Friday, January 16, 2009



You're a soccer freak. I'm a basketball nerd. The first time I saw you was at lunch while you were running circles around white boys at the soccer field at CMC. All I saw was you running, your black head scarf trying to keep up. Gave you major props for being everything you were without even speaking a word. We gave each other simple pleasantries until a year later when you sent me a message on Facebook to say that Southland was your favorite book too. Within five minutes and two key strokes we were homies.

A week before 2009 came crashing into my solitude, you suffered third degree burns in a chemical accident at work. As you lay on the floor, or crouched over a chair, or in someone's arms, waiting for an ambulance or death, and the poisons seeped through your skin and desecrated your internal organs, you could only think of one thing: hiding your queerness. After all, burns mean hospitals and hospitals mean families and families mean conversations you're never quite ready to have. So somewhere between the initial accident, the ambulance and the beginning of an indefinite hospital stay, you gave clear instructions with the little speaking ability you had left: hide the beer bottles, Halloween pictures, notes from ex girlfriends. And to the queer colored folks you instructed, who were well-versed in the art of leading double lives, it all seemed second nature. The gulf you built between Karachi and LA would start fading, quickly. And it did. Within days they had flown in from across the Diaspora -- siblings from Canada, parents from Pakistan -- and what they wanted to see was their daughter, their sister. But not you.

But when they got here, they didn't see their sister, or daughter. Or you. They saw a body, swollen and bandaged and burned and bloody to the point where they had to look away. Third degree burns. Neck and abdomen. May never use hands again. No typing, texting, pointing, dialing. And, for the foreseeable future, no more running.

I can't remember if you've ever been to Oakland, but it's a strangely beautiful place. I curse about the fucked up roads and infrequent buses, but I'm just a snob from the city and it's cool once you get to know it. Got that generic decadent feel to it like LA, one that whispers 'no one belongs here, so anyone can make a home.' Gets hot for no reason and people seldom walk anywhere. Someone put Christmas lights around the fake lake right next to downtown and it's a tourist attraction. Real nice to read and run by. People smile at you for no reason and even the bougie people are brown and wanna free Mumia.

Last week Oakland burned, like you. People were angry that the cops killed a boy on New Year's. There was a rally a few hours before the fires, where the boy was shot. People were angry, yelling, hurting, healing. Me? I felt detached from it all. Leti and I had had an argument, moms was about to have back surgery and frankly, I wasn't in the mood to get yelled at. So I got there late and stood tentatively toward the back while people talked about fucking up the po-po's or the need for collective strategic actions. I left as the crowd started splitting off into different groups: drumming circles, a march downtown, an open mic.

Three hours later, as Leti and I drove downtown, everything was controlled chaos. Helicopters flew over downtown, placing spotlights on crowds of angry protestors. Some white cameraman had blood all over his face and said they went crazy. SWAT teams blocked off Broadway, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, looking everybody and nobody dead in the eye. Small clouds of smoke rose from garbage cans where raging infernos had been just a few minutes before.

We drove past. Nothing to gawk at. Crossed the bridge in silence and exited on Octavia Blvd. I looked at my grandmother's old house, where she lived long before there was a Blvd, and wished I could ask her how many riots she had seen. We drove on, and plotted the ways I could sneak Leti into my mom's house while she was asleep to cuddle, play with my dog and watch the news to see what the fuck had just happened in Oakland.


Sad how fate and circumstance work. We skated along for three years without knowing each other, on the same campus, with the same people, rolling our eyes at the same dumb shit until after I graduated and you Facebooked me. We broke bread over good books and girls we were too shy to approach when we had the chance. I remember the one time I chilled with you during college, at a Philistines concert somewhere along Pico. We smoked outside in the rain. It was dark, and cold, but weedheads will stop at nothing to smoke away the awkwardness of a new moment. So we stood in a semi-circle and coughed, puffed and passed our way into an self conscious friendship that teetered on the brink of forgettable until you asked me about Southland the next year. The only things I could see in the dark was the light on the end of Salim's blunt and how perfectly curved your fingernails looked when you passed it to me.

