Bilal Mohamed
writer. artist. curator.





The Guest Room

To return and experience “home”, no longer as a possessive term, (both mentally and in substance), is a daunting realization.

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If one was to observe my current situation, my place at home would appear to be all but conventional. Ever since my return, I have taken up residence in the guest room of my family’s house. The very house I was raised in from my early years of elementary school, up until now, has pathetically attempted to relieve my presence in a mere two months of travel. As if the concept of displacement, in my eyes, was not already dull and nightmarish enough, to have it happen to me internally, amongst the people I knew so well, arises in me a feeling of distance and perceived lack of commonality.

Upon my return, I came home to find that my room had been taken and repositioned by my 10-year-old brother, Y. He had been sharing my parents’ room, sleeping in the corner beside them on double stacked twin mattresses, sinking into sleep every night. Being that, as a family of nine, it proved difficult to fit comfortably into a 4-bedroom household. However, my three eldest siblings moved out, leaving four of us and then my parents.

Over the years, the guest room had always remained empty. Due to the fact that I, along with everyone else in the house, simply refused to take it up. The guest room was obscure, cold, neglected, all the things that instill fear in a ten-year-old, or anyone really. Luckily for him however, and my parents, they decided with me living temporarily on the other side of the world, it was the perfect time to set up shop. And that meant relocating my things to the unfortunately vacant guest room.

If there is one thing unappealing about the space, it is the very history that comes attached to it. Living here, my conscience wrestles with the remembrance and symbolic representation that comes along with every new resident. Every person who has stayed here has departed in a short time. Many of my parents’ visitors and friends, colleagues and associates, even some temporarily homeless and runaway housewives have come to find refuge here. A memorable list of individuals has come and gone, some of their stories dense, and much heavier than others.

Knowing my parents, the lengths of these stays always had a potentiality of endlessness, as they were too open and too kind to say no to anyone besides their own. It was, therefore, of no wonder that the proposed guests would purposefully elongate their stays. After all, they could reside in the quiet and friendly neighborhood of Paradise Hills, San Diego, all free of charge: with authentic home cooked Oromo cuisine, (the majority of these people Oromo/Ethiopian themselves), and incredibly generous hosts with children who avoided them just as much as they did us.

Some of these people would stay for one night or whatever term they initially stated they would. Others would stretch it for the tolerable three, while some would decide to abide for much longer. But one thing I knew for certain whenever a guest entered my house was that they would, by no doubt, eventually leave. For with their arrival began the household’s speculative countdown, as the guest room’s sole purpose entirely relied on its revolving guests.

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When it came to my family’s personal use of the guest room, its purpose served something similar to that of a rest stop. As my older siblings grew up, submitted college applications, moved out, got married, etc., a pattern arose amongst them taking up the guest room as a liminal space. Something of an in between, or transitory placement for their future in waiting.

My eldest brother was the first, as well as the longest to claim its vacancy. During his later college years, he had decided to move back home from his apartments at California State San Marcos. I never knew his exact reasons but observed upon his move back that he would work a lot more, reconnected with the family, and spent many nights at our local mosque taking classes on various topics like Fiqh, Arabic, and Hadith.

Before my eyes, I saw the guy I knew as a degenerate, stubborn, and conveniently gifted individual establish a future for himself that no one could have ever imagined. In about a year or two, the family and I got to see him graduate, get married, and have my new sister-in-law move in as well. It was only a matter of time until they were well off, ready to continue their lives, and finally leave the guest room behind for good.

Following my brother and his wife, my second eldest brother took it up for a brief six months after college. He spent his days in bed job-searching on his MacBook, the

room just big enough for a queen-sized bed and some breathing room. Not much, however.

Everyone in the house was aware of this room’s distinct qualities, where despite the centrally located window, it had the worst air flow in comparison to other areas of the house. It would rapidly heat up in the summer barricading any cool air outside that attempted to re-inhabit the room. Similarly, in the winter, only the heaviest blankets could get the guest resident through the night. It possessed a certain dedication to relieving itself of any being that entered it, a secreting flow if you will. A direct opposition to Murakami’s philosophy that, if one resists the flow, everything will dry up. For in this room the flow was more so a constant of its own entity, that forcefully and unbearably relocated whoever attempted to colonize its presence. It did not allow one the agency to resist.

I can say with confidence, that if an architect commented on this room, they would proclaim it had been specifically designed for impermanence. A late addition to the house, the long crack in the ceiling cemented its isolation, reminding one after the other that this room was simply not a part of the original plans.

