Raising Brown Boys in Post-9/11 America

Sorayya Khan recalls racist threats to her young sons after the 2001 attacks, and worries about them as young men living in ‘Trumpistan.’

Sorayya Khan | Longreads | September 2017 | 23 minutes (5,871 words)

My mother was white and my father was brown, my mother Dutch, my father Pakistani. If she’d had a choice, she would have been brown. She tried, sitting near swimming pools during short summers in Vienna and long ones in Islamabad, but her attempts came to a full stop with basal cell carcinoma, when sunscreen replaced sun as her best friend. My father’s brown was constant, except that when he grew older and gray, in the right light and on the right part of him, his color lightened. I, on the other hand, am in between. I pretended I didn’t know I was brown until we moved from Austria to Pakistan and I saw it all around and made it mine. But the truth is that it took leaving behind Pakistan to claim the country and color as my own.

Color is a fact, a given, for my American-born children. We didn’t wake up one morning and decide our children were ready for the news: You’re brown. Almost as soon as they could talk, they put their little arms next to mine and decided they were darker. They were always right, because when summer came and my color deepened, so did theirs and our skin tones never matched. Next to their father’s, their arms and legs were not a match, but close enough. “That’s okay,” my sons said about my outsider status and patted my arm because they must have thought I needed comforting. Soon enough, they asked, “Where are we from?” I’d say, “You are from where we are from, Pakistan. And also from where you were born, here.” Naeem, my husband, would remember my mother and add, “Also from Holland, where Nani is from.” There is no flag for their combination and, anyway, the white in that equation, the one-fourth of them that is my mother, was ignored even then. “She’s the brownest person we know,” I heard them say once, as if they knew all along that color is a state of mind, not pigment.

***

It’s true, the day was warm and beautiful. Summer bled into fall, trees were gloriously green, the sky more Colorado than New York, the freshly washed school buses a striking yellow. The scene never lasts long in Ithaca, NY, where trees shed leaves before we’d like and snow arrives before Halloween. I walked to the afternoon bus stop with my neighbor, as I did most days since moving to the street. She’d seen two of her children through elementary school, while I was still new to the routine. Shahid, our youngest, had started kindergarten the previous Thursday without a backward glance as his little body climbed the bus steps behind his brother, Kamal, who was beginning fourth grade. The doors closed, the brakes released, and my relief was immediate; the lumbering bus not yet out of sight when my shame over this, hot and full, hit me. But back in my empty home, shame was no match for the facts: time had moved back into my life, more precious than when parenting stole it, and I was free.

My neighbor and I had heard the news, of course. At first, the blaring radio in a repairman’s white van on her side of the street was only a disruption. Sitting at my desk facing the window I’d slammed closed, I was desperate not to squander a moment of work time. I turned up the volume on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Must Must CD in my computer and checked email through our dial-up modem. As soon as I disconnected, the telephone rang and a friend gave me the news. By the time the phone calls stopped, the towers had fallen and Muslims were suspects.

Charlotte, our neighbor, is reserved in the best of times, and on our walk to the bus stop that afternoon, so was I. “It’s such a beautiful day,” she finally said. “Here, at least,” I responded, my single nod to the morning’s events, to which she didn’t reply. I knew better than to say more. The metrics lay between us, the way facts sometimes take up space. Me, Muslim. She, Jewish. She, white. Me, brown. Worst of all, I imagine, me, Pakistani.

The boys stumbled off the bus, careening into me like they still did in those days, Shahid running into my legs, Kamal close behind but measured in his steps. As we walked home, the boys’ chatter filled the air. In the laundry room, the children threw down their backpacks and took off their shoes, and I said I had something important to tell them. Moments later, I leaned back against the kitchen sink, the edge of it in my lower back, the two of them looking up at me, smaller than usual. I said that two airplanes had flown into two tall buildings in New York City, the buildings had come crashing down, and thousands of people were dead. The planes were likely piloted by Muslims, I added, and carefully watched their faces. “By accident?” Kamal asked. “Why?” Shahid wondered. A while later, their lunchboxes clattered on the counter and water splashed in the sink as they fought to be first to wash their hands. Snacks were on the table, perhaps ants on a log, a recent trick of peanut butter, celery and raisins learned from a friend. Eventually, I turned on the radio and set the volume low, as Kamal bowed his head to math worksheets and Shahid to his book. That was their world at 9 and 5, as ours changed.

