"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Sharif Kesbeh has just heard that America is deporting his eldest son to Jordan, and he’s beaming. “The family will hopefully be reunited today, inshallah, after exactly one year,” he says. Twenty-year-old Alaa had called his parents from the Detroit airport that morning to give them the news — he was being freed from detention and would soon be put on a plane bound for Amman, the last of the Kesbehs to be expelled from the United States. “We prefer to live a miserable life anywhere rather than be detained,” says Sharif as he and his family set off for Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport to welcome Alaa home to a country where he’s never lived before.
At 9:30 p.m., though, three hours after the plane lands, there’s still no sign of the boy. Sharif, his wife, Asmaa, their five daughters and youngest son slump in their metal chairs, looking very small in the dim, gray expanse of the waiting room. Anticipation gives way to anxiety. Maybe, they worry, the Americans took Alaa back to jail. Or maybe he’s being detained by the Jordanian security services, who might want to know why he’s been thrown out of the country where he and his family made their home for 11 years.
When the rest of the Kesbehs arrived in Amman a year ago from their home in Houston, they were questioned for hours by police incredulous at their story. The Jordanians could scarcely believe that an entire family would be kicked out of the United States with nothing but what they could carry unless they had committed some great crime.
The Kesbeh’s kids, with their Texas accents and elementary Arabic, were also bewildered, though they’d known what was coming. Except for the youngest, Afnan, an American citizen, they all have Jordanian passports like their parents, but they’d never lived in the country before, and until the very last moment, they were sure that some miracle would keep them at home in the United States. “The first day here, my kids could not believe it that they are not in America,” says Sharif.
A year later at the same airport, waiting for their brother, the Kesbeh kids are still dreaming of elsewhere.
“Imagine that we’re here because we’re going back to Houston,” says 19-year-old Sondos. With her long, loose hair, tight pink pants and black high heels, she stands in defiant contrast to the majority of Jordanian women in their hijabs, or Islamic head scarves.
“I wish,” says 17-year-old Hadeel, her curly, blond-streaked hair pulled back in a ponytail.
“We left everything sweet behind,” says their mother, 40-year-old Asmaa, who, with her head scarf and embroidered robe, is the only woman in the family who blends in in Amman.
“Here,” says 21-year-old Noor, “everything is bitter.”
At the airport, a security guard presses his face to a nearby Plexiglas window, staring intently at these young women with their lip gloss and, except for Noor and Asmaa, uncovered heads. Hadeel stares angrily, unflinchingly back. “Have you noticed how guys here stare at you?” she asks, a hard twang in her voice. “And they’ll say things, too. They’ll hit a girl. It’s a very corrupt society.” When he finally looks away, she smirks. “I won,” she says.
Speaking quietly, Noor, a lithe, doe-eyed woman who looks younger than 21 but acts older, says she’s worried about her younger sisters’ alienation from their new home. “The problem is they think they’ll be coming back to Houston soon,” she says. “They still haven’t unpacked everything.”
Right now, though, the Kesbehs have little chance of returning to Texas. They’ve joined the thousands of other Arab and Muslim immigrants deported from America since Sept. 11, in one of the largest mass expulsions in American history. In the weeks and months after the terrorist attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft launched a series of crackdowns aimed specifically at illegal immigrants from Muslim countries. Thousands were rounded up and detained, often for months, and around 20,000 were put into deportation proceedings. More are being added every day.
Many of them have children who are American citizens, forcing them into a brutal choice: Either uproot their kids, or leave them behind. “It’s very common,” says Sam Quiah, community organizer for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit whose attorneys have represented many post-9/11 deportees. “Families are being torn apart.”Once the government began treating immigration violations as a corollary of terrorism, there was little room to take individual circumstances into account. The Kesbehs, parents and children alike, were from the Middle East, and they were in the United States illegally. It didn’t matter that they’d broken no other law, that Sharif always paid taxes on his business (much of which involved, of all things, selling American flags). It didn’t matter that the kids knew no home but Houston.
They still feel like aliens in their new city, a sprawl of inelegant sand-colored buildings linked by streets that often lack sidewalks. Built on seven hills, Amman was once the Roman city of Philadelphia, and it still boasts an ancient amphitheater in the city center, but over the centuries it declined into a mere village. Only in the last few decades has it been built up again, constructed in the style of Los Angeles, without souqs and promenades where one can easily enter into the life of the place. On many streets there are more armed policemen than pedestrians. Everywhere — suspended over roads, posted in the windows of dingy shawarma stands, greeting arrivals at the airport — are photos of Jordan’s pudgy-cheeked King Abdullah. It is illegal to criticize him, something that still strikes the American-educated Kesbeh kids as very strange.
