His name was what got him pulled from a security line at LAX as he prepared to fly home to New York. The attack was a week past, the Los Angeles airport all but empty except for the National Guardsmen patrolling. Mo’s bag was taken for a fine- tooth combing while he was quarantined for questioning in a windowless room. The agents’ expressions remained pleasant, free of insinuation that he had done anything wrong. An “informational interview,” they called it.
“So you say you’re an architect?”
“An architect, yes.”
“Do you have any proof?”
Mo fished out a business card, ruing that the Gotham font screamed his full name, mohammad khan, although of course the agents, four of them now, already knew it. On the metal school- issue desk between them he unrolled a slim stack of construction plans and began to leaf through them. “These are of the new theater I– we are building in Santa Monica. It’s been written about in the Los Angeles Times, The Architect’s Newspaper, Metropolis . . .” In the corner of the blueprints he pointed out the firm’s name, ROI– recognizable enough, he was sure, to elicit some deference. The agents shrugged and examined the designs with suspicion, as if he were planning to bomb a building that existed only in his imagination.
“Where were you during the attack?”
“Here. Los Angeles.” Naked beneath the sheets in his hotel room, the attack a collage of sound– panicky sirens, fissuring broadcasters’ voices, rescue helicop ters pureeing the air, the muffle and crush of implosion– from his hotel clock radio. Only when the buildings were gone did hethink to turn on the television.
“Here,” he said again. “Working on the theater.” Working and longing for New York. Southern California was the white dress at the funeral, ill-suited to national tragedy. Its sun and BriteSmiles still gleamed; itsdeprived bodies and contrived breasts strutted. Even the sunset’s glorious mottle seemed a cinematic mock-up of the fires burning back home.
Each day brought more proof that the attackers were Muslims, seeking the martyr’s straight shot to paradise– and so Mo braced for suspicion as he returned to the theater under construction. A few days later, as he heard himself say to the contractor, “Would you mind if I suggested an alternate location for that wall chase? Only if it would help,” he realized that the difference wasn’t in how he was being treated but in how he was behaving. Customarily brusque on work sites, he had become gingerly, polite, careful to give no cause for alarm or criticism. He didn’t like this new, more cautious avatar, whose efforts at accommodation hinted at some feeling of guilt, yet he couldn’t quite shake him.
Cloistered at the airport, he struggled to maintain his self- respect even as the avatar encouraged obsequiousness. The agents’ questions were broad, trifling, and insinuating; his replies laconic. When they asked where he lived, he told them; when they asked his business in Los Angeles, for the second time, he told them that, too. He regretted, as soon as he made it, his suggestion that they call the client, the chair of the theater’s board of directors. But they didn’t seem interested anyway.
“There are probably a lot of people we could call about you,” said the agent Mo had labeled Pinball for the way his hands jittered at his thighs. He smiled as he said it, as if to suggest, but not definitively, that he might be joking.
They asked about his travels in the past few months; asked where he was born.
“Virginia. Which is in America. Which means I’m a citizen.”
“Didn’t say you weren’t.” Pinball popped his gum.
“Do you love this country, Mohammad?”
“As much as you do.” The answer appeared to displease them.
“What are your thoughts on jihad?”
“I don’t have any.”
“Well, perhaps you could tell us what it means. My colleague here isn’t good with the foreign languages.”
“I don’t know what it means. I’ve never had cause to use the word.”
“Aren’t you a practicing Muslim?”
“Yes? Yes or no? You’re confusing me.” Abbott and Costello in suits. “No. I said no.”
“Know any Muslims who want to do harm to America?”
“None. I don’t know any Communists, either.”
“We didn’t ask about Communists. Do you believe you’d go to your heaven if you blew yourself up?”
“I would never blow myself up.”
“But if you did . . .”
Mo didn’t answer.
“Been to Afghanistan?”
“Why would I go there?”
They exchanged glances, as if a question as answer was evasion.
“Coffee?” Pinball asked.
“Please,” Mo said crisply. “One sugar and a little milk.” The agent standing by the door vanished through it.
Mo checked his watch: only half an hour until his flight.
“I do have a plane to catch,” he told the room, which didn’t answer.
