Silence is a Lonely Country: A Prayer in Twelve Parts

A poet reflects on finding her words in the face of injustice.

Sadia Hassan | Longreads | July 2018 | 18 minutes (4,468 words)

I.

On the night of the election, I call my father from the group home I am working in as a residential advisor. Things are eerily silent. No one playing the dozens or making a milkshake way past their bedtime; no one singing at the top of their lungs or crouched behind a fridge ready to jump out and scare the ever-living mess out of me; nobody asking questions about tomorrow, because, of course, nobody believes it will arrive.

At dinner, one of my students wants to know if I voted. I remain aloof.

I watch another student’s hands clench and unclench on the kitchen table.

“Man, if I could vote …

The truth was I could, and I had not. It did not feel like a choice to me. It was a question of degrees and integrity. It was a question of belonging or estrangement; between one drone strike and another genocide. I understood this country could never belong to me, so I did not vote and that night, overcome with the sinking weight of an accumulated shame, I could not catch my breath.

The thoughts ran through my mind: the Muslim ID cards, the internment camps, the CIA black sites, the border, the drones, the undocumented. We will all be [       ].

My father’s voice on the other side of the phone steadies me. I am a river rushing around a single, steady boulder, my father’s voice a buoy. “Aabe macaan,” I begin. “Are you watching the elections?”

“Aabe,” he sighs, the phone shifting awkwardly in his hand. He was clearly in bed.  “We have our children. What can they take from us?”

Even the children, I want to say. Instead, I say nothing.

Baba returns me to my body. When we were kids, he would hold his hands before our faces, slowly folding down each finger until we held his limp-wristed fists faceup in our tiny little hands. We were each of us as vital and necessary to the body of his love as each limb was to his person. Instead of “I love you,” he would say, “You are my two front teeth.” Instead of telling us to shut up, he would ask, “Take a breath.” Perhaps, my father was a poet. For him, the body is the only language that remains after everything falls away.

I put the phone down to get a drink of water. Really, I step away so my father does not hear me cry. I want to take off running.

II.

When I could not find the words to articulate the fear that shook through me that November, my mother became the story I told myself to remember the country I come from.

On those days, I woke early in the morning to pray fajr and ran to the lake to watch the sun rise over a body of water whose beginning and ending did not spread like a fire or a madness. Containment was a wonder. I sat at the edge of the lake and kept watch. If the world ended, I wanted to be near water.

Often, on the way back, I stopped by the corner store at the end of our block to chat with Khalid, the Yemeni shopkeep whose grandmother was Somali. In his presence I became a long-held memory, Halima-Sa’dia, he beamed, joyful one, the prophet’s wet nurse, my grandmother’s namesake.

A name is a complicated inheritance. My own mother named me after the silence that grows between one language and the next. Sa’dia: joyous, fortunate, blessed. There is a price to be paid for leaving home without permission, a sweetness that sours in the process of estrangement. I paid with my body. I moved to Oakland hoping to outrun obligation. I ran that morning and every morning after because it was what I knew to do.

Years before, when my mother’s mother passed in her lap, mama ran and ran and kept on running; past my bus stop at the entrance of the apartment complex, past my old elementary school, past the mosque and the men who guarded the parking lot, past the Thriftown and our old pediatrician. For months thereafter, Mama circled the apartment grandma died in like a finger around an angry wound. It makes sense. Death is an undoing.

The body does its most to remember when it last witnessed something miraculous. Like a body loosening from slumber, or the dead, rising with the sun come morning like a light unlidded, like a levity unleashed. What a spectacular sight, trying to re/member a body alive. A body dancing, play-wrestling with children. A body watching flames lick around the edges of a bonfire without flinching. Body like a bullet skirting skin, crawling toward flesh without crashing against a damn thing. It is a miracle, the body, remembering how to move through life by mirroring the [    ] that once contained it.

III.

A man is elected to power and I lose my appetite.

I run and run and run; past the underpass with people living in tents on both sides of the street, past the mother sleeping standing up at the bus stop, past the halal market and the mosque and the oldest black bookstore. For days, I burn candles and bathe in lavender. I try not to remember. Not the country and what it’s become, not the border or the bodies, not the trucks loading up migrants, not my brother or the bottle he grips tightly when no one can mirror his rage. I tie back the white curtains and let light in slowly.

