Editors’ Note: This essay is one of a group of essays on Arab American poetry. Read the rest here.
Were a person to walk into the room where I am floating, they wouldn’t see me. I’m invisible, floating inside a sensory deprivation tank which resembles an alien pod. I’ve willingly put myself there, and shut the door behind me.
The pod is white and filled with salt water. The attendant tells me she can regulate the music or I can. I can, I tell her. It’s a rare opportunity for me to control the soundtrack to my own erasure.
The temperature is the same as my own body’s. I’m floating in darkness. As I bob, I imagine my mother walking down the street in Chicago, carrying me inside her, not knowing what I look like, or that her own mother has recently died.
That was thirty-nine years ago, that walk. November, 1978.
I don’t feel the pain in my feet, my back, my heartache. I barely even feel the water. I float in the darkness and empty my mind of everything. I don’t think of my mother or try to remember what it was like to float inside her. I fall asleep for a moment then wake up. The salt here helps me be extra-buoyant, so that I feel nothing and think nothing.
If this sensation is what death might feel like, I’m not at all afraid.
• • •
The first magic trick: we are nothing. In the womb, we are invisible to everyone, even to our mothers. Women report intense dreams for weeks before they give birth. The reason for the dreams’ intensity: a deep desire to see the child they are carrying. To feel and carry and grow the child—that happens whether or not we see it. Here, I am employing the royal we. For what are mothers if not sovereign? We are blind—to the skin, eyes, features, and general view of our own children. For months we carry them, not knowing what they look like, and within them, worlds are already forming, more worlds that we can’t see. My own mother says this is why death doesn’t discomfort her. She enjoys imagining it as a return to this moment, this void where no one, not even her own mother, saw her. She had all her eggs already when she was born, as every female does. Hundreds of hundreds of them. Part of me she carried for twenty-four years until I arrived. And after my own arrival, my hundreds of eggs were contained in me, too. My own unseen child.
Children get their first taste of invisibility before they can even remember. Then, they thrill in magic tricks. A parent can hide and then surprise them with their sudden return. Birthday clowns make coins disappear. Children watch cartoons where a mouse takes a dip in a paint pot that holds invisibility ink. Harry Potter wears a cloak, women in Canada and America and Afghanistan and Lebanon and France wear niqabs, humans are surveilled through closed caption video cameras, drones can spy activities from high above and can also strike men dead, or hit a wedding party. Once the wedding party is gone, so are the children. If you kill all the children in one family, you have made invisible all the more Arabs, because now the entire lineage has been erased. Death becomes, as my mother says, a return to that amniotic nothingness.
To be Arab in America is to be a mouse unwittingly dunked into a paint pot of invisibility ink. It’s not that Arabs don’t exist. It’s that you prefer that they remain invisible unless you can trot out a good one or an especially bad one. It’s against your best interests—I almost wrote our best interests! You’ve convinced me that my own erasure is good for me—to allow other Arabs to appear. You say, Arabs are only 1.5 percent of the American population. Why must you hear from them or see them more than 1.5 percent of the time?
The word visibility itself is amazing. Between each letter appears an i, a small self, made visible:
v i s i b i l i t y
The y is the final self, reclining backwards into the word as though it were a bathtub full of former selves. Pregnant with them. Each one saying, me, me, me, meeeeeeee.
A short, incomplete list of ways to make it so that when anyone in America pictures an Arab, that Arab is dead:
Ensure that their governments do nothing to help them. This way, the governments remain an extension of yourself, and you don’t even have to pretend to be the British or Ottoman empire. These governments disappear people, they imprison, torture, and kill. There are many ways they kill—I won’t bore you. You already know all of them.
Leave gaping vacuums of power in their homelands so that any violent group can impregnate itself in that vacuum and take over. When this happens, it’s wonderful, because this group then kills the locals for you. When they start killing your own, you now have the perfect excuse to go in and kill them and even more Arabs.
If Arabs make their way outside of their native lands, it’s imperative that they remain erased. This is done by hoping they’ll stay home. Segregation in housing and land works perfectly this way. When Arabs live next to white people, sometimes they get killed. The men who kill them are your wolves. They are not alone. Not at all.
Create a trope of what an Arab is. That image is the only one people can see when they think of an Arab that’s alive. Make sure that image is as wildly inaccurate as possible. Make sure it’s someone who is not an Arab, dressed in a costume you create to signal Arabness. Give them eyebrows. A nose you can hang a coat on. Hair everywhere. Culturally inaccurate gowns, headdresses, plus weapons you built or sold to them hanging from their waists. If they don’t use those accessible weapons, and use what they can source—swords, knives, bombs, airplanes, rocks from the land itself—they are the savage ones.
Once the trope is created, it functions as a giant subconscious eraser. (For example: An Arab goes on a date with a white American. She tells him she’s Arab. His eyes widen and he says, “Well. You don’t look like an Arab.”)
The next step is to make it so that Arabs themselves begin saying this to each other. The authentic Arab in their minds is the Arab trope you created. Now, Arabs in Detroit, Paris, Toronto, Palestine, London, Lebanon, Egypt, and many other places will say, “Well. You don’t look like an Arab,” when they see an Arab that doesn’t fit in with what the Arab trope looks like. There is then an enormous deficit of authentic Arabs. In this way, you get Arabs to erase other Arabs.
Representation is important. That’s what all the kids are saying. Ensure that there is no representation of Arabs on television, except when an Arab writes a show and then casts another Arab in it (Mr. Robot). But the character must not ever explicitly be Arab. The two Arabs are undercover. The show itself shares an Arab aesthetic and poetics, but all of this is ineffable. The one character who can be read as Arab is the Muslim hacker in Coney Island. We know she is Muslim because she wears a headscarf. And because she wears a headscarf, we assume she is an Arab. Even though (deep breath, here we go explaining this shit again) most Muslims aren’t Arab and most Arab-Americans aren’t Muslim. Plus, the actress is of South Asian descent. She is not an actual Arab. She represents the trope.
Well. That’s the point.