Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Jihad Rides the Subway, or Being Osama in New York

It all starts with my friend B inviting me to this cool weekend-before-Halloween party downtown.

- But you have to have to have to be in costume, he said. And it can’t be lame.

- Sure. I’ll be in costume, man. No worries.

- What are you going to be?

- I’m going to be the jihad. All I need is a turban around my head.


I don’t end up going for the party, but the seed has been sown. I am going to dress up as ‘the jihad’ and go down to the Halloween Parade down in Greenwich Village.

Often asked question, as I broadcast my intentions to colleagues and friends - What does the jihad dress like?

Well, as far as I’m concerned, the Jihad wears a beard (which I do), and whatever else I can pull out of my cupboard. Military/combat style jacket worn over a kurta and combat/bigassmothafucka boots, and a turban. In fact, the jihad dresses exactly the mass media circulated images of Osama bin Laden.

Apart from the turban, I posess everything else. So what if the kurta is more adab than jihad, hedonistically translucent, and with exquisite chikan embroidery? And so what if the jacket is Levi’s (more on which later)? It’s the effect that matters.

The afternoon of the 31st is spent franticlly calling my desi women friends, trying to find a white dupatta to turn into a turban, and some kaajal/surma to line my eyes with, like a good Pathan would. Both prove surprisingly elusive, but the dupatta does materialize and is better than could be asked for, and the lack of kaajal is made up for by mascara.

The jihad has never been quite this camp. But half an hour before heading downtown, as I finally complete the get up, dupatta wound around Afghan hat, mascara to lower lashes, green jacket over kurta – even I am surprised at how effective the transformation is. The bearded, turbaned, combat jacketed face staring back at me from the mirror is every visual cliché of what militant Islam looks like. I am the jihad, and at seven thirty the jihad meets a bunch of other people from Columbia and takes the 1 train downtown.

I feel the need to be surrounded by white people at this point, I tell my friends. It is true.


A black man in the crush on the platform at Christopher Street is the first. He laughs and says, You need some bombs to go with this.

- If you give me some, I’ll put them on.

Outside, in the mad carnival crowd of fairies (with and without wings), cops (real and otherwise), wizards and vampires, Jedi knights and strippers; two million or more packed around downtown Sixth Avenue, I stand out. On an average, there’s a comment every twenty steps.

- Give me a dollar, Osama, and I’ll dance for you.

- Everybody go boom.

- We found Osama!

- The Taleban is in town.

Head into a supermarket to grab a bite to eat, and the staff is all in splits, laughing and pointing.

- Do you guys want to search me before I get in?

- Come here, we’ll search you alright, and we’ll just keep your wallet.

Being completely lost in New York where the grid runs out, I ask a cop for directions to Jones Street.

- What are you supposed to be, Osama bin Laden?

- Something like that.

- I should be arresting you.

- As long as you give me directions first.

He does. With a smile. And doesn’t arrest me. The rest of the evening passes in a similar fashion. Friends are met, by coincidence and co-ordination. We walk on the streets, and in and out of shops and restaurants and bars of downtown Manhattan till long after midnight. Everywhere, the apparition of the jihad is treated with amusement and laughter. I am made to pose for photos. There’s maybe one ‘Fuck Osama’ shout the entire time.

At around eleven thirty, while at a pizza parlour with Elizabeth, Gautam and Psingh, a bunch of kids who couldn’t be older than fourteen walk in and one of them asks, Is that a Levi’s jacket?

I can’t get over this. No comments on the turban, or on the kurta, no Are you from Afghanistan? Just

- Is that a Levi’s jacket.

- Yes.

He turns around to his friend and says, I told you so, and turns back to me.

- How much did you pay for it?

- Thirty dollars, I say, rapidly converting in my head. I had bought it in Delhi less than a week before leaving.

- You got ripped off, he says, and they all walk out of the shop.

You just had an anthropological moment there, my friend, says Gautam.

At the end of the day, capitalism always trumps terrorism.


Excerpt from chat with friend and fellow Indian in New York

me: I walked the streets of new york yesterday, dressed as the embodiment of the jihad...

AT: dangerous

this is not DU anand

stop being stupid

you'll land up in jail

Since this echoes pretty much what a lot of other people also told me before Halloween, it started me thinking.