Sharif, a lumbering 55-year-old man given to eloquent lamentations and dramatic hyperbole, speaks about his family’s calamity as if it were unique in all the world, but there are others like them. A 45-minute drive from the Kesbeh’s apartment in crowded East Amman live the Abu-Shabayeks, a Palestinian family of nine ejected from America, where they’d lived for a dozen years in North Carolina, near Raleigh. Five of their seven children are American citizens. The eldest two had to drop out of their Jordanian high schools because they barely speak Arabic, and the youngest five are struggling in every subject except English. Their new neighborhood is a barren place on the edge of the city’s sprawl where herds of goats and long brown Bedouin tents are interspersed with low concrete housing blocks. They have no friends here.
Hanan Abu-Shabayek, 17, looks Jordanian with her hijab and long gray robe, but she speaks with a honeyed Southern accent. “We just feel that the world…”
“Is falling apart,” her Bronx-born 13-year-old sister, Haneen, finishes her sentence.
In the year after the 2002 pre-dawn raid that ended their American idyll, the Kesbeh family tried everything imaginable to remain in the United States. They enlisted the media, briefly becoming a cause célèbre in Houston, where protesters held vigils on their lawns and local churches offered to shelter them from the immigration authorities. Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee introduced a bill in the House that would have granted them legal residency. Republican Rep. Daryl Issa, an Arab-American from California, spoke out on their behalf, and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy reportedly intervened with immigration to delay their deportation.
In post-9/11 America, though, it proved impossible for a family of illegal Arab immigrants to garner enough political support to stay. So on March 28, 2003, they were put on a plane bound first for Amsterdam, Netherlands, and then for Amman. Noor and her father swear that the immigration agents, after battling the Kesbehs for so long, high-fived each other as they sent them off.
Only one remained behind — the oldest son, Alaa, still a teenager. At 1 a.m. the night before their flight, he fled to a friend’s house, hoping he could go to another state and disappear. By the end of the year, he’d be a convict versed in the relative iniquities of the U.S. justice system.
The mass deportations that have marooned so many in unfamiliar homelands happened in several overlapping stages. The first occurred immediately after Sept. 11, when hundreds of Arab and Muslim men were rounded up by the FBI, interrogated, imprisoned, often for months without charges, and then put on planes back to their own countries.
Khaled Abu-Shabayek, Hanan and Haneen’s 40-year-old father, was caught up in the tail end of these sweeps. On April 18, 2002, Abu-Shabayek, an electrician, stopped by a Walgreens on his way back home to North Carolina from a job in Tennessee. As he pulled into the parking lot, 20 or 30 policemen surrounded him. They arrested him and took him to a Tennessee jail, where he was interrogated by the FBI, something that would happen seven or eight times as he was moved from prison to prison for the next four months and 25 days.
“They ask me about bin Laden, if I know him,” Abu-Shabayek recalls, peering behind thick glasses in his living room’s harsh artificial light. “Then they ask me about Hamas, or the jihad, or the people who make Sept. 11.” Like many other Palestinian detainees, Abu-Shabayek reports being questioned extensively about his feelings toward Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “They ask me about Sharon, ‘Do you like Sharon or not? What do you think about the Sharon visit to the Aqsa Mosque — what’s your opinion?’” Abu-Shabayek says. “They ask me, ‘If we send you to Jordan, do you think to go to Israel and make trouble?’”
Still, he says, the interrogators weren’t that bad. It’s the guards who were cruel. “Let me say, the people who make the question, they are fair. The people who deal with us in the jail, they are very tough, especially with Muslim people.” At one point, he was put in the hole for 21 days. He says he still doesn’t know why.
The roundups were just the beginning. In November 2002, the Justice Department instituted the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or special registration, which required men from most Arab or Muslim countries to report to immigration officials to be fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed. Of the 85,000 men who came forward to register, more than 13,000 were either deported or put into deportation proceedings. In December 2003, the administration suspended much of the program, but no relief was given to those it had already ensnared.
