He was a casually dressed man in his fifties. He greeted me colloquially, and asked me if I wanted anything to drink. “I’d love some orange juice,” I responded. Referring to the man behind him, he said: “Watch for the paranoid schizophrenic back there. He’s bothering that couple and they don’t know what to do about it.”
He was trying to make me feel comfortable. We were in a difficult situation, and he knew I had every reason to distrust him. After all, he was a counter-terrorism agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
He wanted to know about a trip I’d taken the year before, to Yemen. Our meeting, at an Au Bon Pain in New Jersey, had been two months in the making.
7 December 2010: My father finds Mr. S’ business card in the mailbox. It says, “Mr. [Father's Name] Ahmed, please call me.” I was probably in the shower or listening to music when Mr. S visited my home.
9 December 2010: I e-mail a professor Mr. S’s name. He informs me that he is involved with counterterrorism and that I should keep him appraised of any developments. After talking with another professor, I get the name of a skilled civil liberties attorney. I find out from my mother that my father has spoken to Mr. S on the telephone. He hangs up on me when I confront him, and maintains that the call had nothing to do with me.
11 December 2010: After days of uncertainty, my father tells me that he was afraid that the FBI wiretapped my phone. Mr. S had inquired if my father went to a recent event in New York City hosted by Pakistani politician Imran Khan, to which he says no. Mr. S apologizes, stating that it “must have been a mistake,” and steers the conversation towards me. Mr. S says that “there is nothing wrong” with my trip to Yemen, which occurred in June 2010, but that “very few people do it.” He asks why I went to Yemen, and what my impression was of the country. He ends the call by stating that he would contact me directly later.
My reaction was sufficiently excessive. During the week, and into the end of the Fall 2010 semester, questions were racing through my mind. What if he came inside when I was in the shower? Has the FBI really wiretapped my phone? Are they reading my e-mails? How do I know if anyone reported me? Are any of my friends actually undercover? What did I do? Why me? Why would they bother someone who didn’t even know anything about the Middle East when he traveled to Yemen?
I did not mention these inquiries to the professors I consulted. Instead, I attempted to formulate a firm course of action. I was given the number of legal counsel and told to be cautious, but no one could tell me what I needed to hear. I needed to hear that I belonged in my adopted home, the United States. However, my professors knew better.
The message was clear: I was being treated this way because I am a Pakistani with an Arabic name. It seemed, as it still does, impossible that at any point during the harassment I was considered an American. Americans do not receive visits by counterterrorism officials for no reason. Similarly, Pakistani-Americans, integrated minorities with hybrid identities, would not be treated this way as their “American” side was impossible to ignore. The “American” part of their identity guaranteed that even Pakistani-Canadians such as myself would be treated equally in the United States. No. I wasn’t an American. I wasn’t a Pakistani-American. I was ultimately only a Pakistani. The moment I traveled to Yemen, I became suspicious because I was only regarded as a Pakistani. One professor agreed with my statement on the matter, “there is no such thing as a Pakistani-American. The hyphenation has been destroyed by the war.”
The agent returned with my orange juice, and Mr. S sat down with him. He repeated his outlandish story about how he stumbled upon my case file, which recorded a minor interrogation at John F. Kennedy International Airport when I returned from Yemen. He smiled and said that he wanted to ask me a few questions about my experiences there and impressions of the population. I calmly said yes. I was ready for them. They began with minor questions about where I stayed and who I spoke to in the country, to which I responded with a detailed itinerary. It was unfair that I had to become utterly transparent. I did it anyway. I had no feelings about it. I was in complete control.
“Curiosity is not a sin… but we should exercise caution with our curiosity… yes, indeed…”
I came home one day in December to my emotional older brother. He told me that two federal agents had come to the house, and desired to speak with me directly. His anger towards me was born out of a wider familial frustration with my decision to go to Yemen. My mother approved conditionally, but other family members found the idea to be terrible and repeatedly told me not to leave. Close friends also advised me to stay in the country. I left for Yemen anyway, and Mr. S’ card validated all their fears the moment my father found it sitting in our mailbox. It kept taunting me from the desk.
