Strange Marriage, Part 3

i come in

  turn on the lights

 and see i’m alone-

i live in a house

but don’t have a home

 

i leave and say “salam”

  but no one replies

 i go earn my pay

   but find not my prize

 

all praise to Allah:

  i haven’t died

   but lived-

long enough to see love in your eyes

Two weeks later and I was back in the U.S.  As a sign of what was to come, I got held up by Homeland Security, missing my connecting flight, for three hours.  It was your good ol’ good cop-bad cop set-up by guys who needed acting classes.

“What do you think about Osama bin Laden?”

“I never met him.”

“Do you plan to commit terrorist acts on U.S. soil?”

“Would I tell you yes even if I did?”

1 is theUS country code, 92 isPakistan’s.  That’s the name because that was the game.  On again, off again calling cards, distant echoes, and fuzz.  On top of that, my wife didn’t speak much English.  Everyone studies English in Pakistan, but they know and use about as much as you use the languages you studied in high school.  So it was very difficult to communicate because so much of communication is body language- gestures, drawing pictures in the air, pointing, facial expressions- which you need all the more when there’s a language barrier.  People ask if I learned Urdu;  I haven’t really, but I cheated and had my wife take an English course.

“As-salamu alaykum.”

“Wa alaykum as-salam.”

“How are you?”

“I’m fine.  Did you eat?”

She would always ask me this, first thing.  Anyone who knows me knows that’s one question you don’t have to ask.  This question to our first fight:  over cereal.  You see, there’s no breakfast cereal in Pakistan, at least not that I or anyone I know there has ever seen.  So I would keep telling her that I’d had cereal for breakfast (I soon learned not to mention the times I’d had it for lunch or dinner), but she didn’t know what it was.  I was not able to describe it, at least not in a way that put her mind at ease, and I started to sense a growing suspicion and even hostility to my beloved Raisin Bran ©®™ and bananas.  Finally, I convinced her that I didn’t eat it that much and just when she was starting to believe me, she got on the phone with my mom.  She told her “Yeah, he eats it all the time.”  She was referring to the past, of course, as I tried to explain, and I didn’t even live in her house anymore, so she couldn’t possibly know what I ate.  But, in a pattern that would continue, they believe each other more than they believe me, even though they both know me better than they know each other.

“What did you eat?  Cereal?..”  It would hiss off our tongue, like she was spitting out something vile…

By now, we’ve come to a compromise.  She eats cereal some, and I eat it much less than before.

“I need more money.”

“What?  What happened to the money I sent?

“I want to buy some gold.”

“Why do you want gold?”

“Because I need it.”

“How can somebody need gold?”

“I don’t know, but I do.  You don’t understand.”

Sure didn’t.  And let me tell you something:  I didn’t have a job when I got married.  I had resigned from the one I had before I came to Pakistan to move closer to family.  Of course, I didn’t tell nobody in Pakistan this-  would you have?  I figured I’d get a teaching job when I got back, right in time for the next school year.  I did get an offer, but found out that Sociology, my major, is specifically listed as not being a social science according to the State of Texas.  And I didn’t have enough credits in any other subject.  So there I was, jobless with a wife to support, which is a long way of saying desperate.

I finally found a job as a chauffeur.  A cat with an Ivy League degree who didn’t know how to tie a tie driving a limo everyday.  (I got my brother to tie it for me, then only loosened it enough to take it off but not untie the knot- worked for almost a year.)  I lived life one tip from broke, which means I was a slave to the next trip.  I might go to bed at 1 and wake up at 3.  Pressed for time, I only ironed the front of my shirt and the collar.  I had to wear a jacket, so no one was ever

The Ivy-League chauffeur. How's my tie?

gonna see the rest.  And I can tell you all one thing:  you don’t need to dry clean suits if you know how to use an iron.  I met a few famous people and had some interesting conversations.  Once, while driving a woman and her daughter, the woman blamed me for farting.  She must’ve thought I couldn’t hear her.  I guess the $20 tip she gave me was some kind of compensation.

At any rate, I barely, rarely had enough money.  I could’ve made more, but I refused to take any jobs that in any way involved alcohol, and partiers are bigger tippers.  I didn’t miss that money at all…

“Are you OK?”

