With Sara Nelson
I saw him on the subway. He was sitting across the aisle, a man my age, West African, dressed in clothes that reminded me of glossy paper—they were made of a stiff, waxed fabric so white it was incandescent in the vibrating darkness of the subway car. He was talking to the friend sitting next to him, his cap pulled low over his brow. He just came from the mosque, he said. He went there every so often to help with vacuuming and stuff.
It was a few years into the new millennium. I was in Stockholm for a job and had met up with a buddy afterward. We’d played PlayStation all night and now I was on my way to the place where I was staying. The lights seemed to tumble through the tunnel. I felt the way I always did during this time of my life, a time marked by death—my best friend had passed away from cancer and others in my circles had died from overdoses or in police cells. Life felt terribly depopulated. Neutron-bomb lights were tumbling in the emptiness outside the car and they seemed to be x-raying the people around me, like I could see the skeletons underneath their skin. But when my eyes landed on the guy talking about vacuuming a mosque I couldn’t stop staring. It was like he came from a planet that still had meaning.
I wanted to cross over to his side.
Swap bodies or something. Lives.
These types of things would happen to me in my twenties. Brief eruptions of meaning. Islam wasn’t entirely foreign to me. My old man had become a Muslim when I was a child, and every now and then I’d open the Quran he’d given me and find something that spoke to me. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say these passages touched something in me that was prelinguistic, a part of me that determined what a word might point to. I was particularly drawn to certain archaic images that I associated with events from my own life—a heavy rainfall devastating a garden, a star rising, hoofs stirring up dust against the sky. And that cosmology, which described our universe as a ring lost in the desert, and that desert as another ring lost in a larger desert, and on and on, to me became an illustration of quantum physics and string theory’s conception of the universe as encompassing eleven or twenty-six or even more hidden dimensions rolled up inside the ones we can apprehend, and their description of the universe as a multi-dimensional torus form or a rose.
I rested my forehead against the window of the subway car. I looked out into the emptiness. Had I been created? Did I own myself? What did names like “God,” “paradise,” and “eternal” mean? I sensed that the religious language held what I had first heard in poetry: a whisper that said eternity was at play in the everyday, like when I was younger and would lie in the grass looking at contrails, or when I’d been in love, or done a jump shot on the basketball court and for a moment we’d all been hanging in the light, weightless, before death . . . or like when I would wake up from a dream, sweaty and feeling that I’d touched another dimension of existence, that I’d left the Underworld, staggered to the door, and collapsed in bed.
Writing is a post-traumatic symptom: we’re born screaming, surprised to exist, and everything that follows is the search for a sign that can hold the scream of birth.
The road to Alhambra winds under heavy cactus leaves and dry trees that rattle like snake skins. The morning air, fragrant with lavender and dusty clay, still holds some of the night’s coolness. A woman scans our tickets and hands us earpieces that will allow us to hear the English-speaking guide. Next, we are channeled toward the interior of the palace with a stream of other tourists.
Inside, the palace walls are built from a stone that looks like plaster. Teeming Arabic inscriptions and stylized plants have been cut from the walls and the ceilings. It must have taken months of careful work to complete a surface the size of an open hand; the design gives the impression that this is a place where minerals and organic life meld. Even the tall arches have been covered in writing and whirling shapes. To me they look like pages in an open book. It is as if Alhambra is a long letter, suffused with astonishing care. I linger under the white arches. The voice of the tour guide crackles in my headphones, hurrying us along; there are other groups behind us and we have to keep going to the Hall of the Ambassadors, the Queen’s dressing room, the Sultan’s private prayer room . . . We enter a courtyard where twelve stone lions hold up a fountain: a gift to the Sultan from Jewish masons. It is as though the stone is floating, melting, dripping upward, weightless. The water is calcifying. In the Middle Ages, a poet from Granada described Alhambra as a place where the living and the dead, the floating and the solid, turn into each other. A dream. A letter from another universe.
Around the birth of this century, at a demonstration against police violence during the 2001 EU summit in Gothenburg, I was in a sundry group of activists who were shouting a familiar phrase: No justice, no peace. Politically, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced peace. Only conflicts, speed, friction. My understanding of myself was forged in a postcolonial, capitalist environment of violence, in places where what body you had fully determined the conditions of your life. Its vulnerability as it walked across the city square, abandoned among the abandoned, violent and afraid among the violent and afraid.
No justice, no peace.
