Iowa Writes

JARED KRAUSS
All Shi'a Have Tails


First, a writer's caveat: The reader should know, this is not my story.  This is a dear professor's story—of course with many places, people and other stories left out, for reasons sufficient to the author.  If the reader prefers, this story—derived from friendship and interviews—may be regarded as fiction.  But, there is always the chance that such a work of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact. Now:

We were all easily distinguished, even in Seattle, even at the University of Washington: Foreigners.  Arabs.  Sitting in the Red Square, I could see his beard bobbing amongst the carefully chaotic passing of bodies and book bags rushing between classes.  The leaves, showing the age of the year, had shunned all their green and stole their color from the red stone tiles and flannel shirts.  The Pacific Northwest, I've decided, has the most beautiful country in the world.  Especially when I consider that in Tunisia green only exists on the coasts, near the rivers in the mountains, and around the oases.
        Tunisia: while home, in some way, my place of birth also—I never felt wholly Tunisian.  We were refugees, fleeing Algeria's war of independence.  My mother and father were Algerian, as were my papers.  In Tunisia we were distinctly not Tunisian in some apparent, but often unspoken, way.  We lived in cities mostly, sometimes along the coast, but I feel I am from El Kef, a mountain city in Tunisia's Northwest.
        I came here to America—am in fact an American today—in the Nineties, first to the University of Washington, with Algerian papers.  I knew French, but no English, and only spoke in Arabic, and mostly with the Saudis.  When it wasn't raining much we relaxed around the Red Square, hovering around each other like a swarm of bees.

First, a writer's caveat: The reader should know, this is not my story.  This is a dear professor's story—of course with many places, people and other stories left out, for reasons sufficient to the author.  If the reader prefers, this story—derived from friendship and interviews—may be regarded as fiction.  But, there is always the chance that such a work of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact. Now:

We were all easily distinguished, even in Seattle, even at the University of Washington: Foreigners.  Arabs.  Sitting in the Red Square, I could see his beard bobbing amongst the carefully chaotic passing of bodies and book bags rushing between classes.  The leaves, showing the age of the year, had shunned all their green and stole their color from the red stone tiles and flannel shirts.  The Pacific Northwest, I've decided, has the most beautiful country in the world.  Especially when I consider that in Tunisia green only exists on the coasts, near the rivers in the mountains, and around the oases.
        Tunisia: while home, in some way, my place of birth also—I never felt wholly Tunisian.  We were refugees, fleeing Algeria's war of independence.  My mother and father were Algerian, as were my papers.  In Tunisia we were distinctly not Tunisian in some apparent, but often unspoken, way.  We lived in cities mostly, sometimes along the coast, but I feel I am from El Kef, a mountain city in Tunisia's Northwest.
        I came here to America—am in fact an American today—in the Nineties, first to the University of Washington, with Algerian papers.  I knew French, but no English, and only spoke in Arabic, and mostly with the Saudis.  When it wasn't raining much we relaxed around the Red Square, hovering around each other like a swarm of bees.

