The Night in My Hair: Henna, Syria, and the Muslim Ban

 

The night the United States launches fifty Tomahawk missiles on the Syrian Shayrat airbase near Homs, I am washing henna and indigo out of my hair. The tub is splashed with tourmaline blue, speckled like the delicate markings on a sparrow’s egg, and from the living room I can hear the newscasters referring to margin of error, airpower, and the “perils of the region.” The water runs down the drain.

When I was little, I used to pore over the photo albums of my parents’ wedding and their honeymoon in Syria, tracing the shots of my cousins and aunts and great-grandparents lined up in the courtyard for family photos, dozens of demitasses of Turkish coffee and laughter over backgammon. How young and strong my father still looked in the eighties, fifteen years before the doctors saw a constellation of powdered glass strewn across the wide basin of his lungs.

The reporter drones on, and the night bursts open on the other side of the world. I squeeze the last of the muddy water from my hair, riming my fingernails with blue.

*

The first time my mother spread a warm, moss-colored pudding of henna on my hair, it was because my father had some left over from dying his own. Henna, a powdered herb that comes from the plant Lawsonia inermis, has been used in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia to color and condition hair for thousands of years. Many religious groups—including Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Christians, Hindus, and Zoroastrians—also use henna for body art, particularly for weddings, in regions where henna is traditionally grown. Muslims decorate their hands and feet with henna for Eid and other celebrations. Henna leaves a reddish tint to skin and to dark hair like mine, imparting subtle red highlights mostly visible only in the sun. Henna stains lighter hair a fiery orange red.

Indigo, on the other hand, produces a blue-green dye you’re familiar with if you’ve ever washed a cheap pair of dark jeans and hung them to drip-dry over a shower rod. Indigo requires henna’s orange-red dye molecules, called lawsone, to bind to the hair shaft. When henna is followed by indigo in a two-step process, the hair is dyed dark and glossy, the color ranging from a rich chocolate to a deep, warm black.

My father had black hair in all except one spot—a long cleft of white hair, as though carved by a knife. For as long as I can remember, my father used henna and indigo to cover his grays, but even henna couldn’t cover this white streak. When I was a kid, that streak was the stuff of legend. It was said that my dad had acquired it when his father passed away. He was barely twelve years old then. My grandmother Zeynab struggled to support my father and his siblings after her husband’s death. The family stories about her are fabled, too: that she once sat on a governor’s lawn until he granted her her late husband’s pension, that she rented out part of her house sixty years before Airbnb, that she owned a profitable fleet of carriages to support herself and her children. I love the stories too much to care whether they’ve been embellished over the years, though knowing what I know about my grandmother Zeynab, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were all true.

As a child, my father worked after school painting murals on the sides of movie theaters. He was a talented painter. There’s a photo of him leaning against the side of one of the theaters he painted, arms crossed, a twenty-foot-tall James Dean and his pompadour behind him, the side of my father’s face turned away from the camera so that his white streak isn’t visible. In postcolonial Syria, where learning French was mandatory in schools and Western fashions were already glorified as expressions of urbanity and culture, American culture had begun to export itself as well.

My father came to New York City to work in publishing when he’d completed his art degree in Rome. Long before I was born, he ran an art gallery out of his apartment on the Upper East Side.

My father, an accomplished painter by then, fit all the deeply flawed but pervasive American immigrant narratives. He worked hard, pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and struggled through immense difficulty to give his children a better life than he’d had. I know he was proud of that.

Yet as I massage my scalp under the faucet in the bathtub, I am aware that I was born a citizen of the country in which my father became a citizen, that I am less than three hundred miles from the spot where his casket lies buried in Connecticut, and that my country has enacted a ban on immigrants and refugees from Syria. I am rinsing henna and indigo out of my hair in the country that just launched fifty Tomahawk missiles toward the country where my father’s hair turned white, the country where children who look like me are dying while America refuses to take them in.

*

On the news, a white reporter describes the size of a Tomahawk missile, and her voice rises as she speaks. She likens the missiles to flying telephone poles, powerful and erect, and tells the audience it will take just a half hour for the missiles to reach the air base in Syria. It all sounds very phallic to me. Her jeweled earrings dance and dangle when she nods her head. The news cuts to video of the missiles streaking orange through the night sky, the clouds blistering in their wake.

This is the American response many have prayed for in the last few years, and still, this is war pornography.

It’s only three or four in the morning in Syria now. The Pennsylvania dark outside my apartment window conjures the faces of my sleeping cousins.

You will ask me what the United States should have done differently. I am not a politician. I am a writer. Some people will say that these are targeted strikes, and yet US-led airstrikes have killed hundreds of civilians in Syria over the last few years. Others will say that our government is shutting out only those who are dangerous, and yet I know that in this country where I was born, people who look like me are always presumed dangerous.

In several weeks, I will be able to tell you that the air strikes accomplished very little. For now, the reporter laments the suffering of Syrian children, and I cannot help but remember the way those same children, because they are Muslim, are painted as potential terrorists and denied entry to this country. Months from now, I will remember my ex-father-in-law justifying this, saying that people like me can never truly “assimilate,” as though becoming like him—white, male, Christian, affluent—were the single definition of what it meant to be American.

With my head in my hands, everything takes on the smell of henna, slightly grassy, like the spilled contents of a green tea bag. I steady my breathing and ground myself in the scent of my childhood, and I remember the gloss of sunlight across my father’s black hair.

*

I dyed my hair red between college and grad school. My hair was too dark to turn bright red with henna, so I used a box of chemical dye I bought from the Rite Aid where I worked at the time. I figured I wasn’t white-passing enough to pick a red-red, so I went with more of an auburn color.

