“Someone killed 12 people in a theatre in Aurora, Colorado. Please pray to God that the killer does not turn out to be a Muslim,” said a voice message on Rasheed’s cell phone as he was on highway 395, driving from Northern Virginia to Washington, DC.
Twenty minutes later, he entered Washington and stopped his cab at the first parking spot he found. Throughout the brief drive, he kept hearing the bell that warns of a text message.
There were six texts, all with the same message: “Lets pray the killer is not a Muslim.”
It was not a good beginning for the holy month. Ramazan is a special month for Washington’s cabbies. Many are Muslims, hundreds from South Asia to North Africa. Most drive all night and return home at dawn.
Nights are lonely and risky. Every cabdriver knows at least one colleague who was stabbed to death, died in an accident or retired hurt.
Loneliness, however, ended when the cell phones came. It is now possible to call friends and family from the cab. And also to stay in touch with each other.
Early nights are busy. But after 2 am they call each other regularly.
Ramazan, however, is different. They do not need the cell phones as much as they did in ordinary nights. Most cabbies go out to work right after iftar, work for about two hours and then go to mosques for taraveh.
In summer, taraveh prayers end around 11 pm, giving them about an hour for socialising after the prayers.
The bachelors – and those whose families are back home – often have their iftar, dinner and even pre-fast food at mosques, particularly at the Central Mosque, Washington. In between, they drive the cab.
Ramazan nights are not only for prayers, at least not for Washington’s cabdrivers. Some play cricket between taraveh and the pre-dawn feast. It is a lot of fun.
“But this year may be different if the killer is determined a Muslim,” said Rasheed to Omar, a fellow cabbie he called as soon as he parked his cab.
“Yes, things can get very difficult,” said Omar but cut short the conversation when a passenger flagged him. “I will call you later.”
Rasheed also got a passenger to Adams Morgan, a street famous for its clubs and bars. It was Friday night.
Waiting for the next passenger near Madame’s Organ Blues Bar, he again thought about the Aurora shooting. “Things indeed can get difficult if the killer is a Muslim,” he said to himself. Then the music coming out of the bar caught his attention. He repeated the tune unconsciously and then stopped.
“Such is America,” he said to himself, laughing quietly. “I ended my fast, finished my evening prayers and then took a passenger to a bar.
And now I am humming a tune. Such is America.” And he loves America for what it is.
He often argues with his friends that their home countries should also be as accommodating as America is.
“This is the route to success, tolerance for all creeds and ethnicities. I met people from half a dozen faiths, speaking a dozen different languages, in a single night,” he says.
The phone rang again. This was another Muslim cabbie, Ali. “Did you hear the news?” he asked. “Yes, I did,” said Rasheed. “What do you think will happen?” asked Ali. “I don’t know,” said Rasheed. “You remember the night when Faisal Shahzad, who tried to bomb New York Times Square, was arrested?” asked Ali.
Rasheed remembered it well. It was the first time in his 20 years in America that Rasheed heard two passengers openly discussing the possibility of putting all the Muslims in a camp. “So that we are safe,” said one. “I agree,” said the other.
One of them noticed Rasheed’s “foreignness” and asked where he was from. “India,” Rasheed lied, swallowing his pride. He was always proud of being a Pakistani and never thought one day he will have to identify himself as an Indian.
The text bell rang. There were more messages. “We pray he is not a Muslim,” wrote Shah. “Amen,” replied Hanif.
“We will be minced meat if he is a Pakistani,” wrote Khan. “Indeed,” replied Sattar. “The killer should not be a Muslim. I too pray to God.”
“Thank God, the TV channels are not yet playing the terrorism card,” wrote Beg who was at a restaurant which they called “Cabbies Night Refuge.”
As Rasheed was reading the messages, his wife called to check he was OK. Then his younger brother Hameed, who was a student at a community college in Virginia, called.
He said he had put this on his Facebook: “Please God, please make sure that the shooter is not a Muslim” and had received dozens of messages from other Muslim students, saying, “Amen.”
“What are your American friends saying?” asked Rasheed.
Hameed’s friend Todd told him he believed the killer was “more than likely a screwed up middle class kid from a dysfunctional home who hates the world and worships the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre.”
“The kid probably wanted to do something that in his twisted mind would make him feel all powerful. What a shame that he didn't just stay at home, put the gun to his own head and do the world a favour,” Todd added.
After Hameed, Rasheed’s friend Jamal, who worked at a gas station in Silver Spring, Maryland, called. “I am nervous too,” he said. “We all are,” said Rasheed.
Text messages and phone calls continued all night. All had the same message: Things will get really difficult for them if the shooter was found to be a Muslim.
Although it was Rasheed’s first pre-fast meal of Ramazan, Rasheed did not enjoy it. He kept worrying about the shooting and its possible consequences for Muslims in America.
He fondly remembered the pre-9/11 days, when America was a free country for Muslims too. They too were welcomed wherever they went.
“Not anymore. American people no longer trust Muslims. They fear them,” he thought. “God knows how many generations it will take for the images of 9/11 to fade away.”
Rasheed was still thinking about this when he went to sleep. It was an uneasy sleep. Usually, he wakes up early afternoon but today he woke up at noon and went straight to the computer.
He had dozens of e-mails from his friends. All were about the Aurora shooting.
“The suspect apprehended in the mass shooting at a suburban Denver movie theatre has been identified as James Holmes, 24. So far there is no indication it is terrorism-related,” said one.
“Our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this terrible tragedy. May God give them the courage to bear this great loss, Amen,” his friend wrote.
There was another message from an Indian friend. “A criminal is a criminal irrespective of his caste, creed or culture and at the same time you were right to fear the possible consequences if the killer were a Muslim,” wrote Ghosh. “Islamophobia is real.”
“The point is that killing is cruel and inhuman, regardless of whether it is done with a motive, without one, for an ideology, in revenge, for terrorism or in the name of anti-terrorism,” wrote a third friend, Khurshid.
Rasheed closed the computer, performed ablution and prayed. First two prayers of “shukrana” or gratitude because the killer was not a Muslim. Then he prayed for the victims and their family, asking God to bless them all.
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