psicover

The backseat passenger sits up straight on the side opposite the driver with her hands folded in her lap. Her eyes are hard with disquiet as they stare through the side window to the infinite smudge that a passing cityscape becomes. The driver maintains a steady speed, accelerating only to give his battered taxi enough momentum to skid over any holes in the pavement. There is no parallel traffic, radio static, or sounds of breathing to puncture the stillness inside this capsule, just the staccato rumblings of a waning engine.

She feels comfortable enough to rest against the seatback now. The passenger presses her shoulder blades into the cushion, which is softer than she anticipates as it absorbs all of her weight. This glimpse of calm is cut by the sudden awareness of cigarette residue clinging to the air around her. She has been tasting it since she first opened the taxi door several minutes ago, but now she processes all her senses. The miasma elicits girlhood, when visits to the Submerged were as common as shop tobacco.

It occurs to the passenger that this vehicle is another relic of the Submerged and must have held thousands of satisfied exhales, the upholstery absorbing thousands of puffs of smoke in its history. The driver, still silent, may have once or twice sat alone in his taxi for hours, watching the tides come in and out, waiting for a passenger for days, weeks, immersed in his own exhaust. She envisions all that fabric plumpened by a decades-long stream of thick, ashy vapor. This was the vice for those who knew the future and did not care to stay long for it.

The passenger is anxious again, holding her breath tightly. It is ingrained in all residents of the Sanctuary Cities that items such as cigarettes and personal vehicles will one day bring the same fate to the Cities as they did the Submerged. The passenger imagines that if she peeks down at the floor mats, she will find her soles resting atop a mound of cigarette buds and looks upward to avoid such a fate.

The driver lifts his head to see a tightly cropped image of her face in the rearview mirror. There are flecks of mascara pressed along her orbital bone. Sleeplessness makes her blinking slow. The passenger shifts her attention from the window to the rearview mirror, seeing the driver’s eyes and forehead, wrinkled with leatherlike skinfolds stacked beneath a low, bristly hairline.

You shouldn’t be here by yourself,” he says. “It’s dangerous for people who don’t know where they’re going.”

His lips barely touch as he speaks. The sounds between vowels emerge muffled, thrust from the back of the throat rather than the tongue. There is something in this voice that ignites nostalgia in her, but she brushes that aside, feeling her face fill with tension. Glaring into the rearview mirror, she responds, “I’m actually very familiar with the area, but thanks for your concern.”

The driver shrugs and continues to look straight ahead. She knows her response is too formal, even uppity. He is older than her, but not by much. She considers explaining herself, that she is not just another tourist, one of those adventurers who view the Submerged as one does a fossil. Those who never had to bear witness to the destruction of something so vast, something they loved.

 

_____

 

 The States Parties to this Convention,

Recognizing the considerable pace at which sea levels rise, coastal zones sink, water reduces in availability, desertification spreads, and hydro-meteorological disasters reoccur at present,

Acknowledging that the stresses of global climate change are compounded by human overpopulation and overconsumption of natural resources, 

Considering there are great risks stemming from population pressure and mass displacement by natural and manmade forces, particularly on those facing social and environmental vulnerability,

Having in mind that, in accordance with existing human rights law, all human beings have the right to a national home and a standard of living adequate for health and well-being,

Believing that preservation of cultural heritage and wildlife conservation must also be priorities,

Noting that States are responsible for the safety, well-being, and protection of internally displaced citizens,

Emphasizing that those who are currently stateless or unable to remain in their home countries due to crowding, warfare, persecution, and other crises exacerbated by the global climate,

Have agreed as follows:

 

_____

 

More things that the passenger remembers: brownstones, scaffolding, Art Deco, other taxis. Maybe the endurance of cigarette stench brought on these recollections. In the last taxi, she was eight, squished between her father and two strangers in the back seat, her pregnant mother in the front, directing the driver in garbled Arabic to go, go quickly, now.

“There aren’t many left,” her uncle had told her, back when she revealed she would make the trip back, “but they will be your only option if you want to reach New Jerusalem.”

