By NIHAN AHMAD
December 8th, 2017
“September 11, 2001, the day The World Trade Center fell, that day was the happiest day of my year. At least, as much as I can remember.”
I’ve been meaning to write to you for a while now. I think it’s been years since the idea came to my mind. Right now, as I stand on the Wall Street platform, waiting for the 5 train to arrive, I think of all the things I have to say to you. I stuff my sunglasses into my big, black bag and pull out an old book with soft, torn pages, bent from the edges. It has a soft, red book sock on it. A few people throw a glance at me. I laugh at this because big bags are always “subject to being searched.”
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I open the book and reveal yellowed pages filled with bold Arabic script. I fell asleep after the morning prayer today. Usually, I stay up and read a section of the Quran, but I was too tired today. So I decided to catch up and read a few chapters on the train.
This train station is sweltering, a chamber of wet, hot air, wrapping its fat arms around me. The 5 train comes, and the doors open right in front me. I smile because it feels good when you’re standing in the right spot and the doors open right in front of you.
I walk into the refrigerated train cart and hold on to the sticky pole because no seats are empty. It’s still so hot. My neck is wet with sweat. Maybe I’m feeling hotter because I tied my scarf too tight around my neck.
I take my finger and adjust the little strands of hair sticking out of my hijab and adjust my still wet bun under it. I’m trying to loosen it from around my neck, but I’m afraid the pins will fall out. A few women stare at me as if they’ve never seen a woman with a headscarf on before.
I look at the girl sitting in front me. She’s wearing a white tank top and a pair of jean shorts. I look up into my reflection in the window right behind her blond head. I’m wearing an all-black robe, with long sleeves, and a high neckline.
I’m so dumb. I had to use the thickest shawl in my closet to cover my hair only because it matched. I feel the sweat on my forehead right under my hijab. I scrunch my eyebrows in frustration.
Why didn’t I start wearing the headscarf after the summer? I glance at the girl in front of me again and see her wipe her sweat on a large napkin. She takes it out of her blue tote and wipes her entire face and neck with it. She catches me looking at her, so I look away. She’s sweating too, I think to myself, it’s not my headscarf.
I started wearing a headscarf just two months ago. It’s called hijab in Arabic. I always knew it was mandatory for women to wear a headscarf in my religion. You know, Islam? The word that appears on every one of your newspapers these days? That religion.
I was always “that religious girl that doesn’t wear a headscarf.” I always dressed modestly, in long skirts, long sleeve shirts, high necklines, loose clothes, I guess, which is really hard here, America, I must tell you, but my hair was always out and fashionably cut, layered, curled, blown out, and straightened. I loved my hair a little too much.
I mean, I still do.
I knew the headscarf was mandatory, but I just didn’t think I would go to hell if I prayed five times a day, read the Quran, giving charity and followed most of the rules but just didn’t wear a scarf on my head. I still don’t think I would have gone to hell had I not put on the scarf. But, I just put it on one day because I wanted to. I felt like it. I’ve been wearing it ever since.
The first day I wore it, I wore a beautiful mauve shawl. It was a birthday gift from a close friend. I wore a black jersey maxi skirt, a black tank top, and a navy blue cardigan on top. I wrapped the scarf around my head, leaving two even sides dangling, I pinned the scarf right under my chin. Then I took both of the dangling sides and wrapped them around my neck.
That day, on the train, I felt different, happy, and classy. Yes, classy is the right word. I looked around at all the people that were commuting with me, glued to their phones, their books, and their thoughts. Some people looked at me, some looked away, and some didn’t look at all. I was the only one that knew that that day was the first day I wore a headscarf in public. I felt so full. I felt like a woman with so much power. I was a different person that day, and no one else knew it.
Do you know what your people say, America? Your people tell me I’m beautiful. But then they ask me why I wear a headscarf. Your people think I’m oppressed, a woman with no rights.
But do you know what I see, America? I see a nation of women, brainwashed to believe that they are liberated, a nation of people oppressed by their own ignorance and superiority complex.
You probably don’t agree with me. You’re most likely shaking your proud head in denial. But this is what I think in my deep hours of meditation. If I walk out into the open, bustling streets of one of your cities, just one, I behold a million ads, a million pictures, a million images, that tell me what to look like, what you approve of.
