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 the times I have been stuck in my building’s elevator when the electric power cuts out.
A yell to a neighbor, or a cell phone call to a friend, with the ensuing round robin of phone calls that follows, usually brings someone with a key, or someone who can jigger the door safety mechanism, and I crawl out and down, descending into helpful arms.
It’s a question of patience and faith that help will be forthcoming.
And inherent trust in those around me.
There was the one time I thought I could unhitch the safety latch on the door, push it open, and climb down on my own.
I was rather proud of my clever escape as I pushed myself through the door, and now, hanging from the floor of the elevator by the crook of my arm, about two and a half meters above the landing, contemplated what to do next.
I almost fell four stories down the elevator shaft.
I somehow managed swingingly from mid-air to jump and plant my feet on the landing.
A friend joked I had been delivered by the hand of God.
“God is telling you He didn’t create you that stupid.”
“So He’s giving you another chance.”
I will categorically not challenge this ever again.
I recall when it was reported to me by my father that my mother had had a mild heart attack.
They had to airlift her to the heart hospital about an hour and a half drive from their town.
The EMTs, trying to lighten the mood, announced with mock gravity that they had just returned from Afghanistan, and so they didn’t want any trouble from her.
My father told them: “Now, you guys be careful; my wife just happened to be a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps ROTC in college!”
They snapped to attention: “SEMPER FI, MA’AM!”
To know my mother is to know how funny this is.
My father had hoped to serve during the Korean War.
But instead he caught pneumonia Stateside after a few months.
He also ended up in the hospital in Iran for pneumonia when we lived there.
He left the hospital of his own volition.
I mean to say he snuck out of the hospital and managed to find his way back to the house.
No doubt due to the kindness of strangers.
He likewise repeated the airlift journey to the heart hospital.
As fate would have it, I was flying in from California at the same time.
My mother picked me up at the airport and we drove straight to the hospital.
My father was recovering in his room.
He reacted badly to the anesthetic.
He thought he was back in Iran.
He decided that it was time to go.
This involved unhooking himself from his IV.
Which made much of a mess.
None of the doctors seemed to even notice what was happening.
At one point I had to ask an orderly to help me block the door.
The last time I directly confronted my father this way was when he stayed with me in New York.
He was undergoing cancer treatment at a local hospital.
His constant questioning of how could I live in New York, given that it had completely changed from what he remembered, was too much to listen to.
“You can think what you want, but after you go back home, I still have to live here.”
He continued to attempt to play by his old rules in a City that didn’t care anymore.
He continued to make non-stop commentary on everything that was wrong about the place.
At one point I mock-yelled: “Dad, if the cancer doesn’t kill ya, and the radiation doesn’t kill ya, I’m gonna to kill ya!”
I think it might be fair to say that he was right.
Although we would likely disagree as to the causes.
This time, however, I wasn’t angry with him.
This time, was quite different.
At the door to his room, he asked us to kindly step out of the way.
As he stared us down, I realized that he did not even recognize me.
He seemed confused that I was calling him “Dad”.
It was a desperately strange moment.
Like the snapped tether line of one space walking.
A tenuous yet trusted connection, ruptured, leading to freefall.
And something uncontemplatable beyond that.
They sedated him, and he calmed down, sleeping through the night.
A doctor, finally paying attention to the mayhem, asked: “Is he always like this?”
In avoiding the possibility of this being their fault, and thus a lawsuit (my determination for the reasoning behind this statement), blame was shifted to the patient.
Later, when leaving the hospital, we would be presented with a “patient advocate”.
Asking us about our “experience” in their “care facility”.
Many women in my family on both sides are nurses.
I have the utmost respect for this profession.
Those who survive the bottom-lining of their jobs and continue nonetheless to care.
In a world that asks them not to.
Those who care the most get paid and are respected the least.
A greater, more Orwellian inversion of “care” in terms of society does not exist.
I think my father had particular issues with situations which were not in his direct control.
He was not keen on having to rely on others.
So hospitals became places of great dissonance for him.
Later, when recounting the story himself, he would refer to the “two orderlies” that he “thought twice about taking on”.
“I sized them up, and figured I could take one of them, but not both”, he would say.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him one of them was me.
Like his mother, a fighter to the end.
I admit readily I’m likewise not a big fan of hospitals.
Yet when I checked in for my surgery a few years back at the hospital affiliated with my former university workplace, I recall being wheeled to the surgery theater and words of comfort from the campus guards I knew from the eight years I had worked there.
“Salamtak, yaa istaaz!” Your health and safety, professor!
I’m never alone in Beirut.
After the surgery a friend came to take me home from the hospital.
A complete stranger, watching me struggle, approached to help me lift my leg up and into the car.
I wish I didn’t have to think why this should be so surprising.
I thanked him in Arabic: “God bless your hands.”
He replied with the one-word answer rather unique to this language: “Wallaw!”
It as much negates the thanks by saying: “Of course. This is the given. How might you think otherwise of me?”
This ritual, and others like it, repeated endless times a day, form a social fabric.
They cannot be formalized, or quantified.
We need recognize the counter-incentives to this, where they come from, and how they perpetuate themselves.
I remember making a vow in New York City to not frequent stores where the people working inside did not return my greeting.
I soon realized I had ruled out much of Manhattan.
I do not blame those who did not greet me in kind.
I blame our surroundings, and the systemic nature of our dehumanization.