A man is elected to power and I forget my body.

I find the yellow container mama gave me and extract a single square of frankincense. I place it on the coal and pray over the smoke. I practice mirroring my brother’s rage. I practice apathy and the tenor of my mother’s voice when she is seeking forgiveness. I hold the uunsi to my skin. I walk through my life a woman carrying secrets and become instead the torch-bearer of my mother’s scent. I calm. I forgive myself by speaking in tongues; Somali, then English, then nothing at all.

There is a price to be paid for leaving home without permission, a sweetness that sours in the process of estrangement. I moved to Oakland hoping to outrun obligation.

A man is elected to power and I am quiet for three whole [          ].

I say this to remind you that language leads us nowhere. It just as soon becomes a storm door as a window.

IV.

In February, I sit in a church across from Gail, a woman old enough to be my mother. Gail is dressed in a purple jogging suit with purple sneakers and an umbrella to match. We are gathered to heal from the wounds propelling us through our activism. There is a mother-daughter duo organizing against excessive police violence and a Black Panthers member working to house the displaced. Gail is slogged with grief, riddled with it. It punctuates her every breath. When she tells us about the son she lost to police brutality, the whole room stills. Her pain is so palpable I begin to run through the list of names I have heard this past year, and there are many. Luis Varga, Jamal Park, Hafez Abusamra. She says, “Twelve years ago,” and the names stop. I look up to see a woman perforated by a grief that should have smudged or softened or somehow loosened its grip. Instead I see a woman still reeling and the whole room reeling with her. This grief is unrelenting.

“Everyone disappoints me,” Gail whispers.

As she speaks, the words from Danez Smith’s poem “Song of the Wreckage” come to mind:

i have no peace left, it’s been replaced by smoke

& I am sick of always running from the fire

this time.

V.

I do not tell Gail that I am there because I cannot stop thinking about my friend De’Shaun, who was murdered months before by a white man renting a house near a vineyard in Ukiah.. I cannot begin to understand the logics of racism in America. For months, I do not know where to start.

The story begins with a name to sour the mouth. De’Shaun Davis. With a boy born black in California. The story begins again with music. With a willingness to make noise however terrifying and attune one’s ear to the beauty of it. The story trails off behind a summer home, ends with hunger, with an attempt to eat, ends again with a white man, with white hot rage, with fear, and suddenly [the moon might as well be a warning shot*]. In the end, the body is a miracle that names itself.

I met De’Shaun on the second week of training as a head counselor at Camp Mendocino. The camp, run by the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco, is nestled in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest along Highway 20. The head counselors were off from training that day, and we were all inside watching a movie in the mess hall. He arrived a week before the rest of the maintenance crew in black sweatpants faded to a deep gray and a ratty black T-shirt. By this time most of our clothes had picked up dust from the dirt roads around camp but De’Shaun came dusted in the kind of dull ache that stained the air around you. He hung his head, a boy already heavy with the weight of his own burial.

He came quiet as a storm. Big-boned, thick-lipped, and as dark as my daddy. His hands were large, long-fingered, coal-colored. I watched him watch us mistrustingly from a bench outside. This was like him — quiet, courteous, out of the way. He seemed to sense where you wanted him and placed himself there before you could ask.

De’Shaun’s frankness made folks uncomfortable. If he wasn’t happy, he wouldn’t smile at you. If he was, he’d bound right up and hug you. He’d stopped me with a laugh plenty of times as I dragged one child or another into the office to make phone calls home. He’d joke with my boys: “What she got you for, bruh?” They’d scowl and start cutting up like only boys do when they recognize an accomplice.

He told me about Ukiah over a game of cards. To De’Shaun, Ukiah was more than the largest city in Mendocino County. It was more than vineyards and summer homes and dread-headed hippies with crystals and tarot cards selling “authentic” vegan Jamaican food. It was home, the only place where he knew he was not a stranger.

