Though this piece will mostly deal with the hostility rising up through soil of American political discourse, the rank animosity towards non-white citizens and immigrants engendered by a feces-tongued demagogue, it begins with something I’d hope most of us can agree on: Fuck Tom Brady.
“The Patriots were down 28 to 3, and all I thought was, ‘I can’t believe Brady is about to come up with 25 points.’”
This is my friend Noor. When I first met Noor in 2010, I made a snap judgment about a slim, pretty young woman in a headscarf, imagining her as a shy, reluctant wallflower. This stupid notion now lays buried under years of her acerbic observations and foul mouth. She still lives in Chicago, where we met, and works in digital advertising. Her parents are from Pakistan, but she, like me, was born in Texas.
“The people I was watching the game with were like, ‘You don’t know anything about football. That’s not possible.’ And I’m like, ‘Brady’s going to come back and win this. Brexit happened. Trump happened. This game’s over. Patriots have got it.’”
Whenever Noor hears of something stupid or aggravating she gets this look like she’s staring down without a glimmer of pity at a little kid who’s dropped his ice cream off the cone: Yeah, you did that. You sure did. Life’s a bitch, huh? She’s one of the top-five funniest people I’ve ever met.
The last time I saw her was in Chicago in April 2016. She played hooky from work to meet me for coffee. Afterwards, we walked to her office downtown, crossing through the shadow of Trump Tower, which looks like a silver phallus whinily elbowing its way into the skyline. The primaries heating up, we made our remarks, and I apologized for white people the world over, but it was all still a joke. A bad joke to be sure, a terrible stand-up comedian bombing at an open mic night, but a joke nonetheless. Nothing to fear.
Speaking the day after Super Bowl 2017, Noor carefully explains her reaction to the early days of this presidency.
“I work really hard to maintain a presence that says I’m upset but thick-skinned, and I’m resilient, and I won’t stand for this. But I’m hiding that a big part of me is scared and sad. The constant barrage of bad news is weakening,” she says of the travel ban, at that point hurtling towards the 9th Circuit Court. “Nothing ceases to amaze me anymore.”
So far, the primary characteristic of the administration of Donald Trump is the hyper-accelerated pace of the news cycle and all the outrage and horror accompanying it. There’s almost no time to react to a new Muslim ban before you learn of ICE raids randomly gobbling up law-abiding immigrants. You wake up the next morning to see the Times reporting on high-level contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence during the election, and the next day you learn our intelligence agencies don’t trust the executive branch with key information and then go to bed reading about Trump surrogates like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka and their ties to white supremacist ideas and dialogues.
“It’s not just him winning the election,” Noor tells me. “For a long time, for years, being a Muslim in America, there’s a sliding scale of concern that people will consume a certain amount of slanted news or other fear-stoking media and eventually write off 1.6 billion people as violent, fanatical religious zealots. But outright bigotry had been pretty low-key and not overly visible. You could write off an Islamaphobe as a blip on the radar. Then this rhetoric starts. During the election, I would have to avert my eyes from seeing the front lawns of some of these homes in the suburbs. You’d see Trump signs in yards, but not just one—like seven per yard. The volume was alarming. It felt like hate signage because the wall and the ban were such massive parts of the campaign. Seven signs don’t say, ‘I just happen to support differing tax policies!’ It’s much more than that.”
Noor and I don’t necessarily spend all our time talking about this. There’s too much to catch up on. Her family, her constant jet-setting travel for work. What about your career, Markley? Working in advertising, she’s always trying to get me to up my social media game, post workout videos on Instagram or inspirational quotes or other terrible, vividly narcissistic ideas. “I know—my instinct is to turn you into a tool,” she says. “I proudly represent all the worst trends in media. Ignore all my advice. I’ll ruin your career.”
Talking to Noor and the other people I’ll introduce to you in this essay—it acts like a good soon-to-be-outlawed joint. It calms the nerves. The country’s heartbeat is quickened, arrhythmic. Our society lives day-to-day with the blood pressure of a heart attack. We watch as a group of people who are not even trying to disguise their anti-democratic ideology strain at the confines of our much-heralded checks and balances, while we continually discover that many of the barriers to authoritarianism were simply norms and standards of decency that indecent men can easily ignore.
