|There were no stomping black boots or whistles. No lights were shone in our faces. We were not wrenched out of our beds and shoved onto cattle cars in a gray winter dawn. We were not herded into ghettos ringed with barbed wire. The killings and torture were done in secret.|
We knew about that but we didn’t know all of it. I cannot say that we were not warned. As much as we were kept in the dark, much was revealed, either by design or accidentally. All the signs were there as they have been in the past for such things and somehow we, the people, were in a state of inertia, shock, and maybe some awe. It could never happen again we said.
When they came they came silently, gradually handing me clues along the way. There was the blue car with the dark tinted windows that idled across the street from my sixties cape every day at different times. The Christmas card that was torn and hastily taped together, the mail that never made it to its intended destination. There was of course the more obvious signs: the mother who was thrown in jail for protesting the war after her soldier son was killed, the lack of news about who was dying over there, the sudden popularity of Christian rock bands.
They came when the noon sun was high, and efficient. They were dressed plainly, suit jackets in neutral shades. Sunglasses that hid their eyes, as opaque as their car windows. They did not even take them off when they informed me that my son and I were being moved to a facility “for our own safety.” They handed me a piece of paper. At this time I was to be remanded to the custody of the Department of Homeland Security and sent to a “secure facility”.
The television was on . The war had taken a turn for the worse. The president’s approval rating was at an all time low. We had not managed to find the nuclear plant we had been aiming for and ended up killing eighteen members of a wedding party. All over the Arab world American flags were being set aflame. Our president assured us that our enemies had a nuclear facility that they were building with the express purpose of destroying the world. We were bombing them for freedom the President explained patiently, and calmly but somehow the American people, who had been so willing to give him the benefit of the doubt earlier, just weren’t buying it anymore. Too many of their sons had already died in Mesopotamia. Despite his waning popularity the President was jovial most of the time. The news showed him golfing and happily herding cattle on his ranch but he was growing dismayed at how little the people understood the danger freedom was in. There was a newfound urgency in his voice.
If they were affected by what was on the TV, which was turned up loudly so I could hear it from the kitchen, the man and woman in the sunglasses did not show it. I was given thirty minutes to gather what I needed.
“I need to call my husband,” I said. “Is he coming with us?”
“No ma’am,” the woman said.
“He’s Muslim too you know?” I said. “He converted.”
This time the man spoke. “We are aware of that ma’am.”
“My son is still in school.”
“He has been secured,” the woman said. This is the point in a horror movie—because that was what this was to me—where the teakettle would whistle or the cat would knock a plant off the windowsill—making everyone jump. Secured. He had been secured. Because at seven he was a threat to national security. He loved Darth Vader, felt a certain sympathy for his plight so I knew, on some level, he would have been amused that they thought he was as dangerous as Darth Vader.
“Is he all right? Is he hurt?” I said. In the past three years words had taken on new meanings. They were used as codes. Security no longer meant what it used to, neither did freedom. It seemed that every time the defense secretary or his boss uttered those words, people died.
The woman did not take her sunglasses off but her body stiffened. She looked up at her partner.
He answered. “He is at the shelter already where he will be given a meal while he waits for you to arrive.”
For a moment I tried to grasp what he meant by shelter. I automatically thought of bombs.
“They have video games,” the woman added when I did not respond. Her partner did not approve that she had volunteered this information. But this was meant to calm me and somehow it did. I pictured my son sitting on the floor of “the facility” happily playing Super Mario with another little who had a name like Abdullah or Mohammed. My son’s name was Alexander after his paternal Polish great grandfather but his middle name was Salim, my maiden name, and that was all they had needed to “secure” him.
My son had pale skin, jet-black hair and eyes that were chocolate brown. His father joked that he looked like Damian, from The Omen. His eyelashes were long and thick. His nose was sharp. His blood, rich with the color of two continents, made it hard to pinpoint exactly where he was from. He could have been from the Russian steppes or, when he tanned, from Sao Paulo. As my neighbor Mrs. Dreyfus always pointed out, “he looks like a Jew.” This was said in a slightly accusatory tone like I was willfully denying his heritage. When I looked at him I saw a little fair skinned Bengali boy. A second generation Bangladeshi American, Muslim, with Hindu roots. My father told me that a cousin of his had traced our family tree to Iraq. I could not help but wonder as I stared blankly at the contents of my closet deciding what to take to the “secure facility” if that had been my undoing.