I found out about De’Shaun’s death via Instagram. A friend posted a photograph of him playing the trumpet, saying something to the effect of him returning to the light. This was in November, the day after Thanksgiving. His aunt writes under one of the four articles that reduce De’Shaun to white noise: “The young man that was killed in Ukiah is my nephew De’Shaun Davis. He was born in Ukiah, his mother lives in Clearwater and has many family in Greenlake.” What a joy to be claimed, to be named, to be given back roots at the exact moment when you are transformed into the darting shadow America has always seen you to be; transient, semi-local, almost ghost. I hope you haunt them all.

 

I read all of the articles. Once, twice, three times. “Dumpster-diving Homeless Man Shot and Killed.” Each is a replica of the last, a humming absence spinning into the ether. Each has a generic photo of handcuffs, the Mendocino county sheriff badge, etc. Not a single picture or mention of De’Shaun. The lack of specificity reminds me of the blank space placards held at protests, each article leaving room for the next dumpster-diving homeless man shot and killed.


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I want to know where they found him. I want to know how De’Shaun must have staggered back at the sight of the gun, pleading perhaps with that big smile and shaky voice. He was always slow to speak. Did his voice make it out from under the rubble of his skin in time? Did it matter?

I wonder if, in his last moments, De’Shaun became superhuman like Mike Brown. Did he lunge? Did his eyes bulge? Was he able to keep running after the first bullet? The second? Or was he more of contortionist, like the man who shot himself in the back of a police car while handcuffed; the man from Arkansas, Louisiana, Ohio, Texas.

.

For a long time after, I am numb. A week after his death, the boys I work with at the group home have a conversation over dinner about the number of folks they seen dying.

W shrugs his shoulders, “I mean, it wasn’t nothin’ to step over a body on the way to school.”

C nods. “Shit, I been a shooter and been shot at too.”

D watches the growing discomfort on my face. “You not from Oakland, huh?”

K shakes his head. “Too much.”

VI.

My therapist says we do not have a ritual for grief here. It is why we cannot hear each other above the stories blaring in our heads about the ways we’ve been wounded. I believe her. I come from a nomad people; we move on. In the thick heat of the desert, a wound will inevitably fester. We do not have time for wounds or bandages or stories about what happened. What happened happened. Our ritual for grief is to pick up and start over.

When my cousin **Tagane passed away from leukemia, we slaughtered a goat in Dadaab and fed the neighbors. It was 2010 and I was on a fellowship. It was a run-of-the-mill fellowship, the kind of service learning white neoliberal institutions impress upon young immigrant students as an important part of their education. At the time, Tagane had been moved to London for treatment while the rest of his family stayed behind in the refugee camps we had left two decades before. Luckily, we had an aunt in London who could take care of him. In his last months, my aunt in London sent back photographs of him smiling and playing in parks to everyone, even us in the States. When he passed away, immigration officials told his mom that she would not be able to enter the country, not to bury her son or to rebuild a life without him.

We cried in our separate homes at the news of his passing, and each of our mothers remembered a childhood without us. A simpler time. A dead body is nothing like a sick son, they whispered to each other, clutching mugs of milk tea littered with cardamom pods and cloves in dark living rooms all across America. Tagane’s mom eventually won her appeal in the summer of 2010. In the summer that Somalia experienced the worst famine since the civil war, she and her children were granted asylum in London.

Before leaving, she tore up all the photographs she and her sisters had been sending across oceans for the past 20 years; pictures of her sisters and their children smiling in American playgrounds and restaurants and parking lots; the dissonance was too much to carry with her into her new life.

My therapist says there is no good way to mourn so we carry it all with us. Not Somalis. We jettison everything. If there is a Somali story, it is littered with debris. Photographs, papaya trees, phantom limbs. If it’s a story at all, and not a song or a poem or eviction notice, it is about running.

VII.

Mama says begin first by speaking. Begin again by saying your own name. Allah said, “Be,” and it became. The body becomes its own witness.

VIII.

There are ways to die without leaving the body.

IX.

In Ladan Osman’s poem “Ordinary Heaven,” a woman seats a doll in a chair and commands it to speak. She begins:

I want to say, “Be!” but am an ordinary creation. / I watch for the folds of her eyes to twitch. / I have many dreams, I say to her. / In my dreams I’m better than myself.

