Nadia Owusu

Something in the Water


Water is the essential substance. It flows through the earth’s rivers and streams, tying the ocean, the atmosphere, and the land together. It flows through the veins of living things, nourishing and filtering, and regulating.

Water gave birth to life; life is made of water.

The name ‘Mesopotamia’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘between two rivers.’ The two rivers are the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ancient Mesopotamia used to be referred to in social studies books as ‘the cradle of civilization.’ These days, we say ‘one of the cradles’ or ‘the cradle of Western civilization’ because we’re supposed to be more inclusive in terms of which places matter, what makes a people civilized, and how we write history.

Flint, Michigan is located along the Flint River, 66 miles northwest of Detroit. The river's name is from the Ojibwe ‘Biiwaanagoonh-ziibi’—‘Flinty river.’ Flint is a fitting name for the city that would become the original home of General Motors: a flint is a rock that produces a spark when it is hit by steel. The word ‘spark’ can be a noun meaning “a small fiery particle thrown off from a fire, alight in ashes, or produced by striking together two hard surfaces such as stone or metal,” or “an electrical discharge serving to ignite the explosive mixture in an internal combustion engine.” It can also be a verb meaning “to provide the stimulus for a dramatic event or process.”

My first real love, Trey, was from Flint. We met in an American history class during our freshman year of college. He was the kind of person people talk about in soft tones, with soft smiles; as though knowing him reflects well on them. I probably talked about him that way too. He volunteered at a homeless shelter helping kids with their homework, and he was an honors student on a full academic scholarship. Very few people knew that he often didn’t have money to eat. I knew, but I pretended I didn’t. Once, I saw him fish a slice of pizza out of the garbage can in the dorm. He wrapped it in a paper towel and took it to his room. I was on his floor because I wanted to watch a movie with him. I went back to my room and cried instead. I didn’t want to tell him that I had seen him eat from the trash. I decided that I ignored his poverty for him, but it was probably really more about me. It’s hard to admit that the world is unfair to your advantage.

Trey had the most beautiful skin I had ever seen—smooth and poreless and bronze-brown. “I drink a lot of water,” he always said when people complimented him on his skin. This happened often. On our first day of class, the professor asked us to say our names and where we were from. Trey looked at the ceiling when he said, “Flint.” Then, he spat out a laugh that was more like a hiss and said, “Nothing good going on there.”

The region that was Ancient Mesopotamia is made up of what we now call southeastern Turkey, eastern Syria, and a large part of Iraq. The climate of much of that region is dry and inhospitable, but the land near the Tigris and Euphrates is extremely fertile. The rivers carry lush mud down from the Zagros Mountains. During the spring rains, the waters swell and spread this mud generously across the floodplain.

Once irrigation systems were developed around 6000 BC, it became possible not only to farm in a much wider area of Mesopotamia but also to grow a surplus of food that enabled non-subsistence activities such as inventing writing and the wheel and building the world’s first cities. Indeed, over the course of 3,000 years, people in Mesopotamia became quite sophisticated in their understanding and application of mathematics, including so they could measure plots of land, determine taxes, design large building projects, and predict the movements of planets. Some historians claim that scholars in Mesopotamia knew the Pythagorean Theorem before Pythagoras, and that pi was first calculated there.

In about 1754 BC, King Hammurabi of the Mesopotamian city of Babylon enacted the code that we often think of as having to do with the forcible swapping of eyes and teeth, but it also provides one of the earliest examples of a constitution. It established values we still hold today such as the presumption of innocence in criminal trials and the concept of liability: “If anyone be too lazy to keep his dam in proper condition, and does not so keep it; if then the dam break and all the fields be flooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the grain which he has caused to be ruined.”

It was probably not by accident that the concept of liability was expressed in terms of dams and flooded fields. Mesopotamia flourished because of its rivers, its management of them. There was, as the old saying goes, something in the water.

