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Camel Ride, Los Angeles, 1986

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February 15, 2011

What is there to hate about a camel?

Khakpour-576.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by th.omas

It had come down to this: a camel ride.

Mid-eighties, Los Angeles Zoo, a place I had never been before. The air was dusty and soft-celled, the sky was orange and cloudless, our faces a light lavender—this is what the matte photos tell us today—and my hair a glossy black bowl, my body too-thin and sloppily tucked into overalls. There is a picture of me attempting to embrace an all-white goat in the petting zoo; another of me in front of one indifferent bored giraffe; and one where I’m trying to force a straw from a super-sized cup into my little brother’s nose, and the blurry hand on the edge of it trying to stop me. It’s the hand of my father.

There is no picture of us with the camels. That is only in my head.

It was a lucky day, the middle of a week, a school day he let us get off, because he was working that weekend, a fact we did not know; again and again, he said it was because he loved us so much, a fact he reminded us of on the way there, on the way everywhere. And we saw the lions, which he reminded us appeared on our flag, which is still our flag, and the polar bears, which looked out of place in all the sunshine but that he assured us were fine, assured us they loved this climate that LA and Tehran shared, and the monkeys who were mostly sleeping except for one, who entertained the laughing masses by regurgitating whatever food he kept trying to eat over and over, which my father did not like—what is the meaning of this, of him?—but tolerated for our sake. There were animals we wanted to leave and animals we did not want to leave.

And there it was. Who DOESN’T want to ride a camel? the sign, yellow and maroon, dared.

We didn’t. My father pointed out that it looked like they could take all three of us on one camel, how fortunate. He told us we didn’t have to be scared, all the other kids were loving it.

We weren’t scared. I wasn’t scared, rather. I wasn’t thinking about my little brother. Suddenly time moved more slowly than it had all day. It was suddenly just me, my father, and the camel. Something, it seemed, had to be done.

In my head I thought, I don’t want to. You can’t make me.

Out loud he said, “Are you ready? Come on, everyone! This is what you’ve been waiting for!”

What we’d been waiting for was more likely a place where we could be like everyone else, rid of a certain yellow and maroon script, rid of rides on the backs of things or just the idea of us riding on the backs of things, especially that thing. We were somewhere else altogether.

We two children stood there, frozen, shamed, butts of a cruel joke. Only I looked at him, straight in the eye, though he was already counting dollar bills, asking my mother to get in line for us. It had come down to this, apparently.

     * * * *      

We were only a few years into this: our arrival to America, a place I attempted to call home, even though I was warned it was all temporary. My first memories were my last memories of Iran: first, an old man sitting with me at a party with much dancing—a relative perhaps—talking and talking and suddenly stirring his tea with a finger; the next: false air raids in the night sky of Iran, empty threats from Iraq-side, a circle of beautiful pink lights in the black night sky, a thing of beauty to me, even in my mother’s shaking arms.

I loved this country with the lukewarm, watery, neither-here-nor-there love that you bestow upon any country when it’s the only country you know. I accepted it and never, until much later, considered that it might not accept me.

I learned English through watching The Twilight Zone. Over and over I filled our quiet home with the magical incantation, “You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the sign post up ahead, your next stop… the Twilight Zone!”

I also learned English through imitating kids on the playground of preschool, a twilight zone I had been thrown into early. They said bad words, I said bad words, and I went home and said the bad words to my parents. Usually it was okay because they didn’t know what the words meant either, but sometimes they did and then a huge sadness would fill the room and not leave until the blabber of the TV would interrupt and shake off its weight.

I loved this country with the lukewarm, watery, neither-here-nor-there love that you bestow upon any country when it’s the only country you know. I accepted it and never, until much later, considered that it might not accept me.

     * * * *      

The camel that is looking right at us has a name-plate on its blanket. It says its name is Scheherazade. The name of a relative of mine is Shahrzad, but I think no relation. My father however points it out and laughs loudly about it. My mother, whose relative it is, smiles weakly, more bored than anything. Where is my mother, I wonder, a question I often have. She is off in the Sears catalogue, in One Life to Live, in herb and kidney bean and lamb stew for dinner tonight, in laundry and dishes.

I am alone with my concern for the situation.

There is another camel named Latte and another camel named CoCo, but I see Scheherazade alone, Scheherazade alone sees us.

