Swimming in Two Lanes: Bridging gaps between Black Muslims and the Rest of Muslims in America
I will write to you fulfilling a vow to myself to not convey my story as a scholarly treatise littered with the steel wool of statistics and intellectual vomit. I have written all my life, but this type of soul bearing has it’s strangenesses. Yet I know that there is no better time than now to write about my life. Being born Muslim in America’s race inferno is a far too complex medicine to not be taken in spoonfuls. And so, I have no choice but to give you bits and pieces of me and my life. I’ll start by taking you back into my childhood and speak of one incident that shaped much of my understandings of the issue of race within the American Muslim community.
It was the late 1990s, and jumping off of the second floor balcony into the pool trickled through my mind. I also knew had I done it, it would have been damning to my family’s respectability. I also ran the risk of city kids, or our group in particular, the Muslim boy scouts, never being allowed to swim at Dr. Ahmad’s house again. It was clear that this was a special privilege and an act of “generosity” as we were told over and over again by Dr. Ahmad.
The most of what I can remember about him was that he practiced internal medicine. He had an unassuming stature, and what little hair he salvaged, was sprinkled strategically along the sides of his balding head. Eyeglasses sat up on the bridge of his nose with confidence. Oh, and he wore khakis too high on his waist. His face seemed to maneuver through looks the entire night. In one instance his wrinkling vanilla skin was appropriate, and under different light it told a story of No-Doz, and back breaking years of being on-call. Dr. Ahmad mistakingly substituted all his W’s for V’s due to his colorful Pakistani accent. We snickered at it but found it intriguing as well. Without question he bore the features of a long line of a once royal sand toned people who had their fare share of western dominance in South Asia throughout history. What he possessed materially payed tribute to his expertise nonetheless.
Dr. Ahmad owned a home that belonged on an HGTV special. Six plus bedrooms was a mansion in my eyes. My room at home could have fit just in his office four times over. The kitchen suggested that no one but a chef could cook there.
By the looks of the rusted gold chandeliers and winding staircases, I knew from the door that we were in another realm of social class. It was clearer after just setting out from my 2 1/2 bedroom, one bath row house in West Baltimore’s Hilton-Irvington neighborhood that housed at least six people at a time, depending on who was home from college. Our house went through several cycles of repair yearly, by neighborhood handymen that always broke more than they fixed. Throughout the years it wore the expression of a ton of “I can cut you a deal on the labor, them big contractors are going to rip you off” type of negotiations. What it lacked in aesthetics we made up for in the culture my mother brought to the table through her life transformations. She had African sculptures, framed photos of Hajj, and books on anything spilling from everywhere. Despite a homicide rate that always ran in the top ten cities in the country throughout my teens, we enjoyed a level of intellectual incubation.
We huddled between the entryway and removed our sneakers on plush almond colored carpet. Man sized doors boxed us in to the left and right that seemed like portals to anywhere. Dr. Ahmad dawned a glee filled smile and ushered us in with haste. It was a pretty long walk to the pool, yet I couldn’t help but notice the arabic calligraphy paintings, and artifacts dotted along the hallways. The art was simple and ridiculous to me, only because I thought they took two brush strokes to create. They all were housed in antique glass frames with french names. I tried to count the marble ceiling lights that lit the hallway one after another but soon got dizzy. All of us paced along side him like gladiators walking towards the coliseum. For any black kid in America, moments where you realize that it happens to be another America, where blades of grass are actually greener, and the street lights embrace your innocence, can make you or break you down to atoms.
At the end of the hallway, we entered in to a large, three story ceiling height room with a pool that belonged in a Colombian villa.