In between the start of post-9/11 sweeps and the beginning of special registration, there was the Absconder Apprehension Initiative, a Justice Department program to crack down on the 314,000 immigrants who remained in the country despite their deportation orders. As the Washington Post reported on Feb. 8, 2002, “Justice Department and FBI officials have said that the operation would focus first on about 6,000 immigrants from countries identified as al Qaeda strongholds, though the vast majority of absconders are Latin American.”
It was the absconder initiative that ultimately led eight armed agents to burst into the Kesbehs’ Houston house before daybreak on March 29 of that year. It led to Sharif and Alaa Kesbeh spending six months in prison together, and then to Alaa spending more time in prison alone. And it led to the fluorescent-lit, two-bedroom apartment in a conservative section of East Amman where today the Kesbehs try to figure out how to restart their lives.
It’s not an easy place to be a newcomer, especially for Noor and her sisters. Boys play in the Kesbehs’ potholed street, but girls stay inside. There’s nowhere in their neighborhood to walk to except jumbled corner stores and butcher shops where skinned lambs hang whole outside. Many of the stores’ concrete walls are decorated with photos of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the recently assassinated Hamas leader whose white-bearded face stares toward heaven on posters all over the poorer parts of the city.
Asmaa, who hardly ever goes out anymore, speaks longingly about America’s parks, about the strangers who said hello as they jogged by. “Here, you cannot run,” she says. “Oh my God, you cannot even walk.”
The American government, of course, has the legal right to deport illegal immigrants, and has been doing so for years. Many of the provisions currently being used to arrest and deport the undocumented aren’t even new — they were enacted as part of the 1996 anti-terrorism law, passed in response to the Oklahoma City bombing. That terrorist attack had nothing to do with foreigners, but the government still responded to it by expanding the grounds on which immigrants can be deported and by removing much of the discretion that, in the past, might have allowed judges to issue waivers for people who, like the Kesbehs, had deep ties to their communities.
After 1996, says Lucas Guttentag, director of the Immigrants Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, “there was a restriction or elimination of the ability or the willingness of the government to consider cases on an individual basis and to exercise discretion to decide who should be prosecuted. Traditionally, with immigration laws, because of their severe consequences, there has always been a recognition that there ought to be an element of discretion.”
The little discretion that remained disappeared almost entirely after Sept. 11, when Ashcroft made the persecution of Arab and Muslim immigrants official policy.
“What’s happened since 9/11, there’s been a specific targeting of particular communities, Muslim and Arab communities, to enforce immigration and visa violations that have traditionally not been enforced, and still are not enforced against other immigrants,” says Guttentag. The arrests and deportations have slowed in recent months, but they haven’t stopped, says Ahmad Tansheet, community outreach coordinator for the Muslim Civil Rights Center, a Chicago group that closely follows the issue. “We are receiving one or two complaints every day,” he says.
Ashcroft has been explicit about using the immigration laws to target people from countries associated, if only tangentially, with terrorism. “Let the terrorists among us be warned,” he said on Oct. 25, 2001. “If you overstay your visa — even by one day — we will arrest you.”
Happily ensconced in Houston, the Kesbehs didn’t think such warnings applied to them. “This family is the most peaceful family, maybe in the world,” says Sharif. “All we’d been doing is concentrating on our kids, our business and trying to stay away from all troubles.” Sharif made his living in America wholesaling flags — American flags, Confederate flags, even Israeli flags. After Sept. 11, his business, SLS International, donated hundreds of American flags to a community he considered his own.
Indeed, despite the fact that Sharif spent six months in prison without criminal charges, despite the fact that they’ve lost their business and now live in a section of Amman that Noor describes as “like, so ghetto,” even though Alaa’s exact whereabouts and condition were for months a mystery to them, the Kesbehs still love the country that expelled them. They call themselves Americans without papers. They just want to go home.
Noor, Batool and Hadeel Kesbeh
There’s something sitcom-like about the five Kesbeh daughters, who now share a single bedroom in their boxy, scarcely furnished 2nd floor apartment. All of them are very pretty and very different, as if they’d each been cast as easily discernible types in a broadly drawn script.
Noor, the oldest, is the responsible, intellectually curious one, who devours books like Greg Palast’s “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy,” sent to her by an American friend named Abraham. She had wanted to study medicine, something she can’t afford to do in Jordan. Now she works six days a week as an assistant production manager in a factory that makes gold jewelry. It’s located in a dusty industrial park on the edge of Amman. The bus ride there takes over an hour each way. She earns 200 J.D. a month, the equivalent of $280.
