LIVE ACTION ENGLISH
Fiction by Robert Radin

      I have to start the sequence, even though Amal’s not here.  I hold my
hands out from my chest and shake them and make a face.  I step up to a
small black table and take hold of the hot and cold water taps—both
imaginary—and turn each in opposite directions, the cold water clockwise
and the hot water counterclockwise.  I place my hands under the imaginary
running water.  I pick up the bar of soap and turn it over in my hands.  I
place it back in the soap dish and rinse my hands under the water.  I turn off
both taps and take the imaginary towel off the imaginary towel rack.  I dry
my hands and put the towel back.
      This is the closest I’ve ever come to acting like a mime.  As a child I
hated mimes, so I didn’t appreciate the craft involved.  I realize now that to
be convincing I need to oversell each gesture, invest it with all the details I
take for granted in the course of my ordinary affairs.
      Amal comes in as I’m repeating the actions.  She’s wearing her silver
ankle boots.  They’re too big for her, so she clops as she walks to her seat.
      They were the first thing she bought when she got to New York—she
didn’t have shoes when she lived in Kenya.  Her caseworker told me her
mother had taken her south after her father and her sister were killed in
Mogadishu, and when the drought and the famine began they walked the 500
kilometers to Dadaab in their bare feet.  By the time they arrived her mother
was sick from complications from starvation—too sick to be treated in the
camp—so they started the long application process for resettlement.  Her
mother died before the application was approved.
      Amal had never flown on an airplane when she boarded the flight from
Dadaab to Nairobi, and then from Nairobi to Zurich, and then from Zurich
to New York.  She panicked during every takeoff and every landing, and she
missed her mother more than ever, because she had never been good about
saying her prayers, and she knew her mother would have said them for her.

                                                         ●

      I perform the sequence again, but this time I issue a command before
each action:
      Your hands are dirty.
      Turn on the water.
      Pick up the soap.
      Wash your hands.
      Put the soap back in the soap dish.
      Rinse your hands.
      Turn off the water.
      Take the towel off the towel rack.
      Dry your hands.
      Put the towel back on the towel rack.

      I perform the sequence two times with the commands.  Then everyone
stands up and I give them the commands and they perform the actions.  The
women feel uncomfortable doing this alongside the men, but I don’t have to
worry about it because they’ve separated themselves by gender: The women
are on the left side of the room and the men are on the right.

                                                          ●

      I ask Amal to come to the board.  Even though I’m looking right at
her—or think I’m looking right at her—she can’t tell.  She points to herself
and makes a face as if to say “Who, me?”  I nod: Yes,
you.
      I have a lazy eye.  So does she.  This makes me like her even more.
      I’m not sure which one of my eyes drifts.  All I know is that I don’t
have true binocular vision.  When I track something I alternate between
eyes, piecing together depth based on previous experience.  I can’t actually
see depth the way other people do.
      When she gets to the board I can smell her bad breath.  It’s not just
her—it’s the last week of Ramadan and everyone’s breath smells bad.  I
hold the dry-erase marker at one end so that when she takes it from me our
hands don’t touch.  Her jilbab doesn’t have sleeves, so this is the only time I
get to see her hands.
      I put a transparency with pictures of all the actions on the overhead
projector.
      Take the towel off the towel rack, I say.
      As she looks at the board Sabeen and Sadia call to her.  She turns to
them and they stand and take the imaginary towel off the imaginary towel
rack.  She circles the corresponding picture and everyone claps.

                                                          ●

      The next class I give everyone the following command:
Rinse your
hands.
 Sabeen doesn’t know what to do, so I give the command to Sadia
while Sabeen watches.  Then I give the command to Sabeen again and she
rubs her hands together under the imaginary water.  
      Like most young women from Baghdad, Sabeen and Sadia wear their
hijabs in the Kaleeji style.  Kaleeji means “from the gulf.”  It’s like a beehive,
or a bouffant hijab.  It began as a way for women to show the length of their
hair without actually revealing it.  They made high ponytails so their hijabs
stood up in the back, or they wrapped their hair on top of their heads before
covering it.  But now it’s taken on a life of its own, become a fashion
statement in its own right, to the point where women with short hair and
even women with long hair have started fastening cardboard cones to their
heads so they can achieve higher looks.
      Amal doesn’t wear her hijab in the Kaleeji style.  Hers goes straight
out in the back, which means she has a long ponytail that she’s tying low.

