Just Call Me Al
We are not a narrow tribe of men, with a bigoted Hebrew nationality—whose blood has been debased in the attempt to ennoble it, by maintaining an exclusive succession among ourselves. No: our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world; for unless we may claim all the world for our sire, like Melchisedec, we are without father or mother.
For who was our father and our mother? Or can we point to any Romulus and Remus for our founders? Our ancestry is lost in the universal paternity; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world’s as our own. (Uncle Hermann of Redburn.)
Carlos and Ismail paused each time the natives spoke in the familiar, which in Amerika was each time they spoke. It was the natural order of their confidence. “Hi.” “How are you?” As if everyone understood the other to be well. A universalist narrative, to be sure, not to be doubted. “Fine.”
So it was not surprising and it was no big thing when, as teenagers, Carlos and Ismail, not wanting to be doubted and wanting for confidence, mistook this familiarity for something more meaningful, and so decided to mimic it: to make a home for the otherwise isolated names of persons and places they encountered, as if this was their American mission. To no one was each his own where each was a sign of the other, where what Carlos and Ismail heard in sequence was, well, alphabet aligned and crazy, starting with A, because it was in Amerika they found person and place and their relations in the world. “We are not a narrow tribe of men,” Uncle Hermann told them, “so take in the world as you play.”
Alley Pond Park
Asylum of Credemore
Alex “I am of the six million”
Else’s predator Alex
Alice of the Jewish community
Person or place, they all came together one day, one year, as if they were family, on the Highway to the Asylum of Credemore, whose “retards,” that awkward American word known to be shameful yet said regardless, not only spooked the park thugs who would ridicule them but so too Ismail and Carlos and their friends, Gingi, Mordico, Berri, who called them this word as they confused this place with the more infamous because more televised Willowbrook State Hospital, where that year the city’s media lenses focused on the bruises of naked, wheelchair-spoked children who the cameras tracked crawling through the rain gutters and roaming in the basements deep in water and severed electrical wires strung out along the un-swept floors.
No one knew how they got there, how they corresponded, but each person and place had in Carlos’s and Ismail’s minds a room from which to enter and exit, as in the American Howard Johnson’s, as they moved from one room to the other, as if it were a scene made-up by the mind, so that together these things were captured in a dream sequence reserved for creatures who had just arrived, the arrivants, Aliens in Amerika.
It was 1969 and from Alley Pond Park, at one moment, Ismail and Carlos tossed a pigskin under a row of elms and over the highway and then, in another moment, kicked it soccer style over another row of elms and over the same highway, so in the next room Allie Sherman (came through) resigned as coach of the Football Giants as his star running back, Alex “Red” Webster, took over, only to have the team collapse that season, while the children fell out of their wheelchairs and wept on the unswept floors, the pigskins floating in the winter spoondrift across Ocean Highway and inside the Dark Courtyard of the Asylum of Credemore.
In still another room, a nurse wheeled out Ismail’s Aunt Else, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Belgium now living in Florida, as she sat tubed and dying of lung cancer not so much in the Miami heat but fanned under the air conditioned vents in her apartment, where her big shot second husband Alex, quickening his mission with the Wall street spirit, with his reddened face ate steak raw, smoked his Cubans, and stole money from her safe.
How many Evil Alex’s like this could there be, Ismail thought, like the one in the next room, Ismail’s “survivor” cousin Alex, “Alex I am of the six million and you who are not a Light Unto the Nations should know it,” so brother Gadi called him out, among the culture of Holocaust orphans, each one out-mistrusting the next, coming to the New Land, be it Israel or Amerika, it didn’t matter.1 To become one, Carlos’s mother used to say, you had to act the real big shot, out-mistrusting the next one on the bread line (hugging the earth for fear of being raptured and losing your place on the bread line), the way, as Carlos’ mother remembered, Evil Alex acted with Else before they married, telling her he owned a supermarket in Flatbush when it was a half a corner vegetable store on deserted, Polish Henry Street.
