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The Paperless “Palestinian” and the Russian P’liceman

The feeling of being claimed is halfway to feeling home, even if on the inside I’ve often felt like I didn’t quite belong.

In June, days after the Supreme Court lifted legal blocks on President Trump’s Muslim Ban save those with “bona fide relationships” to the United States, we asked writers to imagine creative openings and counter narratives as to what a bona fide relationship might be. Trump’s latest iteration of the travel ban goes into effect October 18, and in the lead up to that day, we are publishing a series of stories and poems on The Margins that create new narratives and futures in response to the Muslim Ban. This work of short memoir is the latest in our series. Read more and follow along here.

“When I tell people about you,” Sergey Gandlevsky said, pulling out the last cigarette and crushing his empty cigarette box, “I say that you’re from Ramallah.”

We sat outside an Amherst Starbucks, filling up on caffeine and nicotine, before setting off for the day. We’d been on the road for weeks on a coast-to-coast bilingual poetry barnstorm, filling Gandlevsky’s Russian pockets with American bucks. I’d been translating his poetry for over ten years, ever since we met in Moscow in 1993, and we were close enough that he knew I wasn’t Palestinian—though I’d dragged him to an event on the occupation of the West Bank in Bloomington, Indiana. My sister Katherine had just married a Palestinian, and I’ve long identified with their struggle for self-determination, but we were not Palestinians—just their neighbors up the Levantine coast.

In fact, I’d just told Gandlevsky that I discovered that the owner of the Starbucks was Lebanese. It’s a trait I’ve inherited from my father, always inquiring after those who look like cousins. I can sniff out an Arab with the best of them. Dad always made a point of it to claim famous Americans—George Mitchell, Ralph Nader, Tony Shalhoub, Diane Rehm, Paul Anka, Dick Dale, Salma Hayek, even the slightly-embarrassing ones like Jamie Farr and Sammy Hagar and Paula Abdul—as cousins from the Old Country.

“Why from Ramallah?” I asked Gandlevsky.

“Just a bit of black humor,” he said, pausing to let the nicotine surge into his alveoli before liberating the smoke, dispersing it into the air. “They think that Ramallah is the world center of terrorism.”

When Amy and I traveled in Greece during our honeymoon, locals would come up to me and begin speaking the language of Homer and Ritsos, but I was as lost as Odysseus after Troy. In France, they thought I was Moroccan or Algerian. In Russia, they presumed I was from the swarthy tribes of the Caucasus. When I was quite young, biking in my new neighborhood in the suburbs of Chicago, some boys looked up and started calling me a spic, hurling a stony rain of crabapples after my Latino bike, pedaled frantically out of range.

When I read avant-garde Russian poet Dmitry Prigov, I knew I found a fellow alien:

I’d be Catullus in Japan
And in Rome, Hokusai
And in Russia, I’m the same guy
Who would have been
Catullus in Japan
And in Rome, Hokusai.

Misrecognition is an unexpected, unasked-for gift. In misnaming, in the ill-fitted confusion of word and world, poetry begins.

At Ben Gurion airport, I was—without question—Arab. Traveling with my parents in 2003 to Palestine, where Katherine was due to be married to Majed, in the little village of Toura, we’d been told to say that we had come to The Holy Land as tourists “to see the Holy Sites.” This strategy might, my sister told us, spare us the special interrogation, which involves hours of luggage plundering, incessant cross-examination, and humiliation.

Despite my pose as a tourist, from her high perch, like a judge before the accused, the passport control guard stared at me.

“And where are your grandparents from?” she asked, her acid tone eating the air between us.

“And your great-grandparents?” I started to wonder how far back this would go, as if to determine the potential layers of criminality and terrorism that might be sleeping in my DNA. Yes, my father’s side is from Lebanon. Bsharri. Dayr al-Qamar. Yes, that makes them—and me—Arab, though probably many of them would have thought of themselves as Phoenician, or Christian, or Lebanese, and one great-grandmother had flaming red hair and green eyes. Such distinctions melt before the rational paranoia of the great-grandchildren of pogroms and the grandchildren of the Shoah.

“And where will you be staying?” she persisted.

My sister had told me nothing so that no one could be incriminated.

“I have no idea,” I said, shrugging. “A hotel?” I was the worst fake tourist ever.

Somehow, as if against her better judgment, but having, no doubt, also recorded my optical signature for future reference, she let me pass.

In passing, I failed to pass as truly Arab. Many Palestinian friends have undergone much harsher interrogations, involving full suitcase and body searches, only to be rejected and sent back on a plane from wherever they came. Randa Jarrar writes poignantly about deleting every mention of her Palestinian background online, and any criticism of Israel—basically, deleting her Arabness—only to be refused at Ben Gurion and sent back to the States: “the entire endeavor left me feeling erased.”