I learned about Ancient Mesopotamia in the 5th grade and, being half Armenian on my mother’s side, I was told by proud family members that this was my history. It belonged to me, they reminded me, more than it belonged to the Western Europeans and white Americans who claimed it as the origin story for their cities, their discoveries, their inventions, their supremacy. We do not consider today’s Iraq or Syria to be in the “West,” and yet, from the way that children are taught about the innovations of Mesopotamia, one might think that the region was somewhere between England and France. My Black Ghanaian father was equally unimpressed with the version of events that I diligently reported in my writing assignment on the topic. “When are they going to teach you about the Kush civilization in Africa?” he asked as he corrected my grammar and spelling.

The Armenian side of my family hailed from what was once Armenian Mesopotamia and was later ruled by, in turn, the Sassanid Empire, the Arab Caliphate, the Buyid Dynasty, etcetera, etcetera, until it was made part of the Ottoman Empire in 1639. My maternal grandfather’s family, the Janikians, lived in the eastern part of the Ottoman Empire (what is now Eastern Turkey) until the Armenian genocide of 1915.

Fleeing the Ottoman Empire as the homes in their town were burned and their friends and neighbors were rounded up, arrested, and murdered, my great grandmother and great grandfather were separated. My great grandmother and her four children traversed the Middle East largely on foot, from Lebanon to Syria to Israel to Egypt before settling in Marseilles, France, where they were, through a series of improbable events that involved a backgammon game, a notice in an Armenian language newspaper, and the Red Cross, reunited with my great grandfather. My great grandfather brought the family to Watertown, Massachusetts where he was now living. In Watertown, the fifth Janikian child, my grandfather, was born.

My grandfather’s older sister, my great aunt Areka, lived to be 101. This is an especially impressive accomplishment considering that she was almost traded by her mother to a man in the desert for a container of water. The family had been walking for days in the hot sun and their thirst was becoming desperate. In the end, they could not bear to leave Areka behind. But they considered it.

It is worth noting that my Armenian family, the descendants of people from the fertile—fertile in terms of the soil and in terms of human accomplishment—land between two rivers, ended up in a place called Watertown.

During the Genocide, Armenian immigrants moved to Watertown because there was work to be had at the Hood Rubber factory. Today, Watertown is sometimes called “Little Armenia.” The Armenian population in Watertown is the third-largest community of Armenians in the United States, numbering between 7,000 and 8,000 people.

Early factories were often built near rivers because they required water to power machinery and to discard waste.

A civilization cannot grow where water isn’t readily available. When water is scarce, people can’t think about much else. They can’t invent writing or the wheel or build cities or run factories. They must use all of their energy to find water and stay alive. Staying alive might mean leaving your little girl with a strange man in the desert somewhere.

Auntie Areka was interviewed for a documentary about the Hood Rubber factory in Watertown. She said, “At 16, I went to work at Hood because there were no jobs for my brothers, and I could make $18 to $20 a week. It was important to have that money because we had to eat.”

I once asked my mother why Auntie Areka’s right ring finger stuck out at a shockingly odd angle. I was told that it had gotten caught in a conveyer belt at Hood. Auntie Areka did not complain or seek legal action. She didn’t know that she could. She didn’t know to look for someone to blame. She just knew that she needed to get back to work.

When my great grandmother and her children arrived at Ellis Island on April 15, 1924, the port of arrival manifest listed them as having “dark complexions.” The Yugoslavian family listed above them was marked as having “fair complexions.”

In the PBS documentary, “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” geneticist John Graves says, “Race is not a level of biological division that we find in anatomically modern humans. There are no subspecies in the human beings that live today.”

Race doesn’t mean anything unless we give it meaning. Without meaning, it’s just a matter of darker or lighter skin, straight blonde hair or kinky black hair, oval-shaped or crescent-shaped eyes. Those physical characteristics cannot tell you much about a person from a biological standpoint. Without the invention of race as a means of conferring advantages and disadvantages, we might not think about those thing at all.

