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Him, Me, Muhammad Ali

By
June 1, 2010

In the spring of my twenty-fifth year, just after I got my first legit job as a photo archivist, my father died of a brain aneurysm. He was on the Metro-North train from White Plains to Grand Central; his fellow commuters noticed in Scarsdale. Some mornings, on my own commute into the city from Brooklyn, I’d picture him slumped forward in the red and blue fake-leather seat, a newspaper in his lap.

If you’re a regular reader of the Sun, you may have seen my father’s “Tut is Back and He’s Still Black” series of articles, which he wrote in revolt against museums’ “color-neutral” depiction of King Tutankhamen. While my father was alive, he sometimes said he wanted to be buried with the old African kings, and when I’d pressed him, he’d said his ashes belonged near the great Pyramid of Khufu. I tried to dissuade him by saying that the pyramids were cheesy; that the ancient Egyptians would have never cremated anyone; that his family would fanatically object to the idea of his cremation, but he just waved his hand, squinted his eyes at me, and said he didn’t care.

When I bought my ticket to go to Cairo and scatter him, I wondered what his Egyptian ex-wife, my long-dead mother, would have thought of it.

  *       *       *

My dad’s best friend is an Argentine named Astor, who was his long-time fact checker at the Sun. Their friendship was a tango and so consisted of very little verbal exchange. They played chess and drank coffee and maybe once or twice went fishing. Their dynamic was thus: my father would say something—he had a way of saying everything as though it were the truth of God—and Astor would raise his full eyebrows and shut his eyes once, then tilt his head, and say either: “Yes, I remember that,” “Not true,” or, “That never happened.” When I first met Astor, I was twelve and recently arrived in New York City. We went to meet him at a dive on the Lower East Side. “Meet Astor,” my father said, and I shook his hand. “He was named after Piazzolla.” Astor raised his full eyebrows, shut his eyes once, shook his head, and said, “Not true.”

I met Astor for coffee at the Grey Dog on Carmine and asked him how I was supposed to take my father’s ashes to Cairo; he said the airport personnel would never let me bring them through. I waited silently for another answer, and he stared off and stroked his upturned blonde-and-salt-and-pepper mustache. His eyes scanned my clothing, and he said, “How many outfits do you have to travel with?” I was confused, and shrugged. “If you can stand going with just a handbag, something medium-sized, they’ll let you into the country without looking inside it at all. You should put his ashes in a small box just in case—something nondescript like a chocolate box or cigarette carton.” I almost made a joke then about rolling dad’s ashes into tight cigarettes. I searched his face for signs of mourning, but he looked just as sad as he ever had. We finished our coffees and I hugged him and thanked him, then I was off.

  *       *       *

Just after his cremation, I took the train to Westchester. I went through Dad’s attic in his small house in White Plains. I was looking for a diary or a will or a note or some sober directions for his burial. I found two medium-sized statues of centaurs, old typewriter ribbons, paperwork, clippings, bills, and some photos. The photos were all of large groups of people, mostly musicians on stage. There were a few photos of women I didn’t recognize. None were as pretty as my mother had been.

My dad bought this house after our first failed year in Manhattan, where I was shipped after my mum’s death—my mum had been shipped to Egypt. I skipped school and wandered the streets and ignored his attempts at discipline. He would find Australian area codes on his newly-exotic phone bills, and what perplexed him most were the one-minute calls I made to my old apartment, where I sometimes imagined my mum still lived. I even entertained the idea that maybe my old self was still there, and I waited for her to pick up the phone, goosebumps lining my arms, because what would I do if the other me really did answer? I never had to deal with that problem, since an elderly Australian man always picked up, his voice deep and loud.

In the 3rd round, while Ali was being pummeled, she told my dad he had to marry her. In the 5th round, my dad was still refusing.

If Dad resented me for making him leave the City, where he’d lived almost all of his adult life, he didn’t show it. Our first night at the house, we didn’t have any electricity, because Dad had forgotten to put in the deposit forty-eight hours before. We hung out in the den until dark, when we lit candles and listened to dad’s wireless radio. He drank bourbon out of an unpacked glass and talked about a photograph of him, me when I was a baby, and Muhammad Ali. “I have no idea where it is now,” he said.

He brought up the photo whenever I was being stubborn, and he’d say it as though, by once touching Ali, some strength and stubbornness had passed through to me. I wanted to believe him, so I began to visualize the photograph and became convinced that I’d once seen it.

