By Sohaila Abdulali
16 January 2017
On a recent return to New York after a short trip to India, I waltzed through immigration with my nice blue US passport. It says “Abdulali” but nobody seemed to care. Will that be different next time I come back home?
The incoming administration has previously proposed a Muslim registry. I’m not from one of the so-called “high-risk countries”, but the name Abdulali suddenly feels like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter – am I now supposed to justify myself every time I come home? Will I feel the old familiar pre-citizenship nerves and do my best to grovel and look harmless when the officer appraises me before I escape thankfully to baggage claim? What about my Pakistani cousins who might want to visit?
This feeling of nervousness is unpleasantly familiar. In 1992, India suddenly changed after a mosque was destroyed, and ethnic riots swept the country. The nice man I bought flowers from at the Delhi market near my flat asked me in all seriousness why I didn’t go “back” to Pakistan – a place that might not even have let me in as a tourist while I had an Indian passport. I was indignant, and then heartbroken. At least there was comfort in the thought that this could never happen in the US, my adopted home.
Then along came Donald Trump and his merry men. Suddenly, I’m no longer sure if I am welcome next time I land at JFK.
It’s all been said, since the election: the real fear of people who no longer feel free to be open about who they are, people for whom putting on a head scarf is suddenly an act of bravery rather than simply part of getting dressed in the morning. But there are also those of us who feel reluctantly dragged into the fray, because even if we don’t share those beliefs, here we are, falling right into identity politics.
How craven would it be to remain silent now, when men with ugliness in their souls are taking the helm? For me, it’s especially aggravating when I don’t consider myself a Muslim at all, and I don’t feel any particular kinship with the Arab woman in full regalia in front of me in the line to get off the plane. But she is familiar to me, not foreign, and in the current climate I feel a weird need to catch her eye and connect.
Indians first, Muslims second – that was what we believed growing up. In fact, as unconcerned atheists, we never thought about being Muslim at all, except for rattling off prayers to please my grandmother. My cousins and I made fun of the conservative men in our community, with their dyed beards and skull caps and flappy pyjama pants.
But 1992 in India, like 9/11 and now 2016 in America, taught us a hard lesson – like European Jews in the Second World War, there’s no escape from the accident of birth. Bleating, “I’m an atheist, for God’s sake” doesn’t get me very far. And I find that highly annoying.
I care about many things. Allah doesn’t happen to be one of them. I’m just a slacker Muslim. I just don’t care. I don’t WANT to care. Why can’t I just not care?
These days, Muslims face bigotry and hatred in both the countries that I love. For those of us who never considered ourselves Muslim until the flower-sellers started asking us to leave, it is a wake-up call and a timely reminder that we must stick up for people who wouldn’t necessarily stick up for us: those same men with dyed beards, skull caps and flappy pyjama pants.
They have every right to feel as good about themselves in their hats and beards as I do in my purple suede (okay, polyester) jacket. Even if nothing happens, it’s simply wrong for so many of us to feel so anxious in the country we have embraced, and which we thought embraced us.
We now have a president-elect who has stated on national television, “We want to go with watch lists. We want to go with databases. And we have no choice.” I hope we never have a Muslim database, but if we do, it’s going to be interesting to see who gets on it.
My daughter is 50% Catholic, about 36% Muslim and 14% who-knows-what … will she make the cut? Is this the kind of thing our leaders are going to spend their time sorting out? Millions of us thought America was better than this. I hope we were right.
Sohaila Abdulali was born in Mumbai and lives in New York City. She is a freelance writer and editor, and she has published novels, children's books, short stories, and non-fiction pieces.