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In search of the better story:
Anti-heroes, queer affects, and postcolonial monsters
A Family Portrait
At a family dinner a few years ago, Zara, my niece who is now nearly 15, shared a very remarkable dream about my father, her grandfather. Unbeknownst to me, she had been taking a keen interest in her father’s past, demanding that my brother tell her bedtime stories about his childhood. Since her father’s “origins” have untidy multiple locations – ancestral roots in Iraq (a place she knew to be troubled), displaced and eventually driven out of Lebanon during the civil war, and then further displaced in the UK before finally arriving to Canada – there is no easy way for her to understand her father’s experience. This dream, it seems to me, re-writes her father’s stories by organizing and narrativizing the muddled fragments of our family’s past and her emotional place in it. My niece had never met my father because he died of cancer a few years before she was born. A family photo of her parent’s wedding, notably positioned in the house, shows my dying father sitting at the forefront of the picture in his bathrobe looking frighteningly emaciated, nearly dead. In the dream, she is in Canada also separated from him, who, it turns out, is dying in Iraq. She travels to Iraq to see him with her father and her three aunts, my sisters and me. When she gets there, he is among thousands of dying bodies in glass boxes (coffins?) lined up in rows (a frighteningly modern image of death and genocide). When she finally spots him among the masses, he is being carried from the middle rows to the back. The bodies that are classified nearly dead are placed at the very back. My father, the warden reports, is now nearly dead and therefore cannot be seen. On the journey home back to Canada, we are driving on a highway. As we go under a tunnel, my niece sees my father suspended and hanging on a cross, and becomes certain that he is now completely dead.
My father, who coldly cut himself off from Iraq after witnessing the end of colonialism with the fall of the monarchy and then subsequently the fall of the communist government, would not share stories with his children. He, however, came alive in the company of relatives and friends; but to his children he spoke very little of his life and his political views. His silence, which is echoed in all of us, returns trans-generationally in Zara’s dream. It elaborates her frustration with not knowing her grandfather, but also in not knowing the story of where she has come from or how she has come to arrive in Canada from a history of events that brought her father to this place. Her dream leads me to think that she is concerned with how her life in Canada is situated in a past that she cannot fully understand. It perhaps enigmatically elaborates the political nature of the fact of her existence. What is more, it would seem that her wish for insight about the past is located in the political present. The Iraq that is represented in her dream evokes an Iraq in carnage. The dreams collision of past and present suggests that the past’s confrontation with the present is shaping her existence and the meaning she might make of her location.
But her dream not only summons the specific political circumstances of her ancestry, it symbolically expresses the historical residues of world events and the cosmopolitan nature of group identities and histories of belonging. Diasporas, Lily Cho writes, “do not emerge in isolation, but are defined through difference” (21). The image of the masses of dying (presumably) Iraqi bodies organized neatly in rows is uncannily modern in its highly ordered and sterile representation of mass carnage. Indeed, Zara’s dream conjures the implicit strategies of the holocaust: to kill and remove humans cleanly and effectively, which has become the archetypical Enlightenment social imaginary of genocide. The state of present day carnage in Iraq is imagined by my niece through a similar modern strategy that ties her ancestry to Jewish ancestry in historical repetition of racial hatred. Zara’s dream might express what Gilroy calls the workings of conviviality, which he defines to be the “processes of cohabitation and interaction that have made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life [my emphasis]” (xv) Conviviality is “the ordinary experiences of contact, cooperation, and conflict” (xii) – a working through, if you will, which effects how groups come to imagine themselves across racial, ethnic and civilizational divisions. In Zara’s dream, civilizational conflict and connection come together in how she imagines her ancestors. For me this gestures toward not only, as Gilroy would argue, the cosmopolitan origins of groups, but their affective relationship to otherness and to the traumas of relationality, especially in political conflict.
But though Zara’s dream enigmatically expresses the trauma of identity groups in her vision of a death camp, it also expresses a fantasy that death and loss can actually be mastered. For the bodies in the dream are visible through the glass boxes: it is as though death is something we can see plainly and know. Zara’s wish to know and understand however is not satisfied in the dream. My father’s body slips away from her just as she finds him. The dream ends with the recognition of death but with no other answers. Interestingly, the crucifixion imagery (undoubtedly influenced by her exposure to Roman Catholic and Syriac Orthodox Christianity), suggests a fantasy of redemption that would fill the gap of unknowability.
Zara’s dream seems to suggest she is in search of a story of belonging. But more than that, she wants a better story than the one she has. My niece knows the facts of her mixed race ancestry: Arab and Italian. But Zara is not simply an Iraqi-Italian-Canadian: a hyphenated identity that constitutes itself from the harmony of various traditional practices and sets of beliefs. The official story of Canadian multiculturalism, which she has undoubtedly absorbed in her 12 years of life, does not reflect the complexity of her life. Her dream suggests that her selfhood might have more to do with what she cannot name than what she can name. With a name like Georgis, often mistaken for Greek or European, Zara could easily live her life as an assimilated second-generation immigrant. She is slim and athletic, light skinned and cute. She is not so racially marked. And though I am sure she enjoys the privileges that come with a relatively passable body and passable name, she seems to suffer from trans-generational haunting.
