Brown & Gold & Blood vs. Trumpian White

Parkistani-American poet Fatima Asghar

Friday

Last week I wrote about Merchant of Venice in response to the rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes since Donald Trump was elected president.  Since we’re also seeing a rise in anti-Muslim crimes—four mosques burned since the beginning of the year and the shooting of two Indians by a Kansas bigot—I share an inspiring poem by Pakistani (Kashmiri)-American Fatimah Asghar celebrating South Asian Americans. My friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to it.

I had to google a number of the words, just as, years ago, English speakers would have had to look up kielbasa, vodka, chutzpah, barista, angst, chi, jiu-jitsu, salsa, and so on. I wonder if the reference to sewing a woman’s star on the breast is a reference to the yellow star of David that the Nazis forced Jews to wear. As then, so we are still hearing “the glass smashing the street.”

Asghar’s poem covers a wide swathe of people, even if they are all (I think) from the same general part of the world: the pious Muslim who leaves his car in the intersection at the azan (call to prayer) and the Muslim who has no objection to drinking whiskey during the Mahgrib (sunset) prayer; the Muslim teenager in hightops and the khala (auntie) who pairs her kurta (a loose collarless shirt) with crocs; the old woman in a sari with a bindi (mark) upon her forehead and the women with their dupattas (long scarfs) walking on the beach. In the tradition of Walt Whitman, Asghar embraces multitudes as she expresses solidarity. “Mashallah” means “Praise Allah”:

mashallah I claim them all
my country is made
in my people’s image
if they come for you they
come for me too

The poem reminds me of Lucille Clifton’s “whose side are you on,” where the poet declares, “i am on the dark side always.” For Asghar, the wondrous patchwork quilt that is America lights her way:

my people my people
the long years we’ve survived the long
years yet to come I see you map
my sky the light your lantern long
ahead & I follow I follow

Here’s the poem:

If They Should Come for Us

By Fatimah Asghar

these are my people & I find
them on the street & shadow
through any wild all wild
my people my people
a dance of strangers in my blood
the old woman’s sari dissolving to wind
bindi a new moon on her forehead
I claim her my kin & sew
the star of her to my breast
the toddler dangling from stroller
hair a fountain of dandelion seed
at the bakery I claim them too
the sikh uncle at the airport
who apologizes for the pat
down the muslim man who abandons
his car at the traffic light drops
to his knees at the call of the azan
& the muslim man who sips
good whiskey at the start of maghrib
the lone khala at the park
pairing her kurta with crocs
my people my people I can’t be lost
when I see you my compass
is brown & gold & blood
my compass a muslim teenager
snapback & high-tops gracing
the subway platform
mashallah I claim them all
my country is made
in my people’s image
if they come for you they
come for me too in the dead
of winter a flock of
aunties step out on the sand
their dupattas turn to ocean
a colony of uncles grind their palms
& a thousand jasmines bell the air
my people I follow you like constellations
we hear the glass smashing the street
& the nights opening their dark
our names this country’s wood
for the fire my people my people
the long years we’ve survived the long
years yet to come I see you map
my sky the light your lantern long
ahead & I follow I follow 

Our country is so much more than the monochrome vision of the white nationalists, so much more than bloodless ideological rigidity. The American Dream, our compass and our constellation, has led us through dark times before, and it can do so again. Poems like this keep the lantern burning.

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