In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Two hours before her first rock concert, my eleven-year-old daughter, Aliya, is on the computer, using the Internet to translate her fan letter to her favorite band into French. Formed more than thirty years ago in a Libyan refugee camp, Tinariwen produces a hypnotic blend of West African blues, reggae, and rock, all melted together as if they have been left out in the desert sun. The band members are Tuareg, nomads who have lived in the Sahara for millennia. After some of them rebelled against the Malian government in the early sixties, thousands of Tuaregs fled into Libya and Algeria, and an entire generation were raised in refugee camps, cut off from their traditional way of life. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the founder of Tinariwen, was one of them. As a boy he built his own guitar from a stick, a tin can, and a bicycle brake wire. In the late 1970s Western rock music reached the camps, and Ibrahim heard Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Marley.
Aliya has been listening to Tinariwen for as long as she can remember. Her Libyan-born father, Ismail, enjoys their ballads about oppression and exile. Their love songs to Africa are like meandering paths that lead my husband back to the continent he left behind more than thirty years ago, fleeing Muammar Qaddafi’s dictatorial rule. On his commute to and from his corporate job, Ismail turns their music up so loud that his car windows vibrate. On nights when we get tangled in a web of accusations and misunderstandings — when he looks at me and sees a selfish, materialistic American, and I look at him and see an overbearing, irrational African, and we each feel impossibly far from home — he retreats to the living room, cradles his head in his hands, and listens to this music as if it were counsel from a trusted friend. On those rare weekend mornings when he surprises us with a traditional Libyan breakfast, we listen to Tinariwen as we roll pasty white dough between our fingers and dip it into sticky date syrup as thick and black as tar.
Aliya loves her father more than she does any other man in the world. So it seems impossible for her not to love Tinariwen. She has been looking forward to this concert — held at a local nightclub that opens past her bedtime — for months.
“You’re taking her to a rock concert? With a bunch of drunks?”
Our friend Hussein’s voice rose in exaggerated alarm when he found out. It was early evening, and we were seated cross-legged on our carpet, drinking tea with him and his wife, Khadija. Aliya had just told him how excited she was about the upcoming show, and now he was looking at Ismail and me with one eyebrow raised, smiling and shaking his head and making Aliya giggle nervously.
Formerly a Jewish day trader named Sam, Hussein is now a devout Muslim who avoids most music and movies because, he says, they steal his focus away from God. He displays only Islamic art in his home, avoids cookies that contain vanilla (it has a trace of alcohol in it), and refuses silverware when he joins us for dinner, instead lifting curry and rice to his mouth with his fingers just as the prophet Mohammad did 1,400 years ago. Over the course of our friendship I have come to see how his strict practices polish his heart to a high shine. Thoughtful and soft-spoken, he is one of the most sincere and generous people I know. He was teasing us about the concert, but I felt the sharp sting of judgment in his words. In his view I would be taking my daughter on a field trip to Gomorrah: a forsaken space where sweaty people guzzle beer and press together in the dark to get as close as they can to an explosion of sound that makes them briefly forget the world outside.
Before we sat down to tea and almonds, Hussein and Ismail stood side by side in the fading light of our living room, hands crossed over their stomachs, and faced Mecca to perform the early-evening prayer known as Maghrib. But before Ismail began to recite, Hussein asked abruptly, “Do you mind if I check the direction of Mecca?” He pulled his phone from his pocket, tapped its screen, and studied it like a man lost in the wilderness. There is an app that points as straight as an arrow toward the Holy Land from anywhere on the globe. Hussein told Ismail they should reposition themselves a few degrees to the left.
“Of course,” Ismail said, a smile tugging at his lips. He later told me in all seriousness that he would turn around and pray backward if Hussein asked him to: “As far as I’m concerned, we face Allah in any direction we turn.”
