Saturday, August 21, 2010

Where are they now?

I've met many people in this life of mine that I've spent trotting around the globe, recently on my own. I wonder about the ones whom I shared moments with for a while or even just a few minutes and then went our separate ways, never to meet again. Some of them made me happy when I needed to be made happy, and they never even knew it. I wonder where they are now and if they remember me as I remember them:

Florence worked with security in the building across from the Empire State Building that housed the office of Guideposts magazine. She was a middle-aged black woman from Trinidad & Tobago whom I chatted with when I visited the staff at Guideposts on my magical 2007 New York trip. I never saw her again.

The black UPS mailman rode around the Oklahoma State University campus every day in his black truck and brown uniform. I met him as a desk clerk in my residence call where he would drop by everyday on his rounds delivering mail. It was one of my duties as a desk clerk to receive and distribute mail in the mailboxes of the buildings' residents. I can't remember the mailman's name - was it Robert? He was a gentleman and would great me with a compliment and a smile every time. Even after I stopped working at the residence hall, we'd wave and greet each other everytime his truck passed me by anywhere, on-campus or off. He made me feel like a pretty lady. I left OSU in 2005. I never saw him again.

A dusky and statuesque waitress was serving me that late night at the no-name Los Angeles diner. She wore a stereotypical turquoise waitress outfit that went down to her knees, complete with a white apron and white wrap cloth tiara on her crown. She looked Hispanic. Her hair was long, black, and thick, and her skin was the colour of hot chocolate. Her lipstick was a soft dark brown. She asked me where I was from. I said India. Her eyes lit up and she smiled. She was from Bangladesh, she said. She told me her name and I told her mine. We were both Muslims. I looked around the dimly lit diner with its plastic covered seats and plastic-covered menus. What was this beautiful woman doing here, so far away from home, in this town full of freaks and perverts? I never saw her again.

The old woman who looked like she was made of wet white paper was looking at me expectantly, her eyes shining. I told her I liked her gold pendant and that she looked pretty. She clasped her hands and her voice shook. "Oh, honey..." she said as she smiled, her eyes never away from my face. The other university kids who were part of my volunteer group in Stillwater stood a few feet away from us, nervous and uncomfortable in the old folk's home. They were all young, all under 20, and the smell of death, decay, and napthalene made them uneasy. Maybe it's because they were American, or maybe I was used to being around old people, but I felt more comfortable at the home than with them. We didn't stay at the home for more than 10 minutes. I met that old woman in 2000. I never saw her again.

My friend and I were buying movie tickets for the new Mr. Bean movie at the AMC near Times Square. I noticed that the counter had the new Master Card smart card reader installed. I got excited and began to hum the tune of the commercial, a funny little ad that had had the card reader beeping to the tune of Strauss's 'Blue Danube'. The young black fellow working at the counter sang with me. We all laughed. I never saw him again.

When I was in kindergarten in Muscat in the early 80s, our school had hired elderly Omani women to help the teachers take care of the little children. I spent many hours sitting in the lap of the old Omani woman in my class. She was short, strongly built, dark, and had a wide nose. Sh wore colourful cotton Omani clothes. I remember her in a dark green and black outfit. A long scarf covered her hair, and the only parts of her body that were visible were her chubby hands and feet and her face. She didn't speak much. She didn't know any English or much Hindi or Urdu, and the Indian children, most of them South Indian, didn't know any Arabic but only smatterings of English and mostly Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Telegu, Tamil, Kannada, etc. I never saw her again.

The tall strawberry-blonde young Irish fellow at the Navy Pier in Chicago was selling t-shirts and bags that changed colour in sunlight. I didn't want to buy anything, but he stopped my mother and I and laughed and joked as he kept talking about how he was a terrible salesperson and wasn't able to sell anything. He kept saying that he was just visiting his uncle from Ireland. He wouldn't stop talking and smiling, telling me that I probably wore t-shirts sized small. After 10 minutes, we had spent 40 dollars at that stall. The young Irishman gave me strawberry candy and thanked me for making him feel better about his selling skills, even though he was a terrible salesman. I kept that candy, wrapped in its strawberry designed wrapper, for many years after that. I never saw him again.

The middle-aged professor burst into the Microform Media Room where I worked at the university library in Stillwater and exclaimed at me, "Hello there, young person!!!" I leapt from my chair, all the sluggishness and frustration of my life instantly banished as an unknown optimism burst into existence in my chest. The clouds suddenly cleared and the sun shone on me as I realised I wanted to smile and didn't want to sit anymore. I asked the professor how I could help him. I never saw him again.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Once upon a 9/11

I first moved to the US in 1999. I had just turned 18 and had come to the Oklahoma State University for undergraduate studies. My campus was in Stillwater, a town 80 miles into the country away from the two largest cities of the state. Stillwater would've qualified as rural if it had not been for the university that brought along with it a dynamic and diverse group of people every semester from every corner of the world, students, professors, staff, and their families. Most people on campus were American and a large majority were white, but aside from the usual adjustment and alienation issues that one faces in a new country, it was possible to make new friends rather quickly. If not with the Americans, many of whom were from small towns in Oklahoma or surrounding states in the Bible Belt of America, then with any of the hundreds of foreign students who were all in the same boat as yourself.

