Monday, December 30, 2013

Hussein in the Membrane

A post from a few years back...

Earlier today, I had a nice chat with my mother on the phone.

"Did you see Barack Obama giving his speech in Berlin?" she asked.

"I sure did," I said cheerfully.

My mother is not an Obama supporter.

"It made me really proud to be American," I added.

This was a tad hyperbolic, what I'd said. As I see it, a politician is a politician is a politician and you don’t become President of the United States without making major compromises and backdoor deals I’m sure no Obama supporter (certainly myself included) wants to be privy to.

Let’s face it. If he hadn’t, he’d still be a community outreach worker in Chicago and you and I would’ve never gotten to marvel that amazing night when he was first elected something we never thought we’d see in our lifetimes: a black president.

Next up, a woman but we all know a chick on the rag would fumble the nuclear football because her aide hadn’t arrived quickly enough with her Midol, salt craving for Spicy Ranch Cheetos and that Therma-Care heating patch for her cramps.

Anyway, I enjoyed rubbing a little salt into my mother’s politically offended wounds. After all, the woman had just enjoyed almost eight years of the dumbest fratboy on campus running the free world.

And anyone who'd been abroad since George W stopped being simply hated and instead became loathed to the point that you, as an American, are seen as a direct extension of his utterly un-American, utterly anti-meritocratic windfall of nepotistic luck, no matter what your political inclinations perhaps can understand the feeling.

She snorted.

"See how proud you are to be an American when the whole country turns communist."

I laughed.

"At least he can string a simple declarative sentence together," I countered.

"Oh, sure he can," she sighed. "That's the only reason he's as successful as he is. He's a good speechmaker, that's all. And lazy, snotty, communist-leaning kids like you think that's what makes a good president."

"Okay, Bill O'Reilly," I replied sanguinely.

Who cared what she thought? 

This is a woman who once referred to my friend Mia's family as "illegals." Even though they'd been in the country for more than fifteen years. 

Additionally, she understands the differentiation between "Lace Curtain Irish" and "Shanty Irish."

It's an explicit one, apparently.

"Well," she said. "It doesn't matter anyway. Everyone knows that when it comes down to actually voting and not just talking about it, young people don't vote."

"I vote," I replied irritably.

And I do, once I've put down my bong. Sure, my eyes are red and blood-shot when I hit the booth and the whole time, I'm pretty hungry but still. I do my civic duty.

As a U.S. citizen, if and only if you vote, are you allowed to complain about the state of American politics. Nothing makes me angrier than some verbose fucktard who grudgingly admits, after an hour of political polemic that they didn't, in fact, vote last election.

“Well, maybe you’ll get lucky,” she said bitterly. “Then you can have a communist president. Although I must say. That McCain is no great shakes. He has Stockholm syndrome, I think I read. He'll give the whole country over to the Vietnamese! And to China!”

I groaned.

No one, it seemed, was safe from her shockingly irresponsible, absurd and slanderous aspersions. Not even an old, white establishment Republican. I mean, he was one of her peeps.

Why was I surprised, though?

I'm one of her peeps, biologically speaking, and she has no problem stating loudly and firmly that she thinks most Arabs are sketchy, sneaky and nine times out of ten, at least peripherally related to terrorist networks.

"Think about that name," she mused. "I mean, what does it sound like? It sounds like ‘Osama.’”

"God," I sighed. "You'd think that you of all people would cut the guy some slack about an Arab-sounding name."

“Why on earth would you think that?” she said, nonplussed.

I was silent for a moment, stunned.

“Because your kids have Arab names!” I finally shouted incredulously. “Jesus Christ.”

“Oh, please,” she laughed. “You don't even look Arab.”

“What?” I hissed.

"You don't even look Arab," she repeated. "Your brothers do, of course. Their noses and their skin, that's for sure. But you could easily pass for Greek or Spanish or Italian."

"'Pass,’ huh?" I said, after a moment. "Wow. That's great. You ever read 'The Human Stain?'"

“What?" she said, puzzled.

“Forget it,” I replied dully.

Too many times to count, I've launched into the Why Should I Want To Pass As Anything Than What I Am; This is the United States of America Not Nazi Germany or Pre-Civil Rights Movement Alabama argument.

When I was a kid and our mother used to gleefully remark on how light my skin was compared to my brothers', Ben and Sai took great delight in telling me that she'd once had an affair with the Polish bank teller who'd worked at our local branch and that was why I was so much more vanilla-looking than they were.

I'd cry when they'd torment me with this but as young as I was, I sensed this couldn't be true because our mother barely believed in marital sex, never mind the extramarital kind.

But it was only when we visited Yemen and I finally met our father's six sisters and saw how very light they were that I became reasonably certain that I was not the love child of the fat, rumpled, very white bank teller at Citizen’s Bank.

“And anyway, Obama’s middle name is Hussein!" she continued, undeterred. “Does that sound like the president of the United States to you?”

"So what?" I retorted. "That's what Pops was gonna name Sai before you eighty-sixed it."

She said nothing.

"It's like 'John' in the Middle East," I said. "You know that, from all those years with Pops. And Obama's not Middle Eastern, anyway."

She let out an irritated sigh.

"And what if Sai's name were Hussein?" I pressed. "That would make him, what? Suspicious, somehow? So if Sai wanted to run for president and he's grown up here and is as American as the next guy but his name just happened to be Hussein, he wouldn’t deserve to hold office?"

As much as the thought of this kind of bald, capricious racial discrimination struck me as absurd, even more so did the idea of Sai being President of the United States.

