American Ambiguity

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History is a catalogue of inciting incidents. So too is memory, the retrospective narratives of culture and the individual. Whether history or memory comes to climax is beside the point, because they reach the present moment with more questions than answers. They begin with the barest of details.

In Mesa, Arizona, four days after September 11th, a Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was gunned down in front of his convenience store while helping his landscaper plant flowers. As the shooter, Frank Roque, was arrested and taken into custody, he proclaimed having killed in the name of patriotism. The story was national news, entering a vein of discourse about the misplaced aggression of those frightened by the attacks.

At the time, there was a segment of the population more personally rattled by Sodhi’s murder than had been, in a way, by the attacks four days prior. Or perhaps, the attacks rattled open the floodgates and Sodhi’s murder rattled them with greater magnitude in their vulnerability. Perhaps rattled is not the correct verb. What happened among this segment was more than a rattle, it was an existential awakening.

Here is the group to which I feel, even now, misgivings in speaking for: second-generation Muslim Americans, whose faces proclaimed their roots of otherness more than their inborn patriotism; Muslim Americans who did not live in New York, but the opposite end of the country, in Arizona, a place under no reasonable threat, yet who witnessed the tragedy ripple past their geographic safeguard; and Muslim Americans in the midst of puberty, in the midst on September 10th of a mild and natural existential crisis, by which we begin to understand the world’s immensity and our proportional smallness.

What I remember about that time was the morbid thrill that resulted from fear. I remember, better than I remember outpourings of grief and messages of goodwill, the threat of further disaster; the cautions; warnings of shoe bombs, stealthily concealed weapons; the demand for vigilance; I remember the rush for gas masks and bomb shelters; I remember the images of Osama Bin Laden, turbaned and bearded, just as Sodhi had been, and I remember imagining a thousand men like him patrolling my neighborhood with AK-47s; I remember the end-of-world predictions, Nostradamus promising the Apocalypse would begin with fallen towers; I remember learning how to fold a twenty-dollar bill so that the World Trade Center burned on one side while the Pentagon burned on the other, the disaster foretold and folded in our pockets; I remember the picture of the towers, before they collapsed, the face of the devil so clear, so clearly manufactured in the flames and black smoke, but I remember seeing it as if it too was a sign: we had been hurt, and in our smoldering wounds, we saw the thing cheaply imitated in movies to give us what after September 11th was a comparatively cheap thrill. We saw, and were exhilarated, by the face of evil.

*

In the four days after September 11th, Frank Roque frequented local bars and was reported to have invoked Muslims and Arabs in rants aimed at revenge. After killing Sodhi, he drove to a house he had recently sold to a family from Afghanistan, presumably the only Middle Easterners he knew, and fired multiple rounds from his .380 handgun, riddling with bullets the walls that had once been his.

At the time, this did not feel like an isolated incident, but a portent of our post September 11th world. To the previously mentioned segment, what was most threatening about Roque’s violence was not that it was absurd and ungrounded, but that his presumable logic had enough causality to be traced.

Roque had sold his house to a family from Afghanistan. Judging by the fact that after September 11th he returned to that house, we can reasonably assume that when he sold it, he knew they were Afghani, which is all the seed necessary to bloom into dark significance by September 15th. He had sold his home to natives of a country now all over the news, the country pinpointed as the attack’s origin. He had been deceived, made an unwitting co-conspirator. He was more than anything at war with himself, as befits a man ranting in a bar. Here he was, a devout American, innocently going about his life. And in the course of that life, in one of its most mundane details, he had brushed against the very people who had committed a crime against him, his country, and his way of life. He had been violated and misused. He had been lied to, and he had believed the lie, the lie which said that everything was okay and that in day-to-day relations with racial others there was safety.

But in those relations turned out to be ignorance. He failed to see the conspiracy assembled under his nose. By failing to see it, he had failed to stop it. Now that it was undeniable, how could he go on as if nothing had changed? Especially when it was so clear everything had changed. There were people out there who wished to do him harm. And had done him harm. Blindness, that was the problem. The blindness of people like him, innocent Americans, was what allowed the attack its devastating effectiveness. And with the near-promise, nay, the actual promise, of further disaster, the only way to stop it was to draw the line, to identify and isolate the enemy, to strike before they could again.

Or perhaps this line of thought was not at all what Roque experienced. Perhaps it was that he had been given the barest details: Taliban, Terrorists, Afghanistan. Afghanistan? And he knew only one family from that malicious state.

