Ayyad El-Habri is a man who is best described as thoughtful, and optimally called by his last name. “El-Habri!” people have been known to cry across the street, and in a world full of people with the same last name, somehow that has always nevertheless meant this El-Habri: six feet tall and grey-haired from age 23, a man divorced twice and owner of a used car dealership selling sports cars.
But how this airport is unkind. It is ceramic and glass, so breakable, and he coming out of an airplane tunnel into a vast open space that has no hint of smell: no cigarettes, or diesel fumes. No character other than the immensity of space. This is a place that no one will call out “El-Habri!”, or know him at all. He goes to a vending machine and buys potato chips and a chocolate bar, then goes to find a taxi.
Kamal el-Habri was, on the other hand, a small boy who grew lean. He was the type of person who could stand in a field, and someone watching from afar might wander about adding nutrients and water to the soil beneath his feet so that he could assume his rightful place as a tree in some global forest – a tree that would aspire not too high or to propagate itself too much, simply a lonely rooting in a world that it would watch for many years; the unambitious, unassuming pillar, set in an open field, destined to outlive the rest of existence no matter what dangers erupted about it.
There had always been something about the soil of Jordan that did not support Kamal’s growth, though. His mother, since divorced from his father, had implored him to stay, but he had been recalcitrant. At 19, Kamal had boarded a plane for Chicago, a city that he knew nothing about. But when Kamal landed there, he felt immediately as though he were taller. More solid. And suddenly ambitious, as though here the sky were higher, further away, and he with more room to ascend towards it.
In this first month in Chicago, Kamal obtained work as a carpenter. His employer, a fat man who ate candy all day, told him that he would have to learn better English, that it was a necessity, but Kamal responded to that by pointing at the head of his hammer and speaking in a tongue of repeated clacks and thuds that he would enunciate long into the night as he worked harder than anyone on his crew. From his first pay cheque, he took a ten dollar bill and sent it to his mother; and with a one dollar bill, he bought a candy bar that he mailed to his father.
Ayyad, as he is known in this country, wonders at the moisture of the place. There is no dust. No dessication. Grass grows everywhere, and between the lanes, there are real flowers. He walks among them, and it occurs to him that his son may have done the same.
Ayyad has a simple thought as he sits in a flower bed in a park so large that it dwarfs the city itself. This Chicago. This place where once they held a fair so grand that it shaped an entire century, or so it is said; but now, there is little remaining of that great event, and also so little remaining of the aspirations that were born there. Skyscrapers, he thinks, are alive over the edge of trees at the border of a park in the distance of a suburb; and a hundred years ago, people aspired.
But Ayyad only has three possessions left to him, the chocolate bar now gone, the potato chips discarded because of the abundance of false flavor on them. He has three possessions, just memories, but no! certainly more than that also; but no, only that. Memories are possessions, he thinks, and it is the frailty of one’s own mind that robs a soul of them, never to return. There is no police station where the theft can be reported. No army that can march on a foreign land to recover these treasures.
But here is one memory, thinks Ayyad. Here is his son at play in the sea of God, wading towards the waves. They buffet him. They prevent him, but still he goes on as Ayyad watches from the beach, propped on an arm as his wife reads. He is ready to jump from his place and race into the water to help this child of 6 if he should need it, for the waves are so much bigger than he, the water so much more powerful. But his son races into them repeatedly, no matter how many times he is returned to the surf, or rolled up the sand under the force of the water. The day harkens, and there Ayyad sits, his book forgotten, his wife forgotten, his phone in another world, for he is watching his son contend with that which is so much bigger than either of them. Later, as the sun slips, the boy finally comes out. He is hungry, having skipped his lunch. He is thirsty, for there is no satisfaction to be gained by an abundance of salt water. He is sweating, for even the waves cannot expunge the fury of his efforts. He kneels in front of Ayyad, and trains black eyes on his father, and he nods. It is one imperceptible motion from a six-year-old, an acknowledgement of what he has done, and that he has been watched by his father, and that together there is something to be gained from this, both for the boy and his father, as the waves continue to buffet the beach, and still do.
In 2006, Kamal became a construction manager with his firm. His English had improved to the point where he barely spoke with an accent. After work, he had beers with the others, sometimes whisky. A part of him suspected, as he noted in letters to his mother, that he was capable of loving whisky, to the point where this would one day be a problem for him.
