In the fall of 1991, at the end of my first week of high school in America, I saw a picture of Allah.
It was the year a highly intelligent Milwaukee man was luring young men to his home from the clubs and bars he met them, then killing them and storing their parts in his freezer. It was the year a nominee for justice of the Supreme Court was defending his name on live TV against allegations of sexual harassment. It was the year a Black man had been caught on video being pummeled by police on the streets of Los Angeles.
Later, much later, I would name it the year of our American Awakening.
We’d moved to Chicago from Bangladesh in June, and I’d spent the long summer months before starting school being my parents’ household helper and errand boy. It got me to learn our new neighborhood fast. I made daily trips to the convenience store a block away at the corner of Sheridan and Lunt, walked to the video store on Morse, took a combination of the 151 and 155 buses to Devon when my mother needed as close a fix as she was going to get of Bangladesh in Little India, and on the endless evenings of extended daylight walked the beach next to our building until the sun submerged completely in the lake. Looking out over Lake Michigan for long stretches, I imagined Bangladesh on the other side of it, even though I knew from basic geography that it wasn’t, and I could make the long journey back on one of the ships that outlined the horizon, never moving, until I learned that they weren’t ships but pumping stations.
Overnight, I’d lost my cousins, my friends, my school, my life. The best I could do was wait for the end of summer and the start of the school year and wait I did as never before for school to start.
My school was majority African-American. Mexican and other Hispanic populations came second. White students could be counted on one hand. There was a sprinkling of Chinese, Vietnamese, Somali, and Nigerians. To my surprise South Asians held third place, with Pakistanis in the lead. I was the only Bangladeshi.
The first friend I made was Amir Noorani. He was in my English class. We were walking out after class on Friday, and he merged with me and bumped my shoulder with a fist.
“How the hell do you know this crap so good?”
“I like English,” I said.
“You’re the first desi I know that does. Where you from?”
He asked me in Urdu if I spoke Urdu. I understood every word but told him I didn’t. My father loathed Urdu as much as he despised Pakistan and Pakistanis. He’d fought in the war against the army regime of Pakistan in 1971 to liberate Bangladesh, and he would never forgive the atrocities they carried out on Bengalis during those nine months. If he knew I admitted knowing that foul tongue, he wouldn’t let me forget his ire and disgust and disappointment anytime soon, probably ever.
“So you’re not Muslim then?” said Amir. “You got a Muslim name.”
“Bangladesh is a Muslim country,” I said. “Bengalis are Muslims.”
He seemed to give this thought as brand-new, never-before-known information.
He walked with me to my locker and while I switched out books, he stood leaning on the locker next to mine watching me.
“So this Be Wolf stuff, you actually like it,” he said.
I corrected his pronunciation of Beowulf, in a tone that should have gotten my ass kicked.
“Whatever,” he said. “Come have a snack at my house after school. Help me with the homework. I don’t understand a word of this garbage.” He made a fist and bumped my shoulder twice and went off to his next class.
We had the same period lunch, and after we ate, I called home to ask my mother’s permission.
“Who is this boy again?” she asked as if she had a vetted list in front of her for cross-checking approved names and backgrounds.
“A friend,” I said, turning my back to Amir, embarrassed by her putting me on the spot like that.
“What’s his name?”
“Amir,” I answered, barely above a whisper.
“He’s Muslim?” she said, an audible release of breath under the words.
“Does he live far away?”
“No,” I said, without knowing where he lived. “Just near the school.”
“How long?” my mother asked.
“Maybe an hour or two.”
“Don’t be too late.”
“Desi mothers, right?” said Amir after I hung up.
A rumble like thunder sounded above us. Amir’s eyes widened as he looked across the hallway at the stairs. “Shit,” he hissed.
A riot broke out on the second floor.
Amir grabbed me by my shirt, pulling me away from the phone and the stairs across the checkered, shiny floor of the lobby in front of the main office, just in time.
