[Note: The following is an excerpt from a novella]
The first one appeared on May 14. The world was approaching its point-of-no-return at the speed of light, proving from day to day how damn right prophet Malachi was (For behold, the day is coming, blazing like a furnace), and Earth was becoming the steaming, racist inferno in which we’ll all perish. In Tompkins Square Park, it was raining like hell.
Before we begin, I would like to preempt any misunderstandings: This is no love story. Nor is it some cautionary tale about the Clash of Civilizations or the Downfall of the West. This is the story of two men who led their unimportant lives in the Big, Rotten Apple. These men happen to be the best friends I’ve ever had.
To avoid any surprises—or, as we call them in the U.S. of A., potential lawsuits—let me give you the full pitch. I’m giving you this pitch as a courtesy, a content warning. Like those small red pepper icons they use in menus of Indian restaurants to warn old, white people that the food could burn their taste buds, so they might as well order some extra chapati with that curry.
So here goes:
A gay couple faces an impossible dilemma, when a mysterious offer appears in their inbox: If they agree to create a homemade pornographic film, they will receive $120,000 that will allow them to realize their long-standing dream of becoming parents.
Norma, third seat on the left at my screenwriting class, says my pitch sucks. I say, let me see the man who thinks that naming your daughter Norma is a legitimate thing to do after 1967.
You have a decent hook, she tells me. Your characters are refreshing and surprisingly well-rounded. But if I may, Jordan dear, you are robbing your pitch of its narrative potential.
And as much as I hate to admit it, she is right. Cause I neglected to mention one crucial detail: this ain’t no typical story. This baby happens to be the living nightmare of any bigot—it’s both homosexual and bi-racial.
The heroes of our story are two men whose hearts lie deep in the cursed ground of the Holy Land. Don’t get me wrong: they’re both Americans, proud residents of the urban jungle known as Alphabet City, Manhattan (Proud? Daud would probably say. I’m not proud of this country, world champion of racism, both overt and covert, 243 years and counting. But he is proud, trust me. You should see his face at our Fourth of July picnics, nibbling his vegan chicken wings all shining. He’s just playing hard to get).
And you know what they say. A Jewish soul still yearns and all that jazz. Although only one of our protagonists is Jewish. The other is—surprise, surprise—Muslim, Palestinian. And that’s the complication in our story. That’s our tragic punchline, our comedic catastrophe, my friends. That’s what makes our story sound like the beginning of a joke that Neo-Nazis tell each other at their underground conventions.
You see, my fellows here in La La Land usually laugh at me. They dismiss my story, calling it a hippie fairytale. They say that if I pitch it anywhere in Hollywood I will be blacklisted—and not in the Let-Me-Buy-The-Rights-In-A-Million-Dollar sense of the term. Producers will avoid my calls, ignore my messages, slam doors in my face.
Thing is, it’s real as shit. And get this: throughout the first week of their dangerous liaison, neither of the gentlemen in question was aware of the other’s ethnicity, or of the tragicomic potential of their entire fling (And let’s face it, it all started as a fling, as they both admit today).
There are other crucial details I left out of my pitch. That was actually on purpose. You see, I’m trying to build dramatic tension. That’s what you should do if you ever want to make a living writing, my screenwriting tutor Seth always says.
I didn’t tell you when and where Daud and Yoni met each other. How they fell in love. And what exactly happened after they received that crazy email.
But have no worries, hevre. You will find out all you need to know in due course. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven, King Solomon said in some secret dialect of ancient Hebrew, if my memory of Bible Camp doesn’t fail me. Haste comes from the devil and patience from the merciful God, Queen Scheherazade responded in her ancient Arabic, centuries later.
For everything there is a season. Yes. I’m pretty sure that, having lived through the events I’m about to unfold on these very pages, despite everything that’s happened, Yoni and Daud would both agree on that.
So, as I said, the first one appeared on May 14 (I know, Rule Number 9: Avoid Repetition. This is Intro to Screenwriting—I’m sorry, friends).
INT. AVENUE C APARTMENT – NIGHT
Daud Hamdi (29)—dark-skinned, bright-haired, tall—stands in front of the mirror in his two-room Alphabet City apartment. He stares at his surprisingly attractive figure in the mirror (at this point, he has been skipping spinning class for nine weeks). In the living room, his equally attractive partner, Yoni Cohen (28)—brown-haired, brown-eyed, stout—watches a true crime miniseries whose name the author forgets.
DAUD: I’m telling you, it’s skin cancer.
YONI: Relax, it’s just a pimple.
DAUD: Trust me. I recognize a melanoma when I see one.
(Get this: in this story, the Jew is not the hypochondriac).
YONI: Oh, really? (presses the spacebar on his laptop, pausing exactly nine minutes before the hideous murderer is finally revealed: it was Sister Henrietta) I didn’t know they teach that at law school. (walks slowly to the bathroom, embraces his partner from behind, gently)
DAUD: I’m not kidding. I need to see a doctor, like, tomorrow. Can you call your parents?
YONI: (relishing) Enchanté, Yoni Cohen, a widow. I’m not gonna lie, I actually like the sound of it. I can get a cat, wear all black, and start talking to myself on the subway. How much longer do I have to put up with you?
DAUD: I’m not kidding. Can you call them?
YONI: What do you want me to say? Mom, Dad, Daud is hysterical, he has some leftover peanut butter at the corner of his mouth and he thinks it’s cancer.
DAUD: Why don’t you write that on my grave?
YONI: All I’m trying to say is that you’re exaggerating. Relax.
DAUD: I’m not. I have good instincts for that kind of stuff. When it comes to health issues, I’m like Churchill.
YONI: Churchill? Wow. What does that make me then? Mussolini?
DAUD: (profoundly disappointed) I thought you read the book. You promised Liz.
(The Liz in question is Prof. Elizabeth Coleman, the Jacques Barzun Professor of History at the University and one of Daud’s closest friends. The book in question: We Shall Fight the Bitches: Winston and Women, Prof. Coleman’s new Washington Post bestseller, a ground-breaking biography whose monochromatic back cover promises to “shed light, for the first time, on the dark, misogynistic corners of the life of one of the most popular leaders of the twentieth century”).
YONI: I did. I read it.
DAUD: No way. If you’d read it, you’d have known that you’re more like Chamberlain in this case. Or maybe Roosevelt, if you really want to stretch the historical simile. (walks out of the room) I’m going to bed.
INT. AVENUE C APARTMENT – DAWN
Just before 5:30, when the sun sends first beams of light through the gentrified rooftops of the East Village, Daud wakes up. He sees the time on the screen of Yoni’s iPhone and almost immediately goes back to bed. But then he notices a new email alert. He faces the perpetual dilemma of every individual with an unlimited access to their partner’s phone—to peek or not to peek—and decides in favor of the former.
Dear Ms. Cohen,
I hope this email finds you well.
I’m writing to remind you of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will allow you to earn 120,000 U.S. dollars.
As I have explained, this opportunity entails the performance of a sexual act involving you and your partner, LL.M. Daud Hamdi, in front of a live camera.
This is a friendly reminder that if you would like to hear more details about the exclusive offer, you should respond to this message within the next 48 hours.
Please let me know if you have any further questions.
Daud feels his heartbeats in his eyeballs. How does one even begin to unpack such a gruesome sequence of sentences? The condescending tone. The racism. And the fact that Hanukkah was almost six months ago. And why only Yoni? Why didn’t he get it?
So he follows his instinct and, spur of the moment, marks the message as unread. And then he does what he usually does when he doesn’t know what else to do: He takes a shower. When he gets out, still troubled and now dripping water on the hardwood floors, Yoni is staring silently at his smartphone, lying in bed.
DAUD: Good Morning.
DAUD: You’re up early. (silence) What are you reading?
YONI: Just the news.
YONI: And? Well, you don’t want to know.
(Alternating yawns, stretches, and improvised yoga postures, Yoni briefs Daud on the morning news, all of which is overwhelmingly dismaying: Some conspiracy in Russia. 3,000 new housing units southeast of Bethlehem. Another racist law. No mention of any shady messages).
DAUD: That’s it?
YONI: Not enough for you?
DAUD: I mean, no other news? That’s all?
YONI: Well, the Rohingya are still persecuted in Myanmar and the Yazidis are slaughtered by the thousands. But, I thought I’d spare you that one, given that it’s only 6:30.
An hour later, Daud is already leaning on a stranger on the 1 subway train, eating his traditional pumpernickel bagel.
