Angry – Losing my Religion (Part 2)
Recently, I got the chance to have an in-depth conversation about the “refugee crisis”. I liked the people I spoke to. Hardworking, well-educated and well-travelled. We touched base on a variety of topics before finally landing on the topic most Europeans are talking about at least once a week, in one form or the other. Perhaps not very surprisingly, they shared extreme skepticism about the ability of the refugees to settle in Europe. They claimed that Germans are now moving to Eastern European countries to escape the “tyranny of Angela Merkel”. They also made the very famous statement that Europe does not have any mosques, so how will all these Muslims assimilate? I had to laugh at their audacity. I wryly appreciated that knowing that I am a Muslim migrant in Europe, they did not feel the need to sugarcoat their words or their racist thoughts. Also, I laughed because I felt so very morally superior.
Aha! I thought to myself twirling my imaginary moustache. What else can I expect from people who live in the backwaters of Europe and are personally interacting with brown people for the first time? I must not judge them for their lack of consideration, but I must pat myself on the back for being able to rise above this situation.
So, pat myself on the back I did.
Cut to a few weeks later. I am meeting someone from Vienna. Somehow the refugees come up once again. They mention how the refugees do not know how to behave and if they are offered help they should adapt to the culture of Europe and not try to spread “Sharia Law” everywhere. I am slowly getting angry at this broad generalization of Muslims as radical escapees from Arkham Asylum. They then mention how a refugee raped and beat up a woman in Vienna the previous weekend and justified it by the woman having been in “revealing clothes”. They talk about how women had to work so hard to get equal rights and now these people want to make them work for all that over again. By now I am seething. Do I defend the “crazies” and appear to be an anti-feminist radical? There is no defense for rape so anything I say at this point to support the refugees can be easily misconstrued. By the time I search on Google for the news of this rape and do not find any results, I am apoplectic with rage. And there is a familiar refrain at the back of my head: What ignorance! Why, I could show them numerous studies that state how first generation migrants have the lowest crime rates. In fact, crime rates rise amongst the second generation, which has assimilated! How dare he spread his racist message with such abandon!
Cut to another few weeks later. My best friend is getting married in July. For her “mini-bachelorette” weekend, we both decide she should visit me in Vorarlberg for a long weekend. We’ll hike up the Alps (to the extent we can manage), go boating around Lake Constance, and just generally take in the nature. And yes. This was the “real plan”.
So, on Saturday afternoon after an obligatory trip to the farmers’ market to buy fresh flowers and some groceries we end up in Bregenz. It’s a clear sunny day. The perfect kinds that drives German tourists out to the lake in hordes. The water is sparkling, a balmy breeze plays across our skin, which is getting just perfectly sun-kissed. There’s a kid playing the guitar on the garden path and strains of music float through the air and follow us as we make our way to the Festspielhaus (the theater on the lake that was the location for the Opera scene in the “Quantum of Solace”) It is there that we realize that it is not only the music that is following us. I see four men walking besides us trying to make eye-contact. We climb up the stairs to get to the stage and I hear them calling out “How are you? Hello! Excuse me! Hello!” - in Urdu. What may sound like a perfectly polite way of catching somebody’s attention, turns rapidly nasty when it’s being leered at you in a language you fully understand. And you know these phrases are used to harass and catcall women. My friend and I stare at each other in disbelief and shake our heads. We both get annoyed at the men and talk about how distasteful the situation is. I show my friend the stage for Turandot and we walk back outside.
There, we notice that those four men are waiting for us. This time “distasteful” moves to us loudly proclaiming how “disgusting” their behavior is as they continue their catcalling. My heart is steadily increasing in tempo, mostly with anger. How dare these men be from the same country as me and behave in this manner! How dare they think that this sort of behavior is acceptable in any way at any time! We walk down the stairs and lose ourselves with a guided tour of the Opera house. We walk around for a few minutes and then, not seeing the men anywhere around my friend goes to the toilet while I wait for her outside.
And less than 20 seconds later, the same group of men starts walking up to me. By this time I am panicking a little bit. Now I am alone. And even if my friend came out right now, it was still 2 against 4. I walked up to some older German gentlemen and put my back against a pillar so no-one could grab me from behind. I keep an eye on the men and notice that they keep their distance. My friend comes out, we attach ourselves to a group again and walk away. We are both scared and angry by now. They have tried to follow us three times already. Given that they are being this brazen in broad daylight with so many people around, we hardly feel safe.
Getting in line to get some ice cream, we see that the men have followed us. Desperately hoping this is an honest mistake we ignore them. One of them comes up to stand close behind me and starts the usual “Hello, how are you.” I flip.
I start yelling as loudly as I can at him. “What the f*ck is your problem? Why do you keep following us? What do you want? I don’t know you and I don’t want to know you. Do you think it’s funny to harass two girls this way? Now that you’re here in Europe learn some respect and manners and stop harassing women. If you ever approach me or another girl this way I am going to call the police on you.” Anytime I stop to draw breath he asks a question like “Where do you live?” or “Are you two alone?” and just keeps grinning at me. I finally lose it and yell even louder “If you don’t walk away right now, if you ever cross my path again, I swear to God I will scream and create such a huge scene that you will remember what the police will do to you for the rest of your life!” Then I whirl around and finally – finally – he walks away.