The truth is, I’m not entirely sure what it means to be Arab, even if my father and his kin always pronounced me Lebanese or Arab. The black hair, zaitun (olive) eyes and skin, and the generous nose, certainly the nose—which might be called “aquiline” if you’re feeling poetic, or “hooked” if you’re feeling Orientalist. To the eyes of my people, I was part of the tribe. The feeling of being claimed is halfway to feeling home, even if on the inside I’ve often felt like I didn’t quite belong. At St. John Melkite Church, I sing the rising and falling of the St. John Chrysostom rite, among brown-eyed and dark-haired Arabs, totally at home in the incense, singing, and iconostasis of severe faces that gaze upon us from the altar. After mass, at the social room, my tongue is struck dumb when my interlocutors switch to Arabic.

“You belong,” my father says. “You belong,” my mother says. She is blond and doesn’t belong but likes to think that at least I do. Yet I feel like an impostor, looking the part but only able to play non-speaking roles.

But as I’ve aged past the adolescent need to differentiate oneself from one’s parents, I’ve found myself looking backward as much as forward, trying to understand what might be coiled in my DNA, what ancestral spirits still reside in me. A recent publication mistake—in which the Arabic text I’d included in a long poem, A Concordance of Leaves, got reversed in an anthology for Palestine, so that it read backward—instigated my diving into learning to read Arabic for the first time. Every day, I wrestle with my tongue, asking for aid from my ancestors to loosen its stubborn root. I coax my breath to sound out the varieties of aspirations and glottal stops that arrive without even a thought to any Arab old enough to toddle. Sometimes, the words just decide to stay in the station, locked in my mouth, never emerging into the country of communication.

On the subject of Ramallah, my fictional hometown, I can report, having visited it just after the Israeli siege in 2002, that it was robust, full of people pursuing life in its sundry material guises. Not that I expected to see bandolier-wearing guerrillas sauntering the street, or men with bomb belts showing beneath their button-downs. But I don’t think I could have imagined the pulsing life in the streets: huge sacks of grain lifted out of flat-bed trucks in front of internet cafés; bustling banks and corner shops; women in hijab and sans hijab; banner ads splashed across buildings for Marlboro and Milano shoes; the merry-go-round of cars at Manarah Square—just modern city life and all its eros and contradictions. I half-expected to see Mahmoud Darwish in a café drinking coffee, having just published State of Siege, his intense and fragmented long poem about surviving life under state. At one point in the poem, he invites Israeli soldiers prowling outside to come in and have coffee—“so we can be reminded we’re human like you.”

Yes, in Ramallah we passed the detonated remains of a car, dissected by an Israeli missile, burned down to its frame and left on the side of a main road as if to remind people of what they won’t forget anyway—that over their lives hovers the constant presence of a military occupation, even in the heart of Palestine. In Ramallah, despite gnashing their teeth on the bitter fruit of domination, people just go about the business of daily life, trying to put khubz on the table, facing daily checkpoints and other unimaginable obstacles that would make even a Russian, born and bred on the sadism of the Soviet State, blush.

But Gandlevsky’s joke wasn’t the first time I was mistaken for an enemy to civilization. To be brown in much of the Western world is to be mistaken for being dangerous. Nearly every time I pass through airport security, I get my hands rubbed for explosive material. A mere wrinkle in my sock leads to a magical wanding and a delicate patting by tentative hands. And whenever I need to cross through a border, I have to remind myself to breathe, to “return to my breath” as they say in yoga, so I don’t seem like I could be nervous like a terrorist, instead of being nervous like a person who’s afraid that he’ll be seen as a terrorist. Feeling like I never quite belonged in America, where its citizens celebrate wars on people who look like me, was one of the reasons I went to Russia in the first place in the early 1990s, wondering if I’d been born in the wrong country.

Once, in Moscow, on my way to interview the poet Stella Morotskaya, when the Russian war in Chechnya had led to reprisal attacks, I was stopped in the metro by the local militsiya (police), who were executing a flying checkpoint, scoping out anyone who looked foreign.

“Show me your papers,” they said, half-grimly, half-delighted to find someone of my hue.

I produced my passport and visa—a little paper with a scowling self-portrait, having been told not to show my teeth for the photo.

When they found that I hadn’t registered my visa at the local police station, they were thrilled to detain me.

“Stand over there,” one of the police barked.

Apparently, Russia still required every foreigner to register with the local police to let them know that you were visiting from elsewhere, a requirement that I’d overlooked amidst the rest of the bureaucracy of getting into the country. The truth is, I didn’t do it the first time I lived in Russia, so I thought it was a silly formality. With dead seriousness, the police officers had directed me to stand at the entrance of the metro with the other others. I was in the line of shame: three Vietnamese, a couple Georgians, a Caucasian, and a handful of homegrown Russian derelicts too drunk to stand up straight. After a few dreadful minutes, if my eyes could see straight, in the nervous buzz of my mind, I’d say that it looked like, off to the side, the Georgians rapidly conducted a business deal with the porcine officer that went in their favor—some thousands of rubles for breathing fresh air and freedom. I was worried, but too afraid to offer a bribe. What I really wanted, most of all, was to get my visa registered so that this wouldn’t happen again. The only way was to go to the station.

