One of the many lessons that SARS-CoV-2, invisible to the naked eye, continues to teach us is that we are undeniably connected, and the invaluable breath of a single person can have enormous irrevocable consequences oceans and continents away.
Another lesson mass human death continues to teach is that crises — and rapid shifts in attention from long-term visionary politics to daily survival — impacts how we recollect history.
Mass Death and Forgetfulness
During the first two months of 2020, my newsfeed frantically reported on the upcoming presidential elections in the United States.
In January 2020, I only read scattered reports of the novel coronavirus and heard my students nervously wonder about when it would arrive in New York City.
In February 2020, I was commissioned to create a work as a part of the Park Avenue Armory’s 100 Years | 100 Women project. The project interrogates the centennial of the 19th Amendment that gave some women the right to vote. Although we were witnessing more women running for political office than ever before in U.S. history, my immediate response was to consider historical erasure, the selective hearing of marginalized communities, and the disease of political amnesia in the United States, especially under a President who is enthusiastically endorsed by white supremacists and fascists of color worldwide.
And then in March 2020, the focus of my newsfeed completely shifted to the global pandemic and the United States’ disastrous response which has now resulted in over half a million deaths, mass unemployment, and housing and food insecurity that disproportionately affects poor communities of color.
The pandemic heightened our senses of mortality, structures of injustice, and what truly matters. The pandemic disrupted the ways in which communities I am most at home with support each other in crises — through gathering together and rituals of care. It has been difficult to grieve in isolation. It has been difficult to remember and keep track of what we are grieving for.
For me, this was immediately noticeable on March 15th, 2020 when my family and I began to shelter in place in New York City. The memorial commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Christchurch Massacre — carried out by a man oceans and continents away inspired by the 45th U.S. president — was cancelled in New Zealand due to concerns about viral spread.
Many loved ones experienced the trauma of that event in sharply painful ways that most would rather forget than endure alongside the pain of the burning present and future.
But the beloveds of the dead remember. And remembering political violence is an act of resisting fascism. So here I am — remembering.
The moment of the Christchurch Massacre was the first time in my entire life I heard my mother’s name pronounced publicly in Anglophone media. Counted as one of the dead, Hosneara Akhter saved the lives of women, children, and her disabled husband before she was shot and killed.
On Friday, March 15, 2019, during Jumu’ah prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand, an Australian white supremacist from the town of Grafton entered two mosques, opened fire on the Muslim congregations, murdered 51 human beings, and injured 49 others. The shooter broadcasted the first mosque shooting for 17 minutes via live-stream on Facebook before the video was taken down.
The murderer wrote a 74-page manifesto that inspired other white supremacist mass shootings, including the shooting in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas that left 22 people dead, in a San Diego Synagogue in which a woman was killed as she tried to save a Rabbi, and in a mosque in Baerum, Norway where worshippers were able to stop the gunman. The latter also attempted to live-stream the event.
On Wednesday, March 13, 2019, I flew in to London and took a bus to Oxford in order to attend a symposium on Thursday, March 14, 2019. I presented a paper based on a chapter of my dissertation on the devotional poetry of ʻĀʼishah al-Bāʻūniyyah. I hadn’t spoken of the poet and her work since my defense in 2017, so it felt good to return to her. I joked that I was diversity at the symposium. I experienced what true ally-ship from a white male academic who respected me and my work felt like. It was lovely.
My sister traveled separately to meet me. We planned to spend the rest of my trip in England together. I extended the trip in order to have more time to learn and explore before going back to the U.S. I didn’t expect how much I would need the time or her company.
After attending a live performance and a lovely dinner with the other symposium scholars, my sister and I got ice cream and picked up a few bottles of water from a small store run by a Kurdish man. He was so happy to meet us, he offered us the history of Kurdistan and free Chupa Chups lollipops as his white customers waited.