                                                          ●

      Sabeen and Sadia come to my office after class.  Sadia does all the
talking, even though Sabeen is the older sister.
      My sister want divorce, Sadia says.  You can help us?
      Sabeen is wearing a black unitard with a black hijab.  Sadia, as always,
is more modest, dressed in a navy trench coat, belted at the waist.
      When I did their intakes they told me they were from Jordan.  I’d
heard Iraqi women say this before, especially if they were from Baghdad.  
What I didn’t know was that their uncle had been murdered for working as
a phlebotomist for the Americans inside the Green Zone, and that their father
had been injured in a car-bomb blast outside a mosque.  That’s when the
family fled to Amman, spending all their savings on a one-room apartment on
the outskirts of the city.  Sabeen and Sadia kept themselves busy by studying
for A levels they would never take.
      During this time Sabeen began emailing with Ahmed, the son of her
father’s former business associate.  He was an enterprising young man
who’d owned an Internet café in Baghdad.  He and his family had been
resettled to the United States.
      They corresponded for a year and then Ahmed asked her father for
her hand in marriage.  He had to do it over the phone, in defiance of Iraqi
custom, but given the circumstances—there were no longer any paternal
cousins who were eligible candidates—her father gave his consent.
      Two years later their family was resettled to the United States, and
when they arrived Sabeen couldn’t wait to see Ahmed.  They got married in
a mosque and had their reception at the Lions Club.  She went to live with
his family, and that’s when the trouble started.
      You know مهر, Sadia says.
      I don’t, I say.
      The man give something for the woman.  Like money, but no money.  
But he no give this.
      Sabeen says something to Sadia in Arabic, then looks at me.
      He angry all the time, Sadia says.  He yell.  And his mother yell.  
Sabeen want get apartment, but he say no.
      Have you talked to your caseworker?
      She no help us.  She say my sister stay with him.
      Sabeen says something else to Sadia, but this time Sadia doesn’t
translate.
      We have a lawyer who can help you, I say.  His name is Tishmael
Talzado.
      Shisham what?
      I felt it would be unprofessional for me to comment, but it was a
bizarre name.
      He’s a great guy, I say.

                                                          ●

      That night I’m stuck in traffic for an hour, and when I get home I’m
starving.  I don’t have a lot in the fridge, so I decide to make scrambled
eggs.
      It’s another one of the action sequences I do with them, and as I go
through each step I hear the words in my head:
      Crack the eggs.
      Pick up the whisk.
      Beat the eggs.
      Add milk and salt.
      Mix the eggs and the milk and the salt.
      Turn on the stove.
      Melt the butter.
      Pour the eggs in the pan.
      Cook the eggs.
      Turn off the stove.
      Remove the eggs from the pan.

      I use olive oil instead of butter.  I try not to overwork the eggs; some
people chop them into curds, but I don’t like them that way.  I let them
form a thin sheet on the bottom of the pan, then I push the cooked part into
the center and let the uncooked part drain out to the sides.  It’s more like a
blintz, or an omelette without the filling.
      I toast a couple of pieces of bread and make a salad of lettuce, sliced
almonds, and raisins.  I assemble everything on a plate, grab a beer from the
fridge, and go to the couch and turn on the television.
      There’s a program on PBS about the Mayan ruins in Palenque, with
footage of the crypt beneath the Temple of the Inscriptions.  This is where
the Palencanos buried their leader, Lord Pacal.  They quarried stone blocks
from the Sierra de Chiapas and before he died they hollowed out a single
giant stone to hold his body.  They built the crypt around the coffin, then
they built the pyramid, then they built the temple, and when he died they
carried him up the 67 limestone steps and down the interior stairway and
rested his body in the coffin and placed a jade bead in his mouth, a jade
bead in each hand, and a jade figurine at his feet.  They covered his face
with a jade mosaic mask with eyes of inlaid pearl and wrapped his body in
a red cotton shroud and covered the inside of the sarcophagus with
cinnabar.  They lowered the giant lid in place and then they carved into its
surface, in low relief, his figure at the moment of his death, as he was falling
into the maw of the underworld, his head pierced by the symbols of his
authority—the conch shell and the stingray spine—and the sacred ceiba tree
growing up behind him in the shape of a cross, and above the cross a
quetzal, the divine bird of the heavens.  Like the sun, Pacal was about to be
consumed.  Like the sun, he would return as a god.
      I fall asleep on the couch.  When I wake up I don’t know where I am.  
I wait for the details of the room to emerge from the dark, and once I
realize I’m in my apartment I get up and wash the dishes.

