Scares 2 and 3
I never thought I looked either like Saddam Hussain or Osama Bin Laden.
In fact, some of the people I like a lot tell me that my face shows kindness and compassion. They say it’s actually quite comforting to look in my eyes. They say I’m a good friend.
I’m always delighted and pampered to hear such compliments; a forever teenager in me savors the praises, and daydreams about more. Silly, but that’s how I am.
At least, I know I definitely do not look like a fanatic killer or a tyrant dictator.
Enough sentimentalism. Let’s get back to business. I promised I’d tell you three of my relatively small and insignificant post-9/11 brushes with racism, stereotypes and ignorance here in New York. So, here they are. If you haven’t read the first story already, just click here. Note that my family and I had other small and big, very difficult experiences to deal with bias, prejudice and mistreatment throughout our twenty-five years of living in America (and guess what: we thought we were escaping them when we left India); some of these experiences either could’ve killed us quickly, or at least suffocated us to despair and slow but sure death. If not anything else, they could’ve easily driven us away from this country that we opted to be our own — where we worked very hard to prove our worth 110 percent.
(Of course, a large majority of our American friends and colleagues — black, white, brown or yellow (what a terrible way to describe them) — embraced us and treated us with equal respect. They’ve become our new family. But that’s another story.)
At present, I’d like to stick to my 9/11-related personal scares. And I’ll be brief again. Like I said before, compared to the Kafkesque, horrifying experiences some of my Muslim, South Asian and other poor immigrant brothers and sisters went through since 9/11, my little tales are pretty boring. But these are my real stories, and I might as well tell them as vividly as possible, before they completely slip out of my memory (even though, chances are, they never will).
In the Scare 2 car chase story, the scenario was like this. My family and I were riding our old, beat-up Dodge to some community event a few months after 9/11. We were held in a Saturday afternoon traffic over Brooklyn Queens Expressway, an area from where you can see the Statue of Liberty against the famous backdrop of Manhattan skyline. As the driver, I should have noticed that a big gray van was following behind our car too up close. As we started descending off the bridge, the traffic became easier. Just at that time, the van passed by us with a screech, came dangerously close to our car on my left, honked loud at us, and then the passengers — a white man and a white woman — rolled down their windows, and screamed, “Hey you…Saddam!” “You M…F… terrorists!” Then, they rolled back up their windows, and sped away. It didn’t take them more than a few seconds to do it, but for us it was a dangerously nerve-wrecking experience. I was stunned and shaken. My family members in the car were petrified.
The Baseball Bat
Scare 3 episode happened when as the 9/11 community organizer, I helped my grassroots immigrant rights group NICE organize one of our many anti-bias-crime meetings in Queens. On the day Saddam Hussain was captured from the rat hole in Iraq and entire American media was rejoicing, we had a pre-scheduled organizational meeting in a school building in Corona. It was, I remember, in the middle of a harsh New York winter, and I believed it had snowed that morning. We were running late. Our executive director activist lawyer Bryan Pu-Folkes and I got off the subway at Corona, and started walking as briskly as possible toward the school building; we knew our team members Nashla, Diana, Jessica, Shirley, Cheryl and others were waiting for us there. Bryan probably ran into someone and walked along with him; I for some reason waited back perhaps in anticipation that he would finish his brief conversation with his friend and then we’ll go on together again.
Just at that time, a group of Hispanic youth circled me, and started laughing quite strangely. One of them, I noticed, had a baseball bat on him. The group kicked off an impromptu conversation. It was like this:
Them: “Hey buddy, are you Muslim?”
Me (quickly being defensive): “No I’m not.” (I knew about my journalist friend Haider’s falling victim of a hate crime before; to a similar question, he replied yes, he was Muslim and from Pakistan. Next thing was somebody collected his bloody, unconscious body with teeth and lips broken from uppity Park Slope in Brooklyn).
Them: “So you’re sad they got Saddam. Did you know?”
Me (using all my presence of mind): “Yes, I know. But why should I be sad? I’m not sad.”
Them: “He’s your guy, right?”
Me (now afraid): “No he’s not. I’m happy they got him.”
Them: “Yeah, right!”
Then they laughed together. I very quickly but calmly left their association, and walked toward Bryan whom I could see from a distance. I caught up with him and told him the story.
A group of youth hanging out near a rundown New York subway station with a baseball bat with them is not a place where you want to be held up in any conversation. Not too long ago, a Bangladeshi journalist Mizanur, on his way back from his weekly Bengali newspaper office late at night, was mistaken by a similar group of people for somebody else, and with a baseball bat, they broke his skull into pieces.
I did not want to be a repeat statistic at all.
Nothing major had happened to me, and I escaped unhurt. But my pride and ego took a bad hit on those days. I could not get a chance to tell those people about my lifelong, sincere work to promote peace, rights and justice. I could not champion to them about my humble beginning, family education and very-hard-earned three masters and a Ph.D. (as if it’s too important to advertise; who would give a damn!). Further, I never got a chance to tell them that I was in fact one of them too: that I belonged to their class and their experiences, and that there was no reason for us to fall victims of this mutual exclusion and hate.
In one unfortunate moment, Mizanur’s brain splattered on a Brooklyn sidewalk. Mine could have too.
Hate and ignorance would not wait to kill. They’re intrinsically violent.
So, now, ten years after 9/11, are we any better? Tolerance…interfaith…diversity…cross-cultural harmony…?
Let’s ask ourselves.
Brooklyn, New York