Written by Shazia Mansuri.
I was running late.
Six extra minutes on the walk to the station, two extra minutes printing my ticket, four extra minutes stuck in a signal delay, three extra minutes weaving between tight-lipped businessmen to catch the path, just to be halted again.
The World Trade Center train was packed with sweaty families, their overbearing strollers and sullen-faced children perched on the hard plastic seats with the sort of restlessness that comes from riding public transportation. The conductor announced another indefinite delay and anxious travelers ran across the ticketing station to slide into the train’s closing metal doors.
The man in the orange jacket sat across from me, at the end of the car, with legs crossed at the ankles and hands flat on his knees, looking ahead. His gaze, as mine, fixated on a window, his body in unison to face one direction. tweet
I took my usual seat, across the wide windows to fixate on the river sway under the bridge, a sort of mental cleansing displacing the feeling of grime on my hands clinging to the bar rail. Within minutes, the conductor shouted the next stop and began the ride over the bridge towards the growing skyline. In the past four weeks of traveling, I’ve learned that trains are forever in a state of tiring flux; faces of strangers that long to be somewhere else were quickly replaced by faces of new strangers with the same unsatisfied disposition. There was something about early mid-day rides across the river though, or something about the promise of a Friday that offered a better temperament today, despite the monotony of commute.
The sun was still making its way above the skyline, filling the car with a familiar kind of silence. The warm light was fighting its way through the train, into windows and doors and bits of hair and reflections of tired eyes, muting the jolts below. The light traveled like wind, shifting with the rocking of the car and jagged edges of the tracks, until catching onto a puffy orange jacket, a color so rich like the center of a well-developed sunset.
The man in the orange jacket sat across from me, at the end of the car, with legs crossed at the ankles and hands flat on his knees, looking ahead. His gaze, as mine, fixated on a window, his body in unison to face one direction.
Today, I was fixated on the Pakistani man in the orange jacket — and just as I was thinking there was an indescribable aura around him, he raised his right pointer finger. tweet
Over the years, I’ve found “people observation” to be my best refined skill. Every weekend in the city became a game, to look at faceless crowds and pull apart the people — their lives, captured in a fracture of a millisecond when they rushed past me, the curve of their eyebrows, the color of their coat, the sound of their voice apologizing for inevitable lateness to the cellphone pressed to their ear.
I memorized the frames of them and ran through the images again over and over until they began to slip away in my mental abyss, no longer sure about the arch of their eyebrow, the shape of their eyes, the pattern on their shoes. I fixated on someone new then, kept them alive in my mind until they dissolved. At 14, I became a self-proclaimed social scientist — I discovered the human memory lasts five New York City blocks and everyone I looked at became a real person, when their fleeting story tangled into mine.
I think of that game now, what I was trying to do. Humanizing strangers is a chore, a mental game to fight and remember over and over again that there are people under sullen faces, people under dead eyes. It’s the commute on public transportation that reminds me of this best; I search vigorously to find familiarity in the cold stares of passengers.
Today, I was fixated on the Pakistani man in the orange jacket — and just as I was thinking there was an indescribable aura around him, he raised his right pointer finger.
A flicker of a movement from an otherwise immobile man, I watch as he unraveled. Slowly he lowered his head, the fraction of an inch and then back up again, his mouth moving silently, too quickly to notice, too quickly to even register, if it had at all, gestures too unassuming for anyone else on the train to catch. I watched him for seven minutes, like a performance artist with an audience of one, watching gestures so ingrained in my muscle memory from days in mosques and Sunday schools, devoid of sound or fanfare in this new silent edition.
At 14, I became a self-proclaimed social scientist — I discovered the human memory lasts five New York City blocks and everyone I looked at became a real person, when their fleeting story tangled into mine. tweet
For the first time, I understood dedication — true dedication — to prayer: His Jummah salah, the holy conversation between him and God silently unfolding on the grime of a subway car. In his seven-minute prayer, I thought of this country and our fight to build spaces to pray, spaces to feel the ground beneath our forehead, spaces to hear the echo of our recitation, spaces to be.
I thought of the story of us, from the first space we consumed in the womb of another up until now, forever in a metaphorical train car in someone else’s land already marked. But his prayer was like a secret within himself, a defiance of space and time concealed within a territory all his own. I thought of myself, of all the time I’ve wasted, prayers I’ve missed, caught in the flux of trains and time and life, believing places determined behavior. I thought of his seven-minute prayer the entire ride into the city, forgetting my game, forgetting about the other strangers that demanded to be humanized. I thought of all the things I had forgotten to think about.
Six weeks later, I saw him again. This time jacket-less, he swung into the seat in front of me, unrecognizable at first. As I scanned the train, I saw the right pointer finger again, the ever so slight lift of his head, the quiet movement of his recitation. If there was ever a way to win this game I had invented, a second encounter with a humanized stranger in the city of millions would probably be it. I watched him again, how his slight movements in prayer seamlessly dissolved when he finished, a performance that was forgotten just as it had begun, almost left wondering if it was entirely imagined.
As I prayed make-up salahs each week, I thought of his seven-minute prayer on the train. Whether boldness to pray in public or apathy to pray in haste, I admired his dedication. tweet
We locked eyes just as he turned his head, and I understood now what I really had been looking for all these years. A mutual understanding between him, a Pakistani man and me a hijabi woman, having encountered and learned and grown with the same faith and principles, caught in a moment that surpassed time. Familiarity in strangers, faceless crowd participant turned into a human I could empathize. The pursuit of common identity.
In my 12 weeks of commuting, I missed Friday prayer each time. Instead, I was on the train, watching a man who had somehow became more than Train Passenger #2 in the great film of my life, complete his prayer on time. As I prayed make-up salahs each week, I thought of his seven-minute prayer on the train. Whether boldness to pray in public or apathy to pray in haste, I admired his dedication.
I thought of all the strangers sharing these moments with him, sitting across from him on other World Trade Center Lines, on other wistful Friday afternoons, so engrossed in themselves or their phones or the lives they live, unaware of his one-man show, a slightly raised finger, a silent conversation with the man in the clouds. A certain kind of self-betrayal it must be, to live in a world with so many faces belonging to so many crowds, and not fight harder to make them our own kind of familiar.
I still “people watch” on trains, sidewalks, in airports, cafes; I memorize their movements and faces, familiar and strange. I am ready, waiting for all the things they will teach me about myself.