After the terrorist attack in Stockholm in the spring of 2017, I felt a deep need to participate as a Muslim in the dirgelike performance taking place in the media. I wanted to contribute to the columns and articles expressing shock, worry, and assurance immediately after the attack. I did; I wrote about Stockholm, but the text did not focus on the conflicts between center and periphery, Black and white, rich and poor, city and suburb. Instead, I wrote about the line that separates those who in that moment had their humanity questioned and who knew they risked being subjected to additional terror laws, from everyone else—people for whom this particular moment in history was like any other. Yet another moment in politics which, to borrow from the French author Édouard Louis, actualized for them “a way of thinking about oneself, a way of seeing the world, building one’s identity. For us, it was about life and death.”
Life and death: I’d never before felt as acutely how life is at stake in writing. I wrote that despite it all, negotiations to bring forth diversity were underway in Stockholm. If nowhere else, they were ongoing in the subway’s echoing tile sluices, those portals to other worlds, where I had once listened to a young man talking about how he sometimes helped clean a different universe. I wrote that there are nights when the concrete floors and columns of these subway stations seem weightless, and that when I walk across the geometric black-and-white stone pattern of Sergels Torg, I sometimes feel like I have enormous wings coming out of my back. I wanted to create a reverent text that held unconditional respect for every single dead body that had been carried from the site of the attack on Drottninggatan. If for no other reason, this is what I wanted because it was what I had demanded of others when I wrote about the oil wars, the racist terrorist murders in Sweden, torture camps around the world, and anti-Blackness. Later, I couldn’t help but wonder about the shift that the text nevertheless entailed. I called upon a language beyond the body’s hierarchies, a language where time is not a straight line and where hope and grace are political concepts as meaningful as ethnicity, class, or sex. I wrote as a Muslim, and in so doing I discovered that a Muslim voice is wholly different from a Black man’s voice, wholly different from a working-class voice. I wrote about peace. I began to wonder if that night in Madrid years earlier, when I recited the declaration of faith for the first time, had been the biggest aesthetic event of my life.
It was during those years that I wrote the poetry collection Städerna inuti Hall (The Cities inside Hall). Weeks could pass by without me seeing anyone but the Iraqi man who owned the corner store where I bought cigarettes and food. I studied political theory and existentialist manifestos. Geopolitical changes mixed with private catastrophes and created a landscape dominated by violence. I’d look through the window and see ash swirling; money, locks, shadows crouched under a sky that satellites and bombers had emptied of vertigo and meaning. Existence was made up only of things that were visible, and all that was visible had already been bought and devoured by capitalism. Even falling snow came to remind me of plastic, toilet paper, hospital waste. Civilization belonged to those who’d conquered it, those who in so doing had themselves been categorically destroyed.
I was sitting on a worn carpet in a mosque, bracketed by bookshelves full of books in Arabic. I was crying. Crying for all those who were gone, and for myself, who was still there, left behind in time. Someone put an arm around my shoulders. I’d been pushed toward that mosque by my entire life. By writing—that is, by abandoning and being abandoned—by standing wordless at graves, by loving and losing, by efforts to cut through to the core of the words, to solve their riddles, and by always, throughout everything, hearing the whisper that comes out of poetry and which is all of this emptiness that turns around and says:
“I am not empty. I am open.”
I recited a few words in a foreign language. Ashadu ’an lā ilāha illā-llāh. The walls and the objects around me shook.
Everything acquired a different density and mass.
Wa ašhadu anna muhammadan rasūlu-llāh.
I made a fist and opened my hand again in front of me. It moved in directions that had not existed before.
Impossible to describe.
Not empty. Open.
And like love, despite it all.
The love that is always already gone.
When I walked out into the street the trees were murmuring with wind from other stars. Something that preceded words—something that preceded “something,” “had,” and “happened”—something had happened.
Now, many years later, I can see how this had a lot to do with writing. That it had a lot to do with the question of truth. With the possibility of love, despite it all. That word, love, which recurs, might be all I can write about it without betraying myself. And when I write the word “love” I mean the love that knocks us to the ground and makes the body shake, only to lift us, helpless, up into the night, at once joyful and unhappy since through it, we see that we’ve found a path to our destiny.
It seeks us when we seek it.
Mamma. You’re asleep as I write this. Drops of blood slowly crawl through the plastic tubes that sprout from your body. From the hallway I hear the low clatter of the nurses’ shoes. In here the only sound is the rustle of your sheets when you turn in your sleep.
It’s me, Mamma. It’s Sara.
I wish you would stop looking at the clock on the wall of your room each time you wake up. You open your eyes and glance at Mickey Mouse laughing from the clock face. You note that a few more hours have passed but you’re still alive. I hear it in your voice when you ask for more morphine in a strained whisper. I press the red button to call the nurse.
