Note: This is an excerpt from The Citadel, a dystopian novel about a near-future rise of a fundamentalist Christian political party in the United States. It is not completed…but it will be soon.
“Home” was a very obscure concept for me. Perhaps I had always learned from father that Afghanistan was our real home, or perhaps I just did not see the square cells in which we lived as a true home, at least how other children saw it. The colloquialism “Home is where the heart is” never made sense to me. My heart was with me, and never anywhere else. I did not feel like any place embodied me. Like a turtle, I carried my “home” on my back.
If, however, someone had asked me where “home” was, I would have immediately mentioned Kamal’s spacious apartment, where I went every day after school to sit and play for hours until father came home from work. Kamal was never in one of my classes, so I did not seem him except on the bus every day. His phone number was the first one I learned. His computer was the first one I ever used. His toys were my toys. When I was over at Kamal’s apartment, I felt at home as much as anywhere else.
Kamal’s father watched over us both, and when his wife came home in the evenings she made us dinner. Kamal’s mother, “Mrs. Kamal,” was wider than I was tall, and short like a pumpkin. She had fat, flabby arms, and liked to wear her apron all the time. She was a cook in the Afghani restaurant down the street, although I’m sure she was Persian. She liked to yell at Kamal, for not doing his homework, for not washing his hands before dinner, for not saying please and thank you, and all sorts of things, things which I never had a problem doing just to sharpen the contrast between me and Kamal. For this reason, she loved me, and took me in like a son (although I would never think of calling her mother).
Kamal and I loved to build fortresses out of his couch and chairs. We loved to pretend we were flying spaceships, and his flat screen television was the cockpit display. Sometimes, I even let him be captain and I manned the guns, battling imaginary villains with my deadly lasers and even deadlier accuracy. Sometimes we detached the wooden dowels off of mops and fought with them, like Zorro. Kamal had video games, and I could never compete with him because he owned them and I didn’t—but I think he let me win sometimes.
Sometimes, Kamal and I would just talk, for hours, about our limited perceptions of the world. We would talk about kids we knew, and our teachers, and about science, or religion, or politics. We of course knew nothing about the world, but we did not know what we did not know—so, we talked like we knew it all, like we were the wisest men on the planet. Our words were smart and concise; our thoughts were brilliant. I listened to Kamal more than he listened to me. He told me about what he was learning in school, but mostly about what he was learning outside of school. His father was a very smart man, and always had something to say as well. I was sure that most of Kamal’s education came from his father.
Kamal would talk a lot about being a Muslim in America. It was one of the things he was really passionate about, even at such a young age. He told me about how his father had experienced ridicule at work, and how it was hard sometimes to land building contracts because no one wanted to hire an Arabic contractor. Kamal would talk for over an hour sometimes without stopping, talking to me but sounding so passionate that it felt like he was talking to an entire audience. It was Kamal—not I—who made the room overflow with thoughtfulness.
I learned how to read and write really quickly. By first grade, I could read anything Mrs. Williams wrote on the board, and by second grade, I could pick most books off the shelves in the school library, even from the fourth grade section, and read most of the words. My favorite fourth-grade level book was about the Titanic. I was fascinated with the story of sunken dreams, with the tragedy of families and classes and children. The fourth grade book on the subject read like a fairy tale, almost, with pictures of the majestic Lady of the sea, smokestacks pluming, decks teeming with life. Then, the fateful night of August 14th—when the invincibility of a God was challenged and defeated by nature, and along with it, the arrogance of an age. I read the book so many times, the spine became white from creasing and I could recite the story from memory. I was afraid to ask my father to get me another book about the Titanic. I remembered too well how mad he had gotten when I asked him for baseball cards, so I did not dare ask him. But he must have seen me reading my little book, because for my ninth birthday he got me three advanced, detailed books about the Titanic. I could not thank him enough, but he just sat back with his cigar and said “Ahmed, read your books, always look for wisdom.” It took me at least a year to go through the two thick informational books and the detailed diagram-heavy one. I studied cutouts of the Titanic forever, trying to analyze, myself, how it was possible for the lower compartments to overflow. I learned about the pretentiousness of Bruce Ismay, and the kindhearted William Andrews, ship’s architect. I imagined what it must have been like to command such a ship from the bridge, a fearless Captain Smith, and how frightening it must have been, as a man, seeing his wife and children board the lifeboats without him.
