Particles of headlight casing from an SUV that rear-ended a Triple-A van showered my front window. I considered stopping. I looked to my left through the driver’s window and saw Big-Guy in the Yukon cursing over loud music. The Triple-A van hovered into the juncture softly to a stop and Thin-Man with a baseball cap stepped out as my car passed his on the right. I was relieved to see both were ok albeit pissed as hell. I drove on, parked downhill at a free two-hour metered spot and headed to pledge allegiance to a nation.
The US County Court in Springfield Massachusetts USA was a large white modern building in the midst of one of the poorest cities in the country. Glass walls let the clear sunny afternoon blue sip in and the AC roared in defiance like a rocket tearing gravity. I landed on a metal folding chair in the second row of five half-moons surrounding a large flag of red, blue and white.
“One small step for man.” I thought.
It’s been a long process to become a citizen. Fourteen years of student visa, optional practical training work extension, visa sponsorship-via-employment, artist visa then green-card. Slack lawyers, extensive repetitive documentation, interviews and tests (name one native american tribe? what is the role of the president? what is the bill of rights?) A few months before I attended an immigration facility to give biometrics data (finger prints, retina imprint, photograph). The sign at the door said “No Drinking No Eating No Cellphone No Computer No Music No Flip-flops” ; “Sit here.” a guard pointed at another metal chair, my docile mind complied and my pining heart yearned for freedom, happiness and equality, saying “Yes. for that, I will hunch my body and sit silently waiting for my turn to have my biology metered.” Had the season of the docile classroom of No ended? Was this ceremony the graduation into the Yes? I look around and imagine the unimaginable journeys the black, brown, yellow, red and all the in-between-hued-skin women and men around me have traversed, their glistening eyes say “Will we be treated well? Will we be safe?”
Everyone was quiet with anticipation, and I felt welcomed by the festive jazz. This was best-dress-day for many, and I proudly wore a new shimmering purple buttoned shirt from TJMAXX. Tucked in.
I played a guessing game. The old woman with too much make up and a white bun over her head I guessed was from Russia. The short balding man with a goatee and three piece suit — Italian. Big brown guy with slanted eyes was clearly Samoan. I wondered, How do they see me?
I recalled my grandparents, refugees from Poland and from the remnant of the Austro-Hungarian empire fleeing the Holocaust to find solace in the then-British-colonized Palestine. I recalled the status-less, country-less, everything-less Raina, Masoud and Maher who fled present-day Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq with their families whom I met a month earlier in a refugee camp on a pier in Greece. What are they?
Some may ask “why call anyone anything?” Are words and names the enemy? Is it the action of calling, naming that divides? Is there a way to befriend thoughts, labels, language itself, like Adam reclining in the Garden of Eden, benevolently and appreciatively naming the animals, trees, days and seasons he had observed, all the while maintaining communion with God who witnessed and repeatedly “saw it was very good?” What makes the difference between naming with fear, and naming with empathy? Would that affect how I respond to a refugee, to my newborn nephew, to #BlackLivesMatter? Is it in the reclining back? Is it in the appreciation? Is it in the distinguishing of these different aspect in the Garden of Eden of my own consciousness — Adam the Name-giver, Jehovah the Witness, Birch Tree, Cardinal, Grief, Trump, Summer?
“ALL RISE!” Everyone stood up as a short woman in a black judge gown entered the room. Softly, A homeland security representative declared this vestibule a court and requested to petition on our behalf to the United States to complete our naturalization. Through the glass ceiling I watched the green leaves gliding west. Judge Roberts called each and every nation of origin present in the room. ALL FORTY EIGHT OF THEM. The 3-piece-suit short bald man stood up when she called Iraq (Not Italian), the Samoan was, in fact, from Cambodia. A black woman wearing a black-and-white hijab stood for Sudan. Then Georgia stood up. Then Australia, India, China, Bhutan, Finland and on and on. The twenty-year old woman to my left was Egyptian-now-American, came to the US when she was 3. To her left a tall Turkish-now-American man, pointing to his hair and saying he had come here before his hair turned grey. “Unless you are a Native American Indian, everybody in this country is an immigrant. Remember that.“ The judge said. “This is great.” I thought, “THIS is what makes America great.”
The ceremony concluded and folks improvised a line to take a photograph by the star-spangled flag with their new Certificate of Naturalization. The dark-skinned short 3-piece-suit man from Iraq-now-American gave me both his camera and his phone to take his photo, but the caucasian blond Finnish-now-American woman moved fast towards the flag and struck a pose. I wondered how quickly even here, now, in the celebration of unity and equality, a pecking order appeared.
Someone asked me why I would choose to become a US citizen. I answered it’s because I choose to clearly acknowledge being part of a system and to show up in it, consciously. Perhaps naturalization, the act to become a natural person, a mensch, is the acknowledgment that there is nothing outside the system — regardless of the challenges, the centuries of genocide, slavery, racism, classes — when there is only, y’know, one interconnected system. I cannot not be related to all this. And where am I not natural yet? What part of the system do I not see myself part of? I can name a few.
I posed by the flag for a photo. “Shukran,” I thanked the dark-skinned man. “I’m Rami, what’s your name?”
“It was Majid, now I changed it to Magic!” He answered. When applying for citizenship, one can legally change their name.
Looking down at his small stature, I asked, amused with irony, “Like Magic Johnson?”
“No.” He glared back up with pride. “Like Magic.”
I bid the Sorcerer farewell and walked out from the sun-bathed court. In the daze of Magic’s spell, everything had a name, a label, and everything also carried another name — the same one. I waved to the woman-from-Bhutan-now-American, passed a black-woman-now-American loitering on the steps of a run-down-brownstone-now-American. I got to my Japanese-car-now-American and felt grateful-and-humbled-now-American for the privilege to — even if for two hours only on this downhill slope spot — to park here, free.