Look at me, Mamma.
Look away from the clock.
You fall asleep again.
A fly is buzzing in the white curtains.
The clock is ticking.
I have the taste of death on my tongue during these sleepy days. It’s like the thin layer of soap that covers the red-patterned linoleum floor after the cleaner has been through.
You wake up again, your eyes drawn to the clock face. You look repulsed. I ask what you dreamed.
“I was lying under a thick sheet of ice,” you say. “Just lying there, staring up into the ice-blue darkness.”
As I walk under Alhambra’s white arches, so like a long letter, I think of Miles Davis. He is said to have handed out the score to a new piece of music while instructing his confused fellow musicians to play what was not on the page. Some of his greatness, of course, lay in how he moved inside the zone where silence turns to sound in particular ways. The whining, gloomy cries of his trumpet existed not just at the edge of the music, but, also at the edge of the sound itself. Religion can be said to be about “playing what isn’t there,” though in relation to the body: being a Muslim is a specific way of not being this hair, not being these nails, these teeth, this brain—a way of not being all this which is going to be sucked down the wells of oblivion.
In a conversation with Sara I once said: “I am not my body, but I am also not not my body. I am the unique way in which I experience being more than my body.”
Islam is to look at your hand, make a tight fist, and then open it, thinking: one day it will detach itself and fly away from me like a bird: my body does not belong to me.
Islam is to be waiting to travel through one’s death.
I think about Miles Davis’s whining, gloomily triumphant trumpet. “Play what isn’t there”: the body will return also from the black hole of death, and it is central to Islam’s rituals. It must be washed in specific ways; it must prostrate itself and lay its head on the ground several times a day; it travels across the world to circle Kaaba. Islam is neither the body’s transcendence nor its opposite, but a different imagination of the concepts of body, I, soul, life, death. This might be why I experience Islam’s physicality as untranslatable: how the body seems to exist inside an iridescent soap bubble during Ramadan, how arms and legs go numb and fill with moonglow during the long night prayers or in the Sufi meditation. How obvious it is, when you wash a dead body in a freezing morgue, that the body is a type of clay vehicle, empty for now.
We are a problem.
We don’t belong here, in this totality. We carry shards of a different whole, a different order, which, in its own way, has gone missing. The five daily prayers disrupt the capitalist measurement of time as either labor or leisure, and during one month we refrain from food and sexual intercourse—the double roots of consumption—for as long as the sun is up.
I am not a cloud of floating whispers.
I am a core of silence surrounded by a deafening roar.
“I have my own stories,” Sara wrote in one of the dense, meteoric fragments she sent as part of one of our long, winding conversations. “They don’t belong to anyone else. It is I who am elsewhere.”
We are not an origin—on the contrary, we know that family ties will neither save nor condemn us. Abu Jahl, the prophet’s uncle, was condemned to the fire. And our future lies neither in becoming one with the tower that rises around us, nor necessarily in becoming that tower’s undertaker. As opposed to “a white person” or “a worker,” for example, the name “a Muslim” does not signify a body situated in a specific place in the order of capitalism (or colonialism, capitalism’s conjoined twin). Instead, it speaks of a being whose innermost core has been touched by a specific love, and who through this love has been transformed into something that partly, in an impossible way, exists outside of capitalism.
So I was not writing about weightless concrete and an open city because I had suddenly found myself in a new place, but because I, ever since that evening in Madrid, have vibrated: I am not here, but nor am I there.
We are not our bodies.
We are not not our bodies.
We are not a minority.
The people around us are fanning themselves with the tourism brochures. The relentless midday heat has swept away what was left of the night. In the sharp sun the walls, with their intricate shadows, look permeable, like what makes up a beehive.
We enter Alhambra’s biggest room: the Hall of the Ambassadors, which was also called the Hall of the Names, since every diplomat who was granted audience with the Sultan had his name written on the wall. My daughter is sitting on my shoulders. In my ear, the guide’s voice crackles:
“All that we know about Alhambra, we know because the people who lived here wrote the history of the place on the walls.”
I can sometimes tell from the look in my friends’ eyes that they think I’ve lost it when I talk about Islam, about this crumbling castle that rises from the desert of globalization. Like I’m making my home in a ruin. They might not be wrong about that—according to Islam’s historiography we are currently leaving the era of the prophets, moving toward ever longer shadows. The atheists will at some point find themselves alone in a long night of oblivion. There was a shooting at a mosque in Québec City, Canada, in 2017. Six people died. In London several Muslims, most of them women in hijab, have had acid thrown in their faces. The news photos make the survivors in their transparent plastic masks look like visitors from another dimension or cosmos.
Surrounded by bone-white writings on the walls in the Hall of the Ambassadors I suddenly experience a sense of calcification, like I’m walking through a petrified garden.
By the time construction began on Alhambra, the Catholics had already conquered the entire Iberian Peninsula, except Granada, where Jews and Muslims had taken refuge and lived in a type of memory of the world they had once populated. A final echo of Sepharad, of Al-Andalus. Alhambra was less the crown of the Andalusian world than it was its gravestone or death mask.
I think of the fight to preserve Kviberg’s market, a marketplace and community for immigrants in Gothenburg. At an organizing meeting, a friend stood up and said: “If these walls could talk, they’d tell our story.”
In Alhambra, in the fortress of writing, I understand that the most human phrase is not “remember me,” singular, but plural.
Writing is a gold disc moving up through the solar wind.
A burning car.
Mamma. Yesterday I sat on a roadblock and ate lemon sorbet while you limped around the parking lot outside your apartment. Sometimes you’re able to walk around the entire lot, sometimes you’re not. When you can’t do it you get sad. While I waited I looked up at the sky, where a jet plane was cutting diagonally across the blue. I wonder what we looked like from up there. I followed the trajectory of the plane until the sunlight was too sharp to look at. Squinting, I could follow the contrails, which looked like a half-erased line straight into the sun, drawn with a white chalk. You called for help and I lowered my eyes. I’d been so far away for a while.
I am the soul laid bare in the world. I am not of the West but I am in the West. I am nobody’s translation. I am not terror. I am not immobile here. I have my own stories. They belong to nobody else. It is I who am elsewhere.
Sometimes it happened that pieces of wood drifted ashore in the Azores, floating out of the seemingly endless ocean. This was in the late fifteenth century. The beginning of the Conquests. People began to intuit that there were shores beyond the horizon in the West. Those who believed in a round Earth assumed that those foreign lands were Indian.
Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic monarchs who were determined to banish Islam from the Iberian Peninsula, moved their armies south. The Muslim reign in Cordoba fell. Malaga fell.
Christopher Columbus was obsessed with finding an alternative trade route to India, as that would pull the rug out from underneath the Muslim empire, which still appeared to be at the center of the world, extending between East and West, between Europe and Asia, between here and there. He applied for support for an expedition, at first with the Portuguese king, who rebuffed his plans, and later in war-torn Spain, where Queen Isabella promised she would listen. She had one condition, however: the Iberian Peninsula had to be conquered and taken from the Muslims before she would meet with Columbus. An external expedition would only be possible if the interior of the nation had been purified.
Alhambra fell in early 1492. Columbus was called to the site. To the end of a world. Here. In this palace. I look up at the ceiling, a dome of cedar wood with stars made of a lighter wood organized in a geometric pattern. According to the guide this was the room where Columbus met with Isabella, where he finally got the funding he needed for his journey out West. Right here. It was here that the destiny of the world was sealed. In a petrified garden. In the Hall of the Ambassadors.
At night I smell the jasmine blossoms outside your window, Mamma. It cuts through the smell of illness in your bedroom. You’re home again. The two of us are lying on your bed, and you tell me you’ll always watch over me.
“You will always be my child, Sara.” I squeeze your hand to let you know I can hear you. You go quiet and then you fall asleep. I can hear the gaps inside your breaths. I’m lying on the bed, smelling the jasmine, and I look out into the darkness of the room. You don’t like waking up alone. You’ve become afraid of the dark. Your sleeping body is a shadow in the room. Tense and curled up in the white sheets, you look like a cocoon.
In Islam, we believe that the souls of the sleeping are drawn to God, like moths flying toward the light.
You wake up. I bathe you. I wash your hair. With my hand cupped, I protect your eyes from the sudsy water streaming over your face.
I am a becoming. I am not a failure of evolution. I am not the tolerance of anyone. I am not an image in somebody’s collection. I am a collection. My inheritance is counter-revolutions and paramilitary boldness. I am a longing. I am a citizen. I expand my language until it can hold others. I am sunk into a world inhabited by cassette loops and frequencies. There is no need for anybody to take my veil off. I am part of the cosmos. I am affect and I am in affect. I am a resource. I am a source. I am a perspective. I am situated. I have no interest in fleeing. I am not lost. I do not have amnesia.
