Stilts, Hair: Discrete Autobiography by Noor Naga

TAIWAN. Wuri. 2003. My niece (left), on a new suspension bridge.

Chien-Chi Chang. Taiwan, 2003. Source: magnumphotos.com 

Stilts

  • The house sat on stilts. These were the marshlands of South Carolina, where even the birds slept on tall, lanky wooden sticks to keep their plumage dry. When mama wasn’t looking, Tito and I snuck down to wade knee deep in the muck. We terrorized the egrets out of their stroll. We trapped in buckets the legged tadpoles that were not yet grown enough to jump. They drowned each other while we watched. With gummy feet they stepped on each other’s open eyes and threw their bodies against the high, plastic walls for hours. When mama finally came looking for us, we let the live ones go. But even back upstairs it was not quite an inside. The wood hummed with mites. There were spiders knitting in the cupboards. There were ants in the bathroom, lizards blinking from the walls, and once, out of a bag of rice, there bloomed a cloud of baby moths. The kitchen spun with their dizzy dust-magic until the first one fried itself on the bulb. It fell dreamily. I was six when mama found my first diary, filled with pencil drawings of all my animal friends. I gave each of them small droopy genitals like mine.

  • The diary was confiscated. Mama sat me on the woollen time-out rug, and the hide prick-tickled the cheeks under my dress where no one at all could see. She asked me why I did it. Sometimes if you don’t look at mama, she goes away. I kneaded my toes into the wool. She asked again, louder. I counted the string-knots in the fringe and couldn’t say. In ‘98 there was one human friend I found at school with all the other human girls. I singled her out because she was brown and hairy-limbed like me. Her name was Priya. She was allergic to everything, and a hundred times a day smeared the flat of her palm up her nose like a prayer. The miss was always telling her to stop. The skin of her philtrum was dark rubbery ash and onion peel, raw salmon meat shining underneath. I gave her a bracelet I’d beaded myself. She gave me a square almond-paste sweet with a sheet of edible silver on one side. I braided her hair, she tried to braid mine. We stopped sitting alone and sat together. Once, behind the playhouse, we lay blunt baby-scissors against each other’s legs and snipped the shin hair up and down. I dusted her pretty, she dusted me pretty. Afterward, with arms around each other’s shoulders, we danced the cancan in the sandbox. She was my only human friend at the age of six, but I never saw her naked.

  • I never saw Priya naked. I never saw mama or baba naked. I saw Tito naked once, but brothers don’t count, and anyway his genitals didn’t droop. They dangled. Tito was the one who broke all the bones. Every week he had a crisp new scab to pick because he’d fallen from a tree or the wasp hive under the porch had gotten tired of his snooping and come at him. While the insects were scouring him raw, I sometimes played privately upstairs with my six barbie dolls. These were the last of the friends. They were blue-eyed blondes with smiling lips and all six were named Michelle. The barbies weren’t human. You could no sooner strip a Michelle than separate her melted toes. Her underwear stayed on no matter how hard you itched at the raised outline or thumbed its pattern of minuscule flowers. The lace was welded right into her skin. Whenever the barbies came out to play, one of them would be kidnapped by Tito’s dinosaur and end up undressed, tied up with string in either a tank full of slippery eels or a dungeon at the bottom of the world. Tito had no idea this happened. She’d flail her long, polished legs, struggling, screaming, then finally weeping with her heaving, gorgeous despair. To silence her, the dinosaur would claw at her body with his six finger-talons, and his eyes that glowed red would glow red. Days would go darkly by. When at last true love came riding, there would be thunder and, in the lightening flashes, much blood. The dinosaur would die. True love would approach with a limp and lowered gaze, to untie Michelle. She’d collapse and he, still honourably blind and limping, would help her put her clothes back on and carry her the long way home.

Schoolgirl's doodles from a 1936 Quran. Source: twitter.com/raphaelcormack

Schoolgirl’s doodles from a 1936 Quran. Source: twitter.com/raphaelcormack

  • In the house on stilts, I always slept with socks on and woke up barefoot. Every night Mama came to my room and took them off while I was sleeping because she worried about my blood flow. She had terrible flow herself. The blood puddled in her feet and could not climb back up. After work, she would come home and lie on the bed with her legs up against the wall like a clothespin.

