A CULTURAL CRITIC’S STRUGGLE TO TEACH POST-9/11, STAR WARS–OBSESSED YOUTH ABOUT TATOOINE AND THE “IMAGINED LOOK OF EVIL”
A TRIP TO THE DESERT PLANET
In the Fez medina, stone corridors and vertiginous alleys lead you to the henna souk, down near the heart of the oldest part of the 1,200-year-old walled city. Pia turns to me and says, “Remember the medina in Tunisia and the blood on the wall?” Tomorrow she turns four. We are out to prepare for her birthday party. We have ducked into the henna souk, a quiet and cool space in the bustling commercial center of the old city, to catch our breath. It is July, and it is very hot. Our eventual destination this morning is the Attarine, a narrow artery with a constant pulse at the center of the medina; once there, hold tight and stay close.
This is the first time we’ve thrown a children’s party in Morocco. In the weeks since we moved into our house in the medina, we’ve had a series of midday dinner parties for our adult friends and their families—long overdue recompense for their hospitality toward me over the years when I was a graduate student living in a single room, or later as a beginning professor based out of a hotel. Kate and I talk it over and decide that we’ll teach the kids Duck, Duck, Goose, and then we’ll play our new cassettes of Tamer and Nancy (Middle Eastern pop stars) for a few rounds of musical pillows. Sadik, a colleague, is ordering a sheet cake for us at a bakery near his house, and our neighbor Hanane will buy melons, peaches, and bananas at the market near Bab Bou Jeloud and make tea. Pia wanted a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Oliver, her older brother, joked that we could use a real donkey since there are so many around the medina. No, I said, we shouldn’t play that game, because our Moroccan friends might think it was disgusting to look at a picture of a donkey’s bottom.
I can’t recall the blood on the wall in Tunisia, though I know Pia isn’t making it up. Where was that? Was it in Sfax, maybe, the austere city of southern Tunisia, where the idea of foreign tourists seemed an annoyance to the hotel staff and the guardians of the fortress, and yet where we felt so at ease? Maybe Tamazret, the small Berber village in the desert, where we were alone with our guide—whom we met by knocking on his door in the middle of the village—and only two or three Tamazretis for half a day? It was only three months earlier, as the late winter gave way to a beautiful spring in the Sahara, that we traveled farther and farther south, on our way to Tataouine. Tataouine was our ultimate destination as much for its name, which inspired Tatooine, the desert planet at the center of Star Wars, as for its location. Oliver, like so many of his peers, is obsessed with the world of Star Wars; visiting Tataouine sounds to him like traveling directly into his favorite movie. But the journey was also toward something less easily mapped and more elusive, something about raising kids post-9/11 without fear or stereotyping of a part of the world I cherish. That was travel without signposts, and I was making most of it up as I went along. The two destinations, I came to see, were related.
And now I recall an image of bright red on dirty brown stone, a medina wall somewhere in North Africa, paint probably, red too bright for blood. And teasing Oliver, surely, with Pia listening, as always. “Is that blood?” I may have said, eerily. Pia laughing, pretending not to be scared. Oliver more tentative. “You’re joking, Dad,” he says knowingly. “Right?”
Pia’s sentence stands alone uncomfortably. But it pleases me nonetheless, her memory, because it is vivid and it is spatial and it indicates that this—all this, which has come at some great expense and effort—has had some impact on her.
It is less Pia I worry about, if only because of her age. Oliver, going on seven, has given this trip a sense of urgency. Though I travel frequently to Morocco for my work, it has been five years since we brought Oliver here for a summer. That was the summer before 9/11, and also the summer before he turned two. As time slipped by, I thought little of the parallel.
But now, as he moves from first grade to second, I can’t deny that Oliver and his peers are learning about “9/11” and getting ideas—from all the wrong sources, one fears—about what that day means and about impossibly big words like terror and evil. Oliver, born in September 1999, and his contemporaries are among the first children to have come to consciousness after 9/11 was already an established fact. Those who were three and four years old on that day, and certainly the kindergarteners, were generally more tuned in to their parents and to the fact that something big was happening. But you really can’t explain to a two-year-old what is happening when something like 9/11 happens. By the time you could explain to Oliver or his cohort what the event was or means, it was already history, and you were catching them up on the things that happened before they were paying attention.