*

Before September 11th my peers easily accepted my race. I should strike that. They could not have accepted it, because they did not truly know it. What my Arizona schoolmates knew about the Middle East was only a vague sense of third-worldliness. It was a place where people did weird and backward things, lived a life not nearly as advanced and prominent as the lives we, as Americans, were living.

farhadi 1Above all, the unknown quality of my ethnic roots made them altogether harmless. I was, from both my and their points of view, an other in the least volatile of ways. Looking back, we may have said that we were innocent in our ignorance. Perhaps Frank Roque would have said the same thing as he brooded at the bar.

Before September 11th I didn’t have shame or pride in my racial otherness. Afterwards, both emerged like branches of the same tree. On the morning of, I remember a brief and vague conversation with my mother, in which she asked, more to herself than to me, whether or not I should go to school. I didn’t quite understand where this was coming from. I know now that she meant the news was so big, she couldn’t imagine anything occurring that day except for the exchange of passions, which could, in my particular case, be undesirable. But at the time, I assumed she worried with maternal exaggeration that the attack was not over, that Vista Verde Middle School could be its next target.

Though the question was not for me, I answered in the affirmative. I had to go to school, to be among my peers, among the exchange of passions. I felt my first sense of thrill and fear, and I wanted to milk it for all it was worth, as was intuited by cable news, playing the devastation on a loop.

I remember very little about that day. Every classroom in the school had a television, but I don’t remember if we watched the news on those televisions. I assume now it was at each teacher’s discretion. Some may have turned the TV on, to allow us to fully embrace what we could not understand, but must, as part of our education, witness. Many others, I imagine, must have kept the television off, turning our focus to schoolwork, which seemed then, more than ever, unbearably trivial.

The only class I remember is Art, taught by Ms. Joy. It was in a large room divided by a partition, on one side of which were stools and hard-topped tables where we filed in and took our assigned seats. Before class officially began, Ms. Joy asked me to follow her to the other side of the partition, which was the workshop. Standing there, among paint stains and flittering sawdust, she began pacing back and forth in supreme worry. She muttered the word “okay,” what seemed like a dozen times, before telling me that if anyone tried to do anything, if anyone verbally or physically tried to hurt me, I must come find her or another adult and tell them immediately. I nodded. I smiled. She nodded. She didn’t smile. She looked as earnest as anyone I had ever seen. We returned to the other side of the partition and class began, and the memory dissolves into oblivion.

If this were fiction, obvious dramatic arcs would suggest themselves. A teacher informs a student of a threat he doesn’t have the experience or foresight to see himself. He doesn’t quite understand. Maybe he’s confused. Maybe, as the story investigates his interiority, we come to understand his innocence and ignorance, both of which the boy will soon lose as, in the climax of the story, he is accosted or beaten or, in an obvious reversal, expects to be accosted or beaten, and is not, or is accosted and beaten but for something completely unrelated to what the teacher, with great earnestness, warned him about.

In real life, none of this happened. What did happen was I had gained a thrilling sense of distinction. I couldn’t wait until recess when, among eager discourse of the attack, I would have my own, very personal, very unique claim to the day’s significance. I was singled out, and singled out for something peculiar to me, my name, my color, my face. I was singled out for something that was always there, but something neither I, nor my peers, had been much aware of until that day, when it clicked into place with the suddenness of epiphany. For them, however, I don’t think the realization had the magnitude of epiphany. For me, its magnitude was ill-defined. It would continue to be defined in the years to come. Perhaps it is still being defined, but without the urgency of those initial years in aftermath. Though I didn’t fully understand it then, the sense of distinction, of uniqueness, was bound, perhaps balanced, by a sense of shame. Throughout the years, these two, related opposites would rise and fall. One would always be more present on my face than the other, depending almost exclusively on the circumstances of the situation.

*

My racial awareness, perhaps even my awareness of myself as a person, self-consciousness, is a three-pronged paradox of shame, pride, and indifference. As a self, we feel the uniqueness, with undue exaggeration, of our own, limited and illusorily total perspective. In feeling so privileged, we feel to be under the ever present gaze of others, a burden we are unworthy of. And in those moments we go about as if not being watched, the sense of relief is dependent on its rarity.

These are the terms of our narrative lives, not the narrative another would write about us, but the one deep-seated, involving every fluctuation of thought and emotion, which only we are qualified to speak to. When adding race to this equation, this thing into which we are born, we can lose control of the narrative. The narrative is larger than us. And yet, it enters us, heightening the paradox previously described.