A long day at the Diamond Law Library awaits him. Thirteen hours of recorded interviews with woman activists from the Ramallah Governorate. At 2:30, he will have his weekly meeting with Liz, his wonderful, beloved friend. Then, on his way back to the library, he’ll drop by the post office. His copy of Israeli Military Orders: 1967-2007 (Collated) has finally arrived and he couldn’t be more pumped; what’s better than a tête-à-tête with some of the most defining texts of Western civilization, like the marvelous #854 (Prior permission must be obtained for the addition of any subject or an increase in the number of classes) or good old #101 (It is forbidden to hold, wave, display or affix flags or political symbols, except in accordance with a permit of the military commander)?
But all he can think of is that message and his partner’s seeming indifference in the face of horror. Did he not notice it. He must have. Why didn’t he say. They will have to talk about it. When. Well. One way or another, he won’t be able to bring it up himself. But they will have to talk about it. Somehow. Someday.
Daud spends the next four hours at Diamond, pondering, sipping coffee from his recyclable mug, reading articles in Slate. A few minutes after 2:00, when he goes out for a smoke, he runs into Nathan.
Daud and I always say that Nathan is a walking parody. A thirty-year-old who fiercely refuses to admit that he was born before the fall of the Soviet bloc. One of those Christopher Nolan fans who gives us film buffs a bad name.
Growing up in a small town in Minnesota, Nathan believed he had a mission: one day, he would become the Hitchcock of the new millennium. After being expelled from two different high schools, he finally graduated from a third, and started college at SUNY Purchase. That was where he met—surprise, surprise—the Jewish half of our beloved couple.
Nathan was a sophomore at the film school; Yoni was still a bi-curious freshman in the acting program. They met at the notorious party in Farside and were among the lucky few who managed to sneak out right before the RAs came to rain on the parade of room 208.
They spent the night together in Nathan’s twin bed. When Yoni leaned down to take off his shoes, he knew he’d had one too many chasers. After a short session of groping and smooching, Nathan took off his jeans and pulled out his pistol—the first uncircumcised penis Yoni had ever seen—which, to the disappointment of his owner, seemed to be completely out of bullets. Nathan dimmed the lights and tried to jerk off, groaning yes and oh in an attempt to motivate his flaccid penis. But when none of his magic tricks worked (And it has nothing to do with you, he said, I hope you know), Nathan put his boxers on, opened a can of Bud Light, and introduced Yoni to a poem by Rimbaud he’d translated single-handedly.
Nathan might have missed the train of Yoni’s faith in sex with heterosexual guys (Six months later, in a Starbucks toilet stall, Yoni would vow to sleep exclusively with gay men). But he was just in time for the next train: that of Yoni’s uncompromising friendship.
Soon enough, they would invite each other to Thanksgiving and Passover dinners; spend hours smoking through the window of Yoni’s common room or listening to Nathan’s collection of records by elaborately named rock bands. Nathan would become the buoy on which Yoni would spend most of his undergraduate career, floating through the turbulent sea of experimental Tennessee Williams productions and pretentious tongue-twisters.
And now he’s here, on Amsterdam Ave., galloping toward Yoni’s partner, who, despite his obstinate refusal to admit it, could never really stand him. And Daud has nothing else to do besides wearing a wide smile and screaming OH MY GOD NATHAN.
What are you doing here on such a misty day? Nathan asks. Rain in May, huh? The world is going crazy. The flood is coming, so grab your partner and get on the boat. Where have you been? Do you even go here? I haven’t seen you in ages.
I know, Daud says. I’m sorry. My prospectus is due in two weeks and I have a conference in Berlin right after, so things have been, you know, well—
Shut up, Nathan squeaks. In June? I’m flying to Köln.
Nathan stares into Daud’s eyes without saying a word. Daud knows exactly what he wants him to ask and in what tone, but he decides to prolong the inevitable, just for a moment.
Oh, wow, what for? he asks after a pause that must feel like eternity to Nathan.
Well, did I tell you about that new class I’m TAing in Film and Media Studies program?
Of course, Daud smiles, not having the slightest idea of what Nathan refers to. Yes, by the way, it sounds wonderful. Congratulations.
It truly is, Nathan says. Anyway, Guy—the professor, I mean, a crazy accomplished filmmaker and a brilliant scholar—Guy and I are going to do some research at the internationale filmschule. The university is paying for everything: food, hotels, travel... All I have to do is be at JFK at eight, um Punkt. Which, as you probably know, might not be the easiest thing, given our new, well, circumstances.
What do you mean?
You know, Nathan slowly widens his smile. Now that Little Lenny’s in the picture.
