Friday, July 27, 2012

The New Black: Islamaphobia at Nassau Pediatric Group

My son needed to be seen by his doctor for an injury. When I called for an appointment I was told we couldn't be seen until I contact the billing office. I thought we'd straightened out the insurance problem months ago.

          My son is insured by his father, so my ex-husband and I went to the doctor's office together. We're all friends; my ex's wife came in with us and sat in the waiting room with the kids while we spoke with the women at the front desk. During Ramadan, his wife wears hijab, the headscarf that marks Muslim women. My daughter and her little brother, my ex's son, watched the fish swimming in a large tank.

          The women at the front desk informed us that we would have to wait two weeks to talk to the person in charge of billing. But my son had an injury, I explained, we can't wait two weeks. By "explained" I mean "I yelled." My ex demanded to speak with a manager or someone with whom we could resolve the problem immediately. By "demanded," I mean, "he yelled."

          We were directed to a consult room while they arranged for someone from Billing to settle our problem. Eventually my ex's wife, her little son and my daughter joined us so we could all hang out together while we waited.

          One of the office staff finally emerged and asked my ex to follow her, so I stood up, too. She said only he was needed. I said I wanted to be there and I followed them.

          We were led to a room where we were met by two police officers. The staff member folded her arms in front of her and aligned herself with the cops while my ex and I gaped. By "gaped" I mean that I said, "Oh, my God, I don't freakin' believe this!" and my ex said, "What is this?"

          The White officer asked my ex if he had muttered something under his breath. My ex and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, "What?"

          "Did you mutter something under your breath when you were speaking to the staff out front? One of the nurses thinks you said something, but she wasn't sure because of your heavy accent."

          Can they bust you for cursing? Or having an accent?

          My ex started restating our desire for an appointment for our son.

          "I understand that you have been dismissed from this practice and that you refused to leave."

          "That's news to me," I muttered, no accent.

          "Did you threaten the staff here?"

          My ex and I in unison, "What?"

          "Did you threaten to shoot them if you were not given an appointment?"

          My ex and I gaped, this time no words.

          "The staff member said she was not absolutely certain because of your heavy accent."

          My ex said, "I will sue this office and I will sue the police force!"

          I said, "I bet that's what he said, 'I'll sue you if you don't see my son.'"

          The cop said this was just a misunderstanding and I said, "Is racism a misunderstanding?" By that I mean I wish I'd said that. I really said, "I understand perfectly. He has an accent and a Muslim name and his wife came in wearing a head scarf, and these are a bunch of idiot racists who don't take care of sick kids."

          We were escorted outside. Luckily, my daughter and the others had walked to a nearby park so they didn't witness any of this. The White cop smiled and said, "I know you didn't say anything wrong. You have to understand that we have to respond to every call, regardless." He went back inside and left us with his partner.

          In the summer, cops change their attire to short-sleeved uniforms. The officer tapped his bare arm and said to my ex, "You see this? Do you know what Jim Crow is? I was alive then, and I deal with this every day of my life. It happened and it's gonna keep happening. You just have to deal with it and move on. Get used to it. That's all you can do. "

                                         ~       ~       ~

My ex laughed and said, "How does it feel to eat off my spoon?"

          My children are Egyptian and Muslim, I will always eat off your spoon, I say. What I don't say is that I have never felt such a gulf between my children and myself and I am terrified. Later that evening, my ex blames me for the incident at the doctor's office. He's fasting, he's cranky, he's had a hard day, he's basically nuts, I can make all sorts of excuses for him, but if I am honest, I have to admit that I feel it, too.

          When you are always perceived as guilty before being proven innocent, as anyone with pigmented skin knows, you keep a low profile. I drew him into the line of fire.

          I wonder if what I'm feeling is White Man's Guilt or if, on the contrary, self-loathing is a common response to being the victim of racism. I am enraged, self-righteous, indignant, yes; but I also feel as if somehow this misunderstanding is my fault. I've heard that victims of rape feel, bafflingly, that they are in part to blame. I may look white, it may be invisible to your eyes, but I am the mother of Egyptian, Muslim children, and no matter how I'm treated, that makes me just like them: what you do to my children, you do to me.

          I end up telling my 15-year-old son, the injured child, about it, even though I promised my ex I wouldn't. His sister had heard about it because she was with us. He kept asking why I wouldn't take him to the doctor when he was hurt, so I told him.

          My son's first response was anger. Then he said, "Take me there, they'll have to take me when I show up. They can't turn away a kid who's hurt if he's standing right in front of them." He believed that and I didn't want him to believe otherwise, but I was also afraid he'd go to the doctor's office on his own. I had to protect him.