Two students came tumbling down the stairs. A stampede followed them. Hundreds of kids shrieking and howling, cheering and chanting. The two were about the same in size as far as I could tell, but one was clearly stronger. He had on a Chicago Bulls coat. The other one wore a purple Girbaud t-shirt down to his knees and baggy pants that covered his feet. Bulls coat picked him up and slammed him on the floor in a way that I would not have recovered from as fast as Girbaud did.
The crowd roared like a sports stadium. Girbaud cracked Bulls coat across the mouth, inspiring another burst of gladiatorial applause. Bulls coat rushed him, and they went hurtling past the main office.
Teachers and staff came scrambling out. Some of them got knocked around by the cheering mob.
The principal, too, came bustling out, then stood impotent, staring sadly at the scene. He looked right and left over and over. He shouted. He was drowned out completely by the deafening throng, which had by now created a circle around the fighters. turning the lobby into a ring. Amir and I were backed up to the farthest end of the lobby, trapped in a corner behind the circle.
Three Chicago police officers burst through the front doors, hands on the guns on their hips. A half dozen school security officers in civilian clothes accompanied them. The police fell on the fighters while the security officers tried to manage the crowd. It took all the police officers’ strength combined to break them up and hold them apart, and they didn’t care that armed officers of the law had their hands on them, they kept taking swings and snapping at each other like hounds.
“Let’s go!” one of the security officers shouted. He was huge and his voice accomplished the miracle of cracking through the din. “Back to class! Let’s go, right now!”
I went through the rest of the day numbed, conspiring with myself to never mention the fight to my parents. It wasn’t as though I’d never seen a schoolyard fight. I’d been in a few myself. But none of those resembled the lust for blood I’d just witnessed.
They didn’t say so outright, but my parents weren’t over the moon that my school was predominantly Black. Their minds were on getting me enrolled in school as soon as we were settled in. They didn’t have the time or the frame of mind to make it a drawn-out process of research and consideration. They went for the one closest to home.
If they knew about the fight and of the hundreds of others that would be part of my education over the three years I was there, including a few shootouts right outside the main entrance, their biases would only be confirmed. We had, after all, been fattened on a diet of American shows from an era where Black and other characters of color were the perpetual villains, and Whites forever the saviors of humankind. Even brown people like us we derided, as evidenced by our cheering the destruction of the caricature of “Indian” barbarity and heart-devouring cannibalism in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
“Doing okay?” Amir asked when he met me at my locker at the end of the day.
I didn’t have a reply.
“Welcome to this shithole,” he said.
I wasn’t much in the headspace for Beowulf but didn’t want to let him down.
“I’ve been seeing that shit since I was in third grade,” Amir said after we’d been walking without speaking for about ten minutes. “My father was a doctor in Pakistan. Here he drives a cab and works at a grocery store.”
“Why did you come to this country?” I asked.
“He would’ve been killed in Pakistan.”
“Because he said he would. What does yours do?”
“He’s an engineer. Had his own business back home.”
“Why did you come here?”
“He said we had to.”
Amir lived on Pratt, about the same distance from school as our apartment, and the whole building, from the tiny entrance with the rows of mailboxes on one side to the third floor where his unit was, smelled of spices. It was a smell I hadn’t encountered in such profusion since leaving Dhaka, even though my mother cooked Bangladeshi food at every meal, and I was ready to eat.
We sat down in his living room, spread out our books on the coffee table, and his mother, a dour woman much older than mine, brought out a tray with plates of chicken kabab, naan, and chutney, and placed it quietly on a portion of the table Amir had cleared. I hadn’t met her until then. I stood up, salaamed her, and she asked me my name in Urdu. Amir answered that I didn’t speak or understand it and gave her the information himself, adding on that I was from Bangladesh.
“Bungaali?” said his mother, raising her eyebrows, pressing a hand on her heart. “Ya Allah, what a sad loss for our Pakistan. Our own brothers and sisters. Half our country. Gone. Allah, what a shameful loss for us. Eat, beta, eat. As much as you want. There’s plenty more.” She said all this in English that sounded like my mother’s.
We wolfed down the food. Amir asked if I wanted more. I did. But since he wasn’t getting seconds, I said I was good.
