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
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.