Twenty-five years ago this summer my family migrated to the United States. As a teenager, I was overwhelmed by the sudden decision to leave Dhaka forever and the tidal wave of changes that came with it. But being a kid, I didn’t question the move. There would be little weight in it if I did.
During my childhood in Dhaka in the eighties, I remember being envious of people that were leaving Bangladesh to settle overseas. I recalled other friends and their families migrating to Europe, America, and other countries, and I wished the day would come when my parents too would announce plans that it was time to pack up and leave. I thought longingly, and with a hint of jealousy especially of the ones that made their new homes in England, for example, or, beating that, the United States of America – the pinnacle of destinations at the end of migratory flight.
In the early nineties, Bangladesh was still reeling from almost a decade of military dictatorship. Free speech, the semblance of a working government, law and order, education, fighting poverty – I didn’t necessarily think about these matters, and, if I did it was when I heard them discussed by grownups, never associating them with Bangladesh. Another way of putting it would be that Bangladesh was devoid of having ways to face these issues. Why? Because the accepted narrative was that, no matter how proud we were of our blood-drenched struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971, at the cost of a million lives massacred by the army of that country in nine months, Bangladesh was several steps backwards. And so it would always be, in every way. Back then, the prospects of Bangladesh’s future were still bleak enough for this hapless perspective to find ground to stand on. From where my memory finds its recall, this is what I remember.
The summer of 1991 in America was unexceptional, especially to the sensibilities of a fifteen year old kid recently arrived from the other end of the globe. Not long before our move I had given up one of my life’s great loves, tennis, redirecting the interest toward lifting weights. I was not a good student, but I knew that at the end of the summer, starting school was an event as inevitable as the sun coming up and going down. The news, politics, current events -- were all part of adults’ lives, and boring. America had more meaningful and exciting things on offer – fast food, fast cars, state of the art technologies, megacities of high-rises and restaurants, gleaming streets and endless highways – that looked every bit as enchanting as when they appeared on the countless American TV shows exported to Dhaka that we had watched with the rapture of seeing a faraway land of magic and abundance, of beauty and perfection unlike anything that we will ever know. Even crime was glorious to watch in the cop shows where they were wiped away in sixty minutes of stellar police work and hearty American honesty.
In 1991, a brilliant, well-spoken, erudite young man in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was killing other young men and storing their body parts in his fridge. He was reportedly making meals out of them. The case of Jeffrey Dahmer unfolded like a movie. A sick, twisted, delightfully frightful dose of mayhem to my teenage imagination. And it was real. Later that summer brought the hearings of Clarence Thomas, his conduct towards a woman named Anita Hill under scrutiny on charges of sexual harassment. Even in my limited understanding, which did not include sexual harassment, this was a different America.
Moving forward a decade, almost to the date. I wake up on that now nationally acknowledged day of stunning blue skies, idyllic sunshine, and weather that made it unbearable to sit in an office or waste being indoors, to a phone call from my mother telling me to turn on the TV. Planes had flown into the World Trade Center buildings in New York. Less than a year earlier, in a contentious general election, which was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the loser of the contest at the ballot, a recovered alcoholic and born again Christian became the 43rd president of the United States. George W. Bush, in retaliation to the September 11 attacks, would drop bombs on Afghanistan, the haven of al-Qaeda, and perjure his way into invading Iraq, a war he declared, by his admission, based on direct guidance from God. In the post 9/11 world the American Dream was for those and only those that were “with America.” Zealous patriotism and flag-waving nationalistic fervor was the true show of love of country. Otherwise, “you were with them enemy.”
American exceptionalism was never at a higher peak as it was beginning in March 2003, when bombs fell on Iraq, and the fight to end Saddam Hussein’s Weapon’s of Mass Destruction-laden regime launched with all the might of wronged America. And so we entered a new era, whether officially noted or not, in American life, or life in America. The ideologies, the foundational edicts of the republic, the grand designs of the writers of the Declaration of Independence invested in life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, in essence, the building blocks of the American Dream, came tumbling down. Civil liberties were disrupted in the name of “rooting out terrorists.” The instances of Constitutional violations of the rights of American citizens and non-citizens targeted in racially profiled witch-hunts under the Patriot Act mounted faster than the national student loan debt. Terrorism became synonymous with Islam and being Muslim.
Never before had it struck this close to home. I was not ignorant to the history of racial injustice in this country, and by now, nor was I blind to America’s egregious political flaws at home and abroad, and its record of blundered foreign policy measures around the world that destroyed democratic governments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in support of, and installing and aiding, the murderous regimes of Pinochet, Joseph Mobuto, and the Shah of Iran – all the while stuffing the gullet of the world with messages of freedom and democracy.
Racial injustice in this country is as American as baseball and apple pie. America stands on the back of the sin of slavery. Even with a black president in office as I write this, America is convulsing in new waves of racism, which has bled into the very systems that are supposed to keep societies functioning, fair, and in check – police organizations, courts of law, private businesses, educational institutions, government offices, and on and on goes the list. Eight years after the first African American president was elected America has staggered, tripped, and tumbled backward into the cesspool of Donald Trump.
The comedian George Carlin once said that the American Dream is a dream because one has to be asleep to be able to achieve it. Of course there are stories of success, many of them, of people arriving in this country from around the world, fleeing persecution, hardships, war, and oppression to make the riches they believed was possible only in America. Without that narrative, and that of the slave labour that built the country, there is no America. There is only a myth, a dream one has to achieve to get some sleep, and an exceptionalism that is pure fantasy. The time now is not for such willful ignorance.