Raghead Alley

The other Sunday, my oldest brother, Ben, came to Fort Greene from Manhattan. It's our every-other-week ritual.

We have brunch at Café Lafayette, a block from my house. I like the spinach and goat cheese omelet. My brother's partial to the hanger steak and eggs, as well as berating me about my finances.

After he gets the check and I get indigestion from listening to him for a whole hour ("Stop applying for more credit cards. Every time you apply for one of those Bank of Bangladesh cards, you're fucking your credit up even more."), we'll go for a stroll along Atlantic Avenue.

That particular Sunday, however, he had a new theme besides the sorry state of my finances upon which he'd been ruminating.

"I finally figured out why Sai's such a shy shitter," he said, spearing a forkful of steak. "Remember how private and paranoid Mom was? Remember when we were little and she'd hide the toilet paper under the groceries in the cart so people wouldn't see it? How whacked is that? No wonder you and Sai are shy shitters."

"Sai's a shy shitter?" I asked, amazed. "No kidding. I thought it was just me."

Ben laughed.

"No, he can't shit in public restrooms either. Once, we were at the Boston Garden for a basketball game and that dumb fuck had to run back to the apartment to squeeze one out."

"Huh. I had no idea."

"Hey," he said suddenly. "You remember how you got the name 'Shit Stuff?'"

"What?" I said, in a low voice, glancing uncomfortably at the couple seated not two feet away from us.

"Remember when you were little?" he boomed. "Me and Sai used to call you 'Shit Stuff?'"

"Oh, yeah," I replied. "Why was that?"

"You don't remember how you got that name?" he pressed.

"No," I muttered, hoping the couple wasn't listening.

"From the time me and Sai caught you in the bathroom when you were little, using your shit log as a raft for your Barbie. We kept wondering what you were doing in there."

"Oh," I replied.

"That was some gross scene, man," he snickered. "And you were all, 'My Barbie's on a boat going to China!'"

"I was like, four years old," I protested.

"How long do you think it took Barbie to get to China, on a boat made of little kid shit?" he taunted.

"Oh God," I sighed. "Just let it go."

Ben finished what was left of his coffee and picked the check up from the table.

"Come on, Shit Stuff," he said. "Let's hit Raghead Alley."

This is what he calls Atlantic Avenue, particularly the block between Third and Fourth Avenues where a lot of Arabs have stores.

It's so strange to me now, to see how much Atlantic Avenue has changed since the days our father, Mohammed, used to take us here when we were kids.

Where Raghead Alley used to stretch from Third Avenue down Atlantic all the way to the waterfront, now it's really just a block.

Cutesy baby couturiers and yoga studios and sparse little boutiques that stock Marc Jacobs and Stella McCartney have replaced most of the tapestry stores and Muslim book shops that Mohammed liked to frequent, for sentimental reasons.

Raghead Alley is where I buy most of Ben's presents, whether it's for Christmas or his birthday. Friends of his try to impress him with pricey stuff and he'll smile and say a perfunctory, "Thank you" and you never see the present again.

After all, what do you give the self-made man who's already given himself all the toys he didn't have as a kid?

That's why I buy all of his presents on Atlantic Avenue. Last year, for example, I found some "I (Heart) Allah!" mugs on Atlantic Avenue. I bought three of those and three that said "Allah Rules!" to make a neat set.

He'd laughed when he'd opened the package and now uses them to serve the coffee he makes in a stainless steel piece of functional art that costs more than I spend on weed in two months and that's saying a lot.

Raghead Alley also has some really neat greeting cards. These I attach to his presents. Last year's read, "Salaam! Allah is Everywhere." Underneath which I scrawled, "Including Pops' liquor cabinet."

As we walked along Raghead Alley, Ben stopped at a table being manned by a woman in full hijab.

"Here, Shit Stuff," he said, handing me a dusty, garish-looking bottle. "Have some Chanel Number Three."