In an attempt to move back to San Diego from Denver, Colorado, my sister eagerly packed her children, bags, and flew back ‘home’. It only took a few months, some visits from my brother-in-law, failed home searches, and jobs acquired then quit, that she decided to go visit her in-laws and previous home in Denver. We found immediately that the guest room, however, had hidden intentions. Her one-way ticket to Colorado swiftly became a move back to Colorado, for the guest room was only preparing for a new residency. One that was patiently awaiting my very own touchdown back in Paradise Hills.

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When coming of age, it seems that many young adults experience similar forms of displacement, every situation unique in its own right. In learning of my family’s deposition to constantly repel the elder child, it’s important to note a few reasons as to why this is the case. Sure, many young adults are pushed out of their homes as they grow older and for good reason. One that is usually for their own and their parents’ overall benefit. However, the reason for mine is one of particularity and something often unmentioned in the dialogue of my communities.

Pushing on 14 years, my family has resided in a home that does not formally belong to us. My mother, being a hard-working and extremely busy housewife, and my father,

a longtime taxicab driver, the only option and logical explanation as to how we can afford this house is rental by Section8. Similar to the concept of the guest room, our residence in what we call our home, is too, on a speculative timer. We simply don’t know when we’ll have to leave the place we’ve called home for the past 13 years. And so, my parents encourage us to go, leave and provide our own means, and not end up in the same situation they have found themselves locked into for half of their lives.

I still wish I had a room to call my own. I wish that my siblings had a place to leave their childhood belongings; a place to come back to and find their room untouched, but it just doesn’t work like that here.

While not being able to afford and own a home comes with compromises not always in your best interest, the good that comes out of it has proven to be beneficial and carefully coordinated by my parents. However, it is too a crystal-clear depiction of the inconsistencies of the American education and housing system.

According to CBPP analysis of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of households receiving Section8 in 2015 was 4,578,583, 1,739,569 of those households containing children. The number of families reliant on the government for housing is quite large, meaning that there are many families in the extremely low-income bracket. Not to mention those homeless, living in shelters, and the ones lacking documentation who don’t actually qualify. Although my family is a part of this statistic, by Allah’s will, we live an easy and comfortable life. Paradise Hills is not a dangerous neighborhood, at least not like before when the Skyline Pirus and 5-9 Brims used to light up the streets. Today, they are either in jail or have grown out of the senseless violence, allowing the neighborhood to simmer down. It is much more pleasant, and we just pray that God forbid the gentrifiers, because we mostly rent.

Despite us being a low-income household, we live by much simpler means than one would expect of our yearly income. Our landlord has generously refused to increase our rent, food in the house is healthy and abundant, and life is generally pleasant, yet our content lifestyle has not always been the case. Today, my father can rely on my older siblings to fund him when work is slow, but before they were receiving any income as kids just growing up, life had been quite tough. Money was tight, the streets were nowhere near as friendly, and stress was at an all-time high. We truly struggled. But when we all went off to college, one by one, I began to understand why my father never quit his job. I saw why my mother never went to work and why they decided it was best to struggle for a couple of decades.

I am now in my fourth year of university and have not paid a single dollar out of pocket for my education. Seeing and hearing about the dangerous statistics of student debt, I can only be thankful. My father knew this to be the case throughout all of my childhood and he refused to leave Section8 housing or his low-income job for this very reason. He did not want to lose out on free college for his children, an incredible sacrifice I will never forget or even be able to comprehend. To put your whole life and happiness on hold for the future benefit of your children is a massive sacrifice I believe only immigrant parents are capable of. America makes people heartless and individualistic, while immigrants come here to utilize the opportunity for their benefit and to create a greater next generation instead of corrupting the current one. What does not make sense to me, however, is how I, coming from a low-income household, already getting money from the government for housing, could then be given a full ride to college on even more government money.

I recall a time during my senior year of high school, just after college responses had come in, sitting next to one of my friends checking their financial aid award. They came from a middle class, white, suburban household. One could say they lived much more comfortably than me. They were not rich, but definitely not poor. When they pulled up the aid statements on the computer, I stole a glance only to see that their financial aid award was: $0. Nothing. And their estimated family contribution (EFC) was 100% of their tuition and fees.

Mine was the complete opposite.

It never seemed fair, and still doesn’t today, that parents working extra hard to provide and make their family happy would end up having to pay for college as well, which really just meant that their children would take out loans only leading into long-term debt. So, despite my gratitude and being so unfortunately fortunate, it goes to mention how ironic and inconsistent the capitalistic society of America really is, the ridiculous issues with housing and education, and how many holes there are that need maintenance in the system. My family just happened to be on a receiving end that eventually worked out for us, despite the toils we all faced in the process of growing up.