Six months earlier I heard the tapping noises on the phone. It was always at the same time of day–3:30 in the afternoon. Sometimes the phone rang and the caller ID could not identify the number. I assumed it was the ever-persistent telemarketers so I never picked up, but one day Alexander did and no one was at the other end. This happened at least three more times. At first I just thought my phones were malfunctioning and then my husband pointed out that the tapping noises never occurred at any other time. Then certain files went missing on the computer. Files I did not remember deleting. My husband backed everything up on a CD, admonishing me, “It’s only a matter of time. You have to plan for war.”
But the war was two thousand miles away and trapped in a graphic next to Soledad O’Brien’s head. It would never be at my front door. Then the falafel joint downtown that had been run by the same Syrian family for thirty years suddenly closed down. Its windows were boarded up “until further notice.” Kindly mustachioed Mr. Abdellah who owned the falafal joint was the one who told Alexander that he shared a name with a great leader and sparked my boy’s curiosity.
“Iskander conquered the world by the time he was seventeen,” he told my son.
“Did he have to kill people?” Alexander asked.
Mr. Abdellah nodded his head thoughtfully. “Sometimes, yes. Sometimes great leaders have to do bad things for the greater good. Like our president.”
I shook my head at the older man.
Mr. Abdellah winked at Alexander, and handed him a warm lamb falafel wrapped in tinfoil. “Your mother doesn’t agree.”
Alexander nodded his head knowingly. “She thinks he is a–what did you say mommy?”
I shrugged, embarrassed that I was being exposed. Alexander had a way of doing that to me, blurting things out to strangers. Once he announced to a startled plumber that I waxed my upper lip twice a month.
“A war monger!” Alexander cried as he suddenly remembered a snippet of my regular diatribe against the President. “Was Iskander a war monger?”
“The people he conquered would say so,” I said, deciding to weigh in on the conversation before Mr. Abdellah could object to the President being called that.
“I am a simple man,” Mr Abdellah said, smiling at us. “All I know is what I read in the school books back in Damascus. That will be ten dollars even.”
As I was walking out I noticed for the first time that he had an autographed picture of the President and the First Lady taped behind the cash register. The same one my mother-in law, who could trace her lineage back to the Mayflower, had stuck to her refrigerator with an American flag magnet.
Now Mr. Abdellah was gone. Was he one of the many that Reuters began reporting about? Reports that no American or British news outlet carried; that Americans were “disappearing” everyday, plucked off the street and detained in “secure facilities” all over the country and in one spot in Cuba. But the war was not officially here yet. I kept reminding myself as I went through the days, writing, working out, being a class parent. I had lost track of how many Betty Crocker cupcakes I had made.
My husband called on my cell phone as I was stuffing maxi pads into a duffel bag while the agents waited downstairs.
“What’s doing,” he asked. I heard voices behind him. There was laughter, light heartedness. It was Friday, Memorial Day weekend, two thirty in the afternoon. People would be leaving work early, heading to the Hamptons or some other destination. Summer was here, the days were longer, the air sweeter. “I’m going to blow out of here early,” he said. There was a burst of laughter behind him. “David wants me to go out for a drink and then I’ll be home. No later than five.”
“There’s no rush,” I said. “I’m not going to be here.” I was shaking.
“Where are you going?” Stephen asked.
“The men in coats finally came for me.” I laughed shortly. Stephen was silent. He became silent when he was confused.
“I am being taken to a secure facility.”
“A secure facility. For my security and freedom.”
“Yasmina what the hell are you talking about?”
“They must have read the book,” I said. A few months earlier I had self published a collection of stories I had written entitled Detained. No publisher would touch it, though most said it was polished and relevant. I made up a story about a woman who lived in the Catskills and stumbled upon what could only be described as a concentration camp full of Arabs to whom she would sneak food and articles she cut out of the local paper through the razor wire. When it rained the prisoners were up to their knees in mud and she would smuggle plastic bags to them as well so they could cover their bare feet. But it took this woman a long time to recognize what she was seeing because she could not believe there could be something like this in her own bucolic backyard. Her realization was the real story.
“They already have Alexander,” I said finally wanting to get off the phone and get to my son. “I have to go.”
“Where did they take him?”
“Upstate,” I replied. The female agent had walked into the room. She said nothing but pointed to her watch.
“What should I do?” Stephen asked me. He sounded helpless. “Tell me what to do.”
“Call a lawyer,” I said. “And pray.”
I hung up. I wanted to tell him I loved him but not with the agent standing there. I didn’t want her to witness something so personal. I looked at her expectantly. She stood aside and let me walk out. What saddened me the most at that moment was this: I was not surprised. I was afraid, yes, but not surprised.
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