The BBC News notification showed up on my phone during my 20th birthday party: a Thursday night before spring break, after a hellish exam week that began with my great aunt dying. Sadness didn’t hit me immediately. Numbness came first, and lasted for hours—days—still.
A few seconds later, I turned to one of my best friends and pointed at the notification, unable to speak. It felt like something was lodged in my throat. The music was too loud. She looked at me and shook her head, reached over and squeezed my arm. I put my phone face down and tried to forget.
The notification screamed at me in big, bold letters:
New Zealand PM announces death toll: 49 people
A few hours later, at 2:36 AM, I texted my sister and brother-in-law:
I can’t stop crying I just woke up bc of that news update about the mosque shooting in New Zealand
Islamophobic America was the America I was raised in—I was only two years old when the 9/11 attacks occurred. America taught me how to be like a chameleon, to reveal parts of my identity only circumstantially, to avoid getting hurt, to avoid the unavoidable branding.
In high school, I took a class called World Crises, an introductory International Relations class. We spent a whole month learning about the concept of practical nuances—the differences between terms like Islam, Muslim, Islamist. Every time any of those words accompanied some mildly controversial sentiment, I felt the eyes of other students shift to me. Eyes that would never experience what I had, eyes that had never been forced to look down, shut tight, as people holler at you: “You’re a terrorist.”
When I was in sixth grade, we shared the cafeteria with the eighth graders at lunch time. My best friend’s brother was an eighth grader. Him and his friends would taunt me as I walked by: “I bet your dad is a terrorist—does that mean you’re one too?”
That same guy went on to graduate from high school and take two gap years working for Bernie Sanders’ first presidential campaign in Vermont. We finally spoke again, years after the numerous altercations between us in middle school. He seemed nervous to see me. He tread lightly. Even now, I can see his eyes scanning my face, wondering if I remember. I can tell he’s convinced himself that I’ve forgotten—and maybe that’s why he never apologized. Whenever our conversation shifted to politics, I got the same question I always do: “What’s your story, Myisha? You know… as a Muslim Bengali female-identifying American in a time like this?”
What’s my story?
My story is I cry and shake in fear every time a notification comes up on my phone that another mass shooting happened, because what if the assailant was a Muslim?
I cry when I read about the atrocious hate crimes committed against us. I cry for those who believed what I do—that a shooting like this was inevitable, only a matter of time.
I cry for the ones caught in the crossfire. I cry because it could so easily have been me.
When you’re practicing Salah, you are in your most vulnerable state. Your back is to the door, your heart is to the Kabah, and you get down on your knees, press your forehead into the ground, and close your eyes.
In our most vulnerable state, we pray for guidance and grounding.
In our most vulnerable state, White supremacists will kill us.
What’s my story?
Every prayer I’ve ever done—in the same mosque I’ve been praying in since I was five years old—is practiced with fear in the back of my mind. The only time I can remember being eased of that fear is when the neighboring churches and synagogues came to visit us. These White faces would protect me.
Except they weren’t there to protect me. The usual distress was gone and only replaced with something else: judgment. And more eyes. Eyes watching me as I engaged in something deeply sacred. I wonder how many of these people showed up at my mosque the first Friday prayer—Jummah—following the New Zealand attacks.
In Muslim countries, we take Friday off in order to attend Jummah, the most important prayer of the week. In countries like the United States—like New Zealand—we take time off of our work or school day and congregate together. Those who prayed in New Zealand had taken an hour off from their daily lives—and they were shot to death for it.
On Jummah that following Friday, we praised the local police who showed up and guarded our mosque as a sign of solidarity. But what about my brothers and sisters at the Roxbury Mosque with a majority Black Muslim population? Will they ever feel safe?
I am searching for a balance between the two extremes that we face when horrible things happen: fascination and disassociation. I can’t stand to hear my mother recite details of the newest terrorist massacre, stolen from Facebook anecdotes: “Did you know the man at the front of the door said ‘hello, brother’ to the terrorist before he was shot to death by him?” I don’t want to listen to this man tell the world why he did what he did, listen to others immortalize him by discussing how sick he must be. But I can’t look away either, right? I can’t go on pretending this can’t happen—will happen again. And amidst all of this, I think of the people who call themselves allies and the ones who texted me saying they were with me today and the ones who didn’t and—
The next day, my family went to Vermont. At midnight it would officially be my birthday. The kids went to pick up dinner while the parents stayed in, and when we returned, the air had shifted. My dad cleared his throat at the dinner table. “Your mother is worried about how you all are coping with what happened in New Zealand.”
I was quiet. I listened to my sister and her husband explain their feelings. I didn’t know what to say—maybe for once, I didn’t have anything to say. I found myself silent.
In silence, I blend in to protect myself. In silence, others will continue to be victims of hate crimes.
And so in silence, I pause. In silence, I mourn. In silence, I try to find my strength again.