While we were eating, and Amir was doing a sort of postgame commentary on the fight at school, I kept looking at the large color portrait of the smiling white man above their entertainment stand.
“Is that your dad?” I finally asked.
“That?” Amir said, pointing at the portrait, then looking at me as if I’d spat on him. “My dad? Are you serious?”
“Who is it then?”
I thought I’d heard him wrong.
“Allah? As in Allah Allah?”
“Who else is Allah?”
“But…Allah isn’t a person. He’s not supposed to be.”
“Do you pray to him?”
“At mosque, yes.”
“You have that picture up in your mosque?”
I went between him and the portrait several times, devoid of another question or thought.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You ate my food, now make me understand this Be Wolf shit.”
I was breathless to tell my mother about Allah’s picture in my new friend’s home. Everything I knew about my religion was thrown to the winds. Islam doesn’t worship images. Allah doesn’t have a face. Muhammad is his Prophet, not his son, and is never, ever shown in pictures, unlike Christians who called Jesus the son of God and hung his dying body on a cross on their walls and around their necks.
My mother cracked up. She rarely laughed since we moved to the States, but my crazed, terror-filled confession of having looked Allah in the eyes had revived her yipping cackle.
“They’re Aga Khanis,” she said when she calmed down and caught her breath. “That’s not Allah, that’s Kareem Aga Khan.”
I told her Amir used a word that sounded like smiley.
“Ismailis, that’s right. That’s another name for them.”
“And they’re Muslims?” I asked.
“Yes, but not Sunnis like us. They’re Shi’a.”
“Which one? The smiley one or Shi’a?”
“Are they like the ones that beat themselves with chains on Muharram?”
“No. Those are Shi’a Shi’a. Ismailis are different.”
“I thought all Muslims are the same.”
“They are,” my mother said, “but also different.”
My father refused to go to work for a company he didn’t run. In Bangladesh he was a businessman – shipping, textiles, and the burgeoning telecommunications market – but he was too tired to start from scratch in America or bow to a boss. He was done with the stress, too, of managing money and people, losing sleep and health over profits and losses, and would rather leave the headache to someone else.
Instead – and leaving my mother and me puzzled as he often did – he asked for and took a job at the convenience store owned by his first cousin, five years his senior, who had sponsored us to come to the US. I called him Anam Chacha. It was clear from the start that Anam Chacha was happy to exploit the blood connection in ways he wouldn’t be able to with a stranger. He had my father working six, sometimes seven, days a week for two, three weeks at a time, twelve or thirteen hour shifts, which, without notice, could stretch longer, and paid him minimum wage, without overtime. There was the whiff of some ancient resentment between my grandfather and Anam Chacha’s father, who were brothers, that Anam Chacha was playing out in his relationship with my father.
My mother, I remembered, was against accepting Anam Chacha’s help, but we had no one else that could sponsor us, and my father was adamant about leaving Bangladesh after the government went on a rampage of confiscating people’s assets following the fall of the military regime during which too many of them had become obscenely rich dodging taxes and aligning with the dictatorship, even though my father hadn’t done either. His assessment was that the government didn’t care. If it wanted a man in its crosshairs bad enough, it found a way to put him there.
My father’s entire savings went into the move, including the processing fees for our immigration forms. Anam Chacha took care of all of that. No one could deny he came through. Whatever his motives, whatever motives I attached to his intentions based on his history with my father and our family, what no one else was willing to do for us, he did without questions.
My father was so exhausted after his shifts that he would fall asleep and start snoring between bites of his dinner.
I was hoping my mother wouldn’t bring up my new friend, or that my father was too spent to hear her properly and wouldn’t remember any of it by the time he woke up to go to work in the morning, but she went straight for the kill.
“He met a Muslim boy today, from his class,” she opened, spooning dal on my father’s plate. My father grunted. “Tell your father.”
“He’s in my English class,” I said.
My father made another low, guttural sound.
“Aga Khani,” my mother volunteered.
My father stopped eating. My heart punched my throat.
“Pakistani?” he asked. He looked at me. “Is he Pakistani?”
“Yes, he is,” I answered. He held me in his stare. His eyes were too tired to be threatening, but they still melted my bowels. “But not like that,” I rushed to add.