Was it stupid and tasteless, (apart from being potentially suicidal) to dress up as Osama bin Laden in the city to which 9/11 happened? Was it not, in a way, analogous to walking around Ahmedabad with a saffron headband and a crow bar in hand, shouting Jai Sri Ram? Was it not particularly tasteless to do so less than two months after visiting Ground Zero on the day before the 5th anniversary of 9/11?

Did I have reasons beyond thrill seeking and crass exhibitionism in dressing up as a mujahiddeen in New York? And, Would I have done this in Delhi?

(That’s such a peculiarly forgotten word. One who fights the jihad is a mujahiddeen, and it’s surprising, given the worldwide concern with the ‘jihad’, that the term has been so forgotten. More specifically, it was associated with the Afghan warlords and troops fighting the Soviets with American money and guns. Back then, they used to be the good guys – especially Ahmed Shah Massoud).

I don’t know. I have been taken into police custody in Delhi for taking photos in Connaught Place, so I would be a bit more circumspect. But probably. For in Delhi, while at Delhi University (DU), I used to wear the pakul, Ahmed Shah Massoud style, and claim the identity of Khushzaheen Khan (Khushzaheen being a direct Persian translation of Anand Vivek). This was the exhibitionist external reflection of a profound internal ferment – for going to Pakistan was the first realization of how Hinduized the public culture of supposedly ‘secular’ India was, and how much of the Islamicate (as opposed to necessarily Islamic) heritage of Delhi, and of India, was ghettoized and feared and unacknowledged. It was only after visiting Lahore and Peshawar that I truly began to see Delhi, and tried to reclaim and make part of my being - a lost past and a culture and a register of language. (The current iteration of which project of identity is the gratuitous use and attempts to popularize the phrase inshallah, but more on that later.)

And all of this was way before the beard. The (sculpted, identified with Muslims, khat/qat nikli, ‘Shahjahani’)beard made its appearance three years ago, after class mates were taken into custody and harassed by the police while making their diploma film and shooting near the American Cultural Centre, for being Kashmiri, and Muslim. (I was also taken into custody in the same area, but let go after fifteen minutes with a cup of tea. They were kept in there for six hours, and only half the faculty having to rush to the Police Station with official letters and threats to go to the media that things were sorted out.) In the hysteria after 9/11 and then the Parliament Attack, India’s own specific histories of communalism and discrimination became conflated with the global hysteria against Islam and Muslims, the beard was my perhaps daft and totally inadequate move at dissimulation, my standing with the sons of Cain. I still keep the beard, mostly because it makes my face look better than it would otherwise. Or so I think.

But at the end of the day, in India I am an upper middle class, upper caste, English speaking male with a Hindu name. When push comes to shove, I am never going to get into any real trouble with the state/authorities. I will never have to feel personally wounded by this sort of everyday shit, which made Khushzaheen return for a little while. Things would be different if my name really was Khushzaheen. I definitely wouldn’t have the beard.

Things are different in the States. Here, I am a brown man with a beard. I’m on top of no hierarchies, I fit the racial profile of what terrorists are supposed to look like, and my name doesn’t necessarily mean anything, one way or the other. (I have been positively shocked at the amount of trouble people have pronouncing this simple a name). I could be arrested, like Indian film-maker Rakesh Sharma was, for using a camera in public spaces in New York (and I do). If I wore a T-Shirt with a message in Arabic, like Raed Jarrar did, I might be asked to leave a plane. And the day after Halloween, five Jewish teenagers beat up a Pakistani man in Brooklyn. For being Muslim. Things aren’t good with the world. Stereotypes need to be punctured, images and imaginaries of the ‘Other’ transgressed.

Did my dressing up as ‘the jihad’ on Halloween do any of this? I might be brown and bearded, but I am from a non Muslim ‘model minority’, and a grad student in an Ivy League school. (Did I say I am not on top of hierarchies here?) I can do this because I can get away with it. Maybe that’s all one can do, sometimes. Know what one can get away with, and exploit it. Push the limits of the possible, in whatever half assed fashion seems like a good idea at the point.

At the end of the day, as my father would say, people chose to laugh, rather than being angry or afraid of a brown man dressed as ‘Osama’, and in downtown New York, not so far from the WTC.

And if you really look at it, as my father would say, at the end of the day, the Levi’s jacket mattered more.


Inshallah, this augurs well for Tuesday’s elections.

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