In third grade, Mrs. Williams left me to get married. I was very conscious of the fact that, although she moved up teaching one grade a year from the time I was in kindergarten, I was the only student she had taught consistently all four years. In retrospect, I wonder if she had anything to do with placing the students in her classes. She focused intently on my education, clearly investing a lot of time in stimulating me, and keeping me out of trouble. When I was clearly bored learning about simple arithmetic, she gave me more challenging multiplication problems to do. When she saw my distaste in having to write words like “The” and “His” for hours until my fingers hurt, she gave me harder words to practice, and even had me help the other kids in the class learn the easy ones. I knew that the other kids resented me. I was too obviously different than they were, too above them academically, too superior to them—or at least I thought so. Mrs. Williams tried hard to instill in me a sense of modesty, to help me make friends, to guide me through those important non-academic steps in my education. I alternated attitudes towards her attempts. Sometimes, I looked to her for help, to defend me against the occasionally hostile opposition I faced from my peers. But I often resented her help, and took it as a patronizing attempt to subjugate my independence. I was very focused on my own work, but after a while, due to the attentions of Mrs. Williams and my peers, I became aware of my own preciousness as well. It became harder for me to simply read a noticeably advanced book in class without consciously trying to attract the attention (and admiration) of peers.
Whenever there was a project that involved groups, I found myself the instant center of popularity. Everyone, it seemed, wanted me to be in their group. I took their advances as genuine signs of friendship. But when I approached these same children during recess, they seemed to have no interest in being around me. They became distant and reserved. Jokes that were told seemed to only resonate in them and be directed toward others, not me—and when I tried to joke, or add to the conversation in any way, I was not listened to, and reacted to with scorn.
I realized quickly how much a part of my life Mrs. Williams had been when she was gone. My fourth grade teacher’s name was Mr. Dawson. He was a towering man with wild eyes, and large, strong hands. His pale skin flushed quickly, then cleared just as quickly, with no reason or warning. His face never seemed to alter expression—it was fixed in a look of pure focus and intensity. When he taught, he loved to face the board, then whip his face around quickly and fire a question at an unsuspecting youth.
He did not pay attention to me like Mrs. Williams had. On the first day of school, Mr. Dawson got very angry with me because I asked a boy next to me if I could borrow a pencil. He chastised me for my lack of preparation, and told me I would have to be as devoted to school as the other members of my class. I remember being embarrassed by the way he spoke to me. He did not know that I could read, by then, at a high school level. He did not know that I could do long division, or that I had written some poems that had been published in the elementary school “Viewbook.” From the beginning, I think, he saw me as smaller than the rest of the class.
That year, Lisa was in my class again. Her blonde hair she preferred let hang long and loose, now, and I had begun to notice her in a way I had not noticed anyone before. Her face was bright and clean, and she smiled with a warmth that spread from her petit lips and graced her neckline. I loved it when she tossed her hair, which she did whenever she was working very hard for a long time. Sometimes when I finished my work packets early, I pretended to look idly around the room, but I actually watched her, waiting for the moment when her rapt attention was broken by a snap of her head, and an alluring flourish of her sunshine hair.
Mr. Dawson seemed to take kindly to Lisa, too. She was the only child in my class that year, besides me, who stood out, both because of her blonde hair and her light skin. She was white, but I was only beginning then to understand the difference between races. At first, I began to associate the physical differences between people by facial features—white people had round, flat faces, with protruding noses, and blue or bright brown eyes. Black people had flat noses and more pronounced cheekbones and jawbones. Asians had slanted eyes and wavy hair and Jews had large ears and crooked noses. Those were the only “races” I knew—and everyone else was like me. (I also thought that every Muslim was Afghani, too, but soon I learned that Muslims came from everywhere.) I thought Juan Mandez, a kid in my second grade class, was a Muslim, too. I asked him if he wanted to come my mosque’s eid one year. I did not understand when he declined, until I learned that not everyone who looked like me was a Muslim. But that was later. Race to me was an abstract idea, and looking back on my childhood I can clearly remember who fell into which compartmentalization. But then, I would not have noticed that I and Lisa were distinctively dissimilar from the ethnic makeup of the rest of my fourth grade class. And I would definitely not have noticed what this meant in regard to Mr. Dawson’s affection.
Lisa and I noticed how she seemed to be favored, and I was equally disfavored—a far cry from my familiar relationship with Mrs. Williams. When it was cleaning time in the classroom, I was always assigned to clean the bathroom or scrub the floor tiles. She got to neaten the library or arrange the toys. Mr. Dawson would call on me to answer impossibly hard questions, and Lisa would be given a nod of approval, even if she failed to answer the easy question she was given. When I raised my hand, Mr. Dawson would appear to see right past it, as if it wasn’t there. He would look challengingly around the room until someone else’s hand raised, too. Lisa’s hand would always be the first one selected, when it was rarely raised. I don’t remember if this was a result of Mr. Dawson’s bias or merely symbolic of it, but Lisa sat in the front row, and I sat in the back, near the window. Sometimes, when I lost interest in a lesson or was merely distracted, I strained to hear the sounds of the city beyond the tightly shut window. I could always hear something if I tried.
