There’s something about arriving in America. No matter what decade it is or who’s president, it always smells the same as soon as you step into the arrival terminal. You immediately pick up the scent of chlorine in the air – almost like the air conditioning ran on pool water instead of Freon. Underneath that, you pick up the warm cookie smell of matted but clean carpeting. Then, as is the protocol, the smell of coffee meanders out of somewhere close-by along with the smell of freshly-baked books.
It feels like I’m home finally because, for the gazillionth time, I’m back in the US. It’s a time capsule and I haven’t grown a day older since I first came here.
It was Los Angeles in the 90’s. Chic back then was long peach blazers and glossy enamel nails in apricot blush. Sherry – not Cherry – was talking to my parents about the apartment we were leasing for two months. Her dark hair was piled onto her head into an accidental chignon and I thought she was the loveliest woman in the world. I wondered why my mother did not dress like that, like a perfumed mannequin. But my mom was sensible with her plaited maxi skirt and her long hijab scarf that trailed down her front like twin ice cream cones.
Sherry had the air of a woman who could somehow command an army of slump-backed middle-aged men in oversized work shirts, leading them astray from their wives. Of course, I did not have this thought back then. I was only eight. My imagination didn’t go that far – but somehow it went much farther. And Los Angeles was wonderland. So, beautiful Sherry – not Cherry – had better finish up, take us upstairs and quite yammering so we can resume soaking up the magic that was America. But she didn’t seem to want to finish up because grown-ups always had more to say to each other, didn’t they? So, I was content to just sit there and stare at her, wishing her nails were mine.
Those were the years when Disney was at its prime – right before its eventual downfall. What’s Disney making this year, we would ask. Aladdin, then The Lion King, then Pocahontas – but we didn’t care much for Pocahontas. Throughout the year, we would be in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and I would be in school. But I would be hopping for months, waiting for the summer so we could go to Los Angeles. And when we arrived there, I would be hopping to go to Westfield Century City Shopping Center just to stay for hours in the Disney store. My time at the store was mostly utilized dreaming about the latest character costumes which my mother would never agree to buy. She eventually did and oddly enough it was the skimpy Princess Jasmine costume which some orientalist decided was “brown people” garb.
If you asked me what those summers in Los Angeles were like, I would tell you to pour a bottle of glitter on the surface of a warm bubbling Jacuzzi. If you asked me again what it was like, I would tell you it was a dark foreign sea that stormed sporadically and pulled you under into the desolation below.
Because of Mahmoud.
Mahmoud was always taller than me. He used to be skinny. I wouldn’t call him frail really, but because of his condition, he always seemed a little floppy to me, bendable. But still he was always my older brother in size and age.
I was right at the age when I was at the threshold of understanding Mahmoud’s condition really well. I had recently left behind the provoking question “Why is my brother like this?”. In those years, Mahmoud was admitted into the Neuro-psychiatric Institute’s summer rehabilitation program at UCLA. He was so sunny and naïve. His dark-fringed green eyes always fresh from the olive orchard. His gaze had a powerful quality of wonder, always darting left and right in perpetual questioning. Hammudi – that’s what we call him – trundled happily to “school” every morning where they taught him how to communicate, to learn, to play. There was art therapy and physical therapy and of course, the occasional Disney sing-along.
Hammudi is a man now, 35, and with a tentative pot belly that comes from lack of exercise. It astonishes me how in pictures of him from that time, he really seemed just like a little boy that you could put in your lap and cuddle – if he let you. This stark contrast brings me to an unfamiliar way of relating to him: he was a fragile little boy. Possibly more fragile than we thought.
At USC, I’m invited to a 5-week screenwriting workshop where, along with a set of other talented writers from the Middle East, I am meant to hash through several potential TV shows. After I set my things down at the dorm room, I walk around, picking up the familiar smells of California. Even in the days to come when the novelty is generally expected to fade, I still observe my body in a continuous fury of recognizing. It shape-shifts between the sensations of an adult female and an eight-year-old girl with a long braid and thick glasses. Summer camp. Sweaty kids. Century City. Burgers, Doritos and paprika potato chips, popcorn butter and Free Willy pins.
In the midst of this delight, something howls like an undercurrent. I expected this. I knew it was coming around the corner. When I made my film Don't Go Too Far, which was dedicated to Mahmoud, I thought I had reconciled our dark times in Los Angeles. What is the significance of experiencing this pain now? Why does it feel like there’s a piece missing? I am in an avalanche of tears even as I write this. I need to know…
I decide to call the UCLA Semel Neuropsychiatric Institute.
To be continued…