horizontal red, black, and green stripes of the resistance. In the coming days whenever she comes across a stray dog—the garbage has brought them out in scores—she looks around to see if anybody is watching. Then she kneels and quickly ties a flag to the dog’s tail. Several days later she sees a dog running along the quay, chasing a gull, the green and red flag unfurled behind it. A day later she watches a Labrador scatter a bunch of pigeons, the flag now waving in mirth. Then one day she is walking back from the market when she comes across an awful sight: three dogs slaughtered in an alley, their blood splashed against the wall, flags still tied to their tails.
3. On August 19th the war comes to Zliten. Rebels enter the city. From their flat on the seventh floor they watch them. Armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs the rebels move through the city in bands and clusters. Oddly, there is very little gunfire. Even still, Hamza nails sheets of plywood over the windows. They pull candles and flashlights from the closet. They fill the bathtub with water. By nightfall their power is cut. They begin to hear the chatter of machine gun fire on the edge of the city. In the middle of a sleepless night ordnance explodes nearby and Hamza can hear the shattering of windows in the flat above. He rises and transfters the water in the bathtub into pots and bowls and anything he can find that can hold it. Then he has Sara and Aya get in the tub which he covers with their mattress. At dawn loyalists try to enter the city and overwhelm the rebels with tanks, but the tanks struggle to turnaround in the city’s narrow streets and are vulnerable to attacks from alleys and side streets. By mid-morning the husks of three of them are burning in the city’s center. The rebels move from street to street, moving toward the port. At first, they move swiftly and decidedly, and Hamza can mark their progress as the sound of gunfire sweeps through their neighborhood and into the next. By afternoon they are near the quay, but something happens, something on the ground shifts, and the gunfire returns. Hamza peers out a window at the end of the seventh-floor hallway to see bodies in the streets. There is a series of explosions on the other side of the city and Hamza watches as a column of inky black smoke rises out toward the airport. Back in their flat he draws more water from the taps. They are losing ground, there must be a way to help, Sara says. What we have to offer they don’t need now, Hamza says. We would just as likely get in the way. But you’re not seeing them, Sara says. Most of them are just like us. None of them are trained soldiers, but here they fight. I bet few of them ever thought they’d leave Benghazi, yet here they stand. And here we are, she says, all the way up here on the seventh floor, hiding. This siege, Hamza says, could very well just be a decoy to divert the loyalists away from Tripoli. Which makes it, says Sara, no less important. Regardless, Hamza says, it is Aya’s future, and Aya’s safety that is our highest priority. Aya’s future is exactly why we have to fight now, Sara says. Hamza wants to bring up the peril Sara put their family in by publishing her articles in February and March. But he says nothing. I’m going to help, Sara says. If the resistance is at my front door I must at least offer it a drink of water.
The next morning it is unclear what has happened, who has won, or who might now be in retreat. In the heat of the day dogs and rats are everywhere, on the bodies, in the heaps of stinking garbage. Sara ventures out among it, searching amidst the dead for the living. She finds two wounded rebels, both parched, and she pours water over 53
their lips before doing her best to dress their wounds. They are so thirsty that she is like a god, and when her canisters are empty she makes her way back to their flat for more when, in the space of the sound of a single report, she is killed by a sniper’s bullet. In the days and weeks to come Hamza will read from the red book of rage and the black book of despair, but somehow, he knows that if he is ever alive to read from the book of grief that it won’t be here—he vows this to himself—but on some distant shore. In the moments after discovering Sara’s body his shock sublimates into fear for his daughter’s life. He makes Aya promise him to stay in the flat’s closet until he gets back, and goes and buries Sara at dusk, in a soft patch of earth near where she fell. He digs for an hour straight, lays her in the grave, conducts the prayer, knowing the entire time he’s in the sniper’s scope. By night he is done, and by midnight, with the city silent—whether in confusion or stalemate, Hamza doesn’t know, no longer cares—he and Aya head out. She rides on his back in a carrier, asleep. He walks all night. The results of the killing he sees don’t bear elaboration now. He sees enough in a day to fill his nightmares for a lifetime. Leaving the city, he passes the port, walks along the ocean’s edge until he reaches the shipyards. At dawn he finds a culvert and an open drainage pipe. It is dry and he steps down into it. He holds Aya to his chest and they sleep for a couple of