When my Armenian family fled the Ottoman Empire, they left behind a society that saw them as inferior because of their religion. They were Orthodox Christians in a Muslim world. Religion, status, class, and language have all been used throughout history in much the same way that race has been used in America: To justify slavery, pillage, and genocide.

Ancient Mesopotamia was a class-stratified society, and access to water was a factor in determining class. Farmers who lived downstream were most likely to be worst-affected by drought and to receive polluted water. Wars were waged over water rights. Slaves were captured as a result of these wars. Slave labor was used to shovel during floods, to dig and dredge canals, and to build and repair dams.

When Sargon II of Assyria invaded Armenia in 714 BC, he discovered a tunnel used to carry water from an underground source in the hills down to the foothills. Sargon thoroughly destroyed the tunnel, but brought the idea back to Assyria.

At the beginning of the 20th century, African Americans migrated north to escape violence in the South. They sought factory jobs that opened up during World War I. They settled in places like Flint, Michigan where they worked alongside some of the millions of immigrants arriving from all over the world, especially from Eastern and Southern Europe. Lawmakers and scientists with dubious theories about racial hierarchies debated how to categorize the immigrants, including in relation to the “undesirable” races already in the United States: The Chinese, the Native American, the Negro.

In 1909, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Massachusetts ruled that Armenians, often racially classified as Asiatic Turks, were legally white. This meant that, despite their “dark complexions,” my family could be naturalized as full citizens of the United States with the rights to vote, hold office, and seek good jobs. A similar court proceeding in 1922 found that Japanese people could not be classified as white and therefore could not be full citizens. Black people were citizens but their rights were limited. No immigrant group ever petitioned the courts to be classified as Black.

My Ghanaian father moved to the United States to go to university in the post-Civil Rights 1970s. He eventually attained a PhD in economics and married my mother, and thus became eligible for US citizenship. When I was in middle school, I asked him why he never applied. “I wasn’t interested in being a second-class anything,” he said, “Kwame Nkrumah made it so that I never have to be. I’m proud of where I come from.”

My grandfather, Charlie (née Garabed) Janikian, fought for America in World War II. He was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries sustained during battle and returned to claim his piece of the American Dream in the form of a low-interest rate, low-monthly payment mortgage loan for a new home in Watertown thanks to a housing program for veterans. Of course, by veterans, the Federal Government meant white veterans. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) made sure of this by equipping their underwriters with a system of ‘redlining’ by which mortgages were approved in neighborhoods on the basis of the racial makeup of its residents. Neighborhoods with too many Black people in them were marked on the underwriter’s maps in red. This policy is largely the basis for the housing segregation along racial lines that we still see in America today.

Wealth in the United States has historically largely been accumulated through homeownership. In America, homeownership in a desirable neighborhood (as defined by the FHA and other government and market authorities) is akin to ownership of a farm upstream in Mesopotamia. Redlining ensured that Black Americans and other people of color were excluded for a large swath of history.

A 2016 analysis from the Corporation for Enterprise Development and Institute for Policy Studies found that it would take two hundred and twenty-eight years for Black Americans to accumulate the same amount of wealth whites have now if current policies remain in place. According to the Pew Research Center, the typical white family in 2015 held a net worth twelve times greater than the typical Black family’s.

The majority of Flint’s residents are poor and Black. Flint has long been a city in decline (“Nothing good going on there”) due to the usual suspects: white flight, deindustrialization, globalization, urban decay, and high crime rates. The all-but-collapse of the US automotive industry compounded these forces. Local GM employment fell from a high of 80,000 in 1978 to under 8,000 by 2010.

In April 2014, city managers approved the switching of Flint’s water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water to the Flint River. I was told by an urban planner colleague who has worked in Flint that it should not have been difficult to rule this out as a bad idea. “You can tell the Flint River is filthy just by looking at it. And, if you stick metal in it, the metal changes color,” he said. I don’t know enough about water systems to know if this is true, but the higher-ups at General Motors seemed to think it was. A few months after Michigan Governor Snyder announced the switch, the General Motors plant refused to use the Flint River water because it was rusting car parts on the assembly line. The State doled out $440,000 to connect the plant to water from Lake Huron instead.

