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 after Sandy’s passing the disturbing view flying into Newark Airport.
In New Jersey we joke that much of the state is basically slight variations on swamp, bog, and marsh.
But this was staggeringly different.
I stayed with some friends while the infrastructure was left to dry itself out.
All the same, I was eager to get back into the city.
I was most worried about friends below the 38th Street “Green Line” dividing Manhattan in half.
After a few days they re-opened the tunnels.
My friend and I agreed that traveling through anything going under water was kind of dodgy.
Thus defines effective use of “Jersey-Style Debate” technique.
This is my newly coined name for a quite unofficial phenomenon.
“Jersey-Style Debate” might also be referred to as “non-parliamentary procedure”; or “the unscientific method”.
Historically it has a reference in the 1936 siege of the Trenton legislature.
The self-proclaimed “Army of Unoccupation” of the Workers Alliance took over the official state body and held mock law-making sessions.
These might be referred to as the “good old bad old days”.
When such a thing were possible.
It remains as fine an example of “Jersey-Style Debate” as can be found outside of more modern examples, such as the Glen Jones Radio Program featuring X-Ray Burns on WFMU, or The Uncle Floyd Show back in the day.
For those not familiar with it, here goes.
The first axiom of “Jersey-Style Debate” technique states that as long as two people agree on something, no matter how outlandish, or how completely wrong, it can be seen as the God’s honest truth, and therefore valid in the discussion.
The second axiom of this technique state that if two people disagree on something, still all and all neither one will challenge the veracity of what the other is saying, except in a facetious manner.
The third axiom of this technique states that the original thesis of debate should probably be as ludicrous as possible.
The fourth axiom of this technique states that non sequiturs are essential.
The fifth axiom of this technique states that switching sides or arguments mid-debate is not at all problematic, especially if one needs to correct for being wrong, or especially if one senses advantage in the switch. To note: This often spawns a sub-debate about what was previously stated, as opposed to what was meant, as well as what was obviously misunderstood.
The sixth axiom of this technique states that in debates of more than two people, half of the effort should be spent on getting the more neutral party on one’s side.
The seventh axiom of this technique states that no matter how garrulous or heated the debate, the debate ends with both sides finding something to agree upon.
My friend states: “You know what? I don’t think we want to be going into the City via anything that goes under the water.”
I reply: “You’re right. We should probably avoid the bridges too; I’m pretty sure they got shook up pretty bad in the hurricane.”
“Yeah, we don’t want to be on the George Washington Bridge when it falls over.”
“I don’t really trust bridges anyway. You know they can fall apart in a light breeze if they reach their ‘resonant frequency’? So how bad must it be after a hurricane?”
“Right! Just like in The Mothman Prophecy [sic].”
“Exactly. [Pause.] All I know is that the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is so long they had to angle the supports to take into account the curvature of the Earth.”
“That’s just not right.”
“Nope. That’s when you know your bridge is too long.”
“Places that need a huge bridge between them shouldn’t have the same name.”
“Agreed. That would make Staten Island part of New Jersey.”
“Except for the landfill parts. Those came later, from New York’s garbage.”
“Of course. What I’m saying is our bridges are much shorter. They are normal by engineering standards.”
“Gotcha. [Pause.] And Liberty Island belongs to us too.”
“Well, technically we only own the parts of Liberty Island that are under the water.”
“True. If it’s swamp, it’s gotta be Jersey.”
“Yeah. If you need a boat to get there, it’s gotta be Jersey.”
And so on and so forth.
New Jersey should probably have been called “New Mediterranea”.
Based on what I remember of its immigrant populations growing up.
Along these lines, I joke sometimes that New Jersey is just like Lebanon.
Except the water is on the other side.
Same localized food culture. Same car culture. Same shore culture. Same living in the shadow of arrogant neighbors. Same sense of “needing to leave” shared by much of the population. Same pride in the working class. Same political corruption from those attempting to leave their class status behind. Same history of politicians getting whacked with no one really knowing what happened to them.
There was even a silk industry in both places.
I won’t belabor the point.
My friend says to me: “You should come back to teach at my college. A third of the student population speaks Arabic as a first language.”
I reply: “So you want me to move back to New Jersey to teach in Arabic, as opposed to living in an Arab country where I teach in English? What kind of sense does that make?” (Jersey-Style Debate Axiom #2)
The illogic of globalization.
When I last visited with her she took me to get a temporary cell phone.
I was trying to explain to the sales rep that I just wanted something for when I was Stateside.
“Yeah, he lives in Lebanon now”, my friend added, trying to align him against me (Jersey-Style Debate Axiom #6).
“You live in Lebanon? I’m from Palestine!” he replied.
My friend shook her head in defeat.
In any case, he let me pick my area code (201, of course) and my own phone number.
So now my cell phone number reads like a Jersey City car service.
But at least its memorable.
It’s a completely new reality, this ability to navigate my ethnicity.
These are the people, the neighborhoods I would have avoided growing up.
For thinking that I was “white”.
For projecting the resulting self-loathing thereof onto others.
For knowing I did not measure up ethnically, either.
For not wanting to be “called out”.
For having tired of “real” Lebanese telling me: “You’re not really Lebanese.”
I did not know, for example, that my town growing up had one of the larger Lebanese communities in the state.
I remember once driving through the town and there being a large Lebanese flag draped in front of the Maronite church there, built since I left.