Now, I spent two whole days in the attic going through his papers, with one eye open for that photo. I left the house only to have dinner at the old tavern a few streets down. I could still smell my dad’s paperwork when I went to sleep that night. The bottoms of my fingernails were black no matter how much I scrubbed them clean, and I dreamt that his ashes were underneath them.

  *       *       *

The airplane to Cairo was silent, and I looked at all the Egyptians, and the few Ethiopians on their way to Addis Ababa, watching their small screens and ignoring each other. I drank. Every once in a while during the fourteen-hour flight, an Ethiopian would mistake me for an Egyptian, and an Egyptian would mistake me for an Ethiopian. Dad’s family had teased him, when he came back to New York with my mother, that he’d gone all the way to Africa and brought home the lightest skinned woman he had found.

They met in Zaire. My mother was a journalist in Sydney; she’d just received her MA from the University of Queensland but had hustled her way to cover the Ali-Foreman fight. My father was writing articles for the Post and was the only African American on the staff. Their planes landed in Kinshasa—my namesake—within hours of each other, and they were waiting for Ali in the reporters’ hall. It was hot and years later, my mother still recalled the strange smell in the hall: sweat and cattle and blood. My father said that was the scent of his pheromones alone. Mum was feeling guilty; she was in Africa, but she had no plans to stop in Egypt and visit her family before fleeing to Sydney, where she had a boyfriend and a weed pipe and a diaphragm. Dad changed nothing; he only took the place of the boyfriend: the pipe and the diaphragm stayed.

He used to thank George Foreman’s sparring partner for my existence. “If he hadn’t pulled up his sharp and ashy elbows, Foreman wouldn’t have walked into them and split his eyelid open, and the fight wouldn’t have been delayed six weeks.” As it turned out, six weeks was all it took for my dad to capture my mother’s heart and her prissy Egyptian panties. When I see photos of him at that time, it makes sense: the mustache tricked her. He looked so Egyptian, my father, his nose Semitic and his hair gorgeously corked. And in the photos of my mum her black hair glitters, her dark eyes smile, and her cleavage spills out of seventies jackets.

Logically, they fucked in a field and made me.

The field had earth so rich it was orange, rows and rows of tea leaves, followed by a bracket of high trees, a grayish-purple mountain, and a pink-blue sky. They’d gone for a walk, which was my father’s idea when mum said she wouldn’t mind getting some tea with him.

Zaire was precisely halfway between Sydney and New York. They would never meet halfway on anything again.

The fight was at four in the morning. Just before my parents left for the stadium, Mum bent over a filthy toilet and vomited nothing. Air and yellow liquid: bile. She knew right away.

In the 3rd round, while Ali was being pummeled, she told my dad he had to marry her.

In the 5th round, my dad was still refusing.

In the 7th, she grabbed him by the shirt and told him he would come to Alexandria with her and marry her.

By the time Foreman went down, my parents were officially engaged.

  *       *       *

I arrived at Cairo Airport carrying a medium-sized bag, clutching it tightly and hoping Astor was right. I imagined what its X-ray would look like to the security officials: a box of powder, eight pairs of underwear, three thin T-shirts, a skirt, paperwork, a camera, a book, an extra pair of shoes, and a vibrator. I bought a visa from a man at a window, approached the passport check, smiled at the officer as he asked me where I was going and what I was doing—God, please, don’t say, “Burying my father then going off somewhere to masturbate”—watched him stamp my passport, then walked out of the airport. Once, in high school, I shoplifted a small key chain; now, I felt the same kind of rush.

The next morning, I woke up in my hostel room to a knock. Did I want the hostel workers to arrange any tours or trips today? “Nile boot ride, Cheops birrramid, Ezhibshan Moose-ee-am?” I suspected they would rip me off and said no, got up, and showered under the drip-drip-drip of the thin shower head. I hated the idea of being ripped off for seeming foreign—saw it as an assault on my identity. I felt it would make me authentic somehow if I bargained and paid what any other Egyptian would.

Outside the hostel, three cab drivers drove off right after I asked to go to the pyramids; I suppose it was farther than I’d expected. The next two negotiated for a higher rate: sixty pounds. Finally, a noisy cab with a half-broken muffler driven by an elderly, toothless driver pulled up, and the man told met to get in. I said I’d give him twenty pounds, and he yelled for me to just get in.

