In some respects, it was a pretty standard story. In others, perhaps, not so much.
At 26, I moved out to start a doctoral program in literature. In college I had taken more creative writing classes than anything else, but toward the end the ideas stopped coming, and I figured at the very least maybe a grad program could buy a few years of reading some decent books and figuring out what to do next. Anyway, my parents loved the idea of being able to someday say they had a son with a PhD. No matter how old I was, I can’t pretend that that wasn’t a factor. “Alf mabrook,” my mother had told me as soon as I got the news (Arabic for literally “one thousand congratulations”).
“We’re so proud of you.”
I had celebrated some with friends after getting the acceptance. The prospect of something new did hold some appeal. But, truth be told, my feelings mostly tipped towards uncertainty. I didn’t know what to expect, and for exactly that reason I hoped for routine prospects, dull ones even, because at the very least dull was manageable. To this day, I can’t tell if that was me giving in to the loss of creative inspiration, or hoping that it could be counteracted through familiar rituals in a new place.
To save some money during the first year of the program, I decided to rent out a room from a house near the university. Someone named Donald Keening had put an ad online, and when I met him in person to talk the arrangements over in a bit more depth he seemed the epitome of dull.
Keening was an older white man who lived alone. He dressed formally in clothes that somehow seemed equally faded in color. They were also a strange complement to the wallpaper that seemed to adorn the entire apartment: a yellow as rotten now as it may have once been vibrant, and with a childlike, black floral pattern where the leaves, curved outward, were slightly disconnected from the petals above them. The print made me think of hands holding up a head.
When Keening spoke, he had a habit of leaning against the wall, and it didn’t take a writer’s imagination to see him beginning to seep into the outdated hues. He also kept his lips as tightly pressed as possible, as though trying to hide his teeth, or keep his soul from flying out his mouth. It seemed just what I needed. And seeing as he didn’t ask me the standard “where are you from? No, I mean, originally,” the feeling appeared to be mutual. In just a few minutes, we’d set a move in date, and he told me where he’d leave the key for me out front. I wouldn’t see him much, he said, because he kept “fairly irregular hours.” I didn’t bother to ask what he did. All I needed was a place, and one as close to empty as possible seemed ideal.
And it was. I would leave for classes just before noon, come back around 4pm if I didn’t linger, 7:30 if I did (though at that point lingering mostly meant killing time at a campus cafe, or the library—I didn’t have friends yet). Keening would be gone before I left, and still out by the time I got home. Sometimes I would go for night walks to explore the college town, stopping in for a drink or two or just window shopping, but no matter how long I stayed out he still wouldn’t be home by the time I got back. I’d somehow landed a whole house for the price of a room.
Graduate classes certainly took some getting used to. I was in cramped rooms filled with a handful of mostly white, male colleagues who asked about the “epistemological character” of a work of theory, or the “sublimated libidinal investments” of the protagonist in a novel. Where, I wondered, did these words even come from? They seemed even more out of reach than the broken Arabic I’d never been able to stretch to fluency.
I told myself that I didn’t need to worry, because I wasn’t here just to “do” this in the way the others were. But I also didn’t fully trust the “writer/academic” binary I was trying to draw internally as a means of coping. How many of my fellow colleagues had also wanted to be writers at some point? What if all of us were doomed to speak to one another in jargon in a small, dimly lit room for all eternity as a kind of divine punishment for our ridiculous dreams?
“Ma’leish, habibi,” my mom said over the phone (“it’s ok, dear”), “It just takes time.”
“Yes, ya baba, time, that’s all it is,” my father said, taking the phone from her, “but, speaking of time, you know I got my Masters’ by the time I was 21? Not bad! So don’t take too long!”
We said our goodbyes. I looked up at the weathered paint of the bedroom ceiling and wondered where the lines for new poems and stories were hiding.
I still never saw or heard from Keening while I was in the house, but there was a new development about two weeks into my stay. One morning, I found a large plate left out by the sink. On the plate was a strange meat. It seemed rich, fatty, and looked almost like a long, muscular triangle with striations. It sat in a thick red paste.
