In the late ’90s and early ’00s, I used to frequent a boutique in the East Village called Michael and Hushi. Hushi Mortezaie, an impish club kid born in Iran and raised in the Bay Area, made outlandish, psychedelic, robot-chic clothing and was getting the coolest of the East Village cool kids to wear his strategically slashed and torn Farsi-graffitied shirts, though none of them had any idea that in some cases they were bearing post-Iranian Revolution political slogans.
I — born in Iran, raised in the Los Angeles area — used to go to downtown parties in a skimpy halter top that featured newsprint-emblazoned mujahideen women brandishing machine guns, their bullets bedazzled in gold next to the words “Long Live Iran.” It was the first time I had worn anything having to do with my homeland; I loved that feeling of for once being able to both be Iranian and a play on it.
In one of the last days of August 2001, I remember being at the boutique again, and Hushi was giddy preparing for Fashion Week. His store windows were freshly adorned with his “Persian collection,” a new line of hijab-and-harem-pant Iranophilia. “Girl, get ready!” he said, “Iran is going to be the new black.”
Days later, there we were, two Middle Eastern 20-somethings who now had some explaining to do. Friends started speaking in roundabout inquiries: What exactly was the status of my green card? How were my father and brother faring? Were they Muslim, by the way?
Hushi’s stylists, meanwhile, were calling him to ask how he was — and when he was going to be getting rid of that window display. But somehow we really were fine, even under the heavy air of everyone’s condescending concern.
Little did we know that it would take almost a full decade for the proverbial 9/11 fallout to fall out, for anti-Muslim xenophobia to emerge, fully formed and fever-pitched, ostensibly over plans to build an interfaith cultural center near ground zero. Even in New York, stronghold of progressive ethics and cultural diversity, my former home of 12 years, August 2010 became the evil twin of that still-innocent August 2001.
In addition to the mosque, of course, there was the Florida pastor who wanted to burn Korans on the Sept. 11 anniversary, and who has yes-no-maybe-so reconsidered, after a hearty load of negative press and a dab of executive-branch headshaking. And, hey, what do you get when you put a drunk white college student, who had actually been to Afghanistan, into the cab of a Bangladeshi Muslim? The wrong answer and a stabbing, allegedly.
It’s one test I would have passed. For the record: I am not Muslim. My immediate family ultimately kept us as agnostic as possible; religion went only as far as my mother praying to the American concept of a guardian angel and my dad “studying” Zoroastrianism. But most of the extended Khakpours are Muslim and, culturally, it’s a part of me insofar as I am a Middle Easterner.
I am also a New Yorker, a deal that was sealed forever nine years ago. I had just moved from Brooklyn to downtown Manhattan to shack up with a boyfriend. The studio was 25 floors up, with a nearly all-glass wall that framed a perfect view of the World Trade Center.
Now, when I look back on ages 23 to 32, every aspect of my life is shadowed by what I saw through the glass that blue-and-gold Tuesday morning: two towers, each gashed and stunningly hazed in the glitter of exploding windows, falling, one after the other, over and over again. But what was once simple apprehension and mortification and trepidation has become increasingly entangled with feelings of exhaustion and marginalization and even indignation.
A deep dark admission: lately — and by lately I mean this era I worked so hard for, when a liberal person of color, a man who resembles my own father, would be our president — I’ve found myself thinking secretly, were certain things better in the George W. Bush era? Was it easier to be Middle Eastern then?
Just six days after 9/11, at the Islamic Center of Washington, President Bush said, “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind.” He added: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” Did that assurance mean more to white Americans coming from someone who looked like them?
Xenophobia and racism still abounded, but the lid stayed on the pot. Perhaps when Republicans held both the White House and Congress, conservatives weren’t sweating a thing; for them, people of color, along with all our white liberal friends, were lumped together in one misery-loves-company fringe. But now that the tables have turned, conservatives have positioned themselves as aggrieved victims. (I recall the advice of an older female relative: Always let men you’re in relationships with have all the power; it’s when they lose power and get insecure that your problems start.)
Indeed, has the most irrational breed of 9/11 payback emerged precisely because we elected an African-American president whose middle name — the name of cousins of mine — has turned into an H-word slur? A commander in chief whom the most misled and confused perceive in cartoon cahoots with terrorists, or at least as their religion-mate? As if that weren’t enough, take last year’s Fort Hood gunman, add a helping of the would-be Times Square bomber and top it off with “ground zero mosque” — and voilà, a boiling hot summer of anti-Islamic assault. Suddenly, anyone with skin as dark as President Obama’s could be a “secret Muslim,” and any Muslim must surely be a not-so-secret terrorist.
The world Hushi and I were in, before 9/11 and just after, was not a picnic for brown people. And there’s no need to cast 2001 to 2008 in an ideal light. None of us breathed easy. It’s just that we expected to breathe easier as time went on.
My brother, who lives in Brooklyn, recently discovered that many of his Muslim friends in New York felt that the Islamic cultural center was a bad idea to begin with, for this sole reason: it was going to put them in danger. He and his friends feel a fear that they haven’t in ages, or ever.
During our late-night calls, my brother and I talk about nothing but what’s on the news, and we laugh a lot, but we laugh nervously. My sense of humor, honed in my immigrant childhood, was always my ultimate disarming mechanism, a handy way to infuse the blues with some off color.
This was my modus operandi during a book tour in 2007, when 90 percent of my Q-and-A’s were about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s notorious president, as my publication date coincided with his infamous visit to Columbia University. It was annoying and even baffling, because it had nothing to do with me or the book. But I laughed and joked with the audience so that it was clear to them I was, like, totally un-Ahmadinejad, dudes.
The hilarity started to curdle at the moment I was also feeling the most euphoric: during Mr. Obama’s bid for the presidency. It was around then that I began murdering whole days on the Internet, and not just on the Internet but in its dirty basement, the comments sections of blogs. There, an angry tribe of fake names spoke in misspelled obscenities and declaimed the true, evil nature of Middle Easterners and their intentions in this country. This is silly, I’d tell myself, these trolls aren’t representative of my neighbors or of Americans.
Then I’d go on Facebook, and engage in more online warfare with friends of friends, real flesh-and-blood people with real-life names, who a bit more politely and grammatically stated the same. And there was me — a non-Muslim, who has publicly criticized certain Islamic practices — flaccidly battling for Muslims worldwide. It got to the point that I was telling people I didn’t even know that their opinions were making my life downright “unlivable.”
It reminds me of how I used to experience so many mixed emotions when I’d see women in full burqa in Brooklyn: alarm at the spectacle (no matter how many times I’d seen it), followed by a certain feminist irk, and finally discomfiture at our cultural kinship. And then it would all turn into one strong emotion — protective rage — when I’d see a group of teenagers laughing and pointing at them.
Every day, I lose America and America loses me, more and more. But I should still be in my honeymoon phase, since I’m actually just a 9-year-old American. And that’s my other association with autumn 2001. As luck would have it, my citizenship papers finally went through not long after the towers fell. That November, I was in a Brooklyn federal courtroom singing, along with a room full of immigrants, the national anthem that I hadn’t sung since K through 12.
I remember on that day, 9/11 leaving the foreground of my mind for the first time. I remember looking around that room and feeling, in spite of myself, a sense of optimism about the future. I remember feeling a part of something. I remember feeling thrilled at the official introduction of the hyphen that would from now on gracefully declare and demarcate my two worlds: Middle-Eastern American. The same hyphen that today feels like a dagger that coarsely divides had once, not too long ago at all, been a symbol of a most hallowed bond.
Porochista Khakpour, the author of the novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects and a professor of literature at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.