Both my parents frowned.
“Not like that? What does that mean?”
“You know, the bad kind,” I said.
My father fought a wave of fatigue.
“Did you speak Urdu?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Did you say you understand it?”
He nodded off then started awake.
“Go to bed.”
I went to Amir’s house again the following week. My mother was starved enough for company and conversation that she bombarded me with the kind of questions she and her friends in Dhaka would use for fodder: how did they live, what was Amir’s mother like, was their home richly decorated, were they wealthy or not. Every time I started answering she launched into her own stories about the luxurious childhood she’d had.
Her father had been high-ranking official in the Civil Service when Bangladesh was still East Pakistan. Their fleet of cars alone was a wonder. One for each time of the day, a car for official business and a car for social engagements. To hear her tell it, I’d missed out on the best of times. The grandeur, the comfort. Their house that I’d known and loved since birth in its prime – before they could no longer afford the upkeep and were forced to rent out the second and third floors, before its slow decline into walls of peeling whitewash, rainwater stained corners, cracked foundation, and potholed driveway—when it was a sprawling three-story colonial-era bungalow with a wraparound verandah, tall ceilings, shuttered windows, ceiling fans that hung from long rods, a roof with unobstructed three-sixty-degree views of the city, and an army of servants to look after it. Tailors and carpenters came to the house and created custom-made clothes and furniture that the best brands in England and America couldn’t rival.
“You missed it all,” she’d finish every time. “If only you saw those days.”
My grandfather had been forced into retirement before his time because he was Bengali. Overnight, all that luxury became smoke and puffed away. Urdu-speaking West Pakistanis ruled the government roost. They made pariahs of Bengalis.
My grandparents were religious. They prayed five times a day, fasted during Ramadan. They had a mullah over to the house every Friday to conduct Jumma prayers right there in their living room. I was forced to sit through them when I was old enough. They were excruciating. The mullah was tone-deaf. He sang the suras so loud my ears rang for hours afterward. It was easier to sit in Amir’s house and look up at the silent portrait of Allah.
Amir came up to my locker one day after school and said they were going to Taco Bell and then to Schreiber Park to play basketball, I should come along. I turned around to see a boy with five o’clock shadow darker than my father’s, his hands jammed into a peacoat, examining me like he’d paid for me.
“This is Zeeshan,” said Amir.
“Hi,” I said, extending my hand. Zeeshan’s didn’t leave his pocket.
“This guy loves all that Be Wolf shit in English,” said Amir. “He’s good too. Never knew a desi so good in English.”
“Where from?” Zeeshan asked in Urdu.
“He’s Bungaali,” Amir told him in English. “Doesn’t speak Urdu,” he added in Urdu.
“Looks like he understands just fine.”
My father would want me to respond, and I, too, wanted to hit back at the guy’s audacity, but since he had spoken Urdu, I had to restrain myself.
Zeeshan drove. He had a sky-blue ’87 Chrysler LeBaron with rusted out pockmarks on the doors that looked like giant bullet-holes, and an engine that knocked so loud it turned heads. Two other boys were leaning on the trunk when we came out to the parking lot. Their names were Malik and Teddy. Teddy, also Pakistani, laughed at the twist of confusion his name brought to my face.
The sound the car made when Zeeshan started it was an embarrassing disharmony of screeching belts and an angry old engine growling its wish to die. He punched the lighter and lit a cigarette. When he started driving, he became an old man with arthritic joints and bad eyes, and it took him a full five minutes to back out of the spot and crawl out to the street.
Amir rode shotgun. Malik and I flanked Teddy, pushed up against the doors, while he sat in the middle, leaning over the bench seat with his knees and elbows out as if he had the whole back to himself.
Zeeshan’s cigarette smoke filled the car. My eyes watered. I wanted to roll down the window. The only car I’d been in until then was the ten-year-old Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra my father bought from a used car dealer Anam Chacha had introduced him to. My father drove it sparingly, for groceries and strictly essential errands. Gas was expensive and the car had a lot of miles. We never went on drives the way we did in Dhaka—to the airport to watch the planes, or out of the city for the day to the Liberation War Memorial in Savar, eat lunch, walk around, and get back by nightfall. We didn’t visit anyone because we didn’t know anyone. My father rode the bus to work. Compared to Zeeshan’s, ours was brand new.