"Look," I said, pointing to the type on the bottle. "It doesn't even say 'Chanel.' It says 'Channel.'"

"Should go great with your Designer Imposters body lotion," he returned.

He picked up a long package from the table.

"Need some incense to cover up the pot stench in your apartment?" he asked. "You want frankincense or myrrh?"

My brothers and I have become a lot more Arab-centric after 9/11. And closer.

Not by choice, of course.

I guess it happened after our brother Sai was beaten up pretty badly by a couple of meatheads in Boston late one night two months after the World Trade Center bombing. The meatheads thought he looked like a Raghead.

And they were right. He does. It took the aftermath of 9/11 for me to see my brother Sai that way.

"But I played baseball in high school," he kept saying. "I almost went professional."

Somehow, he sounded… apologetic.

Even though they're darker than I am, my brothers were always the All-American jocks. I was the one who was the weirdo dissident.

It didn't seem fair at all.

My brothers and I, we have a bet. If there's ever another 9/11 type incident and it's even more horrific and we get rounded up and put in internment camps, we fully expect it to be our slightly racist great aunt on our mother's side who sends the Department of Homeland Security a detailed explanation, via Google Maps, where exactly to find us.

I only hope that when this happens, they break down the door of my apartment on a day when I'm on my couch in my underwear, stoned, eating leftover burritos and watching Operation Repo on truTV. That way, they'll know I'm really, truly an American. Thankfully, my best friend Karen's sworn that she'll bring me cigarettes and Luna Bars if and when I'm detained.

Ben and I continued down Raghead Alley with him exchanging friendly hellos with the wizened Arab store proprietors.

He likes speaking Arabic with the old guys. It's one of the reasons he agrees to come out to Brooklyn to see me on Sundays.

Ben-Mohammed was the first-born son. Our father made sure he learned at least a little Arabic. My Arabic is rudimentary, at best.

Meaning the only phrases I've ever made it my business to learn, besides "Hello" and "Goodbye," are things like Kul khara ("Eat shit.") and Koss ommak ala air jamal mayyet ("Your mother's pussy on a dead camel's dick") and Elif air ab tizak ("A thousand dicks in your ass".

This last one is especially satisfying when delivered to a drunken meathead who won't leave you alone at a bar.

Ben and his newfound friends will inevitably get into the whole where exactly in Yemen is our father from and why is Ben so much darker than me and how on earth did our parents ever meet, in the first place.

You know, considering the fact that our father is probably the only "Muslim" you'll ever meet who breaks between cocktails and tweaking strippers' tits to dramatically spread out his prayer rug to give the five-gun salute to Allah.

And that our mother is, as she'll stridently inform you within five minutes of meeting you, a direct lineal ancestor of Robert Bartlett, one of the captains of the Mayflower and of Josiah Bartlett, the fourth governor of New Hampshire who signed the Declaration of Independence and of many, many other speciously victorious, patriotic figures revered by inexplicably-proud-to-be-descended-from-a-bunch-of-religious-crackpots-who-hauled-ass-out-of-England-on-a-boat, once-upon-a-Native American-nightmare WASPs.

I linger uncomfortably and always want to say, very casually, "Well, Ali Baba, to answer your first question, Sa'na. And as for your other questions, beats me. When asked about how they met, our mother will heave a long, tragic sigh and say, 'Because God was at a Kmart Blue Light Special that day. Maybe he was buying dishtowels. Maybe he was stocking up on toilet paper. I mean, where the hell was he that day; that's what I want to know.'"

Then I go outside and smoke.

That Sunday, after Ben had finished his I'm-an-Arab-Just-Like-You-Guys Taster's Choice moment with one of our brethren, he came out of the store and swatted me on the side of the head.

"Don't smoke in front of these guys!" he hissed. "They think it's slutty."

"Big deal," I laughed. "So does Mom and that doesn't stop me. What do I care what Ayatollah fucking Khomeini over there thinks?"

