My father loves to make conversation with cab drivers.
With anyone, really. He’s one-small-step-for-man away from being that guy on the plane who won’t let you sleep. I hold my breath every time we’re in an elevator, or in a waiting room, and especially in a taxicab. So you can imagine my surprise when my dad gets in and doesn’t say a word. Instead, it is the cabdriver who initiates the conversation:
Cabbie: Where are you from?
Dad: Sudan, you?
Cabbie: Did you live here for a long time? Your English is so good!
Dad: I learned it in school
In the back seat, I roll my eyes and sigh at the irony of one immigrant judging another on their level of fluency in a language neither of them possess as mother tongue. The cab driver has only been in America for five years, and here he is in awe at the fact that my father, who has lived a total of 20 years in English speaking countries, could speak the language. Of course, he had no way of knowing that, but nevertheless it upset me.
Cabbie: Your president is Bashir?
Cabbie: Is he good?
Dad: Just like Putin
I snort, loudly. It is a small victory; like we just won a round in the fighting pits (pardon the Game of Thrones reference, I’m still traumatized). Because that’s how you feel; in constant competition – with other compatriots, with other immigrants, with “real” Americans. You have to prove your worth, prove your equality, prove your superiority.
Sadly, the high of victory is short lived as the conversation takes a sobering turn. My dad’s clever retort leads to a discussion on Putin, on Bashir, on crackdowns, on the destructive nature of dictatorships.
Cabbie: Do you miss home?
Dad: I just came from home!
Cabbie: Those politicians, they don’t bother [threaten] you?
Dad: not yet
My parents and I laugh, recalling the countless times we’ve joked that my father’s writings would “one day land him in prison”. Our cab driver isn’t in on the joke. I catch a glimpse of his face in the rear view mirror – confused.
Dad: Can you go home?
Cabbie: No. Maybe after 5 years
Dad: After you get the [US] passport?
Cabbie: No, not that. Just maybe they’ll forget me then
Alim Fayegov (sp?), in his thirties, was an activist in Russia. The “they” he’s referring to are the powers that be, who chased him out. He’s Muslim, of Turkish descent, part of a persecuted group in Russia. He tells us a little about his parents, who grew up in Siberia. We discuss Stalin’s fondness for banishing people there. We connect the dots in Alim’s family history.
Dad: I went to study briefly in Russia in the 1970’s
Alim: I wasn’t even born then! So you speak Russian?
Dad: Not anymore
Alim: But if I spoke it to you, you’d understand, right?
Dad: I’m not sure I would
Alim tells us about Russian names, that even though his last name should actually be Fayeg, his family and others like them are required to add the Russian “ov” suffix at the end. Without it, life would be very difficult; you’d be easily spotted, and would be denied jobs.
We arrive at our first destination – the hospital where my cousin works – so we can pick up the apartment key.
Dad: Sorry for making you wait
Alim: No, no problem. I’ll stop the meter for you
We all smile. I remember reading the sign pasted inside a cab in Phoenix: “$30 for every hour taxi is made to wait”. There is no such thing as a cab driver stopping the meter in the middle of a trip. This behavior is what my father later referred to simply as, “Almuslimeen!” [the Muslims]. For the first time in years, I feel a sense of community and Muslim brotherly love.
Tonight, as I walked in to the ladies’ prayer area at the mosque to participate in the season’s first Taraweeh [special prayer Muslims do during Ramadan], I was met with the piercing, hazel eyed stare of a young woman. I follow her gaze down to my pants, and back up to the over-sized shirt that hit midway down my thigh, and feel the disapproval radiate from the smirk lines forming at the corners of her mouth. My head starts to spin, panic setting in.
I close my eyes.
I remember Alim.