Zaman

Inside the restaurant, Mr. Khan saw an unusually large crowd for that early hour. He was at the door with his hand on the handle, directly in line to be seen by Hassan, the owner, who was, however, blocked from view behind the wall of bodies formed at his counter. Hassan had the instincts of a cop when it came to his store. His skullcap rose above the heads and shoulders, and seeing Mr. Khan, he waved for him to come inside. Hassan told the young men, his regular clientele who were cab drivers that mostly worked the night shift, to let Mr. Khan through. Mr. Khan recognised some of the faces. They were Indian and Pakistani mostly, and a few were from Nigeria and Somalia. He didn’t know any of their names, and the little he did know about them was from snippets of conversations with Hassan as he came in each morning to get tea before going to work. Mr. Khan had not felt as tense as he did that morning, a morning as usual as every other that had come before it, going back five years.

“Look at this,” said Hassan, when Mr. Khan reached the counter. “Just happened. Two planes.” He poured tea into a Styrofoam cup and placed it on the counter for Mr. Khan.On a small colour TV on the counter was an image Mr. Khan thought was part of a movie. The World Trade Centre towers were billowing black smoke. It looked like a modern-day rendition of a nineteenth century tableau depicting factory chimneys belching industrial smog. Mr. Khan looked around him at the faces of the other men to make sure they were all seeing the same thing.

On a small colour TV on the counter was an image Mr. Khan thought was part of a movie. The World Trade Centre towers were billowing black smoke. It looked like a modern-day rendition of a nineteenth century tableau depicting factory chimneys belching industrial smog. Mr. Khan looked around him at the faces of the other men to make sure they were all seeing the same thing.“The planes just flew into the towers? Two of them? Has to be an accident.” Mr. Khan heard his own voice disjointed from him.

“The planes just flew into the towers? Two of them? Has to be an accident.” Mr. Khan heard his own voice disjointed from him.

“I pray to god it is, but I don’t think so,” Hassan shifted his weight on the chair. His hennaed-red beard rose and fell like a shovel each time he used his chin to refer to the TV to emphasise his point.

“But who…?” said Mr. Khan. “How do you know?”

Hassan said nothing, shook his head, and let out a long exhale. With the men surrounding him, Mr. Khan felt trapped in a bubble of tension. He pushed away, shouldered his way out, and hurried out the front door.

At the bank, Mr. Khan found the main floor empty, the news blaring from the small conference room, where he guessed his small band of coworkers had gathered. The newscasters sounded confused, as though they’d suddenly forgotten how to do their jobs. Mr. Khan went to his desk, lifted the receiver, and, just before dialling his home number, realised he’d forgotten his tea.

Mrs. Khan picked up before the first ring was complete.

“Hello, Asif?” she said.

“No, it’s me,” said Mr. Khan. “Did Asif call?”

“He told me…what’s going on?”

“I don’t know,” Mr. Khan heard voices from the lunchroom. “I only saw at Hassan’s.”

“Mila is on her way to pick me up for work.”

“Okay, fine. You know, what if it’s just an accident?” said Mr. Khan.

“An accident? In broad daylight? Like this? Two huge planes run into a building in the middle of New York City? I don’t believe that.”

“Asif is still coming home for fall break, right?” Mr. Khan asked.

“I think so. I hope so. He didn’t say anything. You don’t think he will? Should I call him back and make sure he’s coming?”

“No, no. Leave him alone,” Mr. Khan heard his coworkers coming out of the conference room. “Call if you need anything.”

*

A few days later, on his way home from work, as Mr. Khan turned off Devon Avenue onto Damen, he saw Hassan standing outside the restaurant supervising three Hispanic men busy at work scrubbing the walls of the restaurant. One of the men was concentrating only on the large window that looked out on Devon Avenue. Mr. Khan parked the car and walked up to the restaurant. For as long as he and Mrs. Khan had been going there, the restaurant’s façade had large Urdu and Arabic writing, none of which Mr. Khan could read, nor had he ever asked Hassan what it meant. A portion of writing also edged the window. It was all under assault now as the three men dipped sponges into a bucket of soapy water, wrung them out, and scrubbed off the lettering.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Khan asked.

“It’s confirmed,” said Hassan, “Muslims did it.”

I know, but what’s that got to do with this?”

“Over there, get that part again,” Hassan instructed one of the men. “I don’t want to be a target for anyone.”

But it were Saudis who were responsible for the attack,” said Mr. Khan. “None of them were Pakistanis.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Hassan crossed his arms, looking disconsolately at each letter being erased with every swipe. “Thirty three years I’ve lived in this country, Khan saab. I’ve seen some strange things in my time. When this country needs someone to blame for its ills, nothing stops it. Now they’ll blame every Muslim they can find to put this one on.”