The day was ceding to evening, and the air became chilly. I was in a light jacket, standing still, unprepared for the Moscow fall. A half hour passed, with others joining the line. My anxiety was rising in proportion to the general chill. An hour. To be unregistered in Russia is to be paperless, utterly vulnerable. I felt naked, stripped of rights that I’d felt were as natural as my own skin. I began to shiver, like a rabbit in a hunter’s hands.

“Excuse me,” I called out to a passing officer in thickly accented Russian, half from nerves, half from the chill. “Let’s go to the station and pay the fine so that I can get my visa registered.”

“Just a minute,” he said. He pulled me aside, his fur hat’s badge gleaming in the metro fluorescence. He whispered, “Why go to the station? You can take care of it here.” His fat cheeks were pink from the cold, but this was no time for pig jokes. He was more of a wild boar, a shaven wild boar. He had me by the stones, and he wasn’t letting go.

“How much?”

“Five thousand rubles, and place it in my pocket.”

Is he a pervert who enjoys having another man’s hand in his pants? I wondered.

“No, I’m not putting it in your pocket.”

He handed me an empty cigarette box.

“Place the money in here, and put it in my chest pocket.”

It suddenly dawned on me. He didn’t want to be seen reaching for a bribe. There must be a law that places the blame in the donor’s hands. There was a certain level of criminality even the P’liceman did not want to descend. I did what he asked, sliding the box into his chest pocket with ten bucks, right above his heart. I hustled out of there, and out of some Orphean fear, didn’t look back.

I’d never felt more Arab than I did at that moment. For the rest of my month in Moscow, every time I saw a police officer, I ducked behind a tree or a sauntering dedushka and headed another direction. I was a marked man.

I kept remembering a phrase of doggerel that I’d heard from a Russian friend. Like every other phrase in Russian, the original rhymes: бьют по лицу, а не по паспорту. Something like: “they beat you for your looks, not the passport you took.” Or “they beat your face, not your native place.”

I’d recently translated a series of poems by the aforementioned Prigov about the “P’liceman,” the Soviet version of “Officer Friendly”—if Officer Friendly had served in the Red Army and liberated Europe from the Fascist Scum, and then returned home to serve to protect the peace of his homeland, albeit with a beer in his hand. I found the poems absolutely hilarious, but also haunting, the way great poems seem to cut in all directions, like flung Swiss Army knives, with all the knives open:

In the café of Literary Workers
Mr. P’liceman drinks his beer
Downing them in his usual manner
Not even seeing the literary workers

But they all keep looking at him.
Around him it’s light and empty
And all their different art forms
In his presence mean nothing

He represents Life
Manifested as Duty.
Life is short, but Art is long.
And in the battle, Life wins

The final stanza—with its quotation of the classic aphorism in the penultimate stanza (vita brevis, ars longa)—utterly flips the script. Poets write out of the hope that their art will give them a second life, and outlast this mortal flesh speeding into nothingness. But Prigov’s poem proposes that life, realized in the form of this brute, beer-swilling protector of the social orders, always triumphs. Art may be long, but it is a frank testament to its failure. The proposition is both consoling—in the sense that all our conceptions of the world cannot capture the world—and terrifying—in that nothing we make will ever promise us eternity.

And now I’d met with what it means for life to win, life in the form of brute force, the brute force of an extra-legal officer of the law.

Just after my encounter with the P’liceman in the metro, the poet Stella Morotskaya tried to soothe me with cooing sympathy and hot black tea in her office, where she wrote for a children’s magazine. The color of my skin or the shape of my nose didn’t matter: she saw a scared child before her, trying to find the right words for what just happened to him. To me. I closed my cold hands around the thin porcelain cup, waiting for its warmth to translate to my fingers. And, after my fingers lost their frost, I lifted the cup to my cold mouth—so that I could speak again, in the language of the country in which I kept finding and losing myself.

And back in America, at a café in Amherst owned by a Lebanese guy, I look at Gandlevsky, his tired yet bright blue eyes, his gray hair still flecked with brown, and the way he draws his neck back, as if he’s looking out from his forehead, the hidden histories of his Jewish father and Russian orthodox mother and all his ancestors in him, not to mention his own fifty years. And he looks at me, my zaitun eyes he sees as brown, the black hair with the first hints of gray, and how I hunch a little, and I wonder if we’ll ever even want to see beyond the odd angles that we glimpse of each other.

The Bona Fide Relationships Portfolio was published with support from the David Rockefeller Fund and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics.