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[Non-Fiction] “All Shi’a Have Tails”

Profiles of people have always sought to give a clear understanding of a person for the reader, usually through the facts of their life, the “important” events, if someone can really determine that.  I struggled with this notion, and knew in my heart that it was not the only way to profile someone.

The man whom I profiled is a teacher.  And his passion is evident in his classes.  He focuses on Islam, both at a basic introductory level, and through to the graduate level, even teaching in the law school here at Iowa.  I felt, in profiling him, that the essence of him could be, and should be, captured in such a way as to teach the reader, not only about the man, but also about the topics and issues which he is passionate about.

I call this non-fiction, because, by and large, the events in the story are true, but I’ve obviously purchased some creative rights.  He asked me to not use his name, and so I’ve not.  He’s read over this and appreciates the story.  So, what follows, while based largely on his life, is a story of a nameless young man learning a very important lesson.

All Shi’a Have Tails

By: Jared Krauss

 We were all easily distinguished, even in Seattle: Foreigners.  I could see his beard bobbing amongst the carefully chaotic passing of bodies and book bags rushing between classes.  The leaves, showing the age of the year, had shunned all their green.  The Pacific north-west I’ve decided is the most beautiful country in the world.  Especially when I consider that only 19% of Tunisia is arable.

Tunisia: while home, in some way, my place of birth also, I never felt wholly Tunisian.  We were refugees.  My papers were Algerian, as was my mother and father.  In Tunisia, we were distinctly not Tunisian, in some apparent, but often unspoken, way.   We moved through cities mostly, on or near the coast, like Tunis.

I came here to America—am in fact an American today—to the University of Washington, with Algerian papers.  I knew no English, and spoke only Arabic, mostly with the Saudis.  We’d relax, when it wasn’t raining much or just misting, in the Red Square.

I’ll pause here and ask you, do you know any racist or sexist jokes?  I’m not asking if you agree, but perhaps you know why women’s feet are smaller than men’s, why women don’t wear watches, why their bridal dresses are white, or how to start a Mexican roller coaster?  Well, I’ve learned in my time here it’s so they can stand closer to the kitchen counter, and the stove has a clock above it, and all her appliances will be wedding white.  And you simply must roll a quarter down a hill and promptly watch each and every Mexican in the vicinity chase it up and down the hills of their hilly villages.

Well, like wise, we all learned Shi’a have tails; cursed by Allah, they’re always recognizable through careful examination of their posterior.  You see, they believe Allah made a mistake giving the Prophethood to Mohammed, we were told.  It should have been his nephew/son-in-law Ali.  And for thinking this God cursed them.  Cursed them with tails.  What kind of tail, I’m unsure: short and curly like a pig; long strands of hair whipping back and forth, swatting swarming flies like a horse; bushy like a squirrel; long and dexterous like a monkey, good for grabbing food that isn’t theirs; pointed and dangerous like the Devil.

You should also know 98% of Tunisians are of Arab descent and probably that same 98% are Muslim, Sunni Muslims.  You can imagine few are Shi’a.  If your imagination of the Tunisian population isn’t up to par, trust me, there are few Shi’a.

So, I could see his beard.  Its steady approach was tangential to our group.  His movement through the students was distinct, as was his seniority, his serenity, and his beard.  A space in front of him seemed to open just long enough for him to pass through, and close as his back heel left the ground.

As he passed us, he must have observed our likeness, whether in the beards of the young men around me, the tint of our skin, or the contrast of our Arabic amongst the high tide of English sounds from American voices.  I often tried listening to these to learn more English.

He nodded his head.  His feet continued to carry him onward.  And, for the first time, I heard him say politely to us, “As-salamu laykum,” in greeting.  I nodded my head, waiting for his acquaintance in the group to respond, waited for anyone to respond, watched him continue, watched us watch him walk away.  Suddenly we knew no Arabic.

Someone leaned over and whispered in Arabic, “He’s Shi’a.”

You’ll forgive my lack of specificity, this was many years ago now.  But, a few days later it was happening again.  Fall in the Red Square: the leaves stole their color from the red tiles and flannels.  There was the beard.  It was a clean beard, I thought.  Dark, and clean, and well kept.

He passed us by again, and politely said again, “As-salamu laykum.”  And again I waited, watching, and again they all looked away, or down, or up, or beyond, or coughed, or pretended to not catch what had been said.  This only took a moment, really.  But, it was long enough for him to disappear into the crowd again.

This would happen again, and again.  I don’t remember how many times, a few, before I caught up to him, asked if I could follow him into the Hub.  I had questions.  Down into the basement, down into the sub-basement where his office was.

“You are Shi’a?” And, “Didn’t you corrupt the religion?” And other such preposterous things.  I wanted to ask him where was his tail.

I fear I’m forgetting or misremembering a lot.  He might have been going to pray; I might have stumbled through, not accustomed to the ritual.  You see, the conversation, in fact the whole event, is obscured.  All I truly remember is the revelation itself, and the moment in which it happened.

At some point, his beard parted.  He smiled.  He smiled and asked me if I read Arabic.  I had gone to school in French in Tunisia, as he probably surmised.  But, I could.  He stood to his shelf, lined with books, and reached up for one.

As his hands and hem of his shirt went up, my eyes went down to his ass.  I had two moments of surprise, the first was that I did not find even a hint of a tail, and the second was that I actually looked for a tail, on a human being.  And so, despite my ability to observe the world and conclude that not a single person I had seen actually possessed a tail, I looked.

And I realized: We must learn to escape the confines of our swarm-minds.


About Jared Krauss

traveler, reader, thinker, writer, photographer, doer


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