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Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Submission, by Amy Waldman

Where were you when JFK was shot? Martin Luther King? Bobby Kennedy? Where were you when Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man?” When Nixon resigned? When the Soviet Union imploded For two generations, these essential “Where were you?” questions were eclipsed by, “Where were you at 9 AM on September 11, 2001?” For Amy Waldman, author of The Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) , she was building up the journalistic skills of a major reporter and the writing chops of the author that she becomes within these pages. As a bureau chief of the South Asia office for the New York Times, she found herself embedded in the conflicting cultures that led the story of  the memorial design competition that led up to the tenth year anniversary. Waldman is enough of a New Yorker that she could capture the view through the eyes of demagogues, widows, and Muslims. The demagogues live behind pen and microphone. The widows have the conscience suit covered deep, and the Muslims? Both the winning designer and an unlikely spokeswoman arise from the American Muslim community, with the twist that this Muslim is also a 9/11 widow.
Claire Burwell holds the lone seat on the memorial selection jury reserved for families of the victims. An Ivy-educated woman of independent means, her husband was very wealthy from his work at Cantor Fitzgerald. The jury added her because she was presumed to serve as a barrier between the artistic taste of the jury and the raw emotion of the other survivors. At the  other end of the spectrum is Sean Gallagher, a handyman living in the basement of his mother’s house in Brooklyn. Sean’s brother Patrick was a firefighter pulverized under the collapsing South Tower. Sean had build a small career being Patrick’s voice from beyond the grave. Mohammed (Mo) Khan, a prominent architect and a secular Muslim, won the anonymous competition with a garden that emerged geometrically from the irrigation canals up to the metal trees made from 9/11 rubble. When a grasping, aggressive journalist from a notorious tabloid discloses the religion of the competition winner, the city falls under another attack, this time from within.
Would the memorial garden ever be built at all?  Gallagher plays his status as the brother of a fallen hero into a speaking career with minor celebrity status, all in the name of preventing a Musilm architect from building an “Islamic garden: as a “martyr’s paradise.” Claire struggles to balance her own integrity with the raging voices of the other families. Mo fights everyone’s attempts to vilify the design by attacking the designer, or more specifically, the religious heritage of the designer. At a crucial moment, Asma, an undocumented Bangladeshi Muslim widow of the attacks, risks all she has to speak her truth at an angry gathering of the families of victims.
Ten years and two wars later, Waldman’s novel, The Submission, tells the story of a nation struggling to affirm the principles that extremists love to hate. The Submission speaks to the morals of a people whose pluralism, tolerance, and understanding were pushed to the brink of collapse by attackers whose main objective was to make the country whose ideology they hate destroy itself from within.

Majoring in Magda (2005)

Magda had won a scholarship offered by Frida’s client Bimbo SA, the Mexican baked goods concern that Frida had helped increase its route sales by 40% in three months. She earned a shot at El Norte by applying to, and being accepted by, Temple University’s Fox School of Business, conditional on improving her English skills during the summer. Samantha, for her part, had found Magda’s posting for a housemate on a board at the Liacouras Center at a David Byrne concert. Magda never asked Samantha if Dimitri were a casanova. In fact, given her poor English skills, it was amazing that she could interview potential housemates in English. Dimitri had to start looking past his sister and brother-in-law’s house in Princeton. Dimitri’s command of three languages, Russian, Hebrew, and English, and his advanced standing in the Master’s program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages didn’t hurt either.
The apartment was down in the Temple University ghetto. Samantha cautioned Dimitri about living on-campus, but he wasn’t about to keep his 280 ZX with the salt-eaten exhaust system when he could get $2000 for it as a classic. So Dimitri would have to walk or take the bus everywhere he went, and his tuition grant had no money to subsidize housing. So here he was, on a third floor of a N. 16th St.row house, overlooking a rat-infested, trash-strewn vacant lot where two houses had been pulled down. A stump, five feet in diameter, remained from a junk tree that had burst through the foundation and crashed through the basement and first floor. I wonder what the neighbors thought when they looked through the window and saw the forest on the insideof the house. Did they just pass by, thinking it was an indoor pot farm?