In 1999, President Clinton was still in office. Cell phones still charged long-distance fees, not that many people had cell phones in the first place. Most foreign countries did not even use email. Napster was just beginning to get popular with college students across the nation, but many had not even heard of it or knew what it was. ICQ was the number one chat program, and Hotmail had just launched its own version. I remember using it for the first time a few months before and excitedly calling my family to see the alert at the bottom of the chat window that indicated in realtime that the other party was typing from halfway across the world. Most companies did not have websites or include them in advertising. Hardly anyone bought anything online. A home-use PC cost around $1,200, and laptops were only for the jetset. The job market was fantastic. Companies would woo fresh graduates with no experience by the dozens, they were picking people up right, left, and center from all over the country. Giants like Microsoft and IBM were a fixture on every college campus, including ours. A computer science graduate with absolutely no experience was practically guaranteed a job that paid $60,000 annually. Everything was great. In those days, America was on autopilot.

Hardly anybody knew about Islam at that time, and no one seemed to care either. There was no reason for anyone to ask "What is Islam?", people just didn't seem to be thinking on those lines. I was happy to meet Muslims from parts of the world I had never been too - Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Kazakhistan, Lebanon - but I was equally delighted when non-Muslims would approach me with a smile and inquire about my ethnic background. In fact, I preferred interacting with non-Muslims because I found it hard to fit in with the Muslim community in Stillwater. Most of the Muslims were foreigners, and their religious identity came bundled with nationalist, regionalist, linguistic, and cultural ideas that, as foreigners in a completely differently environment, they tried to hold on to extra hard. Even the Arab Muslims were being extra Arab! I enthusiastically attended a few Muslim gatherings that first year, but I always ended up feeling awkward, sometimes unwelcome, and often invisible. Before this I had been wholly raised in the Middle East in a Muslim country and had been around Muslim gatherings all the time, and this new feeling of alienation and sometimes rejection startled me. It never got easier as the years went by. In fact, it became a regular occurrence. From then on I began to shy away from attending Islamic gatherings and kept my religious observances to myself. This would make me the subject of criticism from various quarters over the years and cause me much internal anguish, but my solitude turned out to be the best thing for my spirituality.

I remember when a White American classmate once asked me in freshman year if it was true that the Muslims determined their time of prayer according to the position of the sun. When I confirmed that fact, he nodded and smiled, "Cool!" He asked me if it was true that the Muslims abstained from eating pork. I confirmed that too. He then smiled and added, "actually I'm Jewish; did you know that the Jews and Christians are not supposed to eat pork either?" I had not known that and was excited at this new bit of knowledge. But I'd known many Christians all my life, and they had never had any qualms about eating pork. My bright-blonde short-spikey-haired pasty-white classmate then told me that he ate pork too but technically the Jews and Christians weren't supposed to be eating it. This was exciting. Not only would I have never guessed that my classmate was Jewish, but he was the first Jewish person I had ever met (that I knew of). It was wonderful to be able to exchange stories with other people, it gave you a sort of respectful feeling at the end of it. If this was any indication of what my American collegiate experience would entail, then this was going to be the best phase of my life.

Those days hardly seem real now. 9/11 happened 2 years after I began college. The minute I heard the word 'Muslim' on TV, I panicked. I locked my dorm room door, afraid to even use the common bathroom to brush my teeth. I'd grown up watching the politically motivated communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in India, and I was terrified. The Muslim tag had followed me to America. Pretty soon a bloodthirsty mob would plow down my dorm room door and set me on fire. Many people knew I was Muslim, they would want my blood. I was cornered. How would I go to my classes if I couldn't even go out to brush my teeth?

None of that happened of course. After about 30 minutes, I managed to slip out of my room. I spent the whole day looking over my shoulder as I slipped quietly from class to class. A deathly silence had taken over the usual cheer of the campus. My teachers were having a hard time focussing on their lectures. The president of the university later called an emergency meeting of the International Student Organisation, of which I was a part of, and advised us on safety precautions for all foreign students. For the next many months, security personnel patrolled the campus, available to escort any nervous people anywhere on the campus.

On the whole, I was very impressed with the way America had reacted to 9/11. The government regularly called for public sanity and cautioned against citizen vigilantism. I had never seen morale like this before. If this had been India, the whole Muslim community would have gone into hiding (and this is before the Godhra riots that were to follow some time later). Sure I had less reason to be afraid - I did not look like what most people thought Muslims looked like. Many people still thought I was a Hindu because I looked distinctly Indian. I was a petite girl, I did not have a straggly beard, I did not look Arab, I did not have an Arabic accent. I'm not going to pretend that I wasn't grateful for that disguise. But I loved America and the Americans for the way they were taking the moral high ground. It was incredible. This is why America was the greatest country in the world.