     * * * *      

I became good at becoming one of them. For the most part. One thing I realized was that to become one of them, you don’t just think of them as them. You think of them as people, which is weirder and less obvious and more exhausting than it sounds. Which type of them would you like to be? Take a role. There was the teacher’s pet, the prettiest girl, the class clown, the fastest runner, the shyest kid, the overweight one, the genius, the most crazy. There are two that appeal to me: the weird one and the bad girl. The first one I was terrifically suited for. My clothing style in the first grade was a compromise of dependence and independence—I wore whatever overdressed thing my mother wanted but added a few items of my own, like a cowboy hat or neon soccer socks or a scarf tied around my head as a bandana. Kids always commented on how weird I looked. I started to say weird things, made jokes that made no sense even to me, made noises that were otherworldly and took on a faraway look. During recess I drew instead of played, a weird thing to do. I hung out with teachers more than other students: weird. Even a teaching assistant called me “weirdo” for tagging along with her so much. I showed other students the content of my lunch from home: a grey mottled eggplant dip that smelled like carpet, I declared, beating them to it even though I loved few things more than kashkeh bademjan, and a bright yellow rice pudding with a heart in cinnamon, sholeh zard, which I also loved and also pretended was made of plastic for their sake. They wrinkled their noses, and some shrieked and even moved away, and I smiled. Weird, weird, weird.

The bad girl I was less suited for but I wanted. A way to be different was to simply be weird but another way, said the movies, was to be a villain. When it came time to try out for roles in the school’s production of Dorothy and the Rainbow Connection—a kiddie-low-budget version of The Wizard of Oz—I knew exactly what I wanted to be. While all the popular girls or pretty girls aimed for Dorothy or Glenda or even Toto, I wanted to be the Wicked Witch of the East. I told the teacher that and she looked at me, amused. She said if I had to be a witch, she could see Glenda only, sorry to say. I shook my head. She said surely I knew what a Glenda type I was. I shook my head again; it bothered me. She said you’re too good to be a bad witch—at best you could be a good witch. And I took this badly, like recent experiences where adults tried to discourage me—piano lessons in which the piano teacher, frustrated by my slow learning, said my hands were better suited for pottery; ice skating lessons, where the teacher complained I dragged my left foot oddly, and asked me to withdraw, worried I had some kind of condition.

My only condition: badness, weirdness.

I tried out for the bad witch still, defiantly, in front of that teacher who just smiled as if she had forgotten our conversation. I tried out and I failed. I did not get a lead, but I did get a one-liner. I was Dorothy’s cousin Laurie, a made-up character, who in one line was to catalog all the food they had at this particular Kansas reunion: fried chicken, biscuits, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potato pie, etc., foods I never, ever ate.

     * * * *      

Scheherazade is being fed a handful of something that looks like grass. It’s hard to say if Latte and Coco eat the same stuff, but one has to assume they do. One has to assume.

     * * * *      

“It will soon be over, anyway,” my mother is saying, with a light hand on my shoulder.

Where is my mother? My mother was the one who was always home, but where was she? Why could I never get a solid grasp on her? I knew if I could only remember when she was pregnant with my brother, five years ago, then she’d be memorable—big like those balloon mothers with babies inside them on TV—but then it’s possible even then she’d be just the vessel for my little brother. She was already something of that. When she wasn’t my father’s wife that is. Or my grandparent’s daughter. Or Shahrzad and the others’ cousin. But when does she get to be my mother, I wondered?

Dad is saying, “It is time! It is time! Who doesn’t want a came ride indeed?!“ He is saying that in English, unlike everything else. And this is the worst part. Everyone hearing him in his accent—obviously Middle Eastern—getting excited about a camel ride.

I was never bad enough to make her mad or worry, which my father and brother seemed to do. But was I good enough either? She tried to make cupcakes once, her first time making that American dessert, and she passed the bowl of batter to me. I looked at it, confused. She said, “You shouldn’t eat too much of this. It can make you fat. You can become like those fat Americans.” But I didn’t eat any of it; I never became a fat American, not even when I got much older. She looked down at the pasty mess and sniffed it and put the bowl in the sink. “Anyway, Iranians can be fat too, remember. We’re no better than anyone else, no matter what your dad says…”

     * * * *      

Dad is saying, “It is time! It is time! Who doesn’t want a came ride indeed?!” He is saying that in English, unlike everything else. And this is the worst part. Everyone hearing him in his accent—obviously Middle Eastern—getting excited about a camel ride.