For me this was personal and also professional. Having spent more than a decade uncovering the history of American misapprehensions about North Africa and the Middle East and how they played out in movies, literature, popular culture, and politics, and also how North Africans had looked back at American culture, I had done more than simply teach and write about my material. I had also become deeply involved with colleagues and friends in Morocco and the greater Arab world. It came as something of a shock, then, to watch my child’s generation coming into historical consciousness with so little to hold on to.
If I could make Morocco and Tunisia a part of Oliver and Pia’s sense of the world—Arab friends with first names and a language that signifies rather than merely standing as an impenetrable block—they would have tools, I thought, with which to negotiate the media stereotypes and ill-considered ignorances that too often pass unquestioned. That was the politics of it. But there was something else: that which had attracted me to this part of the world in the first place. I wanted them to have as part of their imaginations the polyrhythms of Andalusian and Gnawa musics, the staccato tempo and wicked punning of colloquial Moroccan Arabic, and the North African sense of generosity. I wanted them to feel the particular space formed by the urban architecture of the Maghreb and the way walking through a medina, or sitting around a big dish of couscous, reaching in and grabbing the moist grains with your fingers, makes you feel part of a community larger than yourself. At times I wondered whether it was a losing proposition. What else to do but persist?
PARTY AT DAR RICHARD
The easiest way to get to our house, for people who don’t know the medina: Enter Fez through the Bab Bou Jeloud, head down the Talâa Seghira (the thoroughfare whose name means “small hill”), pass the cafés, the tree, the defunct Cinéma Bou Jeloud (a palimpsest of old posters—lurid blondes in tight tops advertising unknown American B pictures, Hong Kong action flicks, Egyptian melodramas), pass the back entrance to the Bou Inania madrasa (fourteenth-century), and then a few hundred meters more past the black-market DVDs, the Italian Moka coffee pots (made in China) stacked along the wall, the mod clothing shops with shirts that say follow me or feel good in sequins, the faux-Prada sunglasses shops, the Palais Mnebhi (nineteenth-century, later the headquarters of Résident-Général Hubert Lyautey during the French protectorate). Then pass Amsterdam Cyber, the moul hleeb (the milk stand, for buttermilk and soft cheese), under another arch, past California Cyber, and turn right at the opening between two daily mosques into the Derb Errom, our quarter, now into a smaller passage, past the public oven, the tailor’s shop. At the garbage heap in the slight opening of the Derb, turn into the small alley; usually it will be dark. Duck your head to go under the passage—then about fifteen or twenty meters farther and we are the wooden door on the right, as a very narrow alley shoots off to the right. Use the upper knocker if you’re on a donkey, or the lower knocker if on foot. Don’t worry if someone is sitting on the step in front of our house, blocking your way. Say “salaam alaykum” or, if you can’t manage that, at least say “bonjour” and he will be friendly and stand up. Whoever is there may be sitting on a piece of cardboard, or an empty oil can. Our step is likely more comfortable or private than his house. We’re all neighbors. If you’re lost at the end, ask for “dar Richard.” “Richard’s house” is what people in the derb call it, this remarkable dar with its thirty-foot ceilings and a courtyard open to the sky, a square of carved wood and painted inlays framing the perfect blue over Fez.
We’re just temporary residents, of course. Yet we are quickly known around this part of the medina and treated well. After all, we are a family, which always gets you points in Morocco, and with little children who say “salaam alaykum” and “labès.” Madame dresses respectfully, Monsieur speaks Arabic, and there is no wine in our house. On our first evening, Kate pulled two tiny bottles of airplane wine from her purse. I carefully smuggled the empties out of the medina to a trash can up in the ville nouvelle.
