Nine years as a Middle Eastern American

Nine years as a Middle Eastern American

Ive found myself thinking secretly, were certain things better in the George W Bush era?

Nine years as a Middle Eastern American

I — born in Iran, raised in the Los Angeles area — used to go to downtown parties in a skimpy halter top that featured newsprint-emblazoned mujahideen women brandishing machine guns, their bullets bedazzled in gold next to the words ‘Long Live Iran’. It was the first time I had worn anything having to do with my homeland; I loved that feeling of for once being able to both be Iranian and a play on it.

In one of the last days of August 2001, I remember being at the boutique again, and Hushi was giddy preparing for Fashion Week. His store windows were freshly adorned with his ‘Persian collection’, a new line of hijab-and-harem-pant Iranophilia. “Girl, get ready!” he said, “Iran is going to be the new black.”

Days later, there we were, two Middle Eastern 20-somethings who now had some explaining to do. Friends started speaking in roundabout inquiries: What exactly was the status of my green card? How were my father and brother faring? Were they Muslim, by the way?

Hushi’s stylists, meanwhile, were calling him to ask how he was — and when he was going to be getting rid of that window display. But somehow we really were fine, even under the heavy air of everyone’s condescending concern.

Little did we know that it would take almost a full decade for the proverbial 9/11 fallout to fall out, for anti-Muslim xenophobia to emerge, fully formed and fever-pitched, ostensibly over plans to build an interfaith cultural centre near ground zero. Even in New York, stronghold of progressive ethics and cultural diversity, my former home of 12 years, August 2010 became the evil twin of that still-innocent August 2001.

Sept 11 anniversary

In addition to the mosque, of course, there was the Florida pastor who wanted to burn Qurans on the September 11 anniversary, and who has yes-no-maybe-so reconsidered, after a hearty load of negative press and a dab of executive-branch headshaking. And, hey, what do you get when you put a drunk white college student, who had actually been to Afghanistan, into the cab of a Bangladeshi Muslim? The wrong answer and a stabbing, allegedly.

It’s one test I would have passed. For the record: I am not Muslim. My immediate family ultimately kept us as agnostic as possible; religion went only as far as my mother praying to the American concept of a guardian angel and my dad ‘studying’ Zoroastrianism. But most of the extended Khakpours are Muslim and, culturally, it’s a part of me insofar as I am a Middle Eastern.

I am also a New Yorker, a deal that was sealed forever nine years ago. I had just moved from Brooklyn to downtown Manhattan to shack up with a boyfriend. The studio was 25 floors up, with a nearly all-glass wall that framed a perfect view of the World Trade centre.

Now, when I look back on ages 23 to 32, every aspect of my life is shadowed by what I saw through the glass that blue-and-gold Tuesday morning: two towers, each gashed and stunningly hazed in the glitter of exploding windows, falling, one after the other, over and over again. But what was once simple apprehension and mortification and trepidation has become increasingly entangled with feelings of exhaustion and marginalisation and even indignation.

A deep dark admission: lately — and by lately I mean this era I worked so hard for, when a liberal person of colour, a man who resembles my own father, would be our president — I’ve found myself thinking secretly, were certain things better in the George W Bush era? Was it easier to be Middle Eastern then?

Just six days after 9/11, at the Islamic centre of Washington, President Bush said, “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind.” He added: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” Did that assurance mean more to white Americans coming from someone who looked like them?

Xenophobia and racism still abounded, but the lid stayed on the pot. Perhaps when Republicans held both the White House and Congress, conservatives weren’t sweating a thing; for them, people of colour, along with all our white liberal friends, were lumped together in one misery-loves-company fringe. But now that the tables have turned, conservatives have positioned themselves as aggrieved victims. (I recall the advice of an older female relative: Always let men you’re in relationships with have all the power; it’s when they lose power and get insecure that your problems start.)

H-word slur

Indeed, has the most irrational breed of 9/11 payback emerged precisely because we elected an African-American president whose middle name — the name of cousins of mine — has turned into an H-word slur? A commander in chief whom the most misled and confused perceive in cartoon cahoots with terrorists, or at least as their religion-mate? As if that weren’t enough, take last year’s Fort Hood gunman, add a helping of the would-be Times Square bomber and top it off with ‘ground zero mosque’ — and voilà, a boiling hot summer of anti-Islamic assault. Suddenly, anyone with skin as dark as President Obama’s could be a ‘secret Muslim’, and any Muslim must surely be a not-so-secret terrorist.

The world Hushi and I were in, before 9/11 and just after, was not a picnic for brown people. And there’s no need to cast 2001 to 2008 in an ideal light. None of us breathed easy. It’s just that we expected to breathe easier as time went on.

Every day, I lose America and America loses me, more and more. But I should still be in my honeymoon phase, since I’m actually just a 9-year-old American. And that’s my other association with autumn 2001. As luck would have it, my citizenship papers finally went through not long after the towers fell. That November, I was in a Brooklyn federal courtroom singing, along with a room full of immigrants, the national anthem that I hadn’t sung since K through 12.

I remember on that day, 9/11 leaving the foreground of my mind for the first time. I remember looking around that room and feeling, in spite of myself, a sense of optimism about the future. I remember feeling a part of something. I remember feeling thrilled at the official introduction of the hyphen that would from now on gracefully declare and demarcate my two worlds: Middle Eastern-American. The same hyphen that today feels like a dagger that coarsely divides had once, not too long ago at all, been a symbol of a most hallowed bond.

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