It was this way of tribal survival in this Amerika which moved Carlos to thinking about Ismail’s aunt Alice, she of the liberally infringed Jewish community of D.C. or N.Y.C. or the State of Oklahoma where she was really from, it didn’t matter, since all liberally infringed Alices of Amerika still identified as pro-Israel, believing they could agree with it or not, be pro-life and pro-choice, never wanting to look dead-set against it in order to appear worldly, open, as long as it could survive “as is” even if “as is” was dead set against others who it walled in and whose land it occupied. “We are not a narrow tribe of men,” Uncle Hermann could be heard saying in the background, and as Alice felt this to be true Carlos felt the deep irony which undercut it and which unfolded one evening after supper, when Alice sat down in the American suburbs with her converted to Islam niece, who asked her: “Mother, what is Judaism? In what do you believe?”
Alice stopped, a bit startled, but regaining her confidence, said:
“This is what’s so wonderful about Judaism. We are flexible in our beliefs. There are different kinds of Jews. We are not fixed in our beliefs—this is how we have arrived in different lands and survived for 3000 years,” and was disappointed when her once-Jewish niece said: “That’s interesting, but in Islam, we like to give our kids a foundation in belief,” (as the verse “The Faithful are to one another like [parts of] a building—each part strengthening the others,” came to her), which her aunt found strange.2 But why?
Because it was true. To be a Jew was, well, to be an American, one could invent oneself. In Amerika, Carlos thought, you could just call me Al or Alice or Allah, or be cued to the B’s, for “Buddha,” it didn’t matter, you could move yourself from house to house, person to person, belief to belief. If one foundation in God without graven images crumbled, you could erect forbidden idols without a God in another—Jews, for example, JuBus, East Coast pilgrims gone West, who had turned to Buddhism for the soul of Judaism. Carlos had often heard “the flexibility” theory bandied about by relatives. It could make them super global Buddhists able to venture outside the ghetto walls, albeit with a stash of mini Buddha statues in their satchels. And venture outside the ghetto walls they did, even as the Alices among them clung to the State of the Jews.
But Carlos felt the fear in Alice’s response. She was scared for her niece, for whom she thought that Islam had become, in a strange twist of historical fate, the very return to what the Jews ditched in the ghetto when they “bettered” themselves in Amerika. She worried visions of burkahood upon her niece’s personhood; “your ancestors came from Posen to Poland to America not to be shot in the ghetto,” Carlos remembered his own mother’s warning of a different time as he thought about Alice’s fear for hers. The ancestors had come to Amerika to leave all that, at least this is what Carlos and Alice had heard from their uncles.
But if Uncle Hermann of Redburn was right and Amerika was not “a narrow tribe of men,” if We [were] not a nation, so much as a world,” and if Uncle Leopold of Lahore left the Judaic path for the road to Mecca because it was too tribal, that is, intended for a people of Israel who needed to maintain “an exclusive succession among themselves,” then Carlos ben [בן] Carlos Rossman could only guess the great secret no one would confess and which would put an end to Alice’s dream and which she never saw coming: that, like a racetrack gambler, she had placed her fear on the wrong horse of a faith, so to speak, with the great secret being only that the Heart of Islam was American and that there was nothing to fear.
Is this what Uncle Leopold of Lahore meant when he wondered at the start of the last century how the spirit-hungry West could become only more tolerant toward certain other Eastern cultures like Buddhism or Hinduism (think, Carlos thought, how the young self-seekers in the West had always been drawn to the other Hermann’s Siddhartha),but “Mind you,” Uncle Leopold would say, “not toward Islam.” The Westerner would never think of replacing these Buddhist or Hindu ideologies with his own (Did JuBus really surrender their Judaism?), so that as he admitted this impossibility he could “appreciate” them without being threatened by them?
But when it comes to Islam—which is by no means as alien to Western values as Hindu or Buddhist philosophy—this Western equanimity is almost invariably disturbed by an emotional bias. Is it perhaps, I sometimes wonder, because the values of Islam are close enough to those of the West to constitute a potential challenge to many concepts of spiritual and social life?
Uncle Leopold’s question astonished Carlos, who recalled himself, beside himself:
My name is Carlos ben [בן] Carlos Rossman. I am Puerto Rican and Jewish, I have three name stature in the Americas, I am the wannabe heir to the American poet, William Carlos Williams, who, let’s face it, without my name, would be nothing special, would be the same thing over and over again, like a William William Williams, who does not know I am relative to the emigrant Carlo, a poor and friendless son of earth, who has, like Uncle Hermann of Redburn’s Amerika, no sire; and on life's ocean was swept along, as spoon-drift in a gale.