Forty-five minutes of uncomfortable conversation (“You look Egyptian, but you sound like such a khawaaga!”), deadly heat, and shitty traffic later, I saw them: the half-man, half-lion crouched near the three structures. After being in the city, I felt like I was looking at a playground for giant aliens who built things out of sand legos. The taxi stopped and it seemed that I had arrived at the very edge of the desert.

I climbed out and tried to walk far from the hordes of tourists. Men with camels harassed me for money. White women from Denmark and beyond harassed each other with clichéd statements about the Ancient Egyptians. As if that weren’t enough, I looked at the vastness and endlessness of the white and yellow sand around me, the stillness of the air and the absence of ceremony, and decided then and there that there was no way I would let my dad spend eternity in this hell hole. Just to please him, I reached into my handbag, took out a spoonful of ashes, and released them in the sand. They fell straight down; there wasn’t the slightest hint of a breeze. I turned around and saw that the taxi driver was still parked in the same spot, talking to a policeman. I sprinted in his direction. “Istanna,” I shouted, and as he drove me back to my hotel, he said he’d never met a tourist who didn’t like the pyramids. “It’s just a pile of rocks,” I said, and he laughed and said he saw them every day on his commute into his city for work. For him, they meant nothing, except that he had forty-five minutes to go.

When the taxi dropped me off at my hostel, I was flooded with guilt. How could I disobey my dad? Not that I didn’t have a habit of disobeying him while he was alive, but it surprised me that the habit stayed around after he was gone. What would I do with his ashes now? I petted the perfume box and sighed.

  *       *       *

My father told me, a few months before he died, that sometimes if he wanted me to do something, he’d ask for the opposite, because I was so stubborn. In high school, he wanted me to apply to a college close to home, so he suggested universities in California, the Pacific Northwest, even Alaska. To his horror, the Alaska idea seemed appealing; I wanted to be rugged, to learn to rely on myself, to be surrounded by a vastness that would absorb me. I realize now that my mother must have felt that way about Australia. My father supported my Alaska decision so thoroughly, I was shocked at his refusal to drive me to the airport the day before my freshman orientation. Luckily for him, I lasted less than a semester there, returning home and enrolling at NYU. He would sometimes hang out in my neighborhood, eager to have coffee or beers. I made small scenes and told him to get a life of his own. Now, when I think of the words I said to him, I imagine myself taking them back, waving a word-catching net in front of my mouth before they can reach his ears.

  *       *       *

I was in Cairo less than three days before I decided to look up my grandpa and cousins, who were in Alexandria. They had no idea I was in the country and hadn’t heard from me in years. My teenage cousin Noura answered when I called. She barely said a word, only that I should “just come.”

I bought a train ticket at the Cairo Station and stood against a pillar. I looked out across the crowds and the small kiosks, up at the roof of the station. It was high and like everything else in the country must have been extravagantly beautiful once. The wooden box-frame of the roof was punctuated with arches and cast-iron beams, ending in a glass window thatched with thin iron. The beams were sometimes painted blue, and long lamps dangled down, un-illuminated.

A woman in a sequined higab and pink and white tennis shoes stood next to me and asked me if this was the women’s section. I nodded to make her feel better. Soon, the train arrived, and I boarded and looked for my seat. We passed the villages of Tanta and Kafr-el-Sheikh: corn, hay, cow, buffaloes resting under thinly-thatched rest areas made especially for them, women sitting cross-legged in the soil, white, cylindrical pigeon lofts, brick buildings and horses pulling yellow and red carriages, palm trees, chickens, geese, hung-up laundry, and scarecrows in galabeyyas, which surprised me. I expected Australian or American scarecrows—sticks wearing overalls and plaid shirts—but why should they? I closed my eyes against my naiveté and took a nap, ignoring the loud sunflower seed crunching and spitting of the deaf man’s family unit. I woke up in Damanhoor, where the reach of the Nile’s kindness ends and the greenish landscape becomes yellow.

  *       *       *

After my parent’s engagement, they wrote their respective stories on the plane and filed them from Cairo, then took the Egypt Rail to Alexandria. My dad said he was pissing out of his ass the entire ride over. In Alexandria, he was greeted as family, and a week later, converted to Islam and married my mother in the front hall of her apartment building. The building had been built in the thirties, with black and white marble floors and walls and enormous, thick, white pillars. In the photos, he looks ecstatic, especially in the ones with the belly dancer.

