Gender & Identity, Life

I was almost kicked off a flight for being Muslim

Sitting in that airplane chair, I had never felt smaller.

My phone was dead.

These four words caused me so much first world pain as I was forced to sit in the present moment instead of distracting myself with mindless scrolling.

Some people hate lines. I find them interesting. I observe people around me, sometimes bits and pieces of conversation will come floating and it is interesting to hear and peak into simply a window of these people’s lives. This day, however, was not one for traveling.

 For one thing, we were in the midst of the holiday rush, so all I really wanted to do was transport home to my comfy bed. For another, it was dawning on me that I had begun to attract some odd looks from people.

Stares usually don’t faze me. I have gotten good at tricking myself into believing people are simply observing me as I have observed others so many times.

It was different this time.

My mother had called me three times that morning, begging me each time to accessorize my hijab with a beanie or wrap it like a turban to draw less attention to myself as a Muslim. The recent shootings by a Pakistani Muslim couple in San Bernardino, California – an hour’s drive from UC Irvine, where I go to school – has had my parents on edge. Regardless, I held my head up high and reminded myself that in 

America, you can have a hyphenated identity and enjoy the melting pot of this great country.

A man looked up from his phone as I passed by with my suitcase.

“Sorry, excuse me,” I muttered, attempting to move past him and a woman with her baby. Neither moved to make space for me, and my backpack accidentally knocked over the man’s suitcase.

I apologized profusely and attempted to pick it up, but he ignored me completely and grabbed it before I could.

He went back to his phone.

I shuffled over to my spot in line. While waiting, I listened to the two men in friendly conversation in front of me. One was a senator and the other seemed equally important. They were discussing who would attend the charity gala next Tuesday. The senator laughed loudly, talking about how some woman has cancer and was using that as an excuse to make him go. The other man shrugged and laughed along. They should stop by for ten minutes, he said. 

“It’s for the underprivileged kids.” 

These men were nothing less than saints. One started to hit on the woman with the baby in front of us. The conservative Orange County big shots lost my interest, and I shifted my attention elsewhere.

My gaze fell back to the man whose suitcase I knocked over. I realized with a start that he had been staring at me. 

Cheeks burning, I pulled out my dead phone to pretend I was texting somebody. I must have broken something in his bag when I knocked it over, I thought immediately and began gearing up to go apologize.

 But when I glanced up again, he had left. 

My heart felt uneasy as I boarded the plane, but I tried to relax as my flight finally took off. I leaned back in my chair, let my eyelids droop down and listened to the whirr of the plane’s engine. From the back of the plane, I could hear light chatter, and the woman with her baby had quieted her child down by humming a lullaby.  

My breathing fell in sync with my heartbeat, lulling me to a light nap.

“YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO YOUR JOB!”

My eyes shot open as the words pierced through the air. I craned my neck to find the source of the disruption and saw a man yelling at a frightened flight attendant. The man’s face had turned pink, and his finger pointed straight up at the luggage compartment.

It was the man from outside.

Just as I turned around, his eyes connected with mine and acknowledgment crossed his face, which turned an even deeper shade of pink. “SHE DID IT!” he screamed. “SHE PUT SOMETHIN’ IN MY BAG GO DO YOUR GODDAMN JOB AND ARREST HER ARREST ALL OF THEM! THEY ALL DID THIS! WHO LET THESE TERRORISTS IN OUR COUNTRY!”

My cheeks burned and I whipped around to face forward in my chair, attempting with all my might to somehow become one with the chair, or perhaps disappear into thin air.

My eyes shut for a second and I could hear and feel my heart thumping.

It felt a jet plane threatening to beat out of my chest. Everyone on the flight was staring at me, and the baby had started to wail loudly once more amid all the noise.

What is going on? What could I have done to deserve this?

I always thought that in the face of discrimination I would be strong. After all, I am an American citizen, born and raised.  I know the society the same, if not better, than these people who try to tell me I’m not American. I am confident in my religion and if anyone ever tried to mess with me, I would knock them up, down and sideways with some of my university level rhetoric. I’ve seen the inspirational YouTube videos, I’ve seen the Linda Sarsours of the world…I always thought I could do it. 

But in that moment, sitting in that airplane chair, I had never before felt smaller. I felt like this man had reduced me to an ant.

As the flight attendant led the man to the back of the plane, I felt a light tap on my elbow. The elderly woman in the seat next to me offered me a small smile beneath her red glasses. 

She could not speak any English, but she reached into her purse and offered me a cookie. 

Throat tight, I shook my head and smiled back shakily, wanting to let her know that this did not faze me. What the man said isn’t true, I told myself. 

I have nothing to feel guilty for.

She shook her head back at me insistently, putting the cookie in my still-trembling hand. I opened my mouth to offer her up a thank you when the tears started falling. “I…I…I’m sorry,” I stuttered. She smiled graciously.

“No,” she said, taking hold of my hand to steady it.  “Okay. You, me, we same, he don’t know.”

This woman had probably been through more racist crap than I have ever had to endure. She was traveling solo and knows next to no English. Somehow, through the unspoken bond of struggling in a country that does not recognize us as human beings, she and I connected. 

When did I become so insensitive to my parents’ struggle as immigrants in a country so unkind to their experience? When did I start using my American privilege as leverage over my own parents? When did I start sighing loudly as my mother asked me to check the grammar and spelling in her emails? 

These immigrants have put their blood, sweat and tears into building lives for their families here, and the second I am discriminated against I am knocked off of my American born high horse. Reality check.

I try so hard to blend in, to make it a point that it is known when I’m out and about that I am one of them. It’s why, when I go running, I make a point to smile at the passersby. It’s why, when I go to stores, I intervene as my mother attempts to speak to the cashier in broken English, noting with pride the look of relief that comes over their face as they hear my smooth English. 

“I am one of you,” I say with everything I do.

But as I sat in my plane seat with tears streaming down my face, I was once again grounded.

I am not one of you. I am not.

I am a Pakistani-Muslim-American.

Every day I walk out of my door, I represent a beautiful religion that upholds the values of peace. My parents come from a country with history so rich and deep it cannot be contained in the spines of history textbooks.

Why do I shrink myself to be anything less than that? I used to long to blend in with my peers, wished so badly that my big almond eyes and honey-color skin did not scream of Southeast Asia’s rickshaws and green valleys.

I used to scrub my skin with soap hoping in vain that one day I would be able to scrub away any trace of otherness – but you cannot scrub off your identity, no matter how smooth your English is.

You may smile until your cheeks ache, but you will always be foreign.

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  • Mahreen Alam is a fourth year political science major at the University of California, Irvine. There, she is highly involved in the Muslim Student Union and has worked to put on events surrounding social issues such as mass incarceration. In her spare time she travels between Sacramento and Irvine, reads up on Harry Potter, and hunts down coffee shops in whatever city she finds herself in.