A New Me for the New Us

The morning after, my eyes caked with dried tears, my head

stuffed with the smell of burning, I stumbled out of my bedroom in Brooklyn.

There were things to do, things which the events of Tuesday had made necessary:

Calling my dad. Eating something. Shaving

my beard.

To be certain, the last was a therapeutic exercise-I was

ridding myself of my most recognizable feature as a means of going away from

the person I was, from the horror I had seen, just a day earlier-but it was

also a preventive measure. By getting rid of the beard, I was trying to make

clear who I was, or rather, more exactly, who I was not: I was trying to look

less like an Arab.

Of course, I’m not Arab, or even Muslim. In anthropological

terms, I’m Indian, a Hindu Brahmin. But truth to tell, I’ve never thought of

myself along those lines. I have few Indian friends and refuse to join

professional associations for South Asian or Asian or Indian journalists. I

don’t believe-despite special issues of Granta

and The New Yorker -that there’s such

a thing as a uniquely Indian or, for that matter, a uniquely Arab or American

writer. When asked “Where are you from?”, I will

always answer “Ohio.”

If anything, I tend to

see myself as part of a snobby ethnic group based around ideas. It’s a group

largely made up of people who attended private colleges, although occasionally

a member from Wisconsin or Michigan will be allowed. My group favors people who

prefer wooden floors to carpeting, who subscribe to Harper’s Magazine . We don’t read John Grisham, but feel “it’s

really cool” that he funds The Oxford

American . We love Annie Hall and

have formed a definitive stance on the merits (or lack thereof) of Dave Eggers.

But in the past week, I’ve become aware that New

York, the world, no one, sees me for who I think I

am-a skinny kid reared by wacky Midwestern academics. I have become something

else: part of a dark-skinned, nebulous “Other” capable of a maniacal evil that

until last week was the domain of villains in Superman comics.

Hatred is in vogue. You see it in those prolonged stares at

you in subways and bars. You feel its effect on Middle Eastern grocers and

vendors, quick to get customers in and out of their stores.

For my part, I try my best not to smile in public, not to

show my reaction to the things-my friends and nieces, the briskness and soft

colors of my hometown in the fall-that have given me solace this week. Rather,

my mind reels back to Tuesday, to the corner of Sixth

Avenue and Eighth Street

in Manhattan, where I stood

watching the second tower fall. I hear the girders collapsing, the expletives

and screams: “It’s gone! It’s fucking gone!” When my eyes meet another person’s

on the street, it’s my reaction to that memory I hope they see. It is an

overcompensation of sorts, begging to share in the collective pain. Please, I

try to communicate: I’m sorry I’m brown. I had nothing to do with it. Let me

grieve with you.

On Wednesday, having

shaved and showered, I walked back into the world. I moved past the Chase

Manhattan branch, the funeral parlor and McDonald’s, the Catholic church and convent that is Ninth Street in Brooklyn. A

terrible ride on the F train followed, the pall of

smoke where the World Trade Center had been evident from the elevated tracks. When I reached Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue, I crossed to the south side. Waiting for the

light to change, a teenager with a pencil-thin mustache and a sleeveless shirt

rode his bike towards me.

“Kill all the Arabs!” he said, swerving his bike close to

make sure I could hear him, before weaving back and up Ninth Street, leaving me

standing alone, in our new world.