Eight months later, I was born at St. Vincent’s in Manhattan. My mother called and told everyone in Alexandria that I was early, when in fact I had been a week late, and she’d had a C-section. She lay in bed for a month and nursed me. She said it was so un-chic to nurse then, but that it made her feel more Egyptian. She liked that I responded so well to nursing; she said it felt as though she were spouting gold and giving me something utterly valuable. She left my dad and moved back to Sydney before I turned one. I never knew why they broke up but suspected, from piecing together stories she told her friends in Sydney, that he had cheated on her.

Everyone treated me like an Egyptian kid. I looked like one of them, and nobody talked about my black dad. Some women who didn’t know about him played with my hair and said things like, “Well, she came out Positively Pharaonic!” Some school-kids called me an ugly aborigine. I told my mother, and she tried to soothe me by saying, “Darling, you’re twelve. Everyone looks like an ugly aborigine at that age.”

“Mum, that’s awful. Aborigines aren’t ugly. You’re racist.”

“I give up,” she said. She was already sick then, but I didn’t know it.

Mum was good at hiding things. She’d gotten practice when she lived in Egypt, where she said it was expected of her to keep her social life completely hidden from her family.

The whole time she was my mother, I assumed she never got laid or even dated, but I was mistaken. She dated behind my back and often scheduled sleepovers for me on nights she planned to go out and find someone to sleep with. I know this because she left behind a raunchy diary.

When she was still sick, I often had erotic dreams about her that I never understood. She’d stand by my bathtub while I was inside it and spread her legs and cry. I’d wake up shaking with guilt.

  *       *       *

My cousins met me at the station. They recognized me although I barely knew them. We took a taxi, walking over piles of rubble and sand. “The city has a new mayor,” they said to explain away the piles, but I did not understand; still, I nodded my head. My cousins lived in the same apartment in which my mum had grown up; they stayed there with my ancient grandfather. We stepped out of the taxi in front of the building and were slammed by winds, which are famous in this area of the city that borders the Mediterranean. We fought against the winds as they knocked us about. (Incidentally, in Egyptian, “falling in love” is referred to as “being knocked about by the wind.”) We entered the front hall where my parents had married. The hall alone was the size of a big house. The paint was peeling, the pillars resembled crumbling monster-legs, and the black and white marble floors were gray with over seventy years’ worth of dust and disappointment. A large mirror hung in the middle of the wall, and its surface was glazed over like an elderly giant’s glaucoma-stricken eyeball.

We climbed the wide, thick steps where my mum had her zaffa. I pictured her walking down to meet my dad at the bottom, her bridal veil following her. If someone were to do a zaffa here today, their white veil would come away grey. We entered a wooden lift, closed its doors, which resembled china-closet doors, behind us and clicked the sixth button. The lift groaned as it slowly took us up.

Inside, the apartment’s ceilings were about fifteen feet high. The bluish wallpaper was peeling away and collections of cracks congregated on the ceiling. The place smelled like an old library. I was instantly relieved. My grandfather embraced me and we had lunch. At around nine that evening, I stood and announced that I was going to sleep, but everyone in the apartment objected, saying it was astonishingly early. Then, my grandfather hushed everyone and said, as though remembering an old dream, “But she was born early. You see, she does everything early.” I did not have the heart to tell him the truth, and went to sleep in my mum’s childhood room.

  *       *       *

My mum always came to me before she sought professional help; she treated me like an oracle, asking things like, “Will this article be nominated for anything?” or “Will mommy find a better job?” I’d play along: lift my arms out to my sides, close one eye and leave the other open, murmur softly, and then twirl in rapid circles. Then, I’d stop suddenly, bring my hands together and say, “Yes.” I’d always say yes, no matter what she asked.

My mum came into my room late one night with her top off. Her left breast looked like a pink and red rock, and her nipple was inverted. I’d often imagined her nipples as eyes, and now it looked like one of them was shut or crying. She pointed at her rock-breast and asked me, “Will mommy be sick for long?” I played the prophecy game, and, as always, said, “Yes.”

  *       *       *

At least two mosques were blasting the dawn Azaan.

I put on some tea and took it with me to the balcony. The sun was just coming up, and the sea looked like a vast carpet that a huge woman on the other side was rolling out and dusting. I took my first sip of tea and thought about where I would scatter my father. I believed if I found the perfect place, I’d experience some vindication, a sense of celebration, as well as a gentle letdown, because my father would still be dead. But I liked to push this last thought away, and now I looked at the sand and the sea again, as if sweeping the thought under it. I considered then if my dad belonged under that sea as well, then decided it was too polluted.