“Hindu snatch, man, not for me,” Teddy was saying. “I don’t give a shit how hot she is. I’ll see all those hands coming at me like their Kali, wielding knives and shit, and that nasty black face, and lose it. I’m out. Now, Muslim pussy. What I wouldn’t give for one little thrust into that piece of Paradise.”
“Probably has teeth that’ll bite your little dick off,” Malik laughed.
“Here, sisterfucker, let me show you little.” Teddy grabbed Malik’s hand and tried to shove it in his pants.
“Sick fuck!” Malik yanked back his hand and smacked the back of Teddy’s head.
“Just ask your mom, she’ll tell you how little it really is.”
“What did I say about talking like that in my car?” said Zeeshan. His voice was heavy and deep like a parent’s and brought on a hush that didn’t lift for the rest of the drive.
We took a booth near the back. Teddy had ordered a staggering amount of food, which he went through with the precision of a professional eater until his tray was a field of vanquished wrappers. Zeeshan sipped a fountain drink, and Malik and Amir had one burrito each. I got nothing, because no matter how much I ate, my mother would refuse to believe me and stuff me more when I got home.
“So, Bunglades, huh?” said Zeeshan. “How long you been here?”
“Are you kidding?” Teddy stopped masticating a mouthful. “And you speak English so good?”
“I spoke it there.”
“So did I. So did all of us. But damn, man, if I didn’t know what you looked like I’d think you’re a white guy.”
“Mummy-daddy, what do they do?” Zeeshan asked.
I told him. He listened without apparent interest, sipped his drink, and lit another cigarette.
“You go to mosque?” he asked.
“No. I mean not yet.”
“He thought our Imam was my father,” said Amir.
“What the fuck. You sure you’re Muslim?” said Teddy.
“Yes,” I said, defensive, and hot with shame.
“He didn’t know,” said Zeeshan. “Sunni, right?”
“Yes,” I answered.
I hadn’t called home to tell my mother I’d be late. I slid out of the booth to go use the payphone by the bathrooms. There was a line of kids waiting to order that stretched all the way to the door, mostly from our school, and I recognized one of them as the Girbaud-wearing student from the fight. I automatically looked for the other one, but he wasn’t there. I tried meeting his eye. He might be in one of my classes, I thought. I paid little attention to my classmates, didn’t look them in the eye as a rule after I learned the very first day of school that doing so was the surest way to court a beating, and kept my head and eyes down through the day, ears tuned out other than to the teacher, or to fights and gunfire. I failed at self-preservation when he caught me.
“Hi,” I said, as my heart kicked, and almost said sorry.
“’Sup,” he said. “You want to cut in line?”
“You want to get in front of me, cut in line in front me?” He made a small space.
“No, thanks. I’ve eaten.”
“You in Becker’s second period math, right?”
“I thought that was you.”
“Move, bitch,” the kid behind him said.
“Later,” he said.
“Where are you?” my mother asked.
“Just outside school, playing basketball. I’ll be home in an hour.”
“With that Aga Khani boy?”
She gave me a cryptic silence, then said, “Come soon.”
When I got back to our booth the rest of them were on their feet.
“What the hell were you talking to him about?” Amir asked.
Zeeshan’s eyes were boring into me, which I evaded.
“Bullshit,” said Teddy.
“He’s in my math class,” I said.
Teddy laughed, so did Malik.
“I bet he’s a real genius at it,” Teddy guffawed.
No one produced a basketball when we reached Schreiber Park. We weren’t dressed for playing either. I was secretly glad, because I didn’t know how to play basketball, which had been humiliatingly on display many times during PE. The park was crowded anyway, a full-court game going on at a level I didn’t expect to see at a public park. Kids our age were dunking like professionals, shooting three-pointers with the precision of snipers, dribbling like magicians.