  • One night I couldn’t sleep. At age six, torture is fatigue and the fever-soaked sheets. Mama made me drink syrup that tasted like the smell of gasoline. When she left, Baba came and sat on the bed beside my twisted body. He whispered Surat El-Ikhlas, then El-Mu’awwithatain, and with his right hand rubbed the baraka into my upper back. I grew still, safe and darling. Then I grew high, so loose and high, I slept like the sun itself. A few weeks later, I came looking for baba in the living room where he was watching the news. I said, “Baba, I can’t sleep,” and he said, “Try,” without taking his eyes off the screen. I said, “I tried,” and it took him ten seconds to hear me before he said, “What am I supposed to do for you?” So I went back to bed. The next night, I told him again that I couldn’t sleep, and he inhale-exhaled to show his patience was thin. I went back to bed. Some parts of the body are especially present: the lips, the dumb flat palm, for example. Some parts of the body are easily forgotten: the sit-bones, webbing between the toes. There is a place between the shoulder blades I did not even know I had. It is the dearest gift baba ever gave me—that place between the shoulder blades. I cannot reach it myself. Afterwards, I didn’t even thank him, only said in my head, “please” and “more.” When I woke up in the fever-soaked sheets, I knew for the first time, and with my whole body, that I was alone.

  • One day Tito found a cricket in his outdoor shoes. He named it Biggie and hid it like a secret in a sock under the bed. Every night for two months, Biggie would sing and mama tear the room apart in frustration. Then one night Biggie stopped singing and mama stopped tearing the room apart. It took a year for her to find the body. By then it was only a dry-curled, light-weight golden leaf, and before it she folded herself in two on the floor. Mama didn’t cry but she looked desolate, sitting there all small, clicking her teeth and making soft sounds like “oh, oh.” Mama wasn’t a small woman. She was tall, slim, with cream-colored, cream-smelling skin. Outside, she wore a scarf in the low, twisted turban style that Egyptians call Spanish and all the other Arabs call Egyptian. In South Carolina, they called her a Jewess. She was a green-eyed pathologist who wore too much gold and told anyone who’d listen that she was a quarter British. Inside the house, Mama let her silky black hair down. I thought she was the prettiest woman in the world, which made baba the strongest man. She grew up in Alexandria in the ’70s and ’80s where she cultivated a foreign air with the same devotion that some keep houseplants or lovebirds. She taught aerobics at the Sporting Club. She read Enid Blyton, listened to ABBA and Air Supply, dressed herself in Parisian fashion, refused to eat the chickens she saw in cages at the market, and spent her days in society sniffing, claiming she was allergic to locals. Then baba swaggered in with his afro and leather boots. Born and bred in Zizinya, he had the largest vinyl collection in the city, because he’d spent his high school summers hitch-hiking through the US peddling Egyptian silver out of a hard-back suitcase. When he returned every fall, the silver was replaced with the Bee Gees, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and of course, Cat Stevens, whose conversion to Islam in ’77, inspired him to grow a beard and get poetic about this business of God. When mama met him he had three MAs and was finishing his PhD in Savannah. He promised to take her away and he did. They married with the pyramids for backdrop in the summer of ’89, honeymooned in Luxor, and by the time baba returned to Savanna, he had lost his job and they fell into a quicksand of debt, from which, six years later, baba emerged with a religious vendetta against riba and mama with a neurotic compulsion to coupon. In the house on stilts, baba would flip Tito and me upside down and lift us so we could walk our bare feet on the ceiling. Then mama would take off her slipper and chase us in circles, screaming “Sursaar! Kill it, baba! Sursaar!” Baba wasn’t a small man. He was even taller than mama, with tiny square teeth that you never saw when he smiled beneath his heavy black beard.