Although many memories come to her now, in her restless state, the passenger has forgotten how the taxi arrived or how she got in. Her phone is unusable here, otherwise she would have seen the driver’s name and photo flash across her screen with a countdown to his arrival time. She would have paused at the wide eyes and bumpy nose and dense brows. He would have confirmed her identity when he pulled onto the curb, and perhaps the exchange of names would have answered some of their unspoken questions, the possible chainlinks that connected them to this part of the Submerged. But she did not know his name, and he did not know hers.

There are still at least 45 minutes left of the hour-long drive, she surmises.  The fractured road keeps their bodies bouncing in unison. She and the driver both direct their attention to the monochromatic landscape that stretches endlessly forward. A wide, white crevice of sky pushes apart brick and slate on either side of the street, then tapers to a narrow sliver at the horizon line. The passenger reaches into the pocket of her jacket and endeavors to unfold her map without sound. The crinkling paper betrays her.

“What is your name?” the driver asks.

She can tell from the way he poses the question that it is one of many questions he keeps stored at the ready, one of those calibrating questions that gets closer to the real question. Depending on who does the asking, it can be are you one of us? or, more often, are you one of them? His inkling may be based on her appearance, some of the features that keep her tied to all the Submerged her ancestors saw drown before this one. He has them too. Of course, she knows from all her time in the Sanctuary Cities that phenotypes are misleading. They are false ties to lands lost, stereotypes of old that humans carry in bundles to the outermost bounds of their ignorance. But his accent, like cigarettes, are remnants of the past.

The passenger gives the driver her name. Like confronted with an epiphany, he exclaims, “Ah-ha! I married a lady with this name!”

He lifts his hand and smacks the steering wheel. The passenger waits to hear more about the lady, but it seems this revelation has satisfied his curiosity.

“Does she ever come here with you?” she asks.

“No, we came here together. Long time ago. But she went back.” He waves his hand as if to indicate the general direction in which she went.

“To the Sanctuaries?”

“No, to Jaffa.”

“Jaffa is Submerged now. How could she go back?”

“She went back before it went under. She thought maybe there would still be a place for her, but of course they sent her to the camps.”

“And then what?”

“She was in Yarmouk, and then we lost touch. I know her family was there. She must have found them.”

“But, Damascus will be gone soon. So she would rather die than move to a Sanctuary City?”

The driver sighs, as if preparing to address an indignant child. He says, “She would rather die where she belongs. If we went to the Sanctuary City, we would have no one. No comfort, no belonging. There is no dignity in spending the rest of your life in a place that is not for you.”

“That’s what you did, didn’t you?”

“No. I stayed here.”

The passenger processes this. She looks down at her unfolded map for the first time. The Submerged is close, but they first must pass through the buffer zone, a deserted world not yet reclaimed by ocean. Long gone are the days of uncharted lands. The scene, slipping by, is only lightly littered with past lives. The skeletons of homes and automobiles cage sparse refuse, whatever was not banished to undersea landfills or repurposed for Sanctuary construction.

“What do you mean, here? You live in the Submerged? That’s impossible.”

“With the taxi I can move around, from home to home. Sometimes I stay in the car. It’s easy to avoid the field workers, you know, the patrollers. No one pays attention to taxis and tourists anymore. Sanctuary 8 is not even one hundred miles away. I go pick up a customer, I get supplies, fill my tank, spare tires and fuel, any equipment I need is in my trunk.”

“What happens when the Submerged expands? It can happen at any moment. You should have a permanent residence ready just in case.”

“I don’t have much longer to live. Let the sea take me.”

 

_____

 

There’s a lot to uncover here. Nearly twenty million acres spread along a 1500 kilometer-long coastline, and countless homes, landmarks, and businesses flooded thousands of times over. My comments have been flooded lately by Sanctuary residents sharing stories about their visits to the Submerged to pay homage to their ancestors. I was lucky enough to be born in one of the Originals, in the heartland of America. There is so much history here, but I have always wanted to see where my grandparents were born. That is why I am here on the Pacific shore for my first venture into the Submerged West. Click through for photos and my top tips for getting here, camping out, and staying safe while checking out all the historic attractions still standing.  

 

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“When did you decide to move to the Sanctuary?”

“I didn’t decide. I was a kid.”