"Shut the fuck up," he snapped. "He'll hear you! Do you realize how much you swear? Every other word is 'cocksucker' or 'motherfucker.'"

"I learned it from you, man," I pointed out.

"No wonder you can't hold onto a boyfriend," he sniped. "Do you think guys wanna listen to a chick with a mouth like a fucking sewer?"

They seem to like my sewer mouth just fine in bed, I thought.

I shrugged instead.

"That guy said you've been in there before," he said suspiciously. "What were you doing in there, freakshow? You so fucked in the head now you're trying to pledge a terrorist cell? You know, if you really wanted to, you could go to straight to the source. Hussein in the Membrane could probably pull a few strings."

A riff on the Cypress Hill song, this is what we've been calling our Uncle Hussein since we were kids. Like his younger brother Farouk who'd send us pictures of himself atop a wild horse in Yemen brandishing a semiautomatic weapon and grinning, Hussein seemed a bit…shady.

Apparently even our father, fan of the "Legs 'n Eggs" full-frontal plus hot buffet, thought so too, because even before 9/11, he'd instructed us to immediately hang up and call Interpol if either of them contacted us.

"I buy kohl in there," I explained.

"What?" my brother replied, puzzled.

"Kohl," I repeated. "You know. Eyeliner. The real stuff they sell in there is even better than Nars and it's only like, three bucks. I read somewhere that it's really bad for you and maybe even toxic and it's banned most places but who cares, right? It goes on really smooth and..."

I trailed off.

Ben was staring at something several yards in front of us. Clearly, he'd lost interest in my cosmetic tip of the day.

"Look at this fuck," he marveled, gesturing towards a swarthy guy in a Bob Marley t-shirt and a keffiyah. "He's part Rasta, part Raghead. He can't decide whether he wants to smoke ganja and love the world or just blow it the fuck up."

When I walk down Atlantic Avenue with my brother, his running commentary is an odd mélange of cultural appreciation, dismissive contempt, and wildly racist digs he feels are justified by the fact that he's half Raghead himself.

"Check out this shit," he cackled, as we passed a small grocery store. "These guys are selling dates and pita out front but you just know they have a bomb shop set up out back."

"Al salaam a'alaykum," he called, waving cheerfully at the guys out front.

They waved back.

The grizzled old proprietors are always delighted to hear Arabic spoken by a tall, well-dressed young guy with an American accent.

"You're such an asshole," I muttered.

"What?" he said, surprised. "I was saying 'hi.'"

"You just said they had a bomb shop out back," I said accusingly.

"So what?" he laughed. "I was just kidding."

He paused to study a placard in front of a small restaurant.

"Hot table," the sign read. "Today Special: Kouzi."

"Oh, shit!" he exclaimed. "Let's get our lamb plate on!"

"We just ate," I protested.

"So what?" he said, staring hungrily at the trays of basbousa in the window. "You can't get shit this good anywhere else. This is the only place they make sambusek that are as good as Pops'."

Although Ben frequents the kind of restaurants that require copious name-dropping to procure reservations, he's always curiously amenable to eating in hole-in-the-walls on Atlantic Avenue.

Because it's Real, Honest to Goodness, Arabic Food. No frills. No fusion. No fake, Aladdin, Disney World décor that makes it more "authentic" to its well-heeled clientele. Just good, hot, spicy-enough-to-burn-your-mouth-off food just like Pops used to make.

When he wasn't drunk, that is.

"No way," I said, peering through the window. "I'm not eating in there. Look at that. There's not one woman in there. Ali Baba and the forty thieves will probably jerk off into my food."

He swatted me again.

"You got some mouth on you, you know that?"

"Whatever," I said. "Maybe later, okay? Let's go up to that store and see if I can get a burka."

He stared at me suspiciously.

"What do you want a burka for?"

"For Karen's birthday next week," I replied. "It's a costume party. So I'm gonna wear a burka and strap something that looks like a bomb around my waist and get a plastic AK-47 for my shoulder."