Ji.  Nehi.  Buta nehi.

Her answer to my question is translated as “Yes.  No.  I don’t know.”  Only a woman can confuse a man so profoundly.

But they were all true.  She was happy to hear from me.  That, more than even food, was her sustenance.  I’d lived a lot of life before Islam, but this was her first love, her only love, her only contact with an unrelated male.  She didn’t even know what a kiss was before.  It was a total love:  there was nothing in her heart to which she could compare it. 

To further illustrate, she stopped eating when I left.  She was hospitalized twice within a few weeks of my departure for low blood pressure.  I’d never heard of it, so I scoured the internet to find a cause.  Finally I correctly guessed that she hadn’t been eating. 

She was grieving. 

There was nothing even her family could do.  Whenever she was doing anything, she was also waiting for me to call.  Only I could get her to eat, or go to sleep.

So yes, she was OK, because we were together again, even if it was only our voices.

And no, she wasn’t, because sooner or later that call would end, plunging her back into that interminable agony of missing me.

And she didn’t really know what to feel, because this was all too new, and much too much to have to go through alone.

I used to end every call with “I love you” and do you know what she would say back?  “OK.”  She didn’t even know what love was, yet she had fallen hopelessly, mysteriously in it.

___

The outside pressures were enormous, and unfair. 

“When’s the last time he sent money?”

“He didn’t call you today, did he?” 

Her family’s so-called friends actually asked this.  Some people would say I wasn’t coming back.  It started before the marriage even began.  In the unedited wedding video, before it was dubbed over with music, wedding guests are overheard gossiping about us over the food that we had served them. 

“How can she marry him?  He’s too tall for her.” 

“He came to Pakistan before and fell in love with her;  that’s how they met.” 

Can you believe it?  Why?  All for their sick, sad amusement.  It was like making their own little soap opera, all the more entertaining because the characters were real, life imitating art imitating life ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Even our respective national intelligence agencies got in on the act.  Imagine an undercover agent coming to tell you your son-in-law had been in jail the last 3 days.

“But he’s been calling her 4 or 5 times a day…”

“Maybe they let him call from jail.”

So I get arrested for terrorism charges, and instead of throwing me in a secret prison, they let me make 4 phone calls a day, to Pakistan?  Wow.  Better sign up for script-writing after those acting classes are finished.

Needless to say, as an African-American, a Muslim, and a person with connections to Pakistan, my profile throws up a lot of red flags.  I’m not Homeland Security’s flavor-of-the-month, or maybe the problem is that I am.  It’s not worthwhile to tell you how far they would go- and how they get others, even community leaders to go with them- but it’s pretty far.  It’s also ridiculous.  I guess danger’s part of what makes it an adventure.  I’ve been in trouble my whole life anyway.  At least it’s for something right this time, if you call that a bright side.  I don’t complain.  As was said in ‘The Godfather II’ and ‘The Road to Perdition’:  this is the life I chose.

So why didn’t I just bring her to America?  Well…

…everyone involved thought that after getting married, her entry visa would take the usual 4 months, which would allow us to be together while her residency application processed.  As of now, it’s been more than 15 times that long and still nothing.  Just a bunch of badly-rehearsed excuses and shady 6-foot, 220 characters asking when we can have a “chat”.  Why?  I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count…

First they told me that a delay in processing had begun for applications after a certain date.  I had applied before but that date didn’t seem to matter.  There’s always either an obvious idiot or a cold-hearted bureaucrat on the other end of that call, one unable, the other unwilling, to help.

The Eagles’ song could have been about me if it hadn’t been written before I was born:  I was just a hired hand, working on a dream I planned to try.  I was underemployed and underpaid driving, with a marriage I had no idea how to keep alive. 

For her part, a friend of mine always says that ideas have consequences.  Well grief, worry, love, longing, doubt and hope are all ideas.  And they were having consequences.  Her hair was falling out.  She was losing weight and being periodically hospitalized.

Music makes love and suffering seem like something you actually want.  They’re not.  The situation was as unbearable as it was interminable.  We couldn’t take it anymore.

