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We’ve passed through security and we’re boarding the plane when the breaking news alert hits my cell phone: There’s been a shooting.
Alerts like this trigger the same thought process, every single time. First: horror for the victims of the crime. But second: anxiety. Was a Muslim involved? Please, God, don’t let there have been a Muslim involved.
The TV monitors in the boarding area are tuned to a show my father hates: Jack Henderson’s nightly The Jack Attack, a cable news juggernaut. My heart tightens as images of the shooting flash next to Jack’s face. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I’m sure it’s his usual bombast: immigrants, Muslims, borders, walls.
Next to the TVs, the beige walls are decorated with white lights and Christmas wreaths, a feeble attempt to bring seasonal cheer to the T gates.
Once safely on the plane, I poke my mother; my father is across the aisle from me, with a white man wearing khakis and a blazer in the adjacent window seat.
“Mom. Look,” I say.
My mother puts down her iPad and takes the phone from me. “Oh no,” she whispers. “That’s devastating.”
We lock eyes, and I know she’s having the same thoughts: Please not a Muslim. Please not a Muslim.
Not that facts matter. Chances are good we’ll bear the blame one way or another.
She turns on her seat-back TV, switching it to cable news. A red chyron blazes on the bottom of the screen: Attacker still at large. I hand the phone across the aisle to my dad. He stares at the screen for several seconds, sadness and frustration etched across his face. Silly Dad, the guy I’ve been teasing all morning, has disappeared. He’s Serious Dad now.
As passengers continue boarding the plane, people around us frown at their phones. I study their faces carefully for the reactions. Dismay. Disbelief. Fear. Anger.
The man sitting next to Dad turns on his TV and lets out a sound of disgust. He glances sidelong at my father. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I sense suspicion. My pulse quickens. He switches from cable news to sports.
“I bet it was a Muslim.” A male voice behind us. Young.
“You think?” A female voice. Quiet.
“An attack like that? Most definitely. Screw those people.”
“God, it’s scary. You just never know.”
“They’re all the same. They shouldn’t be here.”
“Coulda been Syrian. Refugee, probably.”
“I work with a Muslim. This chick Rabab. She doesn’t pray and do all that crap. We went out for drinks last month.”
“Yeah, for sure. There’s plenty of good Muslims. I’m not talking about them.”
Though their voices are low, muttering, they bore into my skull. I picture my grandmother in Dallas: my teta sitting in my aunt Bila’s cheerful purple room, watching Amr Diab music videos and reading gossip magazines spilling dirt on Arab Idol judges. I wish I could show the passengers behind me what a Syrian Muslim in America looks like. Ask them if she is something to fear.
Of course I can’t, and even if I could, I’d chicken out. Dad’s said it forever: Harsh words equal short-term satisfaction. They always backfire. Best to take the high road.
My dad’s phone rings, and he pulls it out of his pocket. “Kefic, ya Mama?… Mabsoot, mabsoot … Hamdullah … Enha a’al tayaara … Inshallah, inshallah,” he says quietly. “Ya habibti … yalla, ma’asalaama.” He’s going through the motions with Teta, a routine ten-second phone call: How are you? I’m good. We made it on the plane safely, thank God. I’ll let you know when we’ve landed, God willing. Love you. Okay, gotta go.
But the man next to him is now glaring at my father. My dad keeps his head down, his gaze neutral.
Things have become so charged, so ugly. He shouldn’t have taken the call.
The man stands up abruptly. “Excuse me.” He steps over Dad.
I lean forward in my cramped seat, watching him walk up the aisle to the galley. He talks to the flight attendant, who looks our way. He seems agitated, his arms gesticulating.
Her face hardens.
“Dad,” I say.
Before I can say more, the flight attendant is standing in front of my father. “Sir. Is there a problem?”
My father looks up at her, blinking several times. “No, ma’am. No problem.”
“We’ve had complaints about you,” she says.
“Complaints?” I say. The venom in my voice surprises me. “Or just one, from that guy?” I nod toward the man still standing in the galley.
“Allie,” my father says, voice low. He shakes his head, almost imperceptibly.
The flight attendant appraises me, her brow knitted. I can’t tell if she’s irritated or confused. She turns back to my father. “Passengers have expressed concern. They said you were speaking Arabic and they heard the word ‘Allah’ repeatedly.”
“‘Allah’ is a really common word in Arabic, ma’am,” I say. “It’s in, like, every other phrase.”
“Allie, please,” my father says.
Normally I would shut up. I’d be obedient and just listen to my dad, like always.
Today is not that day.
“He was talking to my grandmother, ma’am. She doesn’t speak English. We’re flying to Dallas for a family reunion. We live here, in Atlanta. Actually, just north of Atlanta—in Providence. You know Providence, right?” A gentle Southern twang creeps into my voice, even though I’ve lived in Georgia for barely six months.
She looks back and forth between the two of us.
