Category Archives: Conversations and Encounters

Keep on rocking in the free world

I Voted - Election2008
Originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

It is the eve of Election Day 2016. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will battle it out at the polls tomorrow, and, like much of the world, I am flabbergasted: How did we get to this point?? I want to remember how many of us felt during this season 8 years ago, as we waited to see if we were successful in electing Barack Obama as President of the United States, and even 6 years ago, as we evaluated Obama halfway into his first term as President. I don’t foresee I’ll feel any of the same unbridled excitement tomorrow — just relief or horror, depending on the results. But I want to share the post below, long-buried in my Drafts folder, so that we could remember what hope & happiness felt like.

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Way up here, we stand on shoulders

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Poste Maroc, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

I found this post languishing in my Drafts folder, dated nearly 2 years ago. You all seemed to enjoy my previous post on Open Letters to My Fellow Commuters so much, I thought I would post something similar again, this time open letters to a series of people I’ve encountered or appreciated.

Dear Butcher at Indus Market on San Pablo Ave., Berkeley:
Remember me? I’m the girl who wandered in a minute before closing, on the Friday evening before a long weekend, and announced, “I need ten pounds of ground beef and ten pounds of chicken breast, in two-pound bags, please.” Thank you for being so patient about my order, even though I have no doubt that in your head you were relegating me to a special place in hell. Thank you for also being sweet enough to carry all twenty pounds of meat to the front counter for me, so I could pay there. I’m stubborn enough to have insisted on picking up the bags and lugging them around myself — but the meat counter was too tall and I couldn’t reach them. Please consider installing a pulley or something for short people like me.

Dear Gil Scott-Heron:
Stop snorting cocaine and getting arrested, and please go back to making beautiful, hard-hitting music.
Note: Soon after I initially jotted down this note, Gil Scott-Heron died in May2011 of undisclosed causes.

Dear (would-be) gentlemen:
You don’t have to pull out chairs for me. (Although I’m sure plenty of other women may appreciate this. See, I never know how to gracefully fold myself into a chair pulled out and held by someone else.) But holding doors open is always lovely and highly necessary. And don’t walk in front of me, if we’re hanging out together. I hate that — I don’t care if your legs are freakin’ longer than mine. Also: Tip well. I believe anything less than 20% is completely unacceptable, unless the service was terrible. Finally, when you’re dropping off a woman, stick around just long enough to ensure she enters the building safely, before you drive off. It’s a classy and chivalrous thing to do. Feminism is grand, but that doesn’t mean you should be any less a gentleman. It’s about common courtesy, and basic respect. Keep it up.

Dear man selling handmade earrings on Shattuck Ave., downtown Berkeley:
You’re going to make me broke if I keep spending my bus/train money on your wares, all that beautiful plastic, wood, metal, and string creatively welded by your hands.

Dear little girl:
I think you must have been 7 years old, but I could be wrong. Regardless, on the days when my nose looks too big (or too crooked) for my face, or I’m not as tall as models and mannequins suggest I should be, or my eyebrows are unruly as if prepared for war, I think of how you skipped right up to me one afternoon in my beloved N’s kitchen, stared me in the eye, and exclaimed, “You’re so pretty, mashaAllah!” before skipping away again. Anyone who hopes to win me over with flattery would be hard-pressed to compete with your innocent yet sincerely-delivered compliment. And that’s the thing — you were so sincere, it was clear you told the truth. Years later, I still remember this encounter and believe your words. Thank you — and a thankyou to your parents, too, for raising you so beautifully. You’re so pretty, too — not only on the outside, but on the inside, where it counts.

Dear guys at Copy Central in downtown Berkeley:
You’re the best. Thanks for always dealing with my print orders on such short notice and with such rocking quality — this goes both for my professional projects as well as personal ones such as wedding invitations — and for having the most amazing turnaround time in the whole Bay Area. And for shouting out my name whenever I enter your shop.

Dear hot chocolate:
Thank you for warming my hands and uncoiling the lump in my throat on too many days to count.

Dear newspaper man at the El Cerrito del Norte BART station:
I have a confession to make: I rarely buy print news anymore — but sometimes I do, just to see you smile. I wonder what your story is, how old you are, how long you’ve been selling newspapers, what the process is for setting up a table directly inside the train station, how early you get there in the mornings. At an age where it seems you should be relaxing at home and playing with your grandchildren, you’re instead selling papers. Some mornings, you look awfully tired, and the lines on your face are more pronounced. But then someone walks by, and you nod in greeting, and flash that amazing smile that lights up your face. Next time, I will ask for your name.

Dear people who think it’s perfectly acceptable to reply with “Yeah” when I say “Thankyou”:
You’re rude. Also: Stop it.