Oh, sure, right, right, Daud nods. But, I mean, can’t he just stay with Becca?
They, Nathan says, chastising Daud with his eyebrows, which he now raises to the level of his forehead.
Of course. I’m sorry.
How could Daud forget. Only a few days ago Yoni told him how, after much deliberation, Nathan and his partner Becca decided to raise their newborn as a theyby, without subjecting it to the binary dictatorship of gender.
They want to let him decide, Yoni explained, immediately adding, I mean, her, or them.
And unlike Yoni, who poked fun at the idiosyncrasy of his friend, Daud actually liked the idea. How lovely it would be to grow up in a sweet Park Slope bubble with vanilla parents who don’t make you choose between Barbie and Transformers. He just didn’t understand why they had to be so didactic about that.
They can’t stay with Bex, Nathan continues his parable, Because they are very sweet but such an attention whore, kind of like their dad, he adds, giggling. Gosh, Daud, they love their milk and want it three times a night. And Bex really tries to keep it natural, you know, but she has her sleep disorders, it has become incredibly hard for her to get out of bed. So, long story short, I can’t be away for more than a week, leider.
Of course, Daud nods. I’m sure you’ll figure it out together.
Nathan remains silent for a moment. Now it’s his turn to prolong the inevitable.
By the way, Nathan says, putting a straight face on. Yoni told me about what you guys had decided. Try to understand him, sweetheart. I think it’s truly for the best.
Yeah, Daud says, forcing a smile, hoping the next words Nathan produces are, Well my dear it’s nice to see you and all… But he knows Father Nathan too well to think that the sermon is over.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, Nathan goes on, I think you’d be amazing parents, really, probably the best dads in the world, I mean, it’s just, well, one thing that this whole pregnancy-birth-parenthood sequence made me realize is how the whole experience is luxury goods at the end of the day. Like putting down a deposit for a house or buying a Chevrolet. And it’s surprising, because when our ancestors were having sex in the caves or whatever, they didn’t calculate college tuition or the price of a Bugaboo stroller. But, like it or not, we live in a different jungle. The rules have changed. And you know what they say. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the Gymboree, Nathan concludes, scratching his nose and snorting, roaring with laughter.
Yeah, Daud sighs. I think it’s for the best.
Well, Professor H., always a pleasure, but I gotta run, Nathan says. Bex and the offspring are waiting.
You better slow down with that Professor, Daud warns him. I haven’t written a word and it’s almost 2:30.
Well, grab a coffee and go end the occupation, Nathan gives Daud a tight, effusive hug. You got this, girl.
Daud knows that it’s a terrible idea, that Nathan is notoriously the world’s worst confidant, that he’ll be late to his meeting with Liz, who promised to help him rethink the thesis of his third chapter, “Occupation: Woman—Gender-Oppressive Practices in the Professional Life of Palestinian Women.” But today, there’s something more important than the poor state of his dissertation.
Nate, Daud mutters.
Yes? Nathan turns around.
Do you ever lie to Becca?
What do you mean? he smiles. Well, sometimes. Yes.
Can you keep a secret?
INT. AVENUE C APARTMENT – EVENING
When Daud gets home, all he can hear is the drone of the dishwasher. Outside, the storm—still unnamed by the National Weather Service—is just about to blow full-force. He finds a note on the kitchen counter:
hey subbing for sheila in the studio won’t be back till ten-ish leftovers from ORGANIC r in fridge & kombucha in the cupboard feel free to feast see u later !!
He has already eaten, and doesn’t really feel like Kombucha (When does one feel like Kombucha, I’ve always been curious). So in the absence of any pressing obligations, he decides to head straight to bed.
But just as he puts down his newly-purchased copy of Israeli Military Orders and gets ready to collapse, he sees it, all shining—Yoni’s laptop.
Daud doesn’t think twice. He types the password—MerryMerylStrips, God, what a theater dork—and opens his partner’s inbox. Much to his surprise, between invitations to hot yoga retreats and orders of pea proteins, he can’t find a trace of The Devil. Has Yoni deleted the message? That means he read it.
Daud then decides to act. He starts typing slowly.
who are u.
The response arrives before he even has a chance to put the laptop down on the nightstand.
habibti, i’m your worst nightmare.
This is a good moment to take a breath and stretch. As Seth, my tutor, says, too much dramatic tension can kill even the finest tale.