My dad opens his mouth again. “Ma’am, there must have been a misunderst—”
“I’m his daughter,” I say, putting on my best For the Adults voice. Dad doesn’t get these people like I do. Thank God I dressed nicely and wore makeup for the flight. “I’m a student at Providence High School outside Atlanta. So we’ve just celebrated Christmas, and now we’re spending New Year’s Eve with the rest of our family. For a reunion.” I repeat, my tone upbeat and friendly. I pull out my phone, Googling my father’s name. “See? Here’s my dad on the Emory website. He’s an American history professor there. He has a PhD from the University of North Texas.” I click around on my phone, pulling up another entry. “Oh, so this is an article about my dad in the LA Times a few years ago. He wrote a book when he was an assistant professor at UCLA, and it got great reviews. Here’s another one, when he was an associate professor at Northwestern.” I put my hand gently on my mother’s arm. She tucks her blond hair behind an ear, looking concerned. “This is my mom, Elizabeth. She’s a psychologist affiliated with Grady Memorial. We’re American. We’re all American.”
This is so not me, speaking up, but I have to. It’s my dad.
Listing my parents’ résumés seems to mollify the flight attendant, but Dad’s seatmate is still in the galley. His arms are crossed against his chest, his eyes sweeping over my father accusingly. I can practically hear his inner monologue: The daughter and the wife don’t look Muslim. But the dad …
I stand up slowly. No sudden motions.
“Here, Daddy,” I say, pulling gently on his arm. “Why don’t we switch seats? You can sit next to Mommy.” I never call her Mommy.
Wordlessly, he stands up and slides into my seat.
“Please, sir,” I call to the man who has accused my father, gesturing palm up toward his empty seat. “After you.”
He walks back down the aisle, frowning and avoiding eye contact.
“So sorry for the confusion, sir. My grandma is so silly,” I say, smiling as I sit next to him. Smiling is key. It confuses them. Anger … indignation … that’s a luxury we don’t have. “I’ve been trying to get her to learn English for years. She should learn! But you know how it is, right? Can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
He blinks, looking back at me. His dubious expression softens.
“I’m so sorry you felt uncomfortable.” I’m still using the Voice. “Thank you so much for being so understanding, sir. It’s very kind of you.”
Finally, he nods at the flight attendant. “It’s okay.”
She scurries away, obviously relieved.
I want to slap him across the face. I want to say: How dare you judge my father? What gives you that right? Instead, I draw from years of lessons and hold out my hand, smiling. “I’m Allie, by the way.”
“Larry,” he says, shaking my hand in return. He gestures toward my dad, though still not looking at him. “You’re obviously a very well-brought-up young lady. I didn’t realize you were together.” He clears his throat, seeming embarrassed. “Sorry for the misunderstanding. But you know what they say: If you see something, gotta say something. Never can be too careful.”
Now he’s smiling, too. I’ve convinced him we’re safe.
Human, like him.
I spend five minutes forcing myself to chat with him until I’m sure we’re out of harm’s way. He’s an insurance analyst based in Dallas, returning from a business trip. I remind him of his daughter. She’s a redhead like me. Twenty-three. Graduated from SMU last year.
I smile, working to look interested and make him feel comfortable.
Once the flight takes off, I politely make excuses and pull out my iPhone, finally feeling safe enough to relax and read a new novel I’ve downloaded. The guy nods off somewhere over Alabama, and it’s only once he’s asleep that my father gets up to use the bathroom, kissing me on top of my head before walking into the back.
My mom leans across the aisle. “I’m sorry, honey,” she whispers.
The rest of the flight passes without incident. When we land, the guy takes a phone call as soon as we’re on the ground, loudly talking as we deplane. He doesn’t make eye contact with my father, disappearing into the crowd at DFW.
Look, I did what I had to. If you break open your moral piggy bank and spend a little, you’ll buy a lot of goodwill in return.
I’ve paid frequently over the years—turning the other cheek, smiling at offenders, pretending I don’t mind, laughing.
Do you feel comfortable? How can I help? Here, that ignorance must be superheavy—let me carry that burden for you.
Thing is, my emotional piggy bank is running out of change. Soon, I might not have anything left.
* * *
In Aunt Bila’s sedan, as my family gossips about the usual drama, my parents don’t mention a thing. I sit in the back next to my mom, staring out the window.
What would have happened to my dad if I hadn’t been there?
Would it have escalated? Would the police have been called? Would they have kicked him off the plane?
Or worse: Could he have been arrested? Just for being Muslim?
Nobody’s getting arrested just for being Muslim.
I don’t think.
Maybe I’m being way too dramatic. Dad’s always told me to keep the Muslim thing on the DL, because people get weird when they hear the M-word. It’s a safety issue.
Honestly? It’s a convenience issue, too.
Sometimes it’s better if people don’t know.
For me, hiding is easy: reddish-blond hair, pale skin, hazel eyes. It doesn’t matter that I look textbook Circassian, like a lot of light-skinned Muslims from the Caucasus region. (Hey, they don’t call it Caucasian for nothing.) I don’t trigger people’s radar. People have an image in their head when they hear the word Muslim, and I just don’t fit.
But Dad doesn’t have that luxury. When people meet him, they take one look and decide he’s clearly From Somewhere Else—no matter how much he tries to blend in and deflects by saying “From Texas” when people ask that annoying “Where are you from?” question. Assimilate, try to shed the accent, it doesn’t matter. Once people mark him as different, they treat him that way, too.
Text copyright © 2019 Nadine Jolie Courtney