Never mind dictating global policy. He can't even manage to get Ben, the oldest and me, the youngest, to stop trying to bully him into divorcing his cuntbomb of a new wife.

“Just pack up and move your shit out one night when she’s asleep,” Ben and I keep telling him. “Do it, man. Unless you enjoy slowly watching your dick grow into a twat.”

"Said is better than 'Hussein,'" my mother said simply. "'Hussein' sounds like 'insane.' It screams 'terrorist.' Said is much better."

Even though my brothers and I used to laugh about Sai's would-be name and sing, "Hussein in the Membrane," I bit my lip to keep from screaming.

Maybe I could keep my cool in political debates with her but her forays into racial nomenclature make me crazy.

Especially when it comes to those of the Middle Eastern variety.

"Not to the meatheads who beat the shit out of him right after 9/11," I said through clenched teeth.

"Race had nothing to do with that," she insisted.

"What did it have to do with, then?" I demanded. "What? He'd never been jumped by a gang of rednecks before 9/11."

"Well, you know your brothers," she said weakly. "Always fighting with people. And he was at a bar."

Why my mother denies implications of the fact that her kids are Arab and look Arab, especially her two sons, I've never fully understood.

I assume it has something to do with the fact that she thinks our father is a motherfucker. Which he is. He just happens to be Arab.

His being a motherfucker has nothing to do with him being Arab.

It has everything to do with him being a profligate drunk and an unrepentant womanizer and a man who abandoned his children as soon as their existences began to interfere with his leisurely Sunday Morning buffet brunches ("Legs 'n Eggs") at the Foxy Lady. (“Half off buffet! Full nudity!” read the sign out front.)

And if you think those are inherently Arabic tendencies, I have some nice Muslim literature I can share with you.

"Sai never gets into bar fights," I muttered angrily. "The only bar fights he's ever been in are ones where Ben's there and calls someone a steaming anal pustule or something. And Ben wasn't there that night."

Sweet by nature, gentle and non-confrontational, my brother Sai is the picture of good humor.

It's why he's my favorite. It's why he's Ben's favorite.

It's also why I wish, more than anything, that Ben had been with him that night in Boston, right after 9/11.

Because Ben would've made sure that even if they'd both gotten some bruises neither would have ended up in the hospital with broken bones, like Sai had.

Being Arab was never a huge consideration for me. Until September 11th.

Until it became a huge consideration to other people. The red-faced-with-rage cab driver, for example, who told me a couple weeks after the attacks that he hoped the U.S. nuked the entire Middle East and killed everyone, everyone, because they all hated us and that was the only way we could protect ourselves for sure.

The part of his face that I could see in the rear view mirror, this being his squinted, enraged eyes was frightening. They registered pure, single-minded hatred.

I didn't bother telling him that I was Arab myself and that I'd grown up here and that I had a father whose name was Mohammed and that he loved America so much that he loved George Bush and even though he'd forget my birthday, he'd always remember the Fourth of July and would insist that our family have a cook-out with hot dogs and hamburgers because that's what Americans do.

Faced with his narrowed eyes in the rear view mirror, I just didn't bother.

 Not because I wasn't angry at what he’d said but because I was more afraid than angry.

I was afraid of him. So I said nothing.

It bothered me for a long time, though. Mostly, because the people who'd flown those planes into those buildings were Arab. And I hated them, too.

And as a New Yorker, especially as a New Yorker a small, violent, sick deep-down part of me felt the same way that cab driver had.

Luckily, George W preserved for me my sense of rationale, humanity and basics tenets of moral decency.

Because once we started bombing Iraq and the few networks (mostly foreign) that had balls enough to broadcast footage of children with arms blown off and U.S. soldiers with legs blown off, I came to my senses again.

And maybe my mother did too, today. A little bit, anyway.

Because she called me again a few minutes ago.

"Martha and I just had some delicious Indian food," she told me. "The bread was wonderful. Just wonderful."

"That's good," I replied frostily, still chafed about our previous conversation.

There was a short silence.

"I know you think I’m racist but I’m not,” she said. “I like Indians. Rarely, it seems, do they have drinking problems. And they don’t seem to be sleazy, either."

In spite of my anger, I stifled a laugh and let her continue.

"And if I needed to build something, I’d hire Italians,” she mused. “Now, they know how to build. I mean, look at the aqueducts. Thousands of years old and they’re still here."

“Who else do you like?” I asked, finally letting go and just enjoying myself.

“Well, I’m not saying that I love the Germans,” she offered conspiratorially. “You know, because of the Holocaust. But what about the Poles? Where’s the blame there? They were turning in Jews left and right!”

Much like I do during most of my conversations with my mother, I fought the urge to scream or cry or both.

And as usual, chose to just laugh instead.


Jules said...

This was great. I wish more people thought like this.

Anonymous said...

Good to have a new post from you. It's been too long!!

Curly said...

Your mother must be a handful but the way you write about her makes her one of my favorites. Ben is definitely my favorite but your father and mother are priceless. I just left another comment about opening your archives. Please? You wrote something once about Ben that was one of my favorite things I've read about siblings. He was at your house, looking at your depressed literature and then you had a long conversation. It was funny, sweet and sad. My brother passed away a few years ago and it left me in tears. We had a crap time as kids too and were close probably because of that. I miss him every day.

Jess C said...

This was kind of awesome. I've always wondered how your mother hooked up with your father. So strange.
You've never really told us. New post please!