Recently on a visit to New York I was being driven in a taxi across one of the stunningly diverse and animated city’s many avenues.
The cabby was a middle-aged, working-class Pakistani.
We didn’t talk much, mainly because while driving he was attentively listening to a FM radio news channel.
After some news about the upcoming American Presidential election, the newscaster turned to the next big story of the day: The mob attacks on American embassies in Libya and Egypt.
Triggered by the sudden emergence of an amateurishly made film based on a rather clumsy (if not entirely silly) strain of Islamophobic bigotry, the anti-US riots soon spread to more than 20 Muslim countries.
Nevertheless, on that very day, the riots were still contained within Libya, Egypt and perhaps Yemen. So as the newsreader went into the details about the mob attacks, the Pakistani taxi driver’s forehead at once became the scene of a tense frown. He shut his eyes for a few seconds, sighed and shook his head in hapless disappointment.
“Day in and out,” he began (in Urdu), “the Muslim communities in America work so hard, so very hard... for money, for our children, but mostly to show Americans that we too are hardworking, self-made citizens who have values as strong as theirs.”
I remained quiet. He still wasn’t sure if I was a Pakistani or an Indian. He briefly glanced at me trying to figure this out, but didn’t ask.
“We’ve had to do so much in the last many years,” he continued. “Every time we feel that our community has proven to the Americans that we mean no harm, that we are peaceful and decent and willing contributors to the economic well-being of this country, our brothers back home, just by indulging in a single act of violence, push all our hard work back. We have to start all over again.”
This time I decided to speak: “I understand. You are from my country, Pakistan, aren’t you?”
“Yes!” He answered, suddenly excited. “How did you know?”
“Your Urdu has a very Karachi touch,” I smiled. He laughed: “You are from Karachi too?”
I told him I was. But I was more interested in his story. He didn’t say much. However he did offer me ‘desi tea’ at a restaurant called Handi whose board outside suggested it served ‘authentic Indian, Pakistani & Bangladeshi cuisine.’
As it turned out it was a greasy joint famous among South Asian taxi drivers. The tea there was awesome. And so were the clients. Indian Hindus, Sikhs, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims as well some Egyptians and Jordanians. Most of them were taxi drivers, but I saw at least one South Asian NYPD cop, a young woman but I am not sure whether she was an Indian or a Pakistani.
Founded by a Pakistani couple some 15 years ago, the place buzzed like a poor man’s South Asian utopia. The TV switched between Indian and Pakistani news channels, and as people chatted among themselves, one could hardly tell the difference between them. Who was Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi?
Only when people said goodbyes could one tell. ‘Khuda Hafiz’, and even a few cries of the concocted ‘Allah Hafiz’ underlined the men’s religious leanings, all mixed with ‘Ram, Ram’ or ‘Dhaneywar.’
Posters surrounded the wall at the entrance. Posters about ‘Pak-India Cultural Shows’, concerts by visiting Pakistani singers, Eid and Devali gatherings, et al.
As we sipped tea, the driver finally told me that he moved to New York from Karachi in 1990. He didn’t say how or why, but it was only a few years ago that he got his American citizenship.
“For almost fifteen years I didn’t meet my parents back home,” he told me. “But with Allah’s grace, I earned and saved enough to send them money and a ticket to come visit me last year. They loved New York,” he laughed. “Inshallah, now I have enough to go back to Karachi and pay them a visit.”
“Pakistanis really work hard here,” he reminded me. “Especially men like me who come from poor backgrounds. And we send back a lot of money to our country. We prove to the Americans that we mean well, that we appreciate their system that gives opportunities to men like me. Hard work pays off in America. I’ve seen some very humble Pakistanis become millionaires in America through sheer hard work.”
I politely redrew his attention to the anti-American riots in the Muslim world. He shook his head again. “What can I say?” He asked, rhetorically. “There are fools (pagal) all over the world.”
But then he said something culled from the wisdom of a hardened New York taxi man: “I’ve had both Muslim and non-Muslim clients in the back of my cab who talked rot about other religions. But does that mean I run them over with my taxi?”
He continued: “But you know, if you live long enough in America as I have, you’ll find that Americans, both Muslim and non-Muslim, black, white, brown or whatever, are highly tolerant people. It’s our politicians and maulvies back home and some ‘padres’ (Christian preachers) and Jewish preachers here, who like to make trouble.”
Then, he asked, as if talking to himself: “If such fools are not taken so seriously here, why are they taken so seriously there (back home)?”
I remained quiet. His frown returned: “I maybe an American citizen now, but my roots are in Pakistan. My parents still live there. As I said, so many Muslims here also work hard to improve the image of our people. But then we feel like liars and frauds when our brothers back home attack Americans and Europeans. What will that achieve? The West continues to prosper and rule while we go on destroying ourselves.”
I wanted to talk to him a bit more, but he seemed to be in a hurry. And before I could ask him whether all the men at the restaurant thought the same way as he did, I got my answer: As soon as a Pakistani news channel on the TV there began reporting the Libyan embassy attack, one of the waiters quickly but casually changed the channel. It was as if he didn’t want the ugly, raging reality unfolding in their lands of birth to puncture the world they had worked so hard to build for themselves (and their families back home) in the United States of America.