The house itself had art deco molding and wood trim – if you could call it “art” when the red paint had faded to a washed-out fuchsia, and when you touched the wood, it crumbled as if it were made of plaster. Like most of the other houses on the block, its concrete steps were cracked or crumbling. Unlike most of the other houses, the wobbly wrought-iron railing remained in place, and from the change in color of the concrete where the railing met the steps, had recently been reseated.  The steps to the second floor were hardwood – freshly sanded and polished. Dimitri was impressed. On the way to the third floor, a threadbare indoor-outdoor rug whose color palette ranged from a dull weave of mud-brown and grey at the walls to the indescribable nothingness of packed clay where thousands of feet had tread.  Samantha groaned. Su forma es demasiado saludante para ser tan cansada, thought Magda. Samantha looked too healthy to be out of breath.
In the apartment, things looked up. The ceiling was a fresh white with new fixtures. The wood floor was buffed, and Magda’s space rugs and wall hangings showed a cross of good taste and ethnic pride, representing the best of the indigenous textile trade around Puebla. The appliances were old but functional, and unlike the original design of row houses built to contain the new industrial workforce of the turn of the century, cabinets and closets popped out of strategic places in each room. This cut into the evident living space, but as Samantha kept reminding Dimitri when he was staying with her after getting caught with a naked girl between his legs in Atlantic City, nobody wants to look at your personal stuff.  Magda really tried, but she sounded like this:
Dimitri: So how long have you lived here?
What length have you lived here?
Magda: Long in time?
Long in time?
Dimitri: (Long in what else?) Yes, when did you come to Philadelphia?
If when you come to Philadelphia?
Magda: Okey, okey, I come in April and I move from one week.
Uh, I came to find this apartment in April. I moved my stuff in last week.
Magda: I study the business. What you will study?
I am in the Fox School of Management, studying business. What’s your major?
Dimitri: TESOL.
Tea soul
Magda: Ehhhh, Tea soul?
Ehhhh. Tea soul? (What is with this college, and what is this, herbology?)
Dimitri: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I can use you as a guinea pig.
Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I can to use you as the African pig.
Magda: Perdon? You say, “pig from the west of Africa?
Dimitri: No, no, it’s an expression. Guinea pigs are little animals, like rabbits. Scientists use this animal to test drugs and cosmetics on. I can test my skills on you to see if I can make your English better.
No, no, it an expressing. Guinea pigs are little animals. I like rabbits. Scientists use this animal to test drogas (farmaceuticos?) and … I can test you my skills and see your English better.
Magda: Good, good. I can help you if you have a math class. You can help me English better.
Good, good. I can help you with math, and you can help me in English.
(¿Que debo preguntarlo?)
Magda: Is the Samantha your new? (Samantha crosses her legs , a little uncomfortable, and smiles nervously)
Is Samantha your girlfriend?
Dimitri: Well, it’s a long story. But let’s say we’re very close. Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?
Well, it long story. But let say were very close to it. Are you married? Do you have a boy or friend?
Magda: I am a … we call it “soltera.” No boy, no girl. My friend is in Mexico.
I am unmarried and have no children. My friend is in Mexico.
Dimitri: Good. When do you get to see him next?
Good. When do you get him to see him next?
Magda: I get him since made in high school.
I became an item with her in high school.
(Magda had a real issue with personal pronouns; in this case, that was a good thing.)
Magda (to Samantha): What length of time you have him?
How long have you been with him?
Samantha: I can’t really say I have him. It’s hard to have a guy like Dimbo. He can be an asshole sometimes, but he’s contagious.
I can really say, I have him (no?). Is hard to have a … like Dimbo. He can be … some times, but he is infection.
Magda: Infection of elephants?
Infection of elefantes?
Samantha and Dimitri look at each other and giggle. Both answer: Dimbo, not Dumbo! It’s a nickname.
(pause) Dimbo, not Dumbo! It’s a nick name.
Magda (laughs nervously): Oh, not elefante. Light bomb.
Oh, not elefante. Light bombera.
Samantha (reaches over and puts her hand on Magda’s hand and smiles at her, looking into her eyes): You’ll do fine. You keep trying.
You do fine. You keep to trying. (Flinches at first, then returns warm look and locks fingers with Samantha and smiles.)
Magda: You watch careful, Dimbo, I take him from you!
You watch out, Dimbo, I will take her from you!