But there was no end in sight…

To be continued…

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i thought that i was living all along but i was wrong… (my improbable journey to Islam & a lot of other places, part II)

Little did I know where it would take me. I landed in Perth, as far from Sydney as I could afford, and tried my luck with a hostel that promised a job. I needed a change. I needed to change. My logic was that the further I was from everything and everyone I knew, the easier it would be. After a while I met a Dutch guy who was driving around Australia from Sydney to Sydney. He invited me to the rest of the journey. I said I didn’t have enough money. He said he didn’t either, when we ran out of dough we’d just pick fruit or some other work. So I said why not, and we recruited two others and began.

What I saw was more than a frame should attempt to hold, wonders so beautiful that they only belong in the heart, and so permanent that nothing is lost if they’re forgotten. What I felt was absolute freedom- no cellphone reception, no task except our next target, no walls except the horizon. We went to places where the only signs of human life were us. There was Shell Beach, whose name is self-explanatory. We visited the Pinnacles, a white sand field where meters-tall calcium deposits stand as the sole survivors of millennia of erosion. We even saw a shark, just a baby who didn’t know where it was supposed to be hunting, but I met a surfie who had seen her friend get snatched off of his surfboard by a Great White. And kangaroos. They were like deer in Texas, in the desert, on the beach, everywhere. Sunsets replaced television, and the moon and stars, freed from their competition with city lights, reassumed their natural role. And yeah, I picked a lot of fruit, canteloupes and capsicum to be exact. I even did 3 weeks as a glassie in a bar. This was a 3-month trip, mind you.

But what impressed me the most were the signs. Everything I saw was awakening thoughts in my mind. Everything was too beautiful, too calm, too perfect and utterly real to be a mistake. I started to see the order and notice the cycles of living and life, and realized that I could have died before I’d ever lived. In fact, I realized that I had been dead to a higher reality that I was just beginning to awaken to like a sleeping man jolted fully awake by a tremendous roar of thunder. My heart was racing. My mind was reeling. I was filled with two sentiments. One was shame and guilt at the death I’d been living.

The other was God.

Who, after all, decreed the ‘laws’ of physics and nature? How are such laws maintained to immutability? Where, to refer to the Big Bang Theory, did that infinitesimally dense particle of matter come from? Why, if you think about it, did explode at all? Why did it explode exactly when it did, instead of not later or sooner? Who provided the force behind its explosion? Most of all and after all, why?

Didn’t there have to be a one wise with all wisdom? An undeniable authority? An independent creator and source? One who sets time and is at the same time free from it? An unsurpassable power and strength? A chooser with the power to fully execute any choice? A love eternal and unconditional?

At my furthest straying, I’d never stopped believing. But I’d forgotten that I believed. And I was born into my fading beliefs, I’d never consciously chosen them. Now, I asked myself, as I thought of the thousand nights of parties that celebrated nothing, filled with fake friends covering our misery with fake smiles, hiding our isolation behind smoke, drowning our thoughts in music, gyrating our tormented selves as we blinded our consciences with poison. Now, why do I believe in one thing and not give it time or energy, and not believe in another, but give it all I’ve got?
My life was completely backwards. I’d wasted all of it. But one thing gave me hope in all the despair

I was still alive, more than ever and for the first time…

uluru uhuru

nothing’s so fast
as choosing your own path
further we fled
breathing peace after being dead
and it’s not just uluru
it’s that and everything
every little thing

take your turn, your turn others take
as we share this air, so we share this fate
and the water’s clear for the coral’s sake
not a single soul can the whole earth sate

wake by sunrise
when it sets we die
so we live each life
like the first and final tide
and it’s name’s not ayer’s rock
’cause he don’t own a single thing
noone owns a thing

take your turn, another’s turn take
as we share this air, so we share this day
and the water’s clear for the coral’s sake
not a single soul can the whole world sate

even birds understand:
it’s more than just songs that they sing
at the end of the road that’s paved for me
there’s nothin’ but me

* “uluru” is the pitjantjatjara name of ayer’s rock, australia’s inselberg of many colors
* “uhuru” is swahili for “freedom”

i came to the fork in the road and went straight… (my improbable journey to Islam & a lot of other places, part I)

i came to the fork in the road and went straight…

I love travel. It is a love that began without me noticing. I grew up in Texas, far from my mother and father’s Rhode Island and Virginia roots, so annual trips to see the grandparents were probably my first travel experiences. Those were road trips, by the way; it’s expensive to fly four kids cross country. My dad’s parents had bought a huge recreational vehicle, or camper, and I still remember our trips through forests and up and down the Atlantic coast.