  • Baba didn’t have any sisters. He didn’t understand how women make pretty. When baba met mama, she still wore her glorious hair down and painted her nails and went sunbathing. She was the centre of every room. That was how he found her. Then they married and moved halfway across the world to a house on stilts. The first time baba came home from work, she was sitting at the dining table with her blow-dried hair up in iron-curlers, chatting on the phone. Baba, still standing with a fistful of keys in the doorway, said, “No.” Mama looked up and didn’t understand. She said to whoever was on the line, “Listen, I have to go.” Baba was a calm, patient man. He smiled and said, “We need rules. I can’t have this look.” Mama said, “No?” He said, “It kills the romance,” and mama said, “Oh.” So baba closed the door, and came to kiss her. Ever since that day, all attempts at female-beautification have been rendered clandestine in the house. They have also been rendered, by chance association, anti-God. When mama started working at the hospital, the only time she had to herself was during Friday prayers. So every week when baba went to the faraway, makeshift mosque, mama pulled out her curlers from a box under the bed and painted her nails and smeared melted sugar wax on her legs. When the whites began to appear, baba did not see her stirring a bowl of henna that she’d reddened overnight with tea bags. He did not see her daub the paste onto the roots of her scalp, as she would daub it, two decades later and to quizzical effect, on her eyebrows.

  • They had rules. On their first trip to the supermarket, baba wheeled pensively through the aisles while mama zipped behind, around and ahead of him, hurling things into the cart and hissing at his inefficiency. At the cash register, she announced that in future, groceries would be a solo assignment. Baba introduced a similar ban on cinemas after she subjected him one night to a musical. They agreed to speak only Arabic to their children. They agreed not to cook with garlic and to delegate all marital disputes to the sharia. This is how, after a lifetime of sunbathing, mama ended up in South Carolina wearing a scarf in the low, twisted turban style that Egyptians call Spanish and all the other Arabs call Egyptian. Baba pulled out the Qur’an, pointed to a verse and told her she was beautiful to men but could be more beautiful to God. It took three years for mama to believe him. Then she put her hair away and began carrying herself with an even brasher confidence that made strangers assume she was very rich. No one, not even mama’s family back home, knew about their debt. They had rules. Baba was proud, so they agreed to keep their finances a secret. They agreed to resolve arguments before bed, so as never to sleep with their backs to each other. Nights they lay dreaming in each other’s arms. If mama wanted to turn over, she would nudge baba and say, “Turn with me” until he turned with her. Baba never needed to turn first because, after working himself into the ground all day, he slept under it like a corpse. Meanwhile, mama’s eyes opened if a cricket sang in a sock all the way down the hall, or if an owl landed on the roof, or the tip of a pencil began to susurrate in her daughter’s moonlit diary.

  • Only the male cricket sings, and most often out of longing. He sings by rubbing his wings together. At the base of the forewing, a thick, ridged vein acts as a file. The upper surface of the forewing is hardened, like a scraper. He lifts both and pulls the file of one wing across the scraper of the other, so that the thin, papery edges vibrate. Some crickets dig tunnels into the ground with entrances shaped like megaphones to amplify their vibrations. There are different songs for different days. There is a battle song and a calling song. The calling song may be heard up to a mile away. It is a lonely, rhythmic, summer-night cry that helps the female find him. Once she is near, there is a courtship song meant to impress her. It is deeper and more urgent. It is energetically expensive, so the female can judge by its pitch and volume the strength of his organism. If impressed, she turns to face his rubbing wings and mounts him from behind. The male cricket goes quiet. Afterward, he may sing a celebratory post-copulation song.

.

Hair

  • At eight, there was hair down there where it shouldn’t be. I don’t know where it came from. I looked at baba who was wooly all over. He had a dorsal and a ventral coat. His beard was itching up his cheeks toward his eyeballs, and even his knuckles had curls. Whatever was happening to me had come from him. I’d caught it like the pox. Mama’s body was smooth as the barbies’ and cream-colored, cream-smelling. Though I never saw her naked, I was certain she did not have hair down there. Every three weeks, she spread melted sugar wax onto her arms and legs and ripped out strands no one else could see. Because he was blond, the hair on Tito’s legs didn’t show either. If mama was walking with both of us, the white people thought he was hers and I was a monkey-friend’s monkey-daughter. What kind of child has a moustache?

  • The kind of child I was never wore shorts or pants. I lived from age three to age eight committed to dresses and allowing, reluctantly, the occasional skirt. Later, mama would remind me of this phase in my wardrobe to illustrate that I was hardheaded from toddlerhood. She forgot that I was also moustached. If I had a moustache and I wore pants, how could I blame the girls at school for excluding me when they traded Lisa-Frank stickers? I was not a boy. Boys wear pants or shorts, and I wore dresses. I would have liked a Lisa-Frank unicorn sticker. Instead, Priya gave me a snail shell from her backyard, so as to say, “don’t be sad” and “unicorns don’t even exist.” I gave Priya a feather I’d painted her favorite color so as to say “thank you” and “you are my only human friend.” At the age of eight, she was still my only human friend. Alone, away from everyone else, we sang the Spice Girls under the Carolina sun, twirling imaginary gum around our index fingers.