The game was Black vs. Mexican. The temperature was somewhere in the forties and some of the guys had their shirts off. We were standing in a row on the sidewalk side of the fence. We must have looked like a team of stuffed-shirt scouts – Zeeshan in his peacoat smoking a cigarette with that permanent scowl, Amir in jeans and button-down shirt, Malik sweatered and slacked, Teddy in a puffy coat and brick-like sneakers, and me staring uncertainly at rituals of this new life I’d been thrown into without preparation or context.
I was trying to imagine my mother’s expression if she ever heard a conversation between me and my new friends in which we talked about getting shot, and then again when she recounted it to my father, and my father’s silent acceptance of things he couldn’t change.
Teddy shouted “Yo, Esteban, man!” to a student in a Raiders baseball cap during a short break. Esteban looked in his direction but didn’t return the greeting. Teddy’s hand was in the air, his fingers brandishing the sign of the horn.
“Put that down,” Zeeshan told him.
“You want to get us killed?” said Malik.
“Esteban’s my homey,” said Teddy.
“That’s not even his name,” said Malik. “What class do you have with him?”
“He goes to Senn,” Teddy said. “I had classes with him there. Yo, Esteban, what up, man!”
“Put that down,” Zeeshan repeated.
Esteban was clearly irritated. Teddy made a slew of gestures in his effort to jog Esteban’s memory that amounted to a convoluted dance.
“Moron,” Malik laughed. “What a fucking moron.”
Teddy gave him a push that sent him rolling along the chain-link fence. He didn’t stop laughing.
I had to get home. Zeeshan offered to drive me. I declined. I didn’t want a strange car driven by a kid who looked like he could be my father’s friend bringing me home, then to have to explain how a tenth grader owned a car to begin with as if it was somehow my doing. I started walking. Amir joined me.
“Why were you all paranoid about the thing Teddy was doing with his hand?” I asked.
“He thinks he’s a gang member,” said Amir. “He was doing the Latin Kings sign.”
“I thought this was for like headbanging and rock and roll,” I said making the sign.
Amir smacked my hand and his head snapped back and forth checking around us.
“Don’t ever do that. You’ll seriously get jumped or killed. This is Folks and Disciples neighborhood.”
“Kallu gangs. Our school and this neighborhood is Black gang territory. Senn is Latin Kings.”
“Is Senn in a different part of the city?”
“No. It’s walking distance from our school.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Like I said, I’ve been seeing this shit since third grade.”
We walked in silence for a couple blocks.
I said, “I asked my mother about, you know, the man in the picture in your living room. Your Imam. Sorry I didn’t know. She told me who it is.”
“You ever met him?” I asked.
He laughed so hard he stopped and bent over.
“You don’t just meet him.” He wiped his eyes and coughed into his hand. We started walking again.
“What if you did?”
“Man, I won’t.”
“But what if you did?”
“I don’t even know how that would happen.”
“Let’s say if he came to your mosque.”
“He doesn’t have that kind of time. And he doesn’t live in America.”
“What if he did, and you were picked to ask him one question. Just pretend. What would you ask?”
“There’d be thousands of other people. Besides, they’d probably pick someone older.”
“Pretend that’s you.”
He started to answer then grew quiet. His brows furrowed, he seemed in deep, conflicting thought.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Mr. Becker was writing one of his indecipherable graphs on the chalkboard and telling us over his shoulder to settle down and get our homework out. The late bell hadn’t rung yet. There’d be a rush of students in its wake, and then Mr. Becker, with his magnifying-lens-thick glasses through which his green eyes looked like oversized marbles, would waste five minutes lecturing us about discipline and punctuality – he was also the soccer team coach – until one student or other would say in a sleep-heavy voice, “Man, shut the fuck up.” The first time I heard it, my insides tangled and knotted. If we even thought something like that in Bangladesh we’d be neutered.
“Mr. Briggs,” said Mr. Becker. “What colorful excuse do we get from you today? Late bell rang,” he looked at his stainless steel wristwatch, “two minutes and thirteen seconds ago.”
“Just write up the detention,” said Briggs, settling into his desk. He was the Girbaud-wearing student.