From then on, at least once a week, I would find similarly odd meats left out in a plate by the sink every so often when I came down into the kitchen. They always seemed to be soaking in their own juices. I didn’t know what they were. At first I thought, organs. And then, animal? Or…? But I almost thought it as a joke, a way to make some fun out of a generally quiet and monotonous existence. Of course they were animal.
It was the flag that drew my attention.
A red triangle on the left side, with a black stripe at the top, white stripe in the middle, and green stripe at the bottom. I recognized the Palestinian flag from the decorations my parents kept in the kitchen and living room.I walked over to the table from which it was draped. It was afternoon. One of my classes had been let out on break, and I noticed the student club fair while taking a little walk outside of the seminar room. There were tables promoting clubs of all kinds all across the quad.
There were three students seated at the table with the Palestinian flag, but only one looked up and smiled as I approached. The other two were fighting.
“Hi,” I said to the one who noticed me.
He smiled. “Marhaban,” he said (hello). “3arabi?” (“Are you Arab?”).
I nodded.“Falasteeni?” (“Palestinian?”).
I nodded again.
“Lebanese, too. My parents are from both places.”
“Yes. Very common.”
“I don’t know much about it, though. I just recognized the flag, and—”
“Well, you seem to know Arabic, at the very least.
“I understand more than I speak.”
“Also very common. The curse of diaspora.”
He held out his hand.
“Tamer,” he said
“Samer,” I said, taking his hand.
We laughed at the rhyme.
The other two at the table had started paying attention now.
“So, you’re a student here?” Tamer asked.
“Yes. Graduate student.”
“What a coincidence. Us too,” he replied.
“I’m in anthropology. Second year. This is Dunya,” he said, gesturing to the person seated in the middle of the table, “she’s in Middle Eastern studies”—
“—doesn’t that sound so colonial?” Dunya asked,
“—first year, and this is Jamil, my roommate, and also a second year in History.”
Jamil nodded towards me.
“And what department are you in?” Tamer asked.
“Literature,” I said. “First year.”
“Nice,” Tamer said. “We have a good amount of disciplinary diversity between us all.”
“What do you want to do with a literature degree, Samer?” Jamil asked, leaning forward.
“What kind of silly question is that?” Tamer said. “Probably the same thing all of us are doing with our degrees. Academic jobs. Teaching. Publishing. The works.”
“Well, actually—” I began, and stopped myself. I had just met these people. Was I really going to tell them what I could barely say out loud to myself these days?
They looked at me, waiting.
“Well. Yes. All of those things. Maybe. I mean, yes. It’s just that…”
I wanted to tell them. I wanted to make it real by saying it out loud, and by making it real turn it into a pressure for keeping me accountable instead of a fearfully guarded fantasy. But I had just met them.
“…I think I need to get back to class,” I said, turning away. “Nice to meet you.”
I turned back around.
Tamer smiled again.
“Don’t you want to know more about the club?”
My face flushed.
“Oh—yes! Of course!”
All three laughed.
“Great,” he said. “Well, I know you have to go now, but listen: Jamil and I are going to have a little get-together in our apartment. Friday night. Why don’t you come? We can talk more then.”
Friday. Three days from now.
“Sure,” I said. “Sounds great.”
“Wonderful,” Tamer said. “Give me your number. I’ll text you the address.”
“—that brings us to Freud’s notion of the unheimliche, or ‘uncanny,’ by which Freud meant the—yes? Matthew?
“Well, Professor, I know this is rough, but isn’t it essentially the familiar turned sinister?”
“Yes Matthew, exactly. Not rough at all—rather nicely turned phrase! ‘The familiar turned sinister.’ May need to cite you on that, ha-ha-ha! Can anyone think of an example, preferably based on Freud’s interpretation of Hoffman’s—oh. Yes? Samer? What? No, that isn’t quite what I was looking for—what are these dishes, exactly? What about a sink? Ok, well, if you want to work out the thought a bit more rigorously so it’s not quite so abstract, feel free to try again later. Now. We can see ‘the familiar turned sinister,’ as Matthew astutely puts it, in the following instances…”
Whatever Keening left out in the morning would be cleared out by the time I returned to the house at night. Once, I found a little cup filled with what looked like a few stray pieces of Chiclets gum.
Then I moved a little closer.
Teeth. They had to be.
“That’s great, habibi,” my mother said, “so glad to hear you’re making friends.”