Sondos, 19, is the glamorous one. She found a job in an upscale cosmetics store — also paying 200 J.D. a month — and a moneyed but jealous boyfriend who constantly calls the cellphone he gave her. According to Noor, Sondos tells people she lives in Abdoun, an area of large new stone houses fronted by elaborate topiary and streets full of BMWs.
Hadeel, 17, is tough — though she’s given to cute pink T-shirts and precisely applied makeup, the rage at her new situation seems to crackle right under her skin. Batool, 14, is sunnier, a straight-A student and former athlete who still has a 2001 certificate honoring her academic achievements that was signed by Texas’s former governor, George W. Bush. Afnan, 11, is the baby, with a huge stuffed Tweety Bird on her bed. When her sisters tease her, she sticks out her tongue and says that someday she, the family’s only American, will be going back.
The Kesbeh’s youngest son, Muhannad, a shy, lanky 16-year-old, stays in the background, playing hour after hour of “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” on the family’s old computer. The family treasures the computer, their firmest link to the West.
And Alaa? Well, before he went on the lam, before he went to jail, he was a computer science student. He wanted to be an American soldier, but was twice turned away from the Navy because of his immigration status.
“This boy is a great boy,” Sharif says about his son as he walks out the apartment door on his way to the airport. “He doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment. America should be proud of him and give him immediate residency and send him to the best college in America.”
The kids’ interrupted ambitions weigh heavily on Sharif because he knows it’s all at least partly his fault. “They used to go to Starbucks, they used to go to Pizza Hut, they used to go to the mall,” he says. “Now we have no income even to buy them any clothes. We don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to tell my kids.”
His children try to ease his conscience, but in moments of frustration, Noor says, she blames him for everything. “Sometimes I take it out on him,” she says. “I was a minor. I didn’t know how to fix my status.”
But before Sept. 11, Sharif says, immigration lawyers told him that the authorities weren’t interested in prosecuting people like him and his family. “We felt very safe,” he says. “We’d been told by many attorneys that as long as you don’t do any kind of violation, no one will come and bother you.”
Anyway, Sharif didn’t think they had anywhere else to go, having been chased from his home by politics three times already.
He was born in a town near Ramallah in the West Bank, but his family was forced to flee during the 1948 war that attended the birth of Israel. His parents settled in the Qalandia refugee camp, and Sharif went to high school in Ramallah. On the day of his final exams in 1967, the Six-Day War began, and his family fled again. This time they settled in Baqaa, a refugee camp north of Amman, Jordan.
After studying agricultural engineering in Egypt, Sharif got a job in Jordan’s Ministry of Planning, and in 1979, the government sent him to study at Texas Tech in Lubbock, where he earned an M.A. and fell in love with America.
Still, he returned to Jordan and worked at the ministry for another three years, meeting and marrying Asmaa, who had been studying Islamic literature at the University of Jordan.
In the 1980s, the promise of a fat paycheck lured them to Saudi Arabia. After working first for the American defense contractor Vinnell and then for the Saudi Prince Muqren, Sharif left to form his own company, a transportation firm that would deliver fertilizer from neighboring countries to Saudi farms. He imported 50 trailers from Houston.
Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, “and all my dreams go with the wind,” Sharif says. With Saudi Arabia’s borders closed, the trailers were left sitting on the ground in Riyadh, and his income froze. Saddam lobbed bombs at the city, destroying Noor’s elementary school. Meanwhile, the Saudi government began discriminating against Palestinians, who were thought to be loyal to the Iraqi dictator.
Feeling that his life was becoming untenable, Sharif says he decided to visit America to “evaluate the situation.” His brothers were already there, working in the flag trade.
On Aug. 16, 1992, the Kesbehs arrived in the United States on a six-month tourist visa. Deciding they wanted to stay, Sharif went to the immigration office in Houston and received a one-year work permit, which he renewed the next year, and the next. The Kesbeh kids enrolled in public school, where they became honor-roll students. Little by little, Sharif Kesbeh built up the flag business that his brothers had started, eventually taking it over when they moved to other parts of the country.
“We had excellent relations with the community, Arab, Muslim, Christians and Jews,” Sharif says. When a local Holocaust museum wanted flags, the Kesbehs donated them.
