If These Are the End Times, Don’t Waste Your Time Texting
Massoud Hayoun on Fear, Bad Omens, and His Grandmother's Funeral
The fires tore through the state like a pestilence.
Later, when the rains came and the firemen once again evacuated the hill people, always a little more conservative in their sensibilities than the rest of LA, a woman on the local news, looking like a latter-day Loretta Lynn, joked that this chain of events seemed biblical. What’s next? Brimstone? Locusts? She chuckled, but her speech was almost frantic—maybe she feared the reporter wouldn’t let her finish her thought.
We were made to feel sorry for the hill people, with frequency. It became exhausting, for them and for us. No one deserves the plagues. But everyone deserved plagues in biblical times. In the scorched red hills and in the pale blue shade of their valleys.
A friend in Ventura County texted, Is this the end times? How the fuck should I know, I thought. Stop unloading on me. Suddenly everyone had become religious, but especially the potheads.
Repent one day before your death, I’d read as a child, fearful of men and their words. If it is indeed the end times, for fuck’s sake don’t waste my time texting. See me IRL, or see me not at all.
By the grace of God, most compassionate and most merciful, let us return to an autumnal field and fill the world with the kind of love that might cool it. A priest downtown told me once, in a discussion that was meant to be about the taxes undocumented people pay, that there must be better reasons to keep migrants around than the economy.
Or let us fill the field with love hot enough that it might entertain the universe into letting us have another few millennia. If we all just gave something of ourselves the way porn stars do, to an unseen audience in the bright auburn and orange leaves, to each other.
My mother drove me through the hills to the single remaining Arab-owned market in Los Angeles, which of course didn’t announce itself as such. It was called International Market, a windowless affair like some bars I’ve seen where we come from, where people go to live in their longing, hidden from the sun. A Muslim nursery school off Santa Monica had visibly whited out the part on its billboard that once read Islamic. Even near UCLA, where it seemed people were so very smart relative to the rest of this place, there are bigots.
Life is a beautiful gown, crawling with lice, wrote Eileen Chang. She died alone in Westwood of heart disease. It was weeks before anyone found her body.
Warda played through the car speakers—Zikrayati ya zikrayati, ana minek ya zikrayati—My memories, oh my memories, I am made of you, my dear memories. At least this is what I thought she meant, but who knows? I suppose I could have paid more attention in my grandfather’s Arabic lessons, on summer breaks home from school. Some of the forgetting is natural, no fault of my own, although we’re all at fault for something.
I’ve entered the same trance state people experience on long-haul flights, my near-perfect absence from being disturbed only by the sound of anything other than Warda—a siren, a car horn. I’m a sort of tired beyond sleep. My mother is battle-worn—gaunt and hollow behind the wheel of her frisky blue Honda Fit, covered in a film of dust. Our ladies of perpetual amnesia, in the eternal darkness of our foggy minds.
The hills were black then, from the fires. Before, the hills had magic properties, back when this was Mexico. If you ran for the hills, you’d emerge and find the trees had washed and anointed you. We burnt them to a crisp. We deserve whatever comes next, I thought. We. And the poor rich people in those beautiful homes of the hills. No one deserves a plague except everyone.
“Hers is a death so fresh that, for the rest of my life, I could reach into yesterday and pull her back into now.”
My grandmother was the hills. Hair perfectly white, skin perfectly brown. Bai fa mo nu, the white-haired witch, like the classic Hong Kong film. I called my grandmother a witch once, and she was deeply offended. There are things we just don’t say. Mexicans fear the Chupacabra, Romanians fear vampires, Arabs fear witches. But so do whites; in every generation, it seems, the whites have feared witches more even than Arabs. If only for that, the witch becomes a tempting antihero. But my grandmother was not a witch. Nor was my mother. Nor am I. We, the women of the hills.
My grandmother was so strong that she could commute that which is disgusting in you into light. Turn off your Twitter, she said, that the world might hear you. The revolution won’t be tweeted. Turn your face from Instagram, that you might be beautiful. I did as she advised.
Capitalism has weakened everyone’s senses, she often said. If the French in Tunisia, the Germans in Ghana, the white settler colonists here had loved Fanon’s wretched of the earth as they loved themselves, there would have been no colonies, she theorized. But love and nuance don’t matter when you’re busy making money. She was not a professor, my grandmother, but she was the sort who instructed, whose hobbling along on her walker—neck bent by a fall that twisted her spine—was an act of poetry.
She was tough, frequently unpleasant in the absence of a reason to please. Escaped her parents who would have made her a child bride. Hopped a balcony from their home and took flight. She arrived in the US with no real education, studied hard, and rejected everything and everyone—her husband, her father. Even in their kindness. Outside the hospital, where they kept her alive against her will, was a bush of jasmine. She ripped off the oxygen mask they strapped to her face. She’s too strong, an anesthesiologist said, strapping it back on. As I wandered around the working-class homes outside, waiting for her to descend into the morphine and beyond reach, my nose filled with the familiar scent. In Tunis as a girl, she said, she would buy small bouquets of jasmine. I imagined her jet-black hair, head bent over a sprig of small delicate flowers. We were in the heart of the valley, near a Filipino American supermarket, jasmine reaching out from behind the white bars of a home opposite the hospital. In the tenebrous night I see everywhere now, even in the California sun.
Même au fond des ténèbres ta main me saisit, car pour toi la nuit comme le jour illumine.
My grandmother died cursing in French. Wadaan ya sitt el-jbaleya. Farewell my woman of the hills.