I envy Hussein’s absolute clarity about his beliefs, his precise faith like a GPS showing him where he stands at all times. I don’t have such clear convictions. Instead I cling to my splintered identity as if it were flotsam on a stormy sea. For years Ismail and I have been raising Aliya and her younger brother in the rocky terrain between my secular Western culture and his Muslim North African one, on the ever-shifting sands between ambition and modesty, desire and humility, self-determination and surrender to God. I’m a part-time Buddhist who overlooks the precept about intoxicants as if it were a bill I can’t afford to pay. I care about environmental issues — but apparently not as much as I care about a cappuccino in a to-go cup on a Monday morning, or a house cool enough in summer to make my skin prickle and warm enough in winter that I can walk around barefoot. I’m a feminist who expects her husband to make more money than she does, a mother who dreams of taking her annual vacations alone.
When I’m around Hussein, I begin to question the wisdom of raising my children in this disputed territory. Maybe our daughter and son need solid ground beneath their feet as much as they do a roof over their head. Maybe they need one of us to leave behind his or her old habits so they can settle finally into a single coherent worldview. But without his Islam or his African ways, Ismail would be a stranger to me — and I’m not sure I love him enough to give up rock music, chocolate-chip cookies, and shorts in summertime.
There is another reason Aliya is buzzing with excitement about this concert: her father has promised that she will get to spend time backstage with Tinariwen. I don’t understand how he can make this promise with such confidence, since he has no connection to any of the band members, or even to a doorman or bartender at the club. He appears never to have considered the possibility that he won’t be able to fulfill it. Instead he’s been asking Aliya what she plans to discuss with her idols, leading her to believe that they will welcome her like a member of their tribe. With such unrealistic expectations, how can she not end up disappointed?
When she was younger, Aliya used to take pride in her father’s Libyan upbringing, bragging to her friends that he was raised in a mud hut and watching in awe as he turned rusty bottle caps and old string into spinning toys, sticks and deer pellets into whirling helicopters. But lately she’s been less amused by his African ways. They’ve been going head-to-head over how many pairs of shoes a sixth-grader needs (One, he says); whether she needs a cellphone (Are you kidding me?), how she should respond to him when he calls her (Yes, Baba), and how much she should get paid for watching her little brother (When I was your age, I took care of five siblings for no money at all). I’m worried that tonight he will finally fall from the pedestal on which he has been teetering ever since she entered middle school.
An hour before the show Aliya is standing before her open closet, studying her wardrobe, trying to choose just the right outfit in which to meet her favorite band. Perhaps one of her new head scarves: the pink one with shimmering gold thread that catches the light, or the gauzy yellow one from Morocco that makes her face look like it’s swaddled in sun. I recall how, on our back porch one late afternoon, a Muslim friend of ours showed her how to sweep her hair beneath a scarf, pull the fabric tight and low across her forehead, and tie a neat knot at the base of her neck. When she was done, Aliya turned to me and scanned my face as if it were a mirror. She looked like a North African queen, eyes like dark-chocolate nickels, lips so full and perfect that the moment I first saw them I knew her middle name would be Rose.
Now she is contemplating her head scarves, neatly folded in her closet beside her hoodies and T-shirts, trying to decide which one to wear tonight. Each time she walks out the door with her head covered, the grown-up world around her divides in two. Some of our friends shower her with compliments, while others cast nervous glances in her direction and avoid mentioning it. It’s as if the head scarf marked her either as a beloved member of the Muslim tribe or as part of a herd, broken of her American will and corralled into Islam. But Aliya is unfazed. She understands what she is wearing: a soft, colorful piece of cloth that warms her head and makes her feel beautiful; a symbol of the modesty she carries in her heart, whether her head is covered or not; a sign of the faith she has been learning from her father’s example since the day she was born, just as she has learned from watching him how to make date cookies that smell faintly of rose water.
Aliya comes downstairs a few minutes later wearing jeans, a FREE LIBYA T-shirt, and a head scarf her aunt gave her. It seems like just yesterday she was sitting on my lap, her dimpled hands resting on my legs, her padded diapers crinkling each time she leaned forward to get a closer look at the picture book I was reading. This year she has shed the last of her baby fat and grown skinny and moody and long. Tonight she looks part Muslim revolutionary, part American preteen on her way to her first rock concert — which, of course, is exactly what she is: a girl balancing, sometimes gracefully, sometimes awkwardly, between her father’s world and mine.
