The following is a letter from Wajahat Ali excerpted from McSweeney’s Issue 49, out this month. What once may have read like dystopian political fiction has become frighteningly easy to imagine.
Issue 49 features modern ‘covers’ of classic stories, reimagined by Roxane Gay, T.C. Boyle, Meg Wolitzer, Jess Walter, Namwali Serpell, Kiese Laymon and many more. Subscribe to the Quarterly now and get 49 as your first issue.
While you’re at it, download a free PDF of Ali’s play, Domestic Crusaders.
I was finally able to steal WiFi. Thankfully, the guards are usually on their smartphones, alternating between Porn Hub, online gambling, and ESPN. Every night, when we hear guards Jolene and Biff excuse themselves from their station to patrol the yards, Jawad scours the disposal containers for spare electronic parts. (Jolene and Biff actually go have sex in the commissary. Both are married. They think they’re discreet. They’re not.) Jawad only has 4 minutes and 21 seconds — that’s the length of this sad tryst of ennui, self-loathing, and middle aged, fleshy friction. It cumulates in Biff emitting a slow roar, sounding like a beagle with emphysema, which signals to Jawad to race back to his tent and slip under the sheet (made in Egypt) and blanket (made in Mexico until the trade war, but now made in Bangladesh) before they come with the flashlights for their nightly check.
But I digress.
Brushing off his college computer science skills, Jawad has somehow created a few starter phones. He gave me this one to return a favor. Recently, I gave him a lead role in my play, Me at the Camps. Jawad said the experience reminded him of the first video he posted on YouTube: “Me at the Zoo.”
I was just grateful my English major came in handy. But, who knows? Maybe the South Asian aunties and uncles were right. I should have pursued one of the holy trinity: doctor, engineer or dubious businessman who runs an import/export factory. Maybe those skills would be handier in here.
Two years gives you plenty of time for regrets. The Executive Order was inevitable. They waited for that one lone extremist who shouted Allahu Akbar before ramming his pickup through the thick crowd waiting at the TCKTS booth in midtown. The ban, the vetting, the registry was all just prelude.
“The need to protect against terrorism outweighs individual rights and the rights of American Muslims…” read the Supreme Court ruling. It was déjà vu, a dubstep remix from hell. But, when a President tweets out threats using 140 characters and hijab emojis, when only terrorist attacks by Muslims are covered by the media and the ones by white supremacists are ignored, and when the so-called judges who tried to uphold the Constitution disappear or suddenly fall sick, well, I can’t say I was surprised.
Americans will always rather feel safe, than be free.
So, we drink chai here and keep chill, because there’s no Netflix. But, we do have chai. Also, biryani. And shawarma. And sheesha and tarneeb. And an underground trading market. And exquisite weed, which I don’t partake in, but can smell every Saturday night near the hipster quarters. (Yes, all the men have big beards. Some stereotypes remain the same inside and outside.) Necessity breeds creativity and resourcefulness, which leads to excellent sushi rolls made from lumpy oatmeal.
I tell myself I have to remain chill. Anger will only create resentment. And how will that help me and my children inside these walls? But, I won’t lie, McSweeney’s. At night, when the generators fail — at least twice a week — and my feet become brown popsicles, I see the faces of all the people who told me, “Naw, he’d never do that. Congress will never allow it. This country will never stand for it” and I curse at them. I’m talking Wrath of Khan level vindictive rage. I’m talking Ricardo Montalban quoting Moby-Dick, “From hell’s heart, I stab at thee!”
Real dark, Evil Eye shit, invoking the full might of all Celestial Powers to damn your privileged, complacent ass.
But, by morning, it passes. We wake up and take our Russian classes. Я мусульманин! I get to do my Ivan Drago accent for one hour. The teacher, a leggy blonde brought in from Moscow, chuckles. I pass by the refugee quarters and they give me Chobani yogurt for breakfast. Hamdi Ulukaya is generous here, just like he was outside, creating a massive trough for first come, first served. I take my kids over to Ibitihaj, who teaches us fencing. I go to the library, skip the Art of the Deal sections (notice I said sections, plural), and head over to Russian literature. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’s piercing understanding of the human soul is always relevant, now more than it was two hundred years ago. We mostly skip TV, which consists of Fox News, Breitbart and reality shows. There’s only so much state propaganda one can take.
Dave and Aziz keep testing out material in different sections of the camps before premiering a new show for everyone every few months. Salman has started a teaching co-op. The Khan Academy is reborn without the internet.
It isn’t perfect, of course. Some of the Sunnis don’t mix with the Shias. There’s the African American quarter and the Arab quarter. I wish they’d interact more, but there’s still lingering bad blood. The Indians and Pakistanis share recipes and food but have somehow created a Line of Control near the latrines. However, all of us feel bad for The Miscellaneous. They’re a ragtag bunch of non-Muslims who look Muslim-y and were accidentally thrown in with the rest of us saps. By my last count there’s at least 17 Iranian Jews, 98 Arab Christians, 42 Sikhs and Colin Kaepernick.
Despite the divisions, each night, as the sun sets, a young woman named Tahera stands up and does the adhan, the call to prayer, in beautiful, classical Arabic. We all come together to pray, each in our own way, as one: Muslim and miscellaneous Sikh, atheist and weed-smoking hipster, standing shoulder to shoulder, feet to feet.
And for those brief moments, we feel grateful that even though we’re inside, we stand next to each other, for each other, as one, as the melodious sounds drown out the carnage beyond our walls.
Until I break out,
CAMP FDR, Washington D.C.