The house woke up very late, with the exception of my grandpa, who emerged from his room dressed and ready to walk down to the club. I kissed his cheek on his way out. He left and I watched him cross the street and take the tram, his small, floppy hat like a crown over his old body.

My cousins woke up a little after three o’clock and stood in the kitchen and bickered as they made tea and lunch. My older cousin Nadine told my younger cousin Noura that she was supposed to wait until everyone in the house had read the newspaper before drawing mustaches and various kinds and styles of facial hair on the people in the photographs. My cousin Noura told her she had facial hair and to shut up. This argument went on as my cousin Nadine cooked cubes of beef and poured rice into a rice-maker. Noura chopped vegetables for a salad with a heavy butcher knife, dramatically for louder chop-noises and effects. I stood in the doorway and watched the sibling theater.

Their mom was dead, too, but we never talked about her. Her picture hung by the telephone. Whenever the phone rang, they leapt to get it, and this made it appear they were being telephoned by their mother from the great beyond. I asked them if they thought of it this way.

“Sometimes,” Nadine conceded.

“I just wonder why the fat bitch can’t just pick it up when it rings,” Noura said to be shocking.

My own mother’s photograph hung in the piano room, near the mock fireplace. It was a photo of her in her wedding dress, alone, so that it felt like she was off to marry herself, or some kind and accommodating, transparent man.

We were in a house that had lost three women: my aunt first, in an accident in Saudi Arabia, where she had gone to do ’Umra. She was walking between as-Saffa and Marwa, and was on her fourth circle around, when she collapsed and died of a stroke. Her mother, my grandmother, had survived her by two years, after which she died silently one afternoon, in her bed, of a heart attack. My mother followed them four years later.

Now here we were, my cousins and I, the three replacements.

My cousins called one of the closets “Tomb #3.” This closet stored every single thing that had been sent from Sydney when my mother died. Outside, there were thousands of non-Egyptians looking at tombs built centuries ago; there I was, on my knees, in my mother’s tomb from 1987. There, I found old toys of mine, which I stared at in wonder and recognition—a red and yellow and orange clock, its colors like old friends. When people suddenly leave a place behind, they begin to believe they have no past. I was past-less, it seemed, until I found this toy. There were notes and papers my mother had filed away, old clippings and two dusty awards. Six or seven albums, each containing about two years worth of photos. I flipped through them and recognized myself in all of them, with the stray photo of my mum here and there. She hated the way she looked on film. In the back of the tomb, I found a box full of her shoes. I took out a green pair of peep-toe heels and tried to slip them on, but they were too small. I stood in them anyway, and for the rest of the day, walked around with my big toe hanging over the shoe’s edge like a man on the side of a building in some stupid action film.

I was supposed to be mourning my father, but I could not stop thinking about my mum. I spent hours organizing her things, archiving them for my trip home. I dumped out the contents of my bag and started over and wished I could do that to my mind.

In the evening, my grandpa snored and Nadine and I watched television and made fun of actresses’ nose-jobs. At dawn prayer, we’d give up and go to the bedroom our mothers had shared as little girls, and when we opened the door, we’d find Noura in the pitch-black darkness listening to her MP3 player and walking briskly around the circular table in the center of the room.

My cousins asked me if I wanted to go out and see Egypt. They added, “But don’t get your hopes up too high; there’s really not much to see.” They were right. Our trip to a cafe took two hours in traffic, with pedestrians crossing two hairs away from the car, and taxi drivers driving like blind men. Nauseated, I closed my eyes against mad-dashing pedestrians and speeding crushed-up cars.

  *       *       *

In the morning, I found Noura sitting cross-legged in front of the perfume box and my vibrator. She was watching them as if in meditation. I approached her slowly, and she wasn’t at all startled. She took her ear pods out and said, very loudly, as though she were still listening to music, “What are they?”

“That’s my dad,” I said, pointing at the box.

“And that’s my boyfriend, for now.”

She nodded.

“You can fit them both in your bag. Lucky.”

“How’s that lucky?” I said.

“You can hide them.”

We were in my mum’s room, where she must have once been equally preoccupied with hiding people and things. Now, it seemed, everything was bubbling up to the surface despite her.