Over the past two years, I have returned to this poem not knowing whether I wanted the narrator to be a girl-child or a grown woman. I wanted both. I wanted the innocence of a narrator who could imagine herself to be a creator with enough humility to turn her own words against herself, and I wanted a woman who willed a new world where the old world fell away. It is an act of meaning-making and sorcery. In Islam, the ultimate creation story begins with just one word: كن.

Allah said, “Be,” and the world became. God built the world out of silt and clay and flesh, and behold: glory. Allah said be and it became, leaving us to bear witness to the synergy of creation but also our absolute dumbfoundedness in the face of the ordinary creation — time and energy and matter. The narrator understands herself to be an “ordinary creation,” and it is this ordinariness that curbs her desire for dominion. She wants to make easy claims, to will the doll to life — in fact, she waits for the doll’s eyes to twitch but quickly realizes she cannot make claims over another life without risking transformation. In that single interaction, the doll is unmoved but our narrator is humbled. When the world does not respond to her commands, our narrator begins to imagine another world. In this world, she makes peace with “ordinariness.” She has dreams and “soften[s] peppers in a well-greased pan” and in this state, she communes with God, is given divine knowledge, and is able to ask important questions about love and the sea. In her dreams, our narrator attains “ordinary heavens” where she does not have to be a “woman-prophet” to “witness her soul lying on grass.” The doll is still and silent. The tragedy of this fact sets in: It cannot ask questions or speak to the magnificence of any heaven, ordinary or not.

In the end, our narrator is left with a mix of pity and resolve. She stands before the doll and leaves her final judgement:

I am sorry for you, I tell her.                                                                                                                                                                                You witness but don’t testify.

X.

I have returned to Osman’s words in the past two years enough times for them to bear witness against me on the day that every soul will be called forth to bear witness against itself. My mother reminds me: In Islam, we bear witness. Allah commands us to stand firm against injustice and to testify even if it be against our own parents. But as the world spins away from us, the act of testifying is becoming more and more fraught.

The truth is that we cannot always testify for fear that we will lead them back to the body, that we will be found out. I have not always struggled with speaking, but these days it feels as if a tight gauze has been placed on the mouth of humanity as a darkness descends.

I remember myself at 9, scrawny and bowlegged and completely aloof to the demands of an Islam I had yet to come into. My uncle had arrived from Jigjiga that summer and was quickly charged with teaching my brothers and me Islamic mannerisms. My mother was afraid that she had let us go too far without Quranic lessons. I was already bare-chested most days and wrestling with boys twice my size.

In one memorable lesson, my uncle stood on the porch during a thunderstorm and called us outside to listen to the crash of thunderclaps. “Stand still,” he commanded. We tried. A flash of lightning lit up the sky and we all dove up. What a wonder. “Settle down,” he said. “If you look directly at lightning, you lose your sight.” We looked at each other confused. What was the lesson here? The lesson we’d come to know was that not everybody had thunder. And our uncle, who’d been in America only a year, remembered all too well what it meant to seek refuge from the rain by standing under trees and hovering between bushes with his camels.

“On the day of Judgement,” he began his lecture, “God will ask you where you were when Muslims were suffering.”

I did not understand. “But Uncle,” I shot back, “how are we supposed to know what’s happening in China? You said there were Muslims in China.”

And there were. And as Muslims, it is our duty to seek knowledge and bear witness and seek refuge. To be human is to be attuned to the suffering of others. To be Muslim is to remain accountable to that suffering. As poets, it is our job to find new language for this, to grasp at new worlds even as this same old grief is unmoving.

How do we write about those things for which we have no language? How do we commune with our living and our dead if we cannot speak?

For the past three years I’ve avoided knowing anything. Everything I came to know brought me so much grief. Even as I turned to the psalms of Danez to stem the tide [I mean a boy was shot & someone stopped the music*] the truth came back unashamed: There was little I could do. A man assaults me and I go numb. A friend loses her sister and I cannot speak. The depression comes and I spin for months. They come for the Muslims, the undocumented, the poor, my father’s Medicaid. I keep working. I realize my body has forgotten how to mirror what once held it. I have stopped asking about others’ stories because I am afraid of what they will tell me. I am afraid of the questions I should ask. In “Song of the Wreckage,” Danez leads us in prayer:

How little progress

before it’s not progress? How much prayer & song

 

must we stuff our mouths with before we lose

our taste for empty?