We then returned to my room in Saint Anne’s College. I had the full intention to crash in my small bed and sleep. Before I did so, I checked my phone and read a tweet about a massacre in Christchurch.
I imagined, at first, the massacre took place in a church. I had never read about Christchurch before. I did not know it was the name of a place in New Zealand. And yet, I wasn’t able to speak the name except in whispers.
I whispered into the darkness.
Nevertheless, the social media algorithm that has carefully monitored my interests ensured that I was bound to experience this particular tragedy, among so many other tragedies, repeatedly and collectively with millions of Muslims around the world, oceans and continents away from New Zealand.
When I woke up on Friday morning in England, Friday prayers had concluded in New Zealand. I received an email from the director of the Heyman Center conveying her condolences. A Literature Humanities colleague sent messages to express love and solidarity. I had missed calls from a childhood friend who wanted to check in on me. She later said her baby boy made the phone calls.
He still calls me.
If any one of them, on that morning, had reached out to touch me, I would have sobbed. I didn’t have the words to speak of it. I tried writing. I couldn’t. I saved whatever became of a draft of my incoherent thoughts for two years. The draft reads painfully. Strangely. I’m trying to make something of it here.
My sister and I discussed whether we should say anything in our social media.
Would it be helpful for those most immediately impacted?
We noticed the influencers were already on it. What more could we say other than wishing others a good Friday, a blessed Friday, a Jumu’ah Mubarak? We decided it was more important to privately pray and to feel safe, to process, to grieve, and to understand what we were feeling inside our own selves.
So we walked.
On Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, my sister and I walked for miles. Our internal clocks were in between continents, one which we identify as home and one in which a faraway event tied to home took place. We were vigilant about our surroundings, especially when we were in locations where there were few people of color and even fewer visibly identifiable Muslims. We were once again unnerved by the inability to assess who walking past us might bear the same cruel animosity that could lead to so much bloodshed and the knowledge that it was present.
We walked together through Bath, visited Roman ruins, explored Jane Austen’s home, looked at memorials dedicated to the dead of World War I and World War II. We talked about the architecture and aesthetics of British colonialism and imperialism and the differences in British and U.S. racism. We were impressed with how restaurants casually included halal meat. We happily ate halal Thai food; fancy French pastries; Krispy Kreme donuts; and Nando’s chicken (multiple times). We connected with a group of U.S. American teachers from the Midwest.
We were slightly jet-lagged, always exhausted every night after wandering.
Every time we checked our social media, there was a new face of a victim, a new story, a new interview, a new Kiwi reporter. I got to know the face of the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and marveled at her ability to be empathetic.
And there was video after video of different indigenous Māori communities demonstrating their love and solidarity for a largely immigrant Muslim community that simultaneously filled and split my heart.
The youngest of the dead was a three years old boy named Mucad Ibrahim, the child of a Somali family who fled war and sought safety in a place far from home.
Also among the dead were other refugees who escaped war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Syria seeking peaceful sanctuary in New Zealand, including a father and son who left Syria the year before to die together in Christchurch. The stories of the Afghan men who rushed the gunman did not surprise me. The Afghan men were brave. They know war — a war my country brought to them.
I wondered if other U.S. Americans felt any sense of responsibility, the way that I felt a sense of responsibility. It was not lost on me that my government was largely responsible for the creation of the circumstances that led these humans to flee their homelands in the first place. It was not lost on me that the president of my country was a source of inspiration for their murder in a country that was supposed to be their sanctuary.
We left Bath for London, dropped off our things at an Airbnb, and went out to walk again. We walked through different parts of London — up and down Brick Lane in East London where several Syhelti men promised their restaurants were the best, parts of Chelsea and Shephard’s Bush, the Buckingham Palace Gardens, Westminster Abbey and along the Thames, and through many, many rooms of the Tate Museum.
We attended a play imagining the violence of colonialism in Africa.