He bought a car. A townhouse. He sent home money, and once a year a candy bar to his father. And Chicago, once home to a World’s Fair, grew under his steady hand, homes and building and great factories that Kamal supervised into existence, as though he were in fact growing these things from the soft Chicago soil – never the skyscrapers for which the city had once been reputed, for there was no desire left for that, but an expansion and growth nevertheless.
And in 2008, Kamal met a prairie rose. She was indeed a flower, raised from the flatlands that struck across the heart of America and provided the essence of that country, all its nourishment. She grew well, that prairie rose, as though colour and light were the sole purpose for which she had been put on the earth, and the only things she needed in order to remain there. Kamal had called her just that, prairie rose, but her real name had been Emily.
“I want to smoke,” says Ayyad to the table cloth. He is used to smoking while he eats, but here he must leave the restaurant and stand in the sun in order for him to enjoy that habit. He refrains. Pours himself some wine.
They are not neighbors, he thinks, of the people around him. They occupy the same city, the same basic space, but they do not know each other and they are not here to learn otherwise. They come to this place to be alone, just not in their homes; but in Ayyad’s home, in the wonderment of Jordan, this is done differently, for people move along the streets for the purpose of that movement, and when their walk is finished, it leads to a place that might incidentally satisfy their hunger but more rightly cure their loneliness. Jordan, he thinks, is a place of neighbors. A country of friends. But here, amidst such noise and crowd, he feels utterly alone as he drinks his wine and is prevented from smoking his cigarettes.
And yet amidst the noise, he hears a word for a moment, and it is “El-Habri”. He gets up, startled that someone he knows has found him on this foreign shore, some friend. Some neighbor. But the word floats through the deepening murk of deadened lighting, and though he looks about, there is no one familiar to him. The word was said, but not directed at him. Here, his name is Ayyad, and he is alone.
He sits down and takes more wine. The waiter asks him if he would like anything else, and he says “a chocolate bar. Any kind please.”
In the smokeless air, he sees his son, yet this is not the boy that is but the one that was. And he is at home, and some friend has brought a hawk to the house. This bird is immense, and so dangerous that it is muzzled. Ayyad tells his son not to go near the bird, but the friend beckons the child – still not even 10 – to come closer. That he must be close to this thing, that a bird is surely nothing to fear, correct? And the boy does so, even though his father tries to hold him back, and with large black eyes the boy looks back at his father and winks. Just once. It is only a wink, a testament to who this child is becoming and where he will go. He moves to the bird, and the bird – it darts forward, ripping off its muzzle and descending upon the boy, clamping its jaws upon his arm. He screams, but he does not hit the bird. He does not try to knock it away. Before Ayyad or the friend can free the jaws, the boy stares at it in the eye, coming to some understanding there in the courtyard of Ayyad’s house as the sun beats down on them. And the boy winks again, and this is what Ayyad sees as he reaches him and helps his friend extricate the bird. This is what Ayyad sees, and does still.
Kamal and his prairie rose moved into the suburbs in 2011: this was a place of pristine streets and hedge-lined lawns, of boulevards with iron lampposts, and traffic circles brimming with flowers. Kamal drove a BMW in those days, and Emily wore short skirts and scarfs no matter what the summer weather. And while the Chicago soil was strong enough to grow them both, in the suburbs there was no sense of skyscrapers: they might as well have been vanished, sucked up by the earth and returned to their fundamental elements. Kamal often rose in the mornings and walked to his back porch, wondering what great city he could emerge from the soils here, how he would shape it and how high he could raise its grandeur.
Within one year, however, the prairie rose was gone. And the summer was so hot. And Kamal drove about in his car, the windows down no matter how hard the heat, a scarf trailing from his rear window as though this would matter to anyone. Aimlessly, it is supposed, he drove. On the breaknecks of the on-ramps to highways that stretched forever. In the small densified single-lane streets of the middle city. Upon the freeways that raced along the shores of the Lake, pretending that they were endless loops, and so they were – for Kamal always returned to his home in the suburbs to find it empty, and he too, and in the distance not a shred of any monument risen to the sky. Not one shred.
Kamal made friends, something he had never done before. Do you know why? We do not. But these were neighbors, and that is the way of things. That is the way it is done.
Kamal thought of Jordan. He bought a plane ticket to return. This was in 2013, and is a matter of fact. It happened. But he did not go.
That same year, Kamal’s mother received her final letter from her son.