hours. When he wakes she is awake and they eat some of the fruit and bread he has packed. He takes several trips up from the pipe to look around. He sees no one, only a city burning in the distance. In the afternoon NATO jets tear the sky in half and bomb the city. When night comes and Aya falls asleep again he hoists her on his back and moves on. The roads to Benghazi are impossible and there is nothing for them in Tripoli; the entire war now is in the country’s north, so he walks south. An exodus from Tripoli is already underway. Libyans fleeing the coming siege have headed west, some to Tunis and some all the way to Algiers, many by boat. But Hamza feels safest away from the crowds. He wants only to be responsible for himself and his daughter. On his person he carries $8,000 worth of dinars in five envelopes: one each in the side pockets of Aya’s carrier, two in the satchel with all of their papers, and one in his waistband. He walks for two days, always at night, before getting a ride on a truck that takes them all the way to Ghadomis, on the Algerian border. The man driving the truck is a new father with an eight-week old daughter at home. They drive all day and all night and arrive late in the small desert city. Hamza pays the man an outrageous amount, an amount that makes the man nervous, but Hamza assures him that what he has done—delivered them from a war zone—is worth ten times what he has given him. They sleep outside a mosque and wake early, cross the city, and at the border checkpoint, with Hamza getting all their papers in order, they find nobody inside. They simply walk around the gate and into Algeria. Hamza walks all night, Aya sleeping on his back, and at dawn he gets a lucky ride, this time with a couple of journalists—one British, one Egyptian— in a white Land Rover. They drive all day, on the edge of the Sahara, passing strange rock formations and Bedou54
in encampments on the side of the road. When the jeep needs gas they pull over and fill it from half a dozen jerrycans stashed in the back. By nightfall they are in Ouragla, a small city carved in plaster and mud and lined with squat palm trees. They stay in a hotel that has a green, fetid pool in its center. Hamza and Aya bathe in their room. They eat stewed lamb shanks and cabbage with the journalists. Afterward Hamza tries to pay them but they refuse. The Egyptian asks if they might record his story, use his name. Hamza agrees and speaks into a small microphone. He gives a fake name, but other than that, he tells his narrative as best as he can remember while at the same time excluding any mention of his wife’s death. He speaks for about twenty minutes. When he is finished Aya, who has been quiet, wants to speak into the microphone. The journalists shrug. Aya talks about some of her toys that were left behind as if they were right there in front of them. She tells the stories behind the names of some of her dolls. Then she asks, want to hear a joke? The journalists nod. Knock-knock, she says. Who’s there asks the Egyptian. That bird is an amazing joke! Aya says and laughs and from her laughter, from his daughter’s pure mirth, Hamza feels an unnamable rage well up in him. If he had a weapon he could slaughter the entire room, he thinks. The next day they ride with the journalists as far as Abadla. Hamza knows it will be easier to enter Mauritania to the south than to try and risk the checkpoints into Morocco. The journalists will drive the next day and cross on the ferry at Gibraltar. They ask Hamza what he thinks will happen with the war but Hamza waves them off, tells them he is grateful for their help, they have been very kind, but all he has to say about that he has already said into microphone. In Abadla he hears the shift in dialect, the Darjan influence, and this, as much as the change in the landscape or climate, makes him feel like a stranger. Already, he thinks, I am a long way from home. Yet this is what he wanted, and now he has it, and it is in the logistics of maintaining their momentum that his mind finds refuge. They stay two nights in Abadla in a hostel connected to a mosque. There is a woman in the mosque who watches children and Hamza spends a day in prayer. For the first time in almost a week his prayers are coherent and he feels the essential intimacy of his faith. When they leave they leave in a crowded bus and spend a long, sweltering day crossing a desert. Hamza can’t imagine what would happen to them if the bus where to break down. But as uncomfortable as they are, and Aya can’t stop squirming and fussing, at least they are moving, minute by minute, toward the south. They reach Tinduf an hour after sunset. A fierce wind from the south has picked up and as they pull into the city’s center it rocks the bus back and forth. They sleep the first night huddled together, under a tree in the yard of a school. The next morning Aya is running a fever. Hamza scours the city looking for a room, his daughter’s sweat seeping through his shirt. He finds nothing. On the edge of town is a massive refugee camp of some sort; it is unclear who is running from what. A woman with a cloudy eye takes pity on them—she must read something in Hamza’s distraught face, he thinks—and invites them into her home. He explains who they are and 55
