On Wednesday, my brother and I went out to the library. He had some volunteering to do, and me, not being an adult volunteer, took the most part of that hour to read.
If any of you know me, you know that I have a rather unhealthy habit of talking to strangers. And for the most part, the stuff people have to say is fascinating! I’ve met angry businessmen on the train, on their way home from a long day at work. I’ve met to happy mothers at the mall with their families, watching children point out items that they’d like to buy, only to see the price tag and look away, giggling. Today at the library, though, I met a man named Harold – A dead set Trump supporter.
(Note that I have gotten Harold’s approval to use his first name and his talk with me on this blog post, though I am withholding his last name as per his request.)
Harold was reading a newspaper at a table when I sat down across from him, book in hand (Pride & Prejudice). He was grinning wildly at the newspaper in front of him. I asked what great news he was reading about. He looked up, surprised to see some random teenager taking interest in his life (I get these looks a lot when I talk to people for the first time). Instead of answering my question – he asked me if I was Muslim. Now, I had a choice here – I could have not told the truth, seen where he would go with someone who was not a target of Trump. But, being myself, I told the truth.
“Yes, I am, though not practicing much. Why do you ask?”
He spent a good moment looking at me, sticking out his lower lip ever so slightly, before he asked another question.
“Why did you come here?”
At first I thought he was talking about me coming to Canada, and was prepared to take a torrent of racism. Fortunately, he clarified by asking me why I came to this table to talk to him. I told him that people from all ages and backgrounds have amazing stories to tell, and I always enjoy talking to people about them. He gave me a small smile, then turned his newspaper over. The headline (Surprise) was a picture of Donald Trump waving his hand in the air with a big grin on his face. The headline read “America shocked as Trump pulls off nail-biting victory.” While I was reading that – he said in a low voice, practically a whisper:
“I don’t like terrorists. I’m glad he won.”
I looked back up at him, raising an eyebrow. My mind was suddenly ringing alarm bells; had this man just called me a terrorist? It took an awful lot of willpower for me not to stand up and leave right there.
“Excuse me?” I tried to keep my tone polite, but the accusation was clear in my voice. I looked into this man’s eyes – they were quite warm and welcoming, all things considered, but something about him seemed exhausted, almost angry about this topic. I was, for the first time ever, beginning to regret coming and talking to someone new.
And all of a sudden – he began saying the most evil things I’ve ever heard come out of a man’s mouth.
“America has been poisoned by illegal immigrants, drug dealers, and terrorists. Scum that litter the streets and take away our jobs, ruin our economy. Muslims, terrorists, same thing, really.” He was talking as though he was American himself. I could feel my heart beating faster – this was the exact kind of person I’d never hoped to meet in my life. Someone who assumes the worst intentions the moment you meet them. Then he looked me straight in the eyes, and asked:
“What’s in that backpack?”
Books! I had never wanted to scream more than I did in that moment. I have books! I have wondrous pieces of knowledge, designed to educate and build humanity, not destroy and tear it down! I have books! How dare you have the nerve to think I had anything but!
All that rushed though my head in an instant. Had I really just been branded a terrorist in the one place I loved most? I still don’t quite know why I still sat there and responded, in a voice so serious, I still can’t quite believe it came from me. I said the most un-Areeblike words I every could have imagined.
“My name is Areeb Q. I was born and raised in Canada, with beliefs of the decency and the innate goodness of humanity. I am an active volunteer in my city, to give back for the endless luxuries that they have provided me, I am in a library to further help me become a better and wiser person, I have a family that has taught me to embrace life and treat every single one with decency and respect! I believe that every person on the face of this planet has the right to be loved and respected. And I have never even had the shadow of a thought to intentionally harm another human being! We’re in a library, I’m going to give you one guess as to what is in my bag. If you dare say and other word than ‘book’ that starts with a ‘b’, then I am truly ashamed by the way that you see the world.”
I have never scared myself as much as I did in that one moment of fury. I hadn’t realized that I was standing, with both my hands on the table staring into Harold’s eyes with every bit of disgust inside of me crawling it’s way to the surface. I am not proud of how I reacted to that. I should have been calmer, but something had been building in me from every single racist comment and story of injustice I have read. It all just bubbled to the surface, and popped. I sat back down, and said:
“Why did you just call me a terrorist?”
He looked at me with a rather fearful expression for some time, then responded.
“I… I’m sorry.”
My entire body relaxed. He was sorry?
He continued: “Really. I’m sorry. My brother was supposed to move here over the summer.”
There was a long pause, he was fighting some really deep emotion. What he said next rocked me.
“You know about Orlando?”
Impossible. No way I had just said that to the sibling of a victim of a mass shooting. Life had a good way of slapping you in the face when you least expect it.
“He took two bullets, one in the arm, another in the chest. I’m lucky he survived, but he was in critical condition for four months. All because some Muslim decided that that was the day Americans needed to die. Since then, I have hated Muslims with every fiber of my being. Every time I see one, all I can see is the scum that shot my brother. All I can see is someone else with the intention of harming innocent people.”
I felt so weak. Had I really just opened a wound so deep in a man I barely knew?
“I’m really sorry to hear that. I don’t have words to describe my disgust for people who hurt another. I think I owe you a huge apology.”
He nodded, “That’s why I was so glad to hear that Trump won. Finally, someone was going to do something about the problem that almost took my brother.”
So I exhaled deeply and said “I’m not sure if you know this, but there are over one billion people who follow the Islamic religion around the world. Of them, I am certain that less than ten thousand of them have ever felt a need to defend their beliefs to the point of hurting another person. I am truly sorry for what you and your family had to go through, and I’m also sorry for snapping at you like that. That was really not right of me.”
All of a sudden, he was smiling. “I’ve never really thought about it that way. Over a billion of you, eh?”
That was it for my talk with him. I later asked his name and if I could write about what we had talked about. Thankfully, he said yes.
That was one of those moments that I don’t see myself forgetting. It was a huge learning moment for both of us. I’d always slightly disliked people that assumed things about you based on your appearance – but I hadn’t ever realized that maybe, just maybe, there was some slightly understandable reason that they were doing this.
Donald Trump has played on this during his campaign – always convincing people that their hatred towards others is not only justified, it is right. That the actions of one should speak for the actions of a group. The mindset of a Trump supporter is not one that believes in senseless anger, but one that has taken a minor problem and had it blown out of proportion. Harold here probably would have not openly accused me of associating with the most terrible crimes, if not for that newspaper article he was reading, and who it was about.
I believe in the innate goodness of man, and once again has that overpowered months of hate Harold has been secretly harboring towards me and all Muslims alike. I’m really hoping Harold has had is perspective broadened a bit – Mine certainly has.
Two differing perspectives met that day, and I’m proud to say both were slightly changed, but only for the better.