There were no stomping black boots or whistles. No lights were shone in our faces. We were not wrenched out of our beds and shoved onto cattle cars in a gray winter dawn. We were not herded into ghettos ringed with barbed wire. The killings and torture were done in secret. We knew about that but we didn’t know all of it. I cannot say that we were not warned. As much as we were kept in the dark, much was revealed, either by design or callousness. All the signs were there as they have been in the past for such things and somehow we, the people, were in a state of inertia, shock, maybe some awe, but probably we were just naive. It could never happen again we said. Not to us. We are Americans, the chosen people.
When they did come for me, they came silently, gradually, graciously handing me clues along the way. There was the blue car with the dark tinted windows that idled across the street from my sixties cape every day at different times. The Christmas card that was torn and hastily taped together; the mail that never made it to its intended destination. There were of course the more obvious signs: the mother who was thrown in jail for protesting the war after her soldier son was killed, the lack of news about who was dying over there, the sudden takeover of 96.7 FM by Christian rock bands.
They came when the noon sun was high, and efficient. They were dressed plainly, suit jackets in neutral shades. Sunglasses that hid their eyes were as opaque as their car windows. They did not take them off when they informed me that my son and I were being moved to a facility “for our own safety.” They handed me a piece of paper. It said that at this time I was to be remanded to the custody of the Department of Homeland Security and sent to a “secure facility”. For my security. Apparently my child and I were in grave danger.
The television was on when they came. The wars had taken a turn for the worse. The President’s approval rating was at an all‐ time low. He had made an Israeli dignitary wait in an anteroom off the Oval Office for forty five minutes before seeing him. His bombers had not managed to find a cell hideout they had been aiming for and ended up killing eighteen members of a wedding party. The cell leader was not in attendance. We had also been assured that other enemies had a nuclear facility that they were building with the express purpose of bombing us and destroying the world. Russia had offered them a place to build it–just over the border–since the bone of contention had been that our enemies not be allowed to have a nuclear facility within their borders. But this also was not acceptable and our enemies went ahead without consulting Washington DC.
We were sending the drones in for freedom, the President explained patiently, and calmly but somehow the American people, who had been so willing to give him the benefit of the doubt earlier, just weren’t buying it anymore. Too many of their sons had already died in Mesopotamia. Despite his waning popularity the President was jovial most of the time. The news showed him golfing and happily rolling pastel colored Easter eggs on the White House lawn with his stately, statuesque wife by his side. But he was growing more and more dismayed at how little the people understood the danger our freedom was in. There was a newfound urgency in his voice as he explained that our way of life was tenuous.
If they were affected by what was on the TV, which was turned up loudly so I could hear it from the kitchen, the man and woman in the sunglasses did not show it. I was given thirty minutes to gather what I needed.
“I need to call my husband,” I said. “Is he coming with us?”
“No ma’am,” the woman said.
“He’s Muslim too you know?” I said. “He converted.” This time the man spoke. “We are aware of that ma’am.”
Of course they were. But it was my suitcase whose lock was always broken at the airport. Not his.
“My son is still in school.”
“He has been secured,” the woman said. This is the point in a horror movie where the teakettle would whistle or the cat would knock a plant off the windowsill — making everyone jump. Secured. He had been secured. Because at seven he was a threat to national security. He loved Darth Vader, felt a certain sympathy for his plight so I knew, on some level, he would have been amused that they thought he was as dangerous as Darth Vader.
“Is he all right? Is he hurt?” I said. I felt cold. I shivered. In the past three years words had taken on new meanings. They were used as codes. Security no longer meant what it used to, neither did freedom. It seemed that every time the Secretary of Defense or his boss uttered those words, people died.
The woman did not take her sunglasses off but her body stiffened. She looked up at her partner. He answered.
“Of course not ma’am. He is at the shelter already where he will be given a meal while he waits for you to arrive.”
For a moment I tried to grasp what he meant by shelter. I automatically thought of concrete bunkers.
“They have video games,” the woman added when I did not respond. Her partner did not like that she had volunteered this information. He cleared his throat and shifted his weight from one foot to another like a restless horse in a stall. But this information was meant to calm me and somehow it did. I pictured my son sitting on the floor of “the secure facility” happily playing Super Mario with another little one who had a name like Abdullah or Mohammed. My son’s name was Alexander after his paternal Polish great grandfather but his middle name was Salim, my maiden name, and that was all they had needed to “secure” him.