Asma arrives last at Pia’s birthday party, as she has to finish up a grant proposal before she joins us. Asma is a sociology professor in Texas whom I met at a conference when we were both graduate students. She grew up in the Fez medina and is intrigued that I have brought my family to live here for the summer. She is spending the summer up in the ville nouvelle with her sister and her niece, and I encourage her to come to Pia’s party. We saw each other just last spring, when I invited her to Northwestern to lecture on Moroccan women’s NGOs. I tell her the address and start to give directions. “Is that near an oven and before a woman’s hammam?” Asma asks. “Yes,” I say, surprised, “there is an oven right next door.” (I hadn’t noticed the hammam.) Asma: “I know the place.”
I forget to listen for Asma once the party starts, occupied teaching Moroccan children, several of whom have just met each other, how to play Duck, Duck, Goose. Most are the children of our professor friends, except for Khadija, Hanane’s six-year-old daughter. Mouna, my colleague Touriya’s four-year-old daughter, has come. She has incongruously brought Pia a book called The First Thanksgiving, written for children and illustrated with Pilgrims and Native Americans. Mouna can’t bring herself to present Pia with the book and carries her gift through the party. Baby Theo, our third child, not yet a year old, crawls off the Berber hanbil that Kate has laid out for him.
I hear the knocker sounding at the door louder than when the kids in the alley play with it, and I remember now that Asma is coming. Asma tells me that she found the place easily. She says that even if she did not already know the medina, she could have found us anyway. When she was well up the Talâa Seghira, children asked her if she was going to the “Americans’ party” and escorted her all the way to the door. How did they know? I asked. It’s hardly a big affair. “Kids in the medina know everything,” Asma tells me. When I open the door to let her in, she is framed by a dozen children who peer past us both and try to see into the courtyard of the house. They give a little cheer when I open the door. I don’t know many of the faces. I do recognize Abderrahman, the redheaded boy who lives nearby, and I’m not surprised to see Nabil, Hanane’s twelve-year-old, and Ussama, her five-year-old, neither of whom she will allow into our house. Khadija is as much a medina celebrity today as Pia, as she is allowed inside Dar Richard. (Pia herself will evoke “aid milad said”—“happy birthday”—out in the medina for the next day or two.) The wall of children’s faces behind Asma reminds me of the crowd outside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in the movie. I don’t feel comfortable with the analogy, but I can’t chase it.
On the ground, as it were, does my experiment reveal in the end only something about Western privilege—the great disparity between my American kids in their grand medina house and the poor outside? We are paying $700 a month rent, which seems cheap for such a grand house; it’s a fraction of our mortgage back home for our tight quarters. Hanane the other day complained about her cost of living next door, with her nine children, six of them her own, three from her husband’s first marriage—her husband who doesn’t work and spends all day at the café. She tells me her rent (one tenth of ours) for a tiny three-room home. Often when she comes to prepare breakfast for us, she has her youngest child slung to her back, a one-year-old named Driss. I want to encourage Driss and Theo—just a few months apart—to play, but I can tell from looking at Driss that he’s got bad conjunctivitis (Hanane wipes away the mucus dripping from his eyes with her finger) and he has a bad cough. When I press her, she mentions the boy’s persistent intestinal problems. I try to convince her to take him to a doctor, but she says she will put kohl on his eyes. (The kohl does work on the conjunctivitis, but Driss’s intestines get worse and Hanane finally brings him to a doctor, which I pay for.)
Should we have followed Khalid’s advice and spent the summer in an apartment up in the ville nouvelle with its straight streets and sidewalk cafés, something more familiar, more modern? I silently resisted his suggestion, wanting my kids to experience Moroccan culture. The fifth-floor walk-up Khalid had found for us was stifling in the 105-degree heat, whereas dar Richard was airy and almost cool. Khalid’s unspoken skepticism is similar to what I imagine Asma may think. Or maybe it’s just my own doubt. What do we think we’re doing, coming down to the medina? Didn’t I just publish a book critiquing such exoticism? Just what is my project in Fez after all?
