I’m new in America, but I’m already court-bound. The day I go to the Municipal Court in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I’m wearing a purple dress. It’s a short halter dress, with an Empire waist and beaded straps that tie behind my neck.
Unlike my outfits back home—a country on Trump’s Muslim Ban—the purple dress leaves a lot of room for air circulation. Back home, outfits were meant to protect me from the ambient libido. Here, judging by the tiny Nike shorts college girls wear on campus, the air must be libido-free.
As I approach the building, I feel a breeze spiral up my well-shaven legs. It slithers lustfully around my thighs, loses momentum as it crawls across my well-endowed hips, and creeps around my waist and over my sweaty belly, stopping short of tracing the underwire of my drenched push-up bra. It’s a hot day in Tuscaloosa.
I got here long before the Muslim Ban, and I’m about to appear before a judge and plead “not guilty.” That’s why I’m dressed up today. I’m a recent “nonresident alien” from a Muslim-majority country going to an American court of law.
Let me start over. I’m a non-white, recent, “nonresident alien” from [does it matter where?] going to an American court of law. How else am I to appear in court? I must look the part. The part of a Kardashian-level desirable “alien.” I must dress up for my court date. I’m talking full makeup, well-defined curls, golden anklet with fake turquoise gems, and special occasion high heels. I’m all dressed up for my part.
This is a performance.
I’m playing the emancipated Muslim woman who has fled an oppressive patriarchal society to set her body free and educate her feeble mind. Americans like to think of me that way. It doesn’t matter that I arrived here with a graduate degree in [does it matter what?].
Let me start over. It doesn’t matter that I arrived here [does it matter how and with what?]. Americans like to look at my curls, legs, and arms and congratulate themselves for saving the brown woman from brown men.
It doesn’t matter that, in my banned country, I taught [does it matter what?] at [does it matter which university?]. Americans like to think that America has a monopoly on freedom and civility. They like to think that I’ve escaped a wretched life as an enslaved, child-bearer child-bride.
Sometimes, they express joy that I’ve successfully shed my shackles and sailed the same seas of self-determination that the first Pilgrims traversed in 1620. I think they mean well. But I also think “meaning well” has for too long been used to justify [does it matter what it’s called?]. I’ve heard “microaggressions,” I’ve heard “ignorance,” I’ve heard “outright racism,” I’ve heard “Orientalism,” I’ve heard “xenophobia,” I’ve heard “cognitive bias,” I’ve heard “Islamophobia,” I’ve heard “nativism,” I’ve heard [does it matter what?].
I refuse to play the part, but I play the part.
When I decide not to play the part, I tell the well-meaning Americans that back home, in my banned country, I wasn’t a kitchen-dwelling goblin as they like to imagine. But when I don’t play the part, they change the script. They change the script with no warning. They immediately conclude that I must have been different, an exception to the norm, an anomaly: “It makes sense. That’s why you had to come here. You weren’t like the others.”
What’s this obsession, I ask, with placing me in a well-contoured, comforting frame? Why do I either have to be a newly civilized femme or a heroine who revolted against bigotry “over there” before fleeing to “over here”? Why do they assume that, because I don’t wear hijab, I’ve either run away from bondage into the enlightened straps of bikini sets or am a rare case of gazelle in a donkey barn? Why do I have to be an exception to the norm “over there”? Why, to make sense of my existence, do they need me to fit inside these rigid boxes with no room for breathing, self-expression, or self-determination? Why do I have to be whom they want to think I am because it comforts them and justifies their “well-meaning-ness”? Why do I have to be [does it matter what?].
I don’t play the part, but I play the part.
This is a performance.
As I near the municipal building, I catch a glimpse of the stars and stripes playing amorous twister with the breeze. This is America. I half expect the judge to ask, “Why did you come here?” I will respond: “But, of course, your Honor, I’m here to plead not guilty.”
I’ve been through this scenario with countless Americans. After they know my name and nationality, they want to know, “Why’d you come here?” The judge, I suspect, will also want to know why I came here. “But of course, your Honor, I’m here to plead [does it matter what?].” The judge will have to clarify: “Why did you come to this country?”
I came here because [does it matter why?]. If I explain it to the judge, if I tell the well-meaning Americans all about my known, unknown, and complex reasons why I came here, [does it matter why?]?
Back in my banned home country, I once went to a court. The judge asked, “Sister, do you feel better now?” I assumed he meant me. He hadn’t once looked up to see me, despite my modest appearance. The night before, my father had reminded me: “Wear what you wear when you go to work. Don’t wear what you wear when you go out with your friends.” I was dressed in a very long, very loose, and very dark outfit. I had no makeup on and not a single strand of hair showing. “Yes, your Honor! I just wanted justice. Thank you, your Honor, for giving this man what he deserves!” I swallowed the colorful adjectives I’d prepared for that monster who had stolen my [does it matter what?].
