When hate hits home: A Muslim-American’s story

angry-driver-in-car1“Al-lah, Al-lah!” Go home, you filthy terrorist!”

At least, those were the words I think I heard. To be honest, I sort of shut off when he threw them at me, so there may have been more words there or in a different order; I can’t recall. I don’t want to recall.

When he threw them at me, driving away in his black sedan with his angular white face contorted in anger, I froze. Al-lah, Al-lah! Go home, you filthy terrorist! I had been crossing the street a few minutes from home to get food; it was near 1 pm, and like every other college student, it meant I had just rolled out of bed, hungry for brunch. I was wearing grey sweatpants, my favorite baggie hoodie with my high school logo emblazoned on it, and a bright blue headscarf with vibrant yellow flowers tied loosely around my head. Whether or not Marletto’s would have waffles was practically the only thing on my mind that moment; the street was deserted except a few cars turning at the intersection, and nothing called my attention away from impending golden syrupy Saturday afternoon brunch. Except him. Al-lah, Al-lah! Go home, you filthy terrorist!

I haven’t managed to erase his face or the intonation of his voice from my memory yet. Or the way it filled with rage. He meant what he said. What would have happened if I wasn’t crossing the street opposite him? If I was closer? If the words hadn’t been thrown over his shoulder at a distance as he sped away, but right next to me? Al-lah, Al-lah! Go home, you filthy terrorist!

It was only robotically that I finished crossing the street and walked up the steps to the dining hall. All the words of strength and indignant messages about being more than other people’s hate flew out my head, replaced with his. I shriveled into myself. My mind was still swirling around where I had been standing when he shouted. Al-lah, Al-lah! Go home, you filthy terrorist! I was a little numb, a little shell-shocked and confused, a little distressed, and a lot frightened.

It must have shown, because the one woman who had crossed the street across from me– on his side– looked at me in concern when I got to the top of the stairs. “I’m sorry that happened to you,” she said. It popped me back to reality for a moment, so I did what I do best, smiled and said “thank you” because I know that kindness and sympathy in the face of hatred is far more rare than the hatred itself.

Al-lah, Al-lah! Go home, you filthy terrorist!

I thank God I kept walking into the dining hall where people were everywhere. I might have cried otherwise. I don’t cry. And I refuse to shed a tear for him now. But at that moment, I just didn’t want anyone to see me.

I was inside. I was safe. He couldn’t see me. Al-lah, Al-lah! Go home, you filthy terrorist!

I wandered aimlessly around where they were serving food, seeing it but not seeing it. I didn’t reach for any food, my plate remained empty. My appetite was gone. His words were still echoing in my ears. Al-lah, Al-lah! Go home, you filthy terrorist! I didn’t know that actually happened except in stories. It does.

I smiled at the people around me. The woman from earlier realized I was a student here and asked for directions to Stage 3; I showed her where to go with a smile. She seemed a little confused that I had gone from that troubled mask of emotions to such a wide smile, but accepted it, thanking me for the directions.

And then I realized I had to walk back home. Alone. On the same street. He was gone. He had sped away. But I was afraid.

Rationally, I knew there was no reason to be, but rationality wasn’t loud in that moment. The fear was louder. Al-lah, Al-lah! Go home, you filthy terrorist!

My heart was pounding. I clenched my fists in my hoodie, pulled in my arms close to me, hunched my shoulders, and took small, sharp steps quickly. I was afraid to take up too much room as I went. If I took up less space, I was a smaller target.

I walked far from the curb, far from the street, on the sidewalk. I wanted to get away from the view of the street as far and as fast as possible. If I was between buildings, he– they– couldn’t see me. Every black sedan was a new rush of panic that pushed me further from the curb. Al-lah, Al-lah! Go home, you filthy terrorist!

I didn’t look up at anyone. Didn’t see anyone’s face. I kept my head down and marched back to my building as quickly as I could, reciting Ayatul-Kursi from the Qur’an as I went and praying nothing would happen.

Nothing did, but I was still trembling some from the adrenaline– and from fear– when I got back to my building. I smiled at a few of my residents, the mask of okay-ness sliding back on, but it fell off when I got into my room, and I sat on my bed, dazed. Al-lah, Al-lah! Go home, you filthy terrorist!

It was the first time someone had actually taken time from their day to hate me openly. Other people looking away in fear, disgust, or anger when I passed them on the street was nothing new. Strangers on the street unwilling to look me in the face was nothing new. Passerby aggressively pushing me out of the way if I was too slow to move out of their way was nothing new. Not feeling safe to go to a particular place was nothing new. Avoiding certain people/places/things was nothing new. Online virulence was nothing new. Reading Facebook comments to go back to my country was nothing new. Hearing ignorant remarks about Muslims was nothing new. Listening to people go on about how Muslims don’t belong in this country was nothing new. Being expected to not belong in this country was nothing new. Being othered as brown skin and a headscarf was nothing new.

But this. This was new. This was different. This was worse.

Al-lah, Al-lah! Go home, you filthy terrorist!

In many ways, it was a moment I had been expecting since I first put on my hijab a year and a half ago. But when it had never come, I hoped it never would. I knew it happened, but I hoped it wouldn’t happen to me.

Al-lah, Al-lah! Go home, you filthy terrorist! I guess it’s just a rite of passage.

Have I earned my American-Muslim badge yet? Am I an adult now? Is this what they mean when they say it’s the beginning of the rest of your life?

Maybe next time I won’t shut down to autopilot. Maybe next time I can respond with logic and reason and love and compassion and change his mind. Ask him why his heart is so full of hate. Convince him with caring that I’m not bad. I’m not a terrorist. This is my home. This is my home.

I’m not telling you this story because I want your sympathy. I don’t want your pity. I don’t want your feigned empathy. I don’t want you to comment “sorry” below. I know I’m not skilled enough with words to make you truly understand what happened. I still don’t understand what happened. But this is my home.

In the grand scheme of hateful things that happen every day, this wasn’t even that bad. No one was followed or stalked, no one was assaulted, no one was hurt, no one’s life was threatened.

I will do my best to forget this ever happened. I want to wipe it from my memory, erase his words, and keep going. I will pretend it didn’t happen to me. It’s just a story I read. But I will not forget the lesson. I will not forget that. This is my home.

And I want you to know it. Know this is my home. I belong here. I will stay here. He cannot stop me. You cannot stop me. You cannot take that away from me. This is my home.

And I want you to know that this– this right here– is what happens when we institutionalize xenophobia.

I want you to watch the news and think that right now there is another teenager, another child, another adult, another person listening to the same hatred because the Donald Trump-s, the Ted Cruz-s, the Ben Carson-s, the Mike Huckabee-s, the Newt Gingrich-s, the Rick Santorum-s of the world have been given a political platform to stand on, a primetime spot on national television 24/7, and all the legitimacy high poll numbers can conceed.

I want you to think about this when you cast your vote, and then think harder if this is what you’re supporting with that ballot.

This is my home.