My son had pale skin, jet‐black hair and hazel eyes. His father joked that he looked like Damian, the devil‐possessed kid from The Omen. His eyelashes were long and thick. His nose was sharp. His blood, rich with the history of three continents, made it hard to pinpoint exactly where he was from. He could have been from the Russian steppes or, when he tanned, from Sao Paulo. As my neighbor Mrs. Dreyfus pointed out, “he looks like a Jew.” This was said in a slightly accusatory tone like I was willfully denying his heritage. When I looked at him I saw a little fair skinned Bengali boy. A Bangladeshi American, Muslim, with Hindu roots, and yet part Micmac Indian from Canada and with an ancestor who fought alongside George Washington.
Six months earlier I heard the tapping noises on the land line for the first time. It was always at the same time of day–3:30 in the afternoon. Sometimes the phone rang and the caller ID could not identify the number. I assumed it was the ever‐persistent telemarketers so I never picked up, but one day Alexander did. No one was at the other end. This happened at least three more times. Then certain files went missing on the computer. Files I did not remember deleting. My husband backed everything up, admonishing me, half kidding, “It’s only a matter of time. You have to plan for Armageddon.”
But the war I knew about was two thousand miles away, trapped in a graphic next to Christiane Amanpour’s head. It would never be at my front door. Then a falafel joint that we frequented run by the same Syrian family for thirty years suddenly closed down. Its windows were boarded up “until further notice.” Kindly, mustachioed Mr. Abdellah who owned the place was the one who told Alexander that he shared a name with a great leader and sparked my boy’s curiosity.
“Iskander conquered the world by the time he was seventeen,” he told my son. “You got ten years. Better get cracking.”
“Did he have to kill people?” Alexander asked.
Mr. Abdellah nodded his head thoughtfully. “Sometimes, yes. Sometimes great leaders have to do bad things for the greater good. Like our President.”
I shook my head. “There’s no justification for what the President is doing,” I said. Mr Abdellah looked at the two people in the restaurant and cleared his throat. He was uneasy. He winked at Alexander, and handed him a warm lamb falafel wrapped in tinfoil. “Your mother doesn’t agree.”
Alexander nodded his head knowingly. “She thinks he is a– what did you say mommy?”
I shrugged, now embarrassed that I was being exposed. Alexander had a way of blurting things out to strangers. Once, he announced to a startled plumber that I waxed my upper lip twice a month.
“A war monger!” Alexander cried as he suddenly remembered a snippet of my regular diatribe against the President. “Was Iskander a war monger?”
“The people he conquered would say so,” I said, deciding to weigh in on the conversation before Mr. Abdellah could object to the President being called that.
“I am a simple man,” Mr Abdellah said, smiling at us. “All I know is what I read in the school books back in Damascus. That will be ten dollars even.”
As I was walking out I noticed for the first time that he had an autographed picture of the President and the First Lady taped behind the cash register.
Now Mr. Abdellah was gone. Americans were “disappearing” every day, plucked off the street and detained in “secure facilities” all over the country and in one spot in Cuba. But the war was not officially here yet. I kept reminding myself as I went through the days, writing, working out, being a class parent. I lost track of how many Betty Crocker cupcakes I made. Sometimes when the news got too bad, I took refuge in pretending to be a model mom.
My husband called on my cell phone as I was stuffing maxi pads into a duffel bag while the agents waited downstairs.
“What’s doing,” he asked. I heard voices behind him. There was laughter, light heartedness. It was Friday, Memorial Day weekend, two thirty in the afternoon. People would be leaving work early, heading to the Hamptons or some other destination. Summer was here, the days were longer, the air sweeter.
“I’m going to blow out of here early,” he said. There was a burst of laughter behind him. “David wants me to go out for a drink and then I’ll be home. No later than five.”
“There’s no rush,” I said. “I’m not going to be here.” I was shaking. My cell phone beeped before he could respond. “Wait,” I said, thinking it might be Alexander. “I have another call.” I switched over. “Hello?”
“Yasmina?” The voice was fearful.
“Shakil?” I said. It was my childhood friend. The only other kid invited to my first birthday party. I knew that because there was photographic evidence. Shakil did something with derivatives, was a graduate of Wharton, a decent tennis player, a spelunker, a newlywed. He had met his wife Melissa when he was a junior at Choate but she had not given him the time of day until she saw him again at their ten‐year reunion. He had driven up in an Audi. Shakil had never set foot in a mosque. He never ate rice with his fingers.
“Where are you Yasmina?” He said.
“At home. Where are you?”
“I’m at JFK.”
“Where are you going?”