I sometimes play the part, but I don’t play the part.
This is a performance.
I am now in front of the main entrance. In a few seconds, I will be inside Tuscaloosa’s Municipal Court. The breeze is no longer blowing. Everything stands still, and the command lands on my well-manicured toes, pinning me down to the ground:
Halt! Thou Shalt Not Enter the Municipal Court!
I am stopped by a husky officer with blond hair and sunglassed eyes: “You can’t appear in front of a judge looking like that.” I feel the movement of his eyes as they run up and down my body. I run a mental scan of my appearance but can’t find “that.” I ask him about “that,” and he explains, “With your shoulders and back exposed like that.”
“But, officer, I have a court date, today.”
“I understand. Get a jacket, then come back.”
“But I gotta get in there now! Please, officer!”
“Ma’am, please step back.”
Back in my banned home country, I was once barred from entering a mosque. I was visiting an ancient city for the first time, and I was on a tour of its historic sites. The architecture and art in this mosque, I was told, embodied the sublime. I wanted to see the bending of the arabesque tiles on the curved ceilings. I wanted an encounter with the sublime, an experience that stretches comprehension and leaves one speechless and enthralled. I wanted in. My entrance was blocked by a female guard:
Halt! Thou Shalt Not Enter the Mosque!
I was told that I wasn’t dressed properly for a mosque. But I wasn’t turned back. I wasn’t told to go home, get changed, and then return. I was given a chance: “You can leave your ID here and borrow a clean set of hijabs. When you return them on your way out, you can have your ID back .” I looked around the frisking post. One of the guards was inspecting an old lady’s therapeutic shoes and responding to a teenager’s question about the coat-and-shoe check. Behind me, there had formed a line of colorfully dressed women, no doubt waiting to be frisked and offered proper mosque outfits before the noon prayers began. “No, thank you! I just wanted to check out the architecture. I’m not here to pray,” I blurted out, rather defiantly. I wasn’t being courageous. I just knew that the guards were too busy securing the noon prayers to care about my blasphemous retort.
I sometimes play the part, but I don’t play the part.
This is a performance.
I beg the officer to let me in the Municipal Court. Let me start over. I beg [does it matter whom?] to let me in [does it matter where?].
“Ma’am. I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave now.” I worry that I’ll miss my court date. I’m already a “nonresident alien” from a Muslim-majority country. I must not miss this date. “Please, officer!” I plead again.
I’m not sure if he’s just tired of repeating himself or is showing a stratum of sympathy: “What time is your court appearance?” It’s at 10 a.m. And “How far is home? Did you drive here?” I did, and home is about ten minutes away, but “Please, officer!” He checks his watch: “It’s what? 9:45 a.m. now? You have plenty of time.” But “Please, officer!”
The sad part is I can’t tell him, “No, thank you! I just wanted to check out the architecture.”
I’m here to appeal a traffic ticket, the first ticket of my life. I hope to have the two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar ticket waived and cleared from my record. I ran a yellow light. It turned red while I was stuck in the intersection, behind a trail of unmoving trucks. Tuscaloosa’s University Boulevard makes this possible because the distance between one traffic light and the next is as short as “Oops! I’m stuck!”
And now I’m stuck behind the Municipal Court’s entrance. I learn, on this hot Tuscaloosa day, that the air here is not as libido-free as I was led to believe. The officer explains to me that shoulders, back, and chest are forbidden in a court of law, but legs, up to the knees, are allowed.
I know what tomorrow’s script will bring. I will tell my story. I will tell my neighbor, who will exclaim, “How racist! I bet he turned you away because you’re not white. I bet if I go there right now, looking like that, he wouldn’t turn me away.”
Tomorrow, I will tell my story. I will tell it to my Midwestern [does it matter whom?]. He will declare: “The conservative American South!” I will ask for clarification, pretending I don’t know what he means. People here like to teach me things about their country that they think someone like me would never know or even understand. They look disappointed when they don’t get the chance to school the foreign girl. I indulge them. Sometimes.
“You know, it’s the south. People are very conservative here. They’re not like us in the north.”
“So, they’re like … more religious?”
“Not just that. More traditional. More … How can I explain this to you?”