A POSTCOLONIAL CRITIQUE
The previous April. We are in Oliver’s first-grade class, a week after our return from Tunisia. hip hip hooray, we will hear from a star wars expert today! says the handwritten sign that greets the first-graders each morning. I feel slightly let down, even though I suggested the Star Wars tie-in for my presentation on Tunisia. Dr. Bridgman, Oliver’s teacher, tells me that we will also be joined by the third-grade assistant teacher, who is bringing half of his class to my presentation. They’re really into Star Wars, she says. All the boys are these days. The final installment, Revenge of the Sith, has been released on DVD.
It’s just a hook, though not a false one, the Star Wars link. What’s true is that Oliver did visit several of the shooting locations from the Star Wars films in southern Tunisia, and that the locations ended up guiding the itinerary of our trip, after my lectures were done in Tunis and Sfax. I had had an idea for an essay on Star Wars, the coda I never wrote for my book on the American fascination with the Maghreb from Casablanca to the Marrakech hippies. When George Lucas made his way to the subterranean homes of Matmata and the desert villages around Tataouine, both of which inspired him deeply, he was following a path well worn by American filmmakers and novelists who had imagined frontier tales set in North African locales. I felt I could justify a few extra days in the Tunisian south. Really, though, the point was to think through Oliver’s generation’s relationship to the film that is their everything, and I think best when I’m traveling. Star Wars, I’d decided, might be another key to those emerging attitudes about the Arab, the imagined look of evil.
Whatever the politics of the saga, the enormity of Lucas’s project and how it merged an exotic world with a white boy’s fight against galactic evil in such a compelling way became the script against which these same boys and girls would interpret the “Axis of Evil” and the so-called war on terror. “Kiddie orientalism” is what I call this fascination with Star Wars and its range of planets and creatures, from the Arab backgrounds of Tatooine, as it’s spelled in the films, the Eastern cityscapes and underwater worlds of Naboo, and high-Asian fantasy-look of Princess Padmé Amidala, red silks and impossible coifs. On their own, the Star Wars films, with their enormously popular LEGO tie-ins and Game Boy/Xbox/Nintendo video-game versions, would have created a compelling and exotic universe. But in the context of all those Fox specials and Official Administration Rhetoric the films seem to me a way of organizing the world—of comprehending it, in the dual sense of the word—for kids as they emerge into it as vaguely aware citizens.
As it turns out, Star Wars was also my generation’s everything, and going through this new fad with Oliver has been something of a revelation. I’m watching the original Star Wars movie with Oliver on DVD one night a year ago, and I realize that I haven’t seen it since I first saw it so many times in the theater in 1977. And yet it comes back, every line and every image, nearly thirty years later. It’s my generation’s Casablanca in that way—and in others.
So we are here at school with DVDs, a map of Tunisia, a silver pot of mint tea, and a rust-colored tagine filled with couscous for the tasting later, and Kate and Pia in djellabas, even baby Theo in his wool hoodie from the coastal town of Nabeul (which the boys hear as “Naboo,” another planet in the invented world). Is this all some effort at postcolonial critique for first graders? Yes. Is it a belated continuation of my experiment, a decade ago during graduate school, in anti-exoticist travel writing about “exotic” North Africa? I suppose. Are both failing projects? Alas.
I sit on a low chair with twenty-five first- and third-graders on the carpet in front of me, my PowerBook on my lap, a clip from The Phantom Menace on the screen: the slave quarters of Mos Espa. Then a slide show of images of the two locations that formed the basis of the shots: Ksar Ouled Soltane, two dozen kilometers south of Tataouine, and Ksar Haddada, to the northwest, on the road to Ghoumrassen. These bulbous structures made of clay and stones are granaries, I tell them, ghorfa in Arabic. We describe the pots of olives and olive oil and dates that are stored in their cool chambers. The point is not to be pedantic. And the first-graders seem duly intrigued by the photos of Oliver and Pia on the planet Tatooine, as they see it.
