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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Counter Winds and Cross-eyed Casters

by Julie Whitlow

Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah, Baghdad, Ramadi—the names roll off of my tongue for no other reason than these were flashpoints of the second Iraq war—an ongoing conflict based on centuries of the banging drums of distrust beating out war marches against enemies, perhaps imagined, perhaps real. Soldiers draped in the flag of my country had officially been killing or being killed by Iraqis for eleven years when eight scholars from the warzone arrived at my university in Salem, Massachusetts, a town chastised for its long-ago intolerance and famed for reversing course. The scholars were on a mission of understanding and shared learning, and my small role was as volunteer mentor to one of the female scholars whom I will call Jameela. Because we were not allowed to take their pictures or publish their names due to potential threats against their lives by those who saw their trip to the US as traitorous, she needs to remain anonymous. When a story and photo about the group published in our neighboring town’s paper—the Marblehead Reporter—prompted a call from the State Department, it was clear that the fear of repercussion was real.
          Jameela and I had weekly conversations about language and writing in Arabic and English. The scholars spent weekends on cultural excursions and experienced Boston’s Freedom Trail, the Museum of Fine Arts, and MIT. They seemed eager and at ease, despite devastating news from home about beheadings by ISIS and bombings in Baghdad. As time went on, the distrust within the group became visible, an offshoot of the ancient tribal factions that each represented: Sunni, Shia, Arab, Kurd, male, female. Reasons that lead to persecution, violence, and human discord became reduced to small, sobering distinctions and the awareness that, despite everything that makes us similar, it is the atomic alignment of culture and history that grow into deep insurmountable divisions. Via my encounters with Jameela, frustrating distinctions seemed obvious only through mundane interactions.
Toward the end of her stay, I decided that a good host should invite Jameela over, perhaps for a meal, a breaking of bread between new friends as an idealistic handshake of peace. However, my doubts about the likelihood of being able to prepare a meal that would meet the halal code that dictates the foods permissible for Muslims impair my ability to cook. Jameela had expressed an interest in having some local fish and I mentioned lobster as an interesting regional delicacy. Jameela agreed and reasoned that since lobsters had shells they were probably an acceptable meal. The night before our luncheon, though, Jameela emailed that she actually couldn’t eat a lobster because of the chance that it wouldn’t be killed humanely. Jameela assured me that fish would be okay, depending on its size, scales, and spine. It became clear that a restaurant lunch would be more prudent than a meal at home.

