Exquisite Corpse - Issue 4
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Amman, Jordan: I'm Not Haider
by John Verlenden
At the end of my second week at University of Jordan, I was sent to take a physical examination. Every new professor had to have one. It seemed like a routine bother, so I didn't complain even though I'd had two physicals in the past year. Little did I know that the trip to and from the hospital would end up revealing a hideous, life-changing condition.
     Everything was well enough with my body, the doctor assured me. He even lingered to tell me how to make a day trip to Damascus from Amman, for less than fifteen dollars. Later, when I got to the hospital cashier's cage, the clerk selected another rubber stamp from the one he was using with everyone else and pressed it on my papers. He told me the university had picked up the expense of my examination. The whole procedure, involving four floors of physicians, interns, medical students, and lab technicians, hadn't lasted more than an hour and a half. When I put on my overcoat and swung my scarf around my neck twice, I felt absolutely topping. It was the best of all hospital visits-a big zero in every compartment.
     I stepped onto the elevator. A brilliantly lit day awaited me beyond the institutional walls. I planned to make the most of it.
     At the second floor, a man I'd never seen in my life walked into the elevator, hands behind back. From the very first he locked his left eye upon my face. He marched to within a foot of me and said in a loud, slowly metered voice, "Thank you-for nothing."
     I thought he was joking. Then I looked at him more carefully. Did I know him? No, I didn't.
     He had a companion with him, an older man who hadn't understood his friend's English. Nonetheless, this companion looked at me with an expression of fright and anger. I wanted to put a hand on his shoulder and tell him to relax, but in retrospect, that would have been the worst move possible. He might have hiked himself backwards in a fit of revulsion thereby planting a blue-gowned intern against the rear wall of the elevator.
     Still, I wanted to tell both men that they'd made a huge mistake. I couldn't have been anyone who deserved a "Thank you-for nothing." At least, not from them.
     The trouble is, when I'm in a good mood, I'm wordless. If these two had tackled me and pushed me to the ground, I would have done just as I did during those icy moments following the comment: stare blankly, with the remnants of a smile flickering inanely over my pan.
     "What is your nationality?" the man demanded.
     "American, eh?"
     "Yes. What's yours?"
     He didn't answer. I felt compelled to add that I was a new professor at the university. I began to involve myself with explaining my purpose for being in the hospital that day. I had to get a bureaucratic job done, etc., I told him. In a word, I wanted to cement a bond with this man on some common level. Weren't we all pestered by such duties? Perhaps he was in the hospital for the same reason.
     No such luck.
     "Are you an expert?" he said.
     "Yes. In writing." Then I thought, 'who's really an expert in such a huge sprawling field filled with such fractious opinions about the worth of even one word?' I quickly said, "The teaching of writing, that is. Certain types of writing, anyway. Imaginative."
     He drank in this information, remained silent, seemed about to say something when we reached the ground floor. Instead, he turned his shoulder-his friend immediately aping this action-and they disappeared into the flux of hospital's main corridor.
     This large, demurely quiet space was overstocked with sufferers and medical workers. The medical workers looked superb, the sufferers wretched. All in all, the world seemed as it had been when I'd come in the front doors. Yet something had changed. The world had added a dimension. Rather, it had exposed a dimension I hadn't known existed.
     I walked under the beautiful evergreen trees back toward the language center. The campus designers had made a good decision about planting those trees when this, Jordan's first university, was started in the 1960's. Today, these bluish firs seem to touch hands above your head, forming a kind of gladsome processional, as at a wedding.
     Yet I felt lonely, divorced.
     As I walked through the ranks of students, I asked myself, why me? Why had I been chosen for this ugly 'Thank you-for nothing' comment?
     I realized I had a range of choices:
     The man on the elevator was a Palestinian refugee who thought I looked like a Zionist.
     The man was a Palestinian refugee who thought I looked like an American who supported the Zionists.
     The man was an Iraqi refugee who thought I looked like an American or a Brit who supported the sanctions and bombing policies.
     The man was a Lebanese who thought I was supporting Albright who blamed Hizbollah for the recent border carnage, rather than Satterfield who excoriated the Israelis for bombing civilian infrastructure.
     Other, more earthy choices flitted through my mind. The man looked like a rural sort. Here I looked like a city slicker. But that wouldn't work, because the man's English was excellent. Authentic rural dwellers in Jordan usually said no more than 'welcome.' Besides, in Amman, the capital city where the university is located, many people keep the regalia of their tribes as a post-colonial statement. The man might have owned a PhD from Oxford for all I knew. Probably he did.