Before the week was out, a boy his age told Kamal on the bus that he would come to our house and kill us all. He’d been Kamal’s second grade classmate when he bragged about owning a shotgun, a detail we discussed over dinner. I knew his father, as much as I could know a man who dressed in fatigues on Tuesday afternoons and said nothing while we waited by the classroom door to take our children to after school activities. The boy’s name was Gunner, not yet irony, merely fact, like his eyes that were set not quite right and the blond crop of unruly hair which fell over them. The same day, also on the bus, another child called Shahid a terrorist. Our kindergartener understood the import, but not the word, and at bedtime he insisted on a precise definition. Naeem explained that the pejorative term depends on which side of a fight you’re on. Terrorist is complicated when you’re a political science professor speaking to a five-year-old who is your son, has been to Pakistan, and like all five-year-olds, understands a thing or two about justice.

***

A week or two later in September, during the school’s open house for parents, Shahid’s kindergarten teacher began by sharing that she’d fled the classroom when the news arrived. Miss Simon had family who were first responders and we needed to know if they were alive. They were, she assured us, and we all breathed deeply and agreed that it had been a tough few weeks. As it was for Shahid, that year was Miss Simon’s first in school, the beginning of her teaching career. She led us through our children’s days, lingering over the school’s new math curriculum and community building on the corner rug. As an aside, she described hand hugs, her quick double squeeze while she held hands with a child who needed extra comfort, walking him to the nurse or back from lunch or any time at all. Miss Simon was young and lovely, full of life as only someone who is passionate about her work can be. Not long after we were informed that Shahid used an art lesson to sketch two tall buildings, a worry for Miss Simon and the school administration. We were shown the picture, a crude crayon drawing of a skyline on recycled paper that wouldn’t stay flat, but were not allowed to leave with it. We could only guess at the worry behind the blue drawing. He’d alluded to something we should have kept from him? Did the buildings, still standing in his rendering, suggest support for the pilots? What had we missed in the drawing? When asked, Shahid couldn’t remember it, and without being able to produce it for him, it stayed that way.

One afternoon on the school bus, with no better grasp of the term, Shahid was again called a terrorist, and this time a boy named Rich told him he was going to kill him. “Only Gunner has guns, right?” Shahid asked when he got off the bus. Right away, I telephoned the principal who promised to take care of the matter. Trusting that he had, we put Shahid on the bus the next morning, but on the afternoon ride it happened again. We met with the principal who said he’d dropped the ball. Despite the sports analogy, the Americanism never failed to fail me, as if it should be possible to make things right by locating a dropped ball, picking it up, and putting it in its place. Shahid leaned into me out of habit, almost but not quite on my lap. The principal praised us for our calmness. He confided that the parent of another child on the same bus had stormed into his office the day his son was called a terrorist. The child was black, and although Christian, his name was often mistaken as Muslim. “Either you take care of this, or I will,” the parent had said, and the spectacle of an imposing African man issuing an angry ultimatum had us smiling in sympathy. Before the meeting ended, the principal asked Shahid, “How do you feel?” He slowly pulled away from me, until he was standing on his own. “Fine,” he smiled, sweeping his long-lashed gaze at us all. As we left, Shahid put his hand in mine and squeezed it twice.

***

My children don’t believe me, but there was a time Pakistan wasn’t known to anyone I met. I struggled with this, more than anything, when I arrived at a small college in western Pennsylvania in 1979. It was worse, even, than the word “alien” written in the corner of my work study pay checks. When students asked where I was from, Pakistan — beside Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or Pottstown — meant little except that I was foreign. One morning early on, Nick, a fellow freshman, fell into step with me while walking to the post office. He asked me where I was from and when I gave him Pakistan, he was excited and replied, “I know where that is! Next to Egypt!” Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and the Camp David Peace Accords were in the news, which made me feel like he’d tried, and I couldn’t bring myself to correct him. Every so often someone asked a flurry of questions, like when the local post office called the dorm payphone to deliver a telegram from home, and the person who transcribed the message on the whiteboard on my door asked questions she’d already asked, as if my answers might have changed. “What do they speak there?” “Are there roads there?” “Do you ride camels to school?” And, always, “Where’s your accent?” for which there was never an easy answer, although it made me feel as if I ought to be able to pull it from my pocket or quote an exact location where I’d left it behind. “My language is yours,” I’d finally say, which wasn’t an answer and sounded wrong, but I stuck with it anyway.

