For the first time since 9/11, I am afraid to leave the house.
Even when the bombs started dropping on Afghanistan and Iraq, my naive 20-something self at the time was certain I’d be safe here in the U.S. Especially here, in Southern California.
People always tell me how laid back and “West Coast” my vibe is, right down to the relaxed cadence in my speech. I was confident and comfortable in the knowledge that I was from here. Those distant wars were not about me.
Today, things feel different.
It was a rainy and cold night in Los Angeles. The rarity of the rain added a sheen of intrigue as I drove up the 101 freeway through downtown. I glanced at the overpasses above, nearing the place where I’d been told the signs would be. Sure enough, there they were – jankier than I expected, but still expressing their intended hatred. In black pixelated letters one sign said No, and the other featured the image of a crescent and moon.
I took the next exit. After circling around for a few minutes, I finally found the exact overpass on Alameda St., between the city jail and Union Station. I rolled by, slowly. The signs were four laminated, letter-sized pieces of paper forming a larger rectangle. From the grommets at the corners of each sheet, plastic zip ties kept the signs fastened to the chain link fence.
They ask me why I always wear black.
And I answer, “I am in mourning”.
They ask me who am I mourning.
I’m mourning my grandfather, I say.
They found his bones 10 years after his head was cut off, Quran in hand.
I’m mourning my uncle too; his remains still not found. I wonder how much he suffered.
I’m mourning my grandmother, killed by the grenades that left her son handicapped.
I’m mourning the thousands of Ahmeds, Aishas and Fatimas massacred for being Bosniaks, for being Muslim. I’m mourning my Bosnia, the land of milk and honey.
I’m mourning Palestine and her olive trees. I’m mourning Palestine and the land my friends will never get to see.
I’m mourning Palestine and her rascal children, now gone.
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I became Muslim in my early 20s. During those early years, I would entertain myself on nights when I couldn’t fall asleep by conjuring a story where a mythical creature occupied the rural family cemetery beside my childhood home. This idea actually started with something I dreamt involving an early explorer to America who had lost his way. Somehow, in his travels through out the New World, he slipped through a portal that would later become a traditional grave house over the oldest marked plot.
This creature was a Muslim from some undisclosed foreign land, and he’d fallen through the cracks of time and space while exploring the uncharted territory of early America (where all things were possible, including bending the nature of reality). Occasionally, he would pop into my contemporary world from another dimension.
I’d often find him perched on a high limb of a fragrant and large magnolia tree in the middle of the cemetery. In my story, there were rumors of his existence –like a Bigfoot sometimes spotted by hunters — but he remained an unconfirmed myth. I existed as the only person he trusted.
This imagined character was my attempt to create a narrative that linked my identity as a Muslim to the very different experience of growing up as a Southern Baptist. And as silly as the story felt, it provided one example of how imagination – creative third space — offers the ability to rescript our place in the world.
Alas, my conjuring wasn’t so fantastical. Five hundred years ago, a Muslim’s feet may have touched my ancestral land. His name was Mustafa, and Laila Lalami writes his story in the new novel, The Moor’s Account.