I often reflect on those days. I don't know exactly when it started, but a few years after 9/11, paranoid whispers about Islam/Muslims began to circulate amongst the masses. After a while, I left OSU with a graduate degree and moved to Tulsa. These whispers had never been directed at me, so I'd never taken them seriously, until the day a good American friend forwarded me an email which cautioned all readers to abstain from voting against Obama because, amongst other things, he was a secret Muslim and would destroy the country under his presidency (I've underlined and boldfaced the email as it was in the version I'd received):

"This information needs to be spread EVERYWHERE.......


Obama mentioned his church during his appearance with Oprah. It's the Trinity Church of Christ. I found this interesting.

Obama's church:
Please read and go to this church's website and read what is written there. It is very alarming.

Barack Obama is a member of this church and is running for President of the U.S. If you look at the first page of their website, you will learn that this congregation has a non-negotiable commitment to Africa. No where is AMERICA even mentioned. Notice too, what color you will need to be if you should want to join Obama's church... B-L-A-C-K!!! Doesn't look like his choice of religion has improved much over his (former?) Muslim upbringing.

Strip away his nice looks, the big smile and smooth talk and what do you get? Certainly a racist, as plainly defined by the stated position of his church! And possibly a covert worshiper of the Muslim faith, even today. This guy desires to rule over America while his loyalty is totally vested in a Black Africa!

I cannot believe this has not been all over the TV and newspapers. This is why it is so important to pass this message along to all of our family & friends.

To think that Obama has even the slightest
chance in the run for the presidency, is really scary.

Click on the link below:
This is the web page for the church Barack Obama belongs to:

We are a congregation which is Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian... Our roots in the Black religious experience and tradition are deep, lasting and permanent. We are an African people, and remain 'true to our native land,' the mother continent, the cradle of civilization. God has superintended our pilgrimage through the days of slavery, the days of segregation, and the long night of racism. It is God who gives us the strength and courage to continuously address injustice as a people, and as a congregation. We constantly affirm our trust in God through cultural expression of a Black worship service and ministries which address the Black Community. The Pastor as well as the membership of Trinity United Church of Christ is committed to a 10-point Vision:

1. A congregation committed to ADORATION.
2. A congregation preaching SALVATION.
3. A congregation actively seeking RECONCILIATION.
4. A congregation with a non-negotiable COMMITMENT TO AFRICA.
5. A congregation committed to BIBLICAL EDUCATION.
6. A congregation committed to CULTURAL EDUCATION.
8. A congregation committed to LIBERATION.
9. A congregation committed to RESTORATION.
10. A congregation working towards ECONOMIC PARITY."

I did not know how to take this. Had my friend, who had been so kind to me as a foreign student, forgotten that I was a Muslim? Or had it not registered to her because I was Indian and she assumed Hindu? I then ran into an OSU professor I had known who had always been very supportive and encouraging of me, and he told me a lot of frightening things about Islam and Muslims that were inaccurate. When I told him that I had never come across these concepts in Islam, even while being raised in a Muslim Arab country, he said I was probably a good kind of Muslim. I was completely alarmed.

Around this time things got pretty vicious all around in a very short period of time. Seriously hurtful anti-Islamic websites and images sprouted by the hundreds. The 2008 presidential campaign was underway. Educated influential people were saying insane things about Islam on TV and other media. I read a whole feature in a Tulsa magazine about Islam, including statements from some people who left it. People were getting so hostile just with words, it was frightening. I wasn't sure where to draw the line between free speech and hate speech. By the last few years of my stay in America, this hostility towards Islam got overwhelming. I wanted to counter it and scream, "Stop! Don't believe them! That's complete lies! I'm telling you so!", but I was just one voice, and nobody was listening to me. I had an audience of maybe 5 or 10, while these people on TV with their websites had worldwide followers. I just wanted them to stop saturating the air with hurtful lies.

I don't live in America anymore. I still keep my religious observances to myself yet I grieve over how Islamophobia (I hate how that word gives the phenomenon a permanent identity) is now an actual word. I see debates about Islam on every TV channel. Everyone's writing about it (even me!). Draw Mohammed Day, Burn a Quran Day, Islam-is-coming doomsday prophets, Cordoba House, mistrust of an American president over religious identity (he is not a Muslim for sure, I'm sure no Muslim thinks he is either). It upsets me how people unite across borders over their dislike for Muslims. I would've never believed you if you'd told me 10 years ago that in a few years every continent would be dissecting the details of Islam to the extent that most Muslims aren't even aware of. But today, in this world where every Muslim feels hyperalert all the time about having to answer back to accusations about Islam being flung at them from every direction, I wonder if a time will ever come again when a discussion about Islam will end with a simple 'cool'.