I met Dawn during the first or second week of college at our work study job. Dawn is black and from Cleveland, and she embraced me as family the first time we spoke. Her single mother raised three daughters and when I sat across from her at Thanksgiving the first year, and then again and again, she beamed her love at me with a permanent grin and sparkling eyes. “Come on, baby, eat something.” At her mother’s home, I learned bacon came in turkey and baby wasn’t just for babies and you could say, “Now, I know you’re not talking to me,” to your boyfriend when you were in the kitchen making dinner and he was sitting on the living room window sill saying something you didn’t like. Dawn and I went to her grandmother’s house so she could do her grandmother’s hair. With a standing lamp spread like silver tree limbs in their corner, Dawn set white hair in curlers while her grandmother asked me questions and laughed a raspy joy. But her cadence was a melody I couldn’t grasp, her way of speaking impossible for me to follow. My pauses were awkward and my embarrassment apparent until we settled into a strange back and forth in which Dawn translated a new English for me.

Sophomore year, the year President Reagan was shot, a freshman named Mark lived one floor below me. He called me by my last name, which he didn’t say right, but I didn’t care. He was tall, black, and funny, and taken with everything I said. “You’re almost white, Khan,” he’d tease, and I’d say, “Almost doesn’t make me white.” He was in my room once, when my father called. Instead of listening to my father, I remembered that a few days before I left for college, when I was alone with him driving through Islamabad’s streets, he asked me not to “come home” with a black or a Jew. “Why?” I remember asking the man who’d married white. “Too difficult,” he said, I think, and it struck me as commentary on his choice rather than my future one. When I got off the phone, Mark called me “Daddy’s girl” and held me tight. In the end, I must have thought my father was right because I married brown.

That same year, I had a friend who was as white as white can be, with red hair to punctuate it. Vicky’s mother worked in a factory, her stepfather too. She invited me to her home for a weekend, and since she lived close to where Dawn planned to be, I asked if Dawn could join us for a night. Vicky was quick to turn me down, announcing her mother wouldn’t allow a black person in the house. I struggled to tell Dawn. Her eyes widened for only a moment before years of practice made her smile and sigh, “That’s okay.” Fifteen years later, and no word in between, I received an email when I was in Islamabad from Vicky who was in India, spending a few months of her family’s year-long sabbatical around the world. She inquired about visiting Pakistan, and I offered our home if she decided to visit Islamabad, which she accepted. Later that year, I received our only holiday card from her, which included a form letter account of their travels. I skimmed it for mentions of Pakistan, and did not recognize the country she visited nor the people she met.


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In graduate school, during President Reagan’s second term, my closest friend was Indian-American, her parents immigrants from Calcutta. I’d cut my long hair and we went to the annual Halloween party looking like punks with spiked hair, wearing tight jeans with “I’m a Republican” patches on the pockets, a costume we thought hysterical for reasons now unknown. She was deep brown, and me, virtually white beside her. Graduate school, less than a year behind us, seemed remote when I visited her for respite after I’d left a job in DC. Naeem and I already planned to marry and as we talked about the future, she was matter-of-fact in her prediction. If Naeem and I stayed in the U.S., our children would have difficulty in school. She had, her brother had, and my kids would be no different. I didn’t believe her. “You know that, right?” she said as I tried to make sense of what she’d said. But anti-miscegenation laws had come and gone, schools were integrated, mindsets were different. “You’ll see,” she giggled at my confusion, but I didn’t. Naeem was dark year-round, I was brown in the summer. Given my parents, I knew a thing or two about how color worked. My children would surely be lighter than Naeem, and saved from her prediction.

***

Kamal was in third grade the year before 9/11, and one afternoon Naeem accompanied him back to school where he’d forgotten his glasses. The corridor outside the third grade classrooms was covered floor to ceiling in hand-colored drawings of U.S. flags, stacked like blocks into wide towers. “What’s this?” Naeem asked. Kamal explained that each third grader had drawn a flag of where they were from; arranged into columns by country, the flags were a math lesson in bar graphs. There were a few stumps of non-U.S. flags and Naeem noticed a Pakistani one. “That must be you,” he said, but it wasn’t. Kamal told his teacher he came from more than one place and wasn’t sure which flag to draw. She said that since he was born in Syracuse, he should draw a U.S. flag. He asked if he could draw a flag that was half American and half Pakistani, but neither halves nor quarters, only wholes were permitted.

