Fiction September 2011

The Submission

The second head-scarf pulling occurred less than a week later. A man in a Queens shopping mall walked up to a Muslim woman pushing a baby stroller, tugged her head scarf back, and ran. The next took place in Boston. This perpetrator waited for the police to arrest him so he could testify to the media: “I saw that guy do it on the news, and thought, we all need to be that brave, take a stand.” Within a week there had been more than a dozen incidents around the country. Some non-Muslim women put on head scarves in solidarity, but no one preyed on them.

In an editorial, The Times called Sean representative of “a new, ominous strain of intolerance in the land.” Reporters called him to ask how it felt to represent a new strain of intolerance. The atmosphere in his parents’ house chilled. “It’s the Muslims who are supposed to mistreat women,” Eileen said to him when he came into the kitchen one evening. Her hands were full with a tray of roast chicken, but before he could get the swinging door to the dining room, she turned around and backed it open with her rear end.

When the FBI called to say that hostile references to Sean were popping up in jihadist chat rooms, it created the perfect excuse to vacate his parents’ house for a while. He told Debbie he needed to relocate temporarily, figuring that she would find him somewhere to stay. He didn’t expect it to be in her apartment.

Her home was a sprawling aerie on the Upper East Side, two units her husband had conjoined before he split. She lived with her three daughters: Trisha, eighteen, flouncy, fond of flashing Sean the straps of her bra, when she wore one; Alison, sixteen and flitty; and Orly, at thirteen the baby, a pout. All three had signs saying NO-ISLAM ZONE on their doors: Debbie wasn’t allowed to talk about “the cause,” as they disdainfully referred to it, in their rooms.

Sean felt like he had come upon the Wizard of Oz in his bathrobe, since Debbie spent most of the day in hers. Once the girls went off to school, she entered her virtual world, obsessively updating her blog, rallying supporters and volunteers (two of whom acted, on occasion, as those bodyguards), flaming opponents across the Web.

One afternoon he caught a glimpse of her blog. Her burka-bikinied body—the camera focus, he knew now, had been soft—had shrunk to make way for a new item. It said, in huge letters:

The American Way is currently giving asylum to a refugee from Islamist political violence. DONATE NOW! This man has had to flee his home. We are feeding and housing him. DONATE NOW!

“Is this me?” he asked Debbie.

“I am housing you,” she said. “And someone’s got to put these girls through college.”

“Daddy’s going to put us through college,” Trisha said.

Debbie cut her eyes at her eldest. “Women need to be financially independent.”

That blog,” Trisha said, wrinkling her pert nose, “is not going to make you independent.”

Another head-scarf pulling, the victim hospitalized for anxiety, her toddler son, who’d been holding her hand, bawling on the news. The president, who had taken, as yet, no position on the memorial, went on television to ask for civility and respect. He called what Sean had started “a plague.”

“A plague of good sense!,” Debbie snapped at the screen. She was editing Trisha’s college-application essay, which was titled “My Mother the Firebrand.” Fearing that liberal colleges would blackball her for being Debbie’s daughter, Trisha had decided to write about how she both respected her mother (“Two years ago she was a housewife who spent most of her time watching soap operas. The attack changed everything. She educated herself …”) and disagreed with her (“Sometimes I think she tries too hard to be provocative. I believe in dialogue”). Debbie was totally on board with this strategy, but she had crossed out watching soap operas and replaced it with taking care of my sisters and me.

The bawling son again: the cable channels couldn’t get their fill of him. Sean kneaded his right fist into his left palm and eyed Debbie’s liquor cabinet, to which the girls, he knew, had copied the key. He’d been stone-dry since the attack, but for all the virtues in sobriety, it was harder to blame his mistakes on it. Worst of all, pulling the woman’s head scarf had done nothing to derail the Muslim memorial, instead drawing attention away from the huge crowd he had mustered to protest it. The architect was still insisting on his right to proceed, and the laws, the rules, seemed to be on his side. Sean was left with his mother’s pain, which was on intimate terms with her anger. He sniffed failure, that old stink.

“She called, you know,” he told Debbie, who turned, alert, toward him.

“The woman whose head scarf I pulled. Zahira Hussain. Well, she didn’t call: her representative did, from some Muslim council. They said that if I meet with her and apologize, she’ll ask that the charges against me be dropped.” He didn’t say that the man from the council had talked about wanting to make this a “teachable moment.” He knew how Debbie would take that.

“No apology!,” Debbie said. “They’re looking for a propaganda coup—a nice Christian boy, an American, submitting to Islam. This is legal jihad—using the criminal-justice system to persecute you. We’ll raise money for a good lawyer.”