And Carlos asked: “What on earth was ‘spoon-drift in a gale,’” where could it be found? Until he realized it had blown off the water in the air across Ocean Highway and into his eyes and then saw he was drifting on the beach inside its amassing mist and, in a move recalling the words of Uncle Hermann of Redburn, somewhere between a stranger holding a slate which read “Charity thinketh no evil” and the stranger’s enemy posting a slate which read “No Trust,” Carlos wrote the damp note to himself as if an idea was spinning like a Jinn wheel inside the words, no ideas but in the words: the Heart of Islam is American, and, beside himself, wondered how its foundation would be peopled, asking “but who, where drones bury in sand the faithful’s houses, where marines piss on Taliban corpses, where Korans are match-lit monthly by the Infidel Occupiers, where villagers are assassinated by lone American soldiers, who, if I post it, if the social media machine tablets take my message for the mass of people peering down at their palms at bus stops when it’s not raining, who will believe: the Heart of Islam is American, how do I post it when no one believes in posters anymore, and who among the Americans, upon receiving the message (and what if they receive it in the rain when for some reason no one ever looks down on their machined palms at bus stops) will have faith in a religion which is so close to them yet threatens them, or, as Hannah once revealed about the Acts of the Founders, will ‘plead for some religious sanction at the very moment when they [are] about to emancipate the secular realm fully from the influences of the churches and to separate politics and religion once and for all.’”
He heard himself asking, what would it mean for an idea to be “so close to the values of the West to constitute a potential challenge to many concepts of spiritual and social life?”
And as Carlos wrote on his virtual slate, the Heart of Islam is American, he heard Uncle Hermann in the background: “Could you now…under such circumstances, by way of experiment, simply have confidence in me?” and imagined the American’s response: “I would prefer not to…”
And he recalled Uncle Leopold’s words, the convert from Judaism who had become Muhammad Asad on the road to Mecca and who had outlined The Principles of State and Government in Islam, so American a document, Carlos thought, but then again so not. And he recalled the words as if Uncle Hermann of Redburn of Amerika and Asad of Mecca were taking turns echoing each other:
“Our [American] ancestry is lost in the universal paternity,” Uncle Hermann said.
“The only political ideal which [has] distinguished the Muslims from the rest of mankind [is] the revolutionary concept of a brotherhood of men united not by ties of blood or race but by the consciousness of a common outlook on life and common aspirations,” said Asad on The Road to Mecca.
“…our [American] blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one,” responded Uncle Hermann in kind.
“Nationalism,” signed Asad on The Road to Mecca,” in all its forms and disguises runs counter to the fundamental Islamic principle of the equality of all men and must, therefore, be ruled out as a possible basis of Muslim unity…, that unity transcending all considerations of race and origin….”
And then, beside himself, like one of the mute human monuments of that 18th century “orator of mankind” Anarchasis Cloots, who believed that “Our ambassador titles are not written on parchment, but on the living hearts of all men,” Carlos the 21st-century Cloots-Disciple stumbled into the Foreigner’s Committee as if he were heir to the vagrants of the world collected by Cloots at the world’s cafes when he was “diving down assiduous-obscure in the great deep of Paris” in order to make the thought of le Genre Humain a fact on the ground among the stragglers, the peg-legged Peggy’s and Betty’s, among the disappeared ones like Carlos’s cousin Karl Rossman, who had applied for work and stature in Amerika and then self-identified as a lynched “Negro” in Oklahoma in the 1920s, among “The whiskered Polacks, long-flowing turbaned Ishmaelites, astrological Chaldeans, mute representatives of their tongue-tied, befettered, heavy-laden Nations,” wanting their place in the American Universal Republic, coming to it “like the long-flowing turk” or like Carlos ben [בן] Carlos Rossman himself with his “imperfect knowledge of the native dialect, his words like spilt water; the thought he had in him remain[ing] conjectural to this day,” so that he ceased making a sound in an Amerika which had always been a rhetoric of riches beyond him, which gagged him as a child when he lugged his green baseball bat through the tunnels of what his father called in conversation “the Yankee stadium,” somewhat the way the natives would enter into a discussion of “the Constitution,” not because he knew of its historic uniqueness but because he had heard the public address announcer, Bob Shepherd, call out players in the same, isolating way—“Now batting for the Yankees, the center fielder, No. 7, Mickey Mantle,” so why not call the player out in the Yankee stadium, as if together in the stadium they could be in the Republic for which it stands, Carlos’s father thought, and then, eyeing his son, who was befuddled with the hot dog in one small hand, told him to put the other over his heart as they both sang something to the one nation under God, “you must sing something to the one nation under God now,” his father said as the band played, and Carlos wondered but said nothing. What was the significance of the hand over the heart versus the mute hand salute to the temple, which he had seen focused uniformed men perform around the Kennedy coffins on the television? Why one and not the other before the players took the field? Did Bob Shepherd know, did his father know, did anyone know the American history Uncle Eugene would later pass down to Carlos, “that a dead silence prevailed when the word ‘nation’ was first adopted by Congress. The British nation could as little be replaced by an American ‘nation’ as the king could be replaced by Congress.” And in contrast to how Carlos’s father had never heard the word “happiness” in Europe, so that Hannah had to claim it as a fable in Amerika, the word “Nation,” so Uncle Eugen had told Carlos, was heard everywhere yet “was one of those artificial words of European coinage that swam on the surface of America’s political talk,” as if no one really believed in it, like a conviction too abstract to speak, as if it only stood in for the Republic it used to be.
