This is a work of fiction, the characters and events portrayed are fictional.
There is no air conditioning in my apartment. Built in a cold land, many years ago, with no foresight for what summer (spring, fall, even winter) in the future may look and feel like. In July, I purchased a miniature unit for my kitchen window, but the window is too small and the unit does not fit. It sits now below the sill, “waiting to be returned.” A struggling mint plant grows above, leaves sprouting and drying and crumbling onto the Amazon box every day. I started growing the mint in hopes that I would brew mint tea nightly. But the leaves lose their life in what feels like minutes, and I have yet to do anything productive with this small plant.
It grows unsteadily in a glass bottle, some sticky residue still left from where I tore the label off months ago. It was once a bottle of bright maaza mango juice, shipped to me by my Uncle. When I first moved up north he sent me a care package full of warm mango juice, a gallon bag of raw walnuts and hard dried apricots, and a few jam jars filled with honey and date paste. The box had no return address. Of course, upon opening it and finding a few rogue walnuts rolling around a box, I knew it was from Uncle. There was no note, no explanation. Just a box on my doorstep full of nuts, juice, honey.
When Hasan Uncle first moved to Daytona I was four years old. He was middle aged then, with stained red teeth and a bright, shiny black beard. I was usually shy when meeting new family members, especially when they were of my parent’s generation. But I took to Uncle immediately. He was an excellent karaoke singer and an ideal companion for card games. Unlike my own father, who was extremely mild mannered and patient, Uncle was competitive. I felt that he respected me as an equal. He was hurt when he lost and felt no need to let me win. My parents would raise their eyebrows at our loud voices during our games, but they did not interfere. Uncle watched me every day, after all, and helped my mother in the kitchen most evenings. He was a welcome guest, and I quickly became attached to him. The first summer he was with us, I remember taking a sharpie from the tin above the fridge and drawing a beard on my face. Uncle loved it, said I resembled the best parts of him. My mother slapped me, but later when retelling the story she laughed so I knew I had made her happy, too.
My parents never told me exactly why Uncle came to live with us, or what he did with his free time. When I asked, my mother would narrow her eyes at me and remind me that he was my uncle, as if that was a complete explanation.
The months and years passed in Daytona, with Uncle living in our spare bedroom. Soon it ceased to be a “spare bedroom” and obviously just became his bedroom. He kept it sparsely decorated, with a simple copy of ayat al kursi framed above his bed, a painting of a trail in a forest that he purchased at a large outdoor market in Appalachicola near the window, and an old Persian rug from Kuwait that my mother kept on the floor. A light blue prayer rug lived in the corner, facing east. As a child I kept many of my board games and toys under the bed in his room, but as years passed on and his tenure in our home became more permanent, I was instructed to remove them.
My parents never told me exactly why Uncle came to live with us, or what he did with his free time. When I asked, my mother would narrow her eyes at me and remind me that he was my uncle, as if that was a complete explanation. When I asked what he did as a career, my mother would respond, Since when do you care about careers?
When I asked Uncle directly, he told me that he was an environmental engineer. He said he specialized in snow, and would measure “data” related to snow and ensure that certain “oil operations” were in compliance with what the snow needed. He never told me specifically where he did this “snow work,” as I called it. He also never told me who he worked for. When I was very young I used to imagine that his boss was the snow. I saw Uncle as a strange, brown Santa Claus figure. Employed by snow; protecting it from the grinch-like Oil. Why aren’t you an engineer now? I asked. Because I’m here, he said. And that was it.
Uncle’s lack of work wasn’t something I thought of often, and I never heard my parents complain about it. I did hear them making calls every now and then to friends of theirs, asking if anybody needed a handyman or somebody to “help out with filing in the office.” None of these positions really stuck, though, until one day my father’s friend Yasir Mamdani called to let us know that he was starting a business and looking for community support. The Muslim population of Daytona was growing, Yasir explained, and it was about time that we had our own grocery store. Shouldn’t we have our own mosque, first? my mother laughed.
Eventually, AJ’S Groceries opened up. This was no small thing. We had gone my entire life without a halal butcher nearby, making long trips south to Orlando every two months or so to buy meat in bulk and then freeze it in our garage for the weeks to come. When I told my school friends that I could not play with them because I was driving to Orlando with my family, I always implied that we were going to Disney. I never let it be known that we were instead driving two hours to a small Muslim butcher on Greensprings Ave. AJ’S opening meant we no longer had to hoard halal meat. Now, we could go to the store regularly if we wanted, and we could simply buy enough for a week. Now, also, Uncle could work.