Dear foxycart:
I still remember that when I pointed out that your email about scheduled maintenance/system downtime referenced October rather than November, you took my corrections graciously. Thankyou for immediately sending out a corrected email to the masses, and a separate note to me that read:

Hi Yasmine.

We’re really sorry. We proofread it internally, and even had a 3rd party proofread it. Clearly we need a better proofreading plan.

Or a time machine.

We realize that for an error like that to occur on an email describing a major change perhaps isn’t confidence-inspiring, but please rest assured that this migration is expected to go smoothly.

Best,
B

I love that there are real-deal humans (with a sense of humor, no less!) behind all the technology and machinery. You have rocking good customer service.

Dear people who rush from the platform into the train before those who need to exit can do so:
Stop it. You clearly don’t know proper public-transport etiquette. Also: You must be related to those who don’t understand the concept of “stand right, walk left” on escalators.

Dear people at Au Coquelet:
There are only four electrical outlets, and they’re placed in such a way that only the lucky four of you who snag those tables can access them. I tried sitting five feet away and plugging my MacBook cord into one of your open outlets once, and everyone in the vicinity gave me a dirty look because they feared someone walking by would trip over my cord (rightfully so). So I good-naturedly unplugged my cord, and retreated back to my only-half-charged laptop, deciding I was okay with this.

What I was not okay with was looking up several minutes later to realize that you — yes, you, one of those who sit at the lucky four tables — was doing nothing more amazingly important than browsing Facebook. I was writing a final paper that, at that point, was 22 pages long. I would have loved an outlet! And you, with your laptop plugged in and charging away, were just clicking through your Facebook minifeed. I frowned and sent black vibes your way, without being too obvious about it, and was relieved when you packed up and left half an hour later. I promptly shifted all my stuff over to your abandoned table, sat down, plugged in my MacBook — and began writing a blog post.

Dear people who answer their phone with “Hello?” as if they don’t know who it is that’s calling:
I know you know it’s I! What’s with this questioning “hello?” I expect personal greetings, dammit! Also: If you don’t leave a voicemail, I will never return your phonecall.

Dear Damien Rice:
I love your songs, and have absolutely no idea what you look like, or what your story is. Thankyou for reminding me that your music — and my appreciation for it — should have nothing to do with your looks. (Although now I’m tempted to Wikipedia you.)

Dear Benicia Public Library:
Thankyou for having comfy couches in front of a fireplace. Could I stay forever, please?

Dear Mills College library:
Thankyou for floor-to-ceiling windows that make me feel like I’m in a forest, and for work-stations that actually make me productive.

Dear Walnut Creek library:
Thankyou for restrooms that smell so delicious, I feel like I’m at a spa.

Dear opera-singing girl standing in front of the downtown Berkeley BART:
You looked relatively well-dressed in your polka-dotted dress and flats — were you a Cal student? I wanted to ask where you got your stylish coat. It was a drizzly afternoon, but the rain didn’t faze you, and you sang beautifully, eyes closed, not even watching the people who stopped for your voice.

Kindness erases a city of strangers

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In Chicago: What separates us?, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

This is a story about the afternoon I went to Target. And no, it is not about how I walked in to return a few items and buy some placemats and a pack of nails to hammer into the walls for my latest creative project, and somehow, inexplicably, walked out with $130 worth of purchases. Instead, it is a story about what I was wearing.

It was a rainy afternoon, so this is what I was wearing: a dress, a coat, pants rolled above my ankles (I am short, most of my pants are too-long, and I am constantly, accidentally walking into puddles), and — instead of my usual headwrap — a beanie smushed over my hair, with my bangs brushed to the side. Inside Target, as I picked up the items on my mental shopping-list, got sidetracked by yet more items, and zig-zagged my way across the store, I ran into half-a-dozen different Muslim women wearing headscarves. “Wow, there are a lot of hijabis in this city!” I exclaimed inwardly in surprise. Outwardly, I smiled brightly and exclaimed, “Assalamu alaikum [Peace be upon you]!”

And every single woman, without fail, replied very quietly and with a guarded expression, “Wa alaikum assalam [And upon you be peace].”

What surprised me was not the fact that the women didn’t guess on their own that I am Muslim. That’s understandable, given that we often use visual aids as a way of categorizing people, and so a woman like me, who was not wearing an obvious form of hijab, would not have automatically been recognized as Muslim. Rather, what surprised me was: 1. The confusion on each and every single woman’s face when I said, “Assalamu alaikum” (Why? Do they think only hijabis are “Muslim enough” to say salaam?), and 2. The lack of smiles in response to mine (Am I scary? Do they consider it a personal affront that I wasn’t wearing “proper” hijab that day yet deigned to say salaam? Are people in my city simply unhappy people who hate smiling?).

