America First, the President says, and I know he is not talking about me. But this feeling is not new. I remember being in high school, shaking with self-doubt, as our country prepared for a war I did not understand. “Maybe I am the problem?” So I sought out ways to solve it. I read about Islam in hopes of learning what it was about the religion that led to so much death and destruction. But, confused, I found nothing beyond the beauty of the words I grew up reading with my family on Friday evenings.
When my father prayed on the side of the road during a family trip to New York, I remember hating him for having the nerve to be himself. I remember the generalizations I heard from politicians and the media, the rationalizations for the phrase “Islamic terror.” It’s Islamic because they kill in the name of Allah. That was all it took. Say Allah’s name and you have the power to rebrand an entire religion. I believed them. I quietly accepted the bastardizations of my faith, because it was easier.
I remember being in gym class. One of the boys cackled with his friends as I stepped up to bat. He yelled, “Yeah, El-bomb!” I laughed along as if I was in on the joke. People have died. I can take a little joke. I didn’t know then that this was the beginning. That years later, I would feel a constant unease that would soon harden into anger. That the passive patience with which my family withstood yells of “Human bomb!” during a day trip to the amusement park would soon morph into heartbreak. That 15 years later, the morning after the Presidential elections, my mother would tell me softly that she has no home. Both Iran and America have become foreign to her – one with time, the other with circumstance. I swung the bat and missed the ball deliberately.
That day, we planted a flag in our yard because we were fearful, because surrounded by the pageantry of patriotism, we knew that if we did not partake, we would be eyed with suspicion. One morning, I awoke to find my father in the front yard standing over our broken mailbox. He walked back inside and smiled as soon as he saw me. “Some high school seniors must have been having fun last night,” he said. But no other mailboxes on the block were broken. No other yards littered with shards of plastic and wood. I realized then, in that moment, that this country will never make room for me and my family. We can claim America, but America will never claim us.
Still, I accepted my role as the spokesperson for good Muslims everywhere. I stood before my classes and separated myself from all the brown people who looked like me and decided to kill. I reminded my peers that I mourned on 9/11 too, that seeing my country attacked devastated me too… There was no room for me to grieve. I explained and apologized until I forgot what I was sorry for.
But I am tired of apologizing. I am tired of defending my own existence, of proving my own humanity. I don’t think I ever knew what just being felt like – that calm, confident ownership of your own body. The way my father prostrated, kissed the earth, and stood up without a word. To this day, my parents are not bitter, but accepting. They are used to injustice, I suppose. But I am breathless, seething. I am defensive in my American skin.
I know now that America was never mine. I am an accident, a fluke. I should have been born thousands of miles away. I should have been Iranian. And maybe I would have been, if America hadn’t intervened in that nation’s experiment of democracy in 1953.
America was never mine. But I am an accident in America’s making.