Sleeved comfortably in white skin, I occasionally, rarely, find it possible to put all this out of my head for a moment, to see The Lego Batman Movie and forget what’s going on. Then I emerge from the safety of that headspace to remember that certain people I love and care for don’t have that luxury.
“So it’s hard not to feel sick and scared all the time,” Noor explains, as hard and cold and, yes, amused talking about this as she is about the ethical dilemma of finding Tom Brady attractive. “That’s a part of my everyday reality. There’s always been that constant possibility that I might encounter people who have uncertainties about me and my faith, but for the most part I felt capable of dispelling those worries just by being a decent human while being visibly Muslim. But it seems like being an upstanding citizen or a good person isn’t enough anymore.”
The danger of this moment cannot be overstated. For as long as they manage to hold onto power, a radical minority will attempt to remake our flawed, fatigued, imperfect country into something truly despicable. Into an ethno-nationalist police state. Land of the Elite, Home of the White. In no way is this is hyperbolic. The speed and aggression with which this small cabal operates has been staggering, impeded for now only by the weakening will of a degraded and endangered constitutional system. Yet even in the best-case scenario, even if the resistance works and a dedicated core of devoted citizens saves our pluralistic society, Trump and his enablers will still have unleashed something dreadful. This toothpaste will not go easily back into the tube.
Much of this is on my mind when I speak to Nyoul. We met during our time in grad school at the University of Iowa where we discovered we both enjoyed drinking pitchers of beer and having hours-long conversations about literature and politics and their ill-fitting cross-sections. One night at his place, over pizza and cheap, metallic-flavored wine, we discussed the novels we wanted to write and the inherent embarrassment one feels saying out loud that one wants to write a novel. It was one of my favorite nights from my time in Iowa.
“Over the last few decades, fiction has found a niche where it’s supposedly above politics, but then this happens, and you realize, oh no, it’s not,” Nyoul tells me over the phone from Santa Barbara where he has a teaching fellowship. “Now the novel doesn’t feel important—even fraudulent or irrelevant given the circumstances.”
It’s like we’re right back in this dive called George’s in Iowa City. I can practically smell the everpresent grilled burger scent wafting from the back recesses of the bar.
“Liberal politics and philosophy don’t have the tools to deal with this at all,” Nyoul continues. “Maybe fiction can help us think about it, but bougie civility is gone. We have a bully in charge of global governance; there is no politeness, there is no subtlety. The typical categories of political discourse—they are powerless. And all the things we tend to appreciate in fiction, they’re not relevant in this apocalyptic moment. It’s as though the enlightenment project is imploding. Intellectually, it’s an interesting thing, but living through it is extremely hard.”
Nyoul came to the U.S. as a refugee from Sudan, one of Trump’s targeted countries. His visa is up soon, possibly at one of the worst moments such a thing could happen. For him, this moment in history is not only frightening, not only tragic, but it has robbed him of a hope born when he arrived here as a teenager.
“Trump has changed how I relate to America. I came here ten years ago exactly, but it’s been a long time since I felt like a refugee—I’m still a refugee, but the feeling disappeared. Now I have this feeling of great mourning.”
For Nyoul, it’s not about what specific policies make it through the resistance of the courts or Congress. “It’s deeper,” he says. “America has always meant something more. You don’t think of it in terms of policies when you’re in a refugee camp, you think of it as where you have an opportunity. So there’s this nostalgia for America you feel as a refugee because of what it represents. It feels like a homecoming. This is the place where your wandering stopped. Where you are blessed by God to begin anew.”
I can’t even describe how bright my friend’s voice sounds when he says this, and the way it bottoms out on his very next sentence.
“That was my experience, but this—this is like, ‘Oops, nope, America is just like Sudan. Just like the place I escaped.’ Africans are used to people like Trump. Bullies, warlords, assholes, narcissists—people who don’t care about the preservation of institutions. They just want to have fun, make their families rich, and they could care less what history thinks of them. So now if a refugee cannot have the possibility of beginning anew, where do you go? Not just physically but in terms of hope? That’s what has hit me.”