A question, good. Yes, Jay. He stammers a little, but then: “Why does Chewbacca never see Yoda again after the Battle of Kashyyyk?” Well, I say, buying time. I am stumped. A third-grade boy jumps in to rescue me.
I learn that the boys know everything about Lucas’s cosmography, which for a while intimidated me since I didn’t, though I had seen the films. (I subsequently read a DK level-4 reader on Star Wars, CliffsNotes for the seven-year-old generation, and am now much better prepared for these sorts of questions. Now I, too, can argue about the relation of Boba Fett to Jango Fett and in turn to the clone troopers.) I also learn that most of the girls don’t seem to know much about Star Wars, but a few appear eager to catch up.
I can’t tell if any of the kids get my basic point about the real place behind the movie, simply that it is a living, breathing place with normal people in it, and that wearing robes or covering your hair with fabric doesn’t make you a villain or an alien. That is the reason I’m here, of course. I am convinced that what’s happening in Star Wars, the sand crawlers and desert criminals, the lost patrols and bandage-headed creeps, the desert landscape as Western frontier, with a lone hero on a solitary journey standing up for what’s right, saving the galaxy against a dark force (and a father gone bad), that these are the collective fantasies that a generation holds somewhere inside about struggles in the desert. Maybe even about their global impact, but certainly the romance of battling in the desert.
I worry, too, that whatever else the boys of my generation learned later, about the political history of the Middle East, the Balfour Declaration, Wahhabism, the differences between Sunni and Shia beliefs, What Went Wrong?, and the curriculum of madrasas, that somehow Luke Skywalker bargaining with Jawas and evading the shots of Sand People (right out of John Ford’s Mesopotamia western The Lost Patrol, I might add) runs more deeply. These boys, Oliver’s peers, know the saga of Luke, but they are more caught up in that of his father, Anakin, developed in the prequel episodes released in 1999, 2002, and 2005. Anakin is their age in Star Wars: Episode I and will become Darth Vader by the end of Episode III. It’s one of the curious ironies of Star Wars that these boys’ fathers were raised on the tale of Anakin’s son, Luke, while they were raised on the tale of Luke’s father, a father who is so deeply flawed that he must eventually be defeated by the son.
I read once that High Noon was the film most often screened in the private White House theater for presidents Eisenhower through Clinton. Over the course of five decades, presidents kept watching that film again and again. Casablanca placed third after another western. Are the famous continuities of U.S. foreign policy—and Americans’ acceptance of those policies—explained by the popularity of movies like High Noon and Casablanca and the image of the lone hero, standing up against the world and against the evil in it? Casablanca, the most famous film about America’s place in the new world order, gave a narrative to World War II and provided a way to think about the form of empire America might establish in the world—allying with but differentiating itself from European colonialism (“This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Rick tells Louis as they stroll off hand in hand). And Star Wars, a rewriting of Casablanca on a galactic scale, starts from that same desert, a Casablanca-like cantina at its center, another western set in the Sahara. Here we go again, imagining our national mission out of dry and dusty places. For Oliver’s generation, on the precipice of entering a world saturated with talk of what Robert Fisk mordantly calls the Great War for Civilization, can they but confuse the epic war of the galaxies with that unending, impossible quest against that which terrifies?
VESTIGES OF LUCAS
Tataouine is, when you finally get there, an administrative town in the deep south of Tunisia. If it weren’t for the thrill of seeing the name on a road sign and being able to say that you went to Tataouine—which you know the initiated will hear as Tatooine, the desert planet where Luke Skywalker helps his uncle Lars farm moisture while dreaming of adventure, where he buys a couple of droids from a Jawa sand crawler and learns from a hologram of a cosmopolitan princess in peril—well, then, you might be disappointed by the town itself. It’s low and mostly modern cement block and looks like other French-built garrisons in the Sahara. On the wall in our hotel there are some old colonial postcards that depict high-helmeted colonial officers walking among desert tribesmen through a square configuration of buildings, apparently the weekly market. Foum Tataouine, in italics. If it is not an impressive place, it still is a hell of a word: Tataouine. Berber for “mouth of the springs.” And it is situated in a good spot from which to venture to some of the remarkable desert towns of the deep south—Chenini and Douiret, isolated villages carved into remote hillsides that blend into the landscape save for their ant colony perforations, or farther away, Guermessa, along the unpaved road into the Libyan desert.
