By Alex Khansa
Precious moments. That’s what life is all about. Your first step. Your first word. Your first bike ride with no training wheels. The first time you hold a pretty girl’s hand. When she rests her head on your chest and you smell a fruity scent on her braided hair. The new or hand-me-down car you get—that first gear you shift, grabbing the wheel with both hands, grandma style. It’s beautiful. But that’s not my story; mine can be summarized in five-year increments, not in fragmented moments.
* * *
Elementary school boy, in Lattakia, Syria. Major crush on a classmate in second grade. She’s tall. I’m short. She’s smart. I’m smart, too. Or so my parents and teacher tell me. But that’s good; commonalities are good. Because she’s a Christian, and I’m told I’m a Muslim.
Muslim / Mus·lim / noun: Myself, my family, our relatives in the village on the mountain, some of my friends and neighbors.
I sit behind her in class. I watch her take notes in her pink notebook: subject line in black ink, date in green and chapter name in blue. In history class, I notice a blue eraser under my desk. On it, her name is carved: Christine. “That’s it,” my friends tell me. “Give it to her after class. She has to speak to you.” I think about it until my stomach hurts. I decide the eraser is going in my pocket.
At school, there are routines. In the morning, we have a set of formations: feet together, knees straight, chest up, left arm stretched so that fingertips are almost to the shoulder of the person in front. We’re not supposed to rest our hand on each other’s shoulders. But we do. We’re dressed in uniforms, repeating the ruling party’s slogan after the national anthem every day:
“Unity, Freedom, Socialism.”
You see, the way they put it, we have to be united in order to be free. We have to be free in order to willfully choose socialism. And by “we,” they mean all Arab countries, even those that don’t speak Arabic.
We pledge to redeem our country with our soul and blood.
Redeem / ri-ˈdēm / verb: To give your life to protect Syria.
Syria / ˈsir-ē-ə / noun: An anthem and a flag with three colors and two stars.
* * *
Still in school. Still a boy. But this time in Tokyo, Japan. My father is a Visiting Professor at Tokyo University. Still have a crush on my classmate in Lattakia.
People here look different. But they’re nice. They don’t wear army uniforms to school. They wear shorts and sweaters. I wear pants because it’s cold.
My classmates learn a few Arabic words, so they can speak to me, like “good morning” and “welcome.” When we take pictures, they smile and raise their middle and index fingers with palms facing outward making victory—or peace?—signs. They are my new friends.
Friends / ˈfrends / noun: Those who sit next to me, talk to me, play soccer with me and don’t laugh at me or hit me.
The Musashino district administration hires a one-on-one tutor to teach me Japanese at my public school in Kichijoji. She’s patient. She shows me how to write from left to right and how to spell. Now I can write my name in Katakana—the alphabet for foreign words—and “Japan” in Kanji—the difficult alphabet of logographic characters—which is pronounced Nihon or Nipon. Everything else I write in Hiragana—the alphabet for children who don’t know much Kanji.
Foreigner / ˈfȯr-ə-nər / noun: A person belonging to or owing allegiance to a foreign country. I think it means someone who travels from Syria to Japan and writes his name in Katakana.
Syria / ˈsir-ē-ə / noun: The place you tell your friends you’re from when they see that you look and speak differently.
The temples are beautiful. The curved roof is dressed in red and grey tiles, with each end pointed up like a boat. They look different than mosques. Mosques are for Muslims, and they have domes and tall towers in the corners to call people to prayer. They worship Buddha in Japan. Except the music teacher; she wears a cross.
Muslim / Mus·lim / noun: Derived from Islam, one that surrenders himself or herself to God. So, in Japan, they surrender themselves to Buddha. Or maybe, they don’t surrender at all.
* * *
My father’s contract was not long enough for me to finish school in Japan. So, I am graduating high school in Syria, where I have been living for the past five years. I learned English so I can apply to college in America where they have cheaper cars, many concerts, smaller classrooms and less corruption.
Learning the English language is not very difficult; it only takes six months.
Language / lan·guage / noun: Symbols anyone can learn. It’s used to communicate with others. New symbols need to be learned to communicate with people who speak differently. I don’t know why we call ourselves an Arab Nation if America is not an English Nation. Anyone can become Arab or English if they study the language for six months.
Language means something else to other people. When my father came back to Syria after teaching the music of Arabic poetry, they asked him in an interview about what he learned in Japan. He said he learned the beauty of the Arabic language. My mother and I thought that was very—what’s the word—insensitive. He didn’t learn to like Sushi at least? He had to travel all the way to Japan to like his own language. Strange.
I get my visa from the U.S. Embassy, after a couple of weeks of interviewing and crossing my fingers. It’s like winning the lottery. I’m happy. My friends, my neighbors and my family are happy for me. Everyone in Lattakia wants to go to Europe or America. But they don’t. College is free in Syria. Healthcare is free. America is expensive. One dollar is fifty liras. That’s a lot.
Syria / ˈsir-ē-ə / noun: The place where the people you love live, but wish they didn’t.
Christine, the girl I had a crush on, moved. I was told she now lives in Saudi Arabia where her father gets paid a lot of money to be a doctor. I wish I’d told her how I felt. Or at least given her the blue eraser back.
* * *
I move to California. Some places are bad—I’ve never seen worse: dirty, metal bars, old, graffiti. Some places are nice like they were made to be filmed. The sun is bright, bright, bright. All year long. The cars are big. The soda cups are big. The streets. The food portions. Like what I imagine the “Drink Me” potion from Alice in Wonderland would do. And Los Angeles itself, it goes on and on and on.
There are many concerts in L.A. You can see any band you want. At a rock show, I meet a girl. Her name is Heather. It means little purple flower. She likes cameras, boots, museums, and bass guitar. She likes travel too, but she hasn’t traveled anywhere.
