I looked at her, big black eyes brimmed with tears and staring into my soul, and thought, “Boy, she doesn’t know me very well, does she?”
And I hoped sincerely that she couldn’t see into my mind at that moment, because what she would see wasn’t very pretty. But at least it was on her behalf.
It’s been non-stop around here lately, what with yellow journalism trying to close down an entire glass artform, the antmind suddenly invading in force, long hours at work, and my annual bollix-up-the-blog technical difficulties.
This time around, my attempt to update the file structure for several thousand images on Morganica pretty much broke every link, and the only way to restore them is to PAINFULLY replace each one, post-by-post, going back to 2006.
Ouch. So if new posts die down for a bit, my apologies, but I need to fix my goof.
But THIS Sunday morning, the sun broke through the clouds and slanted golden-bright through the leaves. I stopped typing “H-T-T-P-:-/-/” and headed for the bakery cafe around the corner for breakfast. The special was potato leek soup, my favorite, so I made it brunch instead, topped off with a slice of fresh cherry tart.
I shouldered my laptop case, gathered my bounty, and made my way to the only empty table, passing a plump, dark figure, a girl hunched over her phone. She glanced up, and quickly averted her eyes.
I smiled, not sure if she’d see it, and sat down, intending to write about the aforesaid yellow journalism and cadmium pollution. Ironic, that.
“I like your hair,” said a small voice, shyly.
“Excuse me?” I looked up, and the girl was looking at me with the beginnings of a hopeful smile.
“Your hair, the blue stripe. I really like it. It’s you.”
“Well, thanks. It’s supposed to be red, but no matter what I do, the blue just keeps coming through.” She smiled broadly, and moved off her stool to sit at my table. So much for shy, I thought.
“I like it, though. It makes you look younger.”
Well, strike one for that, anyway.
“My hair, it won’t take color at all,” she said, picking up a lock of her hair, which was long, shiny, and luxuriously, indulgently black. “I tried coloring it red once, and it just disappeared like I never did anything.”
“Why would you want to color it?” I asked curiously, “Your hair is gorgeous. Your hair is what the rest of us go to the hairdresser to get.”
She shrugged, “Well, it has hair straightener on it because it’s so thick and bushy, I have to have something to make it manageable. My mom has a hair salon just down the street; I live over there.”
She looked at my hair–which really was a mess–wistfully. “Sometimes…well, you can have any color you want. I tried blonde once and I looked dumb. Really dumb. My people, we have hair that is really dark and…”
She looked astonished. “Yes, how did you know? Most people just call us Arabs. Or Muslims. Like it’s a dirty word.”
I shrugged. “I guess I’ve been around a lot of Iranians, a lot of people from that area. I grew up in Central California, so I don’t know, never really thought about it.”
“For keeping an open mind about me.”
“For letting me sit down. For not calling me a dirty terrorist. I’m so TIRED of not being able to..I was born in this country. My mom and dad are legal citizens here, my sister was born here. She’s a doctor in the army. I’ve never lived anywhere but the West Coast. I’m as American as you. And last week…” she said, and gulped, “…last week a man comes up to me from nowhere and he tells me to go back to my own country!”
I grimaced. I knew what was coming. She started to cry.
“I tried to tell him. I said I was born here and he shoved me on the shoulder and he yelled all these four-letter words. He said, ‘I support Donald Trump, and terrorists like you need to get out before we throw you out. This is a Christian country and Muslims don’t belong. Get the hell out of my country!'”
“I wasn’t doing anything, I was just coming back from class, I didn’t even look at him.”
“I’m sorry,” I said softly, “Some people are just assholes. I wish I knew how to stop people like that. But I don’t.”
“Muslims aren’t bad people,” she said tearfully, “There are bad Muslims, sure, but there are bad Christians, too. A lot of us are really nice if you just give us a chance.”
“Bad isn’t tied to religion,” I said, “Bad uses religion as a way to excuse being bad. Americans never learn about Islam, that’s why it scares them.”
“I should be used to this. My sister, she says I should just shrug this off and not worry about it anymore. But I’m scared. I was bullied a lot when I was a kid because all the other kids were white. There was this boy, he and his friends held me down and put worms in my hair because I’m Muslim, and he said,” and here her voice started to rise, “We should be rotting in the earth.”
She stopped then, and her voice softened, nearly to a whisper, as she looked around at people at the rest of the tables.
“But this, with this Trump guy, I think this is different. It’s one thing when kids bully you at recess, they just go after anyone who is different, and you kind of get used to it. But I never used to be afraid to be alone with…, with, well, with people like you. Now, no offense, but it’s like I’m taking a chance even coming in here.”
She glanced at me, from under hooded eyes. I kept my face carefully neutral, but inside, I felt the rage building. She was a young, pretty girl in a nice suburban neighborhood. It’s not Hells Kitchen, not by a longshot. It’s her neighborhood. My neighborhood.
And she knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she doesn’t belong. Who the hell has the right to make her feel that way?
“I love my religion, don’t get me wrong. I love being Persian. But I feel like I can get beat up just for looking like what I am. And if I put on a wig, you know, my skin is light enough, well, that’s like a lie, you know?”
Damn. I want to say, “Sweetheart, you FLAUNT who you are. You tell those jerks to GO TO HELL for even trying to make you feel second-class.”
But what if she’s right? What if flaunting her identity could get her hurt?
I suddenly realize that I’m sitting here, in my smug, safe, well-to-do white middle-aged female world, about to pontificate defiance to someone who really could get beaten up simply for having the wrong color of skin and hair. In OUR neighborhood.
And now Donald Trump, with his campaign of hatred and leg-breaking and neo-Nazi, “I’ll pay your legal bills if you punch ’em in the face,” becomes very real, and very scary.
Is this how it started in Germany? Perfectly nice, educated folk, coming to the realization that it was safest to advise their neighbors to keep a low profile, or even get out..for their own good?
It’s easy for me to tell someone else to be brave and bold and a bitch. To prate about black lives mattering, or sympathize deeply with the plight of Syrian refugees…because I know I’ll never have to put my money where my mouth is.
I looked at her, and was ashamed.
“I’m sorry,” I said, taking her hand. And we started to talk. I learned a lot. I don’t know if I’ll ever learn enough.