Meanwhile, though, the family wasn’t having any luck getting green cards, which they’d applied for based on their status as Palestinian refugees. They finally hit a wall in 1997, when an immigration judge, ruling that the family wouldn’t suffer unduly if they returned to Jordan, denied their last appeal and refused to renew Sharif’s work permit. On June 15, 1998, the district director for Immigration and Naturalization Services in Houston issued a warrant of deportation for Sharif, Asmaa and six of their seven children. Only Afnan, who was born in Texas, was spared.
By then, though, the Kesbehs had roots in Houston.
“After six or seven years working hard to stand on our feet, if we leave the U.S., our family life will be destroyed,” says Sharif. “To leave your only source of income, to take the kids from an American school to an Arabic system school, means the destruction of the family.”
So the family did what thousands of others do when given an order to leave the country: They ignored it. No one from immigration ever tried to enforce the deportation — before Sept. 11, they rarely did. Sharif hoped that, after a few years, the government would declare an amnesty.
The kids were only intermittently conscious of being illegal. It surfaced in small ways — like when Alaa tried to join the military after high school and the Navy recruiter, at first delighted at the prospect of a smart, upstanding, Arabic-speaking young man, had to turn him down. It meant that Noor, Alaa and Sondos were ineligible for scholarships and had to attend an affordable community college, though they planned to transfer to university after two years.
Mostly, though, the kids grew up as average Texas teenagers. Legal residency “was something we needed,” says Sharif, “but it was not something we needed badly.”
Then came Sept. 11, “with all the tragedy to America and the world,” says Sharif. “We felt so sad when we saw this tragedy. We never realized that we, the Kesbeh family, will be a victim of this tragedy.”
Still, he says, “the moment they announced this act was done by Muslims, every Muslim on American soil got scared.”
Batool, Hadeel and Asmaa Kesbeh
For a few months, nothing happened. Then the Kesbehs suffered a smaller tragedy, one that may have intersected with the larger one to end their lives in America.
“On March 2, 2002, we received a phone call that made my wife almost die,” says Sharif. There had been an accident on Jordan’s Dead Sea Highway. Asmaa’s mother, father, younger sister and 3-year-old nephew were killed.
People throughout their community heard what had happened and gathered to offer condolences. The Kesbehs are convinced that this huge gathering of local Arabs and Muslims brought them to the FBI’s attention.
The raid happened four weeks later. Before sunrise on March 29, eight officers brandishing guns and flashlights barged into the house. At first, Asmaa thought they were robbers. They burst into the kids’ rooms, and when Noor asked if she could put on her head scarf before going with them, one officer sniggered, “Make sure you bring your Quran with you when you’re deported.”
As Asmaa sat terrified in the living room, one of the agents demanded to know why so many Muslims were coming to her house. She says he asked her: “Are you preparing for another attack?”
In the end, the agents left Noor at home to look after Afnan and Batool. Sharif and the rest of the family were driven to the immigration office in separate vans. Once there, they were all fingerprinted. Muhannad, Asmaa and her daughters were released on probation, pending deportation. Sharif and Alaa were put in jail.
Hysterical, Asmaa demanded to know why they were locking up her son, an 18-year-old who could hardly be blamed for his parents’ immigration violations. “He’s an innocent son, he never violated any laws,” she cried.
According to Asmaa, the immigration officer responded, “The people who destroyed the Trade Center, all of them were his age.” This, of course, wasn’t true. “They came from Saudi Arabia like your son,” the man continued. “He’s Arab, Muslim, and illegal.”
At home, a desperate Noor, wracking her brain for someone who could save them, thought of Marvin Zindler, the consumer investigator on Houston’s Channel 13 news. “He’s always helping people,” she says. “He’s always exposing restaurants that have roaches.” She called him, and he came and did a segment on the Kesbehs’ plight.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee saw the family on TV, and a week later, she made a public statement praising them as the embodiment of America’s values. Soon, there were stories in the Houston Chronicle about the “Palestinian Cleavers” and reports on Amy Goodman’s radio show “Democracy Now.” Lee introduced a resolution in Congress that would have granted the family legal residency.
Meanwhile, Sharif and Alaa languished behind bars.
Today, sitting on a floor cushion in his Amman living room after Asmaa served a lunch of stuffed grape leaves, squash and salad, the voice of the Kesbeh patriarch chokes and his eyes tear as he talks about being locked up with his eldest son. “He’s a boy,” says Sharif, fingers clicking a string of black worry beads. “He just turned 18 years old when they arrested him. He was a kid. I had to wake up him when they offered breakfast at 5 in the morning. He was patient. He was patient, but sometimes he asked, ‘Dad, why are they holding us?’”