As Magda, Samantha, and Dimitri hacked out a conversation in one-and-a-half languages, it became clear that Magda was looking for a man as a housemate because of security reasons, but really wanted one with a girlfriend. Hearing sex, in Magda’s mind, was better than being hit on for it. As for her situation, Samantha figured out that Magda was, in fact, a lesbian, and that her comment about taking Samantha from Dimitri was a jibe with a foot in fact. Magda had not mentioned Flora by name, choosing the code phrase, “mi socia,” or “mi compañera.” Samantha didn’t understand the female suffix at first, and Dimitri missed it completely. But Samantha noticed the slight flush in Magda’s light complexion when she tried to talk about Flora. Magda also squeezed her slight legs together and looked up. It seemed that Magda touched her own right thigh just below her denim miniskirt.
Magda’s mind wandered to the first time she suspected that she wanted to be with a woman. In Catholic Mexico, it was a matter of common knowledge that homosexuals were going to hell, and even heterosexual sex outside of marriage was a mortal sin. In this repressive environment, the liberalization of the previous decade seemed more rumor than fact. Even Flora, the journalist who wore tie-dye and hemp sandals, found herself dogged by boys, and later, young men, who wanted to be her first encounter. They even said so. Frida knew Flora, when the latter was a chubbly teenager and Frida, a little girl. By the tie-dye and hemp days, Flora’s baby fat had disappeared, but her curves had not.
When Frida introduced them at the conference, only she knew that her best friend would never be interested in boys. Or in men. It was a lucky bit of matchmaking to surmise that Magda would be interested in Flora. As Magda sat in front of Dimitri and the smoking-hot Samantha, Magda’s mind wandered and her whole body thought about her “socia.” Flora’s broad, soft facial features. Flora’s rich latte skin. The shape of Flora’s thighs, her calves. The infinitude of ways that she touched Magda with all her body. And those incomparable hands. Magda didn’t notice that her right foot had slipped out of her sandal, embraced her left, and all her toes were curling.
All parties snapped out of their reverie, and concluded their business. Dimitri paid Magda the $250 for the first month’s rent. He shook her hand, put his left hand on her right shoulder, and placed a chaste kiss on her right cheek. Samantha hugged the shorter woman around the shoulders, while receiving Magda’s arms around her waist. The embrace lasted only a few seconds, but engaged both women from head to toe. They kissed, just for an instant, and smiled.
On the way out of the row house, Dimitri stumbled over Samantha’s ankle and caught himself on the wrought-iron railing. Whispering a silent “thank-you” to the landlord for making that repair before worrying about the non-carpet on the steps, he turned to Samantha, who had grabbed his other arm to keep him from falling.
“You like her, don’t you.”
“She seems really nice. You’ll have a great roommate.”
“And which one will you sleep with?”
Samantha swatted Dimitri over the head with her Fendi purse.

A Night at the Jewish Opera (2004)

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Hazzan Boroff was, like Rafi, a short, wide man who wore business suits that looked like those of his Wall Street congregants. Barnoy was sitting forward in his plush chair, with his muscular arms balanced at the elbow on the maple desk. Like Rafi, Boroff was also an athlete; he had represented Israel in powerlifting in the 1994 Olympics in Los Angeles, the same Olympics that motivated Rafi to take up distance running because of the woman whose drama was played out in front of 80,000 horrified spectators at the L. A. Coliseum and hundreds of millions of others around the world on television. Gabriela Andersen-Scheiss, the former ski coach, was dragging herself, seemingly near death, around the track for the final 6/10 of a mile in the women’s marathon. Boroff had Rafi’s build, but extra heft on the shoulders and much larger arms – a fact that all his congregants knew whenever he flexed his arms as he was doing now. The warp of his pinstripe really had to warp to contain the 17” arms, while the woof just weft.
Lo yuchal la’asot konsert k’mo zeh b’million years,” Boroff cautioned Rafi, when he heard of the idea of an opera concert on Long Island. “Kulam y’cholim lik’not  kartisim la Met o City Opera. Lamah rotzim lishmo’a lanu? Boroff added that because Rafi was the cantor of Suffolk County, he had an advantage.
Az ani m’argen um’kayem oto, v’atah y’chol lashir bazo!” Rafi’s offer to put the concert together and then have Boroff and his choir be guest artists made the other sabracantor-athlete flex his muscles with excitement. His fabric weft louder this time, so he took off his jacket and grabbed a stack of promotional material.
