Notes from a global diaspora
Keep driving! I yelled as the car continued to tailgate us. It was a late May night in Irving, Texas, and we planned to go home and sleep after some jokes and laughs at the local Starbucks. But some joker forced us to run for our lives.
I arrived in Dallas in early September to attend the Bayyinah Dream programme as a researcher. I would spend the next nine months exploring Muslim students motivations for learning Arabic while examining how their teacher established his authority during student-teacher encounters and beyond. After attending a previous three-week school a few months prior and spending Ramadan house sitting for a friend in Jersey, I searched Craigslist for a room to rent. I stumbled upon a lovely sophisticated Black Californian woman who lived alone. After a friend local to the area checked out and approved of the place, I flew in town.
For the first few months with no car of my own, and no elaborate transport system available, I imposed on the young women in the programme for rides to and from classes. Eventually, I was able to rent a solid but well-used four-door sedan I found on a Yahoo mailing list, from a local Arab uncle. He had lived in the neighbourhood for decades, before the new wave of immigration from the sub-continent and relocation of Muslims in other states.
A few weeks later, I was able to make my way around the city with ease, developing a routine with some of the students. One of those was frequenting Starbucks in the early afternoon after classes. It was the perfect Muslim study spot. Single-person bathroom making it easy to carry in a cup for washing after toilet use. No stares for putting your foot in the sink to make ablutions for prayer. Lack of concern about bringing in outside food if you purchased Starbucks offerings. And the open parking lot running alongside the highway, with grassy parts to pray on. We often remained until closing time, writing up my research notes, the students pouring over their rules of the Arabic language.
That night there were 10 of us, only two guys in the group. The students were one month away from finishing the programme, and the conversation revolved around their plans after graduation. We had our Trenta cups of passion tea, saved from being poured down the sink, due to the relationships formed with the baristas from our steady presence. It was getting close to 11 pm, so the group started to break up. The two guys got in their car, another four of the women got in their car, and I turned to my car with the other three women. They all roomed together, each of them from the tri-state area. Myself a New Yorker, we had developed a solid bond filled with mad jokes and much social critique.
Reem was always going on about missing driving, her car back in NY, so I threw her the keys and got in the passenger seat. Colinas Pointe apartments were a short drive away. There was only one way in or out of the complex. The entrance was low, always requiring a crawl to get in without scraping the bottom of the front bumper. As we pulled in, another car was pulling out, and the driver gives us an intent stare. “Uh, okay, dude!” someone comments. Before we reach the apartment block, Nishat slowly says, “Yo, he just turned the car around.” The four of us whip our heads to the back window and watch the car draw closer to us. “Okay, don’t stop. Let’s go around and come back.” Reem drives us around the complex, and sure enough, he’s following. She navigates us back around, making a right at the exit and proceeds around the block and comes back, just to be sure. Nothing but silence in the car, as we all hold our breath.
Now beyond the complex and on the main road, we start to freak out. “Yo, this dude is actually following us!” Still, in the right lane, Reem starts to speed up on the service road. “Oh my God, Oh my God” I hear chanting from the back, as Yusra and Nishat express their panic. I’m not sure if it was a combination of my NY background or too many Hollywood movies, that had me yell to Reem, “Don’t let him get next to us!”, fearful of him shooting at us through his open window. After all, we were in open-carrying Texas.
She speeds as fast as the old car can carry us. We get to the traffic light and thank God for the make a right on red option. She makes a sharp turn. Our gazes continuously dart back and forth between the road in front of us and the car behind. The two lanes of the road we are on converge, and we are approaching another light. Going straight will take us onto the highway and going right will start to bring us back around full circle. “Go on the highway,” one of the women shouts out from the back. “No! We’ll never outrace him,” I say, knowing what the car’s capacity. Sharp right again, it is. Reem speeds up, and we see him move into the left lane to get next to us. As we pull up the slight hill, there is a van in the left lane. Divine intervention! Safely next to it all eyes dart to the back as we see the guy’s car swerve out of the left lane to pull up behind us.
As soon as the light turns green, Reem takes off. We’ve now made a half-circle from the apartment complex. Fast. The next light has just turned yellow. We won’t make it. “Run it!” I yell, and we fly through. We don’t catch the next light and can see him waiting at the light behind us. I’m now thinking, okay maybe this is over. But no, his light turns green, and of course, because of the timer, ours turns green after. There is now an opportunity for another right. And we take it.