By 2014, Kamal had etched his skin with sayings, simple words that didn’t meant much except to him. They were “in stillness we abide”, but what was ‘stillness’ meant to signify, and when do we as human beings ‘abide’ anything? He had his friends. They had their sayings, too. They had their meetings and their ideas, their idioms and their hatreds. They even had a name, if such things matter. They had a name, and by extension, he had one that could finally replace “El-Habri”: the name of his birth, his upbringing. The name of his father.
And they sailed through the night, as though the mighty city once renowned for reaching so high had in fact turned into an ocean of wet wave, a surface upon which and below which they could navigate their intentions. Gathering things, making plans, as Kamal spent his day building the great city, and his nights just that: gathering things, making plans, gathering plans, those things. He changed his name. He regained it. He dreamt of his prairie rose but could not find her. He thought of Jordan but could not return. He drank whisky, lots of it, and every single year he sent a candy bar back to his birth-land, where it entered the hand of his father.
He went to jail. It was not a serious matter. But in the small space that he inhabited for a month, others wondered at his black eyes, the lack of light that seemed to hover about his frame. That seemed to be growing, and multiplying, as though it had always been there and that even those who had known him probably – probably – could not recall too many instants when it had been anything but. We are grown evil, people are occasioned to say, but they don’t know what this means, and we do not either really. But those who came upon Kamal in that jail cell were prone to say it despite their lack of understanding. Here was a man who drained light.
And when he was free, records indicate that Kamal did not trouble himself with the law again. To the thoughts of home, he responded with whisky and the speed of his car along the freeways, the scarf trailing from the window, the unremarkable sky unimpeded by anything that people could build.
Memories are a possession, thinks Ayyad. But they are pernicious. Surely, he thinks as he takes a train into the heart of the city, there must have been more than three. Surely he has misplaced the rest, or simply had them eroded from him by the busyness of life. There must have been more than three, but there they are for him, in the window of the train as it looks down on the streets, three and nothing more than that.
His passport is in his pocket. He has a money belt around his waist. And he is eating potato chips again. He has forced himself to digest the layer of seasoning upon them, for no reason other than that they are easy to eat when he is hungry. In the train, people stand even though seats are empty. Many listen to music or tap on their phones. A few read books, and one or two, newspapers. Together, the passengers sway from side to side as the train moves along the curves – one side to the next, then back, never a hard movement in the lot, and no music other than the train’s movement to inspire the choreography. It is a dance, thinks Ayyad, a congregation of the unwilling, and in some ways it is beautiful to him as he eats his potato chips.
The train stops. “El-Habri!” someone says, as he steps off. He spins, this old man in his strange clothes, searching for the invocateur of the word. But they are no where, and so is he: and hundreds of people stream about him, and it is not possible that one of them, strangely, is known to him, and he to them. It is improbable. Impossible. But his is a name, and now it is Ayyad and only that, and he remembers – despite the punctured hole that is his memory – that his name has reason to be said here. It has meaning here.
One memory, then two, and finally three. He occasionally talks to his first wife about their son. He wants to ask her about the other good things that must have happened, that must have been there, and when he finally does, she always responds in the same fashion: “No, El-Habri, this is no the chance for you to make up anything that was not there. Would you see the letters he sent to me? I have them all. What did he send you? Chocolate? Ha! Come see the letters for yourself, if you wish. See what he said to me.”
“What are you saying, woman?” he often asks.
“Nothing. Something. Keep your memories, old man. You are old now. Suddenly much older, no? Keep what you have and don’t pretend that there were other ones.”
Hang up. Call again, he thinks. Call her now, on this train platform, amidst hundreds, thousands of people, and one who declared “El-Habri!”
The streets are also full. Ayyad walks along them. His phone rings but he does not answer.
‘My name is Kamal Hurriya, and I am known by my last name, which means ‘freedom’. It is freedom to which I aspire, and you must too. I send this note because it is important for you to know who I am. My mother will argue my identity. She will say that I had a different name, but it is not true. I never did. I had only this name, since I was born, and this is the name that I will have forevermore.
They will say that it is because of this reason or that. Because I was born in this place or that. Because my name is one I never had or this one that I always have. They will say it is because of my beliefs, but what are those? If I say it is because of me, what does that make me? What man am I?
I was a builder. I wanted to grow this place taller. To make it greater. There was a dream once, in this city, of greatness. Of the next century, and the one beyond that. We hear whispers of it still. I see them. They are tall. They are great. But we are prevented from getting to them, and something else has replaced our need for excellence. And so I crave freedom, and freedom is my name. Freedom is my name.’