The city managers who decided to switch Flint’s water supply in order to save money for the cash-strapped city were not elected by the city’s residents. They were appointed by the Governor after a State review panel declared the City of Flint to be in a state of “local government financial emergency.” Despite the fact that people complained about ‘foamy’ and orange water, skin rashes, Legionnaire’s disease, and symptoms of lead poisoning in children for well over a year, the residents of Flint were, unlike General Motors, not given the option of connecting to another water source.

In August 2015, three organizations delivered more than 26,000 online petition signatures to Mayor Dayne Walling, demanding that the City end its use of the Flint River and reconnect to the Detroit water system. It was only after this campaign was circulated broadly on social media and gained national attention that the State acknowledged the seriousness of the problem.

Part of Hammurabi’s most famous law reads something like this: “If a man has destroyed the eye of a man of the gentleman class, they shall destroy his eye .... If he has destroyed the eye of a commoner ... he shall pay one mina of silver. If he has destroyed the eye of a gentleman's slave ... he shall pay half the slave's price." There would be justice, but it would not be equal.

The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution took effect in 1888. This is the clause upon which Brown v. Board of Education—the case that helped to make racial segregation illegal—was fought. It reads that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

In April of 2016, hundreds of Flint residents brought a federal racketeering lawsuit against Governor Snyder and other State officials alleging that the two-year water crisis was the result of an “intentional scheme” to balance the City’s budget at the expense of the health, property, and even life of residents. At least 10 people in Flint died from Legionnaires Disease, likely as a result of the polluted water.

After the Flint water crisis, homes in Flint are worth even less than they were at the beginning of the crisis.

A person is said to be “underwater” when their assets are worth less than their debts owed.

At a Presidential debate in January of 2016, Hillary Clinton said she wondered if Governor Snyder would have done more if the contaminated water occurred in a wealthy suburb of Detroit.

A while back, I asked a friend from college who is still in touch with Trey what he’s up to these days. I hurt him in our sophomore year when we broke up and I went on a date with his friend. Trey broke up with me months before but he said it wasn’t because he didn’t love me. It was because he had to focus on school and getting a job. After I went on a date with his friend, he stopped speaking to me, and he moved away soon after graduation. He lives in Detroit now, my friend told me. He’s a teacher. He has a house with a garden where he grows vegetables.

Thus far, charges have been brought against nine public employees for attempting to cover up known health risks associated with drinking Flint’s water. All of those charged are lower to mid-level bureaucrats.

“I will have to live with this my entire life,” said Governor Snyder at the congressional hearing on the Flint water crisis. What he means by this is open to interpretation. The guilt at having assured residents that the water was safe to drink when it wasn’t? The knowledge that the children of Flint are at high risk for serious brain damage, developmental delays and behavioral issues? In April of 2016, he announced that he would drink Flint water for one month to show residents that it is, now, safe. The people of Flint do not seem to believe him. In October of 2016, it was announced that Flint was suffering from an outbreak of shigellosis, a bacterial illness that is easily transmitted when people don’t wash their hands.

When we speak about events of the past that cannot be changed, that we have decided to forget, we might say “That is water under the bridge.” My Armenian family does not really believe in that. There can be no such thing for the survivors and descendants of genocide. I would guess this is also true for those who have known slavery, apartheid, and plunder. “Water under the bridge” is the sort of thing said by people who don’t understand the value of water. People who get to decide who gets to drink from which river. ●

Nadia Owusu is a Brooklyn-based writer and urban planner. She grew up in Rome, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Dar-es-Salaam, Kumasi, and London. She studies creative nonfiction in the low-residency MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. She is working on a collection of essays about coming of age as a citizen of the world. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Huffington Post, Assignment, and Catapult.

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