I would venture to assume that all Muslim Americans felt the weight of this paradox in the years after September 11th, and never more so than when at the airport. It has even become a clichéd image and experience, but one no less palpable for this fact. There was a widely accepted narrative involved, one multifaceted and complex. It contained the fact that Muslims had manipulated the procedural demands of the airport in order to do grievous harm, as well as the idea that Muslims may attempt to do this again, as well as the idea that innocent Muslims could and would be singled out, as well as the idea that racial profiling was unethical, as well as the idea that though it was unethical, it could prove useful and efficient in a practical sense that perhaps outweighed its unethicalness.

The hyperawareness I felt at the airport stemmed directly from the psychic weight of this sprawling narrative. Hyperawareness often marks a premonition of social discomfort. More than that, it is a mark of guilt. Though I had nothing to be guilty about, the assumption that I may be presumed guilty manufactured actual guilt. The idea being that if farhadi 2I was not singled out at the airport, I would imagine that airport security had thought about singling me out, but hadn’t for fear of being accused of racial profiling. Somehow, being singled out was far more appeasable. It both fulfilled the narrative and allowed me the moral high ground in the situation.

The first time I was pulled from a security line, I was told to hold out my hands, which the security worker swabbed with a very soft cloth. I asked why he was doing this, with a brazenness unnatural to me but which came easily, befitting the morally superior in a given situation. He told me he was checking for residual evidence of explosives. I don’t know if he used the actual term “residual evidence,” perhaps he only said “residue,” but he did say “explosives,” a word whose meaning and sound and diction all align in a pointedly visceral manner. The fact that the word could be connected to the act that was then occurring, of which I was the object, was both ridiculous and ego-inspiring.

The second time (and of course there were more than two times, but the others involved comparatively routine pat downs, an invasion of privacy not enthralling in any sense, but universally demeaning in such a way that the person being pat down must evade their discomfort in order to save face). The second time I was in London, returning from my first trip outside the US. Perhaps because I was far from home, in a foreign country with foreign rules and customs, whose foreignness contained a sense of mystery easily equitable to anarchy, I was far more nervous. A security worker pulled me from the line and another brought over my bag. Though I knew what was inside, the sickening turn of my gut, the knowledge of how the narrative could possibly betray me, manufactured irrational fears revealing, in my unzipped duffle, an arsenal of unexplainable weapons. Of course, when the bag was opened, all that was inside were clothes, at the top of which were an assortment of packaged cookies. “Nothing wrong with biscuits,” the security worker said. This I remember clearly. I also remember that in regard to his declaration, until he declared it, I hadn’t been sure.

*

This amalgam of pride, shame, and indifference, of distinction, guilt, and evasion, is not particular to any single race or group of people. This amalgam coming together so markedly at the airport, I assume, is peculiar to Muslim Americans.

I do not feel burdened by my race. But I do feel burdened. It’s a burden resulting from something outside myself, something deeply personal that feels to have nothing to do with me. I wonder, sometimes, whether Sodhi felt that burden, if he understood how he fit into a narrative so large and powerful, it would carry him away against his meager volition.

The burden of narrative is universal. It is the burden, too, of self-consciousness, understanding the widespread narrative and how you fit into that narrative. It is represented by a pattern of trigger words—Muslims and Terrorists, Blacks and Police, Hispanics and Illegals. It is a burden born with us, dormant until something brings it to life. Every person of color remembers the moments they were drawn in by the narrative, the moments they understood that certain of their characteristics had such a long and varied history fully known to the others around them, that the history becomes part of them, a part they didn’t choose and would never escape.

Our race is little more than a detail of our narrative lives. Depending on the individual, depending on the circumstances of birth, the circumstances of environment and the circumstances of chance, this detail has varying degrees of significance. There are those who see their race as a defining feature, at play in every experience either itself significant or significant because of their race. And they are no more right or wrong than those who feel that their race, even when brought up for or against them, is of little consequence.

What was brought to surface after September 11th was my awareness of being of a certain race, and it remains a point of varying ambiguity. Because to throw it away as insignificant circumstance altogether, is as equally dismissive as thinking it my only, damaged conduit with humanity.

Perhaps we all assume, or at least hope, there is a way to talk and think about race, ours and everyone else’s, that reaches some universal truth, some utopic vision of harmony. But the desperate search for racial harmony can be attributed, in a roundabout way, to the confusion and ambiguity that results from racial discrepancies. A good example of this is the debate around racial profiling that occurred in the aftermath of September 11th: it is difficult to make a set of universal rules that ensure the comfort, safety, and fair treatment of everyone, when everyone is undeniably a collection of individuals.