     Irrational motivations came to mind. The man wanted my exact spot on the elevator. He always stood there when he came to this hospital-nevermind it had been eight and half years since that earlier visit for nosebleed.
     None of these reasons worked for me. Granted, some of them seemed more plausible than others. But the more plausible reasons had to do with nations, not individuals. Was it possible, here in these enlightened times, that he had stereotyped me? That he had confused one intellectual's complex orientations toward life's many matters with the bland, necessarily error-riddled decrees of his government?
     No. Of course not. We were on a college campus. All of us were beyond all such pitfalls. Thank god.
     The encounter's real motivation was revealed to me as soon as I returned to the English Department and borrowed the faculty bathroom key. Alone, in front of that room's modest mirror, I realized that I had begun to look like Joerg Haider.
     Shocked? Of course I was.
     I can't quite say what it was, since the leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party has plenty of hair on top of his head whereas I do not. Nor does Haider approach my age. I wish I were Haider's age. I might consider politics if I could trim off ten years. The mirror, though, told the truth. Both of us are undeniably from European stock.
     I touched my cheeks. They were sallow like Haider's. All over my face, the man's features were sprinkled like measles: the tendency of my nose to have a thin bridge, as his does; the fact that my mouth is not overly large-Haider's isn't either.
     When had these awful changes begun? The answer: they'd been there all my life. The person I was staring at was me. No bizarre transformation was in progress. Nevertheless: Haider. I saw him. There in the mirror.
     My elevator encounter now made perfect sense. The man in his tribal garb--post-colonial or not--had been watching the polished metal doors when they clove open to reveal someone who the entire European Union had been excoriating. After all, Haider symbolized the far-right political parties in all those countries-all 14 of them. These parties disparaged immigrants and practiced institutionalized xenophobia based on paranoid theories of nationalism and racial superiority.
     I could almost hear the litany of abuses my man had been repeating to himself, silently, when he saw my face: 'the North Africans in France, the Pakistanis in Britain, now the Iraqis as well, then the Turks in Germany, this man represents their common enemy. And now, incredibly, here he is in the same elevator with me.'
     Sure. Everyone knows that Haider-type leaders in every country control masses of undereducated citizens who fear for their jobs, their religion, their culture, their very identities. These same people-decent in most other aspects of their lives-seem to be quite willing to march across town at night and torch apartment buildings of immigrants-mostly Muslims at present.
     In truth, though, anybody different would do.
     It was the worst fate that could have come my way: looking like Haider. I found it difficult to come out of the bathroom. I took long minutes wrapping my scarf high upon my neck, pulling my cap to my eyes, burying my hands in my coat pockets and otherwise trying to fold myself into my clothes.
     But what good were such ploys? Sooner or later I would let my guard down and people suddenly see that I was Haider. Men would continue to stride up, hands behind backs, and forever be spiting out, 'Thank you-for nothing!'
     I wanted to cry out, 'Listen, everyone, I am not merely an intellectual, but an exilic intellectual (to use Edward Said's term). I have never aligned myself with any government nor, for that fact, any party or faction demanding uncritical acceptance.'
     Above all, I wanted to say, 'Look, Haider is making plenty of money these days. He's on a gravy train. In contrast, I have neither savings account nor even a fixed address.'
     It was true. I'd taken the license plates off my 1990 Honda when I got the grant which placed me in Jordan for a year. Then I locked that precious car, along with the framed calligraphies I'd bought years before in Cairo, in a pre-fab metal-sided storage unit called A-AAAKey Mini Storage. You may check my receipt of deposit for unit 395, located at 117 Laitram Lane in Harahan, Louisiana. I will not reveal my secret entry code to the grounds, but you can stop at the one-room front office and speak to Willie or Bobbi Fournier. Either of these good folk will tell you that what I have to say next is the absolute truth.
     Since moving to Jordan, my rental on that storage space has been in arrears twice. The second time I had to contact another intellectual-who else are the friends of intellectuals?-to argue with the Fourniers that I was good for the hundred dollar rental, if they would only wait a week or two. The Fourniers--not them actually but the enterprise who employs them--were on the verge of selling everything I had. I know. I have the contract in a plastic file folder here in my apartment in Jebel al Webdeh.
     A-AAAKey Mini Storage would not have owed me one red cent from that sale.
     I ask you, does Haider confront such issues? I don't think so.
     This unwanted identification with Haider-wholly imposed on me from forces outside myself--had become a living hell. In brain-rotting silence, I pondered if my students would begin to recognize me-not as the American writer nor as the exhilic, expatriate intellectual that I was, but as Haider.
