This is a fictional interview with a real Muslim about an incident that actually happened.
Announcer: Muslims across the United States are receiving notices of account closures from their banks. Today, we are speaking with writer Deonna Kelli Sayed, whose account at a North Carolina bank was closed without explanation in 2011. Ms. Sayed, thank you for joining us today. Tell us what happened.
Deonna Kelli Sayed (DKS):
My debit card stopped working on a Wednesday.
The first rejection arrived early in the day from a gas station pump, which had politely advised me to “please see attendant.”
The card then failed at one grocery store after another. I knew the account held money. My local bank had not contacted me about any suspicious or fraudulent activity. There had to be some sort of simple, honest mistake.
I walked into my favorite branch to speak with a customer service rep that I had come to know. Minnie was a pleasantly plump older woman wore shades of polite pastels. When she spoke, words flew from her mouth wide and jovial, in the way you’d expect a Southern woman of a certain age to speak.
We met approximately every four weeks. Each month, I paid our monthly bills from a lump sum automatically transferred from my then-husband’s account at a New York City credit union. I often had to wait at least five business days before the funds appeared. There were some months the transfer stayed missing for a full two weeks.
I cringed as automatic payments were due and groceries needed to be purchased for the five kids under my care. God forbid if a holiday fell on a Monday or Friday. My husband lived in the Middle East. I lived in North Carolina with the kids. Our main bank account resided in New York City.
“The money just isn’t in our system yet,” Minnie would say, sympathetic to my situation. The New York bank couldn’t trace it once it left their end. Each month, the money seemed to spend time off-the-grid. “This is part of Homeland Security banking rules,” Minnie suggested. “Some middle man is now involved.”
We had become allies, Minnie and I, during my monthly visits. She started to tell me what her life was like as a widow who was just starting to venture out again. Her youngest son was engaged to a Filipino woman – he worked in Manila — and had his own international conundrums to manage. I advised her on what to do about a man, also a widow, who expressed interest in her. “You are so wise,” she once said to me. “I don’t know why I feel compelled to share so much!” Back in those days, I wore the hijab. I covered the arms all the way to my wrists and the legs down to my ankles. My first book was just a promise, and my life hinged from one monthly transfer to the next. I did not walk with self-assuredness. The fact that his women shared her stories meant a great deal to me.
On that Wednesday, I beseeched Minnie to explain the mysteries of my debit card. She typed in my account with fingers adorned by layers of fat rings that she’d ordered from the Avon catalog. Minnie’s mouth twitched. I saw her scratch her nose before turning to me.
“I can’t really say anything, but you need to go talk to the bank manager where you opened the account,” she shared as she put her hands down flat on the table.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
She sighed and continued, “Aw, honey, I can’t tell you why this happened. I just can’t.” Minnie leaned forward a bit. “Just go speak to the bank manger where you opened the account.”
I sat there in befuddled, confused silence. I couldn’t get mad at Minnie. She was my girl. “I am so sorry this happened to you,” she offered. “You are such a nice person.”
Announcer: Did you have any suspicions at the time regarding what might be going on?
DKS: A few months earlier, I had received one of those 2 am calls that every parent dreads.
“Everyone is OK,” the policeman said first, “but your son has just totaled his car.” My stepson and his best friend had been downstairs playing games. Then, teenage logic intervened and the two seventeen-year-old boys decided to venture out to buy Pepsi and chips. The roads were wide open at that time of night, and unfortunately, wet. Thankfully, only the car was totaled. No one died.
“How do we deposit this?” I asked my husband once we received the check from our insurance company. The car’s value ended up being more than we had anticipated. Banks are strict about two-party checks from insurance companies. We didn’t share a joint account, even in New York City. How to find this check a home became one of those complicated aspects of living on two continents.
We explained the situation to my North Carolina bank. They told us to do X Y and Z to add his name. We did X Y Z, a feat that involved notaries at an American embassy and all sorts of unusual protocols and procedures. The North Carolina bank affirmed things were finalized. The check went into my account, and I felt relieved that I finally had something of a buffer against those unreliable monthly transfers.
Two weeks later, my debit card stopped working. I found this out only after I couldn’t buy groceries or gas.
Announcer: What was the first thing that came to your mind?
DKS: The very first thing that occurred to me when my ex-husband had sent over a picture of his driving license as identification: Oh my God, I forgot how big his beard looks. This is going to be a problem.