He began at AJ’S when I was in fifth grade, manning the cash register, sweeping the floors and stocking the shelves. The school bus would drop me off at Palm Springs Rd, and my mother would meet me in our minivan. I’d hop in, she’d drive me to AJ’S to spend the afternoon there, and then zoom off to her shift at the hospital. I would spend the next few hours in the store, working lazily on my math worksheets or daydreaming about boys at school. People came in and bought meat, vegetables, lentils, spices. They were from many places - mostly Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Somalia, India. I knew almost everybody. There were not many options for Muslims when it came to socializing in Daytona, Florida. What were once potentially bloody ethnic disputes back home were settled in Daytona. The ummah became suddenly clear in this hellhole. We actually did need one another.
Uncle chatted with everyone who came through the store. I noticed as time passed that small wrinkles formed around his eyelids. This did not seem to be happening to my parents, who were undeniably also aging. Uncle would squint his eyes when he smiled and bow his head slightly when interacting with customers. He always smiled like this, with everyone he spoke to at the store. As a child I did not think much of it, but as I grew older I began to resent it. It felt subservient and outdated. I felt a distant, creeping fear that I was expected to act this way, too.
When I told my school friends that I could not play with them because I was driving to Orlando with my family, I always implied that we were going to Disney. I never let it be known that we were instead driving two hours to a small Muslim butcher on Greensprings Ave.
Uncle would play the athaan loudly from the store speakers, and each time the call to prayer rang he would politely ask me to watch the cash register while he retired to the back corner to pray. He never asked me to join, unlike my own parents, which I appreciated. When he was done, he would walk over to me, still murmuring his surahs silently under his breath. When finished, he blew on my forehead. My grandmother used to do the same, too, before she passed. They would recite a prayer and blow it onto me. I never objected. I enjoyed reaping the blessings of his prayers without having to actually perform the act myself.
Business at AJ’S picked up as our community grew. The store never expanded, though, despite the steady flow of customers in and out. Uncle once told me that he was the manager, which I found amusing because he was the only worker except for the butcher in the back. He really had nobody to manage. Yasir Mamdani would come by once a week or so to check on things, and his wife Zainab popped by even less. Instead of laughing at Uncle’s self-designated title, though, I accepted it. I nodded solemnly, trying to show my respect for the manager of AJ’S Groceries. I didn’t ask how it felt for him to be in this position, selling meat for a man like Yasir Mamdani, when he used to be a snow scientist.
In 2001, I was beginning ninth grade at Daytona Springs High School. I felt that it was a big shift in life, even though all of the same people I knew from middle school were going to be transitioning along with me. The only thing that really changed was the scenery of the building we went to every day. Still, high school felt significant. That year, my mother was abroad for three months caring for my grandfather. It was just Uncle and my father and I at home. Uncle would ask me what I did at school every day, and I would recount the various heated debates in class. I was taking AP Government, and my teacher was a proud Republican. This wasn’t shocking, as almost every white person in Daytona was a Republican. But I felt smart enough to argue with him and I loved impressing Uncle with tales of the smart comebacks I had. Be careful with that, my father would warn vaguely, peering at me over his Newsweek magazine. He’s the one who should be careful! I would reply, and Uncle would laugh and give me a thumbs up.
Of course, two months into ninth grade came September, 2001. After that, I began to follow my father’s advice more. I learned how to be careful. While my appearance was ambiguous enough to strangers, those who knew my family knew “what we were.” People asked me where my mother was, and I told them she had temporarily moved back home to care for her elderly father. They would widen their eyes, as if my mother’s absence was proof she had been in an Al Qaeda training camp. My father became very anxious and he urged Uncle to shave his beard off. This made me angry, and I told my father that he couldn’t pressure people to do things like that. Since when are you so religious? He would snap at me. Uncle followed his advice, though, and shaved. He quickly lost his Santa Claus-like energy.
Yasir Mamdani printed American flags to post up all over AJ’S, and Uncle stopped playing the athaan through the loudspeakers. The store was next to a barbershop owned by a white man named Don, who had a bald head and a beard down to his waist. Don came to AJ’S one day and asked Uncle what that sound was that he played all the time. I was sitting on one of the chairs in the back, watching. I think about this moment still, all the time. Uncle glanced at me, very quickly. He caught my eye and then looked away. I don’t know what he was trying to communicate, if anything. He smiled and told Don, It’s just a popular pop song. I’ll stop playing it, though. Don stood at the register for a long minute then, in silence. He turned his head like an owl, surveying the store. I felt naked, like he was seeing straight through us. I was painfully aware of the huge photo of the Kabah in the back, the prayer beads for sale to his left, the verses of the Quran taped to the wall. I think this was the first time that I actually felt scared. Don turned his head back to Uncle and frowned. Would you like to purchase anything, sir? Uncle asked. Don let out one single snort, not quite a laugh. I’m good, he said, and walked out.