I remember feeling bashful as we changed in to our swim clothes. Something felt abnormal in this. That this man, who was Muslim, had a pool in his own home. I remember thinking at that moment that we were from where kids get yelled at for eating the sweet lead filled paint on window sills, or guys earned stripes for surviving a summer in Hickey juvenile detention center. We were miles away from pizza men that get robbed for pamper money and young girls losing their innocence to uncles coming home from 10 years of prison. Miles away from where the police would stop, frisk, or face plant kids in to the pavement. It was clear that in this neighborhood of Dr. Ahmad the kids mostly got in trouble when they didn’t walk “bucky” the family’s golden retriever, or were handed cold beers at 16 as a right of passage into manhood. Brand new bikes were left on lawns overnight without a worry in the world that somebody would snatch it from outside of your house, never to be seen again. Yet and still, our Muslim boy scout troop from the city avalanched on upon his spacious Baltimore county home without the slightest inhibitions. We tried to hide our insecurities under murmured wisecracks and slang.
Dr. Ahmad sat along our scout leader, and in a heavy accent asked him questions about our upcoming activities. After a while we were offered an orange pretzel appetizer, which we figured had to be an acquired taste, and then biryani that we inhaled like vacationers at Golden Corral.
On our ride back we all chatted in a frenzy. “Yo that Dr. Ahmad he got mad money don’t he?” Askir shouted from the back of the van. “Absolutely” brother Imran, our scout leader, replied. “That’s how doctors roll.” Other over-generalizations were bartered between us. Our ride home felt longer that night, all conversation bounced back and forth from what we would do with a house that big to how we would become doctors as soon as we got home. Of course our dreams were quickly shattered as each scout was dropped at different parts of the city. Blue light police cameras flickered as if they applauded our return. Heroine addicts nodded and couples fussed their love disputes out on porches. And among all the sighs from an experience that had come to an end too soon, waited Muslim mothers and fathers in doorways, who trusted brother Imran to be the shepherd of life altering experiences.
We would go back to Dr. Ahmad’s house several times that same year. And gradually through that, I developed great insights into more of this stark contrasting world of the inner city black Muslims and the more well to do immigrant Muslims. The more I got to know Dr. Ahmad then more I did see his humility around us the entire night, which was far different than my later encounters with foreigners. After getting through my own insecurities, I felt unconditionally welcomed.
Swimming in wealthy Pakistani’s houses in 1999 is part of my foggy memory of childhood. But, I remember the feeling it brought. It seemed as if through this act of charity Dr. Ahmad had exposed us to his world. A world that many of us only saw on late night TV specials, that is if we owned a TV. He too got to learn more about us. But maybe not so much our world as it was lived and experienced as we had his. Whatever the circumstances were that night, we interfaced with each other, laughed, told stories, and built cross-cultural bonds.
Since then, as I have aged, I realized that this effort on Dr. Ahmad’s part was just one small step in to our world and building that bridge. The reality and deep patterns of divides between immigrant Muslims and black ones would become even more stark over time.
In the years after that through today I realize that American Muslims are in a pivotal position. Many years have passed, which has allowed prejudices to burrow deep roots in our communities. We may stand foot to foot in prayer calling upon the omnipresent, but the mosques in America are much more segregated than anyone would like to admit. They are either immigrant, black, Pakistani, African, Indian, or Turkish. Every five conversations regarding the state of the Ummah my father says something to the tune of, “they don’t want to come down in the city and deal with no negroes boy” and I try my best to think of a counter-argument. Most often though, I can’t find a decent rebuttal. What I should have said was that unfortunately, immigrant communities have internalized media’s representation of blacks. So the time spent apart from each has caused more of a perceptual barrier than a real one. Just as Americans in little towns in Idaho watch Fox news and think that at all times Muslims are plotting to blow up the local Cold Stone, immigrants can have the idea that blacks are lazy criminals that lack morality. Dr. Ahmad’s effort was an important step in bridging our worlds. The only difference was it was us entering in his world, never him visiting ours. If that were to happen, with him, and with all others like him today, our Muslim community could develop deep and really valuable insights in to each other’s conditions. Maybe then, national headlines like “The Baltimore Uprisings” could be better internalized by all.