Here is the thing – white people, particularly middle class white people, don’t know what to do when things like this happen to us. Our privilege sometimes keeps us spoiled and stupid. A white girl, even one in hijab, doesn’t know what to make of it when someone decides she isn’t good enough for their business because of her association with Otherness.
When we do experience such things, I think the first emotion is guilt. We feel that we must have done something wrong to be in this situation. Intellectually, I understood what was happening as discrimination. Yet, I believe that many who enjoy white privilege have a hard time internalizing that this is actually happening! At first, we don’t “get it.” Then, we don’t know how to respond.
I suppose, at some level, I did do something wrong in Bank Manager’s worldview: I married the Other. Then, I had something funny sitting on my head. Or a stupid decision by a teenager and a large check from an insurance company suddenly became an incident of concern for a small town community bank because it involved a man with a gigantic beard who lived in the Middle East.
Announcer: What did you do?
DKS: Of course, I paid the inevitable visit to Bank Manager, who was every bit the stuffy, white, stereotypical Bank Manager.
“Why did you close my account?” I seethed. I had wrapped my turban extra high that day, just because I could. He was nervous. I could tell.
“Well,” he shifted his legs. “You’ve had a lot of overdrafts.”
Yes, I know, I explained, retelling the great woes of monthly transfers that never arrived on time; necessary funds for daily life that sometimes remained lost for weeks. How can the banking system misplace large sums of money, I asked?
“I’m sorry you had that experience,” is all Mr. Bank Manager had to say.
“Tell me,” I demanded, “why did you suddenly decided to close my account after several years of business, and right after I had added my husband’s name?”
He cleared his throat. “Well, you know, there was a large check to deposit. That was a little suspicious.”
I gaffed. A large check, I retorted, from a reputable insurance company. He admitted that he had contacted the insurance company, and they verified the check was not fraudulent.
“And you still decided to close my account because I wanted to deposit a legitimate check ?” I responded.
Then, I asked him dead on: “Did you close the account because we are Muslim?”
“I did not,” he replied, rather quickly.
Bank Manager played with his dumb, boring blue tie. He suggested the bank “had a right to close any account that they felt wasn’t in their best interest.”
He also informed me – the nerve of that man! — that he couldn’t release all of my money at the moment because there was a “hold” or some crap that I don’t remember.
I shook my head. “You know, you close my account without warning. I have children at home and you won’t give me access to my money? How am I supposed to buy groceries?” He suggested that he could release a little bit of funds until the hold was off, or some stupid stuff that I don’t remember.
He said a whole bunch of stupid stuff that I can’t remember. I knew this man was lying to me. He had closed the account because of a Muslim name with international connections. Never mind that I’d received monthly transfers for years from a New York credit union with international connections from an account with the same name.
Bank Manager probably didn’t expect a white girl with a big turban on her head to show up. The police did not expect a white woman to show up that night when they had a seventeen-year-old brown boy with a posh address blowing into a breathalyzer, trying to slap him with a DUI when he wasn’t blowing anything at all.
I wasn’t used to breaking things down for men in suits. I was a fat girl in hijab. My default mode was invisibility, but I knew this man was lying. At this moment, I wanted to smack that smug privilege off of his face. I wanted that blue tie to tighten around his neck. I felt that kind of rage. To keep calm, I recited a line from “Waitress,” a Tori Amos song: I believe in peace, bitch, I believe in peace.
“My husband,” I said, “is a United Nations diplomat and a Nobel Peace prize co-laureate. Do you realize that? And what are you? You call yourself a community bank? Define community!”
I decided to name drop just because I could. The weekend before, I had flown up to New Hampshire for a weekend retreat with some cast members of SyFy’s Ghost Hunters.
“People who are on TV!” I shouted at Bank Manager. Imagine if my card had suddenly stopped working, without warning, during my trip. I would have been stranded eight hundred miles from home with no funds to return.
He blinked a few times and self-consciously stroked that damn blue tie. “I am sorry you experienced that,” is all he had to say.
A week after my meeting with Mr. Bank Manager, I finally rescued my money from the account. Only afterwards did I receive short letter expressing that my account had been closed after “careful review.” No other explanation was provided.
The letter ended by thanking me for my business.
Deonna Kelli Sayed is a Love, Inshallah contributor and a www.patheos.com/blogs/loveinshallah editor. She is a published author and an emerging digital storyteller. Her work is also found at altmuslimah.com, Muslimah Media Watch, and storyandchai. Deonna is currently working on a memoir with support a Regional Artist Grant from the North Carolina United Arts Council. To learn more, visit her website, and join her on Facebook and Twitter.