The Boy Who Knew Too Much

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Ahmed is not just the name of a bright, 14-year-old lad living in Texas, but also the last name of my kids, also living in the US. As I read the story in The Huffington Post detailing how the scientist-in-the-making was detained for making a clock and bringing it to school, I was overcome by anger and disappointment at a system that also educates my school-going children. As I drove to pick up my eldest Ahmed, coincidentally also a 14-year-old, I rehearsed the conversation I would have with her about the Texas incident. But the conversation, interestingly, took an unexpected path. My 14-year-old got into the car and enthusiastically started talking about her day, exclaiming that she had an odd encounter with one of her teachers. The teacher is a Caucasian, 60-something gentleman — gruff, sarcastic, cynical, rough around the edges, but apparently a fair man, though his fairness is still to be tested since he’s a new teacher.

Following is my daughter’s narration of her encounter with the teacher.

Ahmed: The funniest thing happened today, you know how I’ve told you about my social studies teacher. He was so sarcastic and short with a few kids from my class, and then I submitted my homework a day late. He smiled at me, gave me a perfect score, no negatives for submitting it a day late, and we had the following conversation.

Teacher: Ahmed, that’s your name?

Ahmed: Yes.

Teacher: Oh, are you from Iran?

Ahmed: No, my parents are from Pakistan.

Teacher: What city?

Ahmed: Karachi

Karachi: That’s the city by the sea, right?

Ahmed: Yes.

Teacher: Have you been to Pakistan?

Ahmed: Yes, several times.

Teacher: Nice, what’s it like?

Ahmed: It’s cool, crowded but cool.

Teacher: A lot of people?

Ahmed: Yes, a lot of people.

“Then the teacher gave me a wide smile and handed back my paper. I gave my paper a day late, and he’s usually so gruff, but he was so nice to me. The whole incident was so unusual.”

I then told her the other Ahmed’s story, and also implied that maybe her teacher was being extra cautious because of the recent Texas incident, but then again, maybe he’s just a fair man and I’m the one who’s being unfair. Her reaction to the Texas incident was as expected. She put her hand on her heart and exclaimed, “That’s so racist,” adding that she can’t imagine how sad and scared Ahmed must have felt in those moments. She kept repeating, “He must have been so sad, I know I would have been so sad.”

And suddenly in that moment the incident became real to me, Ahmed’s sadness in those moments when he was being accused became palpable. Ahmed’s fear in the moments he was being accused became tangible.

I kept thinking of my three Ahmeds at home, the Ahmed in Texas and the countless Ahmed children in the US. The way the entire incident played out was highly unfortunate, and while its aftermath tells us that this may just be curious and brilliant Ahmed’s start to a grand future, the starting point for this great future was so wrong. Muslim children living in the US, born to immigrant parents, are aware of the burden they bear — the burden of race, ethnicity, culture, skin colour and most importantly, religion. They have developed methods of dealing with their surroundings. They try hard to assimilate with their peers, and struggle to maintain ancestral, cultural and religious boundaries, at times rebelling like most children, and have to be honed in with patience and calm when they go astray. That is enough of a burden; anything more than this is just unnecessary.

Just a few days ago, while in conversation with my eldest Ahmed, she mentioned to me how, at lunchtime, a peer moved his chair away when another girl introduced her saying she’s from Pakistan. The boy inched his chair away saying lightly, “Don’t hurt me you terrorist.” While my daughter laughed off the incident, and took it in her stride, that is the burden I refer to — the burden of dealing with stereotypes that American society throws at kids who are brown and Muslim.

I look at the warmth with which young Ahmed has now been embraced by all, from Obama to Nasa, and from Facebook to MIT. All have supported the lad and lifted his spirits as he so deserves. Hence, my questions: do things have to go this wrong for them to finally become right?

I’m thrilled that Ahmed is smiling, and it’s wonderful to see how the powers that be have rallied around him, but the question still remains: is being Muslim, the new black? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. 

The writer is a storyteller at heart and a journalist by profession

-The Express Tribune

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