he gives her money. She does not turn it down, letting it sit on the table between them while she prepares a medicinal tea for Aya, who has become dehydrated and constipated from their bus trip. The wind rages outside and a dust storm descends. Aya is sleepless and cries. The next morning the woman gives the child an enema, prepares her more tea. By that evening Aya is sleeping soundly, even as the storm rages. Grit and sand drift along the window panes. Aya sweats all night and what toxins were in her body come through her pours, filling the room with a rank smell. By morning the fever breaks and they spend three more days in the hospitality of this woman’s home. One afternoon Hamza enters the market and buys a four-inch knife. It comes with a leather sheath with a loop for his belt. He begins to carry it with him everywhere he goes. On their last day the skies clear and the sun returns. They enter Mauritania at Ain Ben Tili. Hamza pays out bribes at three successive checkpoints. On foot and by bus they cross the country in seven days, passing through the strange town of Atar—the dark ridge lines surrounding the city make it feel like it’s in the bottom of a volcano—where they stay at the Hotel El Waha. The hotel is booked with white journalists in green bullet-proof vests. Aya eats an entire bowl of stew and half a loaf of bread. Hamza finds a man who is willing to exchange dinars for the local currency, ouguiyans, but for a steep rate. On a cool clear morning Hamza pays a fixer to cross them into Senegal, into the port city of St. Louis. The fixer drops them off unceremoniously on the edge of town and Hamza just follows the sea gulls through the city until they reach the quay. It is windy, but the sight of the whitecaps on the green ocean fills Hamza with life. In St. Louis he buys the two of them new clothes and luggage. He buys Aya some toys. He boards a chemical tanker in the port and begs work washing pans in the galley. When the captain says he doesn’t want to have a Libyan national, much less a child, on his ship Hamza offers him all of his money, nearly $4,000 in dinars, ouguiyans, and francs. He gives Hamza and Aya separate quarters from the rest of the crew. Their room is down near the engine room. It is loud but it is private. In it they have two narrow beds, a chest, and a small table with a lamp. On the eve of their departure Aya asks him where her mother is. This is not the first time she has done this, but it is the first time that Hamza decides to respond to her in what amounts to an answer, even if it is a lie. He pulls her up onto his lap. We are going to cross the ocean, he says. And when we get to the place on the other side we’re going to start looking for her. Oh, she says, but Hamza can hear in her voice she isn’t convinced. Why did she run away from us? Sara asks. She went to go help some people, he says. What people? Some people we haven’t met yet. In the galley’s tiny dish-room he scrubs the pots and pans carefully, the hot spray from the sink’s nozzle washing over him as the tanker creeps across the ocean, into the Gulf of Mexico, and finally to the Port of Galveston. There he and Aya disembark and turn themselves in. The immigration police tell him he is a refugee of war and issues him something like a visa. They stay two nights in a hotel where Hamza washes their clothes in the bath tub and 56
they watch television. A mosque in Houston has arranged for them, along with two other families, to travel to Dallas, where another mosque has agreed to take them in. When they arrive, there is some kind of miscommunication and they are left to wait in a parking lot under a freeway. That night a man arrives in a van and drives them north, across the Oklahoma border, to the city of Lawton. Egyptian soldiers from the nearby Army base greet them and at the mosque they sit on the floor and eat pizza. That night Hamza and Aya sleep on the floor in sleeping bags. The next morning they are transported to an apartment complex on the edge of town. Beyond it pastureland runs to the horizon. They have a room in a two-bedroom apartment that they share with a family of four. It is crowded but the family, from Honduras, is kind and help look after Aya. Hamza finds a working television in the dumpster and plugs it into the wall of their room. When they are not at the mosque, or going for walks around the apartment building, or eating or praying, they watch the television. One day a man at the mosque asks Hamza what kind of work he is capable of, and a week later he is in the dish-room of the Outback. He scrapes the dishes and lines them up on the rack, hoses them down with the warm spray from the nozzle, and runs the rack through the dishwasher. At the end of the night it is his job to mop the entire kitchen, empty the grease trap, and haul all the sacks of garbage out to the dumpster. When he gets home he carries Aya from the living room couch where she likes to fall asleep and into the bedroom. There he tucks her in to their bed and turns on the quiet television. Sometimes he sleeps. In this way they become Americans.