“I was just thinking of talking to her. No harm in that.”

“No harm,” Debbie said, with a musing, canny look.

The SAFIs were waiting for him when he arrived at the office of the Muslim American Coordinating Council. “No apology! No submission!” they screamed, with Debbie in the lead. A scrum of reporters and camera crews shouted questions at him. His instinct was to flee. He clenched his fists and pushed through.

“Did you call the press?,” Sean asked Issam Malik, the council’s slick head, when he got inside. “I thought this was supposed to be private.”

“You can’t teach to an empty classroom,” Malik said. Sean disliked him instantly. They filed into a conference room filled mostly with men, along with a few women in head scarves. For the first time in his life, Sean was the only white—the only Christian—in the room. Unsettled by this, he was scanning for danger when he heard, from an alarmed voice in the corner, “What’s in the bag?”

All eyes went to Sean’s gym bag, which was over his shoulder. When he’d left Debbie’s that morning, he had packed up all his things except for his suit, which he wore so it wouldn’t crumple. He knew he wouldn’t be welcomed back after going to the council.

“What?,” Sean said.

“What. Is. In. The. Bag.” Malik said it slowly, as if Sean didn’t speak English. Two men stood.

“Fuck!,” Sean said. “Fuck!” He ran his hands through his hair, bent down, unzipped the bag, and began dumping its contents on the floor. Jeans, sneakers, T-shirts, Sports Illustrated, boxer shorts, and, mixed in with the dirty socks, a pair of pink cotton panties—Trisha’s. He’d lifted them. Excuses crossed his mind. They had gotten mixed up with his clothes in the dryer. She’s legal. Nothing happened anyway. Forget it: they didn’t know anything about where he’d been.

There was silence. The men were looking at one another. The women were looking down. No one wanted to look at Sean or his stuff.

He turned his gaze up to the ceiling. “I’m carrying my clothes because I had to leave where I’ve been staying,” he said. His eyes stung. “I left because I was coming here today, and they thought I shouldn’t. So I am homeless because I came here today,” he added, exaggerating a bit. “And you think I came in here with a bomb?”

“A gun,” a man said in a low voice. “I thought you might have a gun.”

“People are—we are … on edge,” Malik said. “The mood is very tense right now. There’s violence in the air, and you bear some responsibility for that. We don’t know you from Adam. You organized a rally where people were making death threats. You yanked a woman’s head scarf. How are we to know what else you’re capable of?”

I’m not capable, not capable of anything, Sean thought. He pulled his wallet from his pocket, sending a few stray receipts drifting to the floor, and extracted a small photo of Patrick in his dress uniform. He held it up. Everyone peered to see. “This was my brother. My brother who died. Was killed. By Muslims. Jesus! Why is it so hard to do the right thing?”

“I’m sorry,” a woman said. Sean looked at her. He couldn’t have picked her face out of a lineup, but he knew the red scarf. He had seen, too many times, his hand reaching for it. It couldn’t be an accident that she was wearing it today.

“You only have one scarf?” he said.

“I’m sorry?”

“You’re wearing the same scarf as that day. You think I’m a bull—that I’ll see it and go nuts again?”

“I didn’t realize—”

“Did you say you were sorry? Sorry for what? I’m the one who’s supposed to be sorry, remember? Isn’t that why I’m here? So you all can humiliate me, make me bow down, kiss your ring or whatever?”

“No one made you come,” Zahira Hussain said gently. Her face was pumpkin-round, her eyes were striking, hazel, long-lashed. “No one’s making you stay.” She was talking to him like he was a man on a ledge; he was surprised not to mind. Bending to stuff his possessions back in his bag, he cast about for his next move. He was red-faced—he didn’t need a mirror to know it.

“I want to talk to you in private,” he told her.

“That’s not appropriate,” Malik said.

“How so?”

“Our religion believes in modest interchange between the genders. And her humiliation was public, so the apology needs to be as well.”

“I want to talk to her in private,” Sean repeated.

“It’s not possible—” Malik started to say.

“We’ll go in there,” Zahira said, pointing to Malik’s office, “with the door open.”

Over Malik’s objections, Sean and Zahira rose, as if in unspoken agreement, and took possession of his office. An epic desk, big enough to protect Zahira’s reputation, dominated the room. She seated herself behind it and folded her hands atop it. Sean took a chair on the other side. There were three TVs on. He tried not to watch.