“Can you drop us off before you park?” Aliya asks, her hand already poised on the door handle even though we’re still about a mile from the club. I don’t reply, and moments later we pull into a strip-mall parking lot, empty except for the band’s tour bus, which is backed into a corner and cordoned off with yellow tape, each glowing window blocked by a curtain. In our house Tinariwen may be the biggest band of the twenty-first century, but in our Southern college town it’s a little-known African group playing world music on a Sunday night at a club that shares its lot with a pizza place and a convenience store.
I find a parking space, and before I have even removed my key from the ignition, Ismail and Aliya jump from the car. They cross the lot and begin talking to two men in black leather jackets who are smoking outside the bus. The men aren’t band members, so they must be part of the road crew. Ismail smiles and shakes their hands while Aliya hangs back, clutching her carefully folded fan letter. Despite Ismail’s friendly greeting, the leather-jacketed men don’t let them past the tape. One cranes his neck to get a look at this four-and-a-half-foot-tall girl in the FREE LIBYA shirt and head scarf.
I wait by the entrance to the club, where a poster of the band is taped to a darkened window gummy with scotch tape and littered with the tattered edges of last week’s fliers. In the picture the musicians stand in a desert beside a parched tree whose spindly branches reach toward them like black claws. The wind presses their colorful, ankle-length robes against their bodies, and layers of cloth cover most of each band member’s face. A pure blue sky floats above, and the Sahara beneath their feet is like a brilliant white carpet. The North Africa of this poster is a barren but beautiful place where people grow like cactuses in the harsh desert sun, blooming from nothing. It is as much a fairy tale to me as the North Africa of Ismail’s childhood, where mothers nursed one another’s children, ancient saints cured life-threatening illnesses, and people brought livestock into their homes to keep them warm on cold desert nights. These stories have nothing to do with the Africa I see in the news: a land of tyranny, civil war, and widespread health epidemics. The Libya I discovered when I visited there in 2005 bore little resemblance to the idyllic, tragic Africa of my imagination.
The parking lot is beginning to fill up now. The men in leather jackets drop their cigarettes onto the oil-stained asphalt, stub them out with their toes, and disappear through the bus’s narrow door. People are milling around outside the club. A man in a Grateful Dead T-shirt runs a hand through his stringy gray hair; a woman in bifocals swishes past in a floral skirt. Traffic hums relentlessly in the background, car exhaust thickening the cool night air. Aliya is still holding her fan letter, trying to determine her next move. Time is running out; the opening band will start to play in fifteen minutes.
“Give me the letter,” Ismail says, holding out his hand.
Aliya yanks the ragged piece of notebook paper out of his reach, eyeing him with suspicion. “What are you going to do with it?”
“I’m going to get on the bus and give it to the band,” he says with such calm, clear conviction that it almost makes trespassing sound like a rational thing to do.
A familiar apprehension rises in me. Ismail has a way of plowing through personal boundaries as if he doesn’t even see them, then reacting with genuine surprise when I point out his faux pas. Not realizing that grown-ups in the U.S. usually keep a polite distance from children who aren’t theirs, Ismail reaches out for neighborhood kids, mussing their hair or reprimanding them as if they were his own, never noticing the nervous, watchful gaze of their parents. At dinner parties, where the unspoken rule is to avoid subjects like politics or money, Ismail will casually ask the host how much he paid for his house or bemoan U.S. intervention in the Middle East. The other guests will suddenly notice their empty glasses, excuse themselves, and drift away.
Years ago, at a stuffy restaurant where couples sat at small round tables and whispered over flickering candles, I told Ismail I was pregnant with our second child, Aliya’s younger brother. His eyes filled with tears, and he swept his arms wide as if to embrace the entire room. “Hey, everyone — we’re going to have a baby!” he boomed, as if these strangers were part of his extended family, as if his joy were like champagne that he could pour and share with everyone present. An awkward silence followed as people glanced nervously in our direction, looking embarrassed on our behalf.