But if you are here for Star Wars, on the trail, the places you really want to go in this region are the granaries at Ksar Haddada and Ksar Ouled Soltane, at least if you have a child born between 1990 and 2000 with you, as these were used prominently in the prequels. Since I was after the whole series, we also took the ferry to the island of Jerba, near the Libyan border, and drove up the coast on a rocky road to visit Obi-Wan Kenobi’s shack, which appears for a split second in the 1977 film. Then into the town of Ajim, to see the exterior of the famous Cantina. The Cantina is overgrown and abandoned now, a chicken coop on the roof, but still there. Across the street is an apartment building with small shops on the ground floor. Two Tunisian women were standing outside, opening up their shop for the morning. They watched quietly as I photographed the old Cantina. I asked them if they had ever seen Star Wars—harb an-najoum? No, they said, what is that? A film, I said, a famous film from the 1970s, and this building is in it. Ah, they said, that is why people come by from time to time to take pictures.
The Cantina location is just an exterior, though, and not too exciting. The place, the single place, to go in Tunisia if you were a boy born in the 1960s or ’70s is Matmata. Matmata is about four hours south of Sfax, and a couple of hours south of Gabes, the dusty gateway to the Sahara. An hour south of Gabes, the land gets hilly and craggy. If you look carefully, you’ll see that short tunnels are carved into the earth. What they give way to you can’t see, at least from the road. The tunnels cut through the earth and reach circular pits, which in this part of Tunisia are homes. “Troglodytes,” they say in the guidebooks, live here, and somehow we are again in Lucas’s Tatooine, with words like that.
In 1968, a small hotel opened in one of these Matmata pits. Perhaps it was built to accommodate the hippies who were in love with the Maghreb. In any case, it is now and always has been a simple hotel, what is euphemistically called “basic.” But it was the Hotel Sidi Driss in 1976 when George Lucas came across it and decided to build Luke Skywalker’s house here. It’s still the Hotel Sidi Driss, and there are vestiges of the set left behind, which add to the aura.
We got there late in the afternoon and found the hotel empty. A man at the front desk said we could walk around. Unattended, we visited the four pits linked by tunnels and then sat down in the bar, a room like the others dug into the earth. For a while we looked at yellowed photos in their album, till the man behind the desk finally showed up and sold us two-dollar beers and fifty-cent Fantas for the kids. Oliver settles in at a bench, as if he plans to stay, and slowly leafs through the thick binder of magazine clippings and film stills. Like he has come to a museum or an archive—no, a shrine, as it inspires in him quiet reverence. We stay for more than an hour, as dusk falls into dark night, the Sahara around us, Oliver flipping through the book, Kate and Pia exploring the chambers off the central pit, and Theo sleeping in his car seat, which I have placed at the edge of the pit, but not too close to the wall.
When Oliver walks through the entrance to the granary at Ksar Haddada, several days later, he has a very different reaction—energy. These are the Mos Espa slave quarters, those of the 1999 film and a setting in the LEGO Star Wars video game on his Game Boy. It is sunset again when we arrive, and the granary is empty, save for a couple of guys closing up their shop. The low buildings and clay staircases are manageable for this four-foot-tall six-year-old, and he is off, running through the alleys with an imagined light saber in his hands, battling invisible assailants. We are now in the software more than the film—in the movie, there is no battle in the slave quarters—yet Oliver’s poses evoke the Star Wars of my boyhood, too, the battles and shadow fights, that which the film inspired beyond the plot. Now the boys have toy light sabers, and some pretty impressive ones at that, which light up and hum with a static charge. The products and tie-ins are of course at a whole other level now than they were then, and often seem to dictate many elements of the films themselves. While Oliver has a closet full of LEGO Star Wars sets and a drawer full of different colored light sabers, I had a single plastic gun. It was white and shot blue plastic disks through the air.