I see Heather almost every day. I like her a lot. She says she likes me more. We go to the abandoned train tracks and to the movie theater. I pick her up from her house. Her grandmother doesn’t understand me very well. She says she’s not used to my kind of accent.
Heather and I move in together to a small guest house in East L.A. The area is not considered very safe. But we like it. Life’s not easy, but I have Heather. I have a car. I go to concerts. I don’t have many friends; it’s hard to make friends because few Syrians live in Southern California.
I try to tell acquaintances about the girl I had a crush on in Syria. She was tall, fair-skinned and Christian and we were friends. I try to tell them that Allah is the Arabic word for God, not a new word for a different god. Americans smile a lot and they don’t disagree much, but they keep quiet when I talk and I don’t think they believe what I’m saying.
Friends / ˈfrends / noun: People who look like you, speak like you and want to do the same things as you.
When I landed in Los Angeles, I thought there were only white and black people in America, like they show in movies. I was wrong. There are many different kinds of people. But not all of them are foreigners.
Foreigner / ˈfȯr-ə-nər / noun: Someone who isn’t Native American.
Everyone asks where I’m from, but no one knows where Syria is. I try to explain, but I don’t know where to start. I am told I’m middle-eastern, even though I lived in the north-western part of Syria.
Syria / ˈsir-ē-ə / noun: A place in the middle and to the east of the people whose descendants, I suppose, live in America.
I graduate from the University of Southern California. It’s expensive but gives generous financial aid and scholarships. I have a job offer to join a consulting firm. I’ve been told I’m lucky because we’re in a recession and the career I chose in finance pays well.
* * *
Heather and I are married. I live in Long Beach with her and my dog. We call him Troy. He keeps me company when she’s working. We don’t know where Troy is really from or what dog language he speaks, but we tell him he’s from East L.A. and he has my last name.
Friends / ˈfrends / noun: People and pets. Sometimes, only pets.
People still ask where I’m from, but no one asks where Syria is anymore. It’s on the news very often. It’s confusing because Muslims are fighting Muslims because they’re Muslim.
Muslim / Mus·lim / noun: One of a billion and a half people, who was told the other Muslims believe in something different.
I became a U.S. citizen. Naturalized is what they call it. I don’t know what that means. I’m still a Syrian citizen, too. I hope I don’t have to redeem two countries with my life now.
I think and talk to myself in English now. I can’t remember when I started to. But language and citizenship have little in common because one takes six months and the other takes five years.
My job is going well. I am promoted to Senior Consultant. They fly me to Chicago for training. One of the motivational speakers, as they call themselves, talks about branding. He says we have to build our own personal brand. He says everything’s a brand and a brand is a promise, that’s all we need to know.
I beg to differ. Half definitions haven’t worked well for me in the past. My marketing professor in college told us that if we define marketing as a process, we’re halfway there. A process of what, I don’t know.
The motivational speaker gives examples. Apple is a promise to simplify technology to enhance our lives. Lady Gaga is a promise that she will always give her fans absolute honesty and creative new looks and music.
Brand / ˈbrand / noun: A mark made by burning (as on cattle) to show ownership.
* * *
Little has changed on my end. Maybe more will by 2020; as I said, my life goes in five-year increments. But a lot has changed on the world’s end.
People are divided: some support President Trump, some don’t. Some support the opposition in Syria, some don’t.
People are very worked up over their views. I don’t know what happened to the you-have-to-be-united-to-be-free thing. Some friends don’t talk to me because they have opposite views. Are we not friends anymore? Are we friends that don’t speak to each other?
Friends / ˈfrends / noun: Undefined.
In Syria, they want to kill Alawites because this minority sect, whom I’m a part of by birth, is not real Muslim but heretic. In America, they want to ban Alawites from entering the county because they’re Muslim. I’ve only been to a Mosque twice: once to drink cold water after playing soccer, and once to visit the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
Muslim / Mus·lim / noun: Undefined.
If the U.S. government doesn’t allow me to travel, am I a citizen or a foreigner? I wonder when I will stop being a foreigner.
Foreigner / ˈfȯr-ə-nər / noun: Undefined.
I understand. Trump is a brand. He said so himself. And a brand is a promise.
Trump / ˈtrəmp / noun: A promise to work for the best interest of those who share his social and economic status, skin color, heritage, hair or last name.
If I have to go back to Syria, I wonder if I will think and talk to myself in Arabic again. I’ve read about a woman who had Alzheimer’s disease and forgot all languages she spoke other than her first language. I suppose that’s why life is marked by the fist this and first that.
Language / lan·guage / noun: Undefined.
I wonder about my own brand. What promise am I? Maybe my life would have been distilled to precious moments had I not turned my back on my first language, first friends and first crush. Maybe that’s why they burn brands on cattle. It hurts, but they can claim their brand forever. Nothing changes it. And their brand claims them forever.
Syria is a brand. A brand is a promise.
Syria / ˈsir-ē-ə / noun: A promise to let you call yourself Syrian from this day forward until the end of our days.
Syria / ˈsir-ē-ə / noun: A promise to let you call your children Syrian from this day forward until the end of our days.
Syria / ˈsir-ē-ə / noun: A promise that I will regret leaving home from this day forward until the end of my days.
Fajer Alexander Khansa was born and raised in Lattakia, Syria and Tokyo, Japan. He moved to the United States in 2005, where he completed his studies at USC. His personal life and background honed a profound appreciation for diversity of perspectives, which he explores in his stories. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as The Glass Mountain Review (2017 Poetry and Prose Contest winner), Raseef 22 and the Normal School. He is a fiction reader for the New England Review.
Photo credit: Heather Blackshire