  • Every Saturday, Tito and I were driven to the Syrian lady’s house an hour away in a town called Hollywood. This was not the Blockbuster Hollywood of Los Angeles. This was a small woodsy town of Charleston just far enough from the house on stilts for the flora and fauna to be unfamiliar. There were no frogs or legged tadpoles or egrets pacing like old men in the marshlands. There were fire ants, daddy long-legs meditating from the porch’s upper corners and, if everyone was quiet enough, you could see wet-nosed deer between the trees behind the Syrian lady’s house. This was where all the Arabs dropped off their children to learn Arabic and Qur’an and to hear stories from the seventh century. Afterwards, Tito played soccer with the boys at the back and when mama came to pick us up, Hiba, the Syrian lady’s daughter told me mama’s higaab was not higaab at all because her neck was showing; also a peep of her earlobes where her clip-on earrings were clipped on. In the car I scolded mama for not doing it properly and making me pariah with the Muslim girls too. “I do as much as I can,” she said, which was a lie. I swore that as soon as the blood broke between my legs, I would wrap my head and do it properly: frame my face, no neck, no earlobes, no ankles showing. My face would be whitened like a full moon, and I would be redeemed. The Syrian lady said so.

  • I expected the blood from age nine because mama had always called me mature. Mama laughed and told everyone, even strangers on the bus, “I didn’t even have to potty-train her. At eighteen months, she took off her diapers and told me she’d be wearing panties from then on. It happened too! She never once had a spill! She used to sit with her legs crossed on the potty.” Later, when I uncrossed them and bent my head down to look, mama knocked my knees together and said, “‘eyb,” a word that means vice, deformity, disgrace. I learned to wait until mama wasn’t around to part my knees and peek between them, peek between the toilet bowl and the toilet seat, at the upside down, sad drooping thing I wasn’t supposed to see.

  • At the Syrian lady’s house I tried to cross my legs to show how mature I was. The Syrian lady promptly asked me to uncross them. Her daughter, Hiba, who was reciting Surat Et-Tin across the dining table, closed her eyes and warbled her vowels plaintively, to make a point. These are the things that anger God: tattoos, backbiting, harming animals, birthday cake, Halloween, music, nail polish, saying “uff” to your parents, missing prayers, lying, stealing, swimsuits, swearing, wearing gold or silk if you’re a boy, wearing anklets or perfume if you’re a girl, touching the opposite sex, cross-dressing, standing while drinking, standing while urinating, drinking or eating with the left hand, dog saliva, hotdogs, pepperoni, hair extensions, make-up that isn’t kohl, not washing the genitals after defecation or urination, human photographs, human sculptures, crossing the legs or extending them while the Qur’an is being recited.

  • When I got older the list would be expanded to include tampons, feminism, the plucking of eyebrow hair, the non-removal of pubic hair, adoption, riba, drugs, dating, masturbation, fornication, porn.

  • Being Muslim in South Carolina meant swimming salmon-wise upstream. They trained us from a young age to resist, to recognize and reject the American as antithetical to the Arab, which was also the Muslim. We carried plastic water bottles into bathroom cubicles because toilet paper is not enough. When the time for prayer rolled around, we washed our feet in restaurant sinks. We prayed in public parks, and stairwells, in the corners of museums, by the side of the highway. The white people stared at our foreheads on the grass, brick, rubber, asphalt, and touched each other’s elbows so as to say, “Look, look.”