Since the accident, your health has fluctuated like the moods of Oakland. Last week we made video tributes to you that were awkward and funny because we're awkward and funny. You were alert and breathing, hurt, but pulling through. This week you have a lung infection and can only breathe with the help of a respirator. Now we're making our own little private altars with pictures, candles and good energy, praying that you pull through. You might not ever see what we make, how we pace. We might not ever see you.

Are there strategies in soccer? Like, plays, defenses? Stupid question, I know, but I've always imagined soccer to be like basketball with no hands. Are there zone defenses? Presses? Ways to move folks around the field ahead of fate?

Sometimes I wonder if this whole queer thing is a game. It's exciting, melodramatic, tense and when it's over, it's over. Even if the ref's fucked up and everyone knows that the end score isn't right, you can't get back those moments, those mistakes, those triumphs. The game goes on as long as you're willing to play, and then, all of a sudden, something happens. The shot clock runs out. Someone gets hurt, or you just say 'fuck it' and give up.

But here we are, modern kids, queer kids, smart enough to know when to take time outs, when to duck, pass, shoot. But it's not enough. Because right now we're gettin' ran by the Universe. It's the end of the second half, the fourth quarter, and we're tired. Realized that families and expectations and shame really do exist, no matter how stubborn and young and in love we are. Right now, the universe just pulled her star player off the bench and that motherfucka is tall. And fast. Can play the point and box out, moves without the ball and is fuckin ill when she gets it.

It's hard for me to write this. Harder for me to imagine you reading it. Impossible to find the right sports analogy to make sense of you laying in a hospital bed and me living in Oakland and why I can give a fuck about either.

You never got to celebrate New Year's, but you haven't missed much. So far, 2009 has begun much like 2008 ended: bloody. You already know about Gaza and I mentioned Oscar Grant and there are others, of course. There always are. But I didn't feel it. Sure, I could march in a protest and donate my Facebook status, but who I am to cry for someone else's children, parents and best friends?

But this year will be a hard one, that's certain. As I write this, both you an my father lay in LA hospital beds. He's got a potentially cancerous crater on his dome that no amount of doctorly stubborness can hide. Crazy how both your passions put you there: the chemicals you spent a lifetime learning about; the medical injustices he's spent a lifetime trying to solve. You're both strangers to me, and yet I feel inextricably linked to your destines.

And people ask me how I feel, and I can't answer. Not in any way that makes sense. I don't feel life changing events until much later, sometimes years. I hold things and watch helplessly as they process themselves through smells, flashbacks and seemingly insurmountable depressions. But that's just us -- the witnesses. We're waiting for you, pulling for you, waiting to talk to you when it's over. And then realizing it never will be.


::[kameelah]:: said...

jamilah, thank you for this...

nothing makes sense to me until years after...
i am just in shock.

i never had more than a hello/goodbye with sheri...ever. and yet, i feel her as both a stranger and a kindred spirit.

Innalil lahi wa inna ilaihi rajiun, to Allah we belong and to Him is our return.

please make du'a for sheri as she passes from this dunya...

Jamilah said...

thanks, kameelah. i'm def. still in shock. don't know what to say, or write, or feel. just wishing the best for her family...

Sky said...

i needed/need this here. it's helping me to find my voice and the words to name the feelings. thank you, j.

Morose said...

jamilah thank you for writing so honestly. i live near sheri and never got to kick it much with her since we graduated. i think i was always intimidated by her and that intimidation drew me to her because she was a powerful force so learning about her death felt as if the universe was trying to wrench her from us, sucking her away. anyway, thank you for articulating all this. i hope she can feel all our love.

Jamilah said...

yeah, i hope she can feel it too. thanks for responding, though. hope you're doing well :)

carolion said...

the grief comes over me in waves: on the subway, in the street, alone in my room. all of the places she should have seen, all of the moments she should have known.

your writing gives me hope that someday i will also be able to find words.

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