  *       *       *

I hated insects when I was a teenager. Sometimes ants would snake their way into my bed. I crushed them with a singular focus and ferocity and couldn’t even admit to myself why I hated them. But sometimes at night, before I traveled completely into sleep, I pictured my mother being carried off by hundreds and thousands of ants. I’d never seen her be buried, but I knew that her body was almost nonexistent, that with each passing night, it shrank smaller and smaller.

On Friday morning, eight days into my trip, with only three days remaining in the country before I had to get on a plane and go back to my job, Nadine gingerly asked me if I wanted to visit my mother’s grave. This was the first time anyone had mentioned either of my dead parents. I asked her where it was, and she took me to the balcony and pointed at the horizon. I could see the cemetery from where I stood.

My grandpa went down for Friday prayers. Three different mosques blared their different sermons. Nadine blared a new Amr Diab cassette in the kitchen while she prepared lunch. I listened to the blended sounds on the balcony. A few stories down, dozens of men knelt on a vast rug outside the Chatby Mosque. On top of the building across from me, dozens of satellite dishes faced in the same direction, as if praying to the sun.

We lunched with my aging grandpa. When Nadine and Noura got up and cleared the table, he told me the sermon at his mosque was about women. I asked him what stories the imam told, and he said, “He told stories about the infanticides before Islam. The men in Jahiliyya would mourn whenever a daughter was born, and they’d take her to a deserted spot and bury her alive. The imam told us how one man went to bury his daughter in the sand. He dug a hole, put her body in, and crouched down and began to cover her. Halfway through, she reached up,” here, my grandpa lifted his sun-spotted hand and stroked his chin, “and she brushed some sand off that had fallen into his thick beard.” My eyes widened in shock. “I know,” my grandpa said. “It’s amazing.”

“So, he spared her?”

My grandpa waited a few second, then looked up. “No, he still buried her.”

  *       *       *

The next morning, I showered and dressed and told myself I had to do it, had to visit my mother.

I walked to the cemetery alone, my father a pile of sand in my pocketbook, passed the St. Mark’s School for Boys, and the circus tent housed in its courtyard. The tram rushed by, kicking up dirt and dust, and I waited, then crossed the tracks. I imagined Mum walking around in the neighborhood as a schoolgirl. For the first few years of my life, I thought my mother spoke only Arabic. She ignored me when I tried to ask her for something in English, or she pretended she didn’t understand. Then, one day, I saw her showing off an article of hers to a friend. I picked up the newspaper from her hand and said, in Arabic, “Mummy, you didn’t write this! It’s in English.” She had to tell me then that she knew English, but that we shouldn’t speak it in the house. I felt I didn’t know her at all for days afterward, and wondered often if she was even my real mother. I eventually forgave her, but spoke only English in the house for a while afterward as a form of dissent.

The cemetery guard spoke to me in English. I answered in Arabic, and he apologized for his mistake and told me I walked like a Khawaga, with my feet out-turned. I gave him my mother’s name, and he filled a pale green bucket with water and guided me to her grave. I stood in front of it and tried to understand the Koranic verse etched into the headstone. The guard splashed water against the headstone, and emptied the rest of the bucket into the flowerpots. I slipped a hand into my handbag and caressed my father’s ashes. I had never confronted my mother’s body. When she died, I was sent to New York, and her body was sent to Egypt on a separate plane. Her plane left two hours before mine. I watched planes take off before my own flight, picturing her body on each one. Every few minutes, a plane taxied out and took off; her body flew away over and over and over again. In my mind, I suppose, she was still on an airplane, and now I had to admit that she was not in the sky, but deep in the dirt beneath my feet.

  *       *       *

On the airplane back to New York, I read an old copy of a biography my mum had been working on, about Rayya and Skeena, a murderous sister-team. She died before she could get to the part where they killed their first Rich Lady. The manuscript was about forty pages and read like a novella about two sisters. If you changed the names, or didn’t know who they’d been, you would think it was a sweet story. The last line she wrote was, “The sisters had reached the end of the road, and were out of choices, desperate and completely destitute. They had nothing but each other, and there was nowhere left to go.”

I closed the book and cried with such abandon, I was afraid the flight attendant would ask me to stop, but no one paid any attention to me, no one noticed my grief.

