If I were ever to share a train car with a suspected criminal, I would be useless to the police as a witness. On my weekly commute to the university, I usually board the train, hunker down in a seat, and whip out my Sudoku book. I spend the entire hour completely oblivious to my fellow passengers. Couldn’t tell you how many there were, what they looked like, anything really. I am truly off in my own little world.
But not the last two trips. In both cases it was a group of high school girls who dragged me out of my reverie and back into the here and now. The first was just a group of two across the aisle from me. Each with their cell phone in hand, they had discovered a site with a hundred different farting sounds and were trying them out one by one. They giggled softly at first after each one, and then, slowly, the volume of both their playback and their laughing increased. They were not off in their own worlds, they knew that everyone else in train car was partaking in their mirth – whether they wanted to or not. This continued for an obnoxiously long time. The rest of us emphatically ignored them.
Yesterday, I took an earlier train and ended up in Graz about the time school lets out there. I got on a bus and took a seat next to the most silent black woman in the world. One row up, four school girls were seated in a group facing one another. They were talking too loudly as teenage girls do. They mentioned Ramadan and then something about praying and “right now”. It turned into a dispute about how feasible it was to observe the rules exactly. One of them said (loudly):
“It’s not a problem! I just say I have to go to the bathroom. Then I go in there and shut the door. I throw my sweater on the floor and kneel down and pray. If someone comes in and wonders why I am crouched there with my head on the floor – who cares?”
This puzzled me. I knew a little about Islam and had heard of a five-prayers-a-day rule, but I had no idea that there were particular times for these observances. Later, at home, I did a little research and found this information on a website of an Austrian Islamic center:
It surprised me to see six prayer names and exact times of day – (the things you learn while eavesdropping on strangers!) I could understand the standpoint of the girl who argued it was too hard to keep to the rules – Austrian institutions, public spaces, opening hours, schedules etc. are not set up to be convenient to Muslim prayer obligations. It was a Tuesday while I was on that bus and 12:56 came and went as I listened to those girls.
At one point the discussion got hefty with all four talking at once. I couldn’t catch more than snatches of it – something about “wanting to grab that thing and rip it off her head”, for instance. I looked at them more carefully. They all had sleek dark hair and beautiful faces. They were wearing nice clothes including the ripped jeans so in fashion right now. They wore make up and no head scarves. They spoke perfect German in an Austrian dialect that was clearly native to them. I doubted very much that there was any other language they had better command of.
The discussion turned to the subject of their mothers as they tried to one-up each other. “My mother would have a fit!” one of them said. “My mother would send me straight to the mosque,” said the second. “That’s nothing! Come to my house once and you will see what it means to be extreme!” the third countered.
The bus turned a corner and passed a large billboard. It was a political ad for Austria’s Freedom Party candidate in the upcoming presidential election. Three of the girls raised their hands and sent a middle finger salute in the direction of the man’s picture. The fourth girl was nudged. She looked up from her cell and asked “What?” One girl pointed at the billboard. “Oh” said the fourth and she made the same quick gesture.
We were getting near the main square where they were going to get off the bus, so the crazy mother competition was replaced with an equally loud discussion about their afternoon plans. One of them objected to the idea of getting some Kebab first.
“There you go again! It’s the same point I was making before,” another girl nearly shouted. “You have to think more about other people! I AM HUNGRY!” They debated back and forth emotionally and then seemed to find a compromise just as the bus reached their stop.
I thought about these two scenes a lot for the rest of the day, and then again today. It suddenly struck me as odd that they stayed on my mind and I wanted to figure out why. Two sets of girls were sort of obnoxiously loud on public transport – that is fairly normal for teenagers anywhere. I had learned a little something new about Islam from the second group, but then it wasn’t THAT fascinating . . . and then it finally dawned on me.
I had been surprised at how normal those four girls were.
Five or ten years ago, that idea would have never entered my head. Tens of thousands of Muslims have been living in Austria for decades. I have had hundreds of Muslim students and didn’t find anything unusual about it. This surprise of mine was something new – something had to have changed inside my own mind for me to feel it at all. Could it be that all the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, fear of terrorism talk I have heard in recent years had gotten inside my head despite my rejection of them? I want to think of myself as being above that, being immune to manipulation, but there it is. I hate such moments of discovering my own prejudices. I hate the thought that extreme politicians can create such crap perceptions in the minds of people who hadn’t had them before.
I want to think that despite ups and downs, humans are generally going in the right direction when it comes to racism. That the moral arc is truly bending towards justice and that someday the current concepts of race will die out. That the future world my daughters live in will be even better to them than this one. But right now I am wondering if some ideas can’t always be raised from the dead again.
My two girls ride trains and buses with their friends. I don’t want them sitting silently and trying to be invisible. I also don’t want them shouting or giving the finger to a political billboard. And I sure as heck don’t want them playing loud farting noises on their cell phones. But more than all this, I don’t want the other passengers looking at them and being surprised at how normal they are.