Later, I would note the cost-effectiveness of this harassment. Mr. S had written an ominous line on a five-cent rectangular paper and left it in my mailbox, causing massive strife within my family and friends while leaving me totally alienated. Mr. S knew that the mere idea of the FBI, that of shadowy figures dressed in black, terrifies the general public. Therefore, he could leave a small business card and leave me and my family members to feel harassed and intimidated without his explicit effort. Mr. S therefore avoided potential legal complications and also saved a great deal of money. After gauging the spiritual and emotional exhaustion that immediately resulted from that one card, it is difficult to argue that he did not win this battle. Even after the turmoil, the card remained in my home, and with it my plans to frame it and immortalize the related trauma.
“What was your general opinion about the people you saw there?” Mr. S asked me while jotting down my responses on a notepad. His partner stared at me and smiled, with his fixed glare giving away the fact that it wasn’t genuine. I gave him a short response about how people are very warm and hospitable, paradoxically being more generous considering that they have limited resources.
Perhaps I should have given him a more accurate reply, that Yemenis were remarkably similar to him. That they had hopes and dreams like him, got married and had children like him, had gatherings with friends and family like him. That they too would live and die, that they too sometimes had prejudices and illogical attitudes, but that ultimately they wanted to build and live their lives in peace just like Americans. I knew better than to give longer responses. And I knew quite well that criticizing notions of difference is seen as sympathizing with terrorism.
At the time, I was not analyzing their questions closely enough. Why would they only ask such open-ended questions rather than explicitly inquiring as to my exact activities in Yemen? Why did they want me to speak at length about my political opinions? If this was a matter of seeing if I became radicalized and involved with terrorism, then why not confront that directly? These particular questions had quite a different motivation. It was one that I would not understand until over a year later.
After my brother’s encounter with federal agents, who he thankfully did not allow to enter the house, I had another meeting with a professor. He told me that this problem was not going away, and that it was time for me to confront it directly. He said not to worry, and that most serious scholars have had experiences with the FBI at some point. After formulating a plan of action for the meeting itself, where I would be simultaneously transparent while also sparing in my words, I called Mr. S. He requested that I meet him and his partner at an FBI office in North Jersey. I refused, and pressed him to meet me in New Brunswick. When he asked where, I paused for a moment. I responded that he and his partner should meet me at ABP. He agreed, and I sighed in relief. ABP was my territory and I now had complete control of this meeting. It was no longer an interrogation because I was standing on my own ground.
“There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker.”
I finished my Fall examinations and sat quietly at home with my thoughts. I had a difficult semester in youthful terms. There were many concerns I had that seemed age-appropriate. The organization that I was involved with was one of the most controversial groups in the university. An intense fellow board member was exploiting my insecurities about being socially inept and knowing very little about the Middle East to boss me around. I appeared to be part of a love triangle despite having no desire for the other parties. I would eventually have a dramatic confrontation that involved these situations. These issues seemed much more fitting for a nineteen year old.
However, Mr. S was still in the shadows. The 2010 – 2011 Rutgers winter break had a lot of snow, and I was trapped alone inside my home for much of it. And in the long winter nights, I would remember that Mr. S could easily approach my home without knowing it. And if him, why not someone else? Why not police officers? Why not other federal agents? Why not SWAT teams? I stopped eating anything but tangerines. I stopped speaking to my friends. I could only speak with the moonlight, casting Mr. S’s shadow across my barren living room.
The damnable wretch’s shadow was in my living room. And he hung there every night, ridiculing me. It was his decision whether he was in my life. I had no power over him. I was the suspicious Pakistani. Why did I travel to Yemen? Why did I do something so different? Why was I so controversial? Why was I not minding my place? It was my fault. I was a fool for pursuing my dreams. I could only plan the defense of my home. I could only eat tangerines. My mind was splintering.
After New Year’s Day, I was in a mental hospital. It was recommended that I stay there after I made an appointment with the Rutgers psychiatry center. My parents did not know because I was too ashamed to tell them that I could not handle it. I was weak. Weak and dishonorable. I had no honor. I had no honor because I let the FBI win. I was destroyed. They had consumed me. I never wanted to think of the Middle East again. I sat in the hospital ward with terrifying adults. My doctors told me that they were middle aged and hospitalized because they did not handle their difficulties at my age. It was their decision, as with many people, to suppress negative emotion until it eventually tore them apart psychologically. I was going to be different. My parents found out I was inside from the board member with whom I fought. My father would visit me and remain as quiet as he was from his own childhood trauma. A friend visited me and looked on sympathetically at me in my medicine-induced haze.
I was released within a few days. As I spent my January ingesting two pills a day, Depakote-ER and Risperidone, my personality shifted. While previously I was hyperactive, talkative, and prone to telling jokes, I became quiet and listless. It became difficult for me to hold conversations. I began requiring ten hours of sleep a day rather than my usual five to seven. And my thought patterns were centered around Mr. S’ business card. It had yet to be framed. But I was still prepared for my meeting. When I walked into ABP that morning in late January/early February, I was ready. I was prepared. They were not going to defeat me.
The meeting ended with Mr. S’ partner staring at me and stating, “you know, I often feel like people don’t make the connection that Islam may be the reason that democracy doesn’t work in that area of the world.” I paused. He continued to look at me blankly, waiting for a response. He was trying to provoke me. I answered calmly, with a short statement about how the compatibility of Islam and democracy demands further study before conclusions are drawn. And then it was over. They shook my hand and left. I sat at a table in ABP drinking orange juice. It was over.
But it wasn’t over. It would have been far too simple to believe it over. My post-graduate plans began focusing on pursuits in which I found no joy, such as law school or Teach for America. I obsessed endlessly about friends graduating and desired some sense of stability and security. The FBI had beaten me and deprived me of the one thing I truly love: the Middle East and Central Asia. My only choice was to settle into what was expected of me under the haze of anti-psychotic drugs. I bought LSAT books, went to pre-law advising, and even told my mother that I was open to an arranged marriage. I desired safety. I desired calm. And more than anything, I desired support that I did not feel I was receiving from family members.
They were now frustrated with my irregular sleeping patterns and constant negativity regarding my friends moving away. It angered them that I was not being proactive about recovering, and so I felt even more alienated. And at night, I would fall asleep thinking “the FBI won. The FBI won. The FBI won. How can you still want to go to Yemen? How can you still want to be involved in that region? It’s so unstable. The FBI won.”
“It is the unknown we fear when looking upon death and darkness, nothing more.”
My mother sent me to Oslo and Manchester in the summer of 2011. She noticed during a visit that the only time my medicated haze lifted was when she asked a question about Yemen. I began to speak with energy and life returned to my face, according to her. She apologized to me for not being able to send me to Yemen directly, which at the time was in the middle of the 2011 Yemeni Uprising, and instead arranged for me to stay with an uncle the entire summer. For the first few weeks, I still felt withdrawn and exhausted. I stayed on my computer much of the time, and my family members were upset at me for embarrassing them in front of the relatives. And then, I took a huge risk of dumping my medication. It could have had many detrimental effects, probably more had I not been steadily taking less over the past six months, but I could not stand the numbness anymore.
The term ‘happy pill’ does not describe the void of sensation and feeling that medication brings upon you. It is a horrific experience to not feel anything. There was neither happiness nor sadness, simply hollowness. The narrator’s statement in P.D. James’ The Children of Men perfectly captures my motivations: “Feel, he told himself, feel, feel, feel. Even if what you feel is pain, only let yourself feel.”
And so I did it. It felt miserable to be experience the raw pain of such events as hardline militants overrunning the provincial capital of Zinjibar, Yemen and playing into then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh‘s hands. But I wanted to feel hurt. I loved feeling the pain. I loved weeping and laughing and having every emotion in between. However, my life still did not have stability.
I was back in Norway from Manchester on 22 July 2011, when a car bomb exploded in Oslo about twenty minutes away from my uncle’s home. Shortly afterwards, the proprietor began shooting at a Worker’s Youth League summer camp. It was the most dramatic day in Norway since the end of World War II, and the entire country entered a state of national grief. Our preconceptions about it being a Middle Eastern man were put in check by the quick capture of a Norwegian neo-Nazi.
As I walked in the city streets, mourning alongside a Norwegian friend, I began noticing the rich sense of community brought about by the attacks. Norwegian leaders pledged to not let them harm the open society Norway had cultivated, indirectly shooting down foolish American and British pundits who believed the attacks would “shake Norway out of its national innocence.” Rather than veering to the right, Norwegians began a larger dialogue on race relations and were determined to hold onto their culture and sense of national pride.
It was the same reaction I saw to the violence I witnessed in Yemen. And I realized that I could not live my life without acknowledging that I was in love with a blob of land extending from Casablanca to Islamabad. I returned to the United States feeling as though my life had begun anew. I enthusiastically began to explore options for framing Mr. S’ business card, newly eager to stare menacingly at it whenever I wanted to gloat about my victory. I had become smug, arrogant, and cocky about my reborn abilities and spirit. I wanted to attend Harvard University for no other reason than their Master’s Degree sounded difficult and prestigious. I desired to pick up Chinese while I was there. I could feel everything and I wanted to cling onto all of it. All of the happiness. All of the joy. All of the sadness. All of the misery. I never wanted to stop feeling again.
And, of course, the FBI was still winning. I had defined myself in complete opposition to what had happened. After beginning dating when I returned, I noticed that I would begin consuming every relationship I entered with my grief. My problems would begin dominating the dynamic. I had not recovered. However, I was successfully masking my anger and frustration with inappropriateness and flirtation. My usual spaciness began to give way to me purposefully going against social norms and attacking notions of status-quo comfort. It did not make sense that I couldn’t say or do something, because who decided those rules? Why should I follow them? What was the purpose? I didn’t want to become boring, and so the toxic cycle continued with me smiling and laughing the entire spiral downwards.
“My only fear is that I tomorrow I may die without having come to know myself.”
Frantz Fanon speaks of a Manichean dualism between the colonizer and colonized. He argued that in colonialism, psychology shifts towards the self being defined against an essentialist Other. The two sides are perpetually at conflict, similar to the Zoroastrian forces Ahura Mazda and Ahriman. And so long as these definitions continue, colonialism will always fester. The self becomes destroyed in an almost supernatural need to perpetuate this dynamic. Along these lines run material violence as well as emotional pain, where East will never meet West and the two are at endless war. It is, in other words, a case of the Pakistani-American not existing.
I was tied to my grief and began hating everything under superficial happiness. I hated the Western world for the pain they were causing my people in that beautiful blob of land I was calling home. I hated my friends for not accepting me completely. I hated the counterrevolutionaries in Egypt, Yemen, and everywhere else. I hated the Obama Administration for failing to withdraw from Afghanistan. And most of all, I hated the FBI. And I hated Mr. S’ business card. I began clinging to every angry, violent, mournful, grieving, and fiery emotion I could find and held it close. Even when it caused social fallout and academic tension, I held it close. I would never let it go.
I was conflicted by Spring 2012. My grades were dropping. Many people were angered by my behavior. I had several messy ends to budding pseudo-relationships. I began expecting my trip to Tahrir Square, which I booked in November 2011 to solve these problems. I began having fantasies of my behavior changing after Tahrir. Tahrir would be my emotional release. Tahrir would make the world make sense to me. Tahrir would give me the opportunity, if possible, to die for something with honor. Part of me wanted it to happen. After Tahrir, the grief would end, and I would finally have the happiness I deserved.
And it didn’t. Tahrir Square was wonderful, but it did not change my life. It had no power over me. It was just a place. When I was a child, I loved the desert. It seemed like a place of adventure and rich experiences to be immortalized in music and poetry. Several months after my return to Tahrir, I still love the desert for the people who traverse it, but Tahrir taught me that the desert does not take away your grief. The blob of land, from desert to frozen mountains, could never end my pain. The trials by fire would continue. The memories would continue. The consumption of myself by hatred and habitual mourning would continue. The desert is what you bring to it, and I brought the FBI and other aspects of my bloody past to Tahrir. But the Egyptian Revolution could not medicate my spiritual void. The desert, like the universe outside of our souls, is utterly ambivalent to those who pass through it. It is ultimately sand, as the universe is a series of geographic positions. Nothing except humanity holds any honor or fulfillment.
When I returned from Tahrir Square, I began to spiral emotionally. I was back in the West rather than my lovely East. Everything was so petty and needlessly dramatic. Everyone was such a fool. Why would I ever leave my people? Why would I ever leave the revolution? Why had I not framed Mr. S’ business card yet? And one night that week, I wept in the arms of a friend after another evening of painful memories and material violence.
For a time, I felt better and fulfilled, with my grades shooting up and my crucial recommendation letter secured. However, I began slipping back into my grief, as Fanon’s duality was comfortable. It became status-quo for me to be frustrated, sad, and clinging to my pain. It became regular for me to refuse to forgive and move forward, maintaining that holding onto everything was essential to changing my conditions. Hate had to have that benefit, even if it demanded emotional and spiritual energy. It had to.
One night, after being scorned by that same friend, I came home and looked into the night sky. I saw the moonlight hang the same shadow of Mr. S that I remembered from seventeen months beforehand. Was I clinging to my grief for no other reason that it was easier to be upset? Did my identity stipulate itself on hatred, frustration, anger, and hidden bloodlust? Where was the love? Why did I desire that blob of land in the first place?
I had never moved past the FBI intimidation. Just as I had never moved past my child abuse. Just as I had never forgotten the numerous times I was told as a kid that I was “not normal” for being quiet. Just as I had never forgiven my family members to assume that I was angry because of how I looked when I was thinking. I shared the problems of post-colonialism with my people, the resistance I chose against others had itself enslaved me. Grief is all that made sense because pain led to those conditions ending. But as long as an individual is driven by the fires of past events, they will always wander towards future torment. Everywhere.
I went upstairs and grabbed Mr. S’ card. I did not frame it. I took it down and burned it. I watched the fire consume the logo, his name, and every fragment. And suddenly, it truly was over. It was over because I decided it was over.
Sometimes, we dramatize our lives like they are Hollywood features. Network’s, Howard Beale was correct to chastise us: “In God’s name, you people are the real thing! We are the illusion!” It is often our policy to believe that one event will change us. That a location will change us. That a single statement will change us. That one pivotal piece of dramatic occurrence will serve as the climax from which we will embrace normalcy. Life is not a matter of climaxes. It is not a series of tumultuous events. It is not defined by inspirational statements. Life is a relational process, and the pain of it is only bearable through love. Not the love of those with the emotional maturity of teenagers. The love that is seen through strength, loyalty, respect, and understanding. The unspoken substance of honorable relationships, romantic and platonic.
Our sensory organs compress fluid time into past, present, and future. We are fooled into believing the illusion of linearity. The reality is that we all return to Origin, at which point we are recycled with everything and are eventually forgotten. I once thought that death was the only avenue for this peace, but when I burned that card, I finally felt the affection and desire that I had overlooked. It was the raw emotion that I remembered for that brief period after Tahrir Square. Those moments when love was so strong that past, present, ad future collapsed again for a singular moment.
When “American” and “Pakistani” were exterminated as concepts and only the warmth of human embrace remained. When East and West ceased to exist. When life and death even seemed to collapse into one another. When all distinctions were meaningless in the face of the most powerful aspects of human emotion. From those moments, we do not only become each other, we become everything. And everything cannot hate itself. So, the pain has no choice but to end. It was over. And it was over because I decided it was over.
When I talked to my professor after our final class together in my undergraduate career, he said that the FBI may try to obtain information from me. I asked him about combating accusations that you are an FBI agent, something that I experienced despite my own intimidation being public knowledge. He responded that it is perfectly understandable given that the FBI sometimes recruits suspicious minorities to obtain information.
It suddenly hit me. The earlier questions from the ABP encounter were not distractions. They were attempting to gauge if I could be employed by them. “Will they be back then?” I asked him.
“I don’t know, Bilal. But you have to assume that if you do what you want to do, people are going to think that you’ve been radicalized.”