A Body Politic

FOR A LONG TIME I WOULD not divulge the pain I deal with on a daily basis, not wanting to be defined by its chaos. But bearing witness to the ravaging of my body for so long seems to be helping me to make sense — through my limbs — of a world I cannot understand in my head.

Lupus is a disease in which the body, locked in mortal combat with itself, becomes the invader of healthy tissue. The immune system, designed to defend against foreign invaders, cannot distinguish between what is good and what is bad. My body searches out and destroys itself, cell by cell, killing the foreign, killing the innocent.

There is no known cause for lupus, no known cure. Merely a roller coaster of flares and remissions. Wars and rumors of wars. It is believed to be triggered by a combination of genetic predisposition and unknown environmental influences. An unavoidable calling card left in my body waiting for a political spark to set it aflame.

It has been reported that the Iraqi people have both fought valiantly against and opened welcoming arms to the American troops. It has been said that many have fought not for Saddam, but against a foreign invasion. America as invader and liberator, dictating unilaterally to the world in order to overthrow a dictator. But these are merely political ideologies; it is difficult to distinguish between what is good and what is bad. In my cells I understand this.

The local TV news in Eugene, Oregon did a piece on the red, white, and blue paraphernalia that people have been buying to show support for the troops. One man interviewed said he was buying a flag, “because I’m sick of seeing all the anti-war posters everywhere.” Not for a symbol, but against an invasion of symbols. Instigated polarity in the body politic.

My immune system’s homeland security advisory is set permanently to red: a severe risk of terrorist attacks. Acting as though in a constant state of war, constant heightened activity, healthy cells can be mistaken for enemies or simply caught in the crossfire. Collateral damage.

Part of the method to control the fighting is Methotrexate, a toxic drug that at high doses is sometimes effective against cancers. At low doses it suppresses my immune system, de-activating the front lines of my body’s defense and preventing casualties from friendly fire, preventing me from killing me. There is no Other.

My cousin, a Marine reconnaissance scout sniper by trade, has been called to duty in the Middle East. Last fall he pulled me aside after my husband, an Arab-American, had left the room and said, “Tarek doesn’t have any family in Iraq, does he? Because I just don’t think I could stand it.” There is no Other. Only us.

Should the death of a stranger in a strange land mean any less to me than the death of one of my own family? Is it only proximity that makes something real? Three thousand healthy killed in two tall buildings. Three thousand healthy killed in my body. Three thousand healthy killed in the streets built up from a desert. I try to understand three thousand. I imagine all of my neighbors lying dead on their lawns. Parents. Children. Blocks and blocks and blocks of them. Of us.

The body betrays itself. And it aches.

THE FIRST PHRASE I LEARNED IN ARABIC was Al-OOMoom al-mooTAhida: The United Nations. The movements did not come easily to my American mouth. I repeated the words again and again until the new sounds flip-flopped easily from my lips. Its richness in sound, quirkiness in lip service, gave me pleasure. Al-OOMoom al-mooTAhida.

Arabic is an ancient and curious language that has survived, like its people, by being flexible to change. The letters change shape depending on their placement in a word. The beauty of it is that the visual cue for the sound negotiates its way in the letters depending on whether it is leading the way, stuck between two influences, or trailing.

Iraqis are now in a state of anarchy. Yet I have no doubt they will be flexible to their new situation; they will change and adapt. They will survive, this ancient-rooted people. But for now, Iraq aches.

My cousin, now in northern Iraq, writes, “Some [Iraqis] are chanting ‘Good Bush,’ and ‘USA is #1.’ Others just spit at you. I don’t know about these people. People fight for the MRE’s (meals ready to eat). It’s really a sad place. I almost cried when I saw the kids and how they live. Open sewers, animal crap in the road. This is not very fun. We are at an Air Base we took over just outside the city. Some of the residents try to climb over the fence at night [to find food]. If they have a weapon, we shoot.”

It is difficult to distinguish between what is good and what is bad. Collateral damage.

Much of the damage being done to my body on a daily basis goes unreported, without conscious pain. I am unaware of the ravaging of vital organs; only bi-monthly blood tests divulge the results of what is going on unseen and even unfelt by me.

The war in Iraq came to the American people in sanitized pictures. Rarely were the deaths of people shown. Even now Americans relax, thinking the war is, pretty much, over. But much of the damage being done on a daily basis is similarly unreported. The roller coaster of smaller vital flares continues.
Political sparks continue to set the world aflame. But my body is at peace now, only because I have given up defending it. I have no immune system to keep out what is foreign. I have no armor against the world, nothing to separate me from it. Nothing to separate me from me. There is no “Other.”

When my body put down its weapons of defense, it could also no longer attack, and the fighting stopped.

This is the body paradox.

I have to believe there is hope. I have to believe that someday there will be a cure, that we will come to understand what causes life to turn against itself, come to understand that the “Other” is in our selves, in our cells. Al-OOMoom al-mooTAhida.

This is the body politic.

Tabitha Thompson is a freelance writer whose articles have been widely published. She lives and teaches in Oregon, where she is a degree candidate in Literary Nonfiction.