Pioneer 10 stopped transmitting information to earth in January 2003, when its radio ran out of electricity. The space probe, launched in 1972 and carrying a gold disc with information about Earth and humans, was the first artificial object to reach a velocity high enough to leave the solar system. As I wander through Alhambra, my daughter on my shoulders, the sonar is somewhere beyond the orbit of the most distant asteroid, moving toward the place where the solar wind (a plasma wind of charged particles streaming from the sun) yields to the interstellar wind that blows through the darkness between the stars.
Carl Sagan, who designed the gold disc, which is also carried by the twin probe Pioneer 11, has expressed dissatisfaction that the two human figures etched on it look white. He intended for them to be “pan-racial.” In the first rendering, made by his wife Linda Salzman Sagan, the man had Afro hair.
The two figures are naked, though not primarily with the intention of illustrating human biology and the reproductive organs—these are only hinted at with a few discreet lines—but rather in yet another attempt to make them universally human, by not dressing them in the clothes of a specific culture. Still, when the images were published in the nineteen-seventies, the choice to render them in the nude led to condemnation from people who argued that it made the pictures obscene. That line of critique would probably not be levied by the Western public today, but it is easy to imagine it coming from other groups; Muslims in particular might not feel immediately represented by nude humans. On the whole, this illustrates the difficulty, impossibility even, of representing a “universal” human without being exclusionary in your supposition of what is natural and what, so to speak, is the blank surface on which to write one symbol or another.
There are constant short-circuits between Islam and the secular post-Christian language that dominates contemporary Europe. Right-wing populists and terrorist sects in Islam’s periphery use these glitches to paint their enemies as monsters and lunatics. The short-circuits are not political in the first instance, but, rather, concern what precedes politics: our ideas of who we are and what is meaningful for beings like us. That afternoon in Madrid when I sat crying before a group of strangers and recited the declaration of faith, what changed was not primarily the ideas I had about how to live my life, but rather the “I” that had these ideas. The shiny disc on which my identity was written broke in two and when the pieces were joined again the disc looked new. In a moment that was almost inaccessible even to myself, things changed. The ways in which I was my body and the ways in which I was not my body were transformed. And which, out of all the amorphous events floating between matter and consciousness, constituted my “I,” was transformed, and what this “I” could experience and perform was transformed.
“I am a source. I am a perspective. I am situated.”
I am not I.
You are not you.
I am the bloody embodiment of articulation’s difficulty. I am mute in some languages, but not silent. I try to dream beyond the constant wars of information, media control, and surveillance orchestrated by the powers that be. I am not democracy’s failure.
The snow blows up from the ground, whirls around me. Standing in front of the mosque I lift my face to heaven. You’ve been gone for three months now, Mamma. The snow looks like white dust shaken from a big gray sheet. Your absence was so sudden and is so totalizing. I feel hazy, like a TV channel without programming.
A person who desires Islam and begins to engage with Islam’s practices will realize that what distinguishes a Muslim from a non-Muslim is not an inaccessible experience of living at the bottom of an oppressive society, but a real difference, a difference that has to do with a different conceptualization of death and life. If you recite the declaration of faith and begin to pray the daily prayers, fast during Ramadan, and take on the other practices, you become a Muslim.
To write as a Muslim, then, is a new way of standing at the shores of Troy, because in these circumstances it only takes a few words to teleport a person straight through the walls in either direction. Or, rather: it only takes a few words to turn the world inside out, so that the inside becomes the outside, and the outside the inside.
Blindness is not a privilege.
Per the phrase inscribed all over Alhambra: there is no victor but Allah.
James Baldwin: “I am not the victim here. I know one thing from another.”
So if I speak of peace now, in the belly of capitalism, in this mill, I speak of preserving difference. I am not talking about peace because I want to bring harmony to the conflict that has made me who I am, but because I want to preserve the person I am. I am talking about the whisper, about the secret, about the fairytale’s door to the invisible. I am talking about the scent of another universe that wafts through the air as the call to prayer echoes through the mosque, about that which is not written, about a beauty that can be desired but not consumed. Lastly, and above all, I am talking about my siblings, who carry this way of being into a blackening future under the sinking skies of growing right-wing populism and the security state. I am talking about the communal care for a world, about the women who teach a new generation to recite the Quran, about the industrial spaces turned into mosques by those who came before us. About collection cups and associations and membership meetings. About the young people who vacuum the carpets at night.
I am talking about Alhambra.
Excerpt from the essay “Alhambra.” First published in Glänta. © Johannes Anyuru. Italicized sections © Sara Nelson. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2019 by Kira Josefsson. All rights reserved.