I am staying put, looking not at him but my mother who looks weak and bored. She finally points at me—but it’s not quite at me, I realize. It is over me; it is at him, my father. She is telling me to go to him.

But my father no longer looks like my father. He looks like… a Middle Eastern man I don’t know. He looks like a sheik, a terrorist, a sultan, a mullah, a dervish, a camel jockey.

How do I know that term? I do not know how I know that term.

“Are you coming?” he is saying, still in English. “The camel is waiting!”

I shake my head.

“Be a good girl, come on!” he is saying.

But I’m a bad girl. I am the worst girl. I want nothing to do with that thing. But I don’t say that, of course. By the time he gets to me, I say what I usually say when I am in these kinds of predicaments, something that is not altogether untrue.

“I can’t do it,” I say. “I’m very sick suddenly. Help.”

     * * * *      

I never needed to ask who my father was. I knew him well.

He was the one of us who should have been the most worried. Jet black hair, dark brown skin, eyes all pupil. He looked the way they imagine.

My mother had hair she dyed reddish-blonde and light skin to go with it. They said she looked like a non-lead actress from Dynasty, a show I didn’t know then, but a name I heard around her cousins a lot, who liked to flatter her over and over, maybe in attempts to make her more present. But she was like those fair women all around us, on TV, in supermarkets, outside waiting for their blond children—like lemon and ice and water and snow and winter. She was barely there.

My brother had her light eyes and light curls, as if she dyed hers so much that lightness suddenly took permanence in him. This will pass, they say, young kids always have lighter hair. But when I looked at old photos of myself, my hair was black, black like his. The sun alone was what made my hair ever play brown.

I was a lot like him, they said. This embarrassed me. I wanted no part of it. I didn’t want to be like her either. I wanted to be unlike them and everyone really. I wanted to be the girl who had no bubble beside her name, nothing to fill in. I wanted to be something altogether different, but instead I was like him.

And he was unmistakable. And just as you’d imagine, he had the temper too. Everything was loud, even his laughter. He played the native music too loud, he prayed with all his might, and when he said my country, it was not this one. He was the one who told us over and over that we wouldn’t be here long. It took me a long time to realize that he was often wrong about things and to not take him so seriously.

But at seven, I still had no idea. When he said camel ride, I didn’t know what my outs were. There was no reasoning, I thought.

And so I said I was sick and I thought I was sick—thought myself into it—and I was sick. He had no choice now but to accept it and go ahead with it anyway, bad father of a bad girl that he was.

     * * * *      

He has heard this one before and he knows how to deal with it. He put a hand on my forehead and says I feel cool. He calls my mother over and she tries it too.

“She is okay,” she says, staring off somewhere, somewhere far far away from everything here.

She hands over my brother, who is smiling at the sky.

“Don’t stare into the sun,” my father always has to remind him. That is in Farsi. In English he adds, “Who doesn’t want to ride a camel, right? Right?”

My brother is in. He’s fallen. There is nothing I can do.

     * * * *      

I never felt any jealousy with my brother. He could have the cute, the adorable, the sweet, the good. He at four knew to hug and kiss everyone. I never did that, never do that. He said I love you like it was just another nursery rhyme. He had a monopoly over things I didn’t want, the good and the normal.

Our worlds rarely intersected. I read to him while he played with toy trucks. When he cried for a toy at the drugstore, I pretended he didn’t exist. Once or twice, I was asked to watch him when my mother went out while my dad was working and it was nothing. Neither he nor I were ever in danger when we were alone.

We were sometimes in danger when they were with us. My mother, because she was never there. My father because of things like this, how things come down to things like this.

     * * * *      

His hand, big and sweaty, is around my wrist. In his other arm is my brother. My mother is behind us, waiting, waving, even as she looks down at the pavement.

“I just hate camels, that’s all,” I tell him in the end, all I can think of saying. And for a second there is something scary I see in his eyes.

I don’t know if I am doing it on purpose, breathing loudly to remind him he is being negligent of his sick daughter or if I am actually gasping for air, sick as I really am.