There are giant billboards of beautiful women, half naked, half dressed, smiling, and air-brushed in the middle of the most crowded cities. There are constant advertisements on TV for foundations, concealers, creams, mascaras, eyeliners, lip liners, lipsticks, blushes, powders, shadows, nail polishes, shampoos, conditioners, hair sprays, waist pinchers, butt lifters, lip enhancers, bras that bring out your cleavage, only to name a few.
Is this what your women are supposed to look like, America? Are your women meant to be dictated by these ads? Do their hair have to be perfect, their body, their face, their nails, and their butt? And if they don’t care, will the rest of your people be okay with that?
Will they not judge them, will they not compel them to believe that the only way they will look attractive is with a smokey eye, matte red lipstick, a little black dress, and a glass of wine in their hands? Or maybe a crop top, high waisted shorts, and legs shaved with Veet?
Sometimes I feel oppressed, America. I feel oppressed when I wear foundation every morning when I wear concealer every morning when I buy a new shade of matte lipstick that will compliment my skin tone. That is when I feel oppressed.
I feel liberated when I take a quick shower, don’t brush my hair, wrap it around in a messy bun, wrap a plain scarf around my head, throw on a plain long sleeve maxi dress that doesn’t hug my curves and my bloated stomach, and don’t have to shave my legs that day because no one’s going to see them. I feel liberated when I don’t care what you tell me to look like. I feel liberated when I’m comfortable in my own skin, and I don’t look like the rest of you, America.
My stop will come in the next ten minutes. I’m looking out the window as the train passes the Brooklyn Bridge platform. I look back at the red book in my hand and remember that I have to finish at least one chapter before I get to school. I open the book and start reading it to myself. I’m following the curves, the swirls, and the dots of the bold, black, inky Arabic on these flimsy pages.
I glance up to see what stop we are at, and I see a few people glaring at me as if I’m the reason for all their problems. The man next to me peers at my book and stares at the pages as if he understands every word. He keeps staring, looking for where it tells me to blow up the train I’m on. I laugh at this. Your people are curiously funny, America.
This makes me think. I want to confess something.
September 11, 2001, the day The World Trade Center fell, that day was the happiest day of my year. At least, as much as I can remember.
Oh no, don’t be angry!
That’s not what I meant. I know what you’re thinking. It was a school day that day, a few hours had gone by, and as any other second grader feels, I didn’t want to be in school. I was six at the time, the youngest in the class. We were filling in pages of our colorful workbooks, the ones we had to cover in contact paper every year, “or else.” I itched my knee under my wool, plaid skirt. I wore a uniform, and this was our winter uniform. I went to an all-girls, private, Catholic school on a high hill, in an expensive Staten Island neighborhood, and was the one of two Muslims in the class. I was probably one of 5 brown girls in the entire school, now that I think of it.
I continued to color in the empty shapes in my workbook, rubbing the crayon on the paper back and forth, watching it leave bits of sticky color on the paper. The phone rang, and I immediately looked up. The principle usually called when someone was getting picked up. I waited as Mrs. Memoly, my second-grade teacher, a proper brunette with a husband in the New York Police Department, spoke softly on the phone with her back towards us. When she turned around, we all saw her, blue-eyed, and in tears.
It’s confusing when you see an adult cry, and so, I was confused. I looked around at my classmates, and they all looked worried, so I decided to look worried too.
Mrs. Memoly wiped her nose and looked down. She softly told us what had happened. She squinted her eyes as tears fell down her white cheeks onto our graded homework on her desk. She told us that the Twin Towers had been attacked and have fallen. I have to be honest, I was still confused. Was this the same Twin Towers I had been to a few months ago and excitedly gotten flattened, embossed pennies from? I guessed that it was. I was waiting for her to finish. She continued and told us that our parents had been informed to pick us up early from school.
That’s it. That’s when I smiled, a large grin appeared on my small face. I would get to go home early and watch all the Indian soap operas I missed the night before.
As we drove home in our cozy Lexus truck, I saw a pillow of smoke take over the city across the river. I gripped onto my sister’s arm and asked her what going on. But she didn’t know either. She told me she hadn’t done her French homework and she was picked up right before her French teacher checked her notebook. We both giggled with excitement. I turned back around and gazed at the smoke-filled sky. Was the world ending, was there a fire, why didn’t we have a fire drill? I couldn’t imagine that this was the beginning of a bloody war.