                                                          ●

      When Ramadan ends everyone stays home for a week to celebrate
Eid.  Everyone except Amal.
      She’s brought a thermos of water with her so she won’t have to keep
getting up to go to the cooler.  As I give her back her homework I realize I
miss her bad breath.
      Teacher, she says.  Why no
Excellent?
      I usually write
Excellent on her papers, and draw a happy face, and
write the percent correct, but I had to finish a grant proposal that morning
so I just made the happy face.
      I’m sorry, I say.
      I take her homework and write
Excellent in capital letters and
underline it twice and below that I make three stars with lines sparking off
them to show they’re glowing.
      Thank you, she says.
      She stands up and I give her the commands:
      Your hands are dirty.
      Turn on the water.
      Pick up the soap.
      Wash your hands.
      Put the soap back in the soap dish.
      Rinse your hands.
      Turn off the water.
      Take the towel off the towel rack.
      Dry your hands.
      Put the towel back on the towel rack.

      When I wash my hands I don’t say to myself
Wash your hands
because I do it all the time and it doesn’t require my attention.  I think about
other things, like what I’m going to do after I wash my hands.  The reason I
want her to think
Wash your hands when she washes her hands is because
I’m trying to take her back to a time she doesn’t remember, before she was
thinking in words.  I’m trying to bypass translation, to let her experience the
world in English, even though washing her hands is just as routine for her as
it is for me.  It’s probably more routine.  She probably washes her hands
more than I do.
      She sits down and I give her an envelope containing the pictures of
each action.  She sequences the pictures and then I give her a second
envelope with the commands and she matches them with the pictures.  Then
she puts the pictures and the commands back in the envelopes and looks at
me.
      Your hands are dirty, she says.
      I hold my hands out from my chest and shake them and make a face.

                                                          ●

      I run into her that evening at Food Zone.  She’s in the Asian-food
aisle, buying bags of adzuki beans.  She’s wearing her silver ankle boots.
      Teacher, she says.  You know cambuulo?
      No, I say.
      Ah, she says.
      She takes a quick, short breath and holds it in.  It’s striking to me,
because this is how the Ethiopians and the Eritreans indicate assent.  I’ve
never seen someone from Somalia do it.
      This bean and butter and sugar, she says.  I make for you.
      I can see the contours of her body in the negative spaces of her jilbab,
in its shadows and the way it shimmers under the supermarket lights.
      You don’t have to do that, I say.
      I do, she says.
      This is how I learned to speak: I listened and watched and waited, and
when I said my first words I was surprised by the sound of my voice.  I
talked to other people, and they talked to me, but I still wasn’t thinking in
words.  Before that could happen I had to talk to myself out loud.  I had to
tell myself stories about what I was doing.  I had to narrate my life.  Then,
over time, my self-talk changed.  It got quieter and quieter.  It went inside
me, until it had no sound at all.
      There are no words in my head right now.  I just see myself holding
her hand.
      Teacher, she says.  What you buy?
      Soy sauce, I say.  For stir-fry.
      She nods, but she doesn’t understand.  Her right eye is drifting.  It
looks like she’s looking at the cans of water chestnuts.
      You cook vegetables in a big pan at high heat with just a little bit of oil,
I say.  You can add other things if you want.  Meat.  Tofu.  You eat it with
rice.
      Her eye suddenly realigns and I see her seeing me.
      You make for me, she says.
      I make for you, I say.