The cross-cutting cleavages of an individual’s experience are always perplexing—because in this new world paradigm I weirdly have more in common with this kid from Sudan than I do my own blood relatives who voted for Trump. Part of this, according to Nyoul, is our own fault, and at least a partial explanation.
“The left doesn’t know how to engage with people who don’t agree with them,” he says. “Political correctness is borne out of the idea that there is a proper way to speak, to explain the world—it’s an epistemological overconfidence that pervades society. So Trump got up there, and people were like, ‘Wow, he can say these things?’ Meanwhile, Hillary sounded like she was giving a presentation for Queer Studies or Black Studies 101. We crucify people for choosing the wrong words or having the wrong opinion. It’s a punishing, dogmatic ideology in which people can’t be wrong and aren’t allowed to evolve.”
Regardless of how we got here, though, we are here, says Nyoul. This has changed the world forever.
“I’m mourning this country more than my own, both Sudan and South Sudan, which continue to suffer from terrible dysfunction. In those countries, this has been the cycle. It’s familiar. But America has always been the place with the antidote: the resources, education, and wealth so refugees can return and improve their homes. The last ten years I’ve been here seem fragile now and somewhat naïve. I remember that being a refugee is a feeling of perpetual homelessness, where you feel you can never really settle. You are just a figure marked with abandonment. That’s why the psychological damage of this—damage that will cloak the whole world—it’s irreparable.”
Like Nyoul, Fatima and I became close during our time at Iowa. She tells me she and Nyoul have had multiple conversations about What’s Happening, and that’s the way she phrases it. Capital letters, demarcating a descent.
“I’ve had this feeling of fight or flight ever since he was elected,” she says. “It’s playing a part in my relationships, in everything I’m doing. When Trump first started running, I knew it was affecting me, but I didn’t realize how much.”
Upon meeting, Fatima and I fell into a very older brother / younger sister dynamic—meaning we are close, lifelong friends for sure, but I reserve the right to tease her mercilessly. Because Fatima, it should be noted, doesn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve, she cradles it bloodily in two hands and chases you down alleys with it.
She’ll preface stories of a close friend with, “Charlotte—she’s my best friend—she’s so beautiful and so smart—I love her hair, it’s so gorgeous—”
Or a story of her younger brother with, “So my brother—oh my God, he’s so cute, I love him so much—”
Really she loves nothing more than talking about her feelings (except the act of feeling those feelings). We once saw the Jenny Slate abortion comedy Obvious Child together, and she was almost more entertaining than the movie. While I chugged PBR tallboys, Fatima experienced the full range of human emotion so viscerally and immediately, I’d occasionally look over to make sure she was going to be okay. She gripped her armrests and brayed laughter at every joke, only to burst into tears at the next scene if a character displayed any iota of compassion or tenderness.
We can’t have a conversation without her asking about my dating life because she so obviously wants me to be in love, probably so I can feel the same demented plane of emotional intensity that causes her to funeral-level weep at okay-enough movies like Obvious Child.
One of the best conversations we ever had took place at 3 a.m. while she made me some kind of jerry-built salad from the dredges of her fridge and told me about her faith. I’m reminded of that night when we speak again.
“I always considered my faith a personal affair. It is a human’s relationship to God or a possible God and the most intimate relationship, creator to creation. Because it’s so personal, the individual can contemplate what to incorporate in one’s life, what to act upon or not act upon. Faith is a nuanced thing that cannot be boiled down. Then all of a sudden, with Trump, I felt like the nuance had been taken from me, the idea that one’s relationship to faith was complex and personal. When Trump was elected it felt like a mark: Muslim. A dirty word that could mean ‘Other.’ Or ‘Not compatible with being American, not to be trusted.’ I was robbed of my interior relationship to this part of myself.”
It was Fatima’s Facebook wall that first got me thinking about this piece (whatever this piece is; I will finish it, publish it, read it again, and still not know). In her posts, she writes about What’s Happening, spreading like an infection from this dangerous clown down into the body politic, manifesting for her Indian-Arab family in dozens of small ways: a passenger saying something creepy to her on a plane, her grandmother telling her to have her passport on her at all times, just in case, or a child in her parents’ Texas neighborhood bringing her mother a plastic bag of wrapper-less Skittles—an overt reference to Eric Trump’s notorious poison Skittles comment with roots in Nazi propaganda. Suddenly, this fructose candy became a hostile gesture, likely filtered through the bigotry of this child’s parents.
