Open Letter to Girl on the 4:35 Orange Line Train to Oak Grove

Dear Girl on the 4:35 Orange Line Train,

I boarded the outbound train to Oak Grove, headed for Sullivan Square, after you did. The first car no less, I remember because I almost fell down the stairs at Downtown Crossing on my way to catch the train. I was excited because there was an empty seat and I could try sitting down during my evening commute. I sat next to you but I felt uncomfortable sitting, it seemed indulgent to just go a few stops and take up a seat, so I stood-up again.

The train lumbered along and when we got to Haymarket, two ladies boarded our train. I’m sure that you remember these two ladies. Two ladies in long coats and one wearing a beautiful blue scarf with colourful sequin flowers along the borders. Two ladies in long coats in a sea of shirt sleeves, sleeveless tops, linen pants, and pencil skirts. The two companions had to sit apart from each other, so they sat facing one another on the train. The older of the two ladies took the seat I was sitting in, the one right next to you, before I decided to get up and stand for the rest of the trip.

At some point, you decided that you found this veiled lady next to you offensive. I only know this, because her companion was gesturing about it, confused and hurt. When I looked at the lady sitting next to you and saw her face, she looked at me, confused as to why you found her offensive. Apparently you found her so offensive in fact, that when I looked down, you were holding your nose. Not just holding your finger beneath your nose or breathing through your mouth, you were HOLDING YOUR NOSE. Let me just say that again, because I still can’t quite wrap my head around this, you were HOLDING YOUR NOSE!!! What?

Unfortunately for you, you were probably sitting next to one of the safest passengers you could ever sit next to on the MBTA. Ever. You were sitting next to a woman who is probably fasting today because it’s Ramadan. It’s 93 degrees outside today and if you knew that it was Ramadan and that this woman is fasting, maybe you would understand that this woman has not had water since before sunrise. This woman has not had a single thing to eat since before sunrise. She is dressed modestly and, do I have to repeat myself? It is 93 degrees. I am an Episcopalian in linen and I am sweating through my clothes. God knows what I smell like right now! She is not intending to offend you or your delicate sensibilities. She is in the midst of Ramadan where denying her worldly sustenance brings her closer to God (Allah). Thirty days of fasting. She is tired, she is probably on her way to visit family or find some cool refuge or somewhere to sustain her spirit until she can break the fast at sundown (iftar). This is one of her few indulgences of the day: to sit in an air conditioned train and rest. And there you sit, holding your nose because this woman offends you. Did you notice that the entire car is mostly empty? It’s Tuesday afternoon in Boston on the Orange Line and it’s E-M-P-T-Y. You know when that happens? It doesn’t. So unless the Rapture happened before the evening commute, congratulations, we all got lucky today. There’s more than enough space for you to move, to go to another seat, especially since you’re so offended.

I didn’t want to say anything and draw attention to the two companions. I didn’t want to embarrass these ladies. I just wanted you to get your hand away from your nose and realize that everyone who gets on that train every night is struggling in some way. Fighting their way through something, day or night. For the limited time your paths cross, just for one stop or ten, I know it’s hard on the MBTA, but please, be patient.


Why We Love Uncle Raslan

I just returned from a week in my hometown of Boston. It was never supposed to be a week, but on Monday afternoon, my beautiful city by the Charles was devastated by two amateur terrorists or, in the words of their Uncle Raslan, “losers.” Later that week, in the car on the way to the airport, my boyfriend asked me, “Why do you think people are responding positively to the Uncle? He’s kind of a celebrity now.”

We love Uncle Raslan because in the hours after suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarneav were identified by authorities, he took a calculated risk and made himself available to the media and, more importantly, the American public. He immediately condemned his nephews and asserted, angrily and succinctly, that this is not Islam. Americans, ever-incredulous about such condemnations, accepted Uncle Raslan. We applauded. We re-posted the video on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. We were enthralled by Uncle Raslan.

The Tsaneav’s uncle, a Duke University-educated attorney in Maryland, did what previous American Islamic organizations and agencies have thus far failed to accomplish and that is to successfully reach out to the American people and simultaneously become enormously popular in the process. Americans, so used to looped footage of angry, disenfranchised Muslim men chanting, “Death to America” and rambling tirades about the evils of the West were confronted with an angry Muslim man yelling in favor of America. All over, Americans absorbed and replayed Uncle Raslan’s message: the boys, he said, were “losers” and “anything else to do with religion is a fraud. It’s a fake. We’re Muslims.” Americans stopped and they listened.

Press releases with condemnations issued from major Muslim organizations like ISNA and CAIR have thus far failed to really resonate with Americans. The written statements are just that: words, while the leadership lacks the charisma and passion of an Uncle Raslan. This man is angry, but he is righteously angry. That’s the kind of anger that appeals to Americans’ sense of justice, a Puritanical wrath that echoes Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God.” Americans love righteousness and Uncle Raslan is very righteous. We love Uncle Raslan.
We love Uncle Raslan because he said, bluntly, a characteristic that Americans also love, that his nephews were “losers.” Not jihadis or psychopaths or militants: losers. His choice of words was stunning in its simplicity, its succinctness and its accuracy. Suddenly the two brothers, the subject of a massive and violent manhunt were just losers, criminals, and hacks. They were still terrorists, but Uncle Raslan made us look at them in a different way, a way that was somewhat comforting, that gave us all a sense of being smarter, better, more successful, more American. Uncle Raslan told us, in his brief press conference, that his nephews failed to become Americans, they failed to be, as all Americans believe they themselves to be: exceptional. Uncle Raslan is good for public morale.
We love Uncle Raslan, too, because he went further, too, using the “f-word”: forgiveness. He called out to the younger of the brothers, Dzhokhar, telling him that he should “ask for forgiveness.” He said it first. He put the idea of forgiveness on the table. It was stunning and it was necessary for us to hear that word, to feel some sense of empowerment, to feel some sense of our own humanity as we watched, waited, and grieved as a city.
Finally, his condemnation of their acts as having anything to do with Islam was revolutionary, not because it was never before said, but the way Uncle Raslan said it, with anger that not only had the boys brought shame to their family, to their ethnicity, but also to Islam. We love Uncle Raslan for that, for his righteous indignation. The American Muslim community needs more of Uncle Raslan: more justified, more articulate, more righteous rage about the radicalization of a religion and its youth. Non-Muslim Americans will respond, not with vigilantism, but in support of programs, people, and means of protecting all Americans and ensuring that the future of all Americans is secure. Americans are remarkably resilient and generous. Now is the moment to re-strategize Islamic advocacy in the United States, beginning with Uncle Raslan’s candor.