We ate with gratitude. Bengali and Syrian food; fancy tarts and quiches; fish and chips; burgers stacked with so many things; gelato and ice cream; cappuccinos and lattes; halal English brekkies; hipster toasts; free samples of spiced olives offered by brown and black Muslim men.
The woman who had my mother’s uncommon name was young. She was a Bangladeshi woman. She rushed other worshipers out and ran back in to save her husband in a wheelchair. She saved the lives of women and children she was praying with. When she returned to retrieve her husband, she was shot while covering his body. We know this story because her husband and those she saved shared it.
Over the years, our discourse on what the representation of Islam and Muslims in contemporary popular culture can accomplish has become incredibly nuanced, deep, and complex.
Hosneara’s story was such an accurate, recognizable representation of my own mother, and yet, I was not one bit hungry for such representation. I was terrified. There was nothing for me to celebrate. Instead, I read Hosneara’s story and dreaded the thought, My mom would do that. She’d save people in the masjid, and she would die saving them.
But I don’t want my mom to die. Not like that.
My sister and I couldn’t speak of it.
We walked until our bodies wouldn’t let us wonder any more. Every night when we returned to wherever we ended up staying, I would briefly note a piece of news that emerged in reference to the event. My sister noted how very few non-Muslim colleagues and co-workers reached out to her when we were sure that what we were feeling was both fear and painful grief. Did they not know?
Their newsfeed was not in mourning, I offered. They did not have access to our pain, I offered.
The silence was jarring. The U.S. President cited as a source of violent inspiration said nothing. We felt unsafe, and I felt anxiously protective of my sister, of my family, oceans and continents away.
Our brief conversations were followed by long pauses in silence. We’d turn off the lights. I cried in the dark with the latest image of another familiar stranger’s face in my mind’s eye before my exhaustion and inability to stay awake comforted me.
I eventually wrote the following—
To the few who have reached out to check in, thank you. I’m okay. And not particularly wanting to talk about what happened in Christchurch, New Zealand.
It hurts in a dull way with sudden stabbing pangs every time you post a photo of another one of the dead. I’m pushing it to the back of my mind for now so I can feel the full exhaustion of my body every night after walking all day and falling asleep.
Over the last few days, the strangers I have met have been nice or indifferent or low-key judgmental about my attempts to mimic an English accent. The ones who are annoyed want to say “typical American.” I can hear it on the tips of their tongues — but they also don’t want to get caught as the white person being mean to an Asian Muslim woman.
Someone asked how’s America going; I asked how’s Brexit going. We laughed out loud. And that’s been nice.
I’ve been addressed as “Madame,” and I embrace and display my full joy every time someone says “Cheers!”or “I’m going to the loo.”
That last one, I particularly love.
The evening we went to Brick Lane, a friend came by to spend time with me. We had dinner together in a small Bangladeshi restaurant whose owners gently tolerated our staying after hours. We joked how at home we felt in our shared Irish and Bangladeshi contempt for British imperialism. We remembered how we last met after the tragic Grenfell Tower fire. It seemed we were destined to reaffirm our friendship after traumatic events. We acknowledged that something painful had happened again, and that the food and company was so good, we had no idea the restaurant should have been closed until finally one of the workers politely turned off the music and television.
We walked over to another shop for dessert, and before we parted ways, my friend recommended that my sister and I visit the Tate Museum.
The following day, after a tour of the River Thames, my sister and I walked along the South Bank and headed to the Tate. We meandered through different floors, and I was drawn to the images of working-class subjects from around the world in a photography exhibit.
When it was eventually time to pray, I considered finding a quiet hallway or corner as I have done many times in New York City museums, but something about the newness of the place — or the oldness of a feeling — made me feel not particularly safe. I mentally calculated the time we would need to find a place and the time I would need to watch over my sister as she prayed and vice versa, and I concluded we had very little time before the sun set.