Zara is troubled by a legacy of loss for which she has no words. Her grandfather, though never a political prisoner, as she seems to represent him in her dream, was indeed a victim of ethnic and religious hatred. But this is not a topic that has ever come up in a family dinner, probably because it is a site of unworked through loss. My niece knows nothing about how her Georgis ancestors were anti-colonial socialists, targeted and threatened by the rising Ba’ath party for their counter-revolutionary activism in the 60’s. She knows nothing about why my father felt that Iraq was no longer a safe place for his family. She also does not know that his past would return to haunt him in Lebanon, the place he fled to in August of 1966, 40 days after I was born. Though promised to be a pluralistic society and free from political conflict, Lebanon, from a history of percolating religious tensions among Christians and Muslims, rose to full blown civil war in 1975.
My father would never recover from the trauma of being forced to protect his family from bombs and trigger-happy teenagers. He would also never discuss the past with any of us. When we left Lebanon, silence became an unspoken rule in our family. What he did talk about incessantly, especially later in his life among his friends, was his conviction and rationale for why the Georgis’ were not Arabs. Stories of origins offer diasporic people consolation from the brutal realities of racial violence and diasporic existence. Gilroy makes this point in The Black Atlantic when he argues that Afro-centric discourses of origin recoup so-called ethnic roots, all the while foreclosing more recent events of history, such as slavery. The effects of such historic traumas on diaporic subjectivities, he argues, far out weigh the residues of anachronistic traditions. Indeed, definitions of identity that elide "difficult knowledge" (Britzman, Lost Subjects 117) of loss have the effect of defending us against the violence. They seal us together, shield us from the other, and promise imaginary safety from harm: they are the psychic solutions to the challenges of living in a hostile or insecure world. For my father, his defence against the trauma of being an Iraqi in a hostile Lebanon, and then in an inhospitable western world, was to lean on his European Christian sounding name. But despite the promise he bestowed upon it, it never afforded him the political and emotional protection he so longed for. He was born an Iraqi, suffered for being an Iraqi, and died in Canada where he was buried among other Iraqis and Arabs in Scarborough. To the world, he was an Arab Iraqi.
Until the summer 2006 war in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel, when my mother (who has since also died) suddenly remembered she had lived through the war and would call me everyday in tears about what has happening in the region (in Lebanon, in Palestine and in Iraq), Zara’s dream (which she had a few months before the war in Lebanon) was literally the first murmur of war from the Georgis family. In the absence of stories of belonging and ancestry, Zara’s dream reaches out for understanding and suggests that belonging is a privilege. This is indeed what Dionne Brand contemplates in Map to the Door of No Return, an exposé on the meaning of diasporic origins where she attempts to re-imagine what it would mean map out identities in the absence of traceable beginnings. Unlike the black diaspora that Brand speaks of, Zara knows her recent lineage but what she cannot trace is the emotional and psychic landscape of her origins. Her dream articulates a wish to understand the force of the past on the present imagined by way of a return to the “real” site of origin. But the journey back to Iraq does not offer her any intelligible answers, for there are no easy ways to map selfhood. Stories of belonging produce social identities to which we become emotionally attached because they fill the space of unanswerability. But for someone like Zara, whose ancestral history is complicated by several sites of belonging, ambivalent ties and traumatic history, how she comes to understands herself might only occur from the achievements of her own insights and imagination. Zara is perhaps beginning to learn that diasporic identities are the work of creation from the vestiges of the past. For even though the dream expresses a wish, namely, the promises that come with the return to origins, it also refuses that conclusion.
The above reflection of my niece’s dream is taken from a conference paper I wrote for the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences in the summer of 2008 in Vancouver for a panel in Socialist Studies entitled “What’s in a Name.” I open this book with this story not only because it captures some of the major themes of this text, but because of what I have come to learn about myself in the act of needing to tell my niece’s story. Upon hearing my paper, my good friend Eleanor MacDonald, who attended my session, asked me if Zara’s story was really my story of trangenerational loss: if like her and, more to the point, through her I was reaching out for understanding in the space of traumatic transgenerational unknowability. While this might seem obvious to many, it was not to me at the time. Unable to account for my own life, I looked to my niece’s story about her dream and projected my own psychic reality. Her story is my story; therefore, my story is simultaneously biography and autobiography. Neither story exists without the other. As Adrianna Cavarero contends, we are dependent on each other to narrate our lives (1997). I draw your attention to this gap in my own process because one of the main arguments of the book is that the unconscious cannot be overlooked in our conceptualization of narrative. The stories we tell about ourselves, about others, about world events, about the past, about our political beliefs, about our identities are not just simply social and political constructions but elaborations of our psychic dramas. Also, if our stories always implicate the other - because our humanity is made relationally - how do we narrate our stories ethically? How do we recognize the alterity of the other in our stories all the while recognizing our dependency on the other?
The following pages are an exploration of these questions.