But we’re second in line. Second and last. The line ends with us. It is, as I suspected, not popular for anyone to ride camels.

My father finally notices me upset. “What’s wrong, liver?” he says, except “liver” in Farsi means dear. “Why so sad? This is a great opportunity. So much fun!”

I look down and put my hand over my heart. It is not exaggerated; my heart actually is pounding, as if it’s knocking against my chest. Let me out of here, it seems to say, as if it can’t last such an ordeal either.

“I just don’t want to ride the camel,” I say. “And I’m sick.”

My father laughs, too loudly. “You are afraid, is that it? There is nothing to be afraid of!”

I shake my head.

“Then what is it? You’re not sick, trust me!”

I think about what to say. What can I say? What can be said of this all? I would say, Father, I don’t want to be taken for what I inevitably think they will take this as, a group of Middle Easterners here—Iranians actually, and just a few years after these guys were selling “Fuck Iran” buttons in supermarkets, something I will learn about much later, Father, but you must have known or did you not, did you choose not to know—a group of Middle Easterners, about to get on the back of, of all animals, a camel, the camel being the animal they associate with us, what they take us as, camel jockeys, haven’t you heard, haven’t you heard, and don’t ask me how I’ve heard… Father, why would we put ourselves in that position? Isn’t there a danger in that? And if not real danger, then isn’t there danger in exposing us to too much public humiliation? For even if it isn’t on their lips, it certainly is in their eyes, and at seven even, Father, I swear, I can read their eyes—

“I just hate camels, that’s all,” I tell him in the end, all I can think of saying.

And for a second there is something scary I see in his eyes. “There is nothing to hate. It’s just an animal, that’s all. What is there to hate?”

I don’t say anything and then it’s our turn.

We ride the camel. My father behind us, clutching both me and my brother, all three of us silent the whole time, as a blonde woman with a big smile, with eyes shielded behind big sunglasses, walks Scheherazade around the riding area. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination… it is not. I expect the ride to take an eternity, but it takes the five or so minutes they advertise. It feels like it is, five minutes, on top of a camel in the sun, against your father and your brother, nothing more or less.

Then we are down and my mother and father get into a fight because she forgot to take a picture and my father wonders how in the world she could, when she has been so good about it all day. And then my brother has a fit by the ice cream stand, which is out of the particular type of ice cream he wanted, and I suddenly put my hands over my ears to block him out and he pushes me, harder than I know he had in him, and I lose my balance and topple into a vat of cactus.

The rest of our time there is spent in the zoo’s hospital where a kind old lady with tweezers plucks out all the needles in me, one by one.

My father keeps asking me if I am in pain over her shoulder in Farsi and I keep not answering him. My mother is outside entertaining my brother, who is finally eating the ice cream he wanted, bought from another stand, a reward for his wrongdoing.

And the old lady is trying to get me to speak too, keeps asking if I did anything fun. My father finally interjects, “Well, we took a camel ride.”

With all those needles in me, it doesn’t even affect me. I let him have it.

The old lady chuckles. “How brave of you,” she says to me and just me.

And that snaps me out of it. I look her straight in the eye, questioning.

“You fucking dune goons,” she goes on. “Why don’t you go back to your country?”

My heart is pounding. Did she really say that?

No, she did not really say that.

She said, “How brave of you. I would have been nervous up there, on a thing like that.”

I nod. How do I tell her I was? That I was so sick that I could die? How do I get into it—I don’t.

By the time all those needles are out of me, I am a grown woman, old even, old as the old lady herself. I have heard, seen, it all. Nothing surprises me really except the beautiful things in life, of which there are fewer than I would have thought. Love is hard, acceptance harder, belonging still hardest. Home is still nothing, who has time for home and all the wondering about its wondrous whereabouts. That orange and lavender day spent among animals is nothing, just a day—what is there, as he would say, to hate.

G

Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran and raised in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and The Village Voice, among other publications around the world. She has been awarded fellowships from Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Sewanee Writers’ Conference, The Ucross Foundation, and Yaddo. Her debut novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove/Atlantic)—a New York Times “Editor’s Choice,” Chicago Tribune “Fall’s Best,” and 2007 California Book Award winner—is out in paperback. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. She has recently finished her second novel.

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