Fiction: Haram Gumbo by Mohammad Hakima

Photo by Aaron James on Unsplash

The first time you get invited to a tailgate party, you’re sitting in biology class at East Carolina University, next to a big guy name Daryl. Daryl’s got a hunting jacket on, and a pack of Grizzly chewing tobacco on his desk. He spits brown muck out of the corner of his mouth into an empty plastic bottle and looks over. “Whatcha doing for the game on Saturday?”

“Nothing much. I don’t really watch American football.”

“What about before the game?”

“Uh…I don’t know. I don’t have any plans.”

“Dude!” Daryl seems appalled. “You’re tellin’ me you’re not gonna tailgate?”

You shake your head and feel kind of embarrassed. You’re not really sure what tailgating is. You’ve been in America for four years now, and even though you went to high school in North Carolina, you still can’t help but feel like your ignorance about American culture is on full display.

“You gotta come out with us, man!” Daryl says. “We go big on game days.”

The idea of attending an outdoor party on a Saturday morning seems odd to you; the game is at four in the afternoon, and Daryl says he wants to start drinking by 10 am. You’re a little worried you won’t make it on time. You always get up at six am for Fajr and after that you usually like to go back to sleep for a few hours. But this time, it looks like you’ll have to forgo your routine.

When Saturday comes around, you decide to get dressed after prayer and go grab some coffee. You don’t know what you’re supposed to wear for the tailgate. It’s cold outside, in the forties, and you want to look nice for Daryl and his friends, since you’ve never hung out with them before, so you put on your gray Marc Jacobs peacoat, a matching scarf that wraps snuggly around your neck, and your favorite pair of suede shoes.

After grabbing coffee, you pick up a case of O’Doul’s at the grocery store and hope that Daryl and his friends are okay with the fact that you don’t drink. Does Daryl know you’re Muslim? Does he know you’re from Iran? You only met him a month ago in class, at the start of college, and he’s never really asked you about your life. But you tell yourself that that’s okay, because at least you’ve learned English well enough to be able to communicate with him, and it makes you happy that he invited you to hang out.

You make your way over to the tailgate spot, passing groups of rowdy kids standing around in parking lots, chugging beers and playing corn-hole. There are a bunch of older folks, presumably parents, lounging around in lawn chairs under propped up tents, next to plastic tables filled with trays of food. Music is blasting everywhere: classic rock and pop, but mostly country. There’s a twang in the air that makes you feel like you need a cowboy hat.

Daryl’s crew is situated in a grassy field on the edge of the woods, right next to the stadium. They have two gigantic tents set up, and three tables of food surrounded by kegs and cases of beer. An old man, maybe his uncle or dad, is cooking something that smells spicy on a nearby grill, and country music is blasting from two pickup trucks. Daryl and his friends, dressed in sweat pants and East Carolina hoodies, are sitting on the bed of a truck with drinks in their hands. Daryl jumps down and calls your name.

“Abu! What’s up, brother!”

Your name is Abulfaz, a pretty standard Iranian name, but Daryl calls you Abu, after the monkey in Aladdin. He looks you up and down and laughs at your clothes. “What the hell are you wearin’, man? You goin’ to the opera after this?”

His buddy nods at the case in your hand. “Did you really show up with O’Doul’s?”

“What’s that?” Daryl frowns.

“It’s non-alcoholic,” you say. “It’s like Islamic beer in Iran.”

“C’mon Abu!” Daryl snatches the O’Doul’s out of your hand and tosses it on the ground. “You know we don’t drink that shit around here. We’re already four beer-bongs deep. You gotta catch up, man.”

He reaches into a cooler and grabs a Natural Light. “Goes down like water,” he says, and takes out a peculiar device you’ve never seen before, a big funnel attached to a long plastic tube. “This is how we do it, my friend. Just watch and learn.”

He pours the beer slowly into the funnel with one hand, while holding the plastic tube with the other, and then all at once he shoves the tube in his mouth and starts chugging aggressively.

“That’s my boy.” An older woman pats him on the back, when he finishes. She introduces herself as Carol, Daryl’s mother.

“Carol and Daryl,” you snicker. “That rhymes.”

“It sure does. That’s because he’s my little sweetie pie,” she pinches his cheek.

