Photography by Wonho Frank Lee
editor's letter
This story’s main character “Sridarth” is loosely based on events that occurred in February of 2017, where Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer from Hyderabad, India, was killed in a bar in Kansas. In this fictional account, Chris Chacko examines the complexities of being Brown in a country suffering from Islamaphobia.
American Terrorist

“Get out of my country.”

Those were the last words that I could remember hearing. Everything else was a blur of images and fragmented memories: the fluorescent beer signs gently hummed and looked down upon us above the entrance. The lone stars festooned everywhere, bringing to mind the South even though we were in the Midwest. The smell of good food mixed with the vibrant thrum of shared relationships. The Hawks game playing simultaneously in the background and the foreground (they were winning). Sitting at the bar having our usual meal with our usual drink served by our usual waitress. 

I didn’t think anything of it when I first saw you. You looked exhausted, just another homegrown American coming in to see the boys rack up another win and take your mind off your troubles. I didn’t think anything when you stared at us, as Aakash and I got into another heated discussion about how Lucas and Mason would fare in the pros. I certainly didn’t think anything when you slammed down your fourth drink and stumbled out the door; maybe you had bet against the home team. 

And then you came back in and uttered those five words. 

The ironic thing is that you spat multiple other diatribes at us before you raised your gun. Called us illegals. Asked us what we were planning with the Islamic State group. “Sand monkeys good for nothing except for throwing shit at each other.” But that didn’t really affect me. 

Without your gun it would have been dark, but humorous: a drunk, paranoid madman, screaming at us about terrorist plots in the doorway of our local hangout spot of five years. The fear that you failed trying to instill in us would have turned into one of our most told stories for years to come — a bleakly comedic case of mistaken identity. 

But you had your gun. And when you ejected those words from your mouth, like casings from your shotgun, spittle flying everywhere, I didn’t have the fear I thought I would have. 

I was angry.

You see, when you said, “Get out of my country,” you said something that I took personally. 

“My country” implies that I was the intruder — a thief in the night breaking into your home, someone you had to fend off your porch with the same shotgun you stood with at the bar’s entrance. As if my wife and I hadn’t sacrificed our family and our lives to make it in America. As if you, merely by being born white, had inherited sea to shining sea as your due birthright — a birthright that was only yours and not ours.

As if my wife and I hadn’t sacrificed our family and our lives to make it in America.

I wonder if you believe in a god — some deity other than yourself that’s in control of your life and the lives of those around you. It seems that my views, my beliefs frighten you. Why? Melanin does not mean that I have received divine commands to eliminate you. If anything, Lady Liberty seems to inspire this ecstatic religious fervor in her most devout: the command to convert all faiths to prostrate themselves at her hem or be cast out into the darkness. 

No. I think you were the one who was lost that night. Trust me, I know these things — I work at Garmin.

But I didn’t have time to articulate or understand these feelings at that moment. You were raising your gun. Aakash and I were standing, our stools askew behind us. People were screaming. Running past, pushing, shoving. The first shot went wide right. A firecracker inside a bar. I heard another and turned to my left. Aakash was on the floor, cradling his arm. I saw Paul, another regular, start moving toward you. I turned to distract you. 

I fully looked at you for the first time. 

American Terrorist

Your hair was in a spiky tuft, the color of rusty copper. The jowls of your face sagged and gaunt. Your cartoonish ears poked out, almost completely horizontal to your face. The bags under your eyes only underlined the fact that sleep had not been your friend. But it was your eyes that stuck out to me. 

They were locked on me. I saw hate. I saw a man weary of the world. I saw self-loathing. I saw fear. 

You raised your gun again. I refused to look away. I wanted you to see me. 

Did you? Did you see me?

Did you see —

• • •

I awake seeing all white. Blinking my eyes, I slowly adjust as afternoon light pokes hesitantly through shuttered blinds. I turn my head to see my wife, dozing gently in a rigid, stern looking chair. I see Aakash, also resting, in a bed adjacent to mine. Farther down the line I see Paul, staring dazed up at the ceiling. The drones of heart monitors and the whisperings of a TV intertwine. I look up to see your arrest being played on loop. I look away. I see a mob of friends and family huddling outside, somehow being kept at bay by increasingly frustrated medical practitioners. 

I am so tired. As the events of last night begin to flood in, a burning anger seeps through my body. What gave you the right? To play judge, jury, and executioner of the people of this country? If taking one look at me and Aakash and deciding that we meant harm to you and your loved ones without any knowledge of what we believe, what’s the point? 

Why should we continue to be model citizens, if we will just be turned on in the end? If you want a villain, we can be one.

Why should we continue to be model citizens, if we will just be turned on in the end?

I do not doubt that there are people from that same bar who will be toasting you tonight. The more the media designates you as a lone wolf, the more you will be heralded as a champion of true Americans to these people. There will be no discussion of the possibility of a larger scale attack or a historical analysis of Ku Klux Klan- related attacks. 

Your shooting will have no greater effect on how your ethnicity is viewed, nor increase any potential dangers it will face. White Christian males will not wake up, scared to get out of bed to face a wary and hostile nation. No longer behind closed doors and muttered side comments, but now in open contempt, you will be toasted for doing the good work that should have been done long ago. A true hero. A patriot. 

My wife shifts and clears her throat, jolting me out of my reverie. Looking at her, my heart almost burst with emotion. I begin to silently sob. 

How close was I to dying last night? Why wasn’t I dead? I’m scared to go out there again. Is this what it feels to be Muslim every day in post-9/11 America? 

I had been living in a gray area for so long — accused of being a terrorist — but never comprehending the terror I help inflict by not standing beside those who face those accusations daily. You always think it will happen to someone else until you become that someone else. America may be considered a melting pot, but religious freedom here usually concerns one group and one group only: those in power. 

All faiths are not created equal in America. To never be concerned about worshipping unashamedly is a luxury for those in the unseen majority, but not for the constantly watched minority.

All faiths are not created equal in America. To never be concerned about worshipping unashamedly is a luxury for those in the unseen majority.

It reminds me of a joke I once heard: A Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu walk into a bar. The bartender immediately pulls out his gun. All three raise their hands, shouting for the barkeep to put down his weapon. The bartender shoots the Muslim. Seeing their friend on the ground, both men advance toward the barkeep, looking for an answer. The bartender shrugs, looks at them and says, “Who doesn’t wear a ski mask in Boston in February?”

“Sridarth.”

My wife is awake and has been watching me. Tears are streaming down her face as she tightly clings to my hand. 

I stare at her face, drinking it in — not wanting to lose a second. Where did we go wrong? We came with so many dreams and hopes built on top of one another. Dreams that may have not been big to others, but for us spiraled to the heavens. The outskirts of the country seemed so vast until we saw the lights of the city. We never wanted to stay on the coasts; we wanted to dive into the heartland of America to enter where we may least likely be wanted and see if we could survive or be spit out. 

But is there anywhere we can truly feel safe now? He wanted to rip that from us — that feeling when the impossible begins to crack; a house we built in a strange land of foreigners becoming our home; pursuing our faith in the way this country’s moral backbone pretends to stand for; our far-off dreams finally becoming our reality; the idea of a country where our best selves could exist and achieve beyond what we could imagine, individually and together.

I turn to her and ask, “What would you like to name our child?”

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