I have known Yoni and Daud as a couple for almost five years. Ever since I can recall, I’ve been dying to adapt their story into a blockbuster. Long before this whole porn episode started. But they rejected all my offers.
The answer is no, Jordan, Daud told me after I finished reading out loud one of my brilliant pitches.
But why? I said. Just think about it. Join our gay warrior princesses of color as they embark on a vendetta against American society, which tries to force them to play out its fantasies of heteronormativity and racism. Trust me, it’s a hit. A mash-up of Almodóvar, Tarantino, and Kiarostami, only so much better.
One condition, Yoni said. Only if I get to try that Kill Bill jumpsuit Uma Thurman is wearing.
Just think of the commercial potential, I told them. It has everything. Sex, violence, revenge. The perfect balance between soft porn, true crime, and feel-good liberalism. It’s fresh, and sexy, and feminist just right. Something married couples can enjoy watching before another night of mediocre intercourse. Something parents and children can stream together, with a sense of educational mission. People crave public executions, now that ISIS is going easy on beheadings.
I’m sorry, Mister Spielberg, really hate to shit on your masterpiece, but there’s a hole in it, Yoni said. I’m not going to deny that I’m a warrior princess—I’ve definitely got the body and the brains—but I’m in no way a person of color.
Oh, come on, I said. Don’t be petty.
But they refused to hear another word. Do you think I was the only one who took notice of that golden goose? Please, don’t make me laugh. This is America, my friends.
It started with streams of messages on any possible social media channel, which Daud and Yoni dismissed. Later on, third party requests from nosy Columbia colleagues and suspicious customers at Yoni’s café. My friend is a producer slash researcher slash reporter at (fill in the blank with any magazine that pleases you). Honey, will you give her a call? She’s been nagging me for decades.
And when those didn’t work, it was time for the heavy weapons. Impassioned appeals and heartfelt pleas from any possible media outlet, from BuzzFeed, through Al Jazeera, to Face the Nation. Yoni said he wouldn’t be surprised if one morning, when he takes out the trash, he’d find Oprah on their doorstep.
For me, the whole thing was pure entertainment. I can’t count the number of evenings we spent on their couch, the three of us, glasses of boxed Chardonnay in our hands, huddled around Yoni’s laptop, passing a joint between us in an endless circle, reading and rewriting those emails, once as Broadway hits (I feel shitty! Oh so shitty! I feel Jewish and Arab and gay!), once as Shakespearean soliloquies (Come, oriental dyke, come, loving, black-browed dyke, Give me my Jericho).
Our biggest hit was a heavy metal song we titled FAME, standing for Fate of All the Middle East. It was based on the writings of a young Israeli producer, one Atalia Lavie, whose solicitation was by far the most creative, culminating in the words, By reestablishing hope, that benevolent sun that hasn’t been shining over our wretched neighborhood, your story can transform the fate of all the Middle East forever.
We all hoped that upon writing her email, Ms. Lavie was drunk or high or some combination of the two. Personally, I also hoped she’d consider becoming a poet. To me, her benevolent sun seemed to suggest some literary promise.
But then arrived another message from the lady. And this time, she was really killing it. Come on, she wrote. Don’t miss your chance to be the Oriental counterparts of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. To top it all, she concluded with a winking emoji (brown-skinned!) and a sunflower.
We couldn’t help but sing her masterpiece as our all-time favorite David Bowie song:
I’m, I’m Luther King And you, you’re Rosa P And no one, can tell that we’re gay We can be heroes, just for one day
(At this point Yoni would probably like to add that the vote regarding Bowie’s All-Time Favorite was conducted in his absence and that, as far as he’s concerned, Lady Stardust undoubtedly tops the list. Not to say that the artistic value of Heroes, a masterpiece in its own right, should be disregarded. But it’s definitely not the finest work of the Thin White Duke, a statement that I, personally, strongly reject).
But I’m getting distracted here. Sorry. So here it is. Allow me to introduce the first pitch I’ve ever written (Seth gave it a B; don’t be too harsh, friends).
DAUD, WHERE’S MY SCAR? (1987, USA/Palestine)
A third generation Palestinian-American finds himself torn between the tragedy of his nation and the American Nightmare.
Daud Hamdi was what you’d call a proud American-Palestinian. Or Palestinian-American. Or the timid dash that supposedly connects the two but effectively stands for the deep chasm between them.