Mr. Khan was disturbed about it the rest of the evening. After dinner, he and Mrs. Khan sat in front of the TV in the living room, keeping it muted, because Mrs. Khan said it was all she could do to keep her ears from “falling out of her head” having heard the news constantly all day. The names and faces of the attackers were coming to light. There were, ultimately, nineteen of them, with a so-called mastermind named Mohammed Atta. His name had become a staple as coffee is in homes across America. Each time the pictures of the attackers faded in and out of the continual footage of the burning towers, Mrs. Khan sighed.

“This is so unbelievable,” said Mrs. Khan, holding her mug of tea halfway to her mouth. “Why? I just don’t understand. Are there people who hate this country so much? Why else would they do something like this?”

Mr. Khan watched the TV silently for several minutes before turning it off. He got to his feet, rubbed his eyes, and said, “People who feel that way don’t understand. This is a good country.”

Four days after the attacks on the World Trade Centre, a Sikh man was shot dead in Arizona by a former airplane mechanic. Asif called with the news. Mr. and Mrs. Khan had him on the speakerphone, and each time their son’s raised voice made the phone vibrate against the coffee table, they exchanged glances. The distortion became such that they finally had to ask him to lower his voice just so they could properly make out his words.

“This is how things are going to be from now on,” Asif said. “Having a beard, being brown, wearing a skullcap, a turban, whatever! You’ll see, this country’s about to lose its mind.”

“Asif, calm down,” said Mr. Khan. “No one is losing their mind.”

“Are you still coming home for fall break?” said Mrs. Khan. “Asif?”

“Mom, that has nothing to do with what I’m trying to tell you.”

“But you’re coming, right?”

Asif’s frustration came out in an audible sigh. “Yes. I am. I have to go now.”

“He has to go,” said Mr. Khan. “He has one year left to finish and nothing planned. What is he going to do with a political science degree?” He was talking at the speakerphone as though Asif was still on the line.

*

At Hassan’s restaurant, the cab drivers were there at all hours. Mr. Khan found it increasingly frustrating. More so because the restaurant was so close to their building.

“This is getting ridiculous,” he told Mrs. Khan. “I’m going to have to talk to Hassan about it. These people are practically in our front yard.”

"Why bother them when they’re not doing anything wrong?” said Mrs. Khan.

“They are bothering me,” Mr. Khan smacked his thigh. “If they’re so bloody afraid, then they should go where they’ll feel better. This cannot go on. I’m definitely going to have a talk with Hassan. He’s a reasonable man. He’ll understand.”

Next morning he was up at five, brimming with anticipation about his conversation with Hassan.

“My god, you’re incorrigible,” said Mrs. Khan, her voice thick with sleep. Mr. Khan dressed and left quietly. He didn’t bother to get his lunch from the fridge.

He had barely reached his front gate when he saw the men amassed outside the restaurant. Their parked cabs spilled over from Devon Avenue onto Mr. Khan’s street, the last one in line directly in front of his building. He wished the city would make Damen Avenue a residential permit-parking zone. He strode up to the gathering. They were not much older than Asif, and some looked younger. Mr. Khan had a thought that that would have been enough for his wife, had she been with him, to implore him to let them be. Seeing Mr. Khan, the young men shifted their positions to face him, creating a protective wall of bodyguards.

“What’s the matter here? Has something happened?” Mr. Khan asked.

The men exchanged looks with each other. One of them—tall and thick-necked, wearing a faded black L.L. Bean coat that looked as though it had been handed down fifty times before ending up at a thrift store, black jeans, and white tennis shoes—snorted and spat.

“Nothing, uncle,” he said, very politely. His stubble was thick and rose past his cheekbones. On his head was a red Chicago Bulls cap.

“Then what’re you doing here at this hour? He’s not even open yet.”

“Uncle, we’re making sure no one else is waiting here for him,” said thick neck.

Footsteps around the corner, from Devon Avenue, called away the attention of the men. Hassan waddled up, and they greeted him with salaams, some of them rubbing their hands together, looking forward to tea and breakfast. Hassan jangled a ring of keys from the inside pocket of his coat, noticing Mr. Khan as he unlocked the restaurant.

"Early day at the bank?” he said.

Mr. Khan opened his mouth, but closed it again without speaking.

“Come in,” said Hassan. “Get some fresh tea.”