I am seriously considering whether his crossing over the tape and bursting onto the bus would qualify as breaking and entering. Aliya is biting her lower lip and looking back and forth between us. She could probably use some guidance, but I’m at a loss. Respecting personal boundaries is like a religion for me. I’m not one to show up unannounced or to barge through closed doors, and I have a hard enough time asking friends for favors, let alone strangers. I vividly recall the first night I spent in Libya, when I fell exhausted into bed at my sister-in-law’s cramped house after twenty hours of travel and eight more of socializing, with my husband by my side and Aliya, then just four, curled on a cot jammed between the bed and the wall. I awoke in the middle of the night with a start to see a dark form reaching for her while my husband snored softly. My adrenaline surged before I realized it was my sister-in-law, who had heard my daughter cough and slipped into our bedroom to soothe her and give her God-knows-what medicine.
It was a small comfort for me to discover that Ismail is not unique; that many Libyans have this endearing, maddening blindness to personal space. Perhaps the reason I am so guarded is because I never lived among extended family. I knew relatives mostly through the presents that arrived in the mail and the thank-you cards I sent in return. Though it’s true that by maintaining my polite distance I have successfully avoided imposing myself on others, it’s also true that my husband has more friends he could call in the middle of the night.
Looking exasperated with both of us, Aliya takes our hands and pulls us toward the open doors of the club. Inside, we find a spot at the edge of the stage, and the opening band begins to play. A few minutes later, when I turn to ask Ismail and Aliya if they like the music, they are gone. They’ve disappeared without even telling me where they were going.
The other day, when I was walking home from the grocery store with Aliya, she said out of the blue, “Sometimes I feel bad for my dad, because people here don’t understand him very well.” She wasn’t talking about his accent but about the way he is perceived: the way her friends scrunch up their noses at his spicy food or retreat from the sound of his loud voice; the way her teachers speak patronizingly to him; the way some of our friends squirm when his eyes fill with tears in a culture that has little room for crying men. She understands that to be an immigrant is to live in a country of misunderstandings, to be always partially hidden from view, obscured by stereotypes and prejudice.
Then Aliya cocked her head at me, considering me thoughtfully for a moment, and said, “People misunderstand you too, Mom, because you sort of hover in between places, so they don’t know what to make of you.”
What she meant, I think, is that Ismail is not the only immigrant in our family. In order to make this life with him, I’ve had to leave behind much of my upbringing, putting an ocean of differences between myself and loved ones. Ismail would never play golf or watch sports on television with the men in my family, and they would never see the world from the point of view of the colonized, the stateless, and the oppressed. A gulf divides them, forcing me to commute long distances between their realities. Each December, when Ismail needs to be reminded how to celebrate Christmas, I feel homesick for the country I left behind, where holiday rituals never had to be taught. Between the two of us we now have twice as many holidays to celebrate, one of us always the determined apprentice to the other.
Even some old friends regard Ismail with skepticism. I’ve had to accept their general discomfort around him and their assumption, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that he is a controlling Muslim husband. At a party the other night a Cat Stevens song came on the radio, and a dear old friend grabbed my arm and said, “Oh, I love Cat Stevens!” So do I, I said. She continued: “I couldn’t believe it when he went off the deep end into that whole ‘Yusuf Islam’ thing. I was like, ‘Dude, what happened to the peace train?’ ” She rolled her eyes as she tilted her glass to her lips. I wanted to say, Islam is his peace train. He got on it and rode away, and he’s been on it ever since. But she probably wouldn’t have heard me; she was standing on a distant shore where Islam and peace are categorical opposites, a place where I once lived but to which I can never return. Sometimes I still miss its soothing homogeneity, its bright illusions of superiority and invincibility.
