Body by Rikers: Getting to Know My Trainer, The Ex- and Future Con

'I'm going to make you a monster ...'

Sure, I’d think. Whatever.

“Are you on my side, or the other side?” Bashar asked me one day while I struggled to do a push-up.

I asked him what he meant. “Most people in this gym, you know, they for the other side,” he replied. Oh. The other side. I’d seen, though not intercepted, the long gazes in the locker room. I knew what he meant, and told him which side I was on. Had I ever even tried to be straight? he wondered. No, never, I said. “So how do you know, then?” He seemed to think maybe he could help me.

This was the point when the contrived intimacies of the trainer-client relationship went from useful to annoying. I realized why I chose to share my personal life with people I liked and trusted, and kept everyone else at arm’s length. Bashar had more control over my body than anyone with whom I’d never discussed what a good baby name “Eliot” is. So this is what he thought of me? Every time I started to rattle off my gay-rights talking points, he’d laugh and say, “Gimme another set!” When I pressed him further, he offered a revelation of his own: he couldn’t be prejudiced, he said, after what he’d seen in prison.

This was unexpected. I held on to just enough anger to make it through 12 reps. This, he told me, was why he’d needed me to write an article about him—to keep him from being sent back to jail. I couldn’t do that, I knew, but now he had my attention.

Later, I decided to meet Bashar outside the gym and hear more about his past. At a midtown Starbucks, he told me that, as a child, he was “the only Arab in Washington Heights. … Everybody looked at my family as aliens. And me as well.” To fit in with his neighbors, he said, he started hanging out in a drug dealer’s apartment at 13, and ended up running errands and eventually selling drugs for him. “I think it’s called being a product of your environment,” he said. He sold cocaine, but ever used only marijuana and ecstasy, he said.

He set out on his own at 16, running the corner of 154th and Broadway. As an outsider, he had an intuitive sense of how to pit gangs of different races against one another. Eventually, though, he sold drugs to an undercover cop. He did eight months at Rikers, where he allied with black gangs though he speaks Spanish. “The Middle East is actually located in Africa,” he told me, triumphantly.

His parents didn’t approve of his exploits, though they accepted the money he earned from dealing. They didn’t speak English, he told me, and had come to America only because his uncle told them there was gold in the streets.

Thanks to their acceptance of money, Bashar’s next arrest led his parents, his brother and his sister to be arrested, too; his mom and dad each did a year for money laundering. He took a deal for nine years at age 21. His lawyer told him, “At the end of the day, whether you go to trial or not, I’ll still be playing golf.” People had told him he needed to “hold it down” in jail, and protect himself from being raped. “But when I went upstate [to Five Points Correctional Facility], you gave respect, you got respect.” He was scrawny when he entered prison, but started working out with the help of fellow inmates. The physique he spent so much time gazing at in the mirror while I struggled was not a cosmetic choice but a form of armor. No wonder he told me I needed to become a “monster”; he’d had to do the same.

Comments

  1. Textgenie says:

    Real feeling in the Observer – surprising. Well written too. About time that jailing blacks and brown for picayune drug offenses to keep them off the job market was stopped.  Find them jobs, Washington.

  2. Rose says:

    Excellent piece. I am so glad someone took the time to write about people like Bashar- people whose lives are complex and often filled with the types of  experiences and traumas that don’t fit neatly into society’s pre-fabricated categories. Consequently, a one-size fits all approach to punishment often causes these people irreparable harm. This reductionistic view of crime and “criminals” is a shameful failure of the legal system that should be rectified as soon as possible if we truly wish to consider ourselves a just and merciful nation. 

    By the way, Bashar has been my trainer since July 2011. He is excellent-dependable, enthusiastic,and  although he often expresses views and opinions that are at times infuriating,  he is also always funny, kind, professional, devoted to his craft, and extremely hard working.And, finally, I am pleased to report that this story has a happy ending. Bashar has received probation. I am guessing this must be due both to his clean record  as well as to his many allies  (friends, family, co-workers, clients, etc)  who all rallied to his side and attested to his character. So, in this instance, I guess the system worked. Let’s hope there are increasing opportunities for individuals like Bashar (and there are many), to get another  chance at being a fully contributing member of society.Oh, and if you want a great trainer call or text him at 917.545.3170. You can also email him at: b.qayyem@yahoo.com. This is a good way you can help people like him bypass the stigma and difficulty they often have in getting straight employment.