In my childhood household, there were Bad Words and there were Never Ever Words. “Bitch” was a Bad Word. “Bomb” was a Never Ever Word.
It was in the delightful company of many other Never Evers. Some were names (Al-Qaeda), others were numbers (9/11), and others were terrifying nine-letter classifications (“extremist,” “terrorist”).
You could call the world they occupy Never Ever Land. It is a world where Muslim children grow up almost instantly; where a hush-hush culture is perpetuated; where a “they might come for us” mentality is underlying. It is a world where a politician’s Islamophobic comments prompt renewed fears of deportation, where twin towers crash down again and again in a loop cycle.
I do not remember 9/11, but I do remember Musa.
Before he was deported, Musa ran a small Islamic clothing store in my neighborhood. He wore soft leather slippers and strong musk perfume, and whenever my dad and I visited him he asked me: Where is Allah? I always pointed to the sky in response, and he always rewarded my considerable knowledge with Ritz crackers.
My parents heard that they came for him at dawn. Seized his store with all of its jilbabs and headscarves and prayer beads and Ritz crackers, my Ritz crackers. (Where are you, now?)
I do not remember 9/11, but I do remember all the moments of silence.
After one of them, my fifth grade teacher recounted how the smoke had been visible from the very windows where we sat, how the father of one of her own students had been stuck in the towers. She said we were the last generation who, scientifically speaking, had a chance of remembering the events.
I took this to mean that my classmates and I made up the tangible periphery of the dark 9/11 era: beyond us, there would be no more.
As distance grew between daily life and the events of 9/11, my parents did become more forgiving of Never Ever rule violations. They attempted to implement an Only-In-The-House rule. Like burping aloud, or eating while standing up, talking about terrorism or Islamophobia or suicide bombings was ill-mannered and unsettling. When dinner conversations crossed the line, my mom would interrupt me sharply — you don’t talk about stuff like this outside, right? — and I would nod unconvincingly.
They were afraid that someone would get the wrong idea, the kind of idea that got you sent away at dawn.
There are two sides to the post 9/11 us-against-the-world mentality. Muslims may be deemed suspect pretty hastily, but non-Muslims may be taken for ignorant Islamophobes just as quickly. I’ve experienced both ends, but it’s the latter that I am personally afraid of.
It is difficult to be a minority, but to be a minority in defense mode all the time, burdened by the perceived suspicion of those that mill around you day after day — this is tragic. And while this paranoia in the Muslim-American community has largely decreased — there was a time after 9/11 that my parents and neighbors couldn’t even leave their homes, much less go to work — it still rears its head once in awhile.
This phenomenon has become symbolized by The Olive Garden Incident.
The Incident began as a typical family outing. My dad was retelling the same stories about working as a waiter when he first came to America. My mom was preaching about the danger that carbohydrates — specifically, Olive Garden breadsticks — posed to society. My younger sister was begging me to guess how many likes her latest Instagram post had gained in the past 24 hours. (Not a lot of likes.)
Soon into the evening, my dad asked one of the waiters for a fork. About a quarter hour later, the waiter still hadn’t arrived. My dad grew increasingly restless, swiveling his head around every so often to look for him.
Now, if it had been up to me, the waiter would have returned to our table at around this time. Belated fork in hand, bemused smile on his lips, he would have said: “Well, I suppose you don’t need this anymore.” We would have laughed, shared a few more teasing exchanges, and called it a night.
In actuality, the waiter never came back.
And in no time at all, my dad was surrounded by the manager and several other waiters, in the throes of a rant so intense it could’ve been scripted for reality television: The waiter had looked at us wrong, had purposely avoided our table and withheld our fork, and it had definitely been motivated by Islamophobia —
It was one of those passing moments where every detail seems either extraordinarily right or extraordinarily wrong, permeated with an emotion so singular and overwhelming it feels as if you are recalling a memory rather than experiencing the present.
I hated that the manager’s expression — sugary, doe eyed, positively stricken — was another ruse my dad could not or would not recognize. I was revolted by the way my dad fumbled simple English words in his great urgency, by the way my classmates would perceive him if they were present. I hated that my parents had thought taking us to Olive Garden was a treat, that no one had ever informed them otherwise, that I had ordered eggplant parmesan. Even the cheap little dessert menus in the corner of our booth seemed like caricatures of our particular brand of pathetic.
Because when all was said and done, The Incident still wasn’t atypical. I couldn’t/can’t distance myself from the event any more than I can cease physically resembling my dad. I couldn’t/can’t say that his behavior was incomprehensible or bizarre or even singular.
The Incident has happened before and it is bound to happen again, although its form may be different: my dad’s suspect may be a constantly standoffish neighbor, or a teacher that once graded me poorly.
In this regard my parents, and especially my dad, still linger in Never Ever Land.
Perhaps Never Ever Land hasn’t faded over the years so much as retreated into a deeper place of vague irrationality. The perceived threat may be a politician that accuses us of celebrating 9/11. It may be the veiled motives behind the delivery of a singular fork. Everything must be carefully questioned, approached with a dual consciousness.
And so I can’t help but think that Obama’s recent speech at the Baltimore mosque — a response to “inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim-Americans” — is too little too late.
After all, this aforementioned political rhetoric is what reminded me of 9/11 and my parents’ attempts to censor my language as a child.
In some ways it has served as a jarring, concrete “I told you so”: yes, my parents may have had something legitimate to fear and yes some of the individuals who seek to govern this country kind of actively hate us and yes the waiter/standoffish neighbor/strict teacher may have all been Islamopobes all along. Despite my best efforts to adopt the seeming effortlessness of my peers, to write-off my father as out of touch or overly paranoid, the realities of this election have called the most sensitive parts of my identity into question.
In a matter of months, after the cutoff for this particular election, I will officially be of voting age. The influences of Never Ever Land could not have chosen a more inopportune time to start coming my way.
I’m at an age where I can choose my own bad words, use my voice however I want to, and (soon) vote for whomever I want.
I thought this moment would feel more empowering.