I am sitting in the café’s patio, alone, surrounded by mosaic tiles and empty wrought-iron furniture, late afternoon sunlight slanting across my table, classical music streaming from the speakers.
Just this morning, exasperated at running out of lined paper during my lecture and having misplaced my favorite pen, I walked over to the campus bookstore to remedy the situation. I bought two legal pads and a beautiful pen – a needle tip, 0.5mm ballpoint pen with blue liquid gel ink. Sitting in the patio now, I congratulate myself on a good purchase. I am in love with my new pen, enjoying the ease with which my angular handwriting spills out and across the pages. Having spent far too many of the past days in front of computer screens, pounding away at keyboards, typing out academic papers, I now revel in writing that is completely unrelated to lecture notes.
I have filled three pages of the legal pad when the door between the café and patio suddenly flies open, and out emerges a man in his 60s, precariously balancing a slice of cake, a steaming cup of coffee, and the day’s newspaper. He bustles over to the table next to mine, seats himself, and raises his coffee cup to his mouth, boldly staring at me over the rim. My sense of peace is shot, no matter how hard I try to ignore him.
He makes a great show of noisily unfolding his newspaper and shaking it out, then solemnly peruses the headlines. “Let’s see if there’s been anything good going on in the world!” he exclaims to no one in particular, and yet the comment is quite obviously directed at me, because there is no one else there. My view that he is addressing me is justified, for only a half-second later he pointedly looks over at me, laughing at his ironic joke. I smile wryly in response and busy myself once more with writing, but it is not meant to be.
“So, where are you from?” he asks.
I look over and raise an eyebrow. “Are you asking for my ethnicity, nationality, or hometown?”
“Originally,” he says. “Originally, where are you from?”
“Pakistan,” I answer.
“What’s it like, the part where you’re from?” he asks interestedly, so I tell him a little bit about my village and the times I’ve spent there, about the simplicity inherent in that way of life.
“Huh,” he answers. “So are you planning on retiring there in forty years?”
My tone of response is not self-deprecating as I had meant it, but instead more defensive than I had intended. “I can barely plan ahead four days at a time,” I answer sharply. “Forty years is beyond my capabilities at the moment.”
He throws his head back and shouts with laughter. “Good answer,” he says. “Very good answer.” I relax a little, and analyze his appearance.
His crown of gray hair sticks up in tufts, as do his thick arching eyebrows. He has a deep laugh that shakes his entire body. When he makes an emphatic point, he raises those eyebrows and opens his blue eyes wide in mock surprise, flashing a slightly malicious grin. He reminds me very, very much of the actor Jack Nicholson, and, to be honest, I find that fact somewhat intimidating.
“There are two categories of non-Americans,” he remarks. “Either they want to come to the U.S. and live here, or they want to blow it up instead.” He pauses. “I don’t get it,” he says. “Why they want to blow us up, I mean. You know what I think? I think those that can’t make it to here are jealous of those who do, so they decide to try and blow us up. Simple as that!”
Inwardly, I wince at his logic – or lack thereof – and his naïveté. The U.S. is disliked abroad for many reasons, but I doubt petty jealousy was truly a motivating or defining factor in such unpleasant and heartbreaking incidents as those of September 11th.
Before I can respond to the absurdity of his previous statement, he’s already on a roll. He throws rapid-fire questions and comments at me, bringing up Iraq, Iran, Turkey, the Arab nations, Wahhabis, Afghanistan, democratic versus secular versus fundamentalist forms of government, and, of course, Osama bin Laden, the “most fucked up of them all.” While I try to tackle one subject, he leaps ahead to another as easily as children skip between hopscotch squares on sidewalk pavements. He never lets me finish an idea, interrupting me before I can complete a sentence, before I can wrap up my thoughts. He does this deliberately, I know.
Public speaking has always come easily to me: debates, presentations, workshops, speeches, statements. During such times, the words flow effortlessly, it seems. Yet public speaking situations also have the added convenience of a previously prepared statement, of an argument perfected ahead of time. In this case, however, I find myself fumbling, stumbling, searching for the right combination of words, trying to keep up with him as he continually jumps from one topic to another. It seems to me more an inquisition than a conversation. I feel a mix of defensiveness and a suspicion of being put on the spot.
Finally, I realize that I’m trying to say far too much, much too fast. So I slow down. I pause often, to gather my thoughts and lend them a semblance of coherence and authority. When he attempts once more to aggressively interrupt me in mid-sentence, I raise my voice slightly and steamroll right over his, so that he falters, lets me continue, and actually pays attention to what I am trying to say.
He brings up the issue of immigrants and the third-world countries that many of them leave behind. “The U.S. is full of immigrants,” he says thoughtfully. “They’re the best and brightest of the countries they come from, there’s no denying that. The problem is, once they get here, they choose to spend the rest of their lives here, and meanwhile, all the dumb-asses back home are fucking everything up. Their countries need the smart ones to actually return.” He looks at me inquisitively. “What are you planning on doing to help your country? They need a lot of help over there, you know.” Before I can answer, he has already moved on. “So why did you decide to come to the U.S.? And how long have you been here for?”
“My whole life, basically,” I say. “I was born here.”
“Oh, so you’re an American, then!” he says. This surprises him. There follows a moment of silence. I can almost see the wheels turning behind his eyes, in his mind, as he scrabbles around to reclassify me, redefine me. He had jumped to conclusions, his pigeonhole definition didn’t work out, I caught him off guard, and now he must start all over, it seems. “Hmm. So you’re not even an immigrant at all! You’re not even Pakistani, then. You’re just American.”
Surprisingly, I find myself resenting this, which is ironic if I remember how, after September 11th, I put special emphasis on the fact that I was just as much an American as everyone else around here. Yet I’ve never been “just [anything].” Each part of who I am, each facet of my identity, is shaped by a multitude of experiences and interactions, thoughts and encounters. I’ve worked hard to become who I am today, and “just American” does not even come close to encompassing all that I am. I resent his blatant dismissal of my roots, my heritage, the long eighteen months I spent learning my language and dialect and culture and traditions, the way I try to integrate all these into my life even today. He must see something of this in my face, for he hastily backtracks: “Well, I guess that makes you Pakistani American, then. A second-generation immigrant.”
Interestingly enough, it is only at the end of our conversation that he asks, “Are you Muslim?”
“Yes,” I say, no hesitation here.
“So you practice the Islamic faith.”
There is a long stretch of silence as he looks at me broodingly, unblinkingly, a steady gaze from a stranger I’ll never see again, most likely. I force myself to return his stare firmly, unflinchingly.
“You’re different from what I imagined Muslims are like,” he says finally.
On his way back inside, he wishes me good luck in my future studies, adding, “Don’t forget to think about what you’re going to do to change the world!” He grins maliciously again. “After all, you inherited all this shit from my generation, and your father’s. And from our fathers. It’s up to you guys to clean it all up now.”
I raise an eyebrow at his terminology, but nod my head thoughtfully, reassuringly. He turns back for a second, serious once more. “So you’re Muslim, huh?” Before I can answer, he nods contemplatively. “Good for you. I bet you can change the world.” Then the door slams shut behind him.
We are Islam walking.
Never forget that.