I’m pretty sure that ISIS is to blame for the death of my grandmother.

At the Islamic House of Wisdom on the corner of Ann Arbor Trail and Telegraph Road, Sheikh Rabhi stands on the stage, hands on the podium, placed squarely with the geometric confidence of his politics and his patriarchy:

“Our honorable elder, Hajji Kamle Abbas Youssef, was a kind mother who brought into this world eleven children, forty-five grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. Her intent was pure like that of a saint, like that of the venerable prophets that precede us in their piety and devotion to Allah, The Most Beneficent, The Most Merciful. When we are good Muslims, we strive to embody the piety of Imam Husayn, our great leader who was slain by the lecherous Muawiya, and the purity of Imam Ali, whose divinely promised succession to the leadership of our great, and peaceful, religion was taken from him by the greedy hands of Abu Bakr. And so it is that in this time when we are to commemorate and honor the life of Hajji Kamle Abbas Youssef, there is another Abu Bakr who is waging war upon us and tarnishing the image of Muslims everywhere. It is, as you know, the Abu Bakr Al-Baghdady of ISIS that is the embodiment of sinfulness and the opposite of our great, and peaceful, religion of Islam. It is ISIS that stands against the good, kind, peaceful, loving people like Hajji Kamle Abbas Youssef, may her soul rest in heaven. Ameen.”

The pews of the mosque are filled with aunts and friends, cousins and uncles, people who knew my grandmother and others who showed up because of the free coffee and the social obligations that come with being a member of a small ethnic enclave in the armpit of Detroit, Michigan – a community of Arab Muslims whose identity mirrors their perceived idea of their motherland, of Yemen and Iraq, of Lebanon and Palestine, of Syria.

In this purgatorial diaspora, they are floating on the hyphen between Arab and American and they cannot straddle their circumstance well enough to be both Arab and American, to be only Arab or American, to be neither.

They are Arab but cannot speak Arabic.

They are American but have never seen Top Gun.

They are hyphenated by continent-long plane rides, by forgotten family recipes, by Western Union cash transmissions to rebuild the homes in their native villages, homes crumbled to the ground by American-donated war planes.

In this purgatorial diaspora, they mourn their passing elders.

In this purgatorial diaspora, they mourn their motherlands through TV screens blaring the McDonalidization of Mosul, the globalization of Gilgamesh, the plastic-surgification of Petra, the vilification of the ancient Egyptian goddess of children.

And for all this, ISIS is to blame.

Actually, for everything, ISIS is to blame.

  • beheading of Egyptian Christians in the Libyan desert
  • beheading of Japanese journalist
  • immolation of Jordanian pilot
  • mass kidnappings of Yazidi girls and women
  • homegrown terrorism in America’s Midwest
  • car bombs in Baghdad and Beirut
  • drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan
  • the withering substance of my relationship with my boyfriend
  • the waning interest I have in speaking to my mother who insists on gossiping about my aunt’s divorce for the entire duration of our weekly phone calls
  • the insistent recurrence of suicidal thoughts
  • my inability to save money or budget when I’m making six-figures for the first and probably last time in my life
  • my addiction to Adderall, marijuana, and cigarettes
  • my brain’s inability to innovate despite a costly amount of Adderall, marijuana, and cigarettes
  • the immolation of my brain
  • the syrupy sweet brain drippings left on the pan
  • the burning to a crisp
  • the comfort of complacency in lifelong habits
  • the perceived burden of habits that feel lifelong but really only appeared months ago
  • the inability to Google anything productive
  • the walls I’ve built around my own perception
  • the limits of my own consciousness
  • the limits of my own potential
    [ISIS can be blamed for all of these things]
  • for the darkness into which I have plunged
  • for the blighted neighborhoods in my own mind
  • the neighborhoods that once were
  • the neighborhoods that are no longer inhabited
  • like Brightmoor in Detroit
  • like shelled out buildings in Damascus
  • like Los Angeles when the zombie apocalypse that’s actually a race war actually hits
  • like your neighborhood block on the day of September 11, 2001
  • like the prospect of war at any given moment
    [ISIS is to blame for the boiling over of moments,
    the inevitable.
    ISIS is to blame for the inevitable.]
ISIS is to blame for the insubordination of American youth and disrespect they have for authority. ISIS is to blame for the riots we’ve witnessed and those to come, for the desecration of Baltimore, for Ferguson. ISIS is to blame for the surgical segregation of Detroit. ISIS is to blame for police brutality. ISIS is to blame for the revolutionary earthquakes in America, for the ones erupting in her Black cities and for those spontaneously rumbling east of her Mississippi. ISIS is to blame for fracking.

