Not a Good Time

As I was perusing the text again for moments “worthy of reflection”, I was struck by the passage below. I first read it on an uncomfortable plane ride back to Andover, and was thinking of it only through the lens of India. But this past week has lent a new perspective to my reading.

“Abdul was now working as fast as he could in order to finish by dusk, when strapping Hindu boys began playing cricket on the maidan, aiming their drives at his sorted piles, and sometimes his head. While the cricketers sorely tested Abdul’s policy of non-confrontation, the only physical fight he’d ever had was with two ten-year-olds who had turf-stomped one of his little brothers. And these cricketers had just sent another Muslim kid to the hospital, after smashing his head in with their bats” (14).

Abdul’s fear of the threat of physical violence from the cricket-playing boys struck a chord all too close to home, particularly after something my mother said to me recently when I invited her to come celebrate in the hallway with the other guests in our hotel, following the arrest of the second suspect in the Boston Marathon Bombings; “It’s not a good time for me to go out there with my hijab (headscarf) right now, habibti. But you go have fun, I’ll just wait right here.” I didn’t immediately understand what she meant, but when I pressed for more she merely responded with, “Didn’t you hear? He is a Muslim. It’s just not a good time, (pause) and your dad isn’t here.” Then it dawned on me. My mother was afraid. My bright-eyed and kind-hearted mother feared physical violence at the hands of her fellow Americans. She feared for her safety without my father there for protection. My mother. Across the globe, and in a nation supposedly blessed with all the light of tolerance and the warmth of diversity, my mother was afraid of the same thing Abdul was afraid of; becoming the target of violence because of her religion.

How can we even begin to combat prejudices? Some may cry education, and while it is important, will it ever really be enough? After all, no amount of data or information can open minds that are already closed. Knowledge can’t reframe perceptions that are already negative. So what does work? Well, as was demonstrated to me by the outpouring of concern and support I recently received from non-Muslim friends and family, it all comes down to relationships. Forming relationships allows us to view each other as full human beings and not simply through the lens of the symbols that separate us. And beyond relationships, it is the common experiences, the common stories, we share that let us build connections. Storytelling is the most powerful tool for combatting preconception and prejudice, because it forces the audience to empathize. Storytelling forces the audience to confront our common humanity. That is why Abdul’s story, and the others told in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, are so powerful. They force the reader to confront the idea that there is something that unites us beyond that which separates us, that ultimately we all share the same hopes and aspirations, and that ultimately we are all afraid of the same things.