I originally wrote this in 2005 for a small independent zine that I was involved in, and posted it on my blog here: http://emburkewriting.blog
I have a matching pen and holder which I received as a gift years ago. Crudely carved of wood and coated in something resembling soft rubbery tar, it is ornamented with a pattern of brightly colored beads and small bits of mirrored glass. If you look into it you can see a mosaic portrait of yourself reflected back — one which is by design distorted and shattered into sparkling fragments. This cup and pen have taken on varying shades of symbolic meaning for me since they were given to me nearly a decade ago. Common objects have a way of becoming historically larger than life and we often miss the connection they can hold for us. Our homes are filled with such items: knick knacks, baby spoons, photographs, rocks and leaves, books and drawings. In a similar fashion we can see ourselves reflected back through the value we place on so many things which make up our lives.
I met Aafia while I was working as a sales clerk at the M.I.T. student center. She was finishing her graduate studies at M.I.T. and would often sit with others at a table in the common area offering Qurans and tracts on Islam to whoever showed an interest. While I was on my lunch break I would go out and talk with her about her faith. She was a congenial young woman who always smiled and shared freely her thoughts about theology and science, particularly creation and genetics, two subjects which to her were inextricably woven together. Not having found many non-Christians who believed in God, or the Creation, I was interested in hearing what she had to say about Islam and its perceptions of the matter. When you talk to individual believers you often don’t receive dogma or theology as much as you do a personal witness to matters of faith and hope which have been born and nurtured through experience. She could have given me a small tract or a copy of the Quran (which she did) – yet she also gave me her time and thoughts, something far more valuable and intangible than that which might be measured against historical canons and doctrines. We crossed paths frequently and she would often stop in to give me something she wrote, invite me to gatherings of Islamic friends or just to see how I was. I still have all of her material on Islam, including essays on theology and creation as well as a one act play exploring the views of an atheist and a theist about genetics.
Aafia came in one day, dressed in the traditional clothing of her country Pakistan, to tell me that she was returning home for several weeks. She asked if there was anything that she could bring back for me while she was there. It was such a generous and thoughtful gesture that I really didn’t know what to ask for from her. In retrospect I could have come up with so many possible items of interest: music, art work, books of folktales or plays. I couldn’t think of anything, so she said she’d find something for me while she was there. I thanked her and wished her a safe trip and enjoyable time with her family. She returned a month later and offered me the pen and holder, an example of folk art from Karachi. I kept it prominently displayed where I can use and admire it, until the beads and mirrors began to fall off it and I was forced to keep it in a plastic baggie so that none of the pieces would be lost. I only saw her a few more times after that. We went our separate paths and I’ve held onto the pen and cup, as with so many other things, as a reminder of unexpected gifts and blessings which come from unexpected sources.
During the days and weeks following 9/11, while doing what many of us were doing – praying and trying to make sense of a world seemingly gone mad – I was watching the recurring news coverage of our entry into a strange battle with an ambiguous enemy. I had no faces or pictures to place upon this new threat other than the footage of terror played over and over again until it started to look like a scene edited out of a bad catastrophe film from the seventies. Below faint bomb flashes across a dim night time horizon on the television screen was the teleprompter feed giving breaking news about the war. F.B.I. officials were trying to locate several people suspected of having connections with al-Qaeda and the attack on the World Trade Center. I was surprised to see Aafia’s name scroll across the screen and went to the internet to see if it was the same person. She seemed to have gained her affiliation with terrorism and classification as dangerous through her marriage to a man from whom she was divorced and estranged. She and her three children disappeared mysteriously into the Pakistan countryside with hushed tales of abduction by her ex-husband, the F.B.I., the U.S. Secret Service or the Pakistani government.
The face that I was offered to place upon the effigy of our new collective fears was one of a friend with whom I’d discovered and shared a brief common bond of humanness. While I knew that much of what makes me who I am was being attacked along with others like myself, I felt I had little to be afraid of or uncomfortable about, yet still much to be saddened over. I didn’t lose anyone on the morning of September 11. No friends or family were caught up inside of that gigantic trestle of dreams and aspirations when it was struck, gave way and collapsed into itself, throwing off refractions and fragments of individual portraits. I didn’t personally lose anyone in Washington D.C., or Pennsylvania. I haven’t lost anyone in Afghanistan or in Iraq. I did lose an acquaintance whom, like many people we meet each day and like many items we collect and add to our lives, helped make it a little bit richer and more valuable. I have friends and family and acquaintances who lost some of their souls to hatred and a good part of their spirits to vindictive diatribes against people they have never met and in all likelihood never will. Along with many others I lost a small belief that members of the human race could share with one another the gifts of our arts and crafts, our beauty, culture and faith and with it a hope that the world was growing larger and more accessible rather than smaller, colder and more alienated.
© emburke/ emberarts 2005