          "I look white," my son said later, "but are they gonna treat me that way cause of my name? What's gonna happen when I get older?"

         I explained that I was telling him all this because we have to stand up for ourselves, and for anyone who is being mistreated. To give in just feeds the problem, I told him.

          "But if we make a big deal about it, can't they lie and say we threatened them and put Daddy in jail?"

          Keep a low profile. Because my son has white skin, it took him longer to figure it out than the average Black kid.

          My 13-year-old daughter said, "If you write your letter to the paper, it's good if you sign your name so they see you're white. That'll make them listen."

          I first realized my children were separate from me when they were inside me, kicking. Other women say they've never felt more bonded to their children, that it's the defining moment of motherhood. It was a magical moment for me, too, but bittersweet. I couldn't dismiss what I felt to be true physically, deep inside me: my child was distinct from myself. He fluttered and somersaulted inside me, already an independent agent, and I had no control or influence. That shock of quickening was the beginning of separation.

          My children see themselves apart from me now, not just our taste in clothes, books, and music, but by the way others treat us. These children are part of me, even if a world of racists doesn't see it, even if the dirty filter of race has begun to distort the way my children see themselves and me.

          Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., did not keep a low profile, but they were exceptional men whose lives were governed by their high and selfless ideals, with little concern for self-protection.

          I'm no Malcolm or Martin, I'm no activist. I'm just a middle-aged white woman taking care of her kids, a newb without enough common sense to keep my mouth shut.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Ramadan Pete

(My Great Aunt Aghavny, Great Aunt Lucy, Grandfather Haroutoun, Grandmother Pailadzou, Great Aunt Araxie, Great Uncle Garabed, my mother's cousin Rose in the white dress, and my mother Araxie)
The month of Ramadan began a few hours ago, at sunrise, and already I'm famished. It's sympathetic hunger. I'm the only one who actually gains weight during Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. The kids are staying with their dad today, but when they're home tomorrow I'll have to start sneaking food and water. I try to be supportive and not eat or drink in front of them, but I squirrel away as much as I can when their backs are turned. By the time they break their fast, I'm stuffed.

          Rambo (my ex) calls from an organic farm in Cranbury, New Jersey, sounding jubilant.

          "Ramadan Mubarak!" he says.  "I'm at the farm and they just killed my duck and my chicken. You should have seen it, you sissy."

          Rambo says he wanted to take our 15-year old son, who loves violent video games but completely breaks down over cruelty to animals. ("He's a sissy.") Rambo says he wanted to take his 3-year old son, but his wife Aisha talked him out of it.

          "Okay, gotta go. I'm on my way to Sharif's store to get a nice halal chicken and duck. Be here by 7."

           When I say he never told me Sharif opened a store, he tells me I have Old Timer's Disease. I ask him why he needs so much meat.

          "Are you kidding, Charlotte? I couldn't do it! I'm looking at this nice chicken right now. Oh, if my father finds out, he'll call me Sissy. I'm not even Egyptian anymore!"

           I tell him I'm proud of him and we laugh. After we hang up and I tell my mother the story, she says, "That reminds me of when I was a girl."

                                                            ~     ~     ~

My mother grew up in the '20s and '30s in a Jewish part of the Bronx. In the old country, before my mother was born, our people lived on a farm without electricity. In her Bronx tenement, my mother lived on the fifth floor with her parents, her sister, her aunt and her grandmother, and her cousin Rose lived across the hall with her parents and her aunt and uncle. Rose and my mom would light the stoves on the Sabbath for the Orthodox Jews. My grandmother always bought kosher chickens on Bathgate Avenue, pointing out the plumpest bird for the butcher to slaughter.

          One Easter, when my mother was about seven, the women came home from Bathgate Avenue with a brood of adorable, fuzzy-yellow baby chicks, all chirping sweetly in unison. In spite of the fact the the girls doted over them, only one survived. My grandmother named him Peeton, but the girls called him Pete.

          Soon the neighbors began to complain. The survivor was a rooster, and he crowed every morning at sunrise.

          I interrupt my mother's story, "You didn't eat him, did you?"

          She shakes her head and continues.

          "Rose and I wouldn't eat it--he was our pet. Our grandmother slit his throat and the grownups ate the chicken but I guess we must have eaten something else."