*

Of course, we have models. In all thought, all creative and intellectual expression, there are models who have been there before, so many models it is impossible to trace it back to the original model, the original person who had the original problem that you yourself are trying to solve. In regard to race, I do not have the historical reach to understand when the first conflict—which became the first ambiguity, pitting race as a strongly shaping cultural mechanism against the unshaped, un-shapeable essential self—first arose. But there are moments that mirror other moments of time. Racially charged and tumultuous experiences, like time itself, move both forward and in cycles.

My father moved to America in 1976. At the time of the Iran hostage crisis he was living in Tennessee. There, he came to understand his nascent racial otherness, and for the most part he describes it as a pleasant experience. He was considered exotic and this made him a desirable dinner companion. People were delighted by his accent and tenuous English. He was a novelty, and the town reclaimed their regional pride in relationship to him. They taught him how to butter grits, coached him to call potatoes taters.

*

During the hostage crisis, however, there was nationwide contempt for Iran and its people. I imagine, though this might be too oversimplified an assumption or as oversimplified as most assumptions tend to be, that this contempt was quite strong in 1980 Tennessee. My father described to me, without residual bitterness, moments when he was contempt’s target. As he sees it, it was a moment in our history, a moment that has implications, but one subdued by time. It seems reasonable to me that he has taken a historical perspective. The cycle continues, the inciting incidents amass, building silently through uneventful time, only to the next.

September 11th, like the hostage crisis for my father, marked the awakening of my racial consciousness. For me, it tainted experience with a new level of complication, indicative of a pubescent youth achieving a broader glimpse of a world that to him is still relatively new. If you had a cotton swab with remarkable abilities and checked my hands, you may find the residue of this experience, invisible but for the semi-magical technology of the swab. Beyond this, the episode is over. The vigilance George Bush called for is not a daily, all-consuming vigilance. The episode better resembles a history lesson, illustrating the undeniable extremes of human behavior, inherent with the question of how, when our present reality becomes historical fact, we will be remembered.

farhadi 3It is both a pleasant and troubling thought: our individual lives are paltry in the incalculable breadth of time. We are born into a specific moment of an ever-changing monolith. We live our lives according to the predicted morals of a future species. We shape our worldview according to the ideal we hope to achieve. But this narrative runs counter to the present reality, where we must accept, to some degree, the terms of the time period in which we are born. Because the inevitable leaps forward we take as a culture, will only occur decades after they have been decided necessary. When our future disciples think of us, consider the facts of our time, the atrocities we condoned, we will not be there to tell them there’s more to it than that.

Our recent symbol of a belated, great leap forward in race relations was the election of Barack Obama. The comment on time is obvious: had this man run for president forty, perhaps even four years prior, he would have lost, in large part because of his race. In 2006 the most personal attack against him was the accusation that he was Muslim. Was Muslim a stand in for Black, something less acceptable to denigrate? Was it merely a result of his name, his African heritage, combined with the fact that we were engaged in two wars at that moment with Muslim nations? In any case, the defense was more problematic, perhaps even more shortsighted than the accusation. The accusation: he was. The defense: he wasn’t.

Barack Obama was the first president I was legally able to vote for, which was, at the time, a point of pride. But even then, underlying this pride (in no small part because he was a racial other in this country, and an extreme racial other in America’s political landscape) was the realization that there were still certain lines of acceptance not to be crossed. I have roots there, across the divide of circumstantial acceptability. The election of Barack Obama, his victory, our victory, was tinged with the same ambiguity I experienced years prior, the same ambiguity that defines that part of myself that feels like a being of a certain race, separate from the larger part of my being that feels like me, without race, without image, without tangibility, that ineffable essence of a person, so impossible to define or visualize that it marks our intangible connection to humanity.

Perhaps all ambiguity stems from the difficult reconciliation of the self as an isolated being vs. the self as belonging to the mass of humanity. Do we belong, or do we not? Are we allowed to define our inclusion ourselves, or has it already been determined for us? By forces so large, so close, they analog the roundness of our planet, which we, against conclusive mental acceptance, helplessly perceive as flat.

*

The story of Frank Roque concludes with perhaps the most unbearably obvious symbol possible. His defense in court was diminished mental responsibility, though I earlier assigned him with mental machinations that illuminated his potential sense of misguided responsibility. The jury didn’t buy it either. They sentenced him to death. After the appeal, his sentence was reduced to life.