“Here, look over this. Make sure your best graphic artist in your shulworks with the best photographer you’ve got. Blow your budget on these. They are durable, and they sell tickets.”
The heavy card with a high gloss finish displayed HazzanBoroff, first in a High Holiday robe, and then in costume as the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins. In both shots, the face popped. Rafi could see that he had a lot to learn still.
First he had to sell his choir. Never, not in Israel, not in Cleveland, certainly not in Philadelphia, did he have a group of people who wanted a result without working for it. The choir had hated Rafi’s first High Holidays. No folk tunes. No unison. No Long Island Hebrew. Music. Four parts. He wants us to sing in four parts! Who does he think he is, Leonard Bernstein? Every note was tightly composed, and this kid (Rafi was really 40) wants us to sing what the composer wrote and not what we think she wrote. But Cantor Ben-Berak got us through it, and the composition professor at Stony Brook said we sounded great. So maybe.
First he had four come back. Then a fifth. Another two. Rafi got on the phone and called all the old members who had left out of boredom under the previous cantor. Now there were thirteen. No, that wouldn’t do. Rafi sang bits of all parts to help the women who coutldn’t read music.  That means he counts. Fourteen. Winter concert on Shabbat Shirah. You’re not supposed to applaud during a service. But that V’al Kulam that starts as easy as can be, the one that gave a scintilla of confidence to the ragtag bunch of wayward silver singers that Rafi inerited, silence. Then a buzzing, and a few hugs in the choir loft. Then Rafi decided he would be Leonard Bernstein, winked at his pianist, the jazz/classical/Renaissance star from Stony Brook, and sang bekol ram, “SING! GOD A SIMPLE SONG! To Him be praise,” by which time Gabe had the music to “Simple Song” from Bernstein’s Mass out, in time to slam the chord for, “MAKE IT UP!”
The last big musical event in Suffolk County, at least until the open air concerts began in Huntington, the Hamptons, and the North Fork, was Rafi’s Night at the Jewish Opera. Hazzan Boroff couldn’t make it – family emergency in Israel. Two other guest soloists, a cantor and his wife, a doctoral candidate in Early Music at Stony Brook, came. Several members of the Shelter Rock choir offered to come. Boroff said they wanted to come. If all five of them came, they would have reduced the average age by at least fifteen years, but Rafi’s choir voted them out. This is OUR event, they said. We have this music, and we are going to blow them away. Rafi didn’t have to ask his troupe to sell tickets – everyone they knew paid full price for this.
The choir opened with Gott Bensch Amerike by Irving Berlinski, as the famous Broadway legend had signed the Yiddish manuscript. The transliterated Yiddish appeared in the program so that everyone could join. With the good feeling among the 280 concertgoers still bouncing off the walls and creating ether for the forthcoming sound to dance on, the choir and soloists performed sections from Judas Maccabeus, finishing with “Hail, the conqu’ring hero,” to which Rafi was practically tap-dancing. The choir almost giggled. Rafi had asked Gabe early on, when all the notes were in place, what he’d change. Gabe replied,
“Can you make it dance?”
Now it was dancing. Next came three arias from Elijah, the two tenor arias and “It is enough,” the baritone aria which would have been an Act II finale if this were an opera. Two arias from La Juive – by the guests, the husband singing Eleazar, the wife, Rachel. Then Samson et Dalilah – part in French, but the final solo and chorus in English, again with the words printed in the program. Intermission.  A Rossi psalm. Then, the banned music of the Holocaust, including the great aria of der Kaiser von Atlantis by Victor Ullmann. Hagada shel Pesach, by Paul Dessau. And finally the death aria from The Golem, by John Casken. Gabe and Rafi had worked like mathematical slaves to get this one right. It came out perfect – but it was the piece nobody understood. Pure Rafi.
All was redeemed when the choir took up positions on the main steps to the stage, wrapped a white yoke over their collective shoulders, waited for Rafi to join them under the yoke, and sand the Chorus of the Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco. Pin drop. Rafi emerges and sings Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion aria. Choir! Bravos echoing on that ether! Three encores!