We didn’t listen, but Kamal had already told us that Mrs. David, his third-grade teacher, did not like him. He suggested her dislike was a presence, like the way you know someone is looking at you from the other side of the room without catching her. We told him this was nonsense and that the sooner he became accustomed to learning from different teachers, the better a student he would become. But the corridor display prompted Naeem to make an appointment to meet the teacher. He sat across from her on a child’s chair around a low table, in sight of a Dale Earnhart NASCAR poster on her refrigerator, and asked about the purpose of a bar graph almost entirely made up of U.S. flags. Mrs. David’s response was to warn him that he was intruding on her beliefs and end the conversation. Half-way through the school year, a boy punched Kamal in the hallway and he discovered Tae Kwon Do. Dale Earnhart had died earlier that year, and Mrs. David had held a moment of silence for him and cried.

Immediately after 9/11, hardly a week into Kamal’s fourth-grade year, air traffic was grounded, but sometimes military aircraft flew above Ithaca anyway. During recess one day, the children noticed an airplane and Jim, the largest boy on the playground, was suddenly enraged. He picked up a rock and threw it like a baseball as hard as he could at the sky. “Go home, you Afghanistanis,” he shouted, running after the plane and, unwittingly, into the trajectory of the falling rock.

Marge, the school social worker, said that the boys’ classmates were traumatized by 9/11. Perhaps they were liable to say and do things they didn’t mean? She’d told me that she lost a close friend when the towers fell — yet she felt herself liable to no such things. We looked at each other in silence for a few moments. I told her that my children were aware that while their cousins slept in Karachi, military aircraft flew overhead on the way to bombing runs in Afghanistan. She didn’t know what to do with this, so I did not say that more than the military aircraft, I was concerned about Tomahawk missiles launched from ships and flying over Karachi at night.

Kamal’s memories are scattered. Marge was the only person in the school mostly on his side. He thinks the carpet in her office was purple. “America the Beautiful” and the like were all that was sung in music class, taught by a teacher who covered her door with a We will never forget! sign the morning after 9/11. Also, someone, likely the principal, put him with Gunner in an office around a table on which a large atlas lay open. With the world between them, they were shown facts: Pakistan was Pakistan, Afghanistan was Afghanistan, the two were not the same. Then, as now, Kamal felt the geography lesson was wasted. Countries that end with stan” might as well be the same. They are mispronounced as much as they are mistrusted, misunderstood and mixed up, especially on a playground in the middle of a central New York school day. Presumably, had the countries actually been one and the same, the boys wouldn’t have gathered around an open atlas for a geography lesson, and “ter-rist,” easy and concise like a nickname, would still have slipped from children’s mouths.

Kamal’s fourth grade teacher was disinterested in his problems on the playground, or on the bus ,or in the hallways, and only in retrospect does it become strange that conversations around his protection never included her. In fifth grade, Kamal was beaten up in a planned attack during the school carnival in the Moon Walk, an inflatable bounce house where children jumped up and down and almost out of sight among hundreds of plastic balls. It turns out that we had a limit and this was it. We wrote a letter to the principal, copied to the district administration, chronicling the incidents and the school’s ineffective response, and called out racism. It was too late by then, as Kamal was about to graduate from elementary school, and our letter made little difference for Shahid, four years behind him, who became a stand-in for similar treatment. Four years later, when the boys once again attended the same school together, both of them had become Tae Kwon Do black belts, and one was training for the next level. On the school bus one afternoon, an unsuspecting older boy threw a Snapple bottle at Shahid. Shahid picked it up and threw it back hard, causing the bus driver to pull off the road, Kamal to intervene, and me to be their driver for the length of their suspension which lasted the rest of the year. They’d become a force, those brothers — at least when they weren’t fighting each other — a kinship grown from being brown.

When Kamal was fifteen, the Iraq war began and both boys were safe in the public school district’s alternative school. One afternoon, I heard a This American Life episode which featured a Palestinian family whose daughter was mercilessly bullied in fourth grade after 9/11. The story was terrifying, the boys’ hardly notable beside it. I sent Kamal the podcast and a few days later asked him what he thought. He laughed and shook his head. “Mama, that girl must have really done something,” he said. “What do you mean?” I asked. “No one gets treated like that unless they ask for it.” And I saw how deeply certain lessons settled.

***

The boys’ elementary school is nothing like the school of my childhood. Theirs sits in a sea of green in an unremarkable corner of a U.S. college town. Nearby, but out of sight, is the south end of Cayuga Lake, and the gorges through which Fall Creek runs, and the university’s rolling golf course, equestrian research facility, and lab of ornithology. The red brick school is a ten-minute walk from our home, and on approach it sinks away from the road into an amalgamation of three single story buildings, and then into wood-chipped playgrounds, asphalt basketball courts, and manicured fields that follow a suburban street lined with mown lawns and two-car garages of single-family homes.