        Let me pause here in my story and ask you, have you heard any racist or sexist jokes?  Obviously you don't agree with them, but have you ever been asked why women's feet are smaller than men's, why women don't wear watches, why their bridal dresses are white, or how to start a Mexican roller coaster?  Well, I've heard in my time here it's so they can stand closer to the kitchen counter, and the stove has a clock above it, and all her appliances will be wedding white.  And, you simply roll a quarter down a hill and promptly watch each and every Mexican in the vicinity chase it up and down the hills of their hilly villages.
        Well, likewise, as children we all learned Shi'a have tails; cursed by Allah, they're always recognizable through careful examination of their posterior.  You see, we were told they believe Allah made a mistake giving the Prophethood to Muhammad; we were told they believe it should have been his nephew, son-in-law, Ali.  And, for thinking this, God cursed them.  Cursed them with tails we were told, often in jokes.  What kind of tail, I used to wonder.  As a child I'd never seen a Shi'a.  Unsure, I imagined: short and curly like a pig; long strands of hair whipping back and forth, swatting swarming flies like a horse; bushy like a squirrel; long and dexterous like a monkey, good for grabbing food that isn't theirs; pointed and dangerous like the Devil.
        You should also know that 98% of Tunisians are of Arab-Berber descent and probably that same 98% are Muslim, Sunni Muslims.  You can imagine, then, there are few Shi'a.  If your imagination of the Tunisian population isn't up to par, trust me, there are few Shi'a.
        So, as I've said, I could see his beard.  Its steady approach was tangential to our group.  His movement through the flood of students was distinct, as was his seniority, his serenity, but especially his beard.  A space seemed to open in front of him, just long enough for him to pass through, and close behind him as his back heel left the ground.  As he passed us he must have observed our likeness, whether in the beards of some of the young men around me, the tint of our skin, or the contrast of our Arabic amongst the high tide of English sounds from American voices.  Sounds and voices which I often tried listening to and mimicking, for practice.
        His eyes came to us and his head nodded.  His feet continued to carry him onward.  And, for the first time, I heard him say politely to us, "As-salamu laykum," in greeting.  I nodded my head, waiting for his acquaintance in the group to respond, waited for anyone to respond, watched him continue, watched us watch him walk away.  It was as if suddenly we knew no Arabic. 
        Someone leaned over and whispered to me in Arabic, "He's Shi'a, from Iran," as if this were enough.
        You'll forgive my lack of specificity in some of these details, especially those coming next.  This was many years ago now.  But, a few days later it was happening again.  There was the beard.  It was a clean beard, I thought.  Dark and clean, full and well kept.  He passed us by again, and politely said again, "As-salamu laykum."  And again I waited, watching, and again they all looked away, or down, or up, or beyond, or coughed, or pretended to not catch what had been said.  This only took a moment, really.  But, it was long enough for him to disappear into the crowd.
        This would happen again, and again.  I don't remember how many times, more than a few, before I caught up to him, asked if I could follow him into the Hub.  I had questions.  So, down into the basement, down into the sub-basement where his office was.  The descent was only mildly ominous, as I was running questions in my head.  Despite being eighteen or nineteen, largely an adult, living alone in a foreign country where I barely spoke the language, despite what some in Tunisia might have considered my worldliness I wanted to ask him, "Where is your tail?" or, "You are Shi'a?" and, "Didn't you corrupt the religion?" and other such preposterous things.
        I fear I'm forgetting, or misremembering a lot.  Forgive me.  He might have been going to pray; I might have stumbled through, unaccustomed to the ritual—in Tunisia I rarely went to the mosque, unless corralled along with my friends by one of the old men who would walk around town with a stick as the calls for prayer were sung—or it might have been the second visit when he asked me to join him in prayer.  Either way, the prayer is not important to the story.  You see, the conversation, in fact the whole event, is obscured—such is memory.  All I truly remember -- remember with clarity -- is the revelation itself, and the moment in which it happened, and now I'm sure it was on the first visit.
        He was gracious, almost magnanimous, in his answers.  At some point, in response to my ignorance, he let silence come to the room and his beard parted horizontally.  He smiled.  His smile lingered a bit more before he asked me if I could read Arabic.  I had gone to school in the French system in Tunisia, before they switched to Arabic, as he probably surmised.  But, of course I could.  He then stood to his shelf, lined with books, and reached up for one. 
        This was the moment. As his hands and the hem of his shirt went up, my eyes went down to his ass. I had two moments of surprise. The first was that I did not even find a hint of a tail, and the second was that I actually looked for a tail on a human being. And so, despite my ability to observe the world and conclude that not a single person I had seen actually possessed a tail, I looked.
        I felt then, but say now:  We must learn to escape the confines of our swarm-minds.

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Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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JARED KRAUSS

Jared Krauss is a student at the University of Iowa.

This page was first displayed
on October 16, 2014

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