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Being Muslim in America
An Essay by Gelareh Assayesh

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The phone has been ringing constantly since last week. Calls keep coming from friends and neighbors, the director of our son's preschool, my daughter's babysitter. 'Are you OK?' they ask in gentle voices. 'I've been thinking about you.'

I don't live in New York or Washington. I didn't lose friends or family in last week's apocalypse. They're calling me because I have dark eyes and dark hair and dark skin, because a tiny gold medallion with the name of God in Arabic has hung over my children's bed since birth, because when my family leaves town, we pass beneath the Koran on our way out the door.

They're calling because they recognize that on the periphery of death and destruction and unspeakable loss, people like me are among the minor casualties. Muslims, terrorists, fanatics -- them; Muslims, ordinary, workaday -- us. Can you tell us apart? Will you try?

I have always resented the way my individuality is erased by my heritage. In 24 years of living and loving in this country, only in the past few have I felt strangers looking at me with open curiosity, the kind that waits for my identity to reveal itself without preconceptions. More often their eyes have been full of what they think they know about me, based on watching CNN. I am either fanatical or non-religious. I am either radical or Americanized, meaning sanitized, cleansed of my differentness. I am either one of them or one of us, although my status as a belonger is always probationary. It may be revoked at any time due to events beyond my control.

In my early college years, which coincided with the Iranian hostage crisis, I told a boy who tried to pick me up in the student store that I was from Iran. 'I forgive you,' he said. I was unable to return the favor. It took Timothy McVeigh to teach America that fanaticism and righteous martyrdom are not the monopoly of one religion or, indeed, any religion at all. So now these men of the Middle East have wronged America. The Islamic schools in town are closed. My cousin calls from London to urge me to lay low for a few days. I dread the idea of entering an airport once again. I am ashamed to be grateful that I don't have a foreign accent, that I don't wear a scarf and tunic, that I'm not a swarthy man with a beard.

At night I pray for the bereaved whose pain will not end tomorrow or next month or next year. I pray for the living. Let there be some living, trapped in the dust and darkness with no light but for the glimmer of a fading hope. And I pray that the next time someone expects me to apologize for my heritage, I will remember all the gentle voices that have called to me this week. My friends know what I believe in my heart. America is gradually learning. There is only one us and one them: We who have a conscience; they who do not.

Gelareh Assayesh, author of Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America, is a Muslim who's been in the U.S. for more than 20 years.