After that, sports took me a long way. Between basketball and soccer tournaments and track meets, I’ve spent as much time on a school bus and crammed in a van as I can stand. All us cool guys would sit at the back of the bus, but that was also where going over a speed bump can pop you out of your seat, or jolt you awake from a nap. Once on the way to a soccer tournament, I was the only guy in the van who couldn’t speak Spanish. Someone would tell a joke and they’d all laugh while I waited for a translation, only to find that the funny part was often untranslatable.

Travel came to me with a sense of adventure. The colleges who recruited me flew me to their campuses in my senior year of high school, and I saw all different kinds of climates (Imagine a Texas boy seeing snow in May!) and people. I broke up a fight on the streets of London, and then literally had to flee- for my life, I presumed- back to my hostel. During a trip to Europe, I saw currencies, languages, architecture and geographies change several times in less than the time it took to drive across Texas. I was an extra in the Matrix II and got free entry to premier nightclubs because of people who had seen me there. In many ways, my life was like a movie, and I won’t say what rating.

I love nature. After 3 semesters at Columbia University in the thick of New York City, I enrolled at Sydney University (Australia) as an exchange student. The orientation took place in the Blue Mountains, so named for the hue it reflects from a distance. After our first night there, I walked out of my cabin, took a breath, and smelled nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was clean fresh air, as far as I could remember for the first time. That one moment, that single impression, has left more of a mark on me than any book or lesson or song or conversation.

It was a sign.

I almost got killed. It was all a mix-up where someone’s bag was stolen that looked like mine, and the word got to the local gang, who felt there ethnicity had been slighted by an outsider. They pulled a gun on me. I don’t brag when I say that I wasn’t scared, but I wasn’t, so what else can I say? I didn’t beg for my life, I just played it cool, my usual strategy. But I was nervous, sorta like how you feel walking toward your new school for the first time. What’s gonna happen once I go inside? Bottom line, I didn’t want to die. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but the next day I asked myself what would have happened if they’d killed me. I wouldn’t have just died. I would have died for nothing. To date, I’d achieved nothing with my life, had made no contribution, had left nothing worthwhile behind.

This was the fork in the road.

My intelligence told me to run, that the danger was sure to resurface. The guy whose bag was stolen came back at the gangsters that threatened me, but how many more people had gotten the wrong story? My ego told me to stay. I had the Friday night set up at the local nightclub, with DJ Smoove and the Turkish Delights, two twin dancers from Turkey! I wasn’t gonna let that money or prestige go. Besides, I wasn’t afraid anyway. Then I chose the other path, the one that wasn’t really being offered. I wasn’t going to go right or left. I followed my heart and went straight…

jahiliyyah (part 1)

each night & every nap i dream

i can’t remember what happens

i don’t know what they mean

maybe shaytaan is playin’ wit’ me

are these visions of events my eyes will soon see?

what’s gonna happen to me? i aint ‘fraid

i’ll give my life but i wanna die in Peace

i remember when my whole plan shattered to pieces

i & my friends scattered like winds on stormy beaches

i walked the desert & faced the sun

i learned from my deeds, every one:

i used to tell lies to my own mother

i hid & ran for cover in the lives of others-

the others were those i was trying to be;

but an image & crew couldn’t make a new me-

i used to die in my sleep:

i woke & couldn’t move or even breathe

my whole life was a game:

the goal was to get mine before i got old

or went insane

when you’re on the way to nowhere

the journey never ends

when you’re nowhere you’re alone,

even with friends everywhere you turn,

you’re still trapped within

your escape is to repent

while you still can…

* ‘jahiliyyah’ is árabic for “period of ignorance”