Lisa and I never talked, but we understood eachother. She did not like to be singled out, and neither did I. For me, the greater part of my memory of fourth grade surrounds me and Lisa, struggling in that classroom for something neither of us could have. I wanted to be challenged; she wanted to be normal. And Mr. Dawson did not care about either one of us.
One day, a child refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance before school. Her name was Takisha, and she sat in the front of the room, two seats down from Lisa. Usually she did not speak during class, but I knew her because we had been paired up to d a Thanksgiving project together. She was a slight girl, with black hair that stayed in shape no matter how hard she shook her head. Sometimes her hair was done up with colored beads, so she looked like a stained glass window, impervious to shattering yet delicate as glass itself. Takisha always stood and recited the Pledge like the rest of us, mechanically, hand over heart, the words spewing meaningless from our indoctrinated mouths. For all my obsession with reading and words, I never thought about the block of words I recited every morning, or what they meant. They were a single entity, bodyless and meaningless, to be spoken quickly and solemnly, because they were required to know and recite and that was it.
But one day Takisha stood in the room, with the rest of us, as the American flag hung from the blackboard, and did not move her lips as the chorus of America was absorbed by the stuffy classroom. No one noticed she had not spoken, of course, and when we had all finished “Withlibertyandjusticeforall” we sat down, as did Takisha, and waited for Mr. Dawson to start the first lesson of the day by scratching Arabic numerals on the chalkboard. But he did not. He stared at the seated class, from his desk, beady eyes focused intently ahead. His pale face flushed red—the first time I had seen his face change color when he wasn’t speaking. Then, he stood, pulling his collared shirt taut over his beltline. When he spoke, his voice quivered minutely, like a faint vibrato in a distant overture.
“Takisha. Please stand up.” He looked right at her. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. There was a long silence, during which I could only imagine her looking up, timidly, at him, her small lips pressed nervously. She slid out of her seat and stood next to her desk.
“Yes, Mr. Dawson?” she asked. There was fear in her voice.
“Takisha, please recite the Pledge of Allegiance for the class.” Mr. Dawson’s lips folded over his gums, leaving the tips of his yellow teeth exposed. Takisha did not say anything. I saw the back of her head stiffen—her hair shook silently. Then she spoke, her voice cutting the air.
“No thank you, Mr. Dawson.”
Mr. Dawson breathed. I could see his big hands tightening against his pant legs. The tension in the room was unbearable.
“No thank you?” he repeated. “No thank you?” His voice gained a pitch. “No thank you?” Takisha mumbled something barely audibly. “What, Takisha? What did you say? Speak up for the class.”
Takisha breathed loudly, then spoke quickly and loudly: “My mother says I shouldn’t.” She stopped. The whole class seemed to tighten, bracing ourselves for the crescendo that was bound to come. Mr. Dawson’s eyes flared.
“Your mother says you shouldn’t,” he echoed. Then he smiled, suddenly relaxing his features. The interlude was dripping sweet but distinctively discordant. Mr. Dawson asked, so sweetly, so innocently, “Why not, Takisha? Why does your mother say you shouldn’t pledge allegiance to our flag?”
I waited. I hoped Takisha would not say something to further anger the teacher. I wished she would just concede and apologize so we could get on with the lesson. I did not understand how such a harmless stanza could deter Takisha from desiring to recite it, or her mother, for that matter. I watched, with every other child in that class, waiting for an answer we could not expect and would not be able to understand.
“We don’t believe in God.”
The words crashed like a cymbal. Any sense of calm remaining in the room was blown sky-high. Mr. Dawson’s face distorted. His smile vanished. His throat constricted, and his Adam’s apple rose to his chin. Then, muted, he whispered, “You will recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Takisha. You will recite the entire Pledge, without pause, and the entire class will wait here until you do it.” His voice escalated, gaining rhythm and tempo as he marched forward, toward the class, toward Takisha, toward me. “You will say the Pledge of Allegiance, now.”
