I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could take. I had been through this too many times in the matter of a week to keep my sanity intact and I was hitting a boiling point (quite literally, as the humidity heated my feverish brain and the sweat from my forehead descended the tributaries formed by the scowl on my face). The streams eventually collected onto my T-shirt to the point where it matched my pit stains. I could even feel my underwear moistening as I smirked to myself and turned to my cousin, “I’m sweating my ass off.” He didn’t get it; guess it didn’t translate well. I looked around and my fellow passengers seemed to be in the same condition. Only difference was I had a sense of hygiene while these grown men reeked of musk and the leaf-wrapped tobacco paan that stained their teeth and gums a distinct red I had only seen in the autumn leaves of New England.
Now, there was a thought. Laying on the dock of the Charles as the cool breeze washed over me. Looking out onto the simple skyline of Cambridge and the Zakim Bridge off in the distance while the traffic of Boston sped by Storrow Drive and brownstone buildings towered behind me. Children would be heard playing in the park while their parents yelled out in an attempt to keep up. Close by, people would be exercising at the gym park full of contraptions I’ve never figured out how to use. Runners would be running, bikers would be biking, and walkers would chat on the trail along the river filled with sail boats and kayaks. Though this common Soldiers Field Road scene may seem chaotic, being by that dirty water we love so much was my peace of mind; I love spending time there, listening to the famous Otis Redding melody play through my headphones. Corny, yes, but oh so fitting when I am sitting on the dock of the Bay State. I had found that same relief in the calm, cool air in the mountains of Murree and was now headed back to the 24 hour food shops and the less hustle and more bustle of my relatives’ home in Karachi.
It had been almost ten minutes since the coaster bus had broken down, and I began to wonder if it was bad juju or just our poor choice in bus companies that had caused us to have three buses break down on us in a week. I knew the driver would announce the problem and, almost instinctively, everyone would go about their “we’re going to be here awhile” routine. Some would get out to stretch, others to relieve themselves by the closest bush, some would use their water for ablution and stand to pray, and most would take out whatever food they had packed, before the bumpy ride started again. There would, however, be that one person whose preference for conversation I disdainfully anticipated. In particular, the question, “So, where are you from?”
It was a deceivingly simple question, one I had faced multiple times. The first was when I received my acceptance letter to study a semester abroad in Beirut. In my excitement, I told everyone I knew about my news, including my Lebanese friend, Omar. As we discussed the ins and outs of living in Beirut, I asked, “So how are Americans viewed in Lebanon?” “They aren’t hated or anything, but to be safe, I wouldn’t advertise it.” This wasn’t the most convenient answer since people would naturally ask where I’m from, but I was okay with that. “Fair enough, I’ll just say I’m from Pakistan then.” Omar’s eyes widened as he raised his thick Middle Eastern-esque eyebrows, “Definitely don’t say you’re from Pakistan.”
This was not okay. Growing up as an immigrant kid in America, my identity has always been somewhat of a puzzle for me. Unable to comprehend the multifaceted nature an identity can hold, I clung onto the Pakistani background my parents were so sure to emphasize through visits to Karachi: language, customs, and then some. Though they made an effort to expose me to the teachings of Islam, the concepts of the spiritual and metaphysical were largely too grand for me to comprehend as a kid and, therefore, being Muslim was a title I didn’t necessarily internalize. Then, a few bad men drove planes into buildings I had once visited, and the little brown boy in eighth grade math class was expected to know why. Suddenly, I was nothing but a Muslim. And with a wide brushstroke, the radical ideology of a few became the undeserved guilt of many as I felt marked with an invisible star reminiscent of that little girl whose diary we read. A hard pill to swallow at such a tender age was made even harder as reports came out that those bad men were trained in the backyard of the nation my parents called home. I got the impression I had been outcast from being an American and forced to choose between the devil’s horns. The questions of the day revolved around why do they hate us and what have we done to them? I fell under that umbrella and just wanted people to realize that they are so much greater than a few bad men.
I recall a scene from the beginning of my semester abroad in Lebanon, in which I found myself sitting in a grand, almost picturesque restaurant that gave credence to Beirut’s title as “the Paris of the Middle East.” It was then that Omar’s assessment began to display merit. After finishing dinner at a welcome event for international students, the newcomers excitedly gathered around the hookah as we tried the smoking custom we would become all too familiar with in time. As the bubbles rumbled in the water base, every drag of the pipe filling it with a thick milky white smoke, I jokingly shared the conversation I’d had with Omar. As I narrated my surprise to Omar’s last suggestion, a Lebanese-Emirati girl removed the pipe from her lips and took a break from showcasing her varied methods of blowing smoke rings. “Well, they would probably think you are a bomber,” she said matter-of-factly.