Our school, too, was red brick and single story. It was located in Sector H-9 in the outskirts of Islamabad and reaching it required a 45-minute bus ride that traversed a busy Peshawar Road and a few empty, unpaved streets. Our school buses were the same as our children’s; a shining yellow I didn’t realize was distinctive of U.S. school buses until I arrived here. The only lake in the vicinity was Rawal Lake, the artificial reservoir that supplies the city’s water, and the dominant green was the distant Margalla Hills that are the north border of the city and the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. The closest residential dwellings were fashioned from mud and dung, homes to barefoot children who chased our school buses for fun when they were not watching animals graze on adjoining arid patches of land.

For years, the only fact about our school that interested the children is that Naeem and I had ridden the same school bus when he was in high school and I was six years behind. In the early 1970s, Naeem and I (and our siblings) had been among the few Pakistanis who attended the international school, most on full scholarships negotiated for Pakistanis in the terms set to acquire land for the campus. Both of us had already graduated by the time Islamabad’s peace was broken the day before Thanksgiving of 1979, when six people were killed — two Americans and four Pakistanis — during an attack on the U.S. embassy which reduced it to smoldering ruins. Our school was also attacked, but instead of a raging crowd and fire, a few dozen miscreants jumped the boundary wall and terrorized students, leaving the buildings and everyone in them to survive. Twelve years later, in the early 1990s, Naeem and I returned to visit the school for the first time, and the guards at the gate sprang from their chairs to shake our hands and welcome us home. In one of Naeem’s photographs, I’m alone in the parking lot in the shade of a tree I don’t remember. Pregnant with Kamal, I stand beside an old school bus, now painted baby blue to match the local buses, the school’s name buried under years of paint.

On a rushed trip to Islamabad four years ago that Naeem could not make, I visited the school with Shahid before Kamal joined us for the week. It took us much longer than expected to get there, and after getting lost in the surrounding maze, our car passed through a black and yellow security barrier which resembled a parking garage gate, except for being fortified, the wrong colors, and manned by three armed men. Finally, we arrived at a huge wall topped with barbed wire extending away from it, seemingly impossible to breach. Atop the wall was a watch tower, a sentry post near the gate not unlike the one at Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Elmira, NY, where Naeem and a friend taught a class. The tower guards stood to either side of a mounted assault rifle and paid close attention while we walked single file to the final security checkpoint. Waiting for us in the cramped room was a metal detector, the largest armed chowkidar, guard, I’ve ever seen, and a Pakistani woman who took our phones and checked our IDs against a list. Just beyond lay the first familiar sight, the school’s original perimeter wall. I remembered when a single guard at the open gate used to sit in a bamboo chair nodding in and out of sleep while an unarmed rifle rested between his knees and traffic came and went.

The campus was as congested as the roads leading up to it — as if in the years since I’d graduated, the school had spared no expense with every possible amenity, including a new cafeteria, several tennis courts and a large swimming pool. Our guide was the school’s registrar, a young American woman who blushed with excitement when she said that her husband, whom I imagined a U.S. marine, was about to be posted to Bangkok. She said tuition was $18,000 a year, and the school population was 75% Pakistani, with the balance being foreign and the most recent enrollees French and German. It took a moment for me to absorb the numbers and to understand that the mostly American school of my childhood was now mostly Pakistani. She waved at the swimming pool behind a locked fence, and I had difficulty placing it on the map of the school that I carried in my mind. Had the spot been a parking lot? A field? The location of a makeshift stall that sold Fanta? I ran my hand along the wire fence as I tried to orient myself, when Shahid pointed to a stack of cricket gear in my path. The used pads were gray with sweat and dull grass stains, the shape of children’s legs preserved in the way they lay. I asked the guide for confirmation that students played cricket. Her response was swift — boys and girls had been playing cricket, Pakistan’s national sport, at the school for years. “Since when?” I balked, unable to reconcile my experience of the school with the anomaly of cricket and Pakistani boys, especially those nearby who eyed me suspiciously.

Our school did not offer cricket. We played flag football, soccer, basketball, softball, and field hockey. In those days, the spare quads of the school emptied into vast fields that spread in all directions until they hit the easily scalable boundary wall, on the other side of which grew wild marijuana plants. We trained in sweltering heat on the track around the fields, a grueling activity that sometimes gave me leg cramps, the severity of which helped me describe labor contractions to a friend.

