It can be an awfully lonely feeling sitting on a plane
September 29, 2003
Ha ha, he thought (and it could've been the beginning of a story
written by a Black man, or a Chinese or a Mexican, but in
this case it happened to be a brown-skinned man from
the Middle East).
Ha ha, he thought, getting
on a plane: I'll smile because
a smile is something I've got. It's something I can do even
if there are things I cannot do, such as get on a plane and not
remember that one of the things that I am to the people on board
is a killer.
And it's something
that gets better with practice, the same as everything else. With
practice, he doesn't even have to smile to smile. He can
do it by being a smile, by having a smile ready for when the occasion
calls for it. That's the thing
that he would hate to lose, and he is glad and proud to not lose
it and to be part of a tradition of not losing it, a tradition
he is in with the Back man and Chinese man and Mexican man.
sitting in his seat, he will remember that he is a writer, and
he will wonder how he is supposed to write in a country where
he is seen that way. How is he supposed to write in the language
of the people who look at him like that? It is one thing
to live and not lose the smile, but it is another thing to write,
because a writer has only the people who are around him and the
language he knows to work with. And a writer has to believe
in the people and the language.
I remember when I was American,
he will think. It was in
a car, driving from Seattle to Visalia and then across to Phoenix,
Fort Stockton, San Antonio, Austin, New Orleans, Jacksonville,
and then back through
the Midwest and the East Coast. I believed in every person
I saw along the way and in every word spoken between us. It
was on foot too, walking along the path behind our house that led
to the supermarket when I was a boy, and if an old man of our town
happened to be coming the other way, we would say hello and smile.
all seemed like a good life for an American writer. And
he knew that he was always Iranian at home, but how could he be
anything other than an American writer when he stepped out of his
house with the words of American
writers inside him. And he saw that he wanted to say things
about the world around him as they had done, down to the very language
of the people, down to the poetry that came out of their
He had been a student of it, listening
and watching and reading, and then eventually writing. He
had been a student of it more eagerly than he had been a student
of anything else, and he was studying because he wanted to celebrate
America, because America was life as he more or less knew it.
knows, he will think, maybe Ernest Hemingway would look at me like
that too. I remember the day that I picked up a copy
of The Sun Also Rises in a bookstore and I felt like crying after
re-reading two sentences because I loved it so much, but maybe
he would look at me like that too.
It can be an awfully lonely feeling
sitting on a plane. He
will think of how it would have been to have stayed in his own
country and become a writer among the people who look like him
and whom he could trust to look at him as a person. It seems
like a good basis to write about things like love and
sorrow and all the other things that make life hard enough as it
is without getting on a plane and being looked at as someone who
To think that there is a place where he could step outside
of his house and believe in the people and the language with the
ease that he did inside at his desk. To think that there
is a place where he would not have to hesitate to take part in
the history of the people, however much that history might be in
his heart, because that past is connected to the same present which
sometimes seems like it does not want him to take part.
know, he will want to tell his fellow passengers, that I made a
decision long ago to participate in the life of the people? Don't
you know, he will want to tell them, that I made a decision based
on people as people, and if I didn't begin with the people around
me, the ones I was walking in the street with or getting on a plane
with, then it would have been all talk?
And I made the
decision in America, as an American, as an Iranian American, one
who found a home in the English language, and swore to himself
that in that home he would sing as boldly and as gently as he felt
like, because what he felt for the people outside more
than anything else was trust, trust that what was inside him was
inside them too, and trust that they would recognize it when
they heard him singing.
And on a plane he may feel sad that he has
had to learn their song over the song of his own people, but the
truth is that there is
only singing. He will remember soon enough that there is
only singing, and it is bigger than countries and races, and no
amount of suspicion or fear can match that.
Go ahead and try to
make me feel as though I am not an American, he will think. See
if you can touch the America that is inside me. See if you
can touch the America of a boy walking home or a young man driving
through the night. See if you can
touch the America in me when I am getting on a plane. Try
it, and see if I don't have a story in me about the city where
I am coming from and the city where I am going. And see if
those stories don't have the same song that you would
recognize as part of an American tradition, one that goes back
to writers who may not have seen me as an equal, but even for them,
in looking at me like that they would be trying to fight art, and
you can go ahead and try it, but a fight like that is unwinnable.
are you going to do when you see what I have to say about the cities
and towns and it hits you in a way that seems like truth? Tell
yourself that you don't feel what you feel? It doesn't even
have to do with whether I am getting on a plane as a writer or
not, because it is a question of whether or not you are living
in preparation for a time when I am.
In the meantime, don't
worry about me. (Now he will be talking
to everyone, including himself.) I made a decision long ago,
and I know what I have to do. Don't
worry about me because I know what I have to do in order to get
off a plane as the same man that I was getting on. I know
that nothing can touch the stories in me. What you might
want to worry about is yourself.
is only a suggestion. But you can worry now, or you can worry
later when you read those stories about America by a man you looked
at as someone who hates America; stories told not with hate, but
song with joyful as well as tragic parts. And I can only ask
the question, what part do you want to play in it?
All right, he
will think. Just remember that
there is a place where you can believe in the people and the language. There
is a place where you can take part in the history of the people. It
is the world. It is the world, and let it go at that.
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