They slept in a dorm with about 45 people, most of them also held on immigration violations. Nearly half their roommates were Arab or Muslim. “It was so miserable to see this tremendous number of people, Arab and Muslim, who have lives, who are productive, being deported, separated from their wives and children in this uncivilized way in the most advanced and civilized country in the world,” Sharif says. “The people they used to bring, when they locked the door, they’d collapse crying.”
After six months, though, the Kesbehs still hadn’t been deported, and things began to look up. Under pressure from New Jersey’s Arab community, Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli agreed to introduce a companion bill to Jackson Lee’s in the Senate, and Sen. Edward Kennedy intervened with immigration to have Sharif and Alaa released while the legislation was pending. The family’s deportation was stayed for six more months.
Asmaa was in the hospital waiting to go into surgery for a hernia when Noor told her that their bill had found a sponsor in the Senate, and that they might be able to stay. She fell to the floor, thanking God and crying with happiness and relief.
But Torricelli, in the midst of an ethics scandal, withdrew from the Senate race at the end of September. After that, the Kesbehs were unable to find another champion in the chamber.
The publicity their case had generated began to backfire, with the right seizing on their story as an example of Democratic squishiness on illegal immigration. Michelle Malkin, the caustic conservative author of the book “Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores,” wrote a syndicated column called “Lawmakers Who Love Lawbreakers,” which excoriated those politicians who’d risen to the Kesbehs’ defense. Senators that initially had seemed sympathetic backed away.
By the time their stay of deportation expired in March, the family had exhausted all their options.
On March 27, Asmaa stayed up all night trying to decide what to take and what to leave. They were allowed only about 44 pounds each of luggage, meaning most of what they owned would have to stay behind. That night there was a candlelight vigil at a local church, which offered to shelter the family against federal agents. Supporters camped out on their front lawn holding signs and banners. One said, “America Was Built by Immigrants. Stop Deporting Them.” Another read, “Houston Loves the Kesbeh Family.” In pictures taken that night, Noor is wearing an American flag hijab. Someone asked Sharif how he felt. He said it was the worst day of his life.
Early on the morning of March 28, 2003, a year after the pre-dawn raid on their house, the Kesbehs prepared to surrender themselves to the Houston immigration office. They were told to be there by 7 a.m.
Alaa, though, was gone. Late the previous night, his friends had called. “Stay with us,” they said. “We’ll find a way for you to go to Canada.” He went to his friend’s house and turned off his cellphone. He became a fugitive.
At the immigration office, the rest of the family was locked inside a bus that took them to the airport. While they waited for their flight, a man sat next to Noor. “So what do you think of Bush?” he asked her. Then he asked her religion, and when she said Muslim, he asked, “So what do you think of Saddam? What do you think about the war in Iraq?”
“I told him I don’t really care. I have my own problems,” she says.
The man rose and began whispering to an immigration agent. “We were shocked,” says Hadeel, “because we thought he was waiting for his plane.”
Even when the family had to board the plane that would take them first to Amsterdam and then to Jordan, they still expected to be saved. “My husband was waiting for them to say, ‘Kesbeh family, you are legal, come back,’ like in an American movie,” says Asmaa.
But the plane took them, as planned, to Jordan. Sharif and Asmaa hadn’t lived there for 22 years. The kids hadn’t lived there ever.
The apartment the Kesbehs moved into is owned by Sharif’s brother, who lives downstairs in a richly furnished flat. He and his family disapprove of their impious girl cousins, who sometimes go out unescorted to drink coffee in Abdoun’s trendy Blue Fig Cafe or to stroll in Mecca Mall, a somewhat cheap imitation of an American-style shopping center on the outskirts of Amman. “My cousins beat their sisters if they go out,” says Noor. “In the States we used to stay out. Here, the whole neighborhood expects you to be back at 7. Many people think that I’m an infidel because I’m taking salsa lessons.”
Sharif isn’t working. He receives a $150 monthly pension from the Agricultural Engineering Association, to which he paid dues for many years. A family friend is looking after the flag business back in Houston, but it is no longer profitable, having fallen into the red while Sharif was in prison. Because it’s failing, it’s hard to sell. The Kesbehs’ friends held a garage sale for them, unloading the things they left behind in their Houston home, but it only brought in around $1,000. The home itself was a rental. The family, then, is living largely on the 400 J.D. that Noor and Sondos bring in each month.