     Pish-posh. It wasn't a matter of if, but when. Haider is Haider is Haider.
     Imagine for a moment being saddled with a faux personality of hatred, of bigotry, of barely hidden plans for revenge on any variety of scapegoats. I mean, whoever is handy will suit the likes of Haider.
     I couldn't remain in my office, not alone with these thoughts. I decided to call it an early day, to keep my wraps on-of course!--and to board the Al Abdali minibus for the twenty minute ride home. I hoped no one would point me out and say, 'There he is! The man everyone hates.'
     I told myself, Insha'allah, I will make it home.
     Some days are cursed, however. Who should I see as soon I left the doors to the Arts and Humanities Building but the two men who had plunged my day, my entire life, into despondency. They walked straight toward me as if by appointment, as if to make good on some unfinished business.
     Just as I was about to shout, "I'm not Haider!" I lost my nerve, hence my voice. It was a good thing. Then, they passed right by me.
     My breath had sucked in. Now I let it out. I kept walking. The thought that I was Haider momentarily fell away. I felt a surge of delirium, of ecstasy. To be without Haider! My god, it felt so good.
     It didn't take long to figure out that my clothes had saved me. The scarf over my mouth, the cap covering the bald head-the two men simply hadn't recognized me--as Haider, that is. They'd never known me-therefore would always be unable to truly to recognize me--as the individual I most surely am. Probably they never would. But all that was another matter entirely. Haider was still with me.
     About halfway down the corridor of Colorado spruce trees-that's what I wanted them to be, I was getting homesick, a condition that promptly follows any negative encounter in a foreign country where you know you'll be living for months, maybe years--I came to a full stop. I could hardly believe what my mind was telling me.
     But our eyes don't lie, do they? I played the scene over and over in my mind. When the two men had been walking toward me, I of course fastened all my attention on the one man who had said the nasty words to me not half an hour earlier. He wore the same navy blue kafiyyeh with blue jacket and blue shirt underneath. He looked in many ways like a tribal hero out of Lawrence's Seven Pillars. His sidekick, on the other hand, warranted no attention. He would have followed a goose if it had struck up a good pace in front of him.
     But my interlocutor, the man who'd said those unkind words-I now realized that he himself owned certain physical features not completely removed from those of Joerg Haider.
     Oh sure, his skin tone was darker, but so what? There was a glint in his eyes, a glow of victory, of certainty, of knowing he was destiny's darling-that feature was pure Haider. Moreover, his kafiyyeh had slipped back an inch to reveal an expanse of hair that resembled Haider's healthy hanks. His lips-I'll admit they were thick, wide, capable of more sensuous expression than mine or Haider's. But his smile. I tell you, that smile was Haider, Haider, Haider.
     The bizarre day wouldn't end. On the way home, and over the next few days-in fact, as long as the nasty elevator encounter infected my brain--I saw Haider. The bus driver to Al Abdali, the manager at Jabri's Take-Away counter on Garden Street, not to mention the grillman at McDonald's just across from campus. Grill woman, I mean. A girl of nineteen. She has Haider's wrists. If you don't believe me, just study Haider's wrists the next time he comes on CNN, then go to McDonald's between two and four p.m. on Tuesdays, locate the grill woman with a bored frown and tell me I'm wrong.
     All these people-I mean, all of us--can only try to explain to the world we're not Haider. Moreover, all of us must embark on that terribly arduous task right away. Our very individualities are at stake. Surely we share a fierce desire not to be stereotyped--or perhaps the right word is cloned.
     Who am I kidding? No one will believe us.
     Maybe society would go easier on us if we just admitted that a little bit of Haider is in all of us. If not in an active state, then potentially. All that's required to activate the monster is to wait for someone of our own ilk to be bombed, murdered, run out of town, tweaked on the nose in the public press-whatever acts make us so angry that we divide the world into two neat halves. Us, them. To hell with the individual. Let Haider take over. We know how much he wants to.
     Knowing these awful things, I've adopted a further strategem-a program, really. The next time a stranger comes up to me and says, "Thank you-for nothing!" I'll let my eyes drift soulfully upon his own and say--and mean it--"I am truly sorry. I know I'm probably doing less than my absolute best as a human being, as a citizen on planet Earth, but I intend to do better. I swear it. I make my pledge now, with you as my witness."
     If I'd said these words to the man with the blue kafiyyeh, who knows what might have happened? We might still be talking.

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