He will tell me about “the south” and “the north,” and everything that he thinks separates “us” in the north from “them” in the south. I will listen carefully, all the while swatting at the words “stereotypes,” “cognitive bias,” and “irony” that keep buzzing around my mind as I wait for him to finish his speech. I will not tell him that while I understand the history behind his overgeneralized condemnation of all that is “the Conservative South,” I don’t think we should lump entire populations together. I will not tell him that generalizing discourses such as his are problematic. I will not tell him that demonizing entire communities can be damaging to the fabric of our global society. I will not tell him that giving a monolithic appearance to disparate populations with distinctive and even conflicting beliefs could harm entire communities for generations to come. I will not tell him that similar discourses have been deployed by dominant groups both over here and over there in my banned country to construct and maintain an evolving and interconnected network of assumptions and notions about “the other,” about “the south,” about “them” as in “them versus us.” I will not tell him that such ideology, normalized and disguised as common sense, is difficult to expose because it disappears into the background world of the ordinary and the natural. I will not tell him that isolated linguistic events, even if they occur behind closed doors and are only heard by a small group of people, can reverberate through social spaces, shapeshift into public policies, and manifest as hate crimes. I will not tell him that demonizing or generalizing rhetoric like his can impact the larger meaning-making processes that in turn create the world that we live in, the world where some of us are banned, profiled, brutally murdered, or reduced to “ungrievable” non-lives. I will not tell him that a life that’s “ungrievable” is not lost when lost and is not life but non-life.
I will play the part, but I don’t play the part.
This will be a performance.
“But why can’t I show my shoulders to a judge?” is all I ask.
“To secure the rule of law. To guarantee justice. To ensure the judge’s impartiality.”
Tomorrow, on another hot Tuscaloosa day, I will be reminded, once again, that I am feared.
I am feared if I wear a hijab. Who knows what I’m hiding under there? Who knows why I wear hijab? Who knows whether I should be pitied as a brainwashed barbarian and saved from myself and from brown men or feared for my “radical” beliefs? Who knows [does it matter what?]?
I am feared if I show skin. Who knows what laws would be broken by a flash of my dark flesh? Which liberties would be infringed upon? Who knows if I’m a terrorist in the disguise of a fun-loving, Westernized woman or an exotic whore bent on breaking the American legal system by exposing the flesh that conceals my bones and blood vessels that, for all anybody knows, could be as “colored” as my skin? Who knows [does it matter what?]?
I am feared for my national origins. Who knows what these banned immigrants are up to in this country? Who knows why they’d come here? Who knows what the hell they want with “our” nation? Who knows “why they hate us” and when they will strike? Who knows [does it matter what?]?
I am feared for the color of my skin. Who knows what the dark ones carry under their abnormally non-white skins? Who knows what diseases they harbor? Who knows how and when they plan to destroy “our” democracy? Who knows how big their appetite is for “our” jobs? Who knows how big of a public charge they’ll become? Who knows what tools they’re carrying under their ragged clothes for bringing down our precious border walls? Who knows how lazy their genes are? Who knows what plots they’re concocting against America? Who knows what plans they have for reversing racism? Who knows when they will finally destroy Christmas? Who knows which ones are the murderers, the rapists, and the “bad hombres”? And what if they have return receipts for smallpox blankets? Who knows [does it matter what?]?
I am feared for my gender. For my feminine vile. Who knows how many pious men and women I will corrupt with my bare shoulders and back? Who knows what a woman can do with her sexuality? Who knows when a grabbed pussy will decide enough is enough? Who knows [does it matter what?]?
I am feared for [does it matter what?]. I am feared for who I am, who I am not, what I do, what I do not do, what I may or may not do, what I look like, what I don’t look like, what I believe in, what I don’t believe in, what I [does it matter what?]. I am feared whether I live or live not. I am feared whether I leave or leave not. I am feared whether I am or am not. How, I ask, can I inspire fear for both my [is] and [is not]? For both my [does] and [does not]?
Tomorrow, on another hot Tuscaloosa day, I will be reminded that, in hopes of inspiring less fear, I have to perform. An ethnic performance. A gender performance. A good immigrant performance. A good Muslim performance. I will be reminded that the relative invisibility these performances buy me is indeed relative. Invisibility of this kind can only guarantee the kind of freedom that is anything but freedom. Fear seems to always find a way.
I am feared, and as fear breeds hatred, and hatred fear, I am hated for who I am, who I am not, what I do, what I do not do, what I may or may not do, what I look like, what I don’t look like, what I believe in, what I don’t believe in, and what I [does it matter what?]. I am hated whether I live or live not. I am hated whether I am or am not. How, I ask, can I inspire hatred for both my [is] and [is not]? For both my [does] and [does not]?
No, I refuse to play the part, but I play the part. [does it matter why?]
Rumpus original art by Leesa Travis.