The next year, the congregation had a fight over hiring a new rabbi. The families that left created a cantor-sized hole in the budget. Rafi and Segal, who had bought a house shortly after this magical moment, were left with half their income, and their future, destroyed.

Shock and Awe (2004)

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Dear Stasha,
“I hope you’re not hiding anything about Artyom – infants can’t be as easy as Dimitri says he is!! I’m looking forward to getting home and hugging him really, and looking into his real eyes, not the Skyped eyes!  My ‘residency’  here in Mazar is ending is just about up, but I am ***SO***  frustrated that some of the best soldiers I’ve trained here are set to be transferred, along with lots of men and some women who have been vital to our establishing good relations with the Afghans, to Iraq. They asked my chief civilian resident to go and set up field MASH units in Iraq, because, as your brother would say, Bozhe fucking Moi are they STUPID!!! My mail doesn’t get censored as strictly as the grunts – and it’s a good thing, because I’m pretty pissed off right now. We have influence over about half this country at most. There’s a friendly pol named Hamid Karzai in Kabul right now; you probably knew that. From what I can tell, he’s there because he’s the only Pashtun we can find that any Turkmen or Hazara will talk to, let alone vote for. I’m not sure that they trust him. I know that his brother is some kind of thug – I actually had to face the man down, through an interpreter, in order to get a shipment of artificial organ walls and the clean surgical equipment I needed to do anything but amputate limbs and euthanize thoracic patients!
“This guy paraded around in a white shroud like the humblest peasant, hat the vest part of a three piece suit over it, wore a head covering that looked like it came from Leningrad and not the desert,  and brought thirty armed Pashtuns with him everywhere he went. This is how he displayed that he was a Big Man in Kandahar, and that he could deliver the men who still prefer the assholes that attacked us on 9/11 and got me to go here. He can’t do that. There are fifty Big Men just waiting to knock him off. You just won’t believe what I had to do to get this guy to open up the road from Kabul.
“Remember the story I told Dimitri about Jonah and the Whale? The haftarahthat we sit through when we’re starving at the end of Yom Kippur? Well, I thought of a different scripture. Look it up, Chapter 4 of Megillat Esther. We read it on Purim. Bigthan and Theresh were two thugs who wanted to take out a king from near here. Mordechai the Jew called them out, and they were hanged. Nobody did a thing about it, but the King woke up one night thinking about it, and re-read the events. He discovered that the hero, Mordechai, had received nothing for saving the Kingly ass.
“So, innocently, he asked his viceroy Haman what he should do to honor and show favor to him. Haman, it says, thought that the King could only mean him – Haman – so, sparing no detail, he comes up with a parade with horses decked out in purple velvet, musicians, the whole shee-bang. So the king orders Haman to put such an event together for Mordechai. Well, I decided that this is what I was going to do. We got fifty humvees from all over the North, draped them in the flag of the Karzai family, and trekked in all the supplies we could fly in at one time in from Bagram in a convoy with Karzai’s brother picking the music. You can imagine that he had the road cleared of these mines they can set off with garage door openers, and nobody who wasn’t part of the parade could hang out within half a mile of the road.
“The GI’s had to help out with logistics way befuckingyond, as Dim might say, the call of duty. Hell. They were giving up their own supplies to make sure Waliball’s retinue was happy. I heard someone wanted HANDKERCHIEFS en route, and that the jerk was high enough up that he’s better get his handkerchief, or he would send orders to “his Jurga.” Who knows what he meant, but he got his damn handkerchief. So we got to Bagram, and we got back to Mazar, just in time, too, because a helicopter was waiting for us with a dying kid inside. I couldn’t tell, boy, girl. There was too much blood. Exsanguinaaaaaaation is makin’ me quake, is keepin’ me blee-ee-ee-ee-ee-idin’. Carole King, I think. You were a little girl. You would have loved Carole King. Sometimes I turn her on Sirius over here and cry, when I’m alone.
“Well, I bubbled the bronchiole, tied up the thorax, stitched up the skin, and passed it off to the hospital. Yes, our men and women made that.  As of this email, the girl (it was a girl) lived, and I am trying to keep the family from giving me all their goats.
“Prekrasnichka, I love you very much. I miss you. Give yourself a big hug for me, and don’t bother too much if Dimitri brings those women over. I just don’t want you to be alone, OK?”

My first ever author interview!