And what could it become out of what it used to be, Carlos—and Hannah, writing missives home—wondered and murmured in his mute eloquence, in his wonderful blind American worship: Could the American republic increase, augment its foundation? It was what Hannah, in her letters, called the problem of beginning, the coming out of nowhere in a specific time at the same time as one was being bound back to one’s beginnings, religare, religion, as in the foundation of the Republic, “an unconnected new event breaking into the continuous sequence of historical time,” and Carlos wondered, where the Heart of Islam is American, could this be where “the unconnected new event” might begin a principle entirely new but present at the Republic’s beginning? This was what was present in the act of foundation, he thought, re-found, and which, in the light of reason, was binding (religare) the American Founders and the Islamists: and Carlos recalled their words as if Hannah had taken over from Aunt Alice and now spoke with Uncle Asad on the Road to Mecca, taking turns echoing each other, as if they came from the same beginning, the same principle (principium):
“It was not just reason,” Hannah said, “which Jefferson promoted to the rank of the ‘higher law’ which would bestow validity on both the new law of the land and the old laws of morality; it was divinely informed reason, ‘the light of reason’, as the age liked to call it, and its truths [We hold them to be self-evident, which paradoxically made them not subject to reason] also enlightened the conscience of men so that they would be receptive to an inner voice which still was the voice of God, and would reply, I will, whenever the voice of conscience told them, Thou shall, and, more important, Thou shalt not.” (Arendt, On Revolution, 194.)
And Uncle Asad responded in kind:
“Say [O Prophet]: ‘This is my way: Resting upon conscious insight accessible to reason (‘ala basirah), I am calling you all unto God—I and they who follow me’” (surah 12:108): a statement which circumscribes to perfection the Qur’anic approach to all questions of faith , ethics, and morality, and is echoed many times in expressions like ‘so that you might use your reason’ (la ‘allakum ta’qilun) or ‘will you not, then, use your reason?’
And Carlos heard himself asking: “Could you now…under such circumstances, by way of experiment, simply have confidence in the Founders’ Islamist use of reason?”
And Hannah remembered Asad on The Road to Mecca, signing the declaration as if he were singing it:
The Right-Guided Caliphate was a most glorious beginning of Islamic statecraft, never excelled, or even continued, in all the centuries that followed i: To stop at that first, splendid experiment…would not be an act of true piety; it would be rather, a betrayal of the Companions’ creative endeavor. They were pioneers and pathfinders, and if we truly wish to emulate them, we must take up their unfinished work and continue it in the same creative spirit. For did not the Prophet say, ‘My Companions are a trust committed to my community?’
And Carlos thought: If “My Companions are a trust committed to my community,” who are my Muslim Companions? Are they like the Founders whose “unfinished work” we must take up and augment, while he was still standing somewhere near the Mothership cross-writing and erasing his slate, somewhere in his mind between wanting to post the words “Charity endureth no evil” and witnessing among the population the signs of “No Trust.”