I decided to quietly ask one of the museum workers standing near us if he could recommend a spot. He was black. He could be Muslim — or at least know plenty of Muslims. He smiled and proudly said, “We have a prayer room.” In the middle of an exhibit, the worker pushed a door and gestured for us to enter. We were stunned.
Without a prominent sign announcing someone cared about accommodating, respecting, and honoring the museum workers, the design of the exhibit — celebrating the labor of the working class — enacted care for their own workers. Not only was the prayer room a safe space; it was not an invisible dark corner of the institution. It was thoughtfully designed as an elegant experience of the space. Another white worker who had just finished up his prayers welcomed us into the room and perhaps noticing our surprise said, We fought for this space, and we are very proud of it.
In the absence of comforting words from people we knew, I felt embraced and protected by the warmth of a good fight by strangers that preceded our arrival to a place far from home. I could tell my sister felt similarly moved.
The next morning, a friend invited me to be fancy and have tea and scones at the Victoria and Albert Museum before I headed for the airport. After I got through airport security and had another Nando’s meal, I wrote while waiting —
Before flying, I’d like to give a shout out to the English Muslim workers I met in every airport, museum, shop, restaurant — even the Sylheti brother who faked his Noakhailla to get us to eat at the restaurant he works for. His accent was terrible. Possibly as bad as my English English.
Also — I’d like to give a special shout out to Hasan who just hooked me up with free drinks I didn’t order.
And most especially — a shout out is in order for the museum workers at the Tate Modern. I am still stunned by the existence of an artfully incorporated multifaith prayer and contemplation room within the museum that was the result of workers organizing.
Even getting “randomly selected” for an extra security check before boarding cannot take away from the beautiful warmth I received from a modern art museum — of all places. Not only were there exhibits celebrating the labor of workers around the world — but by this gentle accommodation of its own, the institution demonstrated it walks the walk. I could see it in the pride with which a Muslim worker showed me and my sister the space.
Like I said, I’m stunned. I don’t know of any museum in New York City that has done the same. If you do, I’d love to know.
So thank you. You made me feel safe & welcome.
After returning to New York City, I flew to Cincinnati a day later. I had another paper to present on a panel on race and religion in literature that convened exactly one Friday after the Christchurch Massacre.
The night before, I added the following introduction to my presentation —
The paper I intended to present has not largely changed, but I decided yesterday after landing in Cincinnati and the West African cab driver excitedly spoke to me of his Muslim community here mentioning some people are afraid to go back to the mosque — because of what happened last week in New Zealand — that I would be remiss to not first mention why I continue to approach my work with a sense of urgency in a panel on religion and writing.
Today is a Friday, the day of the week in which many Muslims around the world gather for congregational prayer in mosques.
Today is also the first Friday after a white supremacist opened fire in two different mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and massacred 51 Muslims including men, women, and children. He attributed inspiration to our current president and proceeded to target the most obvious space of Muslim visibility — the mosque — a site of devotion.
As scholars of literature and culture, we know words matter. We know images matter.
As scholars who take race and racism in the American imagination seriously, we know it is a matter of life and death.
Over the last year, the United States has moved forward with another president after the previous one refused a peaceful transition of power, after his supporters promised violence, and after fulfilling their promise with an attempted coup.
Considering the mass death we have experienced as a direct result of government negligence, white supremacy and systemic racism, institutional failures across many sectors including healthcare, and sheer selfishness, it is easy to understand why human beings want to forget trauma of both the distant and not so distant past. People have not yet collectively grieved their losses although there is tremendous need.
But many of us also remember the pain, including that of Christchurch.
And although oceans and continents away — that history is very much tied to the reality we continue to suffer, in which recollecting history is targeted by white nationalists as an existential threat. If it was not, the last U.S. president would not have argued for the need of reviving a white nationalist American History education and issued an executive order to restrict federal funding of diversity trainings, claiming Critical Race Theory as racist and un-American.
It is important to remember.
It is important to remember where we die in peace and where we are killed unjustly.
It is important to remember when and where we were ever safe.