TO MOVE BACK OR NOT TO MOVE BACK, RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS IN AMERICA
For the last five years, we have been living in the Middle East, and frequently travelling to Pakistan, where I was born and raised until I was fourteen. I enjoyed the Middle East and appreciated Pakistan, but with so much happening, the big question in our home has been whether to move back or not to move back to the United States. I had moved to the United States with my family in the late 80’s. It was a pretty relaxing time, and modern day woes were nowhere to be found. I was a non-hijab wearing teenager in highschool, and it was easy to enjoy the U.S. People were kind, and culturally very different than Pakistan. Allthroughout high school and college, I was a semi-practicing Muslim. I practiced certain things but avoided others. I started covering my head in 1997 and, it felt pretty good. Finally, I felt that I had a connection with something deep. Rootlessness can sneak in if you don’t have ties anywhere. I felt like a loose leaf blowing everywhere, but nowhere in particular. After I started wearing the hijab, I felt like I had a direction. I was still pretty liberal in my politics, but more conservative in my practices. I look back, but do not remember a harsh look or a specific experience that targeted my faith. However, things were changing ever so slowly even at that time. My hijab would get odd looks occasionally, and praying in a public place would definitely get a person noticed. Everything changed rapidly with September 11, 2001, and the world as everyone knew it, underwent phenomenal changes. Airports became scary places, and in just about every public place in America, in numerous ways, Muslims felt the backlash of that September day. It was very tragic that many more incidents followed 9/11. America waged war on multiple fronts, inside and outside the country. In those days, even turning on the television or reading a paper was stressful for me, and I am sure for millions of others living in Western societies. I had horns honked at me, stares directed at me while in security lines at the airport and other public places. There were some wonderful experiences too, such as my husband’s colleagues who offered their unconditional assistance in case a need arose. The post office in Columbia, Missouri where everyone was incredibly sweet. I hung onto my faith at that time, my scarf and kindness of my fellow Americans. It’s a spectacularly good feeling when a stranger will be nice to you for no apparent reason.
However, when I compare the post 9/11 America to a pre-Trump America, I find the later to be a much more divisive and scary place. Even before Donald Trump came along, the climate of hate and racial/cultural intolerance was making waves. I feel many elements exploited a variety of resentments within the public sphere to create an environment of disharmony. In this America, it was a starightforward decision to move to Saudi Arabia in 2013. My kids were almost teenagers, and we felt that they would benefit from a worry-free atmosphere. Surpisingly, I missed America just as much as I missed Pakistan. I missed roads, people and many other small things, but again it is scary to read about incidents, events that are happening far away from you. Then you are grateful to be away from that particular situation. Also, the political climate started looking stranger and stranger.
Till the election in 2016, I considered myself pretty American despite everything, and had no trouble connecting with friends and places there. Actually, before this year’s trip, our last trip to the United States was in the Summer of 2016. Almost all magazine covers veered on the jocular and the ridiculous at the thought of a Trump presidency. Hillary Clinton was a done deal. Then the election happened, and my sense of incredulity and sadness cannot be quantified on the morning after the elction. The wide swath of Repupublican red coloring America seemed to be mocking minorities, women, lgbt activists, and everyone who stood for a disadvantaged group. The sense of dread plaguing all the above mentioned groups only increased after a spectacularly dystopian picture of a country well on it’s way to ruins painted by a President Trump in his inaugural address. Hate crimes, snide victory speeches, and opinion polls pointed to a rapidly changed America. I am an avid reader of The Washington Post and Mother Jones. Both are fairly liberal papers with MJ being on the extreme left. Soon it became apparent that the election had freed hatred, racism, and many elements of society felt they had permission to air their dislikes of groups unlike them. Some groups and individuals felt that they could act upon those negative perceptions. However, that said, I also read about large marches, sit-ins and protests held all across the United States for the rights of minorities, and it was heart warming. Still, I was afraid to go back, but we ended up visiting the States this year. This was my first trip after the election. To say I was stressed would be an understatement. When you are far away and far removed from a situation, you don’t have any idea how things are on the ground. All you have are little snippets of information from a variety of sources, and everyone and every entity is biased in some way. People and various news outlets all present their information according to their agenda, not precisely as it is. So I had all this information, and I had an idea that Trump’s America would be different than the America two Summers ago.
I didn’t know how I would feel walking the malls, stores in a Trumpian land, in a country that I grew up in and considered mine. I had read about rising hate crimes, and the fact that hijab wearing Muslim women are easy targets because of their head coverings. My fifteen-year-old daughter and I both cover our heads. Through out the years I had dealt with occasional slurs, horns and instances where people would make their feelings about Islam known to me. However, the positives always outweighed the negatives. There was the postal worker in Columbia, MO who knew me, and always greeted me with a huge smile. There were the drivers who would give right of way, even though they didn’t have to. Then were the clerks, cashiers and other service workers who would always greet with a smile, and do their their best to provide assistance. I always felt that Americans have mastered the art of providing kindness to random strangers, and this kindness can materialize anywhere in any situation. It can be a person giving you space in a security line at the airport, in a check out line at the grocery store, or it can be a person stopping to give you car assistance in pouring rain. I have been at the receiving end of many of these random acts of kindnesses over the years, and it is one of the reasons I fell in love with America. My first experience was as a seventeen year old. It was raining cats and dogs, my car broke down on the way to school, and a woman named Robin stopped by to provide me with help. She helped a total stranger without asking questions, and was on her way. I never saw her agin, but I have an unending litany of stories similar to the one I shared above. Then there was my college English teacher, Timoth Allan Peeples, who was undoubtedly one of the kindest souls I knew. He was always available for tutoring, and for encouraging a nineteen-year-old freshman. I don’t remember Tim ever saying no to my endless requests for help. I have so many more stories to share, but not enough space.
This time, one story that stands out is when I stayed in Horsham, Pennsylvania. I went to the local Walmart to buy things to bring back to Doha. We shop as if we are shopping for a starving third world country. After pushing my stuff laden cart to the check-out counter, I realized I had forgotten something, and told the cashier that I would go grab it quickly. When I returned, a stranger named Tara had bagged all my groceries carefully, and there were atleast twenty bags. I was simply overcome with joy, partly because of what she had done, but also because the stock of American kindness was as full as ever. Another incident that I’ll share with my readers is when I stayed in Centerville, Ohio. I was staying with long time friends, Chanda and Naveed-ul-Haq. Chanda, despite having had surgery on her wrist, was hosting about 10-15 guests in her house. Chanda introduced us to Bill’s Donuts that are the last word in donuts, the holy grail of donuts, the champions of all the donuts. Everything they had was so heavenly that I wouldn’t have minded moving to Centerville to work at Bill’s Donuts. One day when we went to pick up the donuts, I voiced out loud my desire to eat a fresh donut. As we were walking out, we passed by the kitchen, and we told the young man working there. He smiled and handed us three, huge, fresh donuts that tasted more amazing than they looked.
Towards the end of my trip, I realized that America was as unique as it has always been, and nothing will change it. Kind people, selfless people, ready to put a bit of joy in a stranger’s life, willing to provide assistance where needed will always be there. They are the guardians of the American greatness, the gatekeepers of the values that make the poor, the unwanted, the persecuted populations from all across the world risk everything, even their lives to want to make a life in this special America. I would be perfectly okay with moving back because I feel that for better or for worse, it is my country.