“Your parents must be Americans, then.”

“No. Jerusalemites.”

“Ah! Yes, the southern Quarter had plenty of Jerusalemites. I have never met one who was not born there.”

A sting rises to the passenger’s cheeks. She wants to tell him that no, she never saw Jerusalem, but she knew it like the back of her hand. It was painted on the walls of their family business, it was in the smell of the sesame-coated ka’ak they baked every morning for their customers. Sometimes her parents’ memories mix in with her own, and she forgets that she had never held her mother’s sweaty hand in the Mediterranean heat while walking through the Old City souq. This is hard to explain. She would try if she still had fluency in the language of the Quarter, that new Arab-ish the driver must know well, but it stayed in the Submerged like everything else.

 

_____

 

Tip #1 – Since personal automobiles are still lawful in the Originals, there are many people who are still willing to drive Sanctuary residents out into the Submerged – for a price. If you don’t live in the outermost territories, you’ll need to shuttle-hop until you’re somewhere near Sanctuaries 37-40 in the westernmost states before you reach the restricted zone. From there, you have the option of booking a rideshare or a solo cab. Apps specifically for Submerged tourism are abundant. I recommend SubTrekker and Deep Desert Tours for the most highly-vetted and experienced drivers who can safely navigate the hinterland. You may need to arrange to switch drivers every hundred miles or so – there are no hydrogen fueling stations in the Submerged – but your efforts will pay off. These taxis are essential for recreating the experiences of decades past.

 

_____

 

“It’s here,” the passenger says.

The taxi rolls to a stop. The driver angles the car towards the curb but stays several meters away from an overflow of water that has reached the road. This street meets the shoreline, despite miles of skyscrapers still extending west. Some emerge from the surface water perfectly intact, while others are worn from decades of acidic water lapping up against their outer walls.

The passenger can see the end of the ocean through a cleft in the cityscape. She rotates her neck in search of any memory triggers to give her a sense of home, but she can’t. She is a tourist.

“Be careful. Don’t touch the water.”

The driver has taken his keys out of the engine and is standing outside of the taxi as well.

“I have to. I’m going in.”

She unrolls a jumpsuit from her backpack and starts to slip it on. It is footed in order to seal out the water from any entryways to her skin. When all of her limbs are encased in the plasticky material, she shoves her hands into tight rubber gloves that snap-seal into place on her forearms. The driver observes, his face a mix of concern and bewilderment. She wonders if he is surprised at her preparedness, at her intent on encroaching on the shoreface. He must have brought many reckless wanderers to this Submerged who know nothing about the acid waves and how tides change the land’s shape, the skyline silhouette. Maybe he had tried to explore the Submerged Quarter himself and did not like what he saw.

She lifts her head toward the unchanged sky. When she was young, there much talk of the birds dwindling overhead, but they endured too. They made habitats far from here, migrated to the sanctuaries meant for humans. Her mother always said they would outlast everything. They persisted from a time before the continents shrunk, before humans and all the animals that came before.

“The next high tide will be in three hours,” the driver says before adding, half-joking, “Don’t forget to come back.”

 

_____

 

The Arab Quarter’s Great Revival

By George East

 

When World War I and the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire brought on a great migration of Arabs to America, Lower Manhattan became the site for a cultural renaissance. But what we know as Little Syria is a misnomer, as the transplants from Greater Syria did not only represent Syrian Arabs. Lebanese, Iraqi, Palestinians, and others came into the mix and brought aspects of home with them. Little Syria’s vibrancy was short-lived, torn down to make away for the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel – but it’s newly revived. 

Now, the Washington Street and Battery Park area is more aptly named, with droves of Arabic speaking communities from all over Southwest Asia and North Africa filling in the gaps left by the recent flight of NYC-ers getting a head start on their new lives, far from the sinking coastline. The Arab world is shrinking much faster than the Northeastern United States, and it’s certainly more densely populated with refugees and asylum seekers than another region. Tired of joining historical camps for the stateless, new Arab Americans are eager to start anew wherever they are given the space.