"That's wrong!" he yelled disgustedly. "That is so fucking wrong."

"Oh yeah?" I retorted. "How come it's okay when you do it?"

"Because I'm just joking!" he shouted.

"Well, so am I," I replied.

"You know what?" he said angrily. "Sometimes, I'm really ashamed of you."

"Come on," I cajoled. "You can haggle with the guy over the price of the burka."

Ben looked torn.

On principle, he didn't want to aid his little sister in her quest to gather items needed for a racially offensive costume. Racially offensive, of course, to our own people.

On the other hand, he loves haggling with the Arabs on Atlantic. They're the only ones crazier, louder and more hot-blooded than he is. They scream and get in his face as much as he screams and gets in their faces. Which is just another reason he likes coming out to Brooklyn.

The guys of Raghead Alley are, it seems, the only ones crazy enough to face off with him.

Ten minutes later, we'd procured a burka. It had been fifteen dollars but after several minutes of broken Arabic and violent hand gestures and pretending to walk out of the store not once but twice, Ben talked the guy down to ten dollars.

"Why do you always like haggling with these guys, anyway?" I asked when we'd left the store. "Who cares? It was only fifteen bucks."

"They like it when you do that," Ben insisted. "Pops taught us, remember? They think you're a pussy if you don't haggle."

When we were kids, visiting our father in New York, he'd bring us into Brooklyn from Manhattan. He was homesick and he liked talking to all the Yemenis on Atlantic.

When I moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan, I felt safer. Even though I'd spent more time in Manhattan as a kid, I felt safer in Brooklyn. I felt more at home.

I think because when I did spend time in Brooklyn as a kid, I'd felt safe when we were there.

Things were okay when Mohammed would bring us into Brooklyn. We were happy because our father was happy when he'd take us into Brooklyn.

If he could manage to take us into Brooklyn from Manhattan, it had meant he wasn't drinking that much.

When I first moved to Fort Greene in early 2001, I'd gone for a long walk in Brooklyn Heights near the Promenade. I hadn't been there since I was a little kid and even though I recognized nothing, still it felt familiar.

As I passed a playground, I stopped suddenly.

The sprinklers, the swings, the wrought iron benches.

I realized that this was the playground our father used to take us to. I have a picture of us there when I was four or five, me and my brothers and my father.

The Twin Towers arch up over our shoulders. We all look happy.

Mohammed had let us play in the sprinklers and had pushed me on a swing, as high as I wanted go, not warning me that I'd fall and get hurt. Even as a kindergartener, I'd enjoyed being high.

Later, we'd gotten ice cream and he'd had someone take our picture.

That had been a good day.

I don't think I'll ever move back to Manhattan. I like Brooklyn. For sentimental reasons. But also because I like the trees and I like all the dogs and how quiet it is at night. Or used to be, anyway.

I also like that the eyeliner is only three bucks.

The Arab world may be responsible for various, bloody fatwas and random acts of terrorist un-kindness. But they're also responsible for eye makeup that, while possibly toxic, is both efficient and economical.

That has to count for something.

Now, as Ben and I walked back to the restaurant with the lamb special, I looked up at him.

"Hey," I remarked. "Remember when we used to come here with Pops?"

He was silent for a long moment.

Finally, he laughed somewhat ruefully.

"Yeah. And he'd feed us so much spicy shit, we'd all get the squirts."

He laughed again, this time with genuine mirth.

"Even then, Sai couldn't shit in public," he said. "Remember that time he almost crapped his pants on the swings, after we had all the kufta? He kept crying and holding his ass and Pops kept screaming at him to 'Go, go, son of mine, go to restroom of the public!' but he wouldn't do it. Remember?"

Yasmin Isa wrote the anonymous Forksplit blog from 2004 to 2008. She lives in Brooklyn and is shopping her first book.

[Illustration by Jim Cooke]