And yet I still look like I belong in that place, while my husband and daughter look like they belong to each other, with their big dark eyes and café-au-lait skin. Everywhere I go, it seems, couples are paired up like two of a kind on Noah’s ark: toned men and women jogging down the street in matching spandex; ruddy-faced couples in identical team colors hauling their cooler to a football game; Muslim couples in flowing garments touching their foreheads to the ground in prayer. Sometimes I wonder if Noah would even let Ismail and me on the boat, or if he’d stop us as we walked up the gangplank, pointing out as gently as he could that we are not, in fact, a matching pair.
So I have often felt alone — just as I am right now, standing here in this crowded club in the dark.
After a forty-five-minute set the opening band bows and leaves the stage, the lights come up, and there are the leather-jacketed men onstage, unrolling wires, adjusting mikes, and tuning instruments for the band. A murmur of anticipation courses through the room. Just before the members of Tinariwen make their appearance, Aliya’s hand slips into mine. Her eyes are blazing.
“Guess where I’ve been, Mom: hanging out on the bus with the band!”
Behind her Ismail beams at me, one eyebrow raised as if to say, Who’s doubting me now?
Later he will tell me what happened: He and Aliya wandered back outside, where they found the drummer standing beside the bus, smoking a cigarette. “As-salaam alaikum,” Ismail said, his hand pressed over his heart. Peace be with you. The man looked up, startled, as if recognizing the voice of an old friend. When Ismail said he was from Libya, the drummer held open the door of the bus and urged them to come inside.
They climbed the narrow steps to find the rest of the band seated at a small table in the back. Ismail greeted them in Arabic, his hand on his heart, and told them how much he and his daughter loved their music, and about Aliya’s letter. In my mind I see her holding out the folded piece of notebook paper, damp and creased from her sweaty fingers, like a crumpled white flag. Ismail says that Ibrahim, the frontman of the band, whose charcoal Afro hangs like a storm cloud over his weathered face, a man who saw his father executed when he was just four years old and spent half his life in refugee camps, stood up to retrieve it. He bowed his head and put his hand over his heart in gratitude. Abdallah, one of the guitarists, called for the rest of the band to listen as he read her letter aloud:
I am eleven years old and I have been listening to your music for my whole life. I want to tell you how much I love it; the sound of your music is unique and wonderful. I am so excited I can barely write this letter because I know I will be seeing you tonight. My dad is from Libya. You are my heroes. I hope that one day I will have a band like yours.
When Abdallah was done reading, he knelt down, took Aliya’s hand in his, and spoke to her in Arabic, which Ismail translated.
“We are honored to receive this letter from you,” he said. “This is the beginning of a long friendship between you and Tinariwen.”
Then they invited her and Ismail to join them around the small table, and the drummer poured them strong, sweet green tea in glass cups like the ones that warmed my palm every day of my trip to Libya. For nearly an hour Aliya sat sandwiched between her father and Ibrahim, cradling a steaming cup while the men chatted and joked in Arabic. When a member of the sound crew popped his head onto the bus to announce that it was ten minutes until showtime, Ibrahim told Aliya that if she grew tired during the show, she was welcome to return to the bus to rest, and that our entire family could come back for more tea after the show was over. They left her a folded blanket and showed her where to lie down.
I was wrong. Ismail did, in fact, have powerful connections to the band, connections called “Africa” and “exile.” He understood what I’d failed to grasp: that when he led Aliya up the narrow stairs of the tour bus, he was leading her back to the deserts of North Africa, where those who have been driven from their homes recognize the longing in one another’s eyes, where unexpected guests are treated like nobility and children like family.
Ismail has a habit of beckoning to our son and daughter when they are beyond his reach, saying, “Give us a kiss.” Before our children disappear upstairs to bed, or after they have said something funny or sad, or when the light hits their faces just so and he is pierced by their innocence, he reaches out to them from where he sits alone: Give us a kiss.
I sometimes want to correct his use of the plural pronoun, but I hold my tongue because I know he didn’t learn to speak English until well into adulthood, and I find his unconventional grammar endearing. I have, however, joked with Aliya about her father’s expression.