“Okay. For work?” I was confused. Shakil sounded distant even though I could hear him clearly, like he wasn’t fully awake.
“They are sending me to someplace near Austin. I’m trying to make sure they send my dad to the same place. Luckily, mom is in Bangladesh. I told her not to come back any time soon.”
It took me a moment to register what he was saying. I was not alone. I was not the only one they were “securing.”
“What about Melissa?” I said.
“She’s going to come out there as soon as she can.”
“They haven’t detained her?”
“No. I’m not even sure why they’re sending me anywhere. I mean I’m not part of the community. I haven’t been to a mosque in years.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. In all the years I had known him I had accepted his self‐loathing — his disdain and mistrust for all things Islamic or Bengali. I didn’t even take it personally when he told me he found South Asian women unattractive as a rule, a ludicrous attitude but one that seemed to be a part of who he wanted to be. He had never treated me unkindly.
“Did Melissa convert?” I asked.
Shakil snorted into the phone. “Of course not. And I never would have asked her to. You know that.”
“They have Alexander,” I said.
“Oh no. Where? Where is he?” My cell phone beeped insistently. Matthew had hung up and called me back. “Wait Shakil,” I said.
“I’ll call you back,” he said. “To find out about Alexander.”
“What if they take your cell phone?”
“They can’t do that,” he said. “Jesus! This is still America, Yasmine.”
“Look. I can’t deal with all your conspiracy theories right now,” he said. In all the years I had known him he had never raised his voice to me. “There is an explanation for this,” he added, more quietly. “There is.”
His voice hurt me. The phone beeped. “Shakil, I have to go. Talk soon.” I switched over. “Matthew?”
“Hey,” he sounded annoyed. “So I’ll be home…”
“Matthew, that was Shakil. He is being sent to Texas. They have Alexander and they are sending me to him. Everything you said was true. They have built camps and they are taking me to a camp. I just want to get to Alexander.”
“They are there now?”
“Yes. Downstairs. I have to pack.”
“Did they hurt you?”
“They have Alexander?”
“What if they take your cell phone?”
“I don’t know. Please stop shooting all these questions at
“The moment you reach wherever they are taking you, call
me. Can you stall them?”
“I’ll go straight to the camp. You have to tell me where it is the moment you find out.”
“Call Ben, ”
Ben Seidel was our attorney. A year earlier, Matthew had been slightly injured in a car accident that was not his fault. Ben had won him fifty thousand dollars. He was a relentless, perpetually indignant man. The thought of him comforted me. There were still laws in place…somewhere, and Ben would find one that would stop this.
“Okay. What if they send you to Texas?” Matthew said.
“Then I will go. I just want Alexander.”
“This is really happening.”
“You called it.”
“How can you be so calm?”
I looked at my face in the mirror above the dresser. My lips were white.
“Because I don’t know what will happen,” I said. “I just want my son.”
“Be careful. Don’t antagonize them. Obviously they think they have something on you and right now they are holding all the cards.”
“They’re holding the only card I care about. They have nothing on me. I didn’t do anything.”
When Alexander was born, I began to read inspirational books on motherhood. In one I read that being a mother was like walking around with your heart outside your body. As I suspected I was one big Achilles heel. My vulnerability was repeatedly thrown into mean relief. Two years earlier I was in Washington DC to collect a small literary award I had won for a short story I had written. I had attended the awards ceremony and dinner and given a drunken speech about arts and activism but chose to skip the other activities they had planned the following day. Instead, I went to the Holocaust Museum. It was a Sunday afternoon and the museum was not crowded. I walked through it silently. Every muscle in my shoulders and jaw were tense. I stood in a cattle car that was used to transport Jews to Auschwitz. When I gazed into the empty eyes of Jewish and Gypsy children in a black and white photograph all I saw was Alexander. I read Hitler’s fatwa, encased behind bulletproof glass, calling for the murder of all Polish men, women and children. Polish, like Alexander’s ancestors. My son, who looked like a Jew and was of Polish blood, would have been taken to a concentration camp had he been born then and in that place. I knew that with a deep certainty as I gazed at a hill of eyeglasses removed from Jewish prisoners glinting under a spotlight. I felt: there is so very little separating my son’s fate from all those children who had been killed, just a gossamer thread of luck and time. Luck was something I never trusted. I disliked games of chance and refused to play poker. Naturally, then, life made me very uneasy. There were, however, a few things I knew with certainty, and I knew holocausts were taking place at the very instant I was standing in the cattle car in the museum that still held the souls it had transported to their ends.
