The Stranger, not by Camus

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Dedication: To remembering before I forget 

I’m sure the stranger who followed me on Thursday evening wanted me to write about him — because everything about the encounter made me feel uneasy. 

His disposition was unsettling enough to feel discomfort but not flirtatious enough to feel sexually harassed.

His concerns were poignant enough to feel sympathy, but his method of serial-questioning was threatening enough to be cautious.

I hadn’t left a symposium on oral history in the Black Lives Matter movement and walked down Broadway for more than three minutes when I heard him running behind me.

I stopped and turned to see him catching his breath and then ask, “How long have you lived here?”

I looked at his face and recognized him from the symposium.  He was the one person who said “As-salamu ‘alaykum” to me as I looked for a seat.  Listening to his voice, I guessed he might be West African.

“Excuse me?”

I began walking again, and he continued to follow along and again asked, “How long have you lived here?”

“You mean, here — in New York City?”

“Yes.”

“Six years.”

Hearing me speak, he concluded, “You grew up in America?” He then proceeded to ask a series of questions. “Where did you grow up? Where is your family? Where do you go to pray? Do you like it here?”

We continued to walk.  I looked ahead thinking about what fruits I wanted to buy from Morton Williams.  I decided, at that moment, I would not answer any questions from a stranger; instead, I would ask him my own.

“What’s your name?”

His name was AbdulK–.

“How long have you lived here?”

He said two years.

“Where are you from?”

He was from Nigeria.

“How do you like New York City?”

His body language and facial expressions were restless.  As we kept walking, he didn’t take much time to consider and respond that he believed New York City is far better than Wisconsin; he said, however, that he finds his faith took a blow here; he said he works all the time, and he misses his family; he said that he’s constantly struggling and fighting, and that he wants to leave the U.S. and return home where he can be a good Muslim.

Then he said, “I’m black AND I’m Muslim. I’m attacked on both accounts here. I can’t take it anymore.”

Listening to him, I took a deep breath and said, “You know, Ramadan is really nice in the city.”  As we approached the 116th/Columbia University Station, he asked, “Where are you going?”

“To a musalla — to pray.”

Ma sha Allah,” I heard him say under his breath.  For the first time, his demeanor softened and he smiled before he turned toward the stairs and disappeared into the train station.

I paused a moment wondering, “What. dafuq. just. happened???” — and then walked over to the supermarket to buy a bag of mandarins.

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