Growing Up in a Phantom-Filled Desert
You Can Leave Arizona, But its Ghosts Won't Leave You
In Biblical times, the desert was associated with wandering and death; it signified the state of exile. People passed through it in strife to arrive elsewhere—hopefully an elsewhere of water. It is the planet’s equivalent of a graveyard. The American desert is notorious for blood. In the vast sweeping mesas, there have been shot innumerable shootouts. It is the wildest of the wild, wild West. It is where evil goes to hide. There are ghost towns and Republicans, guns, drugs, and the Grand Canyon. Somewhere in between the Biblical and the profane lies my desert, the Sonoran.
My father was born in the winter of 1943 and fled Safed, Palestine in the spring of 1948. His family had lived in that city seated in the hills, overlooking the lake where Jesus was said to have walked on water, for over four centuries. Abrupt departures marked much of his life up until he settled in Arizona in the early 1990s. After leaving on foot from Palestine, his family lived in Damascus, Syria, and then, a few years later, went to Kuwait, where my grandfather worked as an engineer for the new royalty that had been established in exchange for oil. My father reflects most often on driving through the desert to the gulf at too young an age, hallucinating jinn in the shadows of the dunes.
My mother grew up in the Deep South, in a small town named Florala near the border of Florida, in Alabama. Hers was the only Jewish family in that town, and neighbors would steal into their yard in the middle of the night and poison their dogs. The last time I visited, there was a Confederate flag hanging above one of the few storefronts still open for business, the Piggly Wiggly wasn’t selling beer, and the town was still divided along the invisible lines that segregation had drawn decades ago. For my mother, the escape out of that place she likens to a ghost town was New York City.
New York City, this great dream smashing us against each other day after night after day, brought together my mother and father, two people of disparate faiths and backgrounds. It also bankrupted them. And so my father’s renewed poverty turned his attention to the deserted west, like the old frontiersman on the march for manifest destiny. There, in the desert, my parents could start anew.
Arizona was open, vast, and cheap. There he would not be an Arab.
He’d call himself Frank to strangers. He’d be Italian. Some small part of each of us believes that if we just move somewhere else, we’ll be transformed.
The desert was not empty. There is no stretch of land in America untouched by blood. Nowhere the haunt of slavery, genocide, and war don’t linger. In Arizona, the impoverished reservations bordered the unlikely suburban neighborhoods where all the transplants lived, including us, our manicured lawns with winter and summer grass tended by undocumented immigrants working through June, July, and August in the sweltering heat. And my father never quit cursing the news that broadcast the Middle East to us through the television in our American desert hideout.
For me, there was another war on, one that did not make headlines. At my high school, kids were dying in waves. One drove his car into a forklift. Another overshot a small bend in the road and drove directly into a saguaro cactus. One was found bled to death on a construction site. One shot himself on a school playground. Another shot himself in his parents’ driveway.
One fell off the side of a mountain. There were multiple overdoses.
Rumors spread: the high school was cursed.
I used to wonder if the land was at war with us. Was it the ghosts of the place—the gods of the place?—who sought our deaths? Was the desert itself the curse? People spoke suspiciously of a certain exit from the freeway that was rumored to be built over a Native American graveyard, and I used to pray to the God of my mother and father at that exit to save me from accident. But I didn’t know the gods of the desert. We went to pow wows; we ate Indian fry bread; we burned sage. We had kachina dolls and dream catchers. We went to Sedona on vacations and spoke with wonder of the vortexes. We hoped the Hopi were somewhere protecting us. We were on the other side of the reservation, destroying the land with development after development, draining the water, maintaining our lawns, amassing more graves, killing ourselves.
Certainly the “curse” may have lived in us all along, and what we suffered may merely have been an epidemic of self-destruction.
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about our temptations toward suicide as children. She lived in a pink room full of dolls and all she could think of was her parents framed knife in the living room. She longed, though she was perfectly happy, to plunge it into her stomach. These temptations arrived for me once I began to drive in the desert. At certain bends, beholding all that shuddering nothingness, I felt an urge, strong as a sexual temptation, to run my car off the road. The French have a simple term for this: l’appel du vide. The desert, it turned out, was an ideal landscape for the void to signal its call. I believed the only way to escape it was to leave.
