Syringe, Spindle, Scepter
by Bassem Saad
We share our mothers’ health
It is what we've been dealt
The Knife - We Share Our Mothers’ Health
Statistics and newspapers tell me I am unhappy and dying
That I'm more likely to get breast cancer.
And it's biology,
it's my own fault,
it's divine punishment of the unruly.
Jenny Hval - That Battle is Over
I’d started borrowing beige shirts and belts before making my way to earrings and necklaces that I had bought as travel gifts for her. Borrowing my own gifts sounds exactly like the only child that I am. I thought this was spiraling out of control until I found a photo from 1998 of me sitting tightly cross-legged in my mother’s skirt and makeup, with a scarf on my head that I pretended was a wig for at least a year. When I showed the photo to my Indian-American friend, she said it’s adorable and hilarious how brown parents generally love dressing up their babies in womens’ clothes. I’m not as sure about commonalities across continents between brown parents and initiating children early on into forms of drag, but I’ve thought a lot about these episodes of mine from last century, both documented and not. I use ‘century’ because they feel distant enough in time, separated from me now by my personal dark ages of attempting to perform any sort of cohesive masculinity.
Or maybe I should trace this further back to when she was pregnant and had decided she didn’t want to know what the ultrasound determined. I’ve told myself this was her temporary admission of my right to opacity and not an inconvenient 90s technophobia, that if she can’t stop the medical gaze from knowing my gender, she would refuse to be complicit by refusing to know herself. I imagine her feeling the kicks and telling herself she doesn’t want to embarrass me by probing too much, the same prudence she practices now when she finds any item related to adult sexual health. Nevertheless, she was going to steer the process accordingly by purchasing pink baby accessories and naming me Nour meanwhile.
* * * * *
(a conversation with a friend about a jade necklace I am wearing that I had originally bought as a gift)
Why are you wearing it?
Because she’s not wearing it tonight.
Why isn’t she wearing it?
Why would she wear it at home?
Why hadn’t Angelina Jolie been in the news about her empowered self and self-imposed mastectomy 5 years earlier?
Why hadn’t she gone ahead and named me Nour anyway?
My uncle’s wife points to the orange plastic bags in the ER. She, a nurse, shares the piece of disciplinary knowledge that orange plastic is used in the Lebanese Republic for hazardous medical waste, such as that resulting from chemotherapy. I’m grateful for the information but ask myself why she had thought to tell me this, in that expanding lapse between ER admission and discharge. I get fixated on orange plastic and begin to imagine hills and pyres of orange bags containing syringes and other paraphernalia going up in flames. This inferno is a cross between the burning of garbage on every other street that took place in the Lebanese Republic during the garbage crisis which began three years ago, and the scenes in Sleeping Beauty when all the spindles in the Kingdom needed to be incinerated because one is poisoned and may put the princess to sleep. I wonder whether the chemotherapy syringes that have already been incinerated outnumber the ones that are still upcoming.
I remember the garbage crisis had been in the works for a couple years, casually looming in and out of the evening news. The snowball officially started rolling in July 2015 when protesters made sure to enforce the delayed closure of the Naameh landfill on the southern coast of Mount Lebanon. The landfill was 13 million tons above its planned capacity of two million, having been itself an emergency response in 1998 to the closing of an older landfill in Bourj Hammoud. The nimbies were rightfully not having it anymore, and environmentalists hoped that the protests and closure would lead to a national restructuring of the waste disposal plan. Instead, one of the proposed solutions involved the brave reopening of the Bourj Hammoud landfill. A summer of temporary but open-ended trash burning ensued. In September, the one time I had acid at a rave away from the city, the protests were reaching full force and approaching the parliament building. I returned to Beirut sober and determined to be part of this waste-induced revolt. The protests dragged and lingered and receded. The parliament building remained safe and out of protesters’ reach.
Soon after, I left the country for some months for the first time to study in Paris. My parents approached it the way many Global South parents approach prospects of their children leaving for academic study. You’ll also be away from the garbage!