After I walked through the exhibitions, I vomited into the museum toilet and bought Night by Elie Weisel in the gift shop for Matthew, who was always complaining he had nothing to read on the commute to the city. When I lay in my hotel bed that afternoon all I could think was, “How did I get so lucky, if there is such a thing? Why was I chosen to live in a time and a place where my child and I would be safe? What was my responsibility?” My appetite was gone and I just wanted to get home and hold my child.
“Ma’am?” The woman agent was standing in my doorway. I was still staring down at the maxi pads, at a loss for what to pack next. She had removed her sunglasses. Her eyes were blue. “We need to get going. I’m sure you want to see your son.”
It was subtle, but the inference was clear. They would use Alexander in any way possible. Of course they would.
“Where are you taking me?” I said.
“To a secure facility in New Paltz.” That was upstate New York, almost three hours away.
“Is that where my son is?”
They must have taken him before he even got to school. What must he have been thinking, having been told repeatedly of “stranger danger”? Had they accosted him on the street in front of his school? Had they forcibly bundled him into a car? Had they put a bag over his head? What if he was drugged? How terrified he must have been! Now there was anger in me. Finally.
“How many camps do you have?”
“Ma’am?” The blue eyed agent perfectly feigned confusion.
“Concentration camps. How many concentration camps has Halliburton built?” I nearly spat the words out. This time her surprise was genuine. I had thrown her. She looked towards the stairs. She wanted to run. She waited a moment before answering, formulating her thoughts. “These are not concentration camps, Ma’am. These are facilities that have been created for your protection.”
“Protection from what?”
“I cannot say Ma’am.”
“You are only protecting Muslims and those of Arab descent, are you not?”
“There are certain groups at this time who are more vulnerable than others,” she replied in a robotic voice. “It is security measure that is necessary at this time.”
Security. Again. “But the war is over there,” I said lamely.
“Things have changed. Terrorism knows no borders,” she replied. She glanced at her watch. “Do you need assistance to finish packing?”
I shook my head. I ran into the bathroom and took Alexander’s Sponge Bob toothbrush. I went into his room and grabbed his stuffed manta ray, his Game Boy with three games, his Batman pajamas, six pairs of underwear, ten pairs of socks, and as many of his clothes I could hold in my arms. I contemplated taking his juicy cup as he called it, a cup with a no‐ spill top that he sucked on every night while falling asleep since he was three. His version of a security blanket–to Alexander security meant safety. We had been trying to wean him off it, telling him that nearly seven year olds did not need that kind of security. I decided to leave it because I did not want to believe that we would be there, wherever they were taking us, for too long.
When I walked back into my room I realized that I had taken too many warm clothes.
“How long are we going to be detained?” I said.
“I cannot say at this time,” she replied. She forgot to remind me that I was not being detained.
“Then how can I pack?” I said.
“At this time you are instructed to take as much as you can pack in two suitcases. One each for you and your son.”
I dumped the clothes and toys on to my bed and walked into the hallway. Matthew had stored our suitcases in a crawl space in the hallway. I pulled out two over‐sized American Touristers that I had pounced on at a sale at Marshalls ages ago. Alexander’s mini suitcase with wheels sat next to our suitcases. It was colorful and grimy. Alexander had dragged this suitcase filled with essentials like crayons and toy soldiers around the world. We had been planning a trip to Vietnam for August right before school reopened. The tickets had been purchased, hotels had been booked. Shakil and Melissa were going to join us a few days into our stay. They had been invited to a wedding in Bali. I pulled out Alexander’s small suitcase as well. I could say that it was like carry‐on luggage. I dragged the suitcases into the bedroom and placed them on the bed. I unzipped the larger one and pulled the top back. Inside the top was taped a piece of paper with Arabic writing on it. It was an aitul kursi, a blessing from the Koran, protecting the contents of my suitcase and ostensibly the owner of it as well. My mother had taped it into all my luggage after my suitcase got sent to Hawaii when I was on my way to Boston. She even taped one to the inside of the driver side visor in my Subaru outback. I never thought much of it. I dismissed it as superstition but went along with it to humor my mother.
I looked at the agent who was staring at the paper. Her face was expressionless. I could only imagine what was going on in her head. Bomb detonation instructions perhaps, or a coded message to a fellow terrorist.
“Ma’am?” the agent said. “I suggest you remove that aitul kursi so you don’t have to repeatedly explain what it is. Your luggage will be subject to extensive inspection.”
I looked at her closely then. She was blonde, but it was not her natural color. Her eyes, like I said, were blue. I noticed that she was darker than I had first realized, more olive than tan. She had read the piece of paper and pronounced aitul kursi perfectly.