I lived in a tiny apartment above a real-estate office then, and I’d never used an artificial dye. I was used to a musky preparation of herbs and warm water that smelled like frozen peas rather than bleach, one you could rinse off porcelain without leaving a stain. The way the chemical dye threatened to spatter the bathtub with blood terrified me.

I told myself my red dye job was my way of being different, but in hindsight I was making myself different in a way my white friends would understand, trying to separate myself from my brownness. The cheap dye, supposedly meant to condition my hair, left it like straw instead. For months my damaged curls turned frizzy; the ends snapped and split. Knots of reddish hair fell out in the shower. I exchanged one bad relationship for another; I started grad school to pursue a profession I would enthusiastically leave six years later; I moved into a garret apartment in a new city, alone with my cat. I looked whiter with my auburn hair, but my curls—and my heart—were the most wounded they’d ever been.

My mom used to tell me this story about how my dad once went swimming in a pool after treating his hair with henna and indigo. His hair turned green. Pool chemicals have been known to strip henna from the hair shaft and leave behind just the blue-green indigo molecules, which don’t let go as easily. My mom used to say my dad had to go back to the apartment and hide. I understood without being able to put it into words that his hair had outed him. Henna and indigo marked him as an immigrant who used traditional herbs. For better or worse, I understood: henna and indigo marked my father as brown.

*

I hated my auburn hair as soon as I dyed it. I looked like a watered-down version of myself. When the summer was over, when the sun and chlorine started to fade the color, I dyed my hair dark again with semipermanent black hair dye. Ppd, a toxic chemical sometimes found in false “black henna,” was a quicker fix than the henna and indigo of my childhood. Over the next couple months, the stark jet chemical dye softened to my natural warm brown black. It was a relief to see myself in the mirror again.

My sister had experimented with dye jobs of her own throughout high school: streaks of red. Ash blonde. Platinum. Unlike me, hair dye never helped my sister pass for white. The half shade of difference in our skin tones in the winter was enough for our 92 percent white Gold Coast suburb to presume we had different fathers. They discriminated accordingly.

Still, even my seasonal passing was fleeting. The minute I pronounced my name, brows would furrow: What kind of last name is that? Where are you from? Where are you from from? New York wasn’t the answer they wanted to hear, and I knew it, but if they wanted to know where my father was born, they were going to have to hear themselves ask.

I never used chemical dyes again. My sister now leaves her hair dark, too. These days, with both our hair back to its natural near black and our medium-olive skin, there are times I look at my sister’s selfies and wonder what it was white people saw in us that made us look so different from each other. Often I think to myself: we could be twins.

*

Some of the best quality henna grows in India and Pakistan. I like to imagine I can smell the earth it was grown in when I slit open the clear plastic bags, a musty scent like turned topsoil after a soaking rain. My childhood was very difficult, but the smell brings me back to the few good parts. My mom would gloss my sister’s hair and mine with my dad’s leftover henna, and it would leave our hair shiny and smooth, even my stubborn curls and ringlets.

I love the way henna forces me to sit and relax with a cup of tea for a few hours, my hair piled on top of my head and bound with plastic wrap. I love that first rinse under the faucet when the rust-red henna blooms in the tub like river mud. I love that final quick mix of the indigo that oxidizes from emerald to night blue, the slip of the deep conditioner during that last rinse, the twilit indigo running down the backs of my legs under the shower.

Treating my hair reconnects me with my body and with my ancestors even as the country in which my father is buried hurtles fifty streaks of orange-red flame toward his homeland. The country in which I was born refuses to welcome children from the country that bore him, children with the same dark hair as mine. How unwelcome does that make me?

*

The day my father died, his black hair had gone gray and thin. Chemotherapy had hollowed him out. He’d been almost fifty when my mother had me, and he was fifty-six when he died, but he looked eighty. I have his eyes and his chin. I also have his hair, thick and dark.

In the days following the election, I passed countless white people in my rural Pennsylvania town who saw my dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin and glared hatred at me. As I write this, it has been five months since the missiles were launched. A Supreme Court judge has upheld the ban on travelers to the U.S. from six Muslim majority nations including Syria. As I write this, I am in the midst of a divorce, but the rejection I’ve endured from my country stings far more. The stress of grief has thinned my curls; over the last few months, my hair has fallen out in clumps.

The Arabs I know readily locate sadness in the body. We Arabs know the ways that grief and exile manifest themselves in our chests and our bellies and our mouths.

Over the course of this year, my hair has become so damaged that I will chop most of it off. I will keep the healthy growth of my new life and sport a pixie cut again, the first time I will have done so since I came out of the closet my senior year of high school. But before the big chop, my last ditch effort to save my hair will be henna and indigo, followed by massaging coconut oil and jasmine into my locks. And the henna and indigo will stop my hair from falling out. Though it is impossible to hide the effects of grief, they will make it thicker and shinier. It is the first time I’ve treated my hair since that night that one of my countries bombed the other. This time I am doing it in another apartment, another town, another state. I am doing it alone.

But I am not alone. I think of my father and my grandmother and my cousins. Despite what is happening in my country, despite the white people who claimed to love me and yet told me to my face that people like me—Syrian, Arab, Muslim—can never be American, I am here. Grief and exile and oppression: these are things communities of color, particularly black and indigenous communities, have survived in this country since its inception. They are things my ancestors survived, too. Halfway across the world, there are people I love and who love me, people whose hair and eyes I share, people whose faces are in mine. We know how to survive, how to massage green earth into our hair, how to honor our ancestors in ourselves. No matter how many times America refuses to open its borders, my loved ones are with me. Syria is with me. I need only touch the night in my hair and remember.

 

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar is the author of the forthcoming novel The Map of Salt and Stars (May 2018). Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Saturday Evening Post, PANK Magazine, and elsewhere.

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