Carol leads you over to a table and tells you all about the food. “We got hot dogs and burgers and a pot of chili over here. You can make yourself a chili dog, if you want. And we also have Uncle Gary’s famous gumbo.”

She smiles at Uncle Gary, who stands up from a lawn chair to shake your hand. He’s a heavy-set man with a Harley Davidson jacket and a skull and bones tattoo on his neck. Chains dangle from his belt, and his bald pate is mottled by misshapen blotches. He starts telling you about his famous gumbo, an old family recipe that was passed down to him from his great aunt in Louisiana, and has now become a tailgate special.

“But I put my own twist on it,” he winks and hands you a bowl of it. You thank him and tell him you’re not very hungry, but he insists that you try it. “If you’re comin’ to our tailgate, you gotta try my gumbo.”

You realize you have no choice, so you eat a spoonful and don a satisfied smile. “Very delicious.”

“Keep goin’,” he says. “Let the flavor settle in.”

He stares at you, waiting for you to continue, so you keep eating out of politeness. It’s hearty and somewhat soupy, kind of like your mother’s ash-e-reshte, except it’s much bolder and spicier. There’s some kind of flavorful meat that you can’t identify. The full power of the spice doesn’t kick in until you’ve eaten half of the bowl, and then suddenly the back of your throat starts burning. There’s a sharp pain in your stomach, a constant jabbing that makes you feel like you’re bleeding internally.

You thank Uncle Gary for his kindness and walk away, trying to hide your discomfort. You deposit the bowl on the back of the truck, where Daryl and the boys had been sitting, and wonder what on earth you just ate. There were so many ingredients in that bowl. You could’ve eaten pork, for all you know, and Allah is now punishing you for it. How stupid of you to not ask what was in the gumbo.

You walk up to Daryl, who has just finished taking a piss next to a tree, and ask him, as politely as possible, whether there was pork in the gumbo.

“Listen man,” Daryl leans unsteadily on your shoulder. His breath reeks of alcohol. “You’re one of those…uh…foreign people who asks a lotta questions. You know what I mean? You’re always askin’ me somethin’ and I just need you to shut up and drink. That’s my philosophy, man. Just fucking drink!”

He grabs another beer out of his coat pocket, cracks it open, and staggers away, drinking and howling the next country song that plays. You look around to find somebody else to talk to, but everyone is in the midst of partying, and they all seem a little too tipsy to care about your question. You’ve eaten plenty of spicy food before, all sorts of stews with piquant flavors, so you’re surprised that your body is reacting in this way. All of a sudden, your stomach starts rumbling and you’re stricken by a dire need to empty your bowels.

You see a blue porta potty behind one of the tents and make a dash for it. But as soon as you throw open the door, somebody puts a hand on your shoulder.

“C’mon now, son,” Uncle Gary pulls you back. “Don’t jump in front of me when I gotta go. You know a big man like me needs his time on the toilet.”

He smiles and assures you that he’ll be right out. You decide to wait for him, but the minutes go by and all you hear is him groaning behind the door, clearly struggling to do what he came to do. You look around desperately to find another porta potty, but there’s nothing in sight. The pressure in your pants intensifies. Your stomach is kicking and squirming, trying to dispel whatever was in that haram gumbo. Any second now, you feel like you’re going to explode.

There’s a nice secluded spot in front of the truck, right next to a tall tree, and everybody’s back is turned. You scurry over and drop your pants and boxers, sit on your haunches with your butt close to the ground, and let loose a cascade of brown mush. It comes out with full force, one blast after another, and there’s so much in there that you just keep going and going. It feels so good to let your body expel the evil out of you. A lake of filth forms beneath you, and you have to adjust your stance. You grab a few crusty leaves nearby to wipe and stand to buckle your pants, feeling purified, like a brand-new man. You fix the scarf around your neck and walk around the truck with a distinguished smile, feeling like a gentleman exiting an opera house.

The party seems to be going fine. People are still singing and drinking, carrying on convivial conversations. But a few minutes later, a cool breeze sweeps through and some people start casting skeptical glances at one another, crinkling their noses at something fetid in the air.

“Jesus Christ!” Daryl roars. “It smells like a pile of dookie out here.” He glares at his buddies, as if one of them has shat their pants, and starts waddling around with a beer in his hand, following the stench all the way around the truck.

