I am visiting the all-girls boarding home outside of Guadalajara, Mexico where I’d once spent two years volunteering. Located at the end of a bumpy, cobblestone street in a town whose name literally translates to Farm City, this internado has no internet or cable, its only television stationed on a rolling cart with a VCR.
Near the end of my visit, one of the girls I’d been particularly close to asks, “Are you really Muslim?”
She knows the answer to this question. Before I left, she’d wanted me to sponsor her confirmation and I’d told her why I could not. Now, it is one year after 9/11, and even though I can’t imagine how the news traveled here, I fear there is a reason why she is asking again.
“Yes,” I say.
“But aren’t all Muslims terroristas?” she asks.
My husband and I are at the post office, mailing boxes to our new apartment in New York before we drive across the country for the start of his medical training. He is dark-skinned and unshaven, black curls peeking out from under a baseball cap. I wear my hair in a bun, a floral skirt, and sandals.
The people waiting behind us grow restless. A tall guy in a plaid shirt tells the lady behind him, “You can always tell when it’s Christmas in someone else’s country.”
I am in John F. Kennedy Airport’s baggage claim, my firstborn in my lap, while my husband waits in the cold for car service. I offer a young woman struggling with the pay phones my cell phone.
After calling home, she sits next to me. We talk about my baby and her siblings, and then she says, “They say there’s going to be a war with Iraq. What do you think?”
“I don’t support war of any kind.”
“Nobody does, but don’t you think we need to defend ourselves?”
“No, I don’t. We’re not at any risk from Iraq.”
“But there’s no telling what those people will do,” she says.
“I am one of those people,” I say, and she stumbles to tell me that her father once worked with a Muslim who was a really nice guy.
First Day, Preschool
I am in the office on my son’s first day of preschool, chatting with a Peruvian mother whose son also started school that day. The administrative assistant in the back office calls out to the woman with the up-do at the front desk, “Did you get a load of the father’s name?”
My breath suspends. I know my husband’s once ordinary Arabic name now has inflammatory connotations.
The woman quickly gets up, perhaps to inform her workmate that I am still there. When she returns, carrying the scent of powdery perfume, she smiles awkwardly and says, “How many languages do you speak?”
“Three,” I answer, my voice soft, and in that same nothing voice, I ask, “Was that my husband’s name she was referring to?”
“Oh no,” she denies, shaking her head with so much exaggeration her beaded necklaces clack together.
It is Eid-al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. After prayers at the mosque, my mom-friends and I take our children to a pancake house for our first breakfast in a month.
While we wait for our food, we put coloring books and toys in front of our kids. From across the restaurant, an older man calls out, “This is not a playground. Control your children.”
The dining room grows still. Encouraged, he continues, “This is a restaurant. People are trying to have a conversation.”
We eat our meal in disbelief, shushing our children constantly, but when we leave, the man follows us to the cash register. “I’m not a bad person,” he says. “You people are just overly permissive with your children.”
As if our professions and educations can redeem us, my friend, the only one among us who happens to wear the hijab, says, “You people? We’re Americans, and all three of our husbands are doctors, working at your local hospitals.” She pauses, flustered, and then adds, “I’ll have you know I graduated from Stanford University. The only place I’m from is California.”
I am in the audience at the literature review for an arts council grant. One of the panelists is effusive about my work. He says the topic is timely and that even though all my characters either wear veils or have mustaches, they are well-drawn and real.
When it is the second panelist’s turn to speak, she says, “This didn’t interest me as much. I knew by the title, this was going to be about Indians.”
I describe myself as Iraqi five times in my submission, and none of my characters wear a veil or has a mustache .
At the break, I share my concerns with the moderator, and she promises to make a correction if it happens again. When the session resumes, the same panelist refers to my submission’s Indian theme as a liability. The moderator leans into the microphone and says, “Middle Eastern,” as if this in itself is a fix. I sit there, holding everything that is wrong with this mistake.
At my condo association garage sale, a Palestinian woman asks me to give her several things because she has diabetes and a sick husband and a daughter who is married to a terrible man who does not provide for their baby. I imagine she makes these requests because we share the same language. I tell her to take whatever she wants, and then I help her load her car where I discover a trunk full of car seats and baby clothes similar to the ones she picked from my driveway. I push away the sense that I’ve been hustled with the reminder that the woman is clearly still in need.
At a lull, I walk over to my neighbor and ask, “How’s it going?”
“Slow,” she says, “those Arab women are the worst. They always want something for nothing. But then I think about how awful those women’s lives are, and I just want ask them, ‘Do you know Jesus Christ?’”
I am writing in a coffee shop, trying to tune out the interview for a sales job taking place at the table in front of me. The employer is grandiose and full of bluster, and he tells his applicant, “Some people are going to say what’s a Mexican guy like you doing making five grand a week, but I got no problem with you being Mexican. As long as we speak the same language, I can get along with anyone. I just don’t like Arabs. They want to kill my people. They want to kill yours, too. You were here for 9/11, right?”
My fingers stop moving over the keyboard. I command myself to react, to interrupt, to at least make light of his comments in an offhand way, but I am shaking. I pull out my notebook, write his words down, and pretend this attempt at record-keeping equals doing something.
The clerk at my local grocery store has a tattoo across his forearm in thick, black Arabic letters that says kaffir. I’d heard of US soldiers, inking the word unbeliever on their bodies as if this alone had the power to antagonize their Muslim enemies.
I want to ask him if he knows that anyone who belongs to any Abrahamic faith is not considered a kaffir. I want to tell him that even if he truly were an unbeliever, the Quran says, “I shall not worship that which you worship. Nor will you worship that which I worship. To you your religion, and to me mine.”
Instead I watch this arm that likely wielded a weapon in my ancestral home scan my fruits and vegetables, my butter and milk, and place it in a bag. I wonder if he even realizes his tattoo offends me, that it brings a war into a supermarket and changes the way I feel about living in this town where I’ve seen trucks—they are always trucks—with ISIS Hunting Permit bumper stickers.
But this is not a conversation for a checkout lane, and I am silent.
I am always silent.