Now here I was, surrounded by Pakistanis, sweating in the merciless heat on a broken bus. “You going to get out or should I go from the other side?” “Go from the other side,” I told my cousin. I had sunk so far into my soaked seat that, at this point, going into the still, humid air for a breath didn’t seem worthwhile. The only effort I made was to pull back the bus’ side door to let out the aromas their owners had forgotten to take with them. I went to take a swig from a bottled water and noticed the droplets clinging to the top also trying to escape the heat. “I have a hard time in this weather, too,” a passenger said as water streamed down the corners of my mouth, allowing me to solace my parched throat. “Yeah, it’s tough” I said as I panted. “It usually rains the third day in Islamabad, so it’ll cool down,” he said with a smile. “If we ever get to Islamabad,” I chuckled. As we introduced ourselves, I prayed that the conversation I had just stumbled into would be a short one. “Where are you from, Hamza?” “Karachi,” I replied for brevity’s sake. “Oh, okay. And where are you visiting Karachi from?” I have yet to perfect sounding American while speaking English and this, coupled with my accented Urdu while Pakistani has prevented my boyhood, Bond-inspired dreams of becoming a secret agent from ever coming to fruition.
At the American University of Beirut, I had decided to play it safe and take Omar’s advice. I stuck with my American affiliation for familiarity given the large number of Americans that comprised the international student body. It was only within my close knit group of friends from all corners of the world that I felt comfortable being whoever I wanted to be. I would sit with each of them and talk about their homes, their families, their personal stories. They, too, were not always happy with the state of their countries or the inhabitants of such, and at times also bore their own scarlet letters which they felt were theirs alone to bear. These were stories that were part of their community, their countries, not removed from it. I would talk about my large family and reminiscence about Boston and, at times, there be would idiosyncrasies that they would not get and I could not explain. I would tell them about the 4th of July fireworks, Thanksgiving meals, New Year’s ice sculptures, and how they hadn’t experienced a beautiful day until they roamed Boston Common on a bright spring morning. I added how Ramadan seemed impossible for non- Muslims and how funny I found it that they were always so thoughtful not to eat or drink around me though fasting was now second nature to me. Eid celebrations to commemorate the end of Ramadan with communities of families, friends, and lots of food at any of the selection of mosques in Boston made that month worthwhile, I told them. We talked about all this and more and in it all, I didn’t think about being an outsider. I just missed home.
The driver continued working on the bus’ engine as his navigator scratched his head thinking about what could be wrong. I didn’t think it was possible to get any warmer but my forehead sweated even more intensely as I thought about the conversation that lay ahead. “Um, I’m visiting from the U.S.,” I said in a low voice on the otherwise empty bus. “Oh, I have a brother in America. He lives in Texas.” Knowing that the concept of being from the devil country wasn’t foreign to this man brought some relief. “Terrible what’s happening to Muslims there,” he said, and continued on about what he had heard from his brother about the discrimination Muslims were facing after 9/11, the phone taps, the searches, the questionings, the violence at mosques and the hate mongering. “And you are Pakistani too, you should be very careful. I mean, look at what they are doing with these drone strikes. I just don’t understand why they hate us.” My chest tightened and my mouth dried as the little eighth grade boy was expected again to know why. Except, it wasn’t who I was used to defending. I wanted to tell him that they were also who I am and they too were inherently good people misunderstood. I wanted to let him know that I felt his grief at the senseless drone strikes happening just as I had grieved the senseless attacks on 9/11. But I wasn’t going to do that at the expense of painting a false portrait of a larger group. I was tired of the we and they and I was tired of choosing.
The Charles River lights up and almost blinds me with the reflection of the sunlight as the rowers ripple the water with their wide strokes. The runners are running, the bikers biking, and the walkers chatting along the trail with messages of “Boston Strong” chalked onto them. There is still a lingering sense of grief from the bombing of the Boston Marathon but the city is re-awakening as Boylston Street is opened and news of the recovering victims is becoming more common. At every vigil, from the Saint Mark’s Parish to the ISBCC mosque, you hear reassuring remarks of community transcending race, religion, and creed, mixed with the unease at instances of hate mongering and violence in the news. I know things will be different; I would be naïve to think otherwise. What I don’t know is how different, and whether there is a little boy somewhere forced to grapple with his multiple identities before he is even comfortable in his own skin. The runners, bikers, and walkers along this Boston trail all look different, speak different, believe different but there is no reason they should feel that way. As I sit by that river and hit play, I’m reminded of that as Otis sings, “two thousand miles I roamed, just to make this dock my home.” I’ve been the outsider, and it took me being outside to realize I’m not.
Hamza Syed is a Bostonian Muslim and Pakistani- American working to provide perspective as one of the many who must grapple with multiple identities in the post- 9/11 world.
What a beautiful and complicated piece!
Insightful yet all too familiar. Thanks for sharing your story.