*

The news was everywhere. At the bank, the TV ran round the clock. In twenty-five years of living in America, Mr. and Mrs. Khan had not seen the country so obsessed and overtaken by the constant flow of breaking news and updates. Every client Mr. Khan saw, new and old, talked about the news. The news had become its own language. It came with them folded under their arms. It squawked out of car radios. In grocery stores, small transistor radios could be seen next to cash registers, turned down to volumes that wouldn’t disrupt business. Shoppers checking out leaned in to listen better. Convenience store speakers piped the news down into the aisles, instead of terrible pop music stations and barrages of commercials. The Khans’ TV also stayed on, muted, when they weren’t in the living room sitting in its blue glow, watching repeats of the nineteen faces of the attackers, interspersed with every talking head from around the country and the world exchanging confusion and bafflement at the atrocity.

“My god, my head’s going to burst if I hear one more news report,” Mr. Khan said one evening about two weeks after the attacks, when he came home after work to find Mrs. Khan in a near-hypnotic state staring into the blue glow of the TV. “Please turn it off.” Mrs. Khan turned the volume down.

“You know, there’s something to be said for state-controlled TV at times like these,” Mr. Khan went on, while running the water in the bathroom, washing up for dinner. “You know, everything gets shut down at a decent time so people can have peace. But this constant garbage cable news nonsense does nothing but make matters worse. Don’t you think?”

The water turned off. He went down the hallway from the bathroom to the bedroom, talking the entire time. “The world is always quick to judge places like Bangladesh, but sometimes, they do make sense.”

Mrs. Khan set down the remote on the coffee table and went to the bedroom. While Mr. Khan changed out of his work clothes into pyjamas, a fresh undershirt, over which he put on a cardigan, Mrs. Khan uncoiled her hair from the bun she had it in and stood brushing it in front of her dressing table mirror.

“They do make sense,” Mr. Khan reiterated, as though his wife had disagreed. “This is a good country, but a democracy like it wants to have a bloody mess. That’s all I’m saying. And then it wants the whole world to follow suit. If the world could become America just by wishing…” he snorted. He stood in front of the open closet suddenly lost in thought. “I’m worried about Asif.”

“Why?” Mrs. Khan looked at his reflection in the mirror.

"You’re asking me why?” said Mr. Khan. “What do you think he’s up to? I could tell there was something…in his voice…”

“I know,” said Mrs. Khan, laying the brush down. “He’s so moody, all the time.”

“No,” said her husband, “it was something else.”

Later, at the table, Mrs. Khan asked, “Did you ever talk to Hassan?”

Mr. Khan shrugged, no longer cloaked in his earlier determined stance on the matter. “They’re harmless boys. Maybe it’s good they’re there.”

“I keep seeing the pictures of those boys that did this horrible thing…  ”

“They’re not boys. They’re criminals,” Mr. Khan interrupted. “Every one of them. Murderers. Nothing absolves them. Nothing.”

*

The morning of Asif’s arrival, Mr. Khan was awake and anxious by first light. Mrs. Khan, unable to asleep because of him, dressed and went down to Hassan’s restaurant to get tea a little after six. They had both taken a week off work to spend with their son.

The tension inside the restaurant hit Mrs. Khan like the blast of warm exhaust from a bus.  When the bell attached to the door tinkled, every head turned. In all the years that Mrs. Khan had seen the restaurant, never had it been as full as it was this morning. The young men were hunched in groups at every table, speaking barely in whispers, but evidently having no trouble hearing each other. Seeing Mrs. Khan, Hassan stood from his stool behind the counter. He switched off the TV.

“In our house too, my husband wants the TV turned off,” said Mrs. Khan.

“Is he okay?” Hassan asked.

“He’s fine. I wanted to come out for some air. Our son is coming today.”

“He’s almost done, no?” Hassan had poured tea into two Styrofoam cups and placed lids on them.

“Still one year,” said Mrs. Khan, taking out money from her pocketbook.

“Good, good, masha’Allah.”

Mrs. Khan looked over her shoulder at the cab drivers. She had an urge to tell Hassan that it was fine that they were there, that her husband had overreacted. But he had not said anything to Hassan, so mentioning it now would only cause confusion. She saw that Hassan was watching her, that he too might have something to say without yet knowing what it was.

“Come by later, I’ll have some fresh chicken biryani for your son,” Hassan told Mrs. Khan.

“I’m sure he’ll come home with something new to fuss about,” said Mrs. Khan. She left money on the counter, took the cups of tea, her eyes sweeping over the tables on the way out.