I can’t fathom those who think that this is how it should be.
Slave laborers, like children, are better seen and not heard.
The class of people who frown upon if not forbid such expression are simply revealing their sense of entitlement.
They similarly tend to see adoption as a “right”.
They likewise see “individuality” as an essential aspect of a person.
We might call this: “The Triumph of the [Unpopular] Will”.
Another overarching dissonance.
This speaks of the economic and political eradication of communal nature.
And the inherently losing battle of trying to maintain community within such an environment.
Sometimes I imagine, for my own mental health, completely breaking with my acculturation in favor of my returned-to realm.
Moving to a farm in the South or the Beq‘a Valley.
Cutting off the Internet and email.
All the while knowing this is pretty nigh impossible.
I fill up notebooks with thoughts on this subject.
Some manage to find their way into missives like this one.
That and two thousand Lebanese pounds will get me a service taxi ride through half of the city.
And so the razor’s-edge dancing continues.
A dance which started quite early in my life.
When we lived in Iran, there was a servant in our house.
His name was Majid.
The name in Arabic means “glory”; “splendor”; “nobility”; “honor”; “distinction”.
He was an Arab bedouin.
Probably Ahwazi, severely persecuted under the Shah.
The Iranian royal family was put back on the throne following the CIA-led coup that deposed the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh 10 years before I was born.
The Shah wanted to deculturize the bedouin, if not eradicate them.
This still continues today throughout all the countries of the region.
Our dispossession and displacement as adoptees unite us with so many people.
While the class we are adopted into sees them as human detritus.
Another Orwellian inversion in the Great Inversion of adoption.
Majid was displaced from his own family to take care of me.
He reminds me of my friends in my neighborhood.
Far from the families.
Their lives on hold.
The future an unknown.
Relying on the vagaries of a cruel economy.
And the deigning of those in control to spare crumbs from their table.
I imagine I spent more time with Majid my first year and a half on this Earth than with my father.
I like to imagine that he spoke to me in Arabic during this time.
According to a letter he wrote us later, he was extremely sad to see me leave.
He had come to the airport to see us off.
He asked after me, and wondered how I was doing.
My father never replied to his letter.
The oil company my father worked for told him that he shouldn’t reply.
They said that such people “only want money from you”.
That it was better to “break off all contact”.
And so he did.
This will haunt me into the afterlife.
I’m hoping to find not just my family here.
But his family there.
In order to apologize.
And to thank him, I imagine, posthumously.
I am honored.
And I have returned.
How many of us passed through how many intermediary arms such as his?
How many “First World” adopted children are cared for by “Third World” migrant labor?
How resilient is this targeted community that manages to double-duty take care of others’ children?
I can summarize now what I have come to know.
Place is defined by its social fabric.
Non-Place is that which does not acknowledge collective existence.
The separation from such community is a traumatic event.
In an effort to further break down this community, such trauma will be ascribed to us as individuals.
And we have choices as to whether we accept this or not.
I have made my choices.
And I state them aloud now.
I will not be trapped by individualized trauma.
I will not be framed via societal diagnoses.
I will not be simply tolerated.
I will not be categorized.
Nor will I categorize myself or others.
I will avoid useless identity markers.
The trap of a defining and delimiting culture.
Painting us into corners.
I will not allow my story to create an “exceptional case”.
Creating a bludgeon for society to use against us.
I will not fight for my own story to be heard.
I will fight for all stories to be heard.
I will not write for mere acknowledgment.
A listening; a fair hearing.
I write with action in mind.
In the imbalance between local and global communities, I will err on the local side.
In the imbalance between community and individual, I will lean toward the communal.
In the imbalance between those given societal validity and those not, I will focus more on the unseen and unacknowledged.
I reject the ersatz and the false.
I reject all pretension and affectation.
I will place suffering with the diagnoser.
I will place resistance with the diagnosee.
I will not suffer in silence.
Nor in solitude.
I am 50 years old.
And I am but 10 years old.
And I will act my ages.
I will no longer just ponder my search for family here.
I will actively engage in the quest.
At long last.
I resolve to place action over thought.
Since action is the embodiment of thought.
I vow that my personal story is invalid without the inclusion of the thousands of others that echo it.
I will always seek out such resonances.
And I will, nonetheless, allow myself to be sidetracked by these other quests and journeys.
In the name of the commonweal.
I will remain steadfast in the face of our long battle.
One that continued long before our arrival.
And one which may continue long after our brief time on this stage is spent.
We might well suffer due to this struggle.
But we will have ourselves to fall back on.
During this time we need be aware of diversions and confusions.
We need avoid secondary fogs.
We must suffer most those who seem like us least.
And of this aim at all times to form something approaching common cause.
We might be required to take a step down.
We might need to drop ourselves down a peg.
Remove ourselves from our class-based comfort.
To speed an impending descent.
An inevitable pendulum swing back.
An overdue comedown.
A rightful alighting.
We are fallen from a swing.
And we need trust this gravity.
As we lean back, into helpful arms.
An uplifting embrace.
A waiting landing.
A safe return.
A second chance.
Image: “Majid holding Dan” | Date: September, 1963 | Place: Abadan, Iran | Camera: Polaroid | Caption: Thus reads the back of this photograph, in my mother’s handwriting. I dedicate this month of musings to my father (may God rest his soul), to my mother (still going strong, may God bless her), and to Majid (اللّه يرحمه). Thank you for reading.