For Muslims In The US, There’s Before 9/11 And There’s After

The distance between curiosity and fear is tragically short.

When people squint at my name on something in front of them and then ask where I’m from, I tell them “Columbus, Ohio.” When they look again and then, perhaps more urgently, ask where my parents are from, I tell them “New York,” smiling more slightly. Occasionally, I’ll get a person who asks where THEIR parents were from, and I humor that as well. No one has ever gone beyond two generations before me, but I look forward to the day where it all plays out: me in line at the bank, or at a deli, someone attempting to trace my lineage to a place they feel makes sense. Me, eventually saying, “Well, I’d imagine Africa came into play at some point, but now I’m here, so who can say really?”

What people are asking in this exercise is never about where I’m from. The question they’re asking is “why doesn’t your name fit comfortably in my mouth?” and we both understand what this is asking, and my toying with the asker usually doesn’t win me any points. The answer they are digging for is less exciting: My parents converted to Islam in the 1970s, when many young black American-born New Yorkers found their way to the religion — with a desire to reconnect their roots to something that felt more like home than Christianity. My father, before Islam, was Catholic, though I’m not sure of my mother’s religion. They took new names. The name “Abdurraqib” means “servant of the observer” in Arabic. It is hard, even now, for people to imagine any Muslims who are not people who came here from another country. In the mosque I went to as a child, I felt most comfortable because I didn’t have to repeat my name to anyone I spoke it to, but I did have to apologize for my flimsy Arabic, or my distance from tradition. In this way, I was often too Muslim for one world, but too steeped in American culture for another. But the person who has to prepare themselves to yell out my coffee shop order as a line grows, snaking behind me, is asking where my parents are from. So they are asking how I got a name like this. So, today, I simply say, “It’s Arabic.”

The distance between curiosity and fear is tragically short. They are, like sleep and death, within the same family — a quick nudge pushing one directly into the other. Because it has been so long, what people maybe don’t remember about Muslims before Sept. 11 is that there was always curiosity that felt like it could take a sharp turn into fear at any minute. My freshman year of high school, I found myself pressured by teachers and administration to come to school without my kufi, the traditional male head covering. I was told it was “a distraction,” as it sometimes led to other students snatching it off and running through the halls with it. The school attempted to lean on its “no hats” policy, which caused my father to come into the office, with Islamic texts by his side. This was in the late ’90s, when a public school surely should have had to reckon with students of different faiths before, but seemed unequipped to do so. When they were met with resistance, when it was begrudgingly decided that I could still wear my kufi to school, the curiosity shift happened.

It is hard for people to imagine any Muslims who are not people who came here from another country.

The leap from fear to anger can be even shorter, particularly when people feel the need to defend otherwise abhorrent actions. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I woke up in my freshman college dorm and started to walk down the hallway. It was my new friend Brittany’s birthday. In the early stage of college, finding and clinging to new friends is vital. Brittany played volleyball and I played soccer, so our teams had to show up to campus early to train. She was from a small town in Ohio, telling me on our second night at school that she had only ever seen a few black people in her life. This was casual, not something said while sitting, fascinated in my presence. She would talk to me about her town and all of its moral grayness. When you are not surrounded by any black people, and therefore not directly threatened by their presence, it becomes harder to justify seeing black people as threatening when you encounter them in real life. Brittany and I got along because we were both escaping, like most people on our small, suburban campus. We bonded in the fact that we weren’t escaping things that were especially harmful to us. All our siblings had gone to college. Our parents supported our dreams. We were two athletes, playing sports in college. Brittany simply wanted to escape the mundaneness of her small hometown. And I wanted to escape what I, at the time, imagined as a strict Muslim household — one that restricted my pleasures, my ability to fully dance into my rapidly changing personality. With me, freedom was emotional, and mental, not tied to geography. My father’s house was a ten-minute drive from our college’s campus, and yet I lived in a dorm, on the top bunk, which I jumped from on Sept. 11 to start down the hall to Brittany’s room. I got her a card and a small bag of candy that she liked. As I walked that morning, I noticed all of the doors in the hallway were swung open, and people were sitting at the edges of their beds, unusual for a Tuesday. In one room, a boy on the baseball team was holding his crying girlfriend. In another, someone on the phone with their mother, asking to be told that everything was going to be okay. When I got to Brittany’s room, she was sitting on the floor. We watched the second plane hit the building together. We watched the smoke swallow the sky. We watched, as the people jumped, and jumped, and jumped.

