It was a turning point.
The realization only lasted thirty seconds, but in that brief flash of time, the truth finally emerged from its hollow shell and showed me its face.
It wasn’t extraordinary. It wasn’t the light-bulb moment I was expecting. A choir of voices didn’t sing “hallelujah” in unison, and the clouds didn’t part to reveal the face of God. It was something less pronounced; a quiet storm. It was like puberty, like getting your first period. It just happened.
You think it will come crashing into you, like waves, that it will roll over and flatten you. You think that you will be reborn as a result, that you’ll face life with fresh eyes; no past, only future, only possibility.
But that’s not how it happened.
My faith simply fell out, like a loose tooth. And the same way that your tongue glides over the gap where the tooth once was, searching for it, feeling its pulsating absence, I felt the weight of faith leave my body. But I didn’t feel lighter, I felt empty.
There were so many precipitating factors, tiny holes for my faith to escape from, deflating me like a balloon.
There was that day on the train, that thirty second encounter that left me spiritually withered, thirsting for answers.
Commuting by train has always been a meditative experience for me, an opportunity to mentally power-off and just observe. A crowded subway platform is the perfect place for people-watchers like me.
But that day was different. As I casually skimmed over the hoards of expectant travelers, my eyes met his. No. Actually, our eyes didn’t meet. They crashed into each other violently.
He was staring at me with a hate that burnt, popped, sizzled. I suddenly became intensely self-conscious. I felt naked, devoid of skin. And his eyes were hot metal rods prodding my raw flesh.
A sudden rush of air from the oncoming train whipped me out of the fearful hypnosis the stranger’s gaze threw me into. I looked away, and boarded the train. I stood with my back against the door, ignoring the empty seats peppering the aisles around me. I pulled a book out of my bag, “Destiny Disrupted: a History of the World Through Islamic Eyes”, and tried to read to distract myself.
But I felt the stranger’s eyes boring holes into my skull from across the aisle, and hesitantly raised my head.
He had one of those faces that looked stuck in a permanent scowl. His thick eyebrows burrowed together, becoming one, and his lips were pursed so tightly, they disappeared.
He looked at me as though I was the most disgusting thing he’d ever seen. And I felt more frightened than I’ve ever felt in this city. I wasn’t afraid that he was going to become violent though, that he may attack me right here in broad daylight aboard the crowded train.
I was horrified at the thought that this man, a look of pure revulsion stamped on his face like a mole, might spit on me. I was scared that he might do something to humiliate me, make me want to shrink myself, or vanish in a puff of smoke. I was overcome with the fear that he might do something to offend my humanity. And that I’d be helpless to stop him.
I stared back at him, engaging in a game of eye-contact chicken: who will look away first? I raised my eyebrow, and shook my head questioningly. I wanted to scream, “what the fuck are you looking at?”, but I settled with the hollow hope that the question was reflected in my facial expression.
Finally, my discernible discomfort increasing by the second, I averted my gaze, and pretended to read the book in my hand.
I never stopped to wonder why this man hated me, a perfect stranger, so much. Isn’t it obvious, I must have thought? I’m a hijab-clad Muslim woman. My existence here, on this train, in this city, in this country, is a proclamation of resistance; I’m here, whether you like me or not. I’m here and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. And you know that just as well as I do.
I can understand that kind of hatred, that genre of arrogant hostility towards something different, something you don’t understand. When I say that I understand, I don’t mean that it makes sense, or that it’s a logical reaction to ignorance.
What I mean is that it’s the kind of animosity I’ve become well acquainted with, that I’ve tussled with enough times to recognize. But I digress.
As I stood there, leaning gently on the door, trying to focus on the words in front of me, the man stood up. My back stiffened and my heart raced. This was it, the moment of truth.
As he walked towards me, the train jerked to a slow stop, and I held my breath. My heart rate quickened, the movements around me slowed down, the seconds crawling by. He stood in front of me, his beady eyes surveying me from head to toe.
“Sister,” he started, pointing, with slow, deliberate movements, from my head downwards, “this is not hijab.”
He shook his head, as if disagreeing with something I said, even though I stood there silently in a speechless daze. With one last disapproving shake of his head and a click of his tongue, he turned and finally exited the train.
I stood there, mouth slightly agape, staring absentmindedly long after the doors closed and the train heaved forward.
Five words. That’s all it took for the thorn of doubt poking precariously beneath the surface to finally break the skin. Just five words.
I felt my fear evaporate, cool, and rise above me, condensing into something much, much heavier in the process: a white-hot anger.
Anger is an emotion laced with urgency. It demands that you respond immediately, that you dispose of logic and jump onto the reckless back of your impulses. It bucks you every which way until you are dizzy with furor.
And in that moment, my anger swelled up like an infection, and when it finally burst, the effects were fatal.