          I guessed that a restaurant called Finz would likely serve enough varieties of fish options for Jameela to eat. In order to get in the home visit, I would then bring her over for coffee. So, I picked her up at the campus residence hall and we proceed to Finz.
          I was used to most of the female scholars wearing a hijab, the fabric folded over the head, fastened under the chin, and covered by a longer scarf. This day was particularly warm and humid but, as our outing was not routine, Jameela wore additional beautiful brocaded layers of over-garments woven with golden thread and extending almost to the floor. I was touched that she thought of our outing as so special but felt bad that she was sweltering in the summer heat. As we walked from the parking area, droplets lined her smooth forehead and upper lip and she revealed her shock over the girls on the street in shorts and tank tops. How can they walk around with no clothes?
            At Finz, I cringed as we were shown through the bar to reach our table near the water. I tried to ignore the barstools and glistening bottles of liquor packing the shelves, wondering if Jameela realized that we were surrounded by alcohol, another taboo of Islam. When the water that we requested arrived, Jameela wiped the rim of her glass with her napkin and removed the ice. I attempted to explain the menu and its variety of fish that could be ordered grilled, fried, or baked: salmon, sole, haddock, scrod. Jameela wanted assurance that the fish wouldn’t be fried in a beer batter like it was at a restaurant they went to in Rhode Island. It was such a shame that we went hungry that day. She produced her iPhone to determine which of the fish had the acceptable number of scales and a demonstrable spine.
          Together we perused pictures of various fish before and after scale removal on the tiny screen of her phone and Jameela finally decided on the salmon. When her plate arrived, she seemed surprised that the spine and scales had, in fact, been removed and discarded. I ate my haddock taco while most of Jameela’s fish went back to the kitchen. When we finished, we headed over to my house for tea.
          Our conversation resumed around issues related to her studies and teaching. I learned that her husband is also a professor. She has two sons, thirteen and nine, who are rarely allowed to leave home except to go to school: We can’t let them out. We would worry too much. The older one is angry. He thinks we are too protective. He just studies and looks at his iPad. He wants only to go around with other boys… But they are fine. They are happy.
          Jameela knew that I have two daughters but I began to dread questions about my family. How could I possibly tell this elegant and lovely woman who frets over the kinds of scales her lunch once had that I am married to a woman, that I have a wife. I started preparing the tea (necessary to digest fish, I learn) while avoiding having to explain that my children have two mothers. I steered Jameela away from the family photos displayed around the house and was relieved when my children started distracting our delighted guest with a book on Chinglish, that funny blend of Chinese and English.
          When I arrived with the tea and handmade multicolored macaroons from the nearby French bakery, we talked a bit more about life in Baghdad. Jameela took a sip or two of the Earl Grey. I got a sense that she didn’t really like it and she didn’t try the cookies, even the one cut to look like a seagull with wings painted in gray and white sugar.
          The girls and I ate the cookies and I offered a walk around my neighborhood. Built as a summer community in the late 19th century, rows of former summer “cottages” line the streets. Architectural traits range from Victorian to New England eclectic. Some have signs tacked above the door that have probably labeled these houses for decades: The Anchorage, Edgewater, Rendezvous, Fidder’s Green. Why does a house need a name?  I took a guess that the original owners probably had another “real” house and this was a kind of getaway, a summer house. Or, it may be tradition, like naming a boat, I said. Jameela looked at me quizzically. Do you think we are crazy? As the one attempting to explain why my neighbors’ houses have funny names, I assured her: no.
          We walked past a pale blue house with a stack of lobster traps in the yard. It has a fishing rod mounted over the door that is nailed above two oars and a sign that reads “Cross-Eyed Casters.” What does that mean? I pantomimed the cast of a fishing rod, and explained that being cross-eyed means that your eyes don’t line up right, that the nerves and the brain aren’t communicating with the eye muscles. Oh, yes, we have that word in Arabic. Cross-eyes are like crossed minds. They can’t see the world around them clearly.  I focused on the literal, agreeing that being cross-eyed probably makes fishing difficult. I left out the part that the cross-eyed reference may very possibly have something to do with this particular fisherman often being intoxicated. It seemed imprudent to explain that part.
          We continued our walk down the street to see the ocean. We met a grey-haired male neighbor who shrugged in dismay when Jameela refused his handshake. She started to complain of the heat in the late summer sun. I apologized for the walk as her heavy clothes began to smell after weeks of wear and lack of laundering.
          We got home and I prepared to drive Jameela back to campus. As I gathered my keys, Jameela presented me with a fancy gold and silver ring in a velvet box that I accepted graciously but inwardly cringed at its opulence. I drove her back to the residence halls and Jameela seemed genuinely happy: Why didn’t we do this sooner? My own frustrations with the day were, thankfully, not obvious, but, I was glad that the day had ended and I could return to the comfort of the familiar.
          A week or so later, before the scholars were set to leave, I decided to assemble a little package for Jameela to take back to her sons. She had mentioned that they liked to read in English, so I went to Harrison’s, famed purveyors of comic books and pop culture, to see if I could find some appropriate reading material for two boys forbidden to go outside of their home for fear of getting hit by an explosive device. I started down the rows of shelves, trying to gauge how the overwhelming number of comics could be narrowed for the interests of two Iraqi boys whom I would never meet. Scissor Sisters seemed inappropriate just given the title. Would the swords and sabers of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles be offensive?  Surely, the cleavage of the new Betty and Veronica would be in violation of some kind of rules related to nudity. Wonder Woman is even worse—all cleavage and thighs. The Simpsons cover showed the children hitting adults on the head with bats and Garbage Pail Kids displayed kids with their rear ends exposed. They all seemed to model taboos that I perceive a foundation of Iraqi aesthetics.
I continued down the aisles, mentally deconstructing both the bedrocks and counter-culture of America via the comic books on the shelves, trying to look at them with the eyes of the mother of the Iraqi pre-teens that I envisioned: Japanese anime punks, Sound of the Devil, and Southern Bastards were beyond my experiences but clearly in the realm of the offensive. Did Archie and Betty have pre-marital sex?  Could Batman and Robin be seen as gay? My insecurities mounting, I was about to abandon the plan.
          As I was about to walk away from this gesture of cross-cultural generosity, I re-examined the row of classics. Popeye and Peanuts would have to do. Popeye was on the cover with an open can of spinach, exclaiming, “I yam what I yam.” It seemed innocent enough, a sailor with a good diet would certainly charm Jameela’s sons. And how could I go wrong with Peanuts: the meek and nervous Charlie Brown navigating life’s lessons through his side-kicks, the bossy Lucy, loyal Linus with his security blanket, the endearing slob, Pigpen, and the ever-supportive Peppermint Patty. The boys could learn so much about the actual insecurities of Americans and practice their English at the same time.  
          At an arranged time on the Friday before the scholars were leaving, I packed the books along with some archetypal favorite candies of my own kids--Sour Patch Kids and Nerds—and went to the dorms where Jameela was staying. She had also asked me for ten signed letters of recommendation about her efforts as a scholar while in the U.S. that she could present to her superiors at the university in Baghdad, and I had complied with gracious exaggeration of what we had been able to accomplish together. I went to the reception area, called her room, texted her, all to no avail. Finally, one of her Iraqi colleagues, Noora, came down and told me that Jameela had gone to the mosque in a nearby town with some of the others—for one last round of prayer. Was it a prayer for her kids? For a safe journey? For war to end? I would never understand, wrapped in my cloak of the secular and rational. Annoyed, I gave the package to Noora who promised to pass it on.
I never saw Jameela again, but she sent along a note with a leather wallet embossed with the hanging gardens of Babylon, wonder of the ancient world, and a blue glass pendant of the evil eye, a talisman used to ward against evil by numerous factions across the Middle East who are in the throes of hurling missiles at each other. I took it as an honor that Jameela wished me safe from harm, but felt more aware than ever of the discrepancies of human behavior—the kindness of individuals and the killing by tribes. There was a short note in the wallet: Thank you for your time and teaching and for the gifts. I really like Popeye and Peanuts. Popeye the sailor man is strong and smart. And Peanuts shows us the American mind. I will take them all to Baghdad and teach my boys America. I would love to stay longer but winds blow counter to what the ship wants.
          When Jameela returned to Baghdad, she posted pictures on Facebook of black smoke billowing in the direction that she had come from. I wondered about those boys. Were they finally able to go outside and play? Or would they become part of the conflict, careening blindly through the haze, holding on to their protective charms, hoping that the evil eye would not blind them?

Julie Whitlow teaches in the English Department at Salem State University and coordinates the graduate programs in teaching English to speakers of other languages. She has been a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and a Fulbright scholar in Nicaragua, experiences that made her realize mutual human understanding is elusive and worthy of exploration.

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