I left my desert and went to New York like Dorothy in search of the wizard, in search of a glittery salvation. At Columbia, a professor, over wine, told me I was bound, given my conflicted background, to self-destruct. “The pressure on you is too great,” he said. He was speaking of my mother’s and father’s heritage — one Palestinian and the other Jewish — but what’s funny is that the pressure I feel most often is the great weight of America, and in this way I feel most American. Early on, a writing professor told me the best detail in a story of mine was that a character went running to a store miles away to buy cigarettes. Run hard and fast, crash into your ghosts.
It was Faulkner who said: “One quality a writer has got to have is a demon.” I don’t believe I ever quite left my phantom-filled desert.
The “curse” followed me to the hallowed, anonymous streets of New York. After college, I fell in love — a damaging and wild love, the kind that only comes once. I loved him because I believed he was the only person who had ever understood my brokenness, the things that went bang in the dark desert, taking my friends to their graves, a particular night I still cannot face that went all black with Bacardi 151. For years we believed we were in sanctimonious rebellion, and so we drank, did drugs; we smashed bottles against concrete; we danced around illegal fires. I remember certain mornings with unease—the sun long past up, a bright bitter January, walking to the bodega on shaky legs to make a beer run, feeling shame before the Yemeni bodega-owner who had slept only a few hours, readings from the Quran playing on his radio. But I needed another beer; the beer would save me from myself. Late in the night or too late the next morning, we said the place where he lived was cursed. We heard ghosts on the landing. We heard voices in the walls.
Perhaps it was a vortex. Toward the end of his life, the one I loved stood on the roof of the building looking into the night as if it were sick with something, and said: “This place has destroyed me.”
“This place?” I said.
“America,” he said, and then drifted. “The entire fucking world.”
Years passed and I left that man, and then he died and I learned there was no falling out of love ever, that nothing ever ends, time only passes. The place where he lived and I once lived is where his ashes remain. It is now his graveyard. It is a place I can’t stop passing—and won’t stop visiting until it becomes, as everything tends to in this city, a Duane Reade. It is the block I take home because in a way it is still home. It is imperfect, it is ugly, it is embroidered with many dark, happy memories. It is just like my desert. It wasn’t Arizona that was cursed with an epidemic of self-destruction but the entire country. Perhaps, like the professor said of me: there is a pressure on us too great, a particular constitution of violence and hope that best describes my bones and my blood.
My father calls me at night, his voice quieter and quieter—a voice I remember bellowing in my teenage years—as we have emerged into this darker patch of history. He speaks mournfully of Syria, of being a refugee there as a child—the people so kind, so welcoming, when no one else would have the Palestinians. He spent his days in the graveyard beside the refugee camp. It was vast and empty and quiet, and the camps were crowded. He tells me he used to lie down in the cemetery and dream of trees, the sorts of forests that describe the west, trees he could have never seen at that age. He tells me he wishes he could go back, not to Palestine, but to Syria, for now it is not just one homeland gone but two. Then he speaks of the cemetery again, of how beautiful it was, how peaceful—as another would speak of the sea. Some- times I dream of that cemetery in Syria, once full of spring water and flowers, now razed to the rubble by bombs, but surrounding it is my desert at the edge of dusk. A shuddering music takes over the brush. The saguaro cacti stand tall, as guardians, surveying what we have done with our bulldozers and our luxury condominiums, our new freeways, our construction sites. And in some dreams, in the middle of it all, stands, impossibly, that Brooklyn yard where I loved and lost.
I must be like my mother, for I know that in the bougainvillea which give color to our desert yard, she sees the kudzu that wrapped its tresses on all the edges of her lakeside Florala home, and in the creak of our door leading out from the garage, she hears her mother’s voice, as she says she always did in the house in Alabama. We both understand the simple truth that though we leave a place in body, we never leave anywhere in spirit.
My ghost remains here. The one I loved and lost. I see him in the streets, just at the next corner. If I walk fast enough, I’ll catch him. In certain dreams, I smell him, he surrounds me, and I wake up covered in sweat. I see him on the train, sardonically contemplating an MTA ad. His emptiness rocks my rocking chair on nights when there is no wind, and he is the one, I’ve decided, responsible for my television turning off and on of its own accord. I see him strolling through the park on the hottest summer days. He looks at me for a second, a pleading look, and then he’s gone.
Some days ago, my mother called to say she had spoken to a “ghost” from her childhood, someone who still lived in Florala. “You know what we were talking about? We were talking about the way we used to love riding our bikes to the graveyard. Just like your dad used to play in them in Syria when he was living in the tents.” And then my mother said, “Maybe that’s why you like being in graveyards so much. You inherited that from us.”
This essay originally appears in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Epiphany.
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