Much more than that is needed to send Afnan, Batool, Muhannad and Hadeel to the Abdul Hamid Sharaf school, a private, K-12 English-language academy that costs 2,700 J.D., or $3,800 a year, for each of them. According to principal Sue Dahdah, there’s been an influx of new students this year coming from the United States — enrollment is up 10 percent. She suspects many of them are deportees like the Kesbehs, though most would rather not admit it. There’s a stigma, after all, to being thrown out of America.
The kids complain about the school — the teachers, say Hadeel, spend the whole class writing notes on the board, which students are supposed to copy down verbatim. But Abdul Hamid Sharaf also may be their last hope for the futures they once imagined for themselves. “Mo, he is in 10th grade,” Sharif says of his younger son. “He studies Arabic at a 2nd grade level. If he has to go to Arabic school, he is going to be 27 years old when he finishes high school.”
This year’s tuition, though, still hasn’t been paid. “We keep telling them, ‘next month, next month,’” says Sharif.
Across town, a visit with the Abu-Shabayeks offers a glimpse of what may await the Kesbeh kids if they’re forced to leave private school. The Abu-Shabayeks can’t afford to send any of their children to English academies. Thus their two eldest aren’t going to school at all.
Seventeen-year-old Hanan Abu-Shabayek, a Jordanian citizen like her 18-year-old brother, Hassan, finished 9th grade in Raleigh. She maintained an average in the 90s, and dreamed of going to Duke or Chapel Hill. “Being a lawyer, that’s what I wanted the most,” she says.
Hanan is sitting in her family’s living room, near a small space heater — spring in Amman can be quite cold. Her mother, face drawn and thin, sits next to her, beneath a framed picture of Mecca on a cracking white wall. The family’s four youngest boys sprawl on a cheap rug with tigers printed on it and watch a disaster movie on TV — the Abu-Shabayeks treasure Channel 2, the American station, which Hanan says they leave on “24/7.”
“I’m supposed to be in school right now,” Hanan says. “But I didn’t know the Arabic. Over here, if you don’t know the Arabic, they can’t help you.”
Hassan had the same problem. Both of them dropped out. The younger kids have stayed in school, but they’re miserable, especially about their teachers’ liberal use of corporal punishment.
Khaled tries to get his shy 10-year-old son, Hazem, to talk. “What do you like better,” he asks the boy, “Jordan or America?”
Hazem smiles, revealing a cracked tooth. “America,” he says. “Over there in America, they don’t hit us.”
Hassan now works in a bakery near the family’s house, while Hanan waits for her June wedding. She agreed to the marriage with the 23-year-old taxi driver after realizing that she had to let go of her old life, because unlike her younger siblings, she’s not an American, even if she feels like one. “I don’t have a chance of going back to America, and I have to learn Arabic,” she says. “I think it’s the best thing for me to do right now.”
She describes her fiancé, who doesn’t speak English, as nice but “actually pretty strict.”
“I can go to a movie theater as long as I’m with him,” she says. “Me by myself, that’s not allowed. I’m starting to accept it, I guess. I think it’s wrong, but we have to live like the people here are living. If you can’t beat them, join them.”
The Kesbehs have never met the Abu-Shabeyeks, or even heard of them. But sitting on a cushion on her own living room floor in East Amman, Noor feels the same pressures as Hanan, though she’s resisting them. “My dad tells me just get married, it will solve your problems,” she says.
Asmaa, who wants something more for her daughters, shakes her head and says, “In this country, a lot of girls get married at 15.”
“It’s because they have no other choice,” says Noor.
Alaa and Asmaa Kesbeh embrace at the airport in Amman, Jordan, as Hadeel, Batool and Sondos look on.
By 9 p.m. on the night Alaa is supposed to return, the Kesbeh girls’ excitement has dissipated. They eat Pringles and M&Ms and watch the minutes pass and the cities change on the airport’s big black departure screens. No one in the family knows what to expect if and when Alaa walks through the gate. He was barely able to communicate with them while he was in prison. They’re still not sure how he ended up there, or what it did to him.
A year before, trying to save his American life, Alaa fled Houston on a Greyhound bus. Instead of going to Canada, he went to Asmaa’s younger brother’s house in Columbus, Ohio. Once again, he tried to join the Navy, but the recruiting officer was forced to reject him because of his immigration status.