Astor was waiting for me at the airport, carrying a sign that read, “Kinshasa, 1975.” He made a funny face about my messy hair and gave me a hug. It took us an hour to find his truck, which he had parked illegally and which had been towed. When we finally found the truck and paid the fine—I begged him to let me do it, and he begged me to shut up—he teased, “You’ve said nothing about your trip. How was it?” I told him it was bizarre—that I ended up mourning Mum more than I did Dad.

“Plus, I didn’t quite manage to completely scatter Dad,” I said. “I still have most of him in my bag. And I couldn’t find this one photo he always talked about.”

“Which one? The naked one of …”

“No,” I stopped him, before he got the chance to turn my stomach. “The one of him and Muhammad Ali, and me when I was a baby.”

He said nothing.

“Astor, was there ever such a photo?”

“Of course,” he said and started his truck.

“How do you know?”

“I know,” he said and made a clicking gesture with his index finger, “Because I took that photo.”

In Astor’s basement, we rummaged through a box of slides. He asked me to bring out his projector from a closet that made Tomb #3 look like the Ritz. I found a shimmering, baby bluish-green Leitz slide projector the size of a handbag. It looked like a miniature cannon that had rusted into turquoise. I set the heavy projector on a table and aimed it at the wall. Astor made no sound when he found the slide.

“It’s a good one,” he said, and slipped the slide into the slot in the projector.

On the white wall, I saw both my parents carrying me. There was no trace of Ali. I told Astor that, and he laughed.

“No, no,” he said, shaking his head. “That is the name your father had for your mother. That is what he always called her with his friends. When your mother was pregnant, she was convinced your father was fucking everyone in Manhattan. She followed him one night to a bar and found him talking to some blonde. And that was enough evidence for her. She slugged him. Punched him right in the nose, and broke it.”

“My mum did?”

“Oh, yes. You never asked him how he broke his nose?”

“I never knew it was broken.”

Astor could have been lying to cover up for my dad, a final revolt against fact-checking, but I didn’t care. I’d never seen a picture of all three of us together. In the photo, my father wore tawny bell-bottoms and an open, floral-patterned shirt. His ’fro was short and his eyes smiled in my mum’s direction, and his left hand encircled my arm. My mum held me by the bottom, her short dress and knee-high boots magically matching my nude body.

I walked across the mildewed carpet and touched their faces. I put both my arms up and laid my palms flat against their images.

  *       *       *

I knew, from the police report, the exact number of the chair he’d died in, on which car, and on which train. A week after my return to the U.S., I went to Grand Central and took the train to White Plains, my dad’s ashes still in my pocketbook. I stepped on the fourth cart, and scanned the seats on my left until I found the one by the window in the fifteenth row. I sat and waited: for a bolt of recognition, or empathy, or both, to float up through the steel frame of the chair, the metal of the train, the sparks of the tracks below me. I felt nothing. This was where my father had died. And yet, there was no sign of him here. He had left no mark, had not said goodbye.

I walked from the train station to our old house. In the backyard was a tree he had planted the weekend we moved in. It was still small and squat, and I didn’t know its name. I scooped out the contents of the perfume box and released them into the soil around the tree’s slim trunk. I knew that before the sun set I would have to leave a rock, some marker, at the base of the tree. Until then, I sat in the grass and stared at what was left of my father, at what was left of me, until the space between us seemed to gape wider and wider, and the tree above me shook its leaves.

G

Jarrar Author Photo-crop.jpgRanda Jarrar is the author of the critically acclaimed novel A Map of Home. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Five Chapters, The Oxford American, the New York Times Magazine, The Utne Reader, and The Progressive, and she is a member of Beirut39, which celebrates the 39 most gifted writers of Arab origin under the age of 40.

Writer’s Recommendations:

Under the Bombs is a beautiful and moving film shot in Lebanon ten days after the Israeli air strikes of 2006, starring real-life refugees as well as actors. A mother who lives in the Gulf returns to Lebanon to search for her son and enlists the help of a taxi driver. Favorite line: “I hate this place. It seems that there’s a war every ten years!” “Ten years?! You’re optimistic.”

Maud Martha: A Novel is one of the most gorgeous coming-of-age novels ever written and completely in need of a re-release and a celebration. Gwendolyn Brooks was a magician who found everyday people and circumstances worthy of recording; my favorite scenes involve hat shopping.

Leh Bedary Keda is a very silly video by Ruby, an Egyptian pop princess. One late night in Cairo, a friend called her “pharaonic,” and inspired part of the story above.

Homepage photo via Flickr

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