I stopped being a writer; today I have the words to tell you why.
I don’t write because I’m being watched. I turn off the words; I numb the feelings; I avoid the associations; I distract the thinking; I step away from the situation. I am here to document the ways in which I have chosen silence over action.
The first time I went to Friday prayers after moving to Chicago, no one said salaam to me. I thought, “Is this how a Desi gets treated in a predominately Arab masjid?” I remembered Dad telling me about the young, connectionless men at his masjid. He said, “They keep coming and going out of nowhere – they must be spies. No one talks to them.”
He asked me, when I told him about volunteering at an Islamic nonprofit, where their charitable donations went. He said these organizations get in trouble for sending their money abroad and their members get labeled terrorist sympathizers.
I text my sisters that I have a thing to tell them that’s not bad but I feel weird telling them on the phone so remind me to tell you when we all next meet (days, weeks, months?) so whoever the FBI has assigned to read this group text won’t find out (can’t I have some secrets, FBI agent?).
Before we got married, Neema seriously asked me if I was an FBI agent. “You’re perfect,” he said. Too perfect, he didn’t say.
You could say we’re paranoid; but we’ll say we’re up-to-date on our news and have learned our histories. Connection is risk.
I decided to practice radical empathy after Michael Brown was shot. I did not and do not have a hard time feeling empathy for protesters, for rioters, for the rage that leads people into the streets or for the rage that leads them to want objects to burn. I never wrote that I felt this way but I do feel this way and have no difficulty conjuring these emotions (but do struggle to make them disappear).
I practiced empathizing with George Zimmerman and with Darren Wilson and with Timothy Loehmann and with the officers of Waller County Jail and with Dante Servin and with the Baltimore Police Department and with Jason Van Dyke and with and with and with and with and with
I didn’t like it and I succeeded. But that’s a different story.
I am going to qualify here because if I do not you will wonder that having empathy for someone does not mean excusing someone.
I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed.
I am trying not to stop myself from writing this.
I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed. That empathy exists as a heaviness in my chest and a shortness of my breath. That empathy pushes at the edges of my heart but I am scared to let it in. I feel it as a failure of my humanity and I fear it as a failure of our humanity. I do not Google ISIS because I do not want anyone to know I Google ISIS. I do not know the stories or motivations or language of the humans-not-monsters who constitute ISIS because I do not think I can subsequently assert their humanity without putting my own into question. Empathy is risk. I am not a monster.
But I will own to being a coward; by now you know this. In my circles we talk about strategies for change: sometimes you want to be a Malcolm and sometimes you want to be a Martin. Mostly I am a chump choking back both my words of violence and my words of peace.
I remember back to my ethics class in journalism school. The question was whether journalists should not publish information that the government asks them not to publish for security. “Well of course,” said the class, “for security.”
For. Whose. Security?
I do not remember agreeing to value our lives more than their lives. I do remember my question knocking up against the insides of my teeth as I kept my mouth shut. I do remember remembering Abu Ghraib and air strikes against civilians and the Pentagon Papers and the people like me who were killed for the security of people like me. I do remember not saying that I thought our allegiance as journalists was to the truth.
I grew out of wanting to argue to argue. I do not hold these ideas as objects in my mind with dimensions I can manipulate and play with. I feel them in my gut and they bubble up as bile in my mouth. I do not want to taste this publicly in our class discussion or over coffee or as a Facebook comment. I do not want the acid that is burning holes in my stomach to sting in polite company. Would you even understand that while I skinned my knees on the same playgrounds as American soldiers and while my livelihood is tied up in American interests they serve, my mouth also prays the same prayers as those Arabs and Afghans and Pakistanis and Persians we are meant to fear? Maybe you could not understand me but you do suspect me in my skinny jeans and brown skin.
Understand this: I have written. And I have deleted. And deleted and deleted.
I know I am watched. As a consequence, I decided to restrict my speech and my press and my pursuit of happiness. I have been silent, but I have not been blind. I, too, have been watching.
About Gulnaz Saiyed
Gulnaz Saiyed is only just owning up to being a writer. She is a doctoral student in Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, designing and researching how to work with under- and misrepresented youth to tell their stories using documentary journalism. She is also an American-Muslim-Desi, on the taller end of short, a Potterhead, an unadventurous foodie, a Kentuckian, a reluctant Chicagoan, a sugar addict, a once-quilter, and would-like-to-be ceramicist.