//

When I think about this concept of growth, or “coming-of age” for instance, I find that it is truly a term of vast continuation. To come of age is in reality an expression

of life. It’s not simply a genre in young adult films or one specific period of a person’s existence but is much more humane and complex. It is in fact, an ever-coursing presence. For some things may happen earlier to others than they do for a select few, but when looked at through a lens where one completely disconnects themselves, it’s found that humanity is constantly mobile, and coming of an age which is coursing and forever the same.

The hip hop track “K.O.S (Determination)” from the album “Black Star” by Mos Def and Talib Kweli, also expresses this concept. Talib Kweli had spit, “Yo they askin’ me how old, we live in the same age,” a small yet expensive idea when reflected upon. One finds that, as long as humanity possesses a collective heartbeat, the age that we live in is too, collective. That is, whether you are dark skinned, light skinned, child or elder, times cannot change without you. But they also cannot change before you. Their only means of adjustment is by progressing alongside humanity, reaching points of improvement only noticeable when one stops to look back upon the long roads they have traversed.

I better understand now, in comparison to my home-life prior to my travels, the disparity in separation of life and that comfortable familial unit. A ‘unit’, meaning a family like my own or the unit of humanity that has experienced discord amongst brothers and sisters alike. Throughout my childhood as my older siblings dispersed and continued their lives elsewhere, my parents instilled into me an excuse for the pain and dissonance we continually felt. Their American-Oromo tongue always relayed the cliché, “that’s life,” as if these two words provided all the understanding and recourse needed to account for the impermanent and utterly disregarded pit that would be left with every sibling. Even during my stay in Cambodia, I’d find reminders of this unfortunate reality that has proven to be so unavoidable.

“That’s life”, my supervisor S would say to me, as we sat at lunch talking about war and deception in the U.S. All Cambodians were interested in was what us Americans thought about Donald Trump, what was going on with the police murdering African-Americans, why there are so many mass shootings and secretly wanting confirmation that things were just as bad, if not worse, in the U.S as they were in Cambodia. His response was the same after conversations on corruption and the inequality his home country was facing. “That’s life.”

As we walked back to work, his colleague and my other supervisor, R, got a phone call. She was informed that her ride was waiting for her at the airport in Bangkok, for her to realize her flight to Bangkok for her doctor’s appointment was on the 18th; and

today was the 18th. As the group took on a communal rush of anxiety, R calmed down and took the phone call outside to try and reschedule her doctor’s appointment that’d be impossible to make. Reading the concern on my face for R, knowing her present physical condition, S put his hand on my shoulder, simply laughed it off, and repeated it once more to me, “See Bilal, that’s life.”

//

Towards the end of my stay in Cambodia, I recall sitting less than an inch beside my internship advisor V, in a tightly packed 12-person van. He found this setting, (for some reason I never know in dealing with people), to be the perfect time to pour his heart out to me. On our way to Battambang, the French colonial time capsule and art capital of Cambodia, he explained to me the toils of his life and childhood. He told me about his mother’s death in his youth, his family’s repressed trauma, his physical ailments and long-term depression. And about an existential crisis only increasing in detriment, that followed a perceived, yet paradoxical path to enlightenment. He was indeed, fighting a lone battle.

I will only peruse the surface of this story of struggle, for the very fact that it belongs to him, like mine, my own. It was in foreign confidence that he chose to share this story with me. Here in a country where wide grins and laughs conceal an underlying abyss. A hole that you either cover up in the most fragile casing or plunge into headfirst with no chance at reflection. Despite being a happy father and a beautified husband, he was alone. Pain and separation were the overlying themes of his journey. The things that once brought him peace and the sublime sensation that home can possess had been stripped from him. What concerned me the most with this individual, in respect and discretion, was that he had an infectious laugh (like many Cambodians), a welcomingly handsome smile, and the most interesting conversations of all the people I met in this wonderful country. It was with time and these discussions that I found, he was not happy in life, struggling with his present as well as his past. He wanted good for himself but did not know where to find it. So, when anything new or engaging was brought to him he’d consume all the enjoyment it possessed and exert it in hopes of tasting that peace, just to be disappointed once again, after the come down.

It did not come to me as a surprise when I had found out. His perfect posture I so often admired was due to a mandatory back brace he sported daily after having spinal surgery for a slipped disk.