Thus, a shrine to Arab past and future is carved out in this emptied Manhattan. The lands they yearn to recreate may be long gone, some are covered in rubble and fire, some filled up with saltwater. That doesn’t stop those hungry for homeland now swallow up the depopulated pockets of Manhattan. A trio of oud players host an impromptu concert on one side of Battery Park, while a woman sells traditionally embroidered tunics on the other. Abandoned restaurants, once known for high-priced Americana fare, now churn out plates of kibbeh and qatayef. This is the Arab Quarter; come visit while it lasts. (continues on page B6)

 

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With the map rolled in her fist, she drags her feet further into the Submerged. The water feels cold through her boots and she is grateful that the peak sun is so strong on her back. The outline of her shadow, sharpened by the contrast of bright and black, stretches out along the last dry patch of sidewalk and watches the tourist descend into the knee-deep. After some time, her waterproof suit, at first stiff and crackling around her limbs, softens to her body.

Had there been more travelers here, the tourist would have seen them wearing identical attire, fitted with the same branding as the knapsacks sitting low and tight across her backs. The Canadian sportswear company came highly recommended on a popular blog that chronicled one man’s travels to every mile of Submerged in the U.S. down the western shoreline.

A hookah bar around the corner comes into view. The men who lounged outside the storefront and smoked green apple argileh are long gone by now. The tourist unzips her breast pocket and takes out her phone for a photo. When her parents brought her there, the city was newly completed and international droves of sanctuary-seekers surged to it, hoping their presence would pull them off the waitlist limbo and into a permanent home. The U.S.-born and filled up any space available in the Original states, also capping out the first eleven brand Sanctuary cities in the span of a decade.

They left New York City in the flood, and she couldn’t stop thinking about all of her things drowning as they crossed into an oddly clean and organized Sanctuary. The homes and apartment complexes on her new street were identical. The shrubs that divided the residential neighborhoods from the business districts were neatly squared off. Tiny plots of soil dotted the curb and from them pink begonias that encircled young trees.  Freshly painted signs were everywhere, labelling every corner of the world with its exact purpose. When the tourist started school, she was greeted by volunteers from the Original States who, assuming she was not U.S.-born, would congratulate her on her English while correcting her accent.

 

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Article 1

 

  1. As predictive models prognose rapid rises in sea level and coastal land subsidence in the immediate future, and the impact of such phenomena along the urbanized coasts of every populated continent on Earth will displace at least 3 billion individuals, all Parties are to plan for the ethical relocation of the displaced, with the following goals in mind:

 

(a)        Creating nationally defined sanctuary zones for the internally displaced and global refugees either by making space in existing residential areas or by developing new residential areas where land is currently unused.

 

(b)        Reducing poverty and sociopolitical tensions from intra- and international migration through economic stimulation packages; mobilization of a federal workforce aimed at expanding sanctuary zones; public assistance programs that also encompass the domestic population; and other nationally determined methods of social welfare. 

 

(c)        Ensuring sanctuary zones do not significantly harm wildlife, including endangered and non-endangered plant and animal species, with special attention to conservation areas, heritage districts, indigenous reservations, and other protected lands.

 

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The tourist moves along what must have been the Yemeni neighborhood on the western edge of the Arab Quarter but she cannot be certain. There is not enough time to go south and seek out the old apartment. She wants to photograph the seagreen carpet covered in the tracks her knuckles made when she dragged them across islands of pillows and tupperware, the styrofoam cups that she filled with plastic doll people and then knocked them all down, the bathtub in which her mother pushed her out into New York City noise, the slashed vinyl bar stools where she sat eating cereal on the last night, during the last argument her parents had about staying.

She tries to convince herself to take it all in, but the labor of movement so far into the Submerged rips all the sentimentality out of her. The water seems to be congealing the longer she walks, sloshing at her hips. With little resistance, the tourist’s gaze drops from the formidable miles of landscape in all directions to just the few meters of sea directly in front of her. Debris drift into this narrowed scope of her vision as quickly as they bobble out. Golden splashes of late afternoon fall over the Submerged, dimming and brightening with the passing of clouds. The tourist concentrates on the shadows of every facade as they shapeshift around her. This distraction eases each strenuous step.

