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.
Edgar Gomez | Longreads | June 2017 | 34 minutes (8,473 words)
It was Christmas Day in Orlando, just over six months after the Pulse Nightclub shooting, and my brother, Marco, and I drove through eerie, empty streets looking for anywhere open to eat. Most of the restaurants we passed were closed for the holiday, but still the city celebrated. Flashing neon lights framed a deli window where a mechanical display Santa waved us by with automated merriness. A swarm of inflatable reindeer grazed outside a “New York style” Chinese restaurant. Palm trees dressed as candy canes wrapped with red and white tinsel lined the sides of the road ahead. We were back in town to spend the holiday with our mother, who unexpectedly had to take off to Mexico the night before for a funeral, leaving Marco and me alone and scrambling to make conversation. He’d driven up from Miami. I’d flown in from California. We opted to listen to music instead. Marco steered with his knees, scrolling through playlists on his phone with one hand and smoking a cigarette with his other. He landed on a country song I’d never heard of before. I leaned out my window, away from his smoke, breathing in the spectacle of Christmas in Florida.
This was not my home anymore. I had moved to California in September, just two months earlier, but already the streets outside looked alien, every other light pole crowned with a flimsy-looking evergreen. Elves in swimming trunks were piled in sale bins outside of The Dollar General. I noticed that Marco’s seatbelt was unbuckled. If he were a friend, I would have lectured him about the dangers of driving recklessly, but because he was Marco, I left it alone. At 27, he was only three years older than me, though it was a wide enough age gap that any attempt to talk to each other was clumsy and forced.
When I asked him if he thought I dyed my hair too dark since he last saw me, he asked, “What’s the difference?” I was blond before. My new hair was black. He offered me a cigarette by tapping the carton on his thigh and flicking the lid open under my nose. I shook my head no and went back to staring out of the window, satisfied that we had at least tried to talk. I suggested Anthony’s Pizza, the place downtown with the newly minted mural featuring a flock of 49 doves of assorted colors representing the Pulse victims. No, he said.
“Americans continue to shake their heads over new revelations of widespread data mining and near-universal phone tapping, while Unamericans righteously defend these tactics and call for punishment of the leakers who revealed them. Were I to be shown in accurate detail why it was necessary for me to be kept under surveillance, possibly for the rest of my life, I might be able to accept these invasions of my privacy for the collective good. The ostensible purpose of this surveillance is to protect us, and our freedoms, from terrorists. What remains uncertain, since secret, is how terrifying the terrorists presently are, and to what extent rights and liberties may be undermined in order to save us from them. I cannot say how many intelligence operatives might be hampered or endangered by greater oversight; on the other hand, if the Unamericans continue to have their way we will never know how many innocent people they have imprisoned, tortured and perhaps murdered.”
Since 2001, the bureau—often helped along by informants—has been instrumental in stopping at least 40 known terrorist plots, most of them smaller, “lone-wolf” schemes. Although it has faced some criticism for its activities and investigative techniques, the bureau’s post-9/11 record is remarkable, with no subsequent Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. soil. The person who came closest to breaking that streak, according to federal prosecutors, is Najibullah Zazi.