15 years ago, a 5th grader me was curious and clueless seeing classmates picked up from school. My sister and I, too, were eventually picked up. School was only two blocks away, but Abbu picked us up in his beat-up 90s Ford Explorer, which he refused to get rid of because it was his first car. We were home early to a quiet uncertainty and a useless television. The public access channels were blurred; shades of rainbow and gray filled the dimensions of the screen. Soon after, we purchased a cable bundle. Abbu switched between CNN and Fox while Ammu between her Indian dramas; and when they weren’t around, I was hooked to MTV’s trash reality shows like “Real World”. 2001 was also the year of Bollywood, ending the panic year with Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, which we watched in bootleg.
Debris filled our backyard. My sister and I collected scrap papers that had traveled to our home and made a game putting together missing pieces of documents. These remains were enough to remind me we are alive but our survival to come would be tested. Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Afghanistan, these words droned above us now and all Muslims in America and all who resembled the caramel and brownness of our complexions, speaking in tongues not English, would have to pay.
5th grader me wasn’t naïve or too young to know Muslims are in danger. I couldn’t hide Muslim if I wanted to; I couldn’t just switch from a salwar to jeans and be more American; flashing an American flag from our first floor windows didn’t make me more American. Born in Brooklyn didn’t make me more American. Nothing I do could change the way violence incited systemically, entrapping and criminalizing Muslim communities.
5th grader me was in a flower printed hijab, styled with a georgette salwar kameez; this was my masjid outfit. My sister and I spent our childhood in Kensington, Brooklyn’s Baitul Jannah Jame Masjid, always under construction, stinking of feet and basement mustiness. Among the dampness and construction debris, we had our first boy crushes, passing flirt notes between bathroom breaks. We were now the sister mentors helping newcomers with their Arabi, getting them through the rigid lessons from Kari Hujur, our Qur’an teacher. We are in Little Bangladesh, Brooklyn. For months Ammu sat on the steps to see us off as we walked the half a block distance to the masjid; her walking hand in hand with us would be too embarrassing. One day we’re called “terrorist” by a passing car. Kumkum and I are silent; fix the tops of our slipping hijab and run to the masjid. Despite it all, the masjid is our safehouse. I wonder though, what it means to the driver to call us terrorist, what it means to him about what I may be capable of, is it a fear tactic or does he fear me, does he know if my little body knows what that word even means, how my little body will hold that denomination in years to come?
My neighborhood friends and I took our hangout sessions to my basement but we weren’t playing freeze tag or hide and seek in the dingy downstairs, we were busy drafting a handwritten letter to President Bush. My cousin Zareen, the only one among us who had a computer then, helped us write cohesive thoughts and name the discomfort, our apology and that not all Muslims, and the Islamo-racist incidences we were encountering. She typed it up and mailed it to the White House. We thought he’d protect us. Or at least write back. I’m sure other Muslim American kids sent letters to him too. We’ve been writing and we’ve been writing.
15 years later, the Church-McDonald Avenues in Kensington’s streets remain crowded with Bangladeshi men in their lungis and other comfort-wear walking to and from the neighborhood’s surrounding mosques. Over the last month, we’ve buried, raged over, and honored Bangladeshi Muslims Maulana Alauddin Akonjee, Al-Furqan Jame Masjid leader Thara Uddin, and Nazma Khanam, whose lives were brutally taken. 15 years later, I am 25 having lived in a post-9/11 America with surveillance and suspicion, shielded and protective of my family, home, and community. I mourn as effortlessly as seeing off friends at their weddings, dancing and singing along to Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham songs, which we celebrate as our version of “old is gold,” replaying over and over almost like the memories of the fall of the World Trade Center.
Through it all, we continue to hold each other close and love one another.