So his uncle put him to work remodeling houses, and for a few months he earned a living by laying tiles and painting walls. After weeks of laying low, he started to get comfortable. His uncle gave him a car, and he applied for an Ohio’s driver’s license.
On Aug. 23, 2003, he went to Sam’s Club, the discount store, with his uncle and his uncle’s American girlfriend, who wandered off to a nearby hunting and fishing shop. As they were leaving, they were pulled over — the owner of the hunting and fishing store had seen the girlfriend shoplifting.
Running their I.D.s through a computer, the police discovered that Alaa was wanted on a federal warrant, and he was taken to jail.
Other details of that day are in dispute. The uncle’s girlfriend, who’d been found with more than $1,800 in stolen property, blamed Alaa; she said he’d masterminded the whole thing. She was given three months’ probation in return for testifying against him. Alaa insisted he had nothing to do with it. His lawyer argued that the girlfriend’s story was absurd — why would a 36-year-old woman take orders from a 20-year-old kid?
Alaa was given the chance to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and be sentenced to time served, but he refused, not wanting a black mark on his record that might imperil future immigration appeals. So he sat in jail, awaiting trial.
In the end, a jury convicted him. The judge, though, let him off with probation, and on Nov. 20, 2003, he was turned over to immigration.
For the next four months, Alaa was moved from jail to jail as he awaited deportation. In Houston, he had been housed with other immigration detainees, but on the East Coast he was locked up with ordinary state inmates, many of them violent felons.
Sharif has faith in his son, but as he waits in the airport, he can’t help worrying about the influence of the environment he’s been trapped in. “We’ve been raising our kids to be the best citizens of America and the world,” he says. “They are trying to destroy all our hard work. Even professional criminals, they try to fix them and make them good citizens. Because our kids are Arab and Muslim, they’re trying to make them criminals.”
It’s past 10 p.m. at Queen Alia when, suddenly, Alaa appears. He’s gaunt and gray in baggy khakis, his face sprinkled with stubble. His black eyes look enormous. As his parents suspected, he was being questioned by security. The reunion is strangely subdued, without shrieks or laughter. Asmaa can’t hide her shock. “He’s very skinny and unhealthy,” she whispers.
“I did not recognize my son,” says Sharif. “He was strong and healthy and he used to play sports and basketball.”
Only Batool lights up. “It’s like a dream,” she says.
As for Alaa himself, his long-awaited freedom hardly seems to register. Stepping out into the Amman night, he just looks numb.
A few days later, in early April, Alaa is still trying to straighten out his status in Jordan. He’s had five meetings with various security services, each of whom wanted to know why he was thrown out of America if he isn’t involved in crime or terrorism. His cousins have begun to show him Amman, and in certain ways the adjustment is easier for him than for his sisters. The boys aren’t that different from him, he says — they dress the same and listen to hip-hop, and are patient with his bad Arabic. Soon he’s going to go look for a job in one of the big hotels, where his perfect English will be an asset.
Prison hasn’t made him an angry man, at least not overtly. When he was locked up, he says, he learned patience, and he’s determined not to let his ordeal scar him forever. “Eventually I’ll get over it,” he says. “There’s a lot of people worse off than me.”
He’s given up on America, though. “One of my biggest fears is if I go back there, the same thing can happen again,” he says. “I’d like to go back to Canada to finish my studies.”
Noor, meanwhile, is desperately trying to convince the American embassy to grant her a visa so she can return to the country to complete her education. If that doesn’t work, she’ll try Canada, England or Australia — anywhere but here. Failing that, she hopes the embassy might give her a job — it’s the only place she really wants to work in Jordan.
While she waits, she seeks out Amman’s pockets of America. With her sisters she splurges at Blue Fig, an airy restaurant with high ceilings and plate glass windows, where the generically international food — pizzas topped with tandoori chicken or feta cheese, Caesar salad — reminds them of Houston. Dinner for four there costs nearly a quarter of her monthly salary.
One night each week she takes salsa classes at the Arthur Murray School, which, according to a banner hanging proudly on one studio, is “The First Salsa School in the Arab World.” Several of the other students are expats; most of the rest are Christians. Noor moves easily — she’s the best dancer in the class. Twirled by a tall boy in jeans and a green sweat shirt, she could be anywhere.
“I try to forget that I’m in Jordan,” she says.
In the morning, there will be a bus ride to the jewelry factory to remind her.
Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).More Michelle Goldberg.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)