I could hear, coming through the closed window, the faint sound of a jazz trumpet, playing a moaning, moderate melody. The notes glided wistfully through a scale of perfect aptitude, reaching peaks of hope and valleys of despair. The solo played the melody of happiness and the melody of rejection, the tune of kindness and the tune of cruelty, all at the same time. I was reminded instantly of the only music I really knew—the tempered moans of the muezzin every morning, reciting the call to prayer for all Muslims around the world. I thought of the vocalizations that remained so consistent yet fluctuated so wildly at the same time, like joy and death riding ocean waves—a history of pride in God and sufferance of persecution in the same sound. And I thought about Takisha, the small girl in the front row, with hair like a cocoon of protection, who just told the world she did not believe in God. I did not understand. How could I? How could I believe that any person would reject God, a concept so true and established in my mind, an idea I prayed to, an ideal I felt with me wherever I went?
Takisha was silent, again. I imagine the class was waiting for her to speak the words they had all just spoken. But instead she cocked her head and repeated, a little louder, “No thank you, Mr. Dawson.”
Mr. Dawson’s face was bright red, and now, as he pressed his hairy knuckles on Takisha’s desk, the back of his hands were red, too. “Say the Pledge of Allegiance, Takisha.” Takisha slid into her desk, sitting down, and crossed her hands over her chest.
“Please, Mr. Dawson, I’d rather not.”
I heard a whisper in the front of the room I could not comprehend. Then, another one, louder: “Come on, Takisha. Say it.” Another child urged her. “C’mon, say it Tee, say it.” Takisha shook her head, and I could see her hair bounce, then find its perfect place again. A boy next to me said “I wanna learn math!” Some kids laughed nervously. “You will say the Pledge of Allegiance,” Mr. Dawson refrained. “Say it!” His voice rose another pitch, and his eyes now looked like they were going to jump out of their sockets, like bullets from a double barreled shotgun. “Say it!” he said, louder this time. I saw Takisha shrink back. “Say it!” he said again, his voice breaking at the crest.
“Say it!” a boy said. I wanted her to just recite the Pledge. I wanted her to shout it at the top of her lungs. But I could not bring myself to urge her with the rest of the class. In her stance, I saw not only my own determination, but my opposition of authority. She was standing up to Mr. Dawson—and she was succeeding. I could not defend her, but I could not bring myself to vindicate Mr. Dawson. With every “Say it, Takisha!” I thought about Mrs. Williams, and what she would tell me to do, what she would do if she were in Mr. Dawson’s place. But Mr. Dawson was not Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Dawson did not understand about sharing, or fairness, or how to learn from others. He could not listen to a small girl in the front row, and he could not comprehend why she did not do what he wanted her to do.
And now, he is furious. “Say it! Say the Pledge!” he screams, almost hysterically. “Say it now!” Takisha jumps. “Say ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag!’” I see her hair shake, quivering, a tremolo. Mr. Dawson steps closer to her desk. His knees are touching the hard cream-colored wood. I hear the desk creak. His voice is low, but his face still breathes fire like an active volcano. “I will ask you one more time, Takisha. Your classmates are waiting. Will you please repeat after me. I pledge allegiance…” Takisha does not speak. He says, again, “I pledge allegiance…” His voice undulates, trailing up at the end. Takisha remains silent. I can hear Mr. Dawson breathe. I can hear the classroom breathe. Breathe.
Then, feebly: “My mother says I shouldn’t.”
Almost immediately, the temple of Samson crashes to the ground. The classroom shakes like the quakes of Mexico City—the sky explodes with the sound of a million firecrackers. And Mr. Dawson screams, with a furor coming from the depths of evolution, with a voice shrill and hysterical, hands gripping the desk of the little child in front of him with the bouncing hair, and then, with every syllable, lifting with his infinite might the desk off the linoleum floor: “I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE!” The desk crashes to the ground. Takisha bounces up, then comes down hard in her seat, her hair landing, disfigured, for the first time. I hear the somber sound of timbre trumpets coming through the window. It is a call. Mr. Dawson asks for strength to shake his temple—it is a call. The children hold their breaths because ghosts do not breathe—it is a call. I listen without protest, because slugs do not speak—it is a call. Takisha speaks the holy words of our great nation—it is a call. She speaks with fear, not heart, with sound, not music, with tears, not crying.
“I pledge allegiance…” Mr. Dawson takes a step backward.
“To the flag…”
“To the flag…”
“Of the United States of America…”
“Of the United States of America…”
“And to the Republic…” The Holy Republic…
“For which it stands…” …a house divided…
“One nation…” …cannot stand…
“Under God…” …without faith…
“With liberty…” …the angels freed…
“And justice…” …the demons jailed…
“For all.” Silence falls.
Breathe. It is a call.