"Utopia," Matt Holmes. Grade 12, Age 19. Gold Medal, Photography.

U.S.-Man and the Gulab Jamin Machine comes from Portfolio Gold Medalist Haris Durrani.

“I think people really need to think what it’s like to have all of society arrayed against you.” — Octavia Butler

It took a while to understand that there were subtleties everywhere after 9/11, challenging who I am. It was a scary thing when I realized how true it was, what Mom told me all the time about anti-Muslim sentiment—that it’s all around us. I always thought she was paranoid. I knew there were people who hated Muslims, but they never really affected me—until they took Baba.

It’s still hard to be sure of my identity when I’m shut down every five seconds. It’s like in Algebra II class. Anytime we tell Mr. Wetzel the answer to a problem, he says, “Are you sure about that?” He laughs because we start saying we were wrong all of a sudden, despite the fact that we happened to have it right all along.

Mr. Wetzel says we need to have more confidence in ourselves.

I remember spending a Sunday afternoon in the storage area at the back of Baba’s halal store near our apartment in Brooklyn. Baba’s gulab jamin machine was like something from the desi Willy Wonka Factory. I loved hanging out in that tiny room and doing homework—or just sitting there, listening to the whir of machinery, to smell the sweet air, jump-starting my brain.

I was writing my history essay—or trying to write it. I wasn’t having much success.

Baba came through the door. He was a tall man with broad shoulders and a big head of hair. But Baba was gentle with his hands–an engineer at heart. He had invented the gulab jamin machine.

Gulab jamin is the best Indian-Pakistani dessert ever. It’s like a small, firm matzo ball bathed in warm, sweet syrup. Baba sold them in his halal store. His machine was a giant mechanical octopus with tubes, wires, and metal sprawled out like massive tentacles. At its center stood a dark gray, refrigerator-sized box with control panels and switches. Syrup canisters were dotted across the machine, and little spoons molded each gulab jamin into shape. The tubes shifted, turned to keep the system running. It was—and sounded—like clockwork: the clinking of metal, the crunching of gears, the occasional beep.

But it wasn’t just a hunk of machinery; it was my father’s prized creation. And its sweet aromas reminded me of my own Pakistani heritage.

But Baba was speaking now.

“Paagal!”—Crazy!—“I don’t understand, Usman, why you have to focus on these history essays instead of math and science.” He adjusted his glasses. “What’s the point of studying history? It’s past.” Baba spoke in Urdu—he didn’t know much English. My little sister Aisha and I are the only ones in the family who know enough to translate for him.

“History repeats itself,” I answered in Urdu. “We don’t want that.” I wanted to go on struggling over my essay, even though nothing was really clicking.

“If history repeats itself, and we have educated leaders,” Baba replied, with this real trickster kind of grin, “then why does it keep on repeating itself?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged, suddenly unsure of myself. I tugged at my hair for a moment… “They’re not alleducated, Baba.”

I remember that Sunday night one month after 9/11. We’d both started laughing then. My body shook with the joy of the moment. Baba followed along in his baritone voice—a voice which always seemed to wash over me like the distant rumble of a peculiarly mellifluous auto-rickshaw engine that sang Bollywood musicals as it ran and “La Ilaha Illa Allah” as it rested.

It was the last time I saw Baba laugh like that.

Beside us, the gulab jamin machine hummed its gentle rhythm. Later that night, it too would give its last chuckle—and then die.

***

“The FBI picked up some illegals at a halal store,” the officer told me once I’d made it to the police station. “Yeah. That was it. The FBI got a tip from a lady in an apartment nearby. She said there were too many Middle Eastern men hanging around. If you’re looking for a Moslem or whatever, maybe he was one of them.”

But Baba was a legal immigrant. And, what struck me most, he was actually in trouble. The idea hadn’t hit me until now.

I realized that the officer hadn’t seen past my fair skin, so I quickly played along with him. “Oh, really?” I choked in a small voice.

“Uh-huh,” he said, scratching his chin. “After 9/11, they’ve got to find the terrorists. Fast. But we don’t really know much about them. The only logical action is to follow what we know about the 9/11 people: Middle Eastern, Muslims—”

I coughed. Not loud, but loud enough. I couldn’t help it, thinking about what Mom and Baba say all the time, that if they were to judge, they’d say the terrorists weren’t real Muslims.

“Where did they put them? The illegals?” I said, suppressing my urge to stutter.

“Metropolitan Detention Center. MDC.” His answer sounded almost like a question. He seemed suspicious, but not sure about what. I noticed the way he squinted at me as I stumbled out.

***

Six weeks after he disappeared, I managed to get on the telephone with Baba, and with a lawyer from the Center for Constitutional Rights. I told Baba I loved and missed him. He sounded faint.

“My situation disturbs me,” he said. He worked for each phrase, fighting to make every syllable happen while still choosing his words carefully, as he always did when he was serious. “Your mother and I moved here because we believed the justice system in the United States would be stronger than in our home countries. It makes me sad to think this faith has been broken.”

His “situation” lasted a long time.

After a full nine months in the MDC, the government cleared Baba of all terrorist affiliations but deported him and Mom to Pakistan. Mom forced Aisha and me to stay back, said there were good prospects here. Maybe the lawyers can help my parents return home, to America, but I doubt it.

I won’t see Mom and Baba for a long time.

***

Now I’m where I started—in the small, dingy room in Baba’s halal store, beside his gulab jamin machine. It has been cold since it broke down the night before they took him. I pick my laptop up from the table and start to write. Words spill out, one after another. It’s hard to get it all down. God, there is just so much to remember. Yet, when all the bad memories are exhausted, I begin to recall the happy moments with Mom and Baba.

And then I know why I write. Not only because of love, but purpose. I need to write about this kind of stuff. So it doesn’t happen again. Paranoia, I realize, might not be so bad. You’re more sensitive to times when things get broken; you see when everyone and everything is against you. This is a nation of freedom. If it isn’t doing its job, I’ve got to change it.

That’s what it’s all about here. That is why I write. To fix things.

My eyes rest on the malfunctioned gulab jamin machine. I can rebuild it—rebuild my own life in the U.S., as so many immigrants and sons of immigrants have done. And daughters, I add, remembering Aisha.

I asked myself, once, how there can be a God in such turmoil. I have an answer now: Every race, religion, and creed of any goodwill shall be tested. It is merely our time. I consider it an opportunity to be strong in the face of calamity. The greatest strength is not strength itself but hope in the midst of utter despair.

***

I hear Mr. Wetzel’s voice: “Are you sure?”

My mouth opens, grins. “I am,” I say, over and over again. “I am.”

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