“Min wein qulti?” I heard my father yell in the background (“from where did you say?”). “Here, give me tha–hello? Samer? Great news, your mother is right. You know, all of my friends were 3arabi when I was getting my degree? Yes indeed. But I still finished before them! And not only that—I taught them afterwards, too! Keep that in mind–it’s all about time! Remember!”
It was a half hour into the gathering. It was me, Tamer, Dunya and Jamil, and their mutual friends Dina (Jordanian/Palestinian) and Mohamed (Egyptian).
“Are you all a part of the club?” I asked after meeting everyone, and after everyone said yes I sputtered something silly like, “But, you’re not all Palestinian!”
“Palestine is a cause that binds all Arabs together, wherever we are from, and wherever we are driven,” Tamer said. “But let’s talk about you—what was it you really wanted to say the other day?”
I hesitated again.
“I know what will help,” Jamil said, leaping to the kitchen, “one second. Don’t force any confessions while I make my preparations. Better yet—Tamer, come help me!”
Tamer grumbled and followed Jamil.
Dunya already seemed to know what Jamil had in mind. “You are such degenerates,” she yelled after them in mock-frustration. She laughed and smacked the pillows behind her on the couch, as if for emphasis.
“Nice to meet you,” Mohamed said, extending his hand. “Always nice to be around other 3arab, don’t you think?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I said, and when I saw his puzzled expression I added, almost apologetically, “what I mean is, besides my family, I didn’t know of any others. Honestly didn’t until I got here.”
“Ah, well, happy to help you make up for lost time!” Mohamed beamed.
“Yes, especially when we are surrounded by zeez vuyt devilz,” Dina said in an invented, fake-Arabic accent, twirling her hand for effect.
“Don’t be stupid,” Dunya snapped. “Stop bringing identity politics into this.”
“But Dina is right, Dunya,” Mohamed said. “You know what white people think of us.”
“Stop it. I hate white racism as much as you do, but you can’t essentialize! A cause is defined by principles, by real ideology, and a desire for freedom! Not reducing people to their race. That’s not materialist, or revolutionary. Do you know how many Arabs have sold out the cause, how many Palestinians? You know all of this. I understand you’re just being silly and reactionary for fun-”
“—then why are you lecturing me,” Dina groaned.
“Don’t you know by now? Dunya is always lecturing,” Mohamed sighed,
“—but you need to understand that there are political stakes to these types of jokes! They become your common sense! Identity alone has never served us—in fact, it’s only hurt us! And some white people—”
“Did someone say white people?” Jamil called out cheerily as he and Tamer returned from the kitchen. They carried one long tray each. Jamil’s tray was topped with a bottle of a clear, alcoholic drink that I dimly recognized as arak (something my father drank from time to time) and six small glasses. Tamer’s tray was topped with a bowl of chips and a bowl of ice with tongs.
“My favorite subject,” Jamil continued. “Fill your glasses, plates and bellies, and let’s continue on this esteemed topic.”
Dunya muttered and reached for a glass.
It was my first time sipping arak. It tasted like licorice, and very strong.
After all of us had a small glass of arak with a cube of ice, Jamil continued, “Now, what about the white people?”
“Stop it,” Dunya snapped. “I was just explaining why this is a politically regressive topic.”
“Yes, like you always do,” Jamil replied, taking a sip from his glass. “Why are you so anti-fun, Dunya?”
“Oh my god. Why are you so anti-intelligence?”
“Easy,” Tamer laughed, “you’re probably scaring away our new potential member, and friend.”
He turned to me.
“You’ve been quiet for a while. Is everything ok?”
“Just taking it all in.”
“I hope you don’t think we’re really fighting.”
“Of course we are,” Dunya said, rolling her eyes.
“—we’re all just very close friends. And, you know, as 3arab, we can be somewhat dramatic.”
“More essentialism,” Dunya sighed.
“Don’t worry,” I said, looking up and smiling. “I can tell everyone here is very close. And I’m happy to have met you all.”
I raised my glass.
“Saha,” Tamer said.
“Saha,” everyone repeated.
Animal. Definitely animal.
If not unheimliche, is it—familiar? “Normal?”
“So, Samer, now that we have our drinks, I think it’s time to get back to the pressing question: what was it you were trying to tell us a few days ago?”