Exactly three out of fifteen students had done the homework. I had made many attempts, gotten through half a problem, which was probably wrong, and given up. Mr. Becker walked between our desks checking our work, and when he came to mine, he stopped and gave my notebook a longer look than the others.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Fuck you think happened?” the student behind me said. “Ain’t nobody done this shit.”
“Mr. B,” said a girl, “why we gotta learn trig? What good do it do? It don’t even look like English.”
Mr. Becker looked at the student, then over the class.
“I’d tell you, but you wouldn’t care.” He came back to my work. “Why didn’t you finish?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Becker,” I said, “I didn’t know how to do it.”
“I thought you guys were good in math and science.”
I swallowed hard, my mouth blossomed cotton balls. I was ready for him to say he wanted to have a meeting with my parents.
He went behind his desk, set his hands on his waist, and gave us a despairing, hopeless expression – the kind his team must see when they performed as pathetically as his class.
“All but three of you, detention.” And then he mumbled something as he looked down at his textbook, shaking his head.
“You’re like the first ever desi to get detention,” Amir laughed, smacking my back. “Are your parents going to bury you alive?”
I called and told my mother I had to use the library after school for a class project, then headed to the lunchroom, detention slip in hand.
The lunchroom was empty except for the row of tables at the back reserved for detention, most of which was made up of my math class. Something about walking to this corner of misfits felt rebellious. Felt good. In Bangladesh, we’d be made to stand in a corner of the class holding our ears, or get whacked with rulers, humiliation being the point. Rebels didn’t get humiliated. They humiliated others, without trying, by just being themselves.
The teacher, a Mrs. Williams, had a scowl fixed on the students. Briggs was sitting on a far end of a table by himself, staring ahead. He gave me a nod and I took the seat across from him.
“What’s your name?” Briggs whispered. My head snapped in Mrs. Williams’ direction. She was too far away to hear us.
“Faheem,” I mouthed more than whispered.
“Damarius.” He offered his hand, then took mine through a three-part shake.
After we served our time, we started walking together the way I went home.
“So, trig not your thing,” said Damarius.
“I was not good at math ever,” I said.
“I can do it if I want. Becker pisses me off. He’s a racist fuck.”
We reached the crosswalk where I crossed Sheridan Road to go the two blocks to our building. Damarius stopped with me while I waited for the light.
“Where you live?” he asked.
I started pointing down our street and changed my mind.
“A little bit that way,” I said, vaguely indicating north on Sheridan. I could see our maroon-brick building. My mother would be at the front room window watching the street for me. She’d think I was in trouble or bringing trouble home if she saw Damarius with me. “Okay, bye,” I said when the light changed, my insides clenched with the hope that he wasn’t coming along.
Damarius stood back as I crossed the street, as if he’d escorted me to an agreed-upon point. On the other side, I made a left and kept walking the way I’d told him I lived. When I got to the convenience store, I ducked into the doorway and gave another look behind me. Damarius was gone. I waited another minute, then ran home.
The next book we read was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and again Amir asked for my help. I’d studied some Russian history at my school in Dhaka and loved the story, especially the detail of the spoon that Shukhov carried in his sock and took out at every meal. By then going to Amir’s house after school had become routine. His mother asked about my mother and mine about her when I got home.
Any time Amir wasn’t looking, when his head was down writing or trying to get through a page of text, I stole glances at the portrait. It didn’t matter that the man now had a name, or that he wasn’t Allah. I couldn’t unthink my original disbelief.
On Friday, Anam Chacha came over with my father for dinner. In all the months we’d been here, he hadn’t once had us over for even a cup of tea but didn’t give a second thought to tagging along with my father last minute, and then shoveling down two days’ worth of food in one sitting. After dinner, while I helped my mother with the dishes, my father did everything in his power not to either explode or fall flat on his face with exhaustion, as Anam Chacha droned on with no end in sight. My father made surreptitious checks of his watch to count the precious minutes of sleep he was missing.