Kamal exited his house in the suburbs at about 5 pm on the day he died. It was 2015. It was the future.
He drove his BMW along the freeway. He was drunk on whiskey. A bottle sat next to him. The scarf in the rear window had long since ripped away, leaving a few threads fluttering in the air.
The downtown core was busy. He parked outside a hotel. Purchased a soda and drank it as he walked.
He stopped outside the Willis Tower, the tallest building in the city. And he wondered why the city had not grown since before he had been born. This Chicago had invented the dream of building into the sky, and now it stood failed and shrinking. Diminished. 110 storeys rose above him, of glass and steel, made to look like a package of cigarettes.
Down the street, two police officers approached on horses. On the nearby traffic lights, cameras surveyed the crowd. A food cart sat to his right, selling pretzels. Behind him, a music store.
He opened his coat and produced a gun. Held it up, and wondered at its weight. Laughed at the thought of actually using it. He dropped the bottle of soda.
No one noticed him, standing there with the gun. 110 storeys of people rose above him, unaware or uncaring, unable to believe that this would happen. The police officers rode. The cameras watched, and the smell of pretzels washed over him until he laughed. He laughed and wondered about his name, and the thought came as the gun crackled suddenly, that he had no name. Never had been given one. Bullets spewed, across the street, towards the base of the tower, where he hoped to imbue it with the urgency of growing again. Of being taller. Of standing greater. And as people fell, he wondered about his prairie rose too, and what she would think. Or what his mother would think. And that was all he had left to wonder, as he did what he never thought that he could do, and did it so easily.
Screams. Running. Abandonment. Horror. A quick succession of elements rose as people fell, and then Kamal felt a bullet graze him. Then one strike him. But he was above that, for he was free. And this was freedom. And he suddenly could not remember a time before he had arrived here and drawn the gun. Could remember nothing at all.
Keep your memories, old man. Keep them, thinks Ayyad.
The third one belongs to the haze, he thinks as he walks the Chicago streets. There is a music festival in the city, and it spews noise everywhere. He does not hate it. He does not think he can do that. But the third one is haze, and he is in Jordan, on a street. His son is next to his mother, and they are staring at him. He is saying goodbye.
“I am saying goodbye,” he remembers himself saying, as though they might not be sure.
His wife hadn’t responded. But the boy had swallowed and looked up. Black eyes never faltering, as though to say that this must be for the best, no? “The best for all of us,” Ayyad remembers having told them, and so serious that boy had walked over suddenly and put his arms around his father. Two circling arms and such a tightness to the grip, and suddenly Ayyad had seen a sheen of light around the three of them. And that light had said that it would be okay, simply because a little boy had made it so with nothing more than an embrace.
“I’ll stay with you next summer though,” the boy had said, his grip tightening.
“Yes,” Ayyad had replied, but he had lied and it had not happened.
“Can I meet your new wife?” the boy had said.
“Yes of course,” Ayyad had replied, but just a lie. Only a lie.
The embrace had lasted, as though to make his lies sensible. Permissible. He’d given the boy a chocolate bar that had been forgotten in his pocket – how glad he had been that he had had it! And then he had stepped away and entered a car, and left them behind, but the glow had lasted, the sense of light flowing from that boy, some remarkable essence that would carry on forever.
Keep your memories, thinks Ayyad. El-Habri in another world. The blare of music accosts him as he walks. Skyscrapers reach high, as though this had been their birthplace, and perhaps it had – all eclipsed now, made normal when once they had been the very vision of human beings. The best that they could offer.
One in particular reaches so high. He turns a corner and comes upon it. Certainly this is the place he is looking for. Certainly this is it. He stands across the street, utterly still. There is a wall built at the bottom, a new one. Someone has lain bricks for some reason, mortared to waist height. Against it is a shrine of stuffed animals and flowers. They are growing up the brick, it seems, and one day perhaps they will flow over and to the other side, where there must be a cool place waiting for them. People kneel before the shrine, swaying from side to side. Some are listening to music. Others are muttering words that are swallowed by the cars that rush along the road, trying hard not to notice. Ayyad stands across the road from these souls, and he remembers three shining moments, three and nothing more than that – the light from them is brilliant, and it is all around him. He wants to bring this light to these poor souls. He wants to show them that it lives, and what it means. But all he can do is stand in his place across the street, immobile, paralyzed. He cannot move towards them. Cannot cross the road to speak to them. He is still.