 

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(continued from front page)

Under the American Preservation Act, new settlers of the Arab Quarter are unable to have permanent residence in the Original states once they are re-zoned to exclude the coastal restricted zones and the new Sanctuary zones. However, many internationals have come to these depopulated coastal states in order to be eligible for a waiting list of people seeking placement in the Sanctuary Cities, the first of which is slated to be completed in less than a decade. Even though U.S. citizens have priority, some native New Yorkers still plan to stay until the eleventh hour.

            “Everyone who abandoned New York had somewhere else to go,” says Marie Khan, a fifth-generation Manhattanite who refuses to make relocation plans. “They can talk about sea levels all they want. I’m staying put until I see the city sink.”

            Under the Honolulu Conventions, the U.S. has pledged 5 million nationally determined receptions (NDRs) and to build 40 Sanctuary Zones over 50 years. Some NDRs, mainly from the Southeast Asian Submerged, have been accepted early to join the Sanctuary City construction efforts after their cities flooded irreparably. Others, like Wafaa Ghudayya, were not fleeing flood when they arrived. Wafaa was recently married and pregnant in Jerusalem last year, when she was removed from her home under new national citizenship prioritization laws, aimed at making inland space for dwellers of the Mediterranean coast. Wafaa’s husband, Ghassan, is the last owner of the centuries-old Jerusalem bakery, which will be soon demolished to make space for apartments and townhomes overlooking the Holy City.

            “I knew if we went to the camps with everyone else, we would have no livelihood. It would not be a safe place for my wife to give birth. But here, we could keep our livelihood. I can keep making bread for our community.”

            The couple learned about the Arab Quarter from a relative, who had quick  success opening a children’s clothing store after rental fees plummeted due to mass exodus. They quickly made arrangements to arrive before Wafaa’s due date. Word soon spread of the baker’s arrival, along with the promise of Jerusalem-style ka’ak in New York. Their business is booming, their newborn healthy, Wafaa Ghudayya wishes for one more thing in her new life.

            “I never want my child to forget where she comes from. We have built this new life to commemorate our land, to show people that we had a history and a home before this one.”

           

_____

 

She is surprised to find the front windows still intact. In the glass, she can see how the pockmarks in her skin catch the light and she flinches away from her reflection. The blue awning is no longer there and the cafe is otherwise unmarked, but this is New Jerusalem. She walks around to the side of the building and finds the turquoise mosaic of the Jerusalem panorama fixed to the wall. Some of the tiles have fallen off, but the image is clear. She takes a photo. There is a side window with a ledge that is a comfortable half-meter above the ocean surface. The tourist wades down the street to pull a loose brick from a nearby building. When she returns, it takes all of her energy to propel it through the glass. It fails to shatter on the first throw, and she has to use her boot to scoop the brick off the ground and into her hand underwater for a second attempt. This time, now that it has been compromised by a healthy spider crack, a large jagged opening forms. The tourist hoists herself up, thankful for all the exercising she had done in the weeks before this trip, and for the travel journalists who advised such preparations. She takes great care not to cut herself or her protective suit, as she swings her legs around and clumsily slides over the sill.

Her landing disturbs a dust blanket on the floor. She stands back up in a thick cloud reeking of mold. The undisturbed exterior of the cafe belies the blight inside. Charcoal grime plasters every surface, suppressing all the color. The ceiling appears chewed out, burst pipes peeking out through the gaps, dripping liquid into modest pools on the floor. Everything is wet, even the air.

There isn’t much time. The tourist sets to , but every few moments she dissociates from the task at hand. Every object she sees sparks a new memory she did not know she once possessed, but she can’t take it all with her. Each bistro set has a circular table covered in geometric shapes. They look hand painted, but the tourist does not know who from the neighborhood would have done the decoration. There is almost no one left to ask. She whips off her knapsack and fishes out a rag. She rubs at the table to get the grime off, before she realizes she’s erasing some of the paint as well. In a panic, she runs to the next bistro set and cleans the table more delicately, streaming drops of water from her canteen to help loosen the dried sludge. That is good enough. With the flash on her camera phone she captures the table. She walks around the pastry display case, cleans and captures the antique espresso machine. Majestic and brass, her mother refused to have it removed when they rented the space. She turns and captures the canvas rice bags nestled along all the window sills. They once served as back cushions. Then she captures the exposed pipes and the broken window and the empty, blackened pastry case.