But the idea that life is a sentence is too easy a symbol to exploit. A better point is the fact that many of our racial tensions, this thing of severe ambiguity and difficulty, get reduced to stark codes of the justice system, which has historically been known to drop the ball. Currently, we are in the midst of a wave of police crimes against black men, a story we’ve seen before, again and again, almost on one of those loops cable news so highly values. The human pursuit of truth is encapsulated by the continuing fight for transparency, which, when achieved, reveals the racially charged crimes hidden in the margins of state sanctions—police murders, targeted injustice, torture. These crimes further complicate the idea of racial otherness, injecting it with urgent violence. More specifically, they complicate the task of what is to be done with this sense of otherness, this personal estrangement.

On one hand, as a racial other, you feel that the world around you, America, a white country, is telling you that you are an other (inherent in the preferred moniker: minority), and that in order to transcend this narrative, you might be tempted to define yourself not as an other, deciding that your sense of self is something that should be defined by you, not by a color others tell you is important when what really feels important about you are things limitless and ineffable and difficult if not impossible to communicate.

On the other hand, to decide that racial otherness is not an issue for you is to decide that it is not an issue. You can witness the atrocities on television, the atrocities that feel so far away, and you can feel the reasonable emotions they elicit without it changing your daily life, without it reaching that core of selfhood that you realize, at some point, is all there really is to being you. But with this comes the malignant suspicion that this deliberate ignorance is in fact playing into a hegemony that begat the thing you are witnessing, as well as the sense of otherness that you are ignoring, a cycle that in its true definition brings you back where you started with little allowance for growth.

After September 11th vigilance was called for. In the active: after September 11th George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld told us that the only way to avoid being attacked, being murdered, was to be vigilant, to watch out for suspicious behavior, to pay attention to our surroundings, which meant to pay attention to the people around us. This vigilance had to do in large part with race, religion, and the visual markers of each. It was a vivid visual time in general. So many of my memories of that time are visual ones, and yet most of this essay is not visual, perhaps demonstrating a subverting principal of the written word, which, without visual demand, attempts to reach closer to that ineffable spirit of selfhood and truth than can the exploitive environment that surrounds spectacle.

Vigilance, of course, was ill-defined by those who called for it. To resort to naming this a component of tactical fear-mongering, as it is now commonly accepted and which is no doubt a valid interpretation, would be to too easily dismiss the sense of vigilance that all people in America instinctually felt after September 11th, as well as the sense of vigilance inherently built into all of our corrosive prejudices concerning race.

After September 11th I was stricken with a sense of vigilance, deeply rooted to my race. This vigilance was a result of fear, but also of a broadened worldview. There are people in this country who must accept and embark on this vigilance very early in life, nearly at its onset. I cannot speak for those people. It would be presumptuous, even exploitive. The great boon of a diverse nation is the fact of many voices with many experiences, ensuring that we do not need one to speak for all, which would, without hyperbole, destroy the very fabric of our nation. In fact, the assumption beginning this essay, that there is a group of people for whom I could speak, is ultimately fallacious. I am speaking only for myself, trying to speak for that ineffable self, the one that, in the printed word, is not burdened by physical indicators that trigger cultural assumptions.

I am trying to use my experience of race, specifically my once nascent experience of myself as belonging to a race, to better formulate the questions surrounding the ambiguity.

I am resisting the temptation to come back full circle to Frank Roque, to his verdict, resisting the temptation to conclude with the idea that we are all sentenced to life, since this would not be an honest interpretation of my feelings on race or life.

Instead, I conclude with this: September 11th exposed me to the fact that the world was much larger and more complicated than I could before conceive. Had the attacks not happened, been avoided or never embarked upon, this exposure would have happened anyway.

The visceral thrill and fear, the images that I had once thought would be with me forever, have faded ingloriously with time. I imagine myself in ten years, twenty years, eighty years, and I imagine that my experience from that time will be washed over by new experiences and continued life. They will be all but gone. And if that’s the case, I’ll realize that while they’ve faded, I’m still here. Me: the thing that fits into no narrative but the one I choose to write.

***

Rumpus original art by Max Winter.


Afsheen Farhadi’s writing has appeared in Witness, Shadowgraph, and Sou’wester. He has an MFA degree from Oregon State University and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, where he has recently completed a novel. Feel free to follow him on his relatively new Twitter account @AfsheenFarhadi. More from this author →