“Good God!” he wails. “Somebody took a dump in front of my truck.”

A whole crew of people go over to take a look, and pretty soon, everybody is howling with laughter and cringing with hysterical disgust.

Uncle Gary comes out of the porta potty to see what all the hubbub is about. “It looks like we got ourselves a dookie bandit,” he grins.

Everyone starts cracking jokes about who the dookie bandit could be. Uncle Gary slaps his friend’s ass and sniffs his hand, “checking for any leftover mud butt,” and Daryl’s buddy puts on his glasses and starts stroking his beard like a scientist. “There’s a distinct odor to our stool sample. A unique funkiness, I dare say. I conclude that it belongs to a foreigner.”

Everybody erupts in laughter, except for Daryl, who marches over to you with an indignant huff. “Did you shit in front of my truck, Abu?”

“Of course not,” you say.

“Don’t you dare lie to me.”

“I’m not. I promise.”

Carol finds the bowl that you left in the back of the truck. “Well, lookie here. Somebody must’ve gotten sick from the gumbo.”

“That’s not true.” Uncle Gary scowls. “Nobody gets sick from my gumbo.”

“Well, that’s what it looks like, Gary.”

“How’s that possible? Everybody here has eaten my gumbo a million times. It’s the same recipe I’ve been using for twenty-five years.”

“Well, there’s one person here who hadn’t tried it until today,” Daryl narrows his eyes at you.

You want to protest and say that the haram gumbo was forced on you, but there are so many people glaring and whispering in each other’s ears that you feel intimidated. You can’t help but take a step back and revert to the kind of deference that you used to exhibit when you first came here, the punctilious mannerisms that you’re so used to adopting in front of Americans.

“Please, sir,” you put a hand on Daryl’s shoulder. “Please understand that I would never do something like this. I would never commit such an atrocity to your truck.”

“Listen here, you fancy-pants little shit,” Daryl fumes. “I swear to God, if you’re lyin’ to me, I’ll tie you up to the back of my truck and drag your candy-ass down the street all the way to hell.”

“Oh honey, stop!” Carol jumps in front her son. “Don’t give Abu such a hard time.”

“He disrespected my truck, mom.”

“Well, I don’t think he meant anything bad. I think that’s just how his people are. Isn’t that right, Abu?” she squeezes your arm. “Do you guys have toilet facilities in your country? Because, you know, here in America, we’re not natives. We don’t just go behind the bushes.”

You don’t know what to say. You’re so disturbed by this whole situation that you start fiddling around with your fingers and muttering Astaghfirullah under your breath, apologizing to Allah, to America, to whoever will listen. You want to turn around and run away, but if you do, everyone will think you’re guilty, and Daryl will no doubt chase after you.

“Look at him.” Uncle Gary says. “He’s muttering that terrorist stuff. I’ve seen it on TV. They say Allah-Allah and start shootin’ people.”

“Well, I’m just about done here,” Daryl crushes his beer can and tosses it on the ground. “I’m going to the game.” He walks off, shaking his head in exasperation, and almost everybody follows him. There’s a murmur in the air as people pass you by; they dart glances, some sardonic and cheerfully snide, and others simply baffled. They all seem to think that you’re a contemptible buffoon.

Your first instinct is to sympathize and make them feel better, the way you always do when Americans need your help, but then you look around at all the plates of half-eaten food, the balled-up napkins, and the empty beer cans scattered on the ground, and feel repulsed. There’s mustard splattered on a lawn chair, cigarette butts floating in a bowl of gumbo, coleslaw slopped on someone’s backpack, and a puddle of pungent slime, some sort of grease mixed with ranch dressing, dripping from the side of the table. Your stomach churns. You feel nauseated, not so much at the sight of all this mess, but at the thought of what it means to be an American.

Mohammad Hakima is an NYC-based author. He moved to the United States in August of 1998 from Tehran, Iran. His work is published in Maudlin House, Trampset, The Evergreen Review, etc. His stories have been twice a Finalist and once Shortlisted for the William Wisdom Faulkner prize. His work has received support from Vermont Studio Center, and he has attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. He works as a high school special education teacher and has an MFA in fiction from The New School.

One response to “Fiction: Haram Gumbo by Mohammad Hakima

  1. Pingback: Haram Gumbo by Mohammad Hakima – Maryam Shadmehr·

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