After the inauguration, the bills came due, the lay-offs began and the “HELLO, my fellow American” stickers we were handed on the Mall Inauguration Day, misplaced. Washingtonians didn’t lose the pleasure or, for a few, the horror they’d felt when Obama won. But the glorious bubble of campaign excitement, election night dancing on the White House lawn and inauguration parties had burst.
We are left with what, and whom, we brought to the party. For some, that’s a lot. For others, it may not be enough. For the many of us who’ve transplanted ourselves here for one reason or another, it has to be everything.
I meet Mohammed at Mehran, one of DC’s few Pakistani restaurants. The Foggy Bottom shop is a favorite with taxi drivers, students and Pakistanis. Mohammed falls into the first category though he’s tried twice, in the twenty years since moving from Somalia, to change jobs.
The first time, he was studying electro-mechanical engineering at UDC when conditions in Somalia worsened. Driving full-time allowed him to bring all seven siblings and his mother over, but he never returned to school.
“Family. Obligations,” he says, shaking his head. He then taps the table. “Family’s there to support and encourage. After that, they expect [things] of you. I tried to be an IT professional…I became certified, but all I came up with were jobs [that involved] traveling back and forth. You had to be ready for wherever they sent you and, at that time, my family had just arrived. I wasn’t able to move around. I never really looked again after 9/11. People told me there was a little bit of asking too many questions. For me, I already had my family and then I got married in 2002.” He looks outside, checking to see which taxi drivers are below. “And then, time makes you really busy busy busy and, after a few years, you say to hell with it and continue with your job.”
Mohammed divides his days between prayer at the Massachusetts Avenue mosque, family, and driving. When he leaves me, he’ll cross the Potomac for dinner at home and then return to the District for work. It’s a long day, but his face brightens when he talks about the three children and wife waiting for him.
“They’re very little still. I’m still busy,” he tells me with a big smile. “So, it’s a committed life you’ve got to keep up with.”
He takes seriously the commitment to maintaining the right environment for his children. He and his wife accommodate American culture by taking their children to Halloween and birthday parties when invited. Within the home, they follow Islamic practices and lead by example. “You have to be moderate. If you try to be extreme with your children, they’ll run away from you when they grow up.”
His wife is also from Somalia and it’s this community of immigrants in which he spends most of his time. Only one half-brother was already living here when Mohammed decided to leave Africa. I ask what brought him here, when everyone was still in Somalia. He bursts out laughing.
“What do you think? Money, of course.”
Not far away, in an Adams-Morgan hangout called Tryst, I talk with another transplant who moved here for financial and professional gain. Twenty-eight-year-old Meg [not her real name] sings in the Army Field Band, contemplates her Christian faith on a daily basis, and has found her greatest sense of community through an agnostic boyfriend. While she may be juggling a potentially charged mix, she also possesses the openness and optimism to weave it together into a fulfilled life.
The army hired Meg as she was graduating from one of the country’s top music conservatories. She earns a salary that allows her to save for the future. It’s not the path many singers, hungry for instant fame, would have chosen, but it’s not far from the path someone else raised in Meg’s stable Midwestern community might have chosen.
Mohammed’s days are organized around prayer; Meg’s are organized around contemplation of Christianity. Unlike Mohammed, she’s brought none of her biological family to D.C. But they both share an enduring religious faith, instilled in them as children.
“I grapple with the question of Christ’s divinity every day,” she says. “That is the question I want to grapple with for the rest of my life.”
Around us, couples kiss next to singletons staring determinedly at their laptops. A few customers stare at us, no doubt curious by the discussion they’ve overheard. Sex is common in D.C. Conversation of religion in the abstract occurs from time to time. Talk of one’s faith? Never.
“Religion is woven into the fabric of who I am,” Meg says. She spent childhood Sundays at church, attended a Christian college and has served in ministry roles. Before D.C., religion, church and community were inextricably bound. Here, she’s joined no church. But somewhere between her hometown and D.C., she became less reliant on church for spiritual development and community. “The faith I possess now is much more rooted in my wanting to manifest the character of Jesus Christ in my every day life.” An agnostic man can be appreciated for everything else he offers. His friends can become her “family.”
One man looks as if he wants to talk. He may want to discuss faith. Or it may be that he finds Meg rather hot, and the combination of kissing couples, her passionate nature and his beer are working an odd magic on him. She doesn’t notice. She has a boyfriend. One whose lack of religious curiosity troubles her at times, but a great, pancakes-for-dinner-making boyfriend all the same.
I originally sought out Mohammed and Meg, among others, because their jobs exposed them to a great cross-section of people. Mohammed sees dozens of tourists and overworked locals every day. Meg entertains and talks with our military. They could tell me more about the post-inauguration zeitgeist than most. But what they say, and don’t say, reveals how little Washingtonians feel their lives have changed so far.
They’ve heard about the presidential dog and vegetable garden. They know Obama flunked the economists’ tests in March and appeared on the Washingtonian cover in photo-shopped swim trunks in May. Thanks to the hours they and so many here spend listening to public radio, they know even more about world events and where Obama stands. But they grow most animated when recalling why they voted for him in the first place.
The voting in of Obama may be the magic most of us remember for years to come. Perhaps everything afterward is doomed to fall short. Or, perhaps, by our not noticing his impact on our daily lives, Obama’s actually affecting the greatest change of all − enabling District residents to believe they have a say in their own future, for better or worse.
Obama was no automatic choice for them.
Abortion, in Islam, is “haram, totally haram,” Mohammed tells me. Forbidden.
“And gay marriage?” I ask.
“Now we’re entering a different territory. This is going to be a swimming in the ocean.” He laughs and shakes his head.
“Then how did you reconcile those positions with a candidate in favor of both?”
Mohammed takes a deep breath as if about to dive into that ocean. “Obama, he’s very liberal. But the Islamic situation really turned totally different after 2001. Anyone who voted for the Republicans [before 2001] … got fired up … When you’ve voted for someone and they turn around and try to knife you, what are you going to do? You turn away!”
“Whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice,” Meg says, “and I hate those terms because I don’t think they accurately describe either candidate − I think we can all agree that, ideally, there should be fewer abortions. I do believe in a woman’s right to choose.”
She comes from a family and town that sided with McCain, but Obama’s early career decision to work as a community organizer swayed her. “I was impressed that when he came out of law school he had the opportunity to take a six-figure job in a law firm and he chose to go to the projects of Chicago and work with the less fortunate. That spoke to me a lot about his character. Maybe it was a political move.” She looks away and ponders this. Then she shrugs. “But even if it was calculated, it’s okay.”
Almost four months after the inauguration, layoffs, the presidential dog, the presidential garden, swine flu and more layoffs, how much has the new president changed people’s lives here? For Mohammed, it’s a nice topic to consider if asked by passengers, of which there aren’t enough. For Meg, it’s meant lower interest rates and buying a home. For the many others asked to contribute to this dispatch, the discussion must wait until they’ve got more time.
People no longer stand, enraptured, before sports bar and health club TVs when he talks. One woman in my gym did, though. During Obama’s 100th Day press conference, she watched and said, “I love you, Obama.” Everyone else rolled their eyes and kept moving.