To understand is that this doesn’t necessarily mean that we have anything in common.
For example, I would not be caught dead draping any flag over anything.
We know where such nationalisms tend to lead.
And comparatively speaking, it might just be me this time pointing out what is “real” in terms of what is “Lebanese”.
If I were even inclined to do such a thing.
What I really want to say is that “culture” is extremely local.
Down to the street level.
And just as much as I might be striving to find a semblance of original “culture”, those who are “originally” Lebanese are striving just as much to put all of that aside.
In the name of assimilation.
I have a very good friend, third-generation Lebanese-American, who grew up not too far from where I did.
We might as well have grown up worlds apart.
I mean, his area code was 609.
When we meet up in Beirut, we freak people out with our Jersey debate stylings.
Which I hear less and less these days.
Apparently my Arabic leans toward the Syrian and Palestinian dialects.
Cab drivers will ask me if I’m Syrian, for example.
As problematic as this might be given local identity politics, I much prefer this to “where are you from?”
When I flew into Newark Airport last time I visited, I approached the border control officer and in my most polite English, said: “Good afternoon, sir.”
I then waited while he went over my passport.
For what seemed like forever.
“How did you obtain your citizenship?”
The questions become more pointed each time I come back.
And more bothersome.
Because something that is “obtained” can be taken away.
“I was naturalized a citizen at the age of five.”
I left out the part about adoption.
I left out the part about how degrading this question is.
I proceeded on to the customs officer, and tried a different tactic.
“Hey, how you doin’?”
He replied: “How you doin’?” as he waved me through.
Somewhere within the great mash-up of globalization, emigration, immigration, displacement, dispossession, and migrations suffered by various populations is where I find common “place” with others.
A place of non-place.
A place of yearning for place.
I remember when Rem Koolhaas came to lecture in my department in Beirut.
A colleague asked me if I wished to be introduced to him.
I explained that it wasn’t really a good idea; I might not be able to hold my tongue.
He asked me why.
I told him that there used to be an old factory that was abandoned and then converted into artists’ studios in North Jersey.
It served as the central point for an annual Jersey City art tour.
It is rare to find an entire community investing its energy in such a welcoming cultural endeavor.
Studios were open to tours; public buildings and restaurants served as gallery spaces; children were actively engaged in their creative talents; the usual classism of Art faded away.
Rem Koolhaas’s firm was planning a new building for the location.
The plan, so they say, includes “space for artists who are displaced by the demolition of the building currently on site”.
Not all of them, mind you.
“So you all just fight it out amongst yourselves, and let us know if you support this ‘urban development’; no pressure.”
I said: “I’d like to ask him how he claims to support local community, and yet he destroys urban fabric and community at every turn.”
Honestly, I was more worried I might deck the guy.
My university department of course was in love with him.
They referred to him as a “starchitect”.
Which is about as heinous a term as I can imagine.
His presence was “great for the department”.
Whatever that means.
My friend and I used to go down to the Jersey City waterfront just to be near the water.
As decrepit and delapidated as the waterfront might be, littered with bricks and other refuse from construction sites past, present, and future.
I can’t imagine places in the world that are far away from the ocean or sea.
I just can’t.
The official recounting of my “story” has me abandoned on the beach in Dbayeh, north of Beirut.
This is problematic on many levels, and I don’t necessarily believe it.
I don’t believe most of the stories that claim we were “abandoned”.
Such a claim is ignoble and without dignity.
And points to the crime of the one who makes the claim.
Imagine if someone spoke of their good fortune because a drowning man “abandoned” his wallet.
Who would be blamed for their inhuman behavior in such a circumstance?
I rest my case.
In any event, I am most comfortable when I am near a body of water.
With its rhythms, cadences, and yes, even its tantrums.
After we had ruled out bridges and tunnels, my friend suggested the only alternative: the re-opened ferry service.
This I had no problem with.
So we headed down to the ferry terminal.
It was like a Nintendo game, dodging closed roads and water-blocked thoroughfares.
It was similarly a long wait, but I finally made it across the river.
On the Manhattan side, I dragged my luggage to a corner, and waited for a cab.
It was change-of-shift, so everyone had their “OFF DUTY” lights on.
Nonetheless, cabbies honked, or hand-gestured, or headlight-signaled that they wanted to know where I was headed.
This was very Beirut-like, where cabbies flag you down, not vice versa.
These cabbies were heading back to Jersey City, or to the outer boroughs.
Where they just assumed I was from.
Searching for a last fare.
And familiar company besides.
An acknowledgment of place.
An afforded sense of belonging.
A reaching out to a compatriot.
Likewise looking to get back Home.
Image: City Hall of the City of Jersey City; from Henderson Street | Date: October, 2002 | Place: Jersey City, NJ | Camera: keyring digital “spy” cam | Caption: This was taken during the yearly arts festival. The building of the city hall required the destruction of an entire city block. The Architectural Record in 1895 called the mixed-style design “vile”, saying that it “reeks of vulgarity as reeks the new City Hall of Jersey City”. Part of the design of the site included a statue in the front entitled: “The Soldiers, Sailors and Marines Memorial”. Up the street from the City Hall is the Hardgrove Cafe. The Cuban eatery used to be cheap eats and had as a decorative metaphor newspaper clippings of corrupt New Jersey politicians. It has been completely upscaled since those days.