The coffee came black; it was unsweetened. Mo drank it anyway, pausing his answers to take careful sips. He hid his disdain for the bland cuts of their jackets; the openness of their faces, so unquestioning despite all their questions. The artlessness of their interrogation. But when Pinball asked point-blank “Do you know any Islamic terrorists?” Mo couldn’t help but snort in derision.
“Is that a yes or a no?” Pinball said.
“What do you think?” Mo snapped, his anger crowning.
“If I had thoughts I wouldn’t have asked the question,” Pinball said neutrally, and tipped so far back in his chair that only his fingertips, anchored lightly to the desk, saved him from falling. Then, without warning, he rocked forward. The legs of the chair slammed the floor, his hands the desk. His face–the pale fuzz between his eyebrows, the dot of dark blood afloat in his iris–was close enough for Mo to smell the faint cinnamon on his breath. The move, so carefully calibrated, so casually executed, must have been practiced. Here was the art, and Mo could have done without it. Pop pop pop went the gum. Mo’s legs quivered as if he had dodged three bullets.
“No,” he said with forced politeness. “No, I don’t.”
“Try harder, Mohammad.”
“I’ve done nothing,” he told himself. “I’ve done nothing.”
Had he murmured aloud? “Nothing,” he said. “I said nothing.”
No one spoke. They waited. In architecture, space was a material to be shaped, even created. For these men, the material was silence. Silence like water in which you could drown, the absence of talk as constricting as the absence of air. Silence that sucked at your will until you came spluttering to the surface confessing your sins or inventing them. There were no accidents here. For Pinball to hold out a pack of Big Red was an act as deliberate as Mo’s decision to bend the walkway at the theater to conceal the lobby for a visitor’s approach. The agents, who now seemed to think it strategic to demonstrate their friendliness, were asking him if he “minded” spending a little more time with them while they retrieved another colleague. When they left the room he surveyed it. They had used a partition with the texture of a gray, moldy bulletin board to shrink the room’s dimensions and maximize its oppressiveness. The room wasn’t windowless after all: the partition blocked the natural light to create the ambience of a cell. Someone among them understood the manipulation of space.
Removing the gum, he spotted a trash can in the far corner, but as he rose he imagined them watching him and sat back down. He didn’t want to provide grounds for suspicion. Perhaps the gum was a trick to get his DNA; he’d read about that happening in criminal or paternity cases, or maybe seen it on a Law & Order episode. He put the gum back in his mouth, gave it a final roll, and swallowed it while swatting away the irrational fear that he had just destroyed evidence. Down went the rubbery nub to join the knot of nerves in his stomach.
His effort to avoid being seen as a criminal was making him act like one, feel like one. And yet he had been, with a few merited exceptions, a good kid and was a good man, legally speaking. Being an occasional asshole–shedding girlfriends, firing contractors– didn’t count. The law itself he had rarely broken. He ignored speed limits and perhaps over- deducted on his taxes, but that was as much his accountant’s fault as his own. As a teenager, he had shoplifted a Three Musketeers bar simply to see if he could. That was the sum total of his crimes, and he was pre•pared of confess them all to show the absurdity of accusing him of anything grander. Really, he wanted to say, this is absurd! You have not just the wrong man but the wrong kind of man. The wrong kind of Muslim: he’d barely been to a mosque in his life.
His parents, immigrants to America in the 1960s, made modernity their religion, became almost puritanical in their secularism. As a boy he had no religious education. He ate pork, although he hadn’t grown up doing so. He dated Jews, not to mention Catholics and atheists. He was, if not an atheist himself, certainly agnostic, which perhaps made him not a Muslim at all. When the agents came back in the room he would tell them this.
But when they returned, dragging their heels and cracking their jokes, he told them nothing. His boast of irreligion stayed on his tongue, for what reasons he couldn’t say, any more than he could say why words long unuttered floated unbidden into his mind: La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasulullah. The Kalima, the Word of Purity, the declaration of faith. It almost made him laugh: at the moment he planned to disavow his Muslim identity, his subconscious had unearthed its kernel. §
Amy Waldman was a bureau chief for The New York Times in South Asia. Her fiction appeared in the Boston Review and the Atlantic, and been anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010. The Submission is her first novel.