Four years ago, I went to the Middle East, and twins were everywhere. They popped up double in the labyrinths of Jerusalem, the gardens of Lebanon, and the kibbutz of Ein Gedi by the Dead Sea. When a motif presents itself, you at first become a collector. You collect for a time, knowing that the repetition is important but not knowing why, until you can connect, until you can apply. So along with documenting the lives of children in conflict for my teaching fellowship, I also collected twins.
I reconnected with my elementary school boyfriend, a photographer who had recently shot some celebrity twins. He was a person who throughout life kept circling back to me, like those loops on the figure eight or infinity sign. When I first met up with him in Tel Aviv, it was awkward for a loop, and then normal. We were fifth graders once again. In the Mazda that looked just like my Mazda, he drove me to the house by the sea to which I had air mailed letters as a teenager. We drove through a fire and fell asleep with cats under an enormous tree. We sat on the floor of his apartment, acting nonchalant, like we had when we were twelve before he moved away. Was he my twin?
Goats of Ein Gedi
Your shutter clicks twenty times
You want to frame two goats that look like one
“You only know it from their two little butts,” you say
And we all marvel at the unity of their horns.
On the hills of Ein Gedi they roam
A pair within a scattering herd
They stand out as lovers, best friends, twin goat souls
In a dry landscape.
Now turn your head!
And there is the Dead Sea.
You want to float there with me
and let our arms cross over?
In Jerusalem, I told a woman I didn’t know that I was seeing twins everywhere. She told me about the Mengele Twins and Nazi experimentation during the Holocaust. Josef Mengele performed medical experiments on nearly 1,500 sets of imprisoned twins in Auschwitz to research the similarities and differences in their genetics. Around 200 individuals survived experiments ranging from injection of dyes into their eyes to change the color to being sewn together in attempts to create conjoined twins. Mengele Twin survivor Eva Mozes Kor has dedicated her life to teaching young people about the power of forgiveness. Both she and her twin Miriam survived horrific human experimentation.
In Lebanon, I met a ten year old boy named Emil. In Israel, I met another ten year old boy, also named Emil. They were the same person in a way, very gentle and wise, so I thought of them as Twin Emils. When I told Israeli Emil that I met a Lebanese Emil, he wanted to meet him too. He was learning Arabic at school, and when I told him “Marhaba” (Arabic for “hi”), he replied “Marhabten” (“hi back at you”, Arabic slang). Most of the people I met in antagonistic countries wished they could cross borders and meet the others, be in the other place. I started thinking that the Palestinians and Israelis were really twins, just working through a few domestic problems.
If you really want to see them, you see twins everywhere. You may look back at what you saw much later, and wonder how it was that you saw twins. But that doesn’t change the fact that at the time, and in that place, you saw them.
When I returned to Chicago, the twins followed. A student in my class was a twin who hated her twin. She always spoke ill of her, and on Halloween she dressed as her twin and acted surly all day. At our school we wore uniforms, so the costume was her regular clothing. A subtly different hairstyle was the only visual indicator that Karla was Sofia that day. Sofia had purple glasses, so Karla hated the color purple.
I taught Karla about the Israeli Palestinian conflict and how it impacted kids. But on the subject of twins, only she could teach me. That you don’t always love them, but it’s almost impossible to leave them.
Karla wrote a poem called 3,000 Days
A broken building with
a broken TV
next to it.
It has blood and
a ghost saying
again and again
“I miss you”
it says in
The sky has
pointing a path
a black hole.
The house is
and two birds
remain silent to
find a non-broken
When I returned to Chicago, I also returned to a boyfriend who was not my twin. While I had been in the Middle East, he had been in Japan. I gave him an Egyptian jalabiyya; he gave me a Japanese kimono. We tried them both on and looked like friendly foreigners, but not like twins.
I saw twins everywhere, I told him.
No, ramping up the intensity Middle Eastern style, I saw twins. Everywhere.
OK. What are you saying?
I couldn’t explain what I was saying- partly because I didn’t know, and partly because I thought he might not understand anyway. How could I explain the two goat horns that looked like one and what that meant to me in the dry landscape near the Dead Sea? The horror of the holocaust as imagined at Yad Veshem, in photographs of survivor sisters? The closeness of children, leaning upon one another, in the skinny labyrinths of Jerusalem? The frustration but hope I felt when talking to children who were supposed to hate one another because their governments dictated so, but only had a curiosity of the other, a wondering? And how could I convey this to someone who wasn’t my twin?