“Call the cops one of the women!” Yusra yells from the back. “I’m directing her, you call them!” I holler back, my heart in my chest. I don’t want to die in Texas on an empty road. She dials 911. “Call the guys,” the other woman says, referring to the two guys that were in the Starbucks lot with us. “And tell them what, we are trying around on these roads, come and find us? We have to get to a well-lit place,” I respond. I hear Yusra on the phone with 911 telling them what’s going on. The guy is still behind us as we approach the next light. “Box us in,” I instruct Reem, “Don’t let him get next to us.” She boxes us in between in the far left lane. Breathing easy for a split second, we look in the rear window. The car door opens, and the guy starts running towards our car! Reem makes a quick decision and runs the light. “Let’s get to the gas station. We can get to the 711,” I say shakily. It’s only one light away. With a bit of a head start, we get to the next light and then cross over the service road into the lot of the gas station.
We have our hands on the doors before the car comes to a stop right at the front of the entrance of the gas station store. We quickly scramble out and run to duck behind the shelves away from the window. Yusra is still on the phone with 911 informing them where we are. Struggling to calm our racing hearts, we look at each other in disbelief as to what is happening. In between breaths, I say, “I’ll call the guys now.” I dial Salman and tell him if he hasn’t reached home yet, I need him to come to the gas station on the 161 right away. We sit crouched down in silence with 911 on the line.
Not long after, 911 let us know the police were outside. Making our way to the door the cashier throws us confused looks but says nothing. I start talking as we reach the officers. One of the women interjects at different points to add something I’ve missed. Salman and Irfan walk up behind the police. We quickly let them know that they are with us before continuing.
They listen to our story, their faces giving away their disbelief. They tell us we should just go home. “Are you going to follow us back to the apartment complex,” I expectantly ask. They agree. They walk over to some guy in a black Mustang, and his waist reveals he’s a cop as well. Salman suggests we all go in his car. The four of us pile into the back of his jeep parked against the side of the 711. We’re all on edge waiting for the police for about 15 minutes. Irfan eventually gets out and tells the cops we’re waiting for them to escort us home. The finish with Mustang cop and get in the cop cruiser. Salman pulls the car past the row of gas pumps to merge into traffic.
Paused on the ramp, with the police behind us, Yusra shrieks, “The car is there. That’s him!” We all turn around. “Are you sure it’s him,” Irfan queries. “That’s him!” we yell. “Salman, get out of the car and tell the police,” I demand. “Salman, don’t get out of the car,” Reem quickly retorts. “Get out of the car, Salman!” I yell back. We go back and forth until Salman finally pushes the gear up and gets out to alert the officers. With craned necks, we watch as Salman leans into their window and points behind them.
He gets back in the jeep and pulls it back around to the side of the lot as we watch the cops pull the chaser out of his car. After what seemed longer than 10 minutes, the officer places handcuffs on him, and lead him to the back of the cruiser.
We eye the cop as he walks over to Salman’s window. “Yeah, he thought you were his ex-wife, and someone has been bothering her for drugs. He thought you were her, so he was trying to help her. Anyways, the car is stolen, and he’s high as a kite, so we’re arresting him.” All said so calmly. He did all of that high?! That seems highly suspect. Given how agitated we were, there was no point to go into it.
“You guys shouldn’t stay home tonight,” Salman says. “Maybe you should stay with one of the other girls.” He drives us to the apartment complex, and they go in to pick up their things for the night before he drops them at one of the houses the female students are renting out for the nine months. The three of us drive back to the 7-Eleven. Not much is said. They follow me home, waiting for my wave as I enter the house before driving off.
When I collapse in my rented room, it’s now past 2 am. Ever the researcher, I get out my phone and record what happened.
I arrive to class the next morning, crossing the barrier to go to the guy’s side of the room for the day of observation. Setting my space to begin notetaking, I sluggishly take out my iPad and keyboard, placing them next to my phone. I see Salman enter the room and sit in his usual spot, one row in front of me. Bagged dropped, he plops in his seat and turns to look at me wide-eyed, “Did that really happen?!” Agreeing at the outrageousness at the experience, I slowly shake my head in silent disbelief. Only in freakin’, Texas!
This note is from doctoral fieldwork I conducted from 2013–2014 in four Muslim retreats, ALIM, RIS, Bayyinah-Dream, and Rihla, exploring the role of knowledge and the multidimensional nature of authority in the education of American Muslims.