Tamer set his glass down and looked at me.
I kept my head down, but several clinks suggested the others were doing the same.
“Don’t worry, you can tell us,” Jamil said. “The worst thing that could happen is Dunya yelling at you.”
“Khalas,” Tamer said (“enough”). “Samer. Please.”
I sighed. Now or never. And was it really that big of a deal?
“It’s nothing. And maybe not nothing. It’s just that I wanted—I mean, want—to be a writer.”
“Are you a writer?” Dina asked.
I didn’t know how to respond.
Tamer frowned. “Was? What happened?”
“I guess it all started sounding the same,” I said, before I even realized I was saying it. And I wondered then if it was a lack of imagination or a lack of living that made stories so redundant.
“Oh god,” Dunya groaned.
“See,” Jamil said. “What did I tell you.”
“Shut up,” Dunya snapped. “You’re the reason I said that.”
When she noticed my confusion, Dunya added, “Jamil is a writer, too.”
I felt my heart plunge a few thousand feet. I couldn’t even be original. But that, I supposed, was the difference between real life and fiction. Real life was all about plurality. Several writers. More than one Arab, with varying degrees of political consciousness and language skills. Whereas fiction was all about tokenism. Only one, to represent all.
“Yes, a poet, to be more exact,” Tamer added. “Though Dunya’s qualms remain somewhat of a mystery.”
“My qualms are that he is a bourgeois individualist. No representation of the cause, only himself, his feelings, his desires.”
“Here we go,” Dina muttered.
“Yep,” Mohamed said, clinking his glass against hers.
“Me? Bourgeois? Come on, Dunya, let’s not forget who actually had to work through college!”
“Capitalism conditions a larger, collective sense of possibility and identity—and this too has aesthetic consequences—at times independent of particular—”
“Speak English, Dunya!” Jamil yelled back.
“This IS English, ya hmar—” You donkey, I registered, feeling the sinews of my rusty Arabic beginning to grow more taut. But maybe the point was moot: with the words and phrases I was learning in grad classes, I felt I still had a budding case for full bilingualism at the very least.
“What about the cause?” Dunya continued.
“I love falasteen. She is my homeland, and I will always fight for her freedom. But that’s different from my cause as a writer. My cause as a writer is to my inner world, that’s all and everything there is to it.”
Dunya laughed. “‘Her’ freedom?’ The homeland is not a damsel in distress. And as for your spiel about art, it’s ridiculous categorizing. As though you can separate the two.”
“I think you should,” Jamil said. “Sure, you have nice theories that you think can explain the insides of things. But what about the insides of the heart? The brain? Marxism, Maoism, whateverism—none of it matters if it can’t do that outside of reducing everything to an economic system or political slogans. How can you really get into hearts and minds, and not just get in them, but represent them, genuinely, without—”
“I can already tell you haven’t read Kanafani.”
“I’m getting to it! A writer writes and reads! Or did you forget? Two poems to finish—then I get back to my reading pile. That will be the first. Which one was it?”
“Haifa. Returning to Haifa.”
“I’m getting to it.”
“See that you do. ‘Poet.’”
This was my first night drinking arak, and already I could feel its effects taking hold. I felt one pair of invisible hands pressing its thumbs against my cheekbones, while another tugged the flesh of my chin and scalp.
“So, Samer, tell us about your poetry,” Tamer said, glass raised.
“There is nothing to tell,” I hiccupped, “because there is nothing. I don’t write—”
“Oh,” said Dina.
“More time for the cause,” said Dunya.
“—anymore, I don’t write. Right now I rent from an older white-”
“WHITE,” said Jamil. “I almost forgot. The white people. The whitey-whites. Sorry Samer, one sec–have you ever tried dating them?”
“Jamil. Shut up,” Dunya snapped.
“I’m just saying,” Jamil said, “has anyone ever tried? Because it’s actually a trick question. You really can’t try, you can’t do it. And I’m telling you from experience. The problem with white people is that, structurally, as a culture—”
“Holy shit,” Dunya seethed.
“—maybe culture is the wrong word, but I think you all understand me, as a collective, as an at least somewhat internally intelligible group, they have some codes. And according to those codes, let’s say you—Samer, sure, you-try and date them. The truth is, you can’t, and it would never work.”