“Where are you from?” I asked her.
She hesitated before answering me, looking towards the staircase, where her partner waited at the foot of it.
“Michigan,” she said after a moment.
“What ethnicity are you?”
“My father is Italian and my mother is Lebanese. ”
“Muslim?” I whispered.
“Ma’am, I will not answer any more questions at this time. You must finish packing. Now.”
I obeyed her, realizing it was futile and also, strangely beyond caring. What difference did it make after all? I began packing in earnest and realized all I needed was one suitcase. Better to flee with, I thought.
When I was done I had one suitcase filled with both mine and Alexander’s clothes that would see us through summer and fall. I asked the agent if I could take the small duffel bag for toiletries. She nodded assent.
“I will take your things downstairs,” she said.
A new calm settled over me. I would see Alexander soon. I could hand him his game boy in person. He would crawl into my arms and I would gather my nerves for what lay ahead. Matthew would arrive with Ben, who would have contacted the ACLU by then.
I called Matthew and told him while the agent watched me. Her eyes never left my face.
“That’s where Alexander is?”
“Yes. That’s what they told me.”
“I called Ben. He’ll come with me.”
“Call Sara,” I said. Sara was my best friend. She was a cinematographer and ona film shoot somewhere in the Ozarks. I could have called her myself but Sara would have immediately wanted me to refuse to go with the agents. She would rant and demand to speak with them. Sara was single and had no children. Sometimes she forgot I was a mommy because I was so good about not letting motherhood define me. I did not carry a picture of Alexander in my wallet. I never went on about his latest antics. Alexander had tested as a gifted child but no one, except his school, his grandparents and Matt and I knew that. If he said something really funny that I knew people would appreciate I would share it with them, like when he thought ‘son of a bitch’ was pronounced sullivan pitch and said that every time he stubbed his toe or fell off his skateboard. In general what I had observed was that people without kids rarely knew how to talk to one and about one. Matt’s buddies were all single or divorced. Shakil was good with Alexander being a big kid himself but Sara talked to him like he was a potential misogynist. Sara met Alexander’s assertion that girls had cooties with a lecture on Betty Freidan. I had learned to keep my love of motherhood a secret. As far as anyone knew I was just someone who had given birth. It was a label. What that really meant, none of them knew.
I locked the door to the cape that Matthew and I had paid too much for and stood on the stoop looking out into the street. It was 3:15. Alexander’s school bus pulled up at the end of the road. Children spilled out and ran into their mother’s arms. Most of the children were blonde and white. One was black. I recognized a new friend Alexander had made, Sebastian Cruz. They both loved to play Star Wars on their X‐boxes. The school bus pulled away having successfully discharged its precious cargo. These children did not need to be specially protected by their government. A black child could now drink from the same water fountain as his white classmates. He could sit at the front of the bus. All school notices were now printed in both Spanish and English.
Sebastian walked by with his stepfather, a cheerful man who did not speak English.
“Where’s Alex?” The boy asked me as I was getting into the Ford Taurus with the tinted windows. The female agent held the door open for me.
“One minute,” I said.
“Ma’am,” her partner began.
“One minute!” I snapped. I knelt down so I was eye to eye with Sebastian. “He’ll be missing school for a while,” I said. “I drew a picture for him,” Sebastian said as his stepfather looked at the agents waiting for me. When he looked at me his brown eyes were full of understanding. He shook his head, muttered something in Spanish, and looked down at his scuffed shoes. Sebastian pulled out a piece of white paper from his backpack and held it up in front of him.
“This is Darth Vader,” he explained, pointing to a large black figure at the center of the page. The figure held a long red light saber. His head was disproportionately larger than his body. “He just cut off Luke Skywalker’s hand.”
He pointed to a brown figure lying on the ground with a bloody stump where his hand should have been.
“Alex likes Darth Vader but I want to be a jedi,” he said and handed me the drawing.
“You know Darth Vader used to be a jedi,” I said.
“Can I come over for a play date tomorrow?”
“Not tomorrow, but soon, I promise,” I said. Tears sprung to my eyes. I patted Sebastian on the head. His stepfather took my hand in both of his and said something in Spanish. He must have thought I was being deported. He was wary of the agents, but looked into my eyes and nodded. “Dios te bendiga.”
“I am going to get my son,” I said to him. “I’ll see him soon.”
I heard the female agent clear her throat. I nodded to Sebastian’s stepfather, hugged the boy, and got in the car.