ISIS is to blame for the evolution of the hoodie into a symbol for the War on The Black Man instead of being a piece of clothing that still smells like your boyfriend.

ISIS to blame for my Black roommate only dating immigrant African men. ISIS is to blame for the “having a Black friend” argument. ISIS is to blame for the 396 years between Black and African.

ISIS is to blame for the rise in American obesity. ISIS is to blame for the absurdity of the gym, a mutant ecosystem for our obsolete evolutionary need for agility and strength. No longer hunter-gatherers, we are lured to the glass-encased hamster wheel, each part of our body connected to The Mutant Mother and her technological umbilical cord. Headphones on our ears, our heartbeats pumping through our palms only to be recorded by metal grip bars, our knees guided by the tread of the elliptical, deciding how we will move. And then across the rubber-tiled floor, the humans on the treadmill place their rubber-soled feet on the infinite rubber loop so freely, boasting their liberation at the rest of us, rubbing it in our faces.

On the screen right above the ellipticals, a Marie Callender's commercial plays:

The camera zooms, panning the layers of a hamburger like a porn videographer would a woman’s body, starting from the pristine bedsheets to her open palm, moving up her slender arm to a bare shoulder, clavicle, then moving down to her right breast, full and youthfully perky, her nipple. Tomato.

“BACON,” the text appears on the screen, shouting the copywriter’s idea (“Bacon doesn’t need adjectives.” “Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I’m in.”).

“OH YEAH,” the copywriter tells us, the text implying human voice is silent on the TV but every viewer has TV Man Voice in their head, a deep trombone of a voice.

Like Kool Aid TV Man Voice Oh Yeah. Immediately, you all heard it in your minds because that's what they have done. Our collective imagination disarmed and dulled, so flat and blocky in its manifest uniformity that it is a blunt object, heavy with its own sediment and grime, its own fermenting membrane rotten with the putrid stench of the skin flaps on the body of a thousand-pound human, that in their fundamental sedentary, rot and consume themselves like waves of their own ocean. OH YEAH. WAZAAAAP.

ISIS is to blame for this. Why else do we feel so empty then? Why else are we convinced we've reached the epitome of interconnectedness when we’ve simply memorized the same templates?

The screen above the cycling machines plays the Food Network:

Since when does the font for a cooking show look like the NASCAR lettering?
All caps: yelling, barging into the room with its white privilege complicated with poverty and plantation ancestry, waving its guns in historical self assurance. Italicized: leaning sideways, windswept or rather swept by the velocity of its own perceived winning valor. Roaring race cars and steaming apple-roasted chicken sausage valor. KALE.

I have forgotten how to write in Arabic and ISIS is to blame.

Me writing a novel in Arabic would be like my dad, whose immigrancy was just weeks-old at the time, when he tried to fill in as cashier at the 24-hour Detroit donut shop where he fried donut holes in lard and then fairydusted them with cheap finely granulated sugar, the labor of which calloused his pretty freckled fingers with the splintering wood handle of the nuclefied frying basket, leaving them brownly petrified from the swirling sweet sticky embers.

I would need a really good editor. And ISIS would be obligated to pay their invoice.

Or to go along with the analogy, I would need a coworker who wasn’t necessarily fluent in English but shrewd enough to ward off the freeloading vagabonds of the night that the donut shop owner warned them about, those delinquents and poets and exiles fumbling about in the darkness for the warmth of a ceramic mug between palms like home, for coffee poured nimbly by petrified immigrant sugar fingers into a cup for the Wandering Jew who is wearied in the mid-night by the weight of his own cross.

ISIS is to blame for the forgetting of words, for the loss of language, for the disintegration of flesh. I only have a skeleton of the body I once inhabited, and for this, ISIS is to blame.

If I wrote a novel in Arabic, I would summon its swirling syntax and infinite recursiveness, its layering of its realities and its fictions, the forgiving ease it grants to those moved to praise God mid-sentence. I would ruminate myself to sleep with the lullaby of clauses, the saying upon saying upon saying of things like the primordial mundaneness of pointing at the moon and the stars, the droning of so much saying to no end except to bask in its own sublime consciousness.


Kamelya Omayma Youssef is a poet and educator. She has spent time living in Detroit, Los Angeles, Lebanon, and Egypt. Currently, she’s working on mastering the art of being in multiple places at once.

:: more from this issue ::

Four Flashes

Zachary Doss

ISIS, Or Waiting

Kamelya Youssef

Three Poems

Sophia Terazawa

How To Eat a March Hare

Elizabeth Lemieux

Two Poems

Deonte Osayande


Nick Makoha