Carlos never imagined this as he sat with his father in the third tier of the stadium. He did not even know it was the first park in baseball history to be no park, no field, to be between the no-longer and the not-yet, augmented, a stadium following the Greek stadia, and the fat guy behind him breathed Cubans down Carlos’s neck, all fat guys for Carlos were now Tigers’ fans screaming and breathing white Cubano noise down his neck with the words “come on, Big Ears,” referring to Don “Big Ears” Mossi, the Tigers’ pitcher, who was facing the Yankees center fielder, Mickey Mantle, while the Tigers’ Al Kaline, resembling in Carlos’s mind the youthful end Del Shofner from the New York Football Giants, stood swatting flies in Babe Ruth’s spot in right field. Years later, Carlos saw himself in the stands, Mossi facing Mantle, Al Kaline resembling Del Shofner or Del Shannon, you could just call him Al or Del or Allah of the Amerikas, all welcomed, and the boy Carlos coming to the beginning of the land from the outside, from up on top, breathing in smoke, looking down on Monument Park, where the first Yankees were memorialized and enshrined after 1929 in center field.
But was this meant to be the House that Ruth or Cloots built, Carlos wondered, years later. Well, Ruth had more staying power and clout but Cloots, like Carlos the 21st-century Cloots-Disciple, had the immigrant vagrant’s dream and a green baseball bat to boot to bring with him into “the House.” It was something Carlos never wondered about at game time. Was the House meant to be the exclusive ground for Ruthian tribal Yankees idols or could it sell itself “for all” as if it were the Clootsian Universal Amerikan Republic of non-dualistic Buddhist bobbleheads standing in their oneness for those buried in the Monument Park in Center Field? What could they be out there, these stone legends, on what foundation would Amerika rest, what principle, what beginning, principium, would one surrender oneself to, what Companions, was it a self-surrender (Islam) to a foundation constantly increased, like a stadium renovated over time, re-constituted on values of distinct eras? “We claim to stand there, le Genre Humain, as mute monuments,” Anarchasis wrote, where in the Monument Park in center field the House that Ruth built could meet the House that Cloots built in a vision which for Carlos ben [בן] Carlos Rossman meant that the Heart of Islam could be American from the start and that like the Yankee Stadium and the constitution for which it stood it could be worshipped among all the pilgrims who Aunt Hannah had remarked could be “blind and undiscriminating” because “its origins would not be shrouded in the halo of time “ and could be seen from the stands or from where ever they stood when they first arrived on the Mothership as the arrivants, at any moment seeing across time and space mute statues and upstanding citizens anchored in the harbor of the New York of the New Land while Aunt Hannah was writing missives home:
Carlos and I, we are here now awhile, and Carlos has discovered the strange possibility that the Americans have the capacity to blindly stumble into a future where they will declare in the light of reason that the Heart of Islam is American. In fact, he is convinced that they could even trace this apparent sacrilege to the Founders’ Declarations. In the meantime, Uncle Hermann has confided in us that our happiness is self-evident and, as such, beyond reason and divinely informed. If we are given freedom of choice, he tells us we may force or not force the smile he calls “the chosen vehicle of all ambiguities,” as it pleases us. So we smile.
As it is,we are appearing to have our fill of it among the Americans, who can’t help but have their fun and say that “it’s all good.” And as it is, we see that there is a great good fortune which always smiles upon them in their blindness and in their confidence, and that they are often filled with happiness, and that they have this extraordinary capacity to look upon yesterday with the eyes of centuries to come.
“Just Call Me Al” is excerpted from Benjamin Hollander’s book, In The House Un-American, due out from Clockroot Books in Spring 2013.
1 Carlos had heard Christian Patty’s orphan theory explaining why Israeli Jews seemed to be always looking out for number one, watching their backs. But Carlos didn’t believe it. If her theory was correct, he told her, and the Holocaust Jews who had arrived in the Land without their parents then bred children who inherited their push to the front of the bread line psyche, then it only figured that Muslims in Israel were compassionate, generous, merciful, and always watching the backs of others if, that is, they had inherited the traits of their Prophet Mohammed, a 6th-century orphan
The Faithful are to one another like [parts of] a building—each part strengthening the others. Every Muslim is brother to a Muslim, neither wronging him nor allowing him to be wronged. And if anyone helps his brother in need, God will help him in his own need; and if anyone removes a calamity from [another] Muslim, God will remove from him some of the calamities of the Day of Resurrection; and if anyone shields [another] Muslim from disgrace, God will shield him from disgrace on the Day of Resurrection.
Benjamin Hollander's latest book is In The House-American (Clockroot Books)