  • At eleven, there was armpit hair. I stopped lifting my hands above elbow height and didn’t tell mama. It was even more cumbersome to cut than the hair down there, which I took care of with baby-scissors because its coarseness frightened me. I didn’t know another way. Mama didn’t own a razor. One day at school, I bent over so that the skin between my pants and my shirt parted and the two white girls behind me gasped and shrieked, “There’s hair on your back!” I began to inspect myself all over. There was indeed hair on my lower back. In the bathroom at home, I took off my clothes and twisted around in front of the mirror. The area looked shaded as though ants had been smeared into the skin, and all their little legs and antennas come off. That shading covered my buttocks, the backs of my thighs and backs of my knees. When I turned around it was worse. There was a line going down from my navel that widened into a triangle. There was a rectangle on my sternum, equidistant from each nipple. Using a small mirror stolen from mama’s dusty makeup bag, I realized there was hair on my chin, along my jawline, in front of and under my ears. If I looked close enough, there were visible fibers on my cheeks, even, impossibly, on my nose. There was hair between my knuckles and my first finger joints, but also between the first joints and the second. There was hair on every one of my toes. There was a patch on the top of each foot. When I straightened back up, the sun had shifted just enough for a beam to reach in through the bathroom window at precisely the right angle, illuminating my throat. There, on my Adam’s apple where the bone bobbed up and down, was a lateral smudge that I could brush this way or that. When I gripped the strands between my fingers, they were almost an inch in length. Of all the discoveries I made that day, this one horrified me back into my clothes.

  • I became fascinated by the follicle. In bathrooms I plucked hairs from different body parts and inspected them while I peed. The lighter ones came out with white roots, the darker ones with black roots. These roots were liquid and could be dissolved between the fingers. At eleven I began to steal mama’s wax. She had finally stopped cooking her own sugar-lemon mixture on the stovetop, and now bought little boxes that she stored under the sink. After removing the plastic wrapping that first time, I couldn’t get the wax soft enough to stretch. It sat like an eraser in my hands while I plunked it against this or that body part. Eventually I learned to warm the lump by rubbing it between my palms and moistening it with drops of hot water until it could be spread onto a shin and take hold. To clean both legs up to mid-thigh took approximately three hours. To clean both arms up to the shoulders and including the armpits took an hour and half. The armpits had to be done first because sweat does not permit the wax to stick. I discovered that I have a tolerance for pain but not for half a day’s labor in a cramped, tiled bathroom. After several hours locked up, only mama did not come knocking to ask what I was still doing in there. Baba came and Tito came, and at both I snapped and roared through the door. I resented baba for his infectious hirsutism, and envied Tito his shiny pale shins. By the end of the wax day, my right thumb would be blistered from the repetitive motion of pressing and spreading. The wax itself, no longer a translucent gold, would be whitened with oxygen, blackened too with collateral hair that resembled a bed of eels, as seen from above.

  • I told Emily she had something in her teeth, so that, after she had licked and licked the spot, I could step in and pick at her incisor with my fingernail. In line, I stood directly behind Lauren’s military bun, adoring the neat, bare sky of her nape. I found excuses to get as close to the girls at school as possible, to examine their knuckles, and upper lips. Priya and I were the only ones with arms and legs that looked scribbled all over with a pen ink, but I discovered that Jess’ brows extended laterally almost to her hairline, and, in the sunshine, Rebecca’s forearms glistened with gold mesh. Moreover, the hair on Michelle’s knees had exactly the same constituency as the hair at my clavicle. At the Syrian lady’s house I had more luck. No one was blonde. There were two Iraqi sisters, a Palestinian boy, a Lebanese girl, four Egyptians from two separate families, and six Syrians. I was by far the hairiest, but the Lebanese girl came close. She had sideburns. She was the one who told me about the bat’s blood.

  • Bathing a newborn in freshly slaughtered bat’s blood will ensure that the baby remains hairless for the rest of its life. The Lebanese girl said that in her grandmother’s time it was customary to gift a pregnant woman live bats. These would be fed grapes and flies, and kept in the broom closet until time for slaughter. After the woman delivered, the newborn, whether male or female, would be anointed in olive oil for the first week. The bats would then be slaughtered and for the following two weeks, their blood slathered on the baby’s skin twice a day, every day, with alternating baths of wine and salt water in between.

  • Years later, the Lebanese girl, who was the closest to me in terms of body coverage would be diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. She immediately began taking birth control pills, her sideburns cleared up, and on Saturday she came bragging to us about her medical condition. All the other Arab girls chorused “Ohhh,” and nodded along, having understood at last that it was not her fault.  She had been sick with hair, and now was better.

Respond to Stilts, Hair: Discrete Autobiography by Noor Naga

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