*

Asif was over an hour late. Mr. and Mrs. Khan nearly tumbled down the stairs rushing down to the front door. Their hands landed on the handle at the same time. For a few seconds, it was as though they were in a race. They would also be in a race to pelt as many questions at their son as soon as he was inside.

A gasp choked Mrs. Khan when she saw Asif. Mr. Khan edged backward an inch like he was trying to let his eyes focus on a sight too much to believe at first glance.

“What happened? Where have you been?” said Mrs. Khan. “Was there traffic?”

“There’s always traffic,” came Asif’s reply, free of inflections. “I just left late. I had some things to do.”

Mr. Khan was still taking stock. His son looked gaunt, ten pounds thinner, his clothes hung like they were someone else’s, borrowed in a rush. What most perplexed Mr. Khan was the woolly, unkempt beard that draped Asif’s face. His hair, curly as the day he was born, hung in coils over his forehead and covered his ears. Asif walked in, going between his parents up the stairs. He went to his old bedroom and didn’t come out again until, after half an hour, his mother thumped on the door.

“Asif, what’s the matter?” she said. “Come out and eat something.”

Mr. Khan was in the kitchen, setting the table. “If he had such important things to do then he shouldn’t have come. A week’s worth of work I’m missing, for what? At the worst possible time.” Dishes landed on the table with thuds. Silverware clattered. “Asif, come out at once.” Mr. Khan found his attempt at sounding strict fake. Neither he nor his wife had ever raised their voices or admonished their son above the usual child’s tantrums every so often, and that too, very short-lived. Asif appreciated being an only child not by being arrogant about his lifelong secure position with his parents, but rather with a humility that was beyond his years, which he had begun to show before he was a teenager. The time he was applying to colleges was the tensest period, only because he wanted to go away, out of Chicago. His mother was neutral, while his father wanted him to stay in town for at least the first two years, until he was fully decided on a major, and then transfer to a school where that degree would be best completed. Mr. Khan cleared his throat. “Asif,” he went down the hallway to where his wife was standing outside their son’s room. “Beta, come out.”

The door opened, and Asif, changed out of his shirt into a waist length kurta, still wearing the baggy jeans and his favourite ten-year-old work boots, grinned shyly.

“My god,” he said, “I was just finishing my prayers.”

While Asif ate hungrily, his mother and father sat on either end of the table exchanging glances with each other in between looking at their son, as though making sure they hadn’t let the wrong person into their home.

“So, what are you planning after graduation?” Mr. Khan finally said.

“I still have a year,” Asif replied, out the side of his mouth.

“Okay, but that’s not a long time,” said his father.

Asif let out a sigh, finished chewing, and leaned back in his chair.

“Finish eating first,” said his mother.

“I’m good, I’m done. Dad, I’m not sure what you want me to say,” said Asif.

“You’ve barely had anything,” said Mrs. Khan.

“Mom, I’m fine.”

“What about that Springfield internship?” said Mr. Khan.

“I don’t want to spend a summer stuck in Springfield. Besides, the deadline to submit everything was back in August.” Asif shrugged and crossed his arms. “We’ve started a Muslim students’ union on campus.”

“So that’s what you want to waste your time with,” said Mr. Khan.

“Asif, please, eat some more,” said Mrs. Khan.

“Mom, I’m done. Please. It’s not a waste of time, Dad. Things are happening now that are bigger than jobs and internships. Do you know how much anti-Muslim hysteria has been going on in this country since the attacks?”

“I’m aware, yes,” said Mr. Khan. “Do you know that Bangladesh is on a terror watch list?”

“Doesn’t surprise me.”

“People can’t even send money to their old parents back there without being cleared by the FBI first,” said Mr. Khan.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Asif straightened up. “Muslims are being targeted when it’s this country’s own fault that this happened.”

“Oh, my god, he just got here and already this terrible topic…” Mrs. Khan stood up and began clearing the table. “At least keep your voices down.”

“Those bloody mullahs in Bangladesh, they’re the ones making it impossible for everyone,” said Mr. Khan.

“You don’t think this country is at fault? For all the years it’s been colonising Muslim countries in the Middle East? For oil?”

“Asif, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mr. Khan smacked the table.

Asif pushed to his feet. His chair scraped against the floor.

“Where are you going?” said Mr. Khan.

“For a walk.”

*

He could hear his father muttering as he shut the door behind him, and went down the carpeted stairs he had climbed just an hour ago.

