Born to immigrants.
I understood nothing.
My parents came to the United States in the 70’s to escape the war.
They navigated American culture by way of the small Lebanese communities they found here.
They figured out some of it.
My mother loved 80’s pop music.
My father loved his .38 revolver with armor-piercing bullets.
But the ties didn’t loosen.
Driving around southern California:
I couldn’t understand their songs.
I could speak the gutter Arabic of the old country.
I couldn’t read or write it. I couldn’t decipher its classical form.
When I was old enough to have a Walkman, I stepped outside that world.
I felt the surface of America, but it never poured into my bones.
Something always felt off.
Something always felt lost.
1991: Not Without My Daughter released in theaters.
It bombed. Critics ripped it apart.
A story about an American woman going with her Iranian husband to Iran.
Once there, he becomes abusive and threatening.
He decides not to go back to the U.S.
It was Orientalist trash.
I made my parents rent it multiple times.
I didn’t understand the story.
I didn’t understand what the film was trying to say.
I didn’t understand the difference between Iran and the Arab worlds.
But I was happy watching it.
I saw people who looked like me. I saw a religion I recognized.
I saw symbols I could interpret.
It seemed important: Something that resembled a piece of my world coming out of Hollywood.
I felt a part of my identity was validated.
America saw that I existed.
The Middle East existed.
Not Without My Daughter was cultural dead space.
Linear and closed. The narrative didn’t matter.
The signifier mattered.
I celebrated the act of recognition.
In a racist propaganda film:
I celebrated my self.
My grandmother came to California.
She left Lebanon to spend time with us.
We were close.
I didn’t view her understanding as separate from my parents’.
I assumed she knew how to work a television.
I assumed she knew how to help with my homework.
I assumed she could help me translate Dragon Warrior.
She couldn’t. I couldn’t grasp why.
The weekend my mother surprised me with the game we worked through the beginning together.
We made it out of town and stopped.
Everything was foreign.
World map. Items. Equipment. Towns. Plot. Text. Random battles. Quests. Saving.
Without my mother, I couldn’t make it out of the first town.
I’d ask my grandmother for help.
She didn’t understand any of it.
I called my mother at work. She guided me over the phone.
I could hear the pulp mill grinding in the background.
I replayed the opening sequence over and over again.
It wasn’t frustrating. I enjoyed it.
Dragon Warrior had a dense atmosphere.
It was confident.
The music felt harmonious and foreboding.
The box art glimmered with dread:
I obsessed over the art.
How was the knight going to defeat the dragon?
He had no ground left to stand on. The dragon was enormous.
I couldn’t see how the knight could win.
I imagined every possible strategy.
I admired his bravery.
I felt like a coward.
I viewed Dragon Warrior through the same lens as Not Without My Daughter:
I didn’t understand it as a whole.
I didn’t understand it as a narrative.
I understood it as a wasteland.
I understood it through the dark, closed monuments I crawled into:
The art outside the game and the music within.
Confronted with a game I couldn’t interpret, I sat with it.
I sat with my imagination.
Finding out who I was.
Studying my cowardice.
Dissecting my fear.
2003: Abu Ghraib leaks.
A nightmare told in photographs.
A decade later and all the rhetoric leads here.
I look through the photos.
The smiling doesn’t frighten me.
It’s the indifference:
Lynndie England’s indifferent face.
The nothingness of it.
The void heart of the universe opening.
Watching a culture watch itself go blind.
The proto-VR experience.
The knell of the anchors.
Abu Ghraib wasn’t a narrative.
It was a symbol of breaking.
It was a living dead space:
The chasm. The dragon.
My broken understanding of Not Without My Daughter unspooled and stretched to face its own logic:
Anyone that looks like me is an animal and an enemy.
A diverse race seen as an extension of video game power fantasies and brutal consumerism.
A race of screaming Amiibos.
I don’t know where I’m supposed to land.
I never knew.
I am uncomfortable inside myself.
I am at peace in the margins.
Wandering the liminal space.
I don’t enjoy games as much as pieces of games.
Midgar’s Dense Linearity:
Out Run Pillars:
Altered Beast Cemetary:
Shin Megami Tensei IV Screen:
I find quiet in these places.
I imagine interacting with them.
I imagine their histories.
I identify with them.
I once told a professor I’m not certain where I belong.
In America, I’m the Arab.
In Lebanon, I’m the American.
She suggested I might need a third space.
Escape the duality.
I thought of Europe. I thought of vanishing in Asia.
I almost accepted a job teaching English in Japan.
But changing location didn’t feel like enough.
Priscilla carved her own world to be forgotten.
It wasn’t enough.
Still found. Murdered by millions.
Hiding can’t be enough.
I needed an internal physicality.
A spatial dialogue.
Pieces of games became my third space.
I found solace in the warmth of their parts.
After I escaped the 2006 war, I wrote a poem.
It wasn’t good, but it told the story.
I went to open mics at cafes anywhere I could and read.
The final reading, I went with a friend.
He was experimenting with grey market drugs.
2C-E was still legal.
I step outside after.
The sun setting. The sky going dark.
I lay back against the brick facade.
Some of the audience walk up to me.
They enjoyed it. Said I wrote like Kerouac.
I hate Kerouac.
I thank them.
I feel like a fraud.
I’ve reinforced my identity as an Arab.
Reinforced my otherness.
I fall into myself.
I look at my friend.
‘Did you notice that spiderweb in the corner by the window?’
‘It was really intricate…lots of shifting geometry…’
I listen to the traffic.
I look down at the sidewalk.
I see a small clover and moss growing between the concrete.
‘The way it caught the light…’
I don’t say anything.
I look across the road at the overgrown lot.
A warm wind.
I watch a tree scratch at the frozen sky.
I remember the indifference of the world.
I am terrified.
I remember pride. I feel like a fool.
I rip the poem up and throw it away.
I walk to my car.
I lean on it. I watch the air go black.
I was born in the wrong place.
The wrong time.
But here I am:
The post-modern dynasty.
The failure of multiculture at a loss for self.
But here I am:
Inheritor and occupier of pieces.
Drowning in mirrors and dead flags.
The garbage king on his throne of cracks.