Veiled By Grace Campbell
This one August, I’m getting married and my side of the church drapes the pews in the kinds of clothing you could buy for an ironic party. Growing up, churches were like theme parks to us; half shoeless, us, untouched by braces, strung out on government cheese and Pixy Stix. My mother often takes pictures of the dead in their caskets with a disposable camera.
The humidity makes the whole of August highly flammable, not to mention all the polyester and the vows and the family. But then we’re past the yes, we do, shuttled in a rented sedan to the reception hall, guppy-mouthing the broiler heat wind through the open windows. I’m pulling the double-faced satin from between the sweat repositories of my married limbs, hoping half the ceremony attendants will skip the second portion of the day so we don’t have to smile or try so hard.
The meal is cut like topiary; the garnishments complicated, maze-like steeplechase around poached chicken and I have a thousand bobby pins in my hair. My stomach says no, you don’t. Everyone leaks against our tiny tablefor-two in the middle of the dining hall to stitch words of caution beveled inside the language of celebration along the hot lengths of our one-time-only outfits. We smile as hard as we have ever smiled and fight with our teeth to take in the mercy of wine and say a thousand times about the heat, holy hell, how about the goddamned heat. We melt down every interaction into some variable about the weather, as if we have made our vows against talking about anything else. Again my grandmother reminds me that gramps is waiting on the dance floor to take me on his arm. I can see him through the adjoining rooms of the hall, on the expensive parquet, his arm bent, his nose slightly aloft, his hand positioned like there are a few coins between his thumb and forefinger. He has always found a way to fashion the air around him into some kind of commodity.
To Gram, I smile, a mantle of obeisance I lay over my teeth before I turn away from watching Gramps. And then 59
there are fifteen well-wishers festooned around me, though I catch her glance as long as I can because she is always the one who has to courier all the demands. And because she will always think herself too clumsy and ill trained to take me on her arm. She’s got on a dress I’ve seen her wear a hundred Sundays no matter what the sky does or who says I do. She told me once that her father was too drunk to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day and now I think I should make a gamely effort at the chicken, or try to read my grandfather’s pose as accidental. But then I have said thank you and I’m so glad you came a hundred times and have not even considered how my stomach might relate to poached chicken when I have never even eaten a poached egg. In truth, I don’t even like wine but today is a day of hot-fisting a thousand new skills all wrapped inside the hue of neon happiness.
And there is Gram again, tugging at the lace of my sleeve saying your grandfather is waiting with each syllable soaked in something somber. Fearful as laundry left out when the first lightening fissures the summer sky into the kind of event poor people consider a free theme park ride. Then Gram is running out through her kitchen screen door to rescue the sheets and we are inside squealing, a handful of grandkids a handful of Augusts ago, elbowing for prime window space. Then I am running out there, too, or maybe I’m back here, right now, in my wedding gown. Unpeeling my jaw from so much untrained formality, from so many disposable snapshots, hiding behind the tree at the edge of the reception hall grounds. The heat, though, holy hell.
I think, with bald nausea, I am hiding outside at my own wedding reception. I don’t think: why, because it rests between the barest sift of the thumb and forefinger. A sacrosanct commodity cast in something flammable, half a handful of terrible weathers ago. I hear my grandmother shouting back to the house with her arms marbled in the weight of all that undone effort, can’t you do this one thing for me, this one time and Gramps standing safely inside the open door, his hand just below the pocket on the back of my jeans. Reminding me within his lack of restraint that this is not a one-time-only outfit, this double-faced cloth. I make my vow to work the memory into the weather only. Gramps laughs, his nose aloft, applauding as the sky gets torn into a cacophony of white lacework.