Asif walked out of the building, out the main gate, made a left toward Devon Avenue, and kept going. For weeks, he and the handful of students that had gathered to form the Muslim students’ union had stuck together, watching each other’s backs. In three years of living in Carbondale, Asif had never felt he stood out, for any reason, until the World Trade Centre attacks. Since that morning, and the following cycles of news that identified one by one, day in and day out, the nineteen hijackers, announcing their Muslim names like the names of poison gas and death camps, attentions had scrambled and rearranged. Walking around wasn’t just walking around anymore. It had to be a consciously monitored activity.

When he reached the intersection, he looked to his right and immediately saw the whitewashed façade of Hassan’s restaurant. He looked inside and saw Hassan behind the counter talking to a handful of people seated at the nearest table. At other tables around the restaurant were huddled the usual clientele of the place, cab drivers. The sight of them hunched over bothered him.

Asif had never been inside the restaurant where his father started going for tea when he was in high school. He had disdain for the place simply because of the Urdu writing that was written with such glaring audacity on its façade. The way his father muttered what an eyesore it was, Asif thought, as if whatever the writing said was a personal attack on him. It was, Asif understood, searching through his memory of countless stories he had heard from his parents since birth, of the war that they had lived through. The one between Bangladesh and Pakistan, long before Asif was born, during which his father had been a young army officer and defected from the ranks to join the Bengali cause. The brutality with which the Pakistan army slaughtered Bengalis in that nine-month conflict had stamped a permanent revulsion to Pakistanis en masse in his parents’ minds.

Asif remembered the first time his father had gone inside the restaurant for a cup of tea and then come home unable to stop talking about his conversation with the owner, who had told him that every time he recalled the war, he felt ashamed of being Pakistani. After that day, his father started going there every morning for tea.

Asif’s entrance silenced Hassan in mid-sentence. He looked at Asif and gestured for him to have a seat at one of the empty tables. Instead of a table, Asif walked up to the counter. The people Hassan was talking to eyed Asif warily.

“You want takeaway?” Hassan asked Asif.

“I was just wondering,” said Asif, “what happened to all the writing that was on the wall?”

Hassan looked him up and down. “Why?”

“It’s just always been there,” said Asif, increasingly feeling the boring of eyes all around him. “When did you remove it?”

“Do you want something for here or to go?” said Hassan.

“I think it sucks that you got rid of it. And I know exactly why you did it.”

The same young man who had spoken with Mr. Khan the morning he had planned on talking to Hassan stood by the window and came up to the counter.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Nothing,” said Hassan.

The young man ignored Hassan. “What is it?” he asked Asif.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” said Asif.

“Brother, why don’t you get what you came to get and leave,” said the young man.

“I said I wasn’t talking to you.”

“Firoze, go sit down,” Hassan told the young man. But he didn’t move. He crossed his arms and stood on his guard facing Asif. The others were also on alert. “What is it you want?” Hassan asked Asif, kindly, like a grandparent.

“Nothing,” said Asif. He was suddenly conscious of the way he spoke, literally. Of his born and raised American accent which sounded to his own ears brash, presumptuous, pompous, and ignorant in the midst of the thick camaraderie of un-American sounding voices around him. A few of the others who were at Firoze’s table joined him, forming a wall in front of Asif, and Asif stood unintentionally cornered because of where he had placed himself with only the wall behind him. On the opposite wall, past the heads and shoulders of the men, he saw a large framed poster of the ninety-nine names of Allah in Arabic. Next to it was a nighttime shot of the Ka’aba in Mecca, the minarets around it lit up in green luminescence, and the entire compound, crowded with pilgrims circling the holy sight, under the glare of floodlights. A third photograph, smallest in size, was of the shrine in Ajmer, of the Sufi mystic after whom the restaurant was named.

Asif entered the flat and saw his parents sitting in the living room watching TV. On top of the entertainment centre were pictures of him at various ages from middle school to high school graduation, his parents flanking him in the last one. His father had a half-hearted arm thrown around Asif’s shoulders. His mother’s hands were clasped over her stomach, a bashful grin on her face. The frames sat in a row on the same cream-coloured mat with frilled edges that had sat on Asif’s grandmother’s dressing table, and had traveled from Bangladesh when they moved to Chicago.

“I’m going to take a nap,” he said.

From the living room, watching the news on the muted TV, Mr. and Mrs. Khan heard their son moving around in his room in his light-footed but deliberate way, making sure as he had done as a child to heed his parents’ warning not to stomp when he walked so the neighbours wouldn’t be disturbed.

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Nadeem Zaman was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At fifteen he moved with his family to Chicago. He studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is currently writing his doctoral dissertation in Fiction and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Louisville, which includes a novel set during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Roanoke Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, The Milo Review, East Bay Review, The Copperfield Review, Eastlit, I-70 Review, 94 Creations, and Salon.com.