Aseel Machi doesn’t know her real birthday. She can’t even say for certain where she was born. The tiny Arabic woman was a refugee at birth, one of a rare bunch of babies born on the run each year — homeless and nation-less.
It was somewhere in the barren desert between her parents’ home in Najaf, Iraq and a refugee camp near the Saudi Arabian border when her life began, at some now untraceable moment along a wild chase for freedom that highballed her father from a dim prison cell to America. Yet to justify her family’s two-year hiatus in a geographic limbo as the divine work of fate ignores the sheer luck of it all. At least, it doesn’t suffice for a woman whose life began on the raw threshold of death.
Twenty years spent stringing the threads of her story together and it’s all become one strange and fortunate chance, the sort that’s spawned the world’s never-ending doubt: what if?
It was 1990. The Iraqi military had invaded Iran 10 years earlier in a misguided effort for dominance in the Middle East, setting off a violent border battle now known as the Iran-Iraq War. After eight years playing tug of rope over an immovable divide, the two countries agreed to a ceasefire agreement. It was a war with no clear winner and a whole lot of losers. Iraq’s economy had been dealt an especially crippling blow.
In a last ditch effort for hegemony in the region, then President Saddam Hussein sent his military to annex neighboring Kuwait. UN and U.S. troops quickly intervened, fearing the dictator would set his sights on the oil rich Saudi Arabia. The Gulf War ensued, and Hussein’s once supreme reign lapsed into an unprecedented period of vulnerability.
The southern Shia minority, of which Machi’s family belonged, revolted. Forgotten during a decade of warfare had been the Iraqi people’s own battle against poverty and oppression. They were bitter and weary, though just angry enough to cause a scene.
Machi’s father was thrown in prison for reasons he has rarely and then only vaguely alluded to. She’s never cared to know. But when a misunderstanding between the guards set he and his companions free, he knew it was time to flee. Flee or die, Machi clarified.
“You know what I mean? Either they’re going to catch you and kill you or catch you and jail you. And if they don’t catch you, they will catch you,” she said. “At that point it was just like, we have to go.”
Machi’s father initially fled south to the Saudi Arabian border by himself, promising his pregnant wife he’d return for her in a few years. But a single man fleeing without wife or child is a hard sell for the camp guards who take in only the most desperate and despairing. Denied asylum, he turned back for his wife, cut ties with the life he’d hoped for in Iraq and was eventually let through the border.
They make light of it now, Machi said. Which is what happens when that near death adrenaline has finally faded.
“You were never going to come back for us!” she laughs, pretending it’s her father in front of her, not some confused reporter who doesn’t get the joke and maybe never will. But then:
“In a way my mother and I were the keys to getting out of the country,” she says, abruptly changing tone.
The family spent the next two years living in a tent. When their neighbors grew restless or homesick and chanced life back in Iraq, they told themselves it wouldn’t be much longer — they’d make it. They had to.
But Saudi Arabia’s dominant Wahhabi population, a conservative branch of Islam, proved the country a difficult stay for the Shi’ite minority. They were discriminated against, forced to practice their religion in private.
Of course, this is all ten or so years of hearsay, gleaned from a father who’d rather not dwell on it and a mother who doesn’t see the point. Machi herself has no recollection of being there. Her first childhood memories are of kindergarten at Wexford Montessori Magnet School in Lansing, struggling to learn English and Arabic at the same time.
Until the fifth grade, in fact, she’d never thought of herself as anything but an American.
Sept. 11, 2001
Sept. 11 is not an easy thing for Machi to discuss, and not because she knew anyone trapped in the World Trade Center that day or because, at only ten years old, she had become a de facto blot on American culture, but because as a Muslim the topic is taboo. At least, in the manic realm of American mainstream conversation, ruled and run by hard lines and sound bites.
“It’s really selfish to say, but when 9/11 happened it didn’t just affect — ” her eyes dart to the carpet.
“…white people,” she finished. This is, apparently, not that realm. Or maybe there’s just no one around on the third floor of the Law Building at three in the afternoon.
“We’re victims, too,” she continued, “but we can’t say that, we can’t go around publicizing that because then it’s making the conflict about us. At this point, what can we do about it? What more can we do?”
Just like the majority of fifth graders that day, Machi didn’t understand the meaning of a few planes crashing into a few buildings. She had no idea that what she’d witnessed on the classroom T.V. would, at least for the rest of that tumultuous year, transform her morning Pledge of Allegiance into something more like a eulogy. The only real measure of brevity she could decipher amid the chaos was her teacher’s tears. Other than that, it was incomprehensible.
“You’re ten years old and people are claiming to be your religion and bombing your country,” she said. “So you’re just like, wait, I don’t understand.”
And there was no time to. Before President Bush could find his own words to address the nation, FOX 47, a local television station, arrived at Machi’s school with their cameras, placed her in front of one and asked her to describe her reaction. She maintained it was the headscarf — she was one of only three children in the school wearing one — and maybe so. But who knows. She’s been searching for the tape ever since, wondering what sense she could have possibly made out of that situation.
Now, it’s become even less clear.
“This is my culture. I grew up with the American culture, you know. I listened to the same music, I hung out with the same people,” she said. “And all of that was just kind of ripped away because now they’re trying to say you’re not American anymore and I’m like, I don’t understand. I’m a citizen.”
Machi’s hijab, or head scarf, is a bright, creamy coral. It bounds her smooth brown face and drapes in folds onto her shoulders. She wears a long-sleeve coral shirt to match and navy skinny jeans. She is thin and still wears braces.
She wants to go to law school, in part because the government is “tricky sometimes” and in part because of her struggle with religion. During her senior year of high school, she stopped wearing her hijab.
“I took it off after the whole entire — there’s just so much racism,” she explained. “I was going through so much.
“You’re going through that phase where you just want to hang out, have fun and sometimes it’s really hard to do that when you have a scarf because people don’t — people don’t see you as okay to hang out with.”
It was only three months ago when she decided to put it back on. There’s been a little more racism, but who cares? I have discovered myself, she says assuredly.
It is indeed surprising how freely Machi talks about her life. She has few qualms about saying what’s on her mind, when it’s on her mind and why. She’ll speak for her people because somebody needs to. In a way, her parent’s fight for freedom has now become her own.
“Why can’t I say what I want to say?” she questions.
It is why she began wearing her hijab again, as a statement of who she wants to be. For her, it is an act of freedom rather than conformity, a way to assert her womanhood and her faith in the Prophet — “may peace be upon him” — despite societal pressure to the contrary.
In fact just this past August, Michigan representative Dave Agema, R-Grandville, introduced a bill to the legislature that would ban foreign law in the state, acknowledging that it would, indeed, prohibit Sharia law. While the measure never passed, Machi understood its message.
This time her hijab stayed put.
“Just because somebody does something culturally doesn’t mean it’s okay religiously,” she said. “People mix up the culture and the religion. And they’re two opposite things.”
Deep down, though, she knows the answer to her former question. It lies somewhere between the First and Fourteenth Amendments, between Tinker vs. Des Moines and Texas v. Johnson — she’s a future law student, of course — but who’s really counting? And has American freedom ever really changed?
Maybe so. But who knows. Still Machi searches for the truth, so that in another ten years she can answer another reporter’s apologetic questions.
For now, there’s just one last one. When will it end — the fear and the pain — for everyone?
“When there is a new wave,” she says. “When it is not Muslims anymore, but someone else. It’s horrible, but who’s next?”