Editors’ Note: This essay is one of a group of essays on Arab American poetry. Read the rest here.
On August 28th 1990, my family moved “back” from Jordan to Seattle. “Back” because I was born in Seattle, a U.S. citizen, though I grew up in the Arab world. In my lived experience however, there was no moving “back,” only hurtling into a powerful nation readying for its first full-scale war in decades. The year we left Amman, one of the pop songs playing on every radio station was Ragheb Alameh’s “حمدلله عالسلامة" (welcome home, traveler, we missed your smile, is that really you, or the beautiful face of the moon?) Yes, we owned a home here; yes, the plan was always to end up in Seattle, for me to attend an American university. But the plan, such as any Arab can ever have control of a life in the empire, was not to be torn out of childhood and transplanted by U.S. foreign policy in the so-called Middle East just yet.
The week before we left a friend from school stopped by our house in Amman to drop off some mix tapes. One was a collection of Fairuz songs she had curated. “The essentials,” she told me. The other contains drifts of classical Arabic songs, some Om Kulthom, some Abdel Halim, some Sabah Fakhri, some Nazim Ghazali—a Pan-Arab collage. No complete songs, just excerpts flowing into one another, like the list of names in بلاد العرب اوطاني (All Arab Nations are My Homeland), the anthem we used to sing at school morning assemblies. “So you can have a place to go when you miss home.” The first song I listened to, repeatedly because it was new to me at the time, was Fairuz singing the Abdel Wahhab classic جارة الوادي يا(O Neighbor of the Valley).
Seattle is as kind and welcoming a place as any in the United States can be to a stranger. And I was just that—an American-born stranger. In relative terms, there was no discernable Arab American community at the time. And I was a strange variety of immigrant—I spoke the language well, I had no accent, I was from and not from the new/not new place. Seattle likes to think of itself is as a peaceful place—we’re not overzealous about any religion here, we’re liberal and open-minded, we get along. This was Seattle’s stance in the lead up to the war. Meanwhile, in Amman, my friends were learning about taping up windows because maybe there was an impending chemical gas attack? They wrote me letters about protests in front of the U.S. embassy and walk-outs at school. One girl who had always had a crush on my cousin wrote to tell me how handsome he looked thundering away at the CNN reporter. Back in Seattle, I took to dressing in layers, silences and smiles of varying thickness. After school, I listened to a lot of Fairuz- يا طير يا طاير عطراف الدنيا (O bird, travelling the edges of the world).
Then General Norman Schwarzkopf entered our living rooms and our lexicon. This, too, was America, cheering about kicking brown people’s asses, the 90’s version of a mission civilizatrice. I watched without language as the Seattle that had presented itself to us, the site of large anti-war demonstrations at the University of Washington and peace vigils throughout its streets, was reabsorbed into America, that place of star-spangled marketing and sound bite journalism. OUR troops I was constantly told by the radio DJ on the drive to school or the newspaper headline or the local evening news or displays selling flag pins and yellow ribbon at the craft store. When the bombing of Iraq began I felt ashamed for listening to music. I imagined that Arab tradition would require a funeral atmosphere—prayers or, at least, a dignified silence. My friends wrote fewer letters during the war, especially as it became clear that Iraq as we knew it was lost. I listened to my mix tapes less frequently, but I developed a habit for transcribing and translating song lyrics in my journal. I transcribed Nizar Qabbani’s verses in Abdel Halim’s voice, from the song about the fortune teller and her ominous predictions: و سترجع يوما يا ولدي مهزوما مكسورالوجدان (One day you’ll return, my son, defeated, splintered).
An elderly teacher tried to contextualize the speed and swirl with which the war was accepted. “There is a kind of catharsis Americans are looking for, though they don’t admit it, after Vietnam.” She was Canadian. Even in my youth and limited understanding of that period of American history, I was sure she was reaching. Iraq as a theater upon which America’s Vietnam War emasculation would be redeemed. Iraq as oil fields was another rewriting. Smart people at school really wanted me to grow up into this analysis—it’s not personal, it’s all just about oil. Tactical civilizational destruction as distinguished from racist civilizational destruction. The excerpt from the Ghazali song on the mix tape featured a reed chirping over a cacophony of swooning concert-goers. Exclamatory Allah 3alayk, whistles, voices woven into the music. قلي يا حلو منين الله جابك (Tell me, beautiful, how God made you?)
The first and most consistent erasure, that most American of gestures given the history of the unceded native lands that so much of our lives are built on, is of the human beings that people the theaters in which the United States performs and is performed. And that war was a performance—100 days, blitz and bomb and the sickly green light of night-vision screens. More Americans now know this. Some of us knew even then it foreshadowed the shock and awe of future actors. When I lived in Jordan, and though I had never visited, Iraq was a country and a people—a rich and diverse society. Iraq was a place where my grandfather had attended literary festivals as a poet, where my father had earned his undergraduate degree. The universities and neighborhoods and grilled fish and bad pop music and the National Museum and medjool dates and Sayyab poems and people suffering the terrors of Saddam’s dictatorship, all these were swept away in the discourse of American war like so much desert sand. Human life is the first casualty, the backdrop cleared from the theater to usher in a performance.
Two years later, I was a college student and Americans had moved on. It was bright-lights- and-shiny-new-leaders time, and all the good and liberal people were singularly focused on delivering America from the clutches of Republicans to the City-on-a-Hill the Clinton era would usher in. We would be free of bigotry, of poverty, of sexism and misogyny. Peace had been won and prosperity was around the corner. It was the Economy, stupid. The Democratic party communicated consistently and effectively that any concern with issues of race and conquest and militarism was an annoying distraction. And so, it turns out, was the erasure of the human beings who insist on continuing to inconvenience the American narrative with their presence. Because he was a Democrat, and by implication so much more refined and humane, Clinton’s Iraq war was one of starvation: a siege in which medicines and supplies were kept away from a people whose national infrastructure we had destroyed. The next chapter is Madeleine Albright, the next chapter is hundreds of thousands of deaths. The next chapter is no antibiotics and no cancer treatments and an epidemic of birth defects that are the stuff of nightmares and widespread hunger in a nation that once upon a time fed many of its neighbors.
I grew tired of listening to the mix tapes, though I brought them with me to my college dorm. They mostly sat on the shelf of my dorm room. Sometimes, I would play Om Kulthom to re-calibrate, to fill the room with a particular kind of sound. All the songs are live recordings—no studio sessions—and in them are entire countries of sounds. In my college years, my favorite of her songs was انا بانتظارك, (I am waiting for you). After college, we Americans began ramping up for new wars built on old ones. Om Kulthom repeats, over and over again, the verse with her unfulfilled and maybe impossible wish, يا ريت يا ريت يا ريت يا ريت يا ريت. But you can’t really make a life disappear, erase who you’ve been, can you?