His heart was in the East, but he was at the far end of the West. And when I say West I mean Midwest. Chicago, to be accurate. And when I say his heart I mean his heart exclusively, and only in the metaphorical sense. Because, you see, Daud has never really been to that East. As far as the laws of physics go (in which, honestly, he never took real interest), Daud has never smelled the scent of fresh olives on a tree. Never felt the moisture of the holy hills, whose winding roads he’s walked so many times ever since wild dreams started inhabiting his consciousness.
Unless you count refreshing the Middle East section on The New York Times website every two hours and binge-watching episodes of Fauda at low volume when his partner is fast asleep (They watched the first episode together and were surprised at how much they liked it, but have been officially boycotting it ever since Yoni read in that Guardian op-ed that it was partially funded by the OIFF (Old Israeli Film Fund), that was funded by the SNIFF (State New Israeli Film Fund), that was endorsed by the Israeli Ministry of Culture, a.k.a. the long arm of the Occupation. And they were not going to support it. Over their dead body. Except that Daud was. Impatiently. On a weekly basis. That was one of the unspoken truths that lay at the foundation of their relationship, an elaborate system of underground burrows and tunnels. There are more of those in the near future).
At this point, the reader may ask why, in his twenty-nine long years of life, Daud Hamdi has not been to the Promised Land. Fair question (hint: not because of his long-standing aviophobia or the overpriced flight tickets).
Well, in his twenty-nine long years of life, Daud Hamdi has not been to his Promised Land because he was fucking scared.
And why was Daud Hamdi, the boy who ate tyrants for breakfast, who was on a direct course for a career in crucifying the world’s worst human rights violators, who had attended jiu-jitsu lessons religiously for twenty-five consecutive months as a kid (If only he’d persisted, really, he was this close to a black belt), whose much-anticipated dissertation was titled, temporarily, “A Hysteria of Violence: The Unarmed Struggle of Palestinian Women Against Discriminatory Regulations in Gaza and the West Bank—Three Case Studies” (much too long, he knows, it’s still a work-in-progress). Why was this brave young beautiful exceptionally vigorous ambitious boy afraid of a place he’d never even been to?
Well, that’s a long story. But I’ll give you the short version.
Because trauma, my friends—like dimples, like blue eyes, like prostate cancer—runs in the family. And pretty early in his life (much too early, professionals might say), Daud Hamdi discovered the magical phenomenon known as genetic anxiety.
He found out that nightmares could feature faces he hadn’t seen, people he had never met. He could miss places he had never been to. Aunts, uncles, and cousins he had never hugged and probably never will, at least not on this earth.
No one could ever understand that. Not his sisters, who were clearly touched when someone mentioned Palestine, but never to the point of tears and tremors. Not his friends. Neither the Palestinian-Americans nor the American-Palestinians. Not to mention the American-Americans, who would ask him every now and then what his favorite word in Israeli was and how far Ramallah was from Yemen. He grew up feeling that nobody could see him, that he was dumb, ridiculous, and mad.
He would never forget that time he started trembling at that Intro to Near East Studies class he took in college, after a visiting professor gave a talk about the Jewish Homeland. He can still hear the whispers, Dude, I’m telling you, that Arab is a nutcase. Or when he left that Adam Sandler film after the first scene on the beach in Tel Aviv, and all his friends said he was simply obsessed.
And then along came Yoni. His JAP on a white donkey. And on one of their early dates, perhaps the fourth or fifth (I remember because they told me they’d been sitting at that lame dive bar on Avenue B and Eighth), Daud let something slip about his long-standing phobia of the Land of Milk and Honey. And Yoni’s eyes lit up, as they usually do when he’s genuinely excited.
Oh, no, it’s nothing, Daud said. Don’t worry about that.
But Yoni insisted and persisted and ordered more drinks to the table. And after three shots of tequila and half a glass of whiskey, Daud opened up and told him all about his dreams (totally sick if you ask me, his high school friends were right, the girl is a meshugge).
They were all recurring. At least a few times a week. There was one he found particularly disturbing.
He arrives in his parents’ kitchen, carrying his backpack. He’s probably seven or eight. He thinks nobody’s home. But when he opens the door, he sees an I.D.F. soldier in uniform eating shawarma, sitting in his chair. Small drops of tahini are falling from his pita onto their dinner table. Daud knows his mom would be upset.