The light shifts and time is real again. The tourist pulls a chair to the window. The surface is several inches closer to the ledge now.

“Shit,” she whispers.

There are about a dozen frames on the wall, evenly spaced like a gallery grid. It would be a waste of time to try and clean off every single one to see what they behold. The tourist settles on taking the bottom of her canteen to the glazing, one by one, and smashes out the glass. It hurts to see the frames her mother had carefully selected for the New Jerusalem aesthetic to be yanked from their chosen places and strewn on the floor. She takes care not to tear the photo of her parents in front of the cafe on opening day. She places it in the silicone freezer bag, along with the only photos of her as a baby that exist. Her father grins in the next frame, as a boy, grinning in the old Jerusalem bakery alongside his father and his father’s father. Her mother looking studious in a university library in Beirut, Submerged, goes into the freezer bag too. Finally, she folds up the article about her parents in Battery Gazette, the last print-only newspaper in the Original States.

With these artifacts stacked and zipped in silicone freezer bags, she reaches behind the counter for the last of the remains. They are still there, the stacks of notepads on which her father did his accounting the old-fashioned way. She will never be able to decipher his strange system, but she will have his handwriting.

 

_____

 

Tip # 2 – Plan to get to your destination early at low tide. You don’t want to be any more than waist-deep in the ocean, as the nearshore zone is a toxic mix of water and waste, and highly acidic. And depending on the time and place, if you are too far into the Submerged at high tide, the turbulent waters could be fatal. Don’t take the risk.

 

_____ 

 

The driver had been putting the car in reverse and retreated from the encroaching waves as they pushed back the hinterland. He watched the waves and the digital clock on the dashboard and the descending sun at the same time. He has driven many people to the Submerged city in his life, hundreds, and he has never waited on the eastern edge for one of them to drown until now.

When the waves darken and the light goes coral, her silhouette appears faintly like a mirage. The driver must have missed her body swimming from a distance, her body just a shadow in a sea of shadows. The closer she gets, the more clear his wild eyes become. He is fearful for her, and of her, his body leaning out of the driver’s seat. He had just convinced himself that this woman came to the  Submerged to die, and now he was seeing her ghostly emergenc from the backshore. His passenger might have laughed at his stupor if she wasn’t in such shock herself. When she is near, he is unable to berate her.

“We need to go quickly.”

The passenger is already peeling the jumpsuit off and prepares to toss it in the back seat. This motion seems to have shaken him awake.

“You have to leave that here.”

She hesitates. It’s a silly thing, the ingrained fear of littering in the Submerged. She knows the contaminated suit belongs here, in lawless land. She will go back to the Sanctuary Cities, those shiny new things that are worth trying to preserve and protect, not yet burial grounds covered in gray and sour sky.

The driver presses. “We have to go now.”

Part of her wanted to stay here too, join the driver in his delusion that this could still be a home. Of course, they were nothing to each other but reminders of a could-have-been and a what-was-once. Instead of the white highbeams blasting out all of his color, it could have been the glow of a streetlamp on his face on a busy street. A street vendor’s cart could have spit hot oil at them as the seller fished out sizzling balls of deep fried dough. They could have bought a whole plate of them doused in syrup for just a few dollars and walked absently into city noise. Her mind returns to the present, to the sopping gear in her gloved hand.

“I just don’t don’t want to leave it here,” she says.

They could have done all those things if things were different, but they weren’t, and now there is no return. But the passenger and the driver each have footprints out there in the deep deep, and that has to be enough.  He seems to follow her thoughts. He speaks softer this time, telling her, “We left everything else.”

 

 

Farah Kader is Palestinian American. She has a BA in Public Health from the University of California Berkeley and an MPH from the University of Michigan. Farah was a recipient of the 2017 Palestinian Youth Movement’s Ghassan Kanafani Writing Prize and a 2019 Hopwood Graduate Award for poetry. Her work has been published in Mizna, Orion Magazine, Electric Literature, and Narrative Magazine. Farah currently works in New York as a public health analyst.

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