When we got home, my parents worriedly turned on the TV and flipped to CNN. I complained because I wanted to watch my soaps. But the replaying image of the towers falling caught my attention.
People were running, screaming, crying, injured, and the reporters said that people were dying. The scene replayed, and they said two planes crashed into the towers. I was sad because going there was fun. They said the people on the plane died too. I was scared because plane rides were always scary to me. They said that a few Muslim men did this. I didn’t believe it.
From then on, they were known as terrorists–you call them Islamic extremists. If I said the word Muslim, you would think, terrorist. But if you said the word Muslim, I would think, family.
A few days later, when the news settled in and my school held prayers and mass for the victims of 9/11, people started asking me questions. Some girls asked me why I was Muslim, some girls asked me if I was going to bomb their school, and some girls asked me if I was Osama bin Laden’s daughter.
Normally, I suspect that one would get nervous and hide the fact that they were Muslim. But, I wasn’t like that, I never cared. If I knew the truth, I would stand by it. I knew that my religion wasn’t violent, I knew that my people weren’t bad, and so I defended Islam.
You don’t understand, America. I was dragged into something that had nothing to do with me or my religion, all because of you. I was forced to condemn something that wasn’t even part of my religion.
You always love to do as you please, America. Everything is always about you. 2,977 people died that day when the towers and the Pentagon was attacked. Trauma engulfed you and every corner of every street in your every city. It was devastating. No one should have to experience death like this.
Your people have stickers and posters everywhere that say, “Never Forget.” On their cars, their homes, their rooms, in their hearts. But whenever I see a picture of the towers, covered in bold letters urging your people to “Never Forget.” I feel a sudden surge of anger. That is your biggest problem, America, you never forget. Never forget that a bunch of violent, savage, Muslims killed 2,977 of your people, never forget that Islam teaches people to be violent, never forget your value, never forget that you, Nihan, you should “go back to your country.”
You’re so proud, America. Over 500, 000 people died during your war in Iraq. No, not 500,000 people combined, 500,000 Iraqis. Oh, you seem to have forgotten.
You are well aware, America, that I was born in Connecticut, in December, Christmas season and raised in New York. When your people tell me to “go back to my country,” I wonder, are you no longer my country? I look at your wonderfully liberated people and I wonder when being a Muslim will be legal here.
America, where my parents come from, you are a terrorist.
The people there are terrified of you, your drones, your bratty fits, and your threats. I think that is the country that your people want me to go back to.
My stop is here. I transferred on to the 6 train a while ago, on the Grand Central platform. I look at my watch, and I’m ten minutes early for class. I’m walking up the dirty stairs covered in black gum and dusty footprints, putting away my Quran, and looking for my id card. I go through the turnstile and mindlessly walk towards the subway entrance into my college building when a voice calls me back. I turn around, and there is a pair of police officers looking at me, sternly, with blank expressions.
Did I do something wrong, America? Ok, I will ask them what the problem is. I hold on to my ID tightly and ask them what the problem is. They look a bit confused as if I was the one that started the conversation. Maybe they thought I would have an Arabic accent. I smile to myself because I’m not even Arab. They tell me that they need to check my bag, for safety reasons. I mean, everyone does make fun of me for having an oversized bag, but it’s not that big.
I think I’m mad, America. I feel like cracking my ID in two sharp pieces and throwing my bag at their heads. But I don’t. I hand them my bag. It’s heavy, they say. I tell them my wallet has a lot of change in it.
They start looking through it, pick up my phone, my sunglasses, my bulging wallet, my notebook, and my Quran. What’s this, they ask, looking through the pages. I tell them it’s the Quran. They ask me if I can read it. I tell them I can. They ask me what country I’m from. And this is where I pause.
How is that relevant, officer, I say. I guess they sense my anger because they hand me my bag back and tell me to have a nice day with a synthetic smile. I turn around as a grind my teeth and clench my jaw. My palm and my ID are warm with sweat. I look at my watch. I’m five minutes late to class.
Thank you, America.