In the house I grew up in, there was a photo wall with family snapshots in frames. My parents had chosen one photo of each of their three boys to enlarge to eight by ten for the wall. In my photo, taken when I was nine, maybe ten, I was Luke, wearing my judo outfit and aiming this white plastic gun at a point in the distance. I sat outside, one knee up, the gun held close to my eye and at my shoulder. It was a homemade outfit, of course, and I felt mildly dissatisfied with it at the time because it was Japanese and did not match my image of the desert planet of Tatooine. But I see now that it correctly brought together an Arab look, a martial art, and a World War II rifle in ways that Lucas had himself joined east Asia, North Africa, and the 1940s with the Zen qualities of the force, an epic Sahara, and Darth Vader and the stormtroopers. It wasn’t too long after that photo was taken that Raiders of the Lost Ark came out and fascinated us all over again, building on Lucas’s hint and making explicit the alliance of Arabs and Nazis, one that you never see, incidentally, in those desert-war films of the 1940s and ’50s. (That imagined alliance is mostly a post-OPEC invention.)
Soon I would learn about an ayatollah with a name and a look that to me seemed already familiar. And when my mother woke me up one morning in 1980 to tell me that two helicopters had crashed in the desert as they tried to rescue the hostages, the desperate heroism and complete destruction fit with my sense of what wars against desert peoples must be like. At what point did my complicity in the Hollywood fantasies start to lose its childish hue? I have no idea. Eventually I forgot about Star Wars. Like many such memories, these returned as my own children approach the age I was then; I am revisiting my own Luke through Oliver’s Anakin.
When my father didn’t die on 9/11, having taken the elevator down from the seventy-first floor of Tower 1 at 8:28 a.m., crossed the sky lobby at the forty-fourth floor, gone down an express elevator to the lobby and down a third elevator to the parking garage at 8:32, signed out a pool vehicle, and departed the building at 8:36 on his way to JFK Airport, where he was coordinating a Port Authority project, my mother said to me: would things have been different if your father had died? She meant: would I still persist in taking apart representations and collaborating with Arab colleagues and bringing my kids to Morocco and Tunisia and lecturing and researching in Iran and Egypt and Lebanon and India? I don’t know. But I do know that if he had died on 9/11, it is possible that I might have had a different conversation with my friend JJ Jr., shortly after 9/11. JJ Jr., who lives and works in Philadelphia, had himself sent a coworker to represent him at a meeting at the World Trade Center that morning, but the Amtrak was delayed, so JJ, too, was feeling a sense of near-miss. JJ Jr. has worked for the NSC and briefed a president (Clinton) on the assassination of Saddam Hussein’s sons-in-law when they returned to Iraq, having been falsely promised amnesty by their father-in-law. When I heard General Ashcroft on the radio say, the day after, that like all Americans he was angry, I called JJ and asked him, “Are you angry? That is not my prevailing emotion.” “No, I’m not angry,” he said. “That’s not my prevailing emotion, either.” Maybe that’s what my mother meant: Had my father died, would I finally be angry? Would I be angry with the Arabs instead of angry with the administration? Would I finally give up on them instead of us?
