My sister-in-law and I sat in the back seat of the Volkswagen as my older brother drove in soft rain through red lights to Maimonides. “Kicking,” she said, putting my hand over her round belly. Shy, I gazed at her flip-flops. A stork delivered a boy in Brooklyn eight years to the day JFK was shot in Dallas.
A new alien in New York, I babysat my cute nephew in a stark rental on Park Avenue. His dad rode the IRT to Pine Street; his mom was a cashier at Korvettes. The boy & I together discovered Big Bird on a Zenith console, my first TV exposure at age 22. Our closets were screaming to unload handmade numdah rugs that Grandfather had shipped from Kashmir, urging us to get rich quickly carpeting America from sea to shining sea.
I watched him dunk hoops in Perturbia, his long hair swishing to Metallica, “Soldier boy, made of clay.” He hunted jackrabbits at the family farm upstate, enrolled at the local NRA, his dad’s rifle on boy’s shoulder. He climbed a peak one summer in Kashmir, the knotty dispute often a passionate topic at the dining table, softened by ice cream, & reruns of All In The Family.
He chilled with his other mates at the Muslim Sunday School on California Road to which I once gave a Hoover. Allah alone knows what seeds sprouted in his open mind for he made his little sister weep, shaming her for wearing leotards to the ballet class she loved. Yet, she was fond of her big brother. He swayed his dad to stop serving liquor at home. He made his parents proud calling out the Call to Prayer at an annual apple picking event at the farm, a holy ritual on a crisp Autumn day that made me feel sad, for I like my cider with a splash of vodka.
I remember standing next to family & friends in single line amidst a row of weighty apple trees, facing east to the Kaaba. The women also stood next to one another at the rear. Children ran from tree to tree with glee, munched forbidden fruit that had fallen. I remember sunbeams piercing the abundant boughs. I remember feeling high on the ripe scent. Apples have mapped the fate of mankind, after all.
His dad plucked his own apple from Perturbia High, enrolled him into High Prep, hoping the sound schooling the Christian Brothers had drummed into himself when he was a lad growing up in Kashmir would shape his son’s character as well. The Brothers urged the son to plumb his own depths in order to make his conscience bloom.
I am struck by the eloquence of the title from his senior year essay, “History’s Most Persecuted Minority Is Insensitive To The Aspirations Of The World’s Most Dispossessed Tribe.” It forever sealed his empathy with the most compelling moral issue of our generation. He was enraged as I, you, we should be. How do middle-class Muslim youth from Seattle to Srinagar manage, to the extent they do, their blind rage, their helplessness at the organized ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israelis, aided by the most mighty democracy?
And just as his rage was double-edged, so is mine: Linking Israel’s genocidal land grab in Palestine to India’s in Kashmir is contextually inevitable as it indeed should be for all those who care about untying the Gordian knot of the Kashmir dispute, including those xenophobes in Delhi who repeatedly call out for cleansing people of the Kashmir Valley, & their land as well, just what the Zionists have been doing to Palestinians & their land as well ever since the Nakba.
Now is the summer of our discontent. Banned bombs, Made in America, rain down once again on the world’s largest open-air concentration camp, mercilessly. Photos of lifeless babies pulled out like Raggedy Ann dolls from Gaza’s burning debris make you bawl like a kid in pain.
America, you arm & enrich a colonial settler state, your cop on the beat in the Mid East who assures the oil flows smoothly, & despots keep the subjects quiet.
America, when will you come to terms with your imperial hypocrisy, your unsustainable addiction to oil, your whorish bond with the world’s most retrogressive, sexually-transmitted dynasty, perfectly disorientated in time, place & person, that pays cash for your Hell Fire missiles, & uses petrodollars to proselytize a rigid ritual-based reading of the Koran?
America, it saddens me that so many bright people don’t get the symbiotic link between Western imperialism, & the wretched of a globalized world. It’s the New Cold War: their secular opposition, your imperial despotism, your suppression campaigns, your military henchmen, your gendarme state. You say, Eisenhower Doctrine. They say, Imperial Pillage.
It’s just dandy, then, to promote shoe, underwear, & flight school amateur chemistry kids as Soldiers of Al-Qaeda, “home-grown terrorists,” sworn to destroy America, the manicured homeland.
Theirs is an eloquent plea for Justice, an appeal to the human within us. They’re holding up a mirror, & when you glance at yourself, America, it seems you only echo the words of that iconic character Travis Bickle in the 1976 film Taxi Driver, “Are you talking to me?”
He totaled a Toyota on the Bronx River Parkway, walking away from the wreck, his sack of bones intact. He made a U at McGill U, flew to Faisal U in Islamabad searching for Islam in the Land of the Pure. “We shall meet again,” he wrote, “on Judgment Day.”
April is the cruelest month. The Taliban…err…sorry…the Mujahedeen…“moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers” Ronald Regan had dubbed them, who in turn was dubbed the “cue card reader President” by Gore Vidal…the Mujahedeen had taken Kabul…it was the best of times, it was the worst…a spectacle was unfolding.
What happened to him, what makes sense, what gives?
I imagine my tall, bearded nephew in his red and white plaid shirt, his slim blue Levis, & a handful of his friends drove in a borrowed Toyota on Asian Highway One. I imagine, they crossed the porous Durand Line to see first hand the tamasha, the drama unfolding. I imagine, they all got trapped in a firefight between two factions. Wrong terrain. Wrong time. I imagine infernal arcs flew across a cobalt sky.
A hurried mass grave (manicured later) was dug in Torkham. In New York, my sister-in-law was pruning roses the day the call came.
Rafiq Kathwari is the present winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award