                                                              ~ ~ ~

Tonight at iftar, the breaking of the fast, we first eat dates, as did the Prophet Mohammed, Peace be Upon Him. The grownups will drink a thickened concoction of dried apricots, figs and dates that have been soaked overnight in water and the kids will drink fresh mango juice. The table will with be covered with dishes: three kinds of mahshi, stuffed zucchini, stuffed eggplant, and stuffed grape leaves; flakey filo dough layered with spiced ground lamb and bechamel; a platter of rice; and in the center will be a duck and a chicken.
Takouhi, my great grandmother

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Phantom Pain

"Phantom Pain," by Lihua Lei
I was born without a thumb and index finger on my right hand, and then my luck got worse. On my 18th birthday, my best friend in the whole world, Dahlia, took me out for burgers and drinks at Andy's Tavern. So far, so good, right? After a pitcher of Margueritas and some shots of tequila I made Dahlia eat the worm at the bottom of the bottle. We decided to leave her truck in the parking lot and walk back to her house. She said, Better safe than sorry.

          Cutting across the field between Richter Road and the highway, I remember the air was so cold it hurt just to breathe. I remember thinking it felt like I was freezing from the inside out, and wondered why I couldn't walk a straight line, if it was because I was too drunk or too cold.

          We'd almost crossed the interstate when Dahlia sat down, kind of squatting, right on the dotted line. There wasn't much traffic that time of night, no cars right at that moment, but her hands were pressed up to her ears like she was trying to block out the sound of semis, or like she was getting ready to sing harmony, which she actually did in our high school a cappella group, and she said, "Why does my fuckin' head hurt so much? I think I'm gonna throw up." Next thing I know, I'm waking up at Memorial with a headache and gauze packed around the stump where my right hand used to be, and Dahlia's dead.

          I blamed myself for awhile, you know? Thought that the drinking might have made her sick, or the tequila worm made her hallucinate, but it turns out she had something from birth, an aneurysm, a cerebral hemorrhage, and her time was just up. Boy, can you imagine? Like she was programmed to self-destruct on my birthday.

          I remember nothing about the accident, but the cops think the car must have hit some black ice, and when it jumped the divider a big shard from the windshield severed most of my hand at the wrist. I hear the driver was dinged up some, needed some stitches, but nothing too bad, and I didn't have so much as a scratch on me, except the hand. Nobody pressed charges. The driver wasn't drunk and no one wanted to put the blame on us, considering Dahlia was dead and I lost my hand.

          The phantom pain started almost right away with a burning sensation where my fingertips should have been, all five fingertips. The doctors said phantom pain was normal, but they couldn't figure out how I could be feeling something in a part of me that never, ever existed. They think maybe we're hardwired to be perfect, like each one of us is born with an ideal map of who we're supposed to be, so I feel pain in a place that only ever existed as an idea.

          The pain comes and goes, but it comes back worse. Instead of burning, I feel like my fingers are being forced into these unnatural positions, all twisted up and cramped. The pain makes me sweat, makes me want to bawl my eyes out, but instead I think about Dahlia.

          She sort of comes over me, like a cool breeze. I can't see or hear her—I'm not crazy—but I feel her presence just as sure as I feel that pain in my fingers.

          Dahlia was, in every way, better than me. She was pretty and skinny, with soft, blond, wavy hair, she got good grades and boyfriends, and could sing like an angel. I'm what my ma calls "big-boned," with mousy brown hair and no talents anyone could name. Dahlia said my talent was my strength, the way I take shit from no one, the way no one can hurt me or figure out what I think. We were friends since the first grade, inseparable.

          Sometimes, when I was hurting, when I just felt bad about myself and no one knew but her, we'd sit on Dahlia's bed and she'd put her arm around me and hum. Like a lullaby, but not a real song, just something she'd make up on the spot. Sometimes she'd kiss me. Her tongue was soft and made me feel like I was melting. Once she put my hand on her, my messed up hand, and she rubbed my three fingertips over the front of her shirt till her nipple got hard. We never talked about it, but she did that for me because she loved me. She believed in me and wanted me to believe in myself.

          The physical therapy they have me doing now is with mirrors. My good hand goes into one side of a mirror box and my stump goes in the other. When I look at the mirror on the good side and see the free movement of my fingers, it looks like the phantom hand is reflected with five perfect fingers. When I spread the fingers of my good hand, my phantom fingers unclench. I guess seeing is believing.

          When that cool-breeze feeling comes over me, I never fight it, even when it feels like I'm about to freeze solid. I just breathe Dahlia in, drink deep and let her in. Sometimes when it hurts, I picture myself as her mirror box, where she can be whole again. Instead of seeing Dahlia on the highway at night, hunched over with her hands on her head and the white dotted line splitting her down the middle, she fills me up and reaches my farthest points, further than I can imagine. When the pain goes away, I feel washed out, empty. To be honest, I feel guilty, like maybe Dahlia wasn't ever real.

Inspired by this article Phantom Finger Points to Secrets in the Human Brain