At the end of our tour, I noticed that the parking lot was filled with sleek white buses rather than the yellow ones of my childhood or my children’s in NY. I recalled some long ago afternoon bus rides when students entertained themselves by thrusting their heads from windows and spitting on pedestrians and bicyclists. I was never brave enough to ask them to stop or tell my parents because I feared being ostracized or pulled from the school. We drove home by a different route, on which I immediately found my bearings. I saw that the mud dwellings near the school had been replaced with a tent village, home to internally displaced persons (IDPs), from the massive earthquake years earlier or, perhaps, from Pakistani army efforts to drive the Taliban from the northern areas. Children, much like the ones who’d chased our buses, played between rows of battered tents and faded blue UN tarps and, on a school day, were not in school.

On the drive home, I asked Shahid if he’d noticed cricket bats or if we’d seen a cricket pitch. He hadn’t, but I asked again, anyway. I remembered something then: being seventeen and at college when my aunt called to tell me that the embassy and the school my sister still attended had been attacked, and the newscast I listened to on my shortwave radio announced that students fought off their attackers with cricket bats. That could not be true, I thought at the time, because the school only had baseball bats. The inaccuracy seized me then, and now, decades later, soiled cricket pads lying against the swimming pool fence brought it back all over again.

***

The day after the 2016 election, Shahid, now 20, speaks with me on the telephone. “I’m so worried about you and your brother,” I say. “Why?” he asks, and I think he’s joking. “Because of the registry?” He laughs his deepest laugh and tells me not to worry so much. He says they are already registered, have been since 9/11, or perhaps earlier. I think about it for a moment because, after all, a post-9/11 registry had existed for years. “But it will be more dangerous for you now,” I insist. When I share my concerns with Kamal, now 24, he is equally amused. As I listen to his banter, I’m tempted to abandon my worries, if only for a moment, but then he refers to the U.S. as “Trumpistan” and his gallows humor unnerves me. I’m conditioned by years of media coverage about Pakistan and Afghanistan and Kazakhstan and all the other stans of the world, and alongside the president-elect’s platform, Trumpistan can only be a place of fear. Soon enough, the inauguration happens, and I check our passports for expiration dates. We submit them for renewal on my birthday, hours before the travel ban is announced. Pakistan is not yet on the list of countries, but I know how easily it could be, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Every day I wait for our postman, and every day that our passports don’t arrive, my knot of worry grows.

It’s cold in the crowded waiting area of the Syracuse railway station where we’re whiling away a delay before Shahid returns to college after Thanksgiving break. A young man no older than Shahid, military-issued bags at his feet, also waits, and I wonder which war he is off to. I recall my mother’s surprise on her post-9/11 visits. She was puzzled by the preponderance of flags — in windows, on doors, flying from houses and cars — as if people needed to be reminded of where they were. She’d never seen such a phenomenon, even during World War II. As we drove her through the countryside, up and down beautiful hills, past young wineries and neatly fenced farms without a single person in sight and the sweet fragrance of cut grass all about, she’d remark, “You’d never know this country was at war.” Next to me in the train station, loud music escapes Shahid’s earphones and I see him as if I’m the stranger sitting across from us. I tell him to pull the hoodie from his head and he rolls his eyes, but obliges. Kamal is flying home soon and, as if he doesn’t already know, I remind myself to tell him to shave for the immigration officials, and to keep handy the telephone numbers of our attorney friend, so that if he is detained and allowed a telephone call, they are at his fingertips. He has been singled out on travels and seen the inside of special waiting rooms, so he knows that U.S. Immigration is its own country, where officers, not travel documents, reign supreme.

We cannot speak of blessings conferred by 9/11, but there is one. We owe our children’s complex selves to those events and the aftermath. Bar graphs, “America the Beautiful,” and an abundance of U.S. flags have failed to fully assimilate our sons — they are not entirely at home here. If I were still in touch with my Indian-American friend, I’d tell her that she was right and I was wrong. But our sons understand something we wanted them to know: there is a world larger than them out there, and most of it is full of color. They straddle worlds. Not quite like us, but not unlike us. Once in a while, I remind the boys that I’m half white and I put my arms beside their much larger ones to make my point. They shake their heads and feign exasperation, even when I insist that my mix makes them one quarter white. In this country, in these “America First” times, they are brown.

* * *

Sorayya Khan is the author of three novels. The U.S. edition of her most recent book, City of Spies, will be released this month.

Editor: Sari Botton