A few weeks after we exchanged reunion pleasantries, the jalabiyya, the kimono, a violent storm hit Chicago, reaching the category of a “Particularly Dangerous Situation.” My best friend called me, deliciously hysterical, but my boyfriend was unmoved.
A Particularly Dangerous Situation
He’s bent over the wok, committed to the fried rice
I’m glad he’s brave and I’m lucky he cooks
The crackling of the rice competes with 70 mph winds,
warning beeps on TV, tornado sirens
Back from the basement, where we hid from glass windows
The neighbors huddled, comforted freaked dogs and jittery cats
I coveted a doll-faced toddler, a wedding ring, parallel legs
I kept looking to my love for a sign of survival
He brought mail to the basement as we ran for cover
He read the mail, even though I wanted this:
I want us to look at one another as if we are going to die
I want to know if dying together would be right
He wasn’t afraid; he rolled his eyes at weathermen
But I’ve been living so strongly that I’ve wondered if the end is near
Who do I want to be with in my last moments?
I thought of two people who were not in the basement
He read the mail, found a notice from the building
Our storage lockers are switching, he lamented
The weatherman called it a Particularly Dangerous Situation
My gasp was muffled by more envelopes he opened
You are one of the people I thought of in the basement
Because you say you have loved me since ten
Because you say we might be missing something Above All
Because recently I drove through a fire with you
Not a heart fire, an actual fire
We drove close to it so we could document the flames
and feel the heat on our lazy faces
You pointed out the smoky backdrop to charred branches
The wind shifted and the flames nearly ate us
FUCK! We yelled SHIT! HOLY SHIT! OH MY GOD!
JESUS CHRIST! Checking ARE YOU BURNED?
We screamed together in our getaway car
I communed with strangers from our building
as they received calls predicting touch down times
2 more minutes to Soldier Field, they said
4-5 minutes to Grant Park
“Honey,” he asked me, and I yearned for him
“Can you call and ask if we can keep our locker?”
“FINE,” I said in a voice that was pissed
“What’s wrong?” he asked in a voice that was innocent
“WHAT’S WRONG?!” I yelled, as if it was obvious:
It was a Particularly Dangerous Situation
Living with someone you might not want to die with
Thinking of someone you might not get to live with
The only reason we ran for cover
is that you called my cell phone, yelling
ARE YOU GUYS OK? BETTER RUN FOR COVER!
EVERYTHING IS HORIZONTAL! your drama contagious
CALL ME IF YOU DIE! I told you
CALL ME IF YOU DIE! you agreed
We’ve been through such disasters together
I thought I would die with you forever
After we separated, you told me of a dream
We were plummeting in a crashing plane
We locked eyes as we approached death
You cried while sleeping, you cried when you woke up
He comes in now that the fried rice is ready
“What are you working on?” he asks innocently
I minimize the document and show another
“Planning my trip,” I lie, running for cover
“What are you up to?” I ask, running for cover
“What are you up-“ you trail off
Is this swallowed ending our version of a fire?
Still swept up in the intensity of travel and storm, I became convinced that two men in my life were my Astral Dads. One of them was my best friend, and the other was the photographer of the celebrity twins and twin goats. They were born on the same day in the same year, one in Chicago and one in Israel. Their birth was nine months before mine, so clearly they gave birth to me in the astrological sense. As you’re considering my sanity, please note that when I called these two very pragmatic individuals to let them know they were one another’s Astral Twins and my Astral Dads, they agreed without hesitation.
Yes, they said in the same way, makes sense. I know what you’re saying.
Maybe I’ve been looking for my twin because everyone else came in a pair, yet I am the only lonely of my biological mother and father. Pete goes with Molly, Dave with Jon, Liz with Sarah, but me I’m alone. I could have been a sibling, but that didn’t work out.
I felt twinned on my wedding day, joining someone who makes sure I never feel alone. Twins surrounded us that weekend, in sickness and in health. Two twins walked us down the aisle to guitar played by a twin. One invited guest, a twin, could not attend because he was dying. My neighbor’s friend gave birth to twins that day, but one was a stillborn.
We enter and exit the world alone, twinned or untwinned. The untwinned look for their counterparts, and twins look for their separate selves. Sometimes they look together for a non-broken home, or divide their home up with borders and kill one another in wars. I’m surely not done seeing twins- collecting, connecting, and applying new meanings. There isn’t just one reason to see them. But wherever and whenever I do see them, there will always be a strand of the land between Syria and Egypt, where they first came to me.
Maybe twins are shadows of us as we run along the wall.
Jerusalem Shadow Twins
Music: 2080 / Yeasayer