For Fatima, it’s hard to overstate how psychically harrowing this has been.
“The night of the election results, I was so upset. The first thing I did was call my brothers and say, ‘Please don’t go out tonight.’ I’d never done that before. I’d never had that specific fear. It was a moment when I realized I don’t know my country. I don’t know what it’s capable of. And it’s strange to see the way my parents’ generation has reacted versus me and my brothers. Because my dad said, ‘I refuse to not feel welcome. I’m not going to change. I’m going to smile at every stranger as I would. I’m not going to let this change the way I move through the world.’ Meanwhile, my brother painted a sign that said ‘Registered Muslim’ and went to a protest. But sometimes I think my parents see how upset and stressed out and nervous we are, and they put on a brave face for us.”
With this next story, Fatima has me tearing up over the phone (though I obviously will never admit this to her).
“In elementary school, my favorite part of the day was the Pledge of Allegiance. I loved all of us standing with our hands over our hearts reciting the same thing and being part of the same thing. I was in fifth grade when September 11th happened, and I remember my dad told me I couldn’t wear hijab to school the next day. I’d been wearing it since I was nine. I was angry and crying, because I did not understand, but I remember he said to me, ‘We just don’t know what’s on the other side of the door right now.’ That’s the first time I felt there was anything different about me. I’d done nothing wrong, but still I felt I was being punished. I can’t even imagine what kids are going through now with the President telling them they don’t belong here. After the election, I thought a lot about that moment, and I thought about the quote on the Statue of Liberty I first came across in high school, which had made me think then: This is why so many of us are here. This is why my family is here. Why I’m here. All of these memories returned to me, and it’s hard not to feel like all of it was a joke. I know I have to fight against that. I’m not going to let this man do that to me.”
One of the legacies of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, brought to the surface by recent events, is the fate of interpreters who worked with American forces. In so many cases, these Iraqi and Afghan citizens put their lives and the lives of their families at extreme risk. While many of these men and women have managed to emigrate to the United States, tens of thousands remain stranded overseas. Many have been tortured or killed along with their families for their collaboration. Some while waiting on American visas.
I didn’t know Kevin when he was serving two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. I met him and his wife Lindsay in Chicago in 2010. Within a couple hangouts, I decided I’d have to make room in my Top Five Funniest People for this dude. Now he lives in Milwaukee with Lindsay and their two sons. When we talk, he’s been away from them on a work trip.
“Don’t let this end up in your article, but I’m going to have a beer,” he says. “I tell my single friends, ‘Enjoy your life, drink as many beers as you can, make all the bad decisions.’ My life, man, it’s just poop and crying and more poop. And that’s not even the kids, that’s just me and Lindsay.”
Kevin is a jock from South Dakota, from conservative, middle-American stock. He juggled soccer and ROTC in college and joined the Army after graduating. He’s a practicing Christian. He loves football. His biography couldn’t be more white picket-fenced. The morning of the ban, he immediately posted to Facebook a story of Iraqi interpreters stranded at airports. He wrote:
“Gotta chime in on this topic. This order harms America and those who would eventually help us in the future. Being deployed for more than 2 years, we worked with Interpreters every day. These are some of the bravest individuals that risk their lives and families to help the American military while deployed. They have been through intense vetting, polygraphs, interviews, etc. Many are right next to our military when attacks occur. When it’s our turn to honor our word and bring them to the US as legal immigrants, we now turn our back on them. This is an outrage for the 2 involved in this story and for the many Interpreters we turned our back on during the last two wars. This is shameful and supported by many who know nothing of how our immigration process works. I’m disgusted.”
In Afghanistan, as an executive officer in the 82nd Airborne, Kevin worked with between ten and twelve interpreters at an isolated Forward Operating Base, Zormat.