“Shut up, Jamil,” Mohamed said, “I don’t even know what you’re saying at this point and I feel like I actually agreed with you earlier.”
“IT WOULDN’T WORK, SAMER,” Jamil continued, drawing out his voice and ignoring Mohamed, “because white people only date each other. And they don’t consider you human.”
“You. Are such. An idiot,” Dunya said.
“Nope. It’s true,” Jamil continued. “That’s the problem with white people—you can never be anything but a distraction from white-bread-wonderland to them. An Orientalist fantasy. You’re an in-between, half-half sort of deal while they wait for normietopia to glow a little brighter. Or maybe just seem less faded, at least. And if you actually have the audacity to think that you could ever be anything more—HOW could you even think it? You’re like a geographer at a flat-earther convention. Like a Palestinian kid thinking he can knock down the moon with a stone. Try it. You’ll spend lifetimes straining, with nothing but a shrinking pile of rocks to show for it.”
Dunya began to lecture Jamil on the “political irresponsibility” of the metaphor.
“You have our children displacing the moon with their resistance, and—for what? What does that even mean? That you get to date white people? What the hell is that, even?”
“What responsibility?” Jamil snapped. “Artists are free; metaphors grow in abundance. My art comes from within, it—”
“I think I live with a cannibal,” I blurted out. Dina bit down on a chip she’d just placed into her mouth with one fierce crunch.
Again, all eyes turned to me.
“Why haven’t you called someone about it?” Dunya asked after I had explained the situation. “Not that I mean—I don’t believe in the police, of course. But I’m just curious. How can you just keep taking it for granted?”
“Maybe I’m not sure of what I’m seeing,” I said. “Maybe I just want, or need to read things a certain way. To alleviate boredom. To give me inspiration at a time where I can’t find any.”
“Trust me, brother,” Mohamed said, putting his hand on my shoulder, “inspiration can come at a much cheaper price.”
“But he’s right,” Tamer said. “Especially if everything is cleared away later. What proof is there? Who can he really turn to?”
After a pause, Jamil said, “Anyway, white supremacy is all about cannibalism.”
“This, I need to hear,” Mohamed laughed.
Dunya sunk back into the couch, eyes closed with seeming irritation.
“Think about it,” Jamil continued. “Our lands are colonized. Imperialized. If we can’t stay, we’re spewed out all over the world, including here, where it’s a constant media feast over the need to kill and control the Arabs to feed the arms and security industries. They’re always already consuming us in some way.”
“Yes, and it’s even better because colonizers are the ones who invented cannibalism as a pretext for genocide, expropriation and exploitation in the first place,” Dina added.
“Right!” Jamil added excitedly. “You don’t have to cry over the death of a ‘savage,’ do you,” he said, enunciating the quotation marks with fresh irony. He turned to me. “You’re living with an inverted metaphor, made flesh.”
“Made flesh to eat flesh,” Dina giggled.
Now they clinked glasses.
Tamer turned to me and smiled. “Need a ride? Let’s go. They can do this all night.”
As we moved to leave, Jamil called out to me. “Remember—the moon! Don’t bother.”
“SHUT UP, Jamil!” Dunya yelled as the door closed behind us.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said after we had reached the house.
“No problem,” Tamer said. “I hope you enjoyed yourself.”
“Definitely,” I said. “I hope to see you all around. And to get more involved.”
We hugged goodbye. As I turned to get out of the car, Tamer said, “Listen. I’m glad you could meet the others. And I know we just met, but Jamil is moving out next month. Would you want to take his place? Maybe forget about this whole cannibal thing.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
He smiled, and gnashed his teeth exaggeratedly. “Great. Be careful.”
It was only after Tamer had driven away that I realized how dark it was. I needed the flashlight on my phone to get my key into the lock on the front door. I still needed the phone on my way to the kitchen to get a glass of water. The night was so relentlessly dark it felt much later, and I wondered where the moonlight was. I thought of Jamil and the stones, and chuckled.
I flicked on the light in the kitchen to grab a glass from the cupboard. For the first time since I’d moved in, I heard a long creak from upstairs.
In a little plate right by the sink was what looked to be a heart.