Anam Chacha was the first in the family to leave home and migrate thousands of miles away by himself. In his early days in Chicago, he worked whatever job he could get–busboy, grocery store bagger, retail – while going to college full time. He’d pushed through, earned his degree, and got hired at an engineering firm that sponsored his Green Card. He worked hard the first couple years, then saw he wasn’t going to move up the ranks without leasing his life to the company, or being White, and even then, stayed on for eight more soul-and-dignity scouring years before quitting. Three men hired after him, all White, had been promoted within months, while there were years when he didn’t even see a raise or a holiday bonus. He’d saved up well. He was single. His expenses were few. The store was his way out.
“You know how that is,” he said, “even if you gave it up and walked away.”
“I didn’t want to. I had no choice,” said my father.
“Maybe you did,” Anam Chacha snapped. “If your father hadn’t bungled the family estates, neither of us would be in this situation today. He messed it up for himself and for my father and the rest of the family, forever.”
“I never wanted any part of it,” my father said.
“You still took it.”
“I did what was expected of me.”
“Must be nice.”
“I built my own business.”
“With a leg up. I’m the one that’s cheated, not you. My father died a pauper, not yours. What did I get? Everything I have, I earned myself.”
“I know,” said my father.
“You better know.”
It was close to midnight when Anam Chacha yawned and said he should go, then waited another full minute before lumbering to the door, hoping perhaps that he’d be asked to stay the night.
My father was snoring seconds after he went to bed. I was finishing up some homework in my room. My mother came to the doorway and sighed.
“Did we made a mistake?” she said, more thinking out loud than asking me.
“Mistake? With what?”
“Everything. I ask Allah all the time. Did we do right or wrong? I get nothing, no answers. Pray, son, okay? Ask Him always to look after us.”
I will, I thought, next time I’m at Amir’s, I will.
Interview with Nadeem Zaman
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
Nadeem Zaman: I wrote my first short story entitled “Tiger Hunt” when I was 8 or 9, in one evening. My paternal grandfather edited it. Besides that, I’ve always been in love with reading and the written word, and never looked back. I became serious about writing as an undergraduate and over the years kept doing it. I can’t imagine doing anything else – besides teaching writing and literature.
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has, or should have, on short fiction?
Nadeem Zaman: I think fiction is and always has been political in and of itself. Writing is a political act. The politics doesn’t have to be overt in every story or novel, but writers find topics to interrogate and research because something about them grabs us on certain fundamental levels. One of those levels is the political. I think the work should be what it wants to be, and all else after that. Unless I set out consciously to address contemporary political realities in a story, my reason for writing a story has to do first and foremost with the story itself.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? Or Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Nadeem Zaman: This is a tough one. I can never keep any reading recommendations to one author or book! Among American writers, I recently read both collections of Edward P. Jones and they’re terrific. I highly recommend them.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Nadeem Zaman: Depends on the author’s intent and the needs of the story. If we go with the classic beginning-middle-end approach then there needs to be a set-up – or situation – or conflict – that launches the story, which is then brought to some form of climax, and then moves toward a resolution where there’s been a transformation. One way that a professor encouraged us to look at stories is to ask, “What is different today?” I found this very helpful. A story happens when the everyday and the ordinary is disrupted, and the moment or event that causes that disruption leads toward the transformation. It doesn’t have to be big or earth-shaking, it can be as small as a look, something shared without speaking, a revelation that doesn’t require more than a mutual acknowledgment or understanding.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Nadeem Zaman: That writing is a lifelong PRACTICE. I emphasize the word because it’s an evolving, maturing process that’s improved with constant and disciplined doing.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Nadeem Zaman: Reworking a novel I’ve been working on since about 2018. It started out as a sweeping epic spanning four hundred years of Dhaka history linked to the story of one family, but I’ve since minimized the scope. Now it centers more the period of the 1857 rebellion and the 1905 partition of Bengal, interspersed with the present day, as a young woman of that same family tries, through her dissertation, to uncover stories and histories unknown to her. As of this writing that’s where the work stands. I have no idea where it will lead. I’m having fun discovering, restarting, rewriting, redoing – in the course, through the research, learning a fascinating amount of Dhaka and Bengal history.