I gave the first few women the benefit of the doubt: Maybe they were disgruntled about the cold and rainy weather, perhaps they were sick, maybe they were preoccupied with their children, perhaps they’d had a terrible day. Maybe no one wants to see a happy, smiling girl on a crappy day when you want to stab everyone; it just makes you crankier. I tried not to overthink the whole thing too much — I didn’t want to feel defensive, blow things out of proportion, or over-analyze something that was possibly just a trivial, mundane interaction. But by the end of my Target shopping experience, when I’d run into no less than seven different hijab-wearing Muslimahs in various parts of the store, ranging from the makeup aisle to the office supplies to the home decor to the checkout line, I found myself rattled by the lack of smiles in response to my cheery, “Assalamu alaikum!”

Months ago, a Muslim woman I know posted the following facebook status, a beautiful little story that I’ve remembered all this time:

“An elderly lady kept smiling at me at Trader Joe’s. Every time we made eye contact, she grinned from ear to ear. Now I understand why the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] said, ‘Even a smile is charity.’ I feel like someone just gave me a million bucks for free.”

Smiles are a classy and dignified form of acknowledgment. There is a simple power inherent in them. A smile doesn’t have to mean, “I recognize that we are the same.” It could simply mean, “I acknowledge that we share this world, and I notice that we have crossed paths today for this millisecond, even thought we don’t know each other and may never see each other again.”

Each time I briefly interacted with yet another headscarf-wearing Muslimah who didn’t smile back at me, I walked away extra-conscious of my pants rolled above my ankles, my bangs brushing out from under my hat. They should see me on other days, when I wear sweaters with elbow-length sleeves or roll up my pants to my knees at the beach. Sometimes, when taking the garbage out to the chute at the end of the hallway of my apartment building, I even walk down the hall with my hair completely uncovered. The Target interactions made me feel defensive, even when there was no need to feel so.

In a sociopolitical climate in which many Muslims are wary of possible stereotyping and ignorance and hate from those who are Not Like Us, I have surprisingly found that the least understanding actually comes from my own family and other Muslims: “Why do you wear your scarf that way?” pointedly and repeatedly ask my aunts, and my cousins’ wives, and now even my tiny nieces & nephews. “Why is your neck showing!?” ask others.

“To annoy you,” I’ve come to retort. (It sounds even ruder in Hindko, which affords me brief moments of spiteful satisfaction.)

I tried to pep-talk myself out of hurt and exasperation. Perhaps all the unhappy Muslimahs in my city had chosen to visit Target that day; there must be other, nicer ones around somewhere. Or maybe I was just taking all this too personally, anyway. The lack of smiles didn’t equate to judgment; it just mean they were confused about how to categorize me. We’re human, we categorize people; it’s what we do.

On my way out of Target, I stopped briefly at the indoor coffeeshop to order a hot chocolate. Standing in line in front of me were two children, a boy and girl aged 5-7, along with their father. The little boy wore a bright-blue hearing aid in each ear. I surreptitiously glanced at him a few times as the line moved progressively forward; finally, as the little boy turned towards me, I smiled at him and said, “I like your hearing aids!”

“Thank you,” he mumbled shyly.

“Mine are red!” I said, and lifted my beanie above one of my ears. He smiled a tiny smile and nodded, his sister glanced at me curiously, and the father, in the midst of ordering their drinks, turned and smiled widely at me. That gesture of sharing my own hearing aids would have been nearly impossible on any other day, with my tightly-pinned headwrap usually covering my ears.

And so, on an evening in which the lack of smiles from my fellow Muslimahs felt like a stinging rebuke, I found that my spontaneous act of sharing something I rarely discuss in public, the acknowledgment of that personal condition and experience, and the family’s smile in return acted as a balm, soothing the bruise of non-acknowledgment from those whom I’d expected to feel most relatable to.

Who cares about headscarves and cranky Muslims? If I can get a smile out of a little boy over the fact that our collective ears all run on Duracell batteries, that’s good enough for me.

Once home, mulling all this over in my head, I realized this was not a story about what I was wearing (then again, perhaps it was, but I choose not to classify it as such). Rather, this was a story about open-heartedness. I remembered something I always try to live by: Other people have a choice in what they wear at home and when they go out into the world — their solemnity, their joy, their judgment, their truth, their sneers, their laughter, their lack of smiles. I can’t force people to smile, if they don’t at all feel inclined to do so (and, let’s face it, I have little patience for coaxing them).

But I, too, have a choice — to bring my heart in full force, wherever I may go.

Even if it’s just to Target, for a pack of nails.

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In Chicago: What connects us?, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

We are crooked souls trying to stay up straight

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Outside the post office, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

The man sitting at the table next to mine in the coffeeshop this morning left his fancy-looking sunglasses on the table as he was leaving. I glanced over and noticed them just as the shop door was closing behind his retreating figure—and just as casually glanced away, making no move to scoop them up and run after him with an “Excuse me! You forgot these!”