“We ate dinners with these guys, learned about Ramadan, Islam, all kinds of stuff. They loved our Las Vegas stories and Baywatch movies. These guys were totally our pipeline through all of Afghanistan. We loved these dudes, and they loved working with us.”
Similarly, in Iraq, based out of FOB Warhorse, he developed indispensible relationships with interpreters. He remembers one in particular, Ramzi.
“He told me an amazing piece of intel that I would never have figured out on my own. FOB Warhorse would regularly get mortared or rocketed. Always in the evening. Always when there was good moonlight. However, on certain nights when Real Madrid played Barcelona FC in a game called the Classico, Ramzi said that all the Iraqis were inside watching the game and disinterested in attacking any American bases. In fact, when either Real Madrid or Barcelona were on TV, indirect fire attacks against US bases nearly vanished. The moonlight was right for an attack, it matched the existing patterns, but it didn’t happen. Sure enough, when we plugged those teams’ soccer schedules into our DCGS-A boxes, [we figured out] there were no attacks. No American intel officer would ever have figured that shit out. No One. But here is our CAT 2 Interpreter telling us that the bad guys are inside watching soccer. Crazy shit right?”
The success or failure of U.S. forces in the Middle East will always depend heavily on working with local people, he argues.
“What’s so frustrating is that all of this stuff—it’s going to have the exact opposite of its intended effect. It’s going to get people in our military hurt and killed. Who will trust us after this?”
You have to understand, Kevin did not join the Army to hold a gun or reenact levels of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. He admits his reasons with that particular combination of utter sincerity and dry-as-desert-sand humor.
“Get ready, because this is going to sound corny as hell. I mean, prepare yourself: I joined the military because I wanted to be the best American I could be. I wanted to impact the most people’s lives for the better. [The Army] has some of the most selfless people I’ve ever met and had the honor to work with. When the conditions are terrible and you’re out in the middle of nowhere, that’s where you meet the best people. I have two Bronze stars but they’re sitting in my basement somewhere in a box. I keep all the Military stuff in a drawer and don’t really touch it. I don’t like bragging or think I’m better than others, but lately I’ve been feeling I need to speak up more. This is un-American. It’s not why I joined, it’s not why I served, it’s not going to make us safe, and it’s not what this country is about.”
There was this architect and suffragist, Florence Luscomb, who once said, “The tragedy… is that we go through life walking down a high-walled lane with people of our own kind, the same economic situation, the same national background and education and religious outlook. And beyond those walls, all humanity lies, unknown and unseen, and untouched by our restricted and impoverished lives.”
This—What’s Happening—is without a doubt one of the most dangerous periods in modern history. It is bottomlessly frightening. And yet let’s not kid ourselves, it’s also not a total aberration. I’ve told you about these friends of mine not to succumb to the worst instincts of white liberalism and give you an Aaron-Sorkin-happy-horseshit plea for a high-minded return to our founding ideals. Nah, I recall a bit too much about White Citizen’s Councils and Japanese internment camps and CIA-backed Nicaraguan death squads for that.
Yet the cavernous gap between what America is and what America thinks it is has always—and forever will be—only as wide as its citizens allow. What’s Happening is a multi-faceted tragedy, no question, but it is also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to reaffirm what we owe from ourselves and to each other. It’s an opportunity to shed our indifference, our apathy, to live with compassion and creativity and camaraderie. Love, I would tell Fatima, is a stupid Disney princess word, even as I felt it radiating madly through the cellular signals to all these friends I miss so much. I wrote this not just to share these peoples’ stories but to hear their voices again. To remind myself that this weird, wicked, wild home of my birth may have produced through our collective karma the current administration but it also produced Noor and Kevin, Fatima and Nyoul. No matter how dark these times get—and I believe they will get much darker—it reminded me it does not make you naïve or soft to trust people. Whether immigrants, refugees, or beer-gutted, red-ballcapped white men, it doesn’t make you weak to believe in people you’ve never met.
Because though you glance past so many people in this life, though you will certainly never know most of them, never drink a beer with them, never catch a movie with them, never talk politics with them, never crack up over an irreducibly stupid joke with them—who knows? You might. There is that chance, everpresent and ever outrageous, that you might end up loving a few of them more than you can possibly articulate.