The soldier salutes him. Daud asks him what he’s doing in their kitchen. The solider doesn’t respond. So Daud asks him to his name. He remains silent. Then Daud asks the soldier if he can have some of that shawarma. The soldier nods, inviting him to sit on his lap. Daud asks him if he knows where his parents are. The soldier smiles. What do you mean, the soldier says right after Daud takes the first bite. Don’t you find them delicious?
YONI: Oh my god, Daud, that’s crazy.
DAUD: You probably think I’m insane.
YONI: For how long have you been having it? It’s brilliant.
DAUD: I don’t know. At least four years, I think. It’s hard to tell.
YONI: Wow. You should do something with it. It can be therapeutic. Like, an art project. Maybe a play.
(Daud genuinely found that idea intriguing, but like most of the other ideas he’d found intriguing in his life—quitting smoking, getting a bike, French Deconstructionism—did absolutely nothing about it).
YONI: Anyway, I get it. Traumas are strange. I think there hasn’t been a single month in my adult life in which I didn’t dream that I woke up in a gas chamber. And I’ve never even seen a concentration camp. Bailed on the trip to Poland my parents signed me up for and drove down to Coachella before anyone noticed I wasn’t on the plane. Instead of marching to Majdanek, I gave a high five to Björk and had my first Shirley Temple.
So why was Daud Hamdi so terrified? Was it his fear of being forced to perform a striptease to a mixed audience of security inspectors, curious tourists, and Shin Bet officers in the middle of the terminal?
But he put his faith in his American accent, that superpower that allowed him to transform right on the spot from the Daud who could be moved to tears by a single line from Khoury or Darwish, into the David who buys only organic strawberries and listens to Britney and Fiona Apple.
Cause keep in mind: our Daud was one lucky girl. Unlike his relatives in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, in Gaza, Bethlehem, and Chile, our dear, beloved Daud had one hand in his pocket, and in it, a U.S. passport—a golden ticket. He had been sorted, pre-approved, and stamped. So he was safe.
What was it then, that made Daud so scared of that jolly, distant land?
Every time we bring it up, Daud insists that he is not afraid to die. That would actually be so ironic, he says. My grandparents fled thousands of miles from that madhouse only to see their grandson perish there. But anyway, I’m not afraid, he insists. You know. Just waiting for the right moment.
And sometimes I believe him. But on most days, I don’t. Because sometimes I wonder if the entire thing is just his fear of disappointment. His instinct that perhaps the honey of the Promised Land is not as sweet as he has thought, that its holy milk is sour.
Because sometimes I think that what Daud Hamdi really wants is to be like Moses. To proclaim his prophecies aloud, to warn the world of crimes, misdeeds, and plagues, to let his people go and then, when he is old, lie in his bed, mumbling ancient words about God’s wrath. And on the iPad on his lap (his personal Mount Nebo), shining from The New York Times, blurry photos of Jerusalem.
As you may have noticed, dear readers, up to this point, our protagonists have avoided using any names when addressing each other.
Perhaps you couldn’t even tell, or took this fact to be an indication of the negligence of your narrator. Well, maybe. I am no expert in the risky business of the written word, so you will have to tolerate my amateurism. But, in this case, the absence of names is actually intentional, and is meant to suggest that, like any other great artistic choice, there’s a story behind it.
TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (2014, USA)
A bi-racial couple sets out to find the perfect pet names in twenty-first-century Manhattan.
From the outset of their fine romance, Daud and Yoni have been struggling with what one might call nicknaming. That simple, unspoken act—so deeply embedded in the fabric of any relationship—usually happens organically, as part of the process of constructing a We, composed of two separate-yet-indivisible entities. This process is often enjoyable, and includes the act of forgetting phone chargers in respective apartments, the purchase of designated toothbrushes, and the unofficial selection of a favorite sleeping position (big spoon, little spoon, or, in the case of our protagonists, spatula and scraper). But, for some reason, for our dear D. and Y., the process of finding pet names felt less like bestowing love and more like pulling out wisdom teeth. It was excruciating.
When they just started dating, they gave a shot to the Arabic Habibi, which eventually faded away. The Hebrew Motek still resonated like a relic of the patriarchy. Mon amour felt too cheesy, and all the other French ones were repellent (My sausage? My little cabbage? Are you crazy?). They were big fans of the Russian Lapachka and the Spanish Mi perrito, but both were too culturally appropriative to sound O.K.