Luckily, he re-entered the coffeeshop just two seconds later, his glance falling unerringly on the table at which he’d been sitting. “Oh, you left your sunglasses!” I said, feigning surprise, and he smiled back at me sheepishly. But when he left again, my polite smile transitioned into the frown my father hates so much because it creates deep grooves between my eyebrows. “Your face is going to get stuck that way,” he always warns me.

These days, I fear what I’m really going to get stuck in is the emotional rut of stress and anxiety that’s plagued me for the past few weeks. My sleep is short and continuously interrupted, and I have cultivated a newfound reliance on the hated coffee to get me through the days, the caffeine making me feel only more anxious and jittery. My to-do list keeps lengthening, with no end in sight; for every item I manage to cross off, I seem to add five more. But what worries me most is mornings like these, when rather than rushing to help a stranger in something so simple, something that would require little effort on my part, I instead selfishly look away.

This is not who I am, nor whom I wish to become.

We’re all going to the end of the line: Open letters to my fellow commuters

BART
Public transport is ROCKING, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

ZB suggested one evening in Toronto that I should create a weblog-category based around BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), so that everyone can read all my stories of being hit on while using public transportation. The idea made me laugh, but I’ve taken it under consideration and created a “Travels & Travails category”—the latter because public transit is nothing if not drama sometimes, no matter how much I love it and no matter how much amusement it provides. (Seriously, does your public transportation of choice have ice cream carts? [And why was I not on the train that day?] Do you get to observe men having their goatees braided on the train? In short, I love the stories.)

Meanwhile, I present to you a (for now) short series of open letters to my fellow commuters—

Dear People Who Still Don’t Understand Right vs. Left:

A long, long time ago, Yaser referenced people like you in a short post filled with rage directed at those who don’t seem to understand the seemingly simple concept of “Stand right, walk left” on escalators. Seriously, people, get with the program. I hate having to elbow you when I’m trying to get to wherever I need to go. I like walking, and you’re in my way.

Even in airports, I eschew those moving walkways in favor of actually walking all the way across the airport to my gate. I wish you would do the same. And if you don’t want to, that’s fine, just please open up the pathway for me, so I can get by, dammit.

Plus, the sooner I get to Berkeley, the more time I have to swing by and grab a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream before heading into the office. Every single minute makes a difference—and, as Adnan established recently in Toronto, American minutes are longer than Canadian minutes. Stand right!

Dear Man with the Drama of Which I Wish I Knew More:

You provided my intriguing, one-sided BART conversation of the day, as you talked to an unknown person on your cell phone while riding the train from downtown Berkeley to MacArthur: “I just wanted to say, I was…I was happy that you pressed charges. Don’t hang up!” [Other person hangs up. Man pulls the phone away from his ear and stares blankly at it.]

That was such a cliff-hanger. It’s not fair. I demand details!

Dear People Who Always Want to Sit:

Stand up! If you’re on a bus or train and refuse to give up your seat to the elderly, the disabled, the pregnant, or those who otherwise look like they have a priority over you to the seats: You’re an asshole.

I have no other words for you.

PS: I hate it when you see such people boarding the bus or train and shift your glance away or clamp your headphones even more tightly over your ears, as if to imply that if you can’t see or hear them, they don’t exist and then you really don’t have to get up. That makes you even more an asshole.

That is all.

Dear Man Who Propositioned Me on the Train:

First of all, buddy boy, it’s a little early in the morning for such drama, isn’t it? There I am, transferring onto the Richmond train at MacArthur, heading into downtown Berkeley. There you are, already seated, looking like a young, solid, clean-cut guy, dressed nicely in a button-down and slacks, wearing glasses and those newsboy caps I like so much. You’ve got a stack of papers in your lap and you’re diligently marking them up and making edits, so I figure you must be a teacher or something. I end up sitting in the row behind you, you turn around just as the train begins moving, and the following conversation ensues:

Man: “Excuse me, does this train take you to Berkeley?”

Yasmine: “Yes, the Ashby stop is next, and then North Berkeley, and then downtown.”

Man: [Laughs.] “Oh, okay. I thought for a second I might’ve gotten on the wrong train.”

Yasmine: [Smiling politely.] “No, you’re okay.”

Man: “So. Are you seeing anyone?”

Yasmine: “No.”

Man: [Jaw drops.] “What!” [Gives me the once-over---as well as he can, anyway, with a train seat between us.] “How is that possible!”

Yasmine: [Trying not to laugh.] “You know, I ask myself that question once in a while, too.”

Man: “Will you go out with me sometime?”

Yasmine: “No.”

Man:Why?”

Yasmine: “Umm. I’m not interested in a relationship at the moment.” With random men on BART, I mean. Even if they wear those newsboy caps that I like so much.

Man: “Oh, well, I didn’t mean anything about a relationship.”

Yasmine: “In that case, I’m definitely not interested.”

I’m glad my decisiