Opinion

Omar J. Sakr
Hiding anger in the face of bigotry

Most nights I lie awake, pulse pounding in my neck, reliving the day or the week or the month as a white man, which is to say, unconstrained. I dream of having actually let my rage free for once, of having responded with force to the man who brushed past me in the street and said, “Get out of my country.”

Every time I have met a version of this man in the world, I have said and done nothing. All the little aggressions, personal and professional, I let slide without reaction come back to haunt my blood. No wonder my pulse starts to race. No wonder sleep runs from my exhausted hands. Except, of course, suppressing a reaction is still a reaction. As a result I am wound tight and tired from the constant dance of staying still, of keeping my voice low, my eyes down, a relentless performance of passivity. The last thing an Arab man can be is angry.

About a month ago I was on a cross-country train to New York, seated in the dining carriage with an elderly man and an elderly woman, both also travelling alone, both white. The man, dressed like a cowboy, explained he would be getting off well before New York, and that in fact he had never been, because he couldn’t carry his gun there. He made a slight motion as he said this, gesturing to the back of his belt. I immediately tried to become as small a target as possible, which for a 185-centimetre-tall Arab man, isn’t easy. It mostly involved shrinking away from him and withdrawing entirely from the conversation. The woman stared at him, nodded decisively, and said, “Good. You shouldn’t be able to carry one.”

He stuck out his jaw. “I refuse to be intimidated,” he said, then proceeded to list all the intimidating reasons he needed to carry a lethal weapon: lions, bears, an armed woman he saw in a Walmart one time, people on drugs, potential knife-fights, killer cops, the night itself and all that it might hide. The line about police might have been surprising, had he not specifically referenced the shooting in Minneapolis of Australian Justine Damond by Officer Mohamed Noor, a white woman dying at the hands of a brown man. I have never sat near a more frightened man than this one, and he could have ended my life at any point. The woman, meanwhile, argued with the man calmly for close to half an hour. I was brought into it again only towards the end, when she mentioned Australia, and the man seized on it, “Yes. Yes. See, you can’t walk safely down the street in Sydney, even in broad daylight.”

She turned to me, arched an eyebrow. “Is this true?”

I just shook my head, hid my smile. The old man mirrored me, shaking his head, too, but sadly, as if he couldn’t believe I could be so wrong. I left after this exchange. I could barely think during the whole encounter, consumed with visions of being shot or even just raising my voice in anger and having to deal with an authority figure, which in Donald Trump’s America – in anyone’s America – was an even scarier thought. A few days later, in New York City, I attended a poetry reading. I sat next to a white woman who started complaining loudly about the tight seating in the small space, the heat, virtually everything.

“My goodness,” she said to me. “If I’m struggling, you must be dying.”

She pointed at my long legs.

“I’m used to it,” I said, a whisper to her shout. Used to folding myself into small spaces, used to being quiet. It comes from growing up in a violent household, where any attention could bring a beating, but it’s served me well as an Arab man in a white world that hates us.

She snorted, turned to her friend. “See? It can be done. I’ve seen men my size take up twice as much space as this one.”

She was lovely, really. She brought me water later, and was kind. I find myself talking of the loveliness of white people perhaps more than anything else; it is the qualifier I hear and repeat the most. They were lovely, whoever they were, simply unaware of my world, and the ways I have to operate within it to survive. I’m thinking of these particular examples not because they are egregious or offensive, but because they illustrate how well I’ve learnt to behave in a white space in order to avoid offence. Be quiet, be small, be still.

I have lived my life in the shadow of a myth: the angry Arab, the enraged ethnic, the unruly barbarians. It was made mythic only by a white conservative media. At home I knew one reality close to this – worn Arab hands that held the cane, the belt, the brush, the wooden spoon, the broad shoe, the vacuum cord that split my skin – but this iteration of violence was not what the world feared. It was the public kind they knew and cared about, specific acts of violence by men of colour that could fire the torrid imagination. It was the notorious gang rapes led by Bilal Skaf in 2000. It was young Lebs who beat up white lifeguards in Cronulla in 2005, setting off vengeful white mobs in the race riots that followed. It was gang activity in poor areas. It was isolated acts of terror around the world. These events leave a miasma that clings to brown bodies, but washes off white men who frequently do worse but somehow remain the default of heroic.

I think often of these spectres used to haunt “the public”, that nebulous beast fed by headlines. In the aftermath, what lingers in its bloodshot eyes? The furious speed with which thousands of white men assembled to attack anyone of Middle Eastern appearance on stolen land? Or the violence of brown men? In your mind, who do you see as the most likely perpetrator? Who do you cross the street to avoid?

I play out all the instances of white aggression I see in the news, the nonstop rain of bombs overseas, the men attacking women, pulling off hijabs, the racist attacks, the desecration and car-bombing of mosques. I play out the many instances I’ve lived, and see again the police swarming over my cousin’s body in our front yard, beating him, pepper-spraying his eyes until he screamed.

One of the catchcries that resounded through my childhood in Western Sydney was “Cops!” This single word could rip through any situation, and send everyone bolting down alleyways and over fences, hearts on fire, no matter what we had been doing. So often, it turns out, running is given as proof of guilt, but what else are you to do when your blood is haunted by violence, by your cousin’s screams? If you made it home you’d wait to hear who’d been picked up for loitering, or whatever the crime was supposed to be, and you’d hope that it was no one, that everyone got away okay because even if the cops didn’t beat the boys their parents definitely would.

Lying in my bed at night, drenched in sweat, the echo of anger bitter on my tongue, I remember all the times in childhood that we were herded out of malls by security for “looking like a gang”. All the times I’ve felt both despised and desired for the violent image overlaid on my Arab features, shame flavouring each experience. All the times I wanted to speak but stayed silent, fearing not just an individual punishment, but a collective one should I fail publicly, if I should be angry publicly and somehow become another reason for the Duttons of the world to sneeringly point and say, “See, we told you, these people are no good.”

That might not sound so bad, were it not for the fact that these men frequently wield the power of life and death over refugees who look like me, have names like mine, pray to the same God I do. These are only personal experiences, juxtaposed against the mediated reality we live in. I haven’t even begun to speak on how it influences institutions in such a way to reinforce existing structural inequalities.

I wonder how long it will be before I learn to relax, to actually access a moment in real-time instead of locking it away to feel later, a humanity in lag. I wonder if, ruled by fear both real and imagined, I am any better than the public who are so comfortable with their usual villains. I moved away from Western Sydney as soon as I could, nearly 10 years ago. I don’t have many Arab friends, and it is only now that I understand why. Every time I’m with my cousins, I feel the familiar steel band of anxiety winding around my chest. I am scared to be with them, I expect to be dispersed. The words of Junot Díaz float into my mind: “If these hegemonic societies had to do the work of actually hating us by themselves, it wouldn’t be worth it. They outsource that shit to us. They’re like, ‘Hate yourself. Do our work for [us].’ ”

I don’t hate myself anymore, but I can’t help wondering whether maybe I should, for an entirely different set of reasons. On the edge of sleep, I lie as frozen as ever, daring myself to crack.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 21, 2018 as "Anger and a humanity in lag". Subscribe here.

Omar J. Sakr
is a poet and writer. He is the author of These Wild Houses.