by Rafiq Kathwari

My sister-in-law and I sat in the back seat of the Volkswagen as my older brother drove

in desperate rain through red lights to Maimonides. “Kicking,” she said, putting my

hand over her round belly. Shy, I lowered my gaze to her flip-flops on the car floor. She

gave birth to a son in Brooklyn eight years to the day JFK was shot in Dallas. A new

alien in New York, I babysat my cute nephew in a stark rental on Park Avenue in

Yorkville, with a view of Gimbels, now a long extinct department store. His dad rode the

IRT to work on Pine Street; his mom was a salesperson in Herald Square at Korvettes

another extinct store. The boy and I both discovered Big Bird on a Zenith console, my

first TV exposure at age 22. Our Park Avenue closets were stocked with handmade

Numdah rugs Grandfather had shipped from our ancestral home, Kashmir, hoping we’d

become rich fast carpeting America from sea to shining sea. I watched him dunk hoops

in Perturbia, his long hair swishing to Metallica, “Soldier boy, made of clay.” He hunted

jackrabbits at the family farm upstate, where he signed up at the local NRA, his dad’s

rifle on the boy’s shoulder. He scaled a peak one summer in Kashmir, the knotty dispute

forever a passionate subject at the dining table, sweetened often by ice cream after the

dishes were washed, and reruns of All In The Family wrapped up Prime Time. He

praised Allah at the Islamic Center Sunday School on California Road to which I once

gave a brand name vacuum cleaner that failed to suck up the holier-than-thou Talibs.

Allah alone knows what seeds they sowed in his receptive mind for he made his little

sister weep, shaming her for wearing leotards to her ballet class. She loved ballet classes,

and she always looked up to her big brother. He persuaded his dad to stop serving liquor

to guests, and he made his parents proud calling out the Call to Prayer at an annual apple

picking at the farm, an odd religious intrusion that on a crisp Fall day made me feel sad,

because I like my cider with a splash of vodka.

Yet, hey, it’s necessary to give thanks. I

remember standing next to family and friends in single line amidst a row of weighty

apple trees, facing East to bow at the Kaaba; the women also standing next to one

another at the rear, and children running from tree to tree with glee, munching forbidden

fruit that had fallen. I remember sunbeams piercing the abundant boughs. I remember

feeling high on the pungent scent of ripe fruit. Apples have mapped the fate of mankind.

His dad plucked his own apple from Perturbia High, enrolled him into High Prep,

hoping the sound schooling the Christian Brothers had drummed into himself when he

was a lad growing up in Kashmir would shape also his son’s character. The Brothers did

indeed show the son how to plumb his own depths, make his conscience bloom. I am

struck by the eloquence of the title above, copied here from his senior year essay, forever

sealing his identification with the most compelling moral issue of our generation. He was

enraged as I, you, we, us should be. How do middle-class Muslim youths from Seattle to

Srinagar manage, to the extent they do, blind rage, their helplessness at the systematic

ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians by the Israelis, aided by the world’s most powerful

democracy? Now, as American-made bombs once again rain down on Gaza, my

Facebook feed shows grown men confess that for years nothing has made them bawl as

they do at photos of lifeless babies pulled out as raggedy ann dolls from the rubble of

Gaza, the world’s largest open air concentration camp. And here’s a tweet from a

Follower “#America is #Israel’s #bitch. Prove me wrong.” And that encapsulates the

utter moral bankruptcy of my adopted country. Doesn’t it? How do many discontented

youths come to terms with the freedom-loving West’s imperial hypocrisy, its

unsustainable addiction to oil, its whorish bond with the world’s most retrogressive,

sexually-transmitted dynasty that pays cash to western gunrunners, and then uses

petrodollars to proselytize its puritanical ritual-based interpretation of Islam? We arm

and enrich a colonial settler state, our cop on the beat, who ensures the oil flows

smoothly and the despots keep the subjects quiet with guns and F16’s we supply them

using our tax dollars. It saddens me so many bright people do not get it: there is a

symbiotic relationship between the world’s discontented youths and Western

imperialism: they feed on each other; they need each other. It is the New Cold War: their

secular opposition, our imperial despotism, our suppression campaigns, our military

henchmen, our gendarme state. It’s just dandy to promote shoe, underwear and flight

school amateur chemistry kids as soldiers of Al- Qaeda sworn to destroy America the

manicured homeland. We call it the Eisenhower doctrine. They call it imperial pillage.

Surprise! As for the much-vaunted freedom of the press, it’s all lies and obfuscation,

serving a handful of corporations, or PACs, which fuels the helplessness and blind rage

in tech savvy discontented middle class Muslim youths, dubbed “home-grown terrorists”

who fight back, or at least try to. Conversely, they are making an eloquently democratic

plea for Justice, an appeal to the human within us, an attempt to exercise those absolute

rights that we as citizens retain. A mirror is being held up to America, and sometimes

when America glances at itself in the mirror, it seems to only repeat the words of the

iconic character Travis Bickle in the 1976 film Taxi Driver, “Are you talking to me?” He

totaled a Toyota on the Bronx River Parkway, walking away from the crash, his sack of

bones intact. He made a U at McGill U, flew to Faisal U in Islamabad searching for

Islam in the Land of the Pure. “We shall meet again,” he wrote, “on Judgment Day.”

Some claim he trained at a militant camp to liberate Kashmir. Ha! Yet, in his mind,

linking Israel’s genocidal land grab in Palestine to India’s in Kashmir was contextually

inevitable as it indeed should be for all those who care about resolving the Kashmir

dispute justly. Others claim, Osama recruited him to drive the Soviets out of

Afghanistan. What really happened to him, what makes sense? I would like to believe

this is what happened: It was Spring 1992. The Taliban…err…sorry…the

Mujahedeen…honored as the “moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers,” by Ronald

Regan who in turn was honored as the “cue card reader President” by Gore Vidal …the

Mujahedeen had taken Kabul…it was the best of times, it was the worst…a spectacle

was unfolding…my tall, bearded nephew in his red and white plaid shirt, his slim blue

Levis, and a handful of his classmates rented a Toyota in Islamabad. They drove on

Asian Highway 1 across the porous Durand Line to see first hand the tamasha, the drama.

Unawares, they all got caught in a firefight between two factions. Wrong terrain. Wrong

time. Infernal arcs flew across a cobalt sky. A hurried mass grave (manicured later) was

dug in Torkham. In New York, my sister-in-law was pruning roses the day the call came.

Rafiq Kathwari is the present winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award.