What people maybe don’t remember about Muslims before Sept. 11 is that there was always curiosity that felt like it could take a sharp turn into fear at any minute. 

By the time I got to college, I had largely stopped practicing Islam. I still participated in Ramadan, the act of fasting for 30 days in an attempt to cleanse the mind, body, and spirit. I relied on that, and the structure it provided. I stopped wearing a kufi, stopped praying daily unless I was visiting home. I spoke little to no Arabic, which I was always self-conscious about doing anyway. It felt easier this way, fitting in without having to offer explainers. I was making the curious parts of myself invisible in the hopes that curiosity never turned to fear. When I look back now, I find it amazing that I didn’t imagine the path that the Sept. 11 attacks would set us down, and how that path would open up the door to global violences against Muslims.

In an age before rapidly updating social media sites, I would read about attacks on Muslims in schoolyards or mosques being set on fire, sometimes days after it happened. I would worry about my father, going to work in a state building every day. And my sister, studying in Madison, Wisconsin. Beyond that, I felt oddly divorced from it all, as if, when I stopped answering the calls to prayer, I inherited a type of safety. By the end of September, when all of the reports and findings about the background of the attackers were being rolled out, news reports would have large banners at the bottom asking things like: “DOES ISLAM HATE US?” and when professors called my Arabic name out in class, it was easy to imagine the fresh and sharp stares I got as something else, something less burning.

The thing about praying five times a day is that it gives you five distinct opportunities to talk to God. To bow and ask for forgiveness, even if you’re only returning after an hour. I was bad at sticking to a prayer schedule as a child. When you are young, and everything outside is beckoning, it’s hard to not look at that which brings you inside as a task and nothing else. But I appreciated the idea and routine of it, nonetheless. Even when it didn’t feel useful, the persistence of bringing myself before some higher power and asking to be made clean, again and again. In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, I found a quiet spot on campus to pray Maghrib prayer in almost every evening. Maghrib, the sun prayer, was the only one my family consistently made together. It worked out, logistically: Maghrib is made at sunset, so during most times of the year, it was made at a time when my entire family was home. There’s something mythical and perfect about it, about praying the sun into its resting place every night, waking up and getting to rise with it in the morning. I was the only Muslim on my college’s campus. I would pray in a room alone, and then ask forgiveness. I found myself, often, foolishly praying for the country’s mercy, as if I could push my back up against a door that was already being broken down from the outside. Brittany went home for winter break, back to her town where there were no black people and certainly no Muslims. When we came back to school in January, she barely spoke to me. We faded into the background of each other’s lives. Some things, it seems, are inescapable.

On the day the new president signs an executive order banning refugees from countries that have primarily Muslim populations, I step out of my car and head to Terminal 4 at the John F. Kennedy International Airport. It is still cold, and the sun isn’t out. The sun hasn’t been out much since the new president was inaugurated eight days ago. It came out briefly on the East Coast the other day, just long enough to see what it had been missing. I began to wonder if someone I love prayed the sun into its resting place and forgot to wish it back. On the way here, I stopped to get tea and someone asked about my name, where it came from, where my family is from. I was patient this time. I explained, thinking of the friends I had accumulated since college: Muslims with families that, unlike mine, were refugees from some of the countries on the list of places that America was now banning refugees from. People with loved ones from these countries, not all of them citizens. People who were afraid, wondering if they should sever their own ties with this newer, even sharper America.