For a while after 9/11, my father commuted to Park Avenue South, where the Port Authority had relocated. He finished the project he was running at JFK, the one that had probably saved his life, and then, as it became clear that the funding for his long-term consultancy with the PA was about to dry up, he did an uncharacteristic thing: he stopped looking for the next contract. He’d been there since 1992, and he had been in the WTC for the 1993 garage bombing, when on a February afternoon he walked down seventy-one flights of stairs into smoke and fire. Then, he went back to work proudly, and brought his colleagues flashlights as a grim souvenir. But now, in 2002, he decided he was finished with commuting to New York, which he had done for thirty years, and that it was time to change careers. He had fantasized about leaving the gray-flannelled-suit crowd before, for example when he was downsized from a Big 8 consulting firm after the 1988 recession. But now was different. Five years later, he’s doing things he never would have. He’s a real estate agent, he’s a columnist for a weekly paper, he tutors. He is still a bit arrogant, still a perfectionist, and he still doesn’t talk to me about my work without quibbling over the insignificant details. He doesn’t ask me substantive questions about what I’ve seen and done across North Africa and the Middle East, but instead just cautions me to be careful. Although he is almost completely silent about what happened on 9/11, I can feel its presence in him, a great wordless sadness. Perhaps that’s my projection back on him. Is it possible that underlying all this is a story about fathers and sons—sons trying to outdo or even undo the failures of their fathers? George Bush and his father, Luke Skywalker and Anakin, me and my dad, and hoping that somehow we might break that chain of repeated failure?
WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE
We had Oliver’s second-grade teacher, Jen, over last night for dinner. Sadik has just arrived from Fez for three months, working in Northwestern’s Africana collection, and we invite him to dinner, too. Kate has cooked a leg of lamb with a saffron reduction gravy. The saffron is in packages I brought from Iran, purchased in the covered market at Kashan, long stamens of Asian crocus, deep crimson threads, and it makes a powerful sauce. Oliver’s teacher has lived abroad and in the summers she volunteers in Zambian shantytowns, and she is one of those people who loves to imagine travel to places she hasn’t been. She is full of questions for Sadik about the educational system in Morocco, and we talk about language policy, the primary-school system, Koranic education versus the secular state system. After dinner, when I pour out sweet mint tea that I’ve brewed, Jen asks to see our photos of North Africa.
She tells how one day they were reading a book in class when Oliver said aloud: “It looks like Fez.” She loved that, she said. She wanted to see what Fez looked like, what a medina looks like. I asked Oliver first to describe what a medina is. He tries: “There are shops—and cafés where people watch the World Cup.” Pia adds that they have clothes there to buy. Somehow they are not getting it for her, I think, and I catch myself starting to interrupt. Finally Oliver comes up with “It’s a maze,” which is probably where I would have started, but as I think that I realize that maze is in fact one of my words for the medina, one he’s surely heard me use, and that rather than disappoint me he’s using my word to describe the medina rather than his own, when it’s his own word for the medina that I so desperately want and that we, I think, so desperately need.
Jen looks at the pictures of Tunisia on my laptop, the same slide show I had made for the session last spring in Oliver’s first-grade class, and she says: “Can you just step back and look at this?” She means that it is impressive, that it looks foreign and difficult, but at that moment I am thinking that Oliver used my word when I wanted his own and that by extension these pictures, by which he will increasingly recall this trip, are through my eyes, and that they may be exaggerating or exoticizing in some way similar to calling a medina a “maze.” It’s not a maze at all, is it, if you know where you’re going. Oliver was right—it’s a city with shops and places to watch the World Cup, a place where he was with his family and friends and many strangers who were friendly but whom he could not understand without my help, and a place that he struggled to make sense of between the guideposts of his own good sense and my translations.
And then I wondered again, as I had the spring before as I tried not to be a Star Wars expert, whether it was a losing battle. There was nothing wrong with Jen’s statement about stepping back. It gave me the credit I surely was looking for as a parent trying so hard to raise his children in a world fraught with misunderstanding. And perhaps that’s exactly what she, a good guest, had intended and all she had intended. But somehow I could only think of that picture of me on the wall at my parents’ house as a kid, as Luke Skywalker under my father’s gaze, looking for adventure, and then of General Ashcroft telling me I was angry, and the difficulty of escaping that string of our fathers’ failures, no matter how hard we try, and the blood on the wall in Tunisia.
- Some names and identifying characteristics in this essay have been changed. Some have not. ↩
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