As soon as he leaves my legs turn to jelly and I can feel myself shaking. I am more scared than I want to admit and more disgusted than I thought possible. I recognized that man’s accent. I can tell you exactly which region of Pakistan he’s from. And I hate that he symbolizes everything that Europeans have been saying to me about refugees and I’ve been scoffing away. At that point I truly hate this man.
We spend a nice evening at the lake. Catch a truly spectacular sunset.
And then get on the train to go back home. There we see the men again. They have just boarded the same train as we have. Now I am full on panicking. I don’t want them to know which town I live in. I know exactly how deserted the station will be when we reach and I do not know how to handle things if the man’s crushed ego causes him to turn violent. I curse wearing yellow pants because they make me so easy to spot from a distance. I put the police number on my speed dial and start reading up self-defense techniques online. By the time we arrive I am almost in tears. I live alone and have very erratic working hours. If these men figure out where I live, it would be so easy to wait for a good opportunity to ambush me.
We get off and – thankfully – do not see the men anywhere. Run into the nearest bus and go home.
*End of story*
I have lived in Europe for seven years now. This was the first time I felt scared and helpless. First time I analyzed my clothes and wondered if I had been wearing a provocative outfit. First time I felt unsafe walking back home. First time it fully, truly hit me that I live alone and I am a woman and could be considered weaker by others. The first time my mind turned nasty and I thought, maybe we need a better solution for the refugee crisis. I understood why naturalized Americans become Republicans and support stricter immigration laws. No-one wants to be associated with ugliness. And the smear of the “Sharia Law” claims is particularly difficult to wash out.
The worst part? These men were not even refugees! I know for a fact that many nationalities have taken advantage of the influx of Syrian refugees and moved to Europe. These conmen, who would be a problem no matter where they lived or which nationality they belonged to, whether they were genuine refugees or illegal immigrants, create the stigma that is the bane of every migrant’s existence at the moment. Knowing all this, knowing all the information that I am privy to with my own migrant experience and my general liberal political views, it was so easy for me to hate all refugees for a few days. To blame them all for causing me to feel unsafe in a way I am sure most people do in a big city at some point or another.
I do not know what this means. Have I just become so used to living in a small community full of strong connections that I felt so very fearful in a situation a big-city girl would have simply brushed off? Is there any need at all for me to justify my fear? Am I becoming influenced by the views I constantly keep hearing around me and that is why it was so easy for me to hate so strongly and so quickly? Am I only strongly affected by negative events which impact me directly?
I do know one thing – I am angry. I am so angry at the Pakistani man who followed us around and catcalled at us, that given another chance I would like to change my answers from “yelling at him” to “calling the police” or “punching him”. I am angry that he made me feel guilty about my appearance, I am angry that he is on a mission to discredit all Pakistanis in this region. I am angry that I let his actions lead to a lapse in my better judgment and think harshly of people who are literally running for their lives. I am angry that men like him will always be there, no matter what nationality or population group you choose to analyze. I am angry that he will never realise the consequences of his actions can literally cause a shift in policy and affect the lives of thousands.
Anger has played the role of a dual edged sword here. It was so easy to look down from my high horse of moral superiority where I am this version of an “ideal” migrant and everyone else needs to assimilate. It was so easy to believe the rhetoric I keep hearing that I am unlike “all those other” foreigners who are just here to take advantage of the system. So easy to ignore the 3 years of hard-core assimilation my expensive, international, private college education put me through and judge everyone with the same lens. So easy to get angry at others and so very unfruitful.
Why was it so easy? Why was I so eager to distance myself from “other” migrants even in the privacy of my head? In the current climate of the world today, I am not only losing my religion but I am also losing my identity. In order to feel safe, in order to feel like I belong, and to keep the majority appeased it is just so much easier to become an apologist. I read up on Islam not just to understand the religion but to explain it to others who are angry at all muslims as though 1.6 billion people need to be held accountable for the actions of 100,000 radicals. Every day I feel as though I am living through a re-mixed version of the Police’s creepy song “Every breath you take” where all of Europe is watching me and judging me. And I need to make sure I distinguish myself from all these “scary and illiterate and social-system-advantage-taking” migrants coming over. When I got angry at the actions of this one Pakistani man and told my friends “what typical behaviour from these Pakistani men”- I was being just as much of a racist as all the small town Europeans I had laughed at.
Xenophobia takes many forms and effects. From the recent British referendum results, where many migrants voted to leave because they personally want stricter immigration laws, to a constant brown-nosed (pun intended) assimilation on the parts of people who are all eager to decry their culture and national identity. Without even realising it, the problem had affected me, and in turn I made the problem bigger and felt more repercussions and the cycle continues.
Usually at the end of a blog like this, I am supposed to come up with a nifty solution and possibly a quotation about love and humanity and equal rights. I do not have that for you. I will not be the one who will come up with a 2-step plan to eradicate all cultural differences in the world. But I will aim to be one less person who is contributing to the generalized contempt seeping through the world.
Omaina gets very flustered when asked to describe herself and will usually end up making a joke that’s funnier in her head. This is why she prefers to stay at home with a book. Enthusiastic traveler and cook.