The turbulent nineties where momentous events of great historical import took place were also a time of intense ferment for me. The conflict in Kashmir and the attendant conflictual conditions of a virulent nature that defined Kashmir then had a profound psychological impact on me, at a range of levels. I suffered from an identity crisis and my personality bore the ingress of conflict. Given the nature of conditions that defined Kashmir in the nineties, I was sent or almost tricked my by family and made to exit the place. Thus began my exposures to the West. While the Western experience, on the whole, was salubrious , given that it expanded my world view and I got exposed to what amounts to a “different” world, my identity crisis deepened. This personal crisis, which amounted to an odyssey, was exacerbated by multiple crises in the Muslim world(s), which affected me as well. These crises implicated both the West and the world of Islam. At the personal level, these engendered a conflict within me. The only way out of this inner conflict was to gain an understanding of the West.
While my first port of call was Australia, a country which was itself undergoing a review of sorts of its nature and identity when I embarked on the “fatal shore(s)”, it was the United States that was a draw for me. I maneuvered my way into the United States , first in 2005, from Scandinavia. It was New York that I immersed myself into. What I witnessed was a dilapidated and decrepit city which, on the face of it or superficially, seemed like a “melting pot”. There was hardly any nationality that was not there in New York City. It was a dazzling sight and validation for me in terms of the nature of the United States. But, then, it was skin deep. New York City revealed itself to me a brutal city which bore the ingress of capitalism’s social Darwinism. There was a dark side to the city besides this- violent crime, drugs, turf wars between gangs, the abuse of illegal immigrants or even legal ones at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder , wheelings and dealings of a sordid nature and social and political divides that were both scathing and jarring. While this did not disabuse me of the nature of the United States that I had visualized the country to me, it was observations in other parts of the country that ultimately gave short shrift to my rosy understanding.
America was , I discovered, neither the land of “milk and honey” nor were the streets paved with gold, so to speak. ( I may aver that I had not gone to the country as an economic immigrant nor was I seeking opportunity; I was a traveler with an attitude and on a quest)There was seething discontent among and within the white super structure of the country. The blacks formed an underclass who appeared to have adjusted to their historical condition by a descent into the nether world of darkness. While, prima facie, peoples of different cultures, ethnicities and even nationalities were visible everywhere, but the nature of their interaction was merely functional. Deep divides and suspicions underlay this veneer of sociability and normalcy even in “blue” America- supposedly the place(s) defined by cosmopolitanism and acceptance or tolerance. But, again, this was skin deep. There was bitterness, suspicion and anger simmering under the surface. This was 2005.
These trends that I observed appeared to have deepened and intensified when I visited the country yet again in 2008- the year of the Great Financial Crisis. Being an olive skinned man in the deep South seemed like an invitation to be menaced or even harmed. In Washington DC, which some held to be the capital of the world, I was advised not to venture out after dark. I could be mugged or get caught in a cross fire. During day light, the city was a city of the Government; after dark, blacks ran or ruled the streets. It was a power play of sorts. Ghettos in America had neat but intangible lines and boundaries of control. Blacks commanded some areas; others were under the control of Latino’s. There was white flight from areas where other ethnic groups or nationalities aspired to live. The Whites moved to and flocked in their suburbs. There were signs of struggle for survival across the United States.
This was at odds with the America I had been indoctrinated or been led to believe. The “superpower” was withering and sputtering within. Yet the so called “ American Dream” was sold as the defining feature of the country. America was a stark contrast to Europe- the cradle of the West and where its philosophical underpinnings and tour de force was begotten. But Europe was besotted by problems too- albeit of a different nature. All in all , a certain ordinariness defined America- an ordinariness that ultimately revealed itself to the world in 2017. There was not and there does not appear to be a redeeming feature that could qualify the country to be called special. I remember and will continue to remember the country as “America, the ordinary”.
—The author can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org