From then on, things were different. School was tense. I avoided arguing with people in class and generally tried not to engage when they asked me questions about who my family was. Once, somebody asked, Who is that guy who lives with you? I replied, That’s my uncle. Pause. Why does he live with you? This confused me. Is he even legal? This confused me even more.
Of course, two months into ninth grade came September, 2001. After that, I began to follow my father’s advice more. I learned how to be careful. While my appearance was ambiguous enough to strangers, those who knew my family knew “what we were.”
I felt nervous often and dreamed about graduating. Just four more years of this, I would tell myself. My father would tell me the same, you just have to live with these people for four more years. But what about him? I thought. Where will he go, if I get to leave? He never spoke of harassment that he experienced, but it was clear that a general sense of discomfort had settled over my home. Neither my father nor Uncle wanted to go out, ever. We did not go out to eat, we did not go to stores, we did not spend time in parks or at the beach. I felt very aware of people’s eyes on us. None of my American friends actually knew where we were from, but they all knew that we were Not From Here. Once, at lunch, I overheard Marcus Long ask my best friend at the time, Jen, where my family was from. I don’t know, she said. I think she’s like part Muslim or something. As if “Muslim” was a country, and as if I was “part” of it.
In early October, 2001, things got worse. Several days after my mother had arrived back home, we received news that my grandfather had passed. She was inconsolable. I had almost no relationship with my grandfather, but I felt my mother’s grief as my own. She spent long days in bed. When she would emerge she would sit on the sofa in our living room, staring out the window. She began to cover her hair with a long black scarf. When I asked why, she simply told me that she was in mourning. My mother had never been one to cover before, but somehow her rationale made sense to me. Of course, my father was unhappy about this. It will just bring more attention to us if you cover, he told her once at dinner. She pointed her gaze at him with a steep coldness. Uncle told my father gently, We are still allowed to mourn. My father did not reply. Now I think about Uncle saying this, and I wonder. Were we? Were we really allowed to mourn?
Two weeks later, AJ’S was vandalized. The front window was smashed, a brick thrown through it. Classically, the brick was adorned with bacon. I went to the store with my father and Uncle, mainly out of fascination. I was hearing about things like this happening around the country, but it was hard to imagine it happening here, in my own life. Yasir Mamdani was at the store, and he laughed sadly. Well, at least we don’t have a mosque in Daytona. We all raised our eyebrows, and eventually laughed, too.
An anxiety settled permanently over Uncle after that. My parents wanted him to find another job. What other job is there? he would sigh, and nobody could offer anything in return. I wonder now, if things would have been different had he stopped working there. Could we have avoided what happened? I still do not know what happened, to be honest. Some things are unspeakable, unknowable. All I know is that two months after the brick incident, Uncle was gone.
Talk rushed through the community. People were scared. Some rumors circulated that he had been asked to work as an informant for the FBI. There was often talk of this happening, and people who refused to comply usually had to leave the country immediately. I asked my parents where he was, what happened. Did that happen? Did they know? Did it happen? It was terrifying, how my life changed so drastically between one afternoon and another. On Thursday I was at the store with Uncle, and on Friday I was not. They told me to not ask questions. It’s better to not know. This became a mantra, I heard It everywhere I went. My pain was like a blinding force; those days are a hazy blur in my memory. Nobody had answers, nobody even knew what questions to ask. I would sit in his room, looking at the prayer rug in the corner. The painting near the window still hung. A suffocating staleness lived in there. It still lives there, when I go home. The painting hangs, the bedding is the same. It is still very much his room, two decades later.
We talk regularly, we see one another on our phone screens. But there is a distance that is too heavy to fill. This unknowing. It is still so dense, unmanageable. What happened? I asked him weeks after he was gone, when I first spoke to him over the phone. Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’m fine, he said. How a family can go years without knowing something like this is beyond my comprehension. Yet here we are, living that experience out. My mother once told me, take what’s unlivable and show that it is livable. Since Uncle left our home, I feel absence everywhere. No matter how many years pass. No matter how many miles I put between myself and Daytona.
When I first moved to this apartment I live in now, Uncle’s care package was one of the first items I received in the mail. It was shipped across the ocean, yet its contents resembled the familiar snacks of my childhood. All readily available from AJ’S, our neighborhood grocer. It is testament to our connection; one that lives beyond geography. I did not need a note from him to recognize who had sent it. There are things that we know about each other, without having to ever speak them.