He cast an odd glance at me, which turned into a stare and then into a scanner as he measured me up, head to toe. All I had done was ask him to look after my luggage for a short while so that I could come back relieved from the toilet. The four cups of coffee that I had downed during the hour I had waited for the train seemed to have upped the water content in my tummy necessitating a release, which was getting urgent with every passing second. I had expected the usual, indifferent ‘okay’ nod, but the fellow was determined to test my ability to withstand the literally pressing ‘internal disturbance’. The ‘emergency’ was approaching. “I’ll be back in a minute,” I elaborated. “Okay. Do come,” he said and added “in a minute” as an afterthought. A few others noted his unsure tone and followed his doubting gaze. But I was in no position to stand there and reflect upon it though I was not numb to the cold air of suspicion around me.
When I returned, I found three pairs of eyes looking at my luggage. Neither my airbag, nor my laptop bag looked as expensive as to warrant such dutiful attention. But I soon realized that they were not concerned about the safety of my bags but their own safety from my bags. I looked at my bags again and found them as innocent as ever. They sat their like two well-mannered black boys, big and small. So, they were not guilty. Who was? My looks, actually. With my unshaven chin, as usual, and slightly overgrown hair (not the rock star kind, please) I looked pretty much ‘dangerous’ in the post-9/11 sense. A jacket worn over loose, untucked shirt was the proverbial icing on the ‘danger’ cake.
One of the three guys who had diligently taken care of my luggage had formed such a habit in the five minutes I was away that even when I was there he would keep glancing at my luggage while I kept staring at him as he did that. When our eyes met I gave him an amused smile, which he sheepishly returned with a nervous one. He was scared. They were scared. And there is nothing inherently scary in my looks or in my wiry, very average frame.
To call a spade a spade, what actually scared them was my dangerously ‘Muslim look’. It was very unlikely that they had ever come across a ‘dangerous Muslim’, if there is any man of such description, but they did seem to have a good idea of what such men would look like from what was fed to them by the media. Unfortunately, my very ordinary looks somehow matched the image they held, and I was a terror suspect in no time.
I was amused at their being that scared of a perfectly innocuous being. All I had to do was tell my name and their terrified, shivering souls would have gone back to sleep within the secure confines of their bodies. The thought amused me and the tragedy of the situation also sunk in.
The fright in those eyes was accusatory. Just because I looked a certain way, I was being thought of as a purveyor of death, a cold-blooded terrorist. Worse still, the mere disclosure of my religious identity, regardless of my true beliefs in religion or God or anything divine, could whitewash me instantly.
That was one day in my life. Think of those who have to stand such accusatory glances every single day of their lives without the parachute of the ‘name’ that I had for emergency landing. How suffocating it is to live amidst such silent, searing accusations. And the accuser could simply walk away saying, “What did I do? I didn’t even say a word, man!”
What’s even more tragic is that even the accusers are not at fault in hurling those hurtful accusatory glances. Ask any one of them, and he or she would readily agree that it is unfair and unjust to be indiscriminately suspicious of everyone who looks a certain way. They would also agree that the real culprits would ensure that they look least suspicious, which means that those who ‘look’ dangerous are, in all likelihood, innocent. So, ironically, the ‘dangerous’ look is actually indicative of harmlessness. But then, fright is involuntary. We need some serious confidence building. And we know that. What we do not know is where to start, and who should.
As I drifted into sleep with my swarming thoughts, one of the men still kept looking at me every now and then, unsure. I was almost tempted to ask, “Now what? Suicide bomber?”
Fear is always innocent
Originally published as part of my monthly column STREET LAWYER in LAWYERS UPDATE [August 2010 Issue; Vol. XVI, Part 8]