“Before an apology, Sean, I’d like an explanation,” Zahira said. Ever since she first spoke, he had been trying to pinpoint what struck him as odd in her speech. It was the lack of oddness, of accent, he realized. “What made you pull my scarf? Had you planned it?”

“No!” he said. “Your sign made me mad.” Aware how childish and impulsive this sounded, he borrowed Debbie’s words: “But also, we don’t make women cover their hair in this country.”

“No, we don’t make women cover their hair.” She put the stress on we. It seemed to amuse her. “But women are free to choose to, as I did. No one’s making me do anything. My own father is against me covering. It’s my choice,” she repeated. “No one else’s.”

Sean’s eye wandered to one of the televisions, which was replaying his passage through the shrill, bawdy gantlet outside. He looked tense, even fearful. Less brave than he had felt. He had imagined that moment of deciding to plow ahead as his version of Patrick’s charge into a burning building. Now he saw how foolish that notion was. He knew, had long known, that, facing flames as Patrick had, he would have run the other way. Worse, he wasn’t sure he was wrong. The building had pancaked immediately on top of Patrick. Sean, staking himself on matters far lesser, lived on, even if he sometimes hated himself for it.

Zahira, too, was watching Sean’s arrival, the screaming SAFIs. After a few moments she picked up the three remote controls, one by one, to switch off the screens. Then she turned to Sean with a new gentleness—as if she were conducting a job interview and hoped to hire him—and said, “So other than protecting women from themselves, Sean, what do you do with yourself? Where do you live—never mind, you said you’re homeless. Not forever, I hope. What kind of work do you do?”

He thought about his days hanging pictures and caulking tile. About the itchy suit—bought for Patrick’s funeral, repurposed for giving speeches—that he wore. “I’m in transition,” he said. “You?”

A Columbia University student double-majoring in literature and economics. The sting of Bigot = Idiot returned.

“You called us names,” he said. “Is that what they teach up at Columbia?”

“No, I thought that up myself. Maybe it was a poor choice. But I do think bigots are idiots. I’m not saying you’re bigoted if you’re against this memorial design. But I’d like to hear why you are against it.”

“Because the designer’s Muslim. What other reason do I need?,” Sean said, but he couldn’t meet her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said, then to clarify, “Sorry I pulled your scarf.” The words came without forethought, but they weren’t insincere.

“You mean it?” she asked, suddenly small behind the desk. It was as if they were two children pretending to be adults in their father’s office, although his own father, also a firefighter, had never had an office. He suspected Zahira’s did—wasn’t that how you got to Columbia?

“I mean it. I’m sorry I pulled your scarf.”

She studied him with pretty, distrusting eyes, then said, “You should say it publicly, to send a message to all the people copying you.”

He chewed his bottom lip for a bit, nodded his assent, then pushed up out of his chair. They returned to the conference room, which Malik, in their absence, had packed with reporters. Sean stepped, with Zahira, to a spot ringed with microphones. She smelled of bubble gum—or maybe that was a scent relic of the Dawson girls. Malik planted himself on Sean’s other side.

Sean put his gym bag at his feet and cleared his throat. “I am really sorry I pulled Zahira Hussain’s head scarf, and I told her so,” he said, speaking slowly so that the reporters could take down his words. “What I did was wrong. If anyone else does it, it’s wrong. My brother, Patrick—he would have been ashamed of me, and I wish I could apologize to him, too.” He had said his brother’s name hundreds, maybe thousands, of times since Patrick’s death—“You talk about him more now that he’s gone than you talked to him when he was alive,” his mother observed once—but saying it now seemed to lift, finally, the weight of that drunken night at Patrick’s.

But almost immediately, a new weight landed. Maybe it was Patrick’s name that spirited Sean to his parents’ living room, where, lacking a home of his own, he would soon return. Seeing himself framed in their television, sandwiched by Muslims, he tried to reconstruct how he had wandered here, to the other side, and he tried to scramble back.

“But Patrick also died trying to save people from Islamic terrorists,” he said, “and we will never apologize for not wanting anyone Muslim—anyone named Mohammad—connected to this memorial. It’s not personal, not prejudice. Just fact.”

Delight flared in the reporters’ eyes. Outrage fluttered from Malik’s lips. The room convulsed with the rearranging of bodies, furniture, air. Sean heard shouts, then felt rough, unforgiving hands propel him out the door, as if he had a bomb after all. His gym bag tumbled after him. Through it all, he kept his mind with his parents. Only at home with them later, watching the replay on television, did he see the anguish in Zahira Hussain’s face.

Amy Waldman’s first novel, The Submission, from which this story is adapted, was published this August by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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