Now that she’s gone, I sit each night, alone in her house, in the pale blue valley. The TV and its trash news is off. Hers is a death so fresh that, for the rest of my life, I could reach into yesterday and pull her back into now. She lived under a monarch in Tunis once. But this landscape—under another sort of monarch—was the last she saw.
A year before she died, there was a black raven, big as a dog, above our house in Los Angeles. I was still a smoker then. I stood in our backyard smoking, and the raven, large and unyielding, stood at the pinnacle of our roof. The raven is among the more beautiful creatures: the most visibly clean, cleaner than humans certainly. But in our culture—not the one inscribed in the Books, but the one that rules us—the raven is a bad omen. The women of the hills never believed in omens. Predictions are only found true after the fact, my grandmother said. All we have is now. There’s nothing when you die. Just blackness.
The day after the raven, we received a phone call from Paris that her sister Aziza had died. My grandmother had said she’d been in a dark cloud. We looked at each other. What a shitty power—the premonition of death. What a useless power. Days later, we made a ruling. The black cloud over my grandmother, coupled with the raven, had been a message to us. Aziza had sent a message. And there are no messages.
“But even witchcraft is burdened by capitalism; the spirits these days seem to have inflated the price of refusing to accept things as they are.”
Aziza had lived a life of subversions: three times a wife and three times un-wifed, unthinkable in our family. She enjoyed a cigarette and a drink without much concern for who was watching, enjoyed a chest laugh, and all sorts of beauty—particularly her own. Vices, everyone but my grandmother said. When, for all her fun times, Aziza began to forget them and eventually herself, she willed that she should no longer live and passed naturally, months later. And sent us a dark cloud and a raven, for our troubles.
There are no signs. God forbid. That world isn’t level. The farther you travel, the harder you fall into a place of sideways meanings.
There were women in our family who had made amulets and sachets. The same principle as New Orleans gris-gris but back in Africa, at the source—mint and clove to ward off the evil eye. But if we had any power, it wasn’t in those things; it was our little subversions, refusing the laws of logic in miserable times. The renowned witchologist Katherine Howe explains that witches are the anti-institutional. In the white Salem experience, the witch suckles imps instead of children, says prayers backward. The witch—in the broadest sense of that slippery word—is a disobedient woman, a gadfly.
In North African bedtime stories, the witch pays for her workings with a sacrifice to the spirits. In the old times, people knew how much to pay. But even witchcraft is burdened by capitalism; the spirits these days seem to have inflated the price of refusing to accept things as they are.
My mother is a sort of mystical hippie, like the aunts in Practical Magic, but North African. As a child, we listened to Joni Mitchell as we made twists and turns through the Topanga hills. Around the time my father challenged a female judge’s child support ruling, we bought special gems from the Earth Mothers there—black tourmaline for protection. We got a male judge next, and we lost what the woman had granted. So we stopped buying stones altogether. The price to pay for our workings was immeasurable. We generate power, the women of the hills, we vibrate it, and are powerless.
The hills were strikingly black in LA that day, en route to the Arab market. My hills! I cried on the 405, listening to Warda sing of things firmly in the past. If I weren’t strapped back by the seat belt, I’d have reached out for them. Inti koul hayati wa-aktar min hayati, Warda sang—You are my whole life and more than my life. Or something like that. Who knows?
The hills belonged to me and not to those blind celebrities in Bel Air. I saw the hills! The ruby slippers are of no use to you!
At my grandmother’s funeral, no one who was there deserved to be there, except myself and the undertakers. No one understood these times, the emptiness of Tinder and capitalism, like my grandmother and me. I hated everyone there on the Hollywood Hills, where my grandmother is now locked away. Winter approached, and we left her with little more than a grave to shield against the cold and decay. Rest in power, my woman of the hills. Everyone went home and logged on.
My mother has the countenance of an Easter Island statue, inscrutable and hardened. She has stood in the hidden valleys and then atop the hills of North Africa. Dihya in a past life, a warrior queen facing an onslaught of men she saw coming from afar, fighting so valiantly that it didn’t matter when she lost.
I read in an article on Twitter—my mother said soberly, not crying, since we took turns—that the fires awaken dormant things in the soil and that beautiful things grow from the black.
In Wicca, which has nothing to do with me or my family, black is the color through which people acquire power. Black candles. Black utterances. In witchcraft, everything is in opposition to the things we know. I wouldn’t choose witchcraft, or let it choose me—that endless twirling into the unknown. But nothing about those times was right.
We were on our way to the market. We spent so much of the time after my grandmother—who raised me, I was sure to tell people, to emphasize why I was in a constant state of descent—on our way to markets. To that Arab market, to Persian and Armenian Angeleno markets that sold Arab goods. I wasn’t hungry for Arab food, necessarily, or any food. I expected to see my grandparents there, in the aisles. But we were now in a world without their generation’s indignation, their revolution, their grace or meaning. Their fava beans in brine, their orange blossom water, their bassboussa cake.
Weeks after the hills turned black, I sat in an armchair from which I could hear my grandmother doing the dishes once upon a time, from which I could hear her singing her little folk songs. Now silence, unless you listen so intently you begin to hear all sorts of things. I got up to serve myself the coffee she would have said smells beautiful, ya ouldi—my son. And when I sat back down to drink it in silence, lying across my phone screen, in this reality that has become surreal, was a single strand of perfectly white hair. In a place where I’d be sure to see it.
The launch party for American Chordata‘s Summer Issue is this evening at 7:00 at McNally Jackson in Williamsburg. Limited print editions of the new issue will be available, as well as discounted back issues and subscriptions; all issues are also available online. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Ali Forney Center.
From American Chordata: Issue Seven, Summer 2018. Used with permission of American Chordata. Copyright © 2018 by Massoud Hayoun.