“Daffodil Dawn” Ashley Arredondo
“Epitaph Frida” Shannon Truax
“The King’s Hand” Austin Patterson
“Femme Fatale” Alexandra Patterson
“Severance” Alexandra Patterson
Ashley Arredondo is a 2020 graduate of Cameron University with a B.A. in English, a memoirist, and visual artist. She has been awarded the Leigh Holmes Prize for Creative Non-Fiction both in 2019 and 2020 and is published in the 2019 The Rose Journal and the 2019 and 2020 The Gold Mine for her creative non-fiction. Joey Brown writes poetry and prose. Her work has appeared in several literary journals including Concho River Review, Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas, The Red Earth Review, Tulsa Review, and San Pedro River Review. She is the author of two poetry collections: Oklahomaography (Mongrel Empire Press) and The Feral Love Poems (Hungry Buzzard Press). Joey lives in Missouri with her husband, prose writer Michael Howarth, and their rescue dogs in their somewhat renovated house. Nicholas (Nick) Brush is a PhD student in Renaissance Literature at the University of North Texas. Even though Nick’s current scholarship focuses on early modern drama, he strives to give a voice to non-combat veterans serving in combat zones. Nick’s poetry has been published in multiple journals, including Petrichor, Dragon Poet Review, and The Central Dissent. His first poetry collection, tentatively titled Hurry Up and Wait: War Poems from the Not-So-Frontlines, is still in progress, but he hopes to finish it sometime within the next decade. Grace Campbell is the fiction editor at 5x5. She is a founding writer at Black River Press and author of the chapbook Girlie Shorts. She was awarded a fellowship at The Mineral School and nominated by CutBank for a Best Of The Net. Her work has been featured in Best Small Fictions (2019), Joyland, Brevity, Jellyfish, New Flash Fiction Review, Atticus Review and elsewhere. She dreams of owning a corgi or five. Seth Copeland’s poetry has appeared in Yes Poetry, Kestrel, Heavy Feather Review, SOFTBLOW, and Dream Pop, among others. Originally from Oklahoma, he currently teaches and studies in Milwaukee. He tweets @ SethTCopeland. Wendy Dunmeyer, a CU alum, received her M.F.A. from the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. She was a finalist for the Morton Marr Poetry Prize (2011), and her work has appeared in Sugar Mule, Measure, Natural Bridge, and elsewhere. She has conducted free poetry workshops for children grades K-12 at her local library and volunteered as a visiting writer at local elementary schools. George McCormick has published fiction most recently in The Santa Monica Review and Big Muddy. He is the author of two books, the short story collection Salton Sea and the novel Inland Empire. In 2013 he won an O. Henry prize for his short story “The Mexican.” “The Dishwasher’s Tale” is a part of a novel in progress. Michael Milburn teaches high school English in New Haven, CT. His poems have appeared recently in Mudlark, Coe Review and Clackamas Review. His book of poems, Carpe Something, was published by Word Press in 2012. John Graves Morris, Professor of English at Cameron University, is the author of Noise and Stories, a collection published in 2008 by Plain View Press. A second collection, entitled The County Seat of Wanting So Many Things, is still seeking a publisher. His poems have recently appeared or will soon appear in The Windward Review, Red Dirt, The Concho River Review, and Bull Buffalo and Indian Paintbrush. He lives in Lawton. 69
Alexandra Patterson is a relief printmaker who works predominantly in linocuts. She was born and raised in Lawton, Oklahoma, and I graduated from Cameron University last spring with her Bachelor of Fine Arts in printmaking. She has always had an affinity for plants and wildlife, especially living so near the Wichita Mountains her entire life- this is reflected in her artwork. Over the last few years, she began exploring the concept of placing plants and animals within geometric frames, allowing them to break through and interact with those frames in interesting ways. This to her represents the relationship between man and nature, especially our tendency to try and contain it- and its tendency to grow past and through our boundaries. She continued this theme when she realized how well her style and the linocut medium worked with these frames. Both pieces featured in this publication are examples of this theme. Austin Patterson is an artist from Southwest Oklahoma. Molly Sizer is a retired rural sociologist living in southwest Oklahoma. She is a persistent student of Creative Writing at Cameron University, where poetry still surprises and delights her. She’s read some of her work with the 2018 Woody Poets and at the 2019 Scissortail Festival, and is a regular at Duncan’s quarterly Reading Down the Plains and Lawton’s monthly Poetry Readings. Shannon Truax resides in Oklahoma after spending her earlier years in Texas. After a number of years away, she’s recently reconnected with her passion for art. Rooted in the southwest, she enjoys experimenting with all forms of art media that reflect the scenes and colors of the region. Travis Truax grew up in Virginia and Oklahoma and spent most of his twenties working in various national parks out west. A graduate of Southeastern Oklahoma State University, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salamander, Quarterly West, Bird’s Thumb, The Pinch, Colorado Review and Phoebe. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.
Cameron University 2020
After some downtime and restructuring, The Oklahoma Review returns with fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and art. For questions or comments plea...
Published on Jun 22, 2020
After some downtime and restructuring, The Oklahoma Review returns with fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and art. For questions or comments plea...