So they settled down for Schatzi, which was German, and by no means perfect, but seemed like a decent compromise. Especially considering Yoni’s East European heritage, and the great number of their friends who had been talking about a mass migration to Berlin once fascism finally takes over the United States. But then one morning Yoni admitted that as much as he loves the language of Schubert and Brecht, he’d rather not be addressed in German while he’s having his breakfast.
It’s not working, Seth told me at our first individual conference. We were sitting in his office, that looked exactly as you think: tiny, no windows, lots of old film posters.
Your dialogues are fine, your pitches definitely need more work, but the problem is, Jordan, that you have to develop a better understanding of a narrative. It feels choppy, cheesy, less like a blockbuster and more like a sketch. See, national identities, bilateral conflicts, fascism—people don’t care about that kind of nonsense. The whole thing is just out-of-fashion. Give me some blood, fireworks, action. He’s Palestinian, he’s Jewish, what do I care?
But listen, I told him. They’re both gay.
That’s not enough, he raised his voice. We need something to really sink our teeth into. Give us some mystery, some blood, some sex.
Frankly, I thought that was total bullshit. I knew I had a gold mine in my hands. So, for the next class, I went back to the origin story, and to prove my tutor wrong, I wrote this pitch (let’s see him call it a sketch):
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (2014, USA)
On a rooftop in Brooklyn, an Israeli and a Palestinian become star-crossed lovers.
It was sometime in March, about five years ago. A Drag-Queen-Esther party on a rooftop on Lorimer. I came with Daud and his boyfriend, far too random to be mentioned by his name. Yoni came with Nathan. At some point, I approached the D.J.—a Brooklyn hipster I knew, dressed up as a Hasidic Jew—and asked her to stop the music for a moment.
Happy Purim everyone, I said, standing in the middle of the room, fairly intoxicated. Isn’t the Jewish calendar just fabulous? Most of you don’t know me. Hopefully, you will. But, anyway, there’s something I would like to say. I cleared my throat. My good friend—who some of you know as his drag alter ego, Queen Layla—just got into an impossibly prestigious PhD program. And the specialité of this queen is human rights. So, if there are any war criminals in the crowd, beware. She’ll kick you in the balls. And you, Queen Layla, I love you. Go save our species from moral annihilation.
I saw Daud blushing, kissing his boyfriend. Just when the Hasidic hipster played I Will Survive for the third time, Yoni, dressed up as what he called Wife of Lucifer (burgundy lipstick, light-up devil horns, a red lace-up mini dress with a deep plunging V-neck), retired to the porch to grab another glass of whiskey. Daud had already been there, all alone, smoking and drinking wine, leaning on a table.
Congrats, Doctor, Yoni approached him. One question, though. Why Layla? I’m just curious.
Oh, it’s my parents, Daud said. Before I was born, they thought I was a girl. I use it just for drag.
Interesting, Yoni said. But why Layla? It sounds, like, Middle Eastern.
By that point, Daud was experienced; years of omnipresent racism had left him with an endless list of polished explanations.
Well, he said, They’re both just huge Eric Clapton fans, so they really didn’t see another option. It was either Layla or Cocaine.
(That wasn’t completely false; his dad did like Clapton, but his mom wasn’t a fan. And, obviously, the name Cocaine was never on the table).
And what will you do when you get lonely? Yoni asked.
That’s how it goes, right? I mean, the song, Yoni explained. There’s that nice guitar solo—ta na na na na na na —and then Clapton sings, What will you do when you get lonely?
Daud chuckled. Yeah, he said. Something like that.
Oh, God, I love that song, Yoni sighed, lighting a cigarette. Your folks sound great.
Well, I don’t know, Daud said. They’re pretty average. The classic American family. Born in Maine. Live in Maine. Will probably die there. Have a mortgage and a cat.
I’m Yonatan, by the way. You can call me John. Or Yoni. Or just Wife of Lucifer.
Your husband’s cute, Daud said and gestured with his head toward Nathan, who was in the midst of a heated conversation with the Hasidic D.J.
Oh, him? He’s not my husband, Yoni said. And he is straight beyond repair. And you?
O.K. But what’s your name?
Oh, yes, I’m sorry, Daud said. I’m David. Please don’t call me Dave.
It’s nice to meet you, Dave.
Did you come here by yourself?
Kind of, Daud responded. Why?
I like your dress.
I’m very drunk, Daud finally removed his black wig. Remind who you are again.
Yoni smiled. He turned on his light-up devil horns and whispered in Daud’s ear.
Habibti, I’m your worst nightmare.