Mr. D. was choking. Clutching his throat and gagging, he mananged to spit out a single word in his native Urdu: Pani.
I don’t speak Urdu — not even “Up yours.” But that one word was enough to trigger a literary association. As Mr. D’s face turned the color of a blood orange, I remembered these verses from Kipling’s “Gunga Din,” which I’d memorized in the sixth grade:
It was “Din! Din! Din!
You limping lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!
Hi! slippy hitherao!
Water, get it! Panee lao!
You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din!”
Sprinting around the counter for the cooler, I grabbed a 20-oz bottle of Arrowhead and thrust it into Mr. D’s hands. After drinking deeply, he began breathing deeply. Only much later did it occur to me the two of us had staged a symbolic post-colonial role reversal.
Like the poet said, you can talk o’ gin an’ beer. In 1999, Mr. D’s son, Khalid, bought the liquor store next to my house. Though a weekend drinker in those days, I came to enjoy the company of the D family so much that I’d stop by the store several evenings every week just to chat. Over the next seven years, till Khalid sold up, we went though a lot together, including 9/11 and the opening of the Global War on Terror. Our friendship wasn’t an anthropology project, much less an exercise in investigative journalism. Still, it comes to mind whenever the public finds occasion to revisit questions concerning Muslims in America.
You could call Mr. D an American success story. Born in Delhi, India, he fled with his family to Lahore, Pakistan on the eve of Partition following a hair-raising encounter with Hindu vigilantes. In 1969, the very week of the moon landing, he took himself and his engineering degree to New York City and checked into the only lodgings he could afford, a YMCA. Just as his funds had reached the point of exhaustion, he landed a job with a prestigious firm in the Midwest. He kept that job for the next 28 years.
On religious matters, Mr. D was ambivalent. His bearded father had been quite strict (“though not a Wahhabi,” he always hastened to add, rolling his eyes a little). Even in America, the family decorated their walls with calligraphic representations of Qu’ran quotes, and Mr. and Mrs. D usually managed to get to the local mosque every year for Eid al-Adha. But occasionally, sotto voce, Mr. D would admit that the existence of God and the apostolate of Muhammad — the very fundamentals of Islam — were propositions he could neither reject nor accept entirely. He liked to quote George Bernard Shaw to the effect that Islam is the best religion with the worst followers.
In fact, on all questions relating to identity, Mr. D seemed to be engaged in an intricate game of difference-splitting, a contant groping for middle ground. Only twice did I ever hear him swear; on both occasions, he called someone a son of a bitch. The first of his targets was Saddam Hussein. Yet when U.S. paratroops killed Saddam’s sons and displayed their bullet-shredded corpses for the media, he looked disgusted. “They were brave,” he said, referring to the brothers’ last stand against hundreds.
The second was Salman Rushdie. One day, Mr. D showed me his hardback edition of Shame, Rushdie’s magical-realist retelling of events in Pakistan under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Mr. D admitted he’d enjoyed the book when it first came out. But then Rushdie had followed it with The Satanic Verses – not worth killing anyone over, to be sure, but still disrespectful in the extreme.
Mr. D flipped to the title page. As the grimace faded from his oddly Gandhi-like features, he said, “I can’t stand to throw any book away, not even one written by that son of a bitch, so I thought you might like it.” He pointed to the upper right-hand corner, where he’d inscribed: “To my dear friend, Max Lindenman.”
After that, exchanging books became a regular event with us, partly, I believe, because it enabled us to compare our views of history without anyone’s feeling put on the spot. I gave Mr. D a copy of Flashman, wondering what he’d say to its interpretation of the first Anglo-Afghan War. Mr. D. — no Anglophile, it turned out — was flattered to see his clan listed among the “Britishers’” most dangerous antagonists.
He returned with a book whose title, I seem to recall, was White Rajah. Written by an Indian journalist in hyperactive, India Times-style prose, it recounted the careers of 18th-century Europeans who’d journeyed to India, converted to Islam, and made their fortunes in the service of some nawab or nizam. I’ve lost the book, but one sequence sticks in my head: a top courtesan — basically, a Muslim Nell Gwynn or an Indian Ruby Rubacuori — shows up at a party in (I think) Hyderabad wearing only body paint. The paint had been applied with an expertise that made it indistinguishable from a form-fitting garment. Westerners have recovered this art only recently (see Key West Fantasy Fest and Berlin’s Love Parade). If Mr. D meant it as a plug for the home team, he proved he knew his mark well.
In early 2004, several things happened. First, taking advantage of soaring real-estate prices, Mr. and Mrs. D sold their house and moved into one of their rental properties, a condo on the west side of Phoenix. Second, Mrs. D contracted breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy. For the first time in decades, she began wearing hijab. One night, someone fired shots through the window of the condo next door. Both husband and wife, who had known Balbir Singh Sodhi, decided the shooter was a crazed Islamophobe who had gotten his addresses mixed up. Long story short, I spent a couple of night sleeping on the sofa in their front room, a human terrier.
Well, it turned out that the shooter had picked the right target after all. The owner of the condo also owned the used car lot that had sold him a lemon. But then, after going into remission and growing back most of her hair, Mrs. D developed pneumonia in both lungs — a side-effect of months of inactivity, doctors said. That fall, she entered a hospice. One day, when I happened to be walking past Tempe’s Islamic Community Center, I noticed a white hearse parked by the curb out front. Then I knew. Not long after that, Mr. D bought a new house out in Laveeen, and left Khalid to run the store by himself.
With the government investigating an apparent act of terrorism, this might read like some drippy reminder that Muslims can be good Americans, good neighbors, etc. God forbid. More than a decade after 9/11, most non-Muslims know this, just as most Muslims know the frothing Islamophobes among us make up a minority. Without that bedrock confidence, none of us would be able to function. Disputes over — for example — when, where, and if to use drones, will be resolved on some other basis.
No, what I see when I flip back through memories of Mr. D and his family is just how poorly, how inexactly, our constructs for American society reflect reality. We think in terms of melting pots and multicultural societies often without pausing to reflect just how much human variety exists within each immigrant enclave, or what an array of variables can slow or speed up that melting process. Pace Old Man Kipling, East and West are meeting all the time. Like guests at a dance club, we’re engaging in a thousand cross-conversations, shouting, slurring often missing every other word. Of course it’s nerve-wracking. With thousands of potential hookups and thousands of potential fights, what else could it be?