The following is from a series of musings on trauma, memory, community, and place. The introduction to the series and beginning essay [link] explains the purpose of this month of entries.
I remember speaking to a Viet Nam–veteran during a visit to New York.
He asked me about a book I had just bought from a street vendor.
The subject was politics in Southwest Asia.
The title had caught his attention.
Unlike others flying past, I actually stopped to engage with him.
He asked me where I was from.
There is no longer a simple answer to this question.
I explained as best as I could.
He wanted to know what it was like there.
I replied: “We don’t have people like you on our streets; people manage to take care of each other.”
He asked if he could go back with me.
I had no words for him.
I imagine to some the Viet Nam War Memorial was, in fact, an effort to forget the war.
To collect those who suffered for it, summarize and then dismiss them.
History buried alive.
Instead, in the face of similar societal rejection, the monument “took on their burden”.
And gave them a place of catharsis.
Other monuments don’t function in the same way.
Mostly because the creators of, audience for, and the people represented by the monument are not the same.
Like the obituaries in the Times for the dead from the Towers, by and for two very separate groups.
As compared to the posters and leaflets on Lexington Ave., by and for one and the same group.
The readers of the Times consumed this not with empathy, but with a sense of “poor them” [better than “poor us”].
A condescending projection.
And crocodiles’ tears.
The Japanese film director Kiju Yoshida speaking of Hiroshima said: “The only people with the right to speak of Hiroshima are those who were there, who saw that light, who are dead; only the dead have the right to speak about Hiroshima.”
Trauma is either organically assumed by all of society.
Or else it is literally embodied by those who suffered it.
Wanting to “talk about it” simply points out the absence of relief.
And the overwhelming presence of unresolved grief.
I recall living in Paris when fighter jets from the USS Saratoga dropped bombs on Tripoli in Libya in an attempt to “punish” Col. Muammar Gaddafi.
Yet another proxy battle in the then-raging Cold War.
The threat of “terrorism” was traumatizing for certain segments of the French population.
Who reacted by collectively traumatizing another segment of the population.
Who were already incessantly traumatized by life in France.
Who were generally catalogued; stereotyped; profiled racially.
This, ironically enough, included me.
On some days I would be stopped as many as five or six times by the national security police.
I was late to classes, to work, to meetings, to see friends.
A minor inconvenience for a visiting student with valid paperwork.
A major nightmare for those who were, in fact, also citizens.
Yet who were denied the trappings of citizenship.
Or bare humanity.
The familiar “tes papiers!” linguistically puts us in a category with children.
This is a denial of place and dignity of no small concern.
In response, I regularly denied my ascribed ethnicity.
Which put me on the side of the traumatizers.
I find much shame in this ignorant response.
It haunts me to this day.
I recall the time my brother came to visit me in France.
I should say: the time his aircraft carrier pulled into Marseilles and I came down from Paris to try to meet up with him.
5,000 sailors descended on the southern port city.
A kind of friendly invasion.
And a massive beer run.
Imperial subjugation apparently has its perks.
I stayed in a cheap hotel in the “wrong” part of town.
In Europe, the words “wrong” and “Arab” are currently interchangeable.
I remember a hotel clerk in Copenhagen warning me not to go down past the train station.
Literally, the “wrong side of the tracks”.
She “saw” me as American.
She felt she was doing me a favor.
This happens a lot, especially with ex-pats in Beirut.
Who then vilify the Lebanese, and Arabs, and so on and so forth.
I now know that when someone mentions “the wrong” side of town, that this must become my destination.
Thus my Beirut neighborhood.
The “wrong” side of town in Copenhagen is mostly Palestinian and Iraqi.
I felt quite at ease there.
Unlike in the rest of the city.
My cab driver to the airport would later laugh at this story.
He was Egyptian.
The “wrong” part of Marseilles where my hotel was located was referred to as the “gut” by the American Military Police who patrolled the area.
Read: An area that is off limits to Navy personnel.
And thus requiring a minor occupation.
I walked around undisturbed.
Most likely due to what Parisians referred to as my “Arab snout”.
At the time, I was oblivious to any such self-identification.
So it is strange to reflect on what I wasn’t even aware of at the time.
Attempts to reach my brother were quite without success.
I even walked ten miles to get to the port.
I was told: “No one by that name is on the ship”.
They let me take the shuttle bus back to town.
I sat and stared at those I supposedly had so much in common with.
One night I approached some MPs I saw walking around.
After all, we too had so much “in common”.
They were not expecting English from me.
This used to happen in the States as well.
An extraordinarily surreal experience.
I told them I was trying to reach my brother on the ship.
They suggested we sit and they would take down my info.
They seemed quite sure of themselves as they walked into a nearby cafe.
It catered to a local clientele, shall we say.
The waiters served tea to the men gathered inside, now hushed.
All eyes were on us, and I was, it seems, the pivot point between two worlds.
I explained to the waiter that I was looking for my brother.
That they were just going to take my contact information.
And that they would like some beer.
I apologized for any inconvenience.
A round of beers showed up soon after.
The men at the next table took credit for payment, despite my protestations.
I thanked them, and the cafe returned to its normal hubbub.
To this day I’m not exactly sure I understand what that was about.
Although a sheikh on my street in Beirut gave me a clue when he said to me upon my arrival: “Welcome to the neighborhood. Please excuse all of the questions. I of course will trust you until you give me reason not to.”
I’ve upheld my end of the bargain.
It’s a question of my word.
At the Château d’If, a British couple mistook my brother for Boris Becker.
They had much trouble with the concept that we were brothers.
Later, the same happened at the ship.
I would be denied access due to my lack of “security clearance”.
Meanwhile, French families were being welcomed on board.
At the time I didn’t question what that was about.
Although I knew, deep down.
In Paris, some tourists in the Metro once grabbed my arm, saying, “let’s get a picture with this guy!”
I was taken for “local color”.
I protested: “I’m as American as you are!”
Came the reply: “You don’t look American!”
I wasn’t able to defend myself.
We were miles away from understanding each other.
In Paris, a landlord once said to me that I was “lucky” to be American because he did not rent rooms to Arabs.
I could not react personally.
I could only argue back in a vague, general way which kept me on “his side” of things.
He noticed my reaction and asked me to join him for a coffee afterward.
He informed me that there was a “problem” in France.
He was referring to the “problem” that I was made aware of by members of the right-wing National Front setting up a table in the Place des Fêtes market every Sunday, who would refer to me as “sale bougnoule“.
They repeatedly and emphatically told me to “go home”.
I could not react personally.
Only defensively, in a denial of how they saw me.
Which kept me on their “side” of things.
Or should I say, alone between two worlds.
Current attempts to re-establish this other side such that I might defend myself personally is likely not possible.
This does not prevent much in the way of received injury in terms of ascribed ethnicity, origin, religion.
If I were able to react personally, then I would be able to say: “we are not on the same side”.
From this dilemma stems the idea that adoptees “revert”.
If only we could.
The landlord said in reply to my stunned silence: “One day you will understand what I am talking about.”
I replied: “I hope, Monsieur, to never understand what you are talking about.”
The problem is that now, I understand all too well.
All too well.
Image: “Saratoga : Welcome in [sic] Marseilles” from La Provence newspaper. | Date: July, 1986 | Place: Marseilles, France | Caption: Marseille welcomes the aircraft carrier Saratoga from the Sixth American Fleet, starting yesterday and going through July 6. With 5,300 men on board–technicians, officers, and sailors included–this carrier is the most powerful American military presence in the Mediterranean. Previously it saw action last year during the raid on Tripoli….