                                                          ●

      I remember when I did her intake.  I gave her a battery of tests: a
reading screening, a writing screening, a math assessment.  For her verbal
proficiency I asked her a series of general questions to get a baseline before
asking more specific questions targeted to her level.  One of the questions I
asked was
What do you like about living in the United States?  
Without hesitating she said
freedom.
      This is what everyone says when they first get here, but then something
changes.  Sometimes I notice it in class.  Sometimes I don’t notice it until the
exit interview, when I ask the question again and instead of saying
freedom
they say safety.
      For Amal it happens when her caseworker gets her a job cleaning
rooms at a hotel.  Every day she punches in and picks up a docket for 20
rooms.  She has eight hours to clean them—after that she’s on her own
time—and when she gets home she’s too tired to come to class.  Her
dream of becoming a nurse seems far away.
      I will see her one year later, in the waiting room at an ophthalmologist’s
office.  I’m there because I’ve been getting headaches and I think it might
be because of my lazy eye.  When she says she’s moving to Minneapolis,
where there’s a large Somali community, I want to tell her to stay, but
instead I listen.  She tells me she knows the move won’t be easy, because
she doesn’t feel like a Somali, or a Kenyan, or an American, but there are
other women like her in Minneapolis, women without a country, and she’ll
become one of them, and marry an American man, a white man who has
converted, and have a family and buy a house close to the mosque, and say
her prayers every day, the prayers she’s never been comfortable with, not
even when her mother was alive, and then the one other prayer, the prayer
she made up when she first got to the United States, while she was sitting on
a bench in the Port Authority waiting for her caseworker, the prayer that’s
just hers, the prayer that she’ll never say out loud, the prayer that will
comfort her for the rest of her life.

                                                          ●

      When everyone returns from Eid I give them sheets of wide-ruled
loose-leaf paper and I perform the actions, freezing after each one,
maintaining my expression for the length of time it takes them to write the
corresponding command.  
      Sabeen is wearing a Russian fur hat instead of her hijab.  She keeps
pulling the flaps over her ears and tucking in her hair.  She looks at the map
on the wall, at the large yellow section of the United States that represents
the Louisiana Purchase.
      I rinse my hands, but Sabeen doesn’t hear the accompanying words in
her head.  Instead she hears the Arabic equivalent of something like this:
I
wish I hadn’t worn this hat.  I feel so exposed.
      
اتمنى لو كان لدي لا ترتديه هذه القبعة. أشعر بذلك عرضة للخطر.         
      When Sabeen sees Sadia writing
Rinse your hands she picks up her
pencil and copies her.  I take hold of the hot and cold water taps and turn
each in opposite directions—the hot water clockwise and the cold water
counterclockwise.  Then I freeze again and wait for them to write.

                                                          ●

      During the break Sabeen and Sadia go to the computer lab.  When I
come in they’re standing near the server, reading what looks like a telephone
bill or a credit-card statement.
      Sabeen has taken off her hat and Sadia has taken off her hijab.  
Sabeen’s hair is long and straight and chestnut.  Sadia’s hair is darker,
wavier.  I expect them to cover their heads, but instead they look at me,
their eyes telling me:
It’s okay.  You’re not family, but you’re our
teacher, and that’s almost the same thing.
 Or: We didn’t know you’d
be coming in here.  Please look away.  
      I’m not sure.  It all happens so fast.
      I’m sorry, I say.
      I leave the lab, feeling guilty for having violated one of their
prohibitions.  But I also can’t stop thinking about their hair.  I wonder what
it would be like to know a woman for a long time and to finally have her
reveal this part of herself to me.           





_________________________________________________________


Robert Radin’s work has appeared in Salon, Marie Claire, and The
Morning News
, among other publications.     


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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Contemporary Literature
 

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 10, Number 1
(Spring 2015)

Copyright © 2015
by Leah Browning, Editor.

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