A Chronicle of Fear: Seven Days as a Muslim Immigrant in America
When the roll of toilet paper ran out this morning, I stood there, staring at my bathroom shelf for a full minute. There are three rolls left. How many new ones should I buy? The question is so difficult it makes my throat close up. I stand naked, perfectly still, staring at the remaining rolls of toilet paper. How long will I stay in America?
This rented apartment is the first home I’ve ever felt was mine. I’ve filled the space, stocking it like I’m a mother of five. The bathroom shelves are lined with spare shampoo bottles, razor blades, toothbrushes, condoms, moisturizer pots, nail files, tubs of Tylenol, sunscreens of various factors, roll-ons and, normally, lots and lots of spare toilet rolls. Somewhere around November I must have stopped buying TP stocks to invest in my future here.
Everything is on hold. I haven’t upgraded my Wi-Fi service (despite Spectrum repeatedly telling me I really, really should). I didn’t go on a second date with that nice-enough guy. And I haven’t booked an appointment to go see a doctor about the near-constant abdominal pain I’ve had for months. What’s the point? They’ll only provide me with a follow-up appointment at some point in the future and where will I be then?
I haven’t voiced these feelings to any of the native-born Americans I know. If I did, I would have to closely study their faces for signs of “it’s not a big deal, you can just leave.” Deep down, I suspect that even my liberal friends don’t really think immigrants have equal rights to live and work here.
In December, I was at a holiday party for a TV company I do research for. An executive said he was angry about Trump winning the election – I told him that I wasn’t angry, I was scared. He put an arm on my shoulder and said: “Listen, you’ve got every right to feel paranoid.” The word paranoid slapped me across the cheek: I smiled and seethed.
I’ve felt lonely for a while now, the world is a pretty lonely place when no one else seems to see or hear what you do. Did people not hear what Trump said about Muslims? Did they forget? Did they think he was joking?
In November 2015, Trump said: “You’re going to have to watch and study the mosques.” Four days later, he was asked if Muslim Americans should be legally required to sign up to a database and replied: “I would certainly implement that. Absolutely … There should be a lot of systems beyond databases.” A month later, he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
I text my friend to tell her I’m scared and she replies “but you’re not a Muslim.” She means that I drink, I smoke, I have sex, I don’t cover my hair. But I respect those rules – I was raised to follow those rules and every member of my family adheres to them (and loves me despite the fact that I don’t). Apparently that means we hate the American way of life.
If and when an executive order is passed, the letters on the page will determine whether I will be able to see my cousin. She’s dying from cancer and I wanted to say goodbye. I might have to choose between my career and seeing my mum for the next four years (at least).
To quell the stabbing pains in my stomach, I grab a chunk of belly fat as I sit hunched over at my desk. I book an appointment on Zocdoc – it’s the first time I’ve used my health insurance and it’s confusing. I take some Advil, read the news constantly and don’t do any work at all.
Trump has signed an executive order that revives two huge pipeline projects – it’s devastating news for Native Americans and anyone who cares about the environment. But I feel guilty relief. He hasn’t come for me yet.
After work, I give a talk with a former co-worker about a video series we made together. Between the late nights in the office and the filming trips across America, we became good friends. I want to work with her again. I need to be in America to do that. My stomach still hurts.
Trump is expected to issue a ban on refugees today, so I collect data for reporters to use. The data shows that the US admits tiny numbers relative to its size. That refugees don’t pose a security risk to Americans. That refugees often come from countries where the US has waged wars (I have family who have been forced from their homes because of this country’s foreign policy).
But during a White House press conference, it becomes clear that the refugee ban isn’t happening today – other groups have been targeted instead. New executive orders are issued, including one to build a wall between the US and Mexico.
There was a protest tonight. I wanted to go. I haven’t been to one since Washington DC, but I had a late meeting I couldn’t get out of. It went well – we decide to work on an illustration project together. I felt excited, which scared me. This opportunity is in America, it’s not back “home.” It’s here. I feel bad. But then I remind myself that I don’t have to fear bullets or bombs if I’m forced to go someplace else. That’s not true for others.
I go see the doctor. She asks me how I feel and I describe the pain. Tears roll down my face, which neither of us acknowledge.
The nurse comes in to take blood samples from me. She gently rolls up my sleeve, squeezes my vein and says “that’s a good one.” Then, to distract me from the needle she asks: “I like your accent, where are you from?”
After the appointment I have lunch with a friend. “I’m in the same position,” she says. She, too, can be described by that dirty little four-letter word “Arab.” But she’s a natural blonde and a US citizen. “Don’t worry, I’ll marry you,” she adds.
4.42pm: Trump signs a piece of paper that stops refugees from entering the US for 120 days and citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days.
My phone feels like a bomb – constant dings let me know each new horrifying headline. The executive order includes green card holders. And even British nationals who have passports from the countries affected. People are being detained at airports. Being put in handcuffs. Having their electronic devices searched because they were born in the wrong place.
I get a text from my friend C. It says “2017 is shit”; another message immediately appears: “I had the worst date last night.”
I contemplate deleting all my tweets that mention Trump. I look through my history to see if I’ve said anything negative. It doesn’t look great. Someone in immigration control might decide that 140 characters mean I can’t come home to sleep in my bed.
9.25pm: An alert on my phone reads “Federal judge temporarily stays deportations under Trump travel ban.”
I feel like I can’t take four more days. Four more years though.
10.13am: I call my best friend who left New York last year to live in Switzerland. She keeps saying “honey” and “I’m so sorry” and saying my name with joon at the end. It’s an Iranian term of affection; it means “dear one.”
1.42pm: I text my ex to ask him if he’ll pack up my apartment if I can’t get back into the country. I’m ashamed but he’s the only person I feel like I can ask. He doesn’t text back.
2pm: I eat a bagel and stare out of the window at my street.
3.41pm: My ex replies. The message says: “Mona there’s nothing to think about, of course I will help if it comes to that. And please don’t apologize to me, I’m sorry this is even something you have to consider. Please just let me know what it is I can do to help and I’ll be there.”
I don’t bother trying to stop myself from crying. Then I get up, wash my face and head out to buy some toilet paper.