I did not trust myself.

XI.

I attend a reading where Jesmyn Ward is in conversation with writer Rahawa Haile. At one point, Rahawa turns to Jesmyn and asks her a simple question: Can you tell me about the shape of survival?

I want to leap up. The question has stayed with me since then and buried itself where I keep the tender root of my faith. The shape of survival these days is tenuous. I did not know how to answer this question until recently, when my best friend called me to tell me a young man from a family we know had committed suicide. There were a lot of questions about whether he “died” or took his own life. For Somalis, there was a difference. It was a question of degrees and integrity, a question of belonging or estrangement, between one small death and a million others. I scoured the news and found nothing. I googled and googled and found only an unlanguageable silence. How do we write about those things for which we have no language? How do we commune with our living and our dead if we cannot speak?

He [    ] himself. There was [       ] involved, And what about Immigration? He had been writing about his mother. She was one of [      ] on the plane turned around in [       ]. In many ways we all know the story and refuse to speak. She says his mother was up for deportation. She said a lot of folks we knew were up for deportation. The guilt creeps in. How long had she known this and why hadn’t I ever asked?

That same summer, a man runs for governor and drives a “deportation bus” through my neighborhood. The sadness is leaking everywhere. I run and run and run and cannot contain a damn thing. The sign that hangs from the back of the bus reads: criminals and rapists aboard this bus. My [      ] doesn’t leave the house for days. I wonder: In the next 20 to 30 years, what will be more common for us than disaster?

Suicide is a major sin in Islam, but I see how many Somalis and other African Muslims are being detained in cells, starved, brutalized, surveilled, harassed in airports, drowned by the thousands in the Mediterranean, washing up in capsized boats. It is easy to believe, with the sheer onslaught of death in our communities, that we were made for dying. That we deserve an outsized suffering for the choices we’ve made (for crossing borders, for not learning the language, for having children, for not having money). But if we were deserving, not of a heaven that comes after this life, but of an ordinary heaven where we bear witness to the suffering of those around us not just with our eyes, but with our lives. I have only questions.

What does an ordinary heaven look like for the perpetually grieving?

XII.

And tell me about the shape of survival?

I have been imagining its shape — survival — and not only its shape but its texture, its sound, the stretch and dip and immense weight or weightlessness of it.

In Islam, when someone passes we say: “To him we belong and to him we return.” These days, the world attempts to return us to our Lord in ever more violent ways. The days pass, the earth shifts, the weather cools, the houseless shuffle between one cold bench and the next. The world turns and we turn with it, first one cheek and then the next.

I seek refuge from this violence through prayer, which is the violence of deadening our senses to the onslaught of every new death. And not just this physical violence but the violence of speech and speechlessness, the violence of shock, the violence of guilt and shame around that which we cannot protect ourselves from. Poetry is a prayerful communion with the divine and we are a prayerful people.

And how do we forgive this country?

Perhaps we forgive this country in the same way we forgive our mothers. Slowly. By circling the wound with healing balm. By understanding the context. By refusing to be engulfed. By hiding the matches and wood frame of your house when the world threatens fire. By running when you need to. By seeking water and shelter elsewhere in the years a mother cannot be a country and a country cannot be a mother and returning home when it is safe.

How can we not — forgive ourselves, I mean? How you can we remember the women we have had to be in spite of the world and hold love away? How can we witness what has torn through our parents, what has left their bodies a border beyond reprieve and say forgiveness, as if forgiveness is a thing we give or receive and not a thing that happens upon the body quick as a clap of thunder. A thing which finds you, crouched in the forest of your one lonely life and stuns you with its tenderness.

* * *

*From Danez Smith’s poem, “Song of the Wreckage.”
**Name has been changed.

Sadia Hassan an Atlanta-raised, Oakland-based writer and advocate for first generation college students. Her work has previously appeared in BlackGirl DangerousDocumentum,and Araweelo Abroad, and is forthcoming in Halal if You Hear Me.

Editor: Sari Botton