Aliya used to kiss us both every night before bed, but lately she just drifts up to her room when we’re unaware, and it isn’t until I’m lying in bed myself that I realize I haven’t kissed her all day. The other night she was halfway up the stairs when Ismail called after her, “Give us a kiss,” and she turned slowly and made her way back down, feigning reluctance but smiling anyway. First she kissed his stubbly cheek, then the air beside him, as if an invisible person were sitting there. She looked at me and giggled at our private joke. Ismail smiled quizzically at us. Was it incorrect to say that, he wanted to know. I explained that it made no sense to use us to refer only to himself, and that Aliya and I had been letting him do it for years.
He grew quiet, as if contemplating this, then said that he was only translating exactly what people say to children in Libya. You would never say, “Give me a kiss,” there, excluding all the other adults in the room.
I recalled how, when I was in Libya, my mother-in-law’s house was crowded day and night with hordes of relatives eager to see Ismail’s American wife and child. Each time we entered the home, my coat was slipped from my shoulders, and four-year-old Aliya was swept from my arms and passed around the room like candy for everyone to taste. When she was finally returned to me, her plump cheeks were rosy from being pressed to so many lips, squeezed by so many hands. Not only relatives did this but also shopkeepers in the market and waiters in restaurants. Once, an elderly Iraqi refugee we met on the street cradled Aliya’s smooth cheeks between leathery hands and spoke to her in a steady stream of Arabic, ignoring me altogether, as if they shared a secret.
Now Ibrahim, the lead singer, walks onstage, his silken tunic covering everything but his cowboy boots and the hems of his gold-threaded pants. His Afro is a halo around his head, and deep lines traverse his face like well-traveled paths. He scans the cheering crowd with the somber love of a father watching his children sleep. Then he leans into the microphone and speaks.
“The best language in the world,” he says in French, “is music. When I try to speak any of the others, it’s a catastrophe.”
His fingers pluck the strings of his guitar as if they had a life of their own, and he begins to sing, his gravelly voice gaining momentum like a rusty engine turning over and then humming on an open road. As he sings, “Subhanallah” (Praise be to God), the drummer keeps pace, becoming a frenzy of motion, his hands slapping and pounding and sliding across animal skin. At the foot of the stage, a man whose beefy shoulders are black with tattoos closes his eyes and nods in emphatic agreement with the sound. Aliya’s skinny body bends toward the music like a sapling toward the sun. She crosses her arms over her chest, as if holding herself back from falling into the ocean of rhythm. Then her hands find one another and begin to clap.
Onstage a gray-haired dancer sways his hips, his arms twisting and gliding through the air. The light in his eyes is brilliant. When he raises his hands to clap, I can’t help but do the same; when he moves to the music, so do I. His joy fans out around him like wildfire, setting ablaze in me a fierce longing, a hunger far too voracious to be satisfied by food, drink, or touch.
I believe that Allah can be found in the precision of Islam’s rituals and the punctuality of its five daily prayers. But Allah is here, too, in this darkened club — in the candy-apple-red electric guitar swishing against a silken djellaba, in the brown fingers that strum the chords. Allah is in the frenzied palms of the drummer slapping against a gourd as smooth and hard as stone. Allah is in the joyous old African man with the dancing feet of a child, gently coaxing us to peel off these stifling layers of craving, anxiety, and self-doubt and show our naked selves. Allah is the music, and we are swimming in it; it is washing us clean, its rhythms beating in time with our hearts. The air in the crowded room smells of sweat. The beer in my hand is growing warm. We don’t have much time — the song is already almost over, and soon we will all return to where we came from — but right now the old man is beckoning, inviting each of us to step inside the music, if only for a moment, and make ourselves at home.
This morning I ducked out of the New York City heat into a coffee shop to finish reading Krista Bremer’s “Blues for Allah,” and tears welled up.
Unlike Bremer’s ethnically mixed family, mine could aptly be described as “white bread.” But her essay touched on the universal themes of how we love our children and want to do our best by them, and how heartbreakingly difficult it can be to figure out what that is.
I just finished reading “Blues for Allah” by Krista Bremer [July 2012]. Her words left me with the feeling I had been listening to music. What a beautiful essay. I’m still basking in it.