In retrospect, it feels like whatever qualms I had about leaving the nest were justified. I’ve now developed the strange belief that my absence from the domestic space will not bode well for anyone I’m leaving behind. Either my being away, or the garbage, or my being away from the garbage. That said, for everyone’s better mental health it’s probably best to respect that correlation does not imply causation. In Paris, I remember receiving news of diagnoses of two family members on my mother’s side: bone marrow and uterine. As soon as I came back to the country, the diagnoses expanded to include my mother and my only other queer cousin’s mother. Here too I can’t but ignore any correlation between a queer son and a positive mammogram.
Recently, I notice that one of the orange bags had been put to use in the bathroom. In the rest of the house, never had the plants been so well tended to because never had we been in their presence for so long a day. Factor in the sickbed and the house itself seemed to be performing in drag, a sort of high-efficiency patient compatibility mode where even the calatheas were doing their best to serve the cause.
Outside seemed to be an elsewhere that we were tired of being cautious of. A list of the 13 most popular beaches in the country circulates, listing the heavy metals contained in the waters of each. Arsenic, lead, copper, zinc, cadmium, mercury, sulfur: that summer we swam with the big boys. We stuck to the beach in Batroun because they said it only had moderate amounts of mercury. Mercury in a water sign like Cancer means a desire to become a parent, thoughts influenced by emotions, home as refuge, love of being near the water, and strength drawn from family. I don’t think my mother has been to the beach after getting married. She said the sun gave her headaches, a piece of her health that I share. Otherwise, I do think she draws strength from family. On the days when I’ve been selfish enough with my time outside the house, I usually come back to newly appeared pains.
sepsis sleeper specter
adult live-in son
silver like a heavy metal
syringe spindle scepter
the Lebanese Kingdom
an effigy on every street
piling up trash, inpatient meals, intravenous
sharp objects never miss them
My father first noticed my silver-painted nails a week after I came back from a work trip. He lashed out at me, convinced that caretakers can’t have nail polish. My mother however had of course noticed the nails long before that, as soon as I had arrived from the airport. Her reaction was more parts puzzlement than disapproval. She asked if this was in fashion? A few days later she said that since I was so good at doing my nails then I could help her do her toenails because it’s been difficult and she hasn’t had nail polish on in a couple of months.
A recent article from a local far-right outlet says the rise in cancer rates is due to the presence of Syrian refugees. The latest news coming out of the Lebanese parliament building is that one combo solution to both the country’s energy and garbage crises is to build a 1.2 billion dollar waste-to-energy incinerator in the heart of the capital. The United Nations Development Programme backs the decision despite the unsuitability of Lebanese trash for generating energy due to low calorific value and thus high amounts of ash to be regularly released in the air. The incinerator is to be located within a 1km radius of the apartment where I grew up and where my parents and I continue to live in different capacities. If built, maybe it will be the biggest effigy in dedication to the city of looping crisis, a perfect rhythm machine swallowing garbage and spitting ash over the land.
One foot in front of the other you feed your baby, spitting and swallowing, one PET scan after the next, two coats for every fingernail. When I think of the conceit of choosing any work or life path because it involves less repetition, I remember the repetition inherent to performing anything worthwhile, patient to parent to daughter to caretaker. In the present moment, my mother and I are performing in retrograde, sometimes slipping in the same day from patient to parent to son to daughter to caretaker. My ideas of gender say I can borrow my mother’s clothes, but statistics say I won’t share her health. Despite the dissonance, I tell myself I’m being the best daughter I can be. Sometimes when I’m walking her out of the building, I have to stop myself from wandering and walking too fast for her. She walks slowly and jokes that she feels like a penguin. On better days, she winces and jokes, winces and laughs. Ash in the air or mercury in the water or mercury in retrograde, I’ve decided that to simultaneously wince and joke the way she does will be my best drag.