The thing about praying five times a day is that it gives you five distinct opportunities to talk to God.

At JFK, a white woman is holding a sign that says “WE ARE ALL MUSLIMS” and I appreciate the messaging, but I don’t know that it lands for me when thinking about the future dead that might pile up along some borders while trying to flee some state-manufactured terror. I consider how little I feel Muslim today, even less than I did in college. I haven’t stepped into a mosque in five years. My name, the only thing tethering me to people’s idea of what Islam is. But I am afraid today, as I was in the winter of 2001. This protest is spontaneous. The executive order was signed last night, and when word began to spread that there were travelers, some citizens, being detained in airports, people took to the streets. Lawyers pushed themselves into airport fast-food joints, picking up the Wi-Fi signals so that they could start to do work to get detained people free. It is a comforting and uniting protest, one that isn’t rooted in much shared ideology beyond people simply being angry. One man next to me tells me that he didn’t vote at all, but he was “pissed off” when he read the news this morning. “You just can’t cross a moral line like that,” he said, in a thick New York accent. “Fuck that guy. The Statue of Liberty is right over there.”

It is eight days into this new and violent empire that is building upon a legacy of violent empires before it, and I have finally stopped trying to tell myself that everything is going to be all right. There is no retaliation like American retaliation, for it is long, drawn out, and willing to strike relentlessly, regardless of the damage it has done. Sept. 11 is used as a tithe in our church of brutality, even 15 years and endless bombs down the road. The US ignored the Geneva Convention, raping, sodomizing, and torturing prisoners of war at their black site bases around the world. The military bombed wedding parties consisting mostly of women and children in Iraq at Mukaradeeb, and in Afghanistan at Wech Baghtu and Deh Bala. Here, we are saying that we will tear your country apart, we will give birth to the terror within, and then we will leave you to drown in it. This feels, tonight, like a particularly immense type of evil. Real power, I am reminded, doesn’t need a new reason to stop pretending to be what it actually is underneath. All the old reasons are enough to seduce. On my phone, a Muslim friend texts me to ask how my family is. If any of them are in danger. I tell her no, that I am standing, now, in the city where my mother and father were born. There is no border that my living family can be pushed to the edges of, even though a country glares at our name and wishes otherwise.

I still say Allahu akbar often. It simply means “God is greater” in Arabic. In the rare times that I would be called to lead prayer in my home when I was younger, I would stumble through all of the Arabic without confidence, except for the ending of the prayer, when I would easily and proudly shout Allahu akbar, the only Arabic that fit comfortably over my tongue. Now, it is associated with a call of terrorists before some vicious act is committed in the name of Allah. The perversion of it hasn’t pulled me away. I still say it in praise, even when it doesn’t fit a specific situation, or when something like Alhamdulillah (“Thank God”) might be a better fit. I like the translation, mostly. Even though I don’t pray, I still like the idea that there is a God and that they are greater. Than us, than this moment, than this wretched machinery that we’re fighting against and sometimes losing. It is the last lifeboat of Islam that I find myself clinging to as the protest tonight stretches long and hundreds more people stream into the terminal at JFK, until it is overflowing and spilling out of every edge of geography. I think of how foolish I was to once pray for a country’s mercy, and how thankful I am that those prayers were not answered. How, through this resistance, we might find a freedom where no mercy is required. We might find a humanity that is not asking to be seen, but demanding instead. How we all pray for the wrong things sometimes, but somehow, God is greater.

This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming collection They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, published by Two Dollar Radio.

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has been published in Muzzle, Vinyl, PEN American, and various other journals. His essays and music criticism has been published in The Fader, Pitchfork, The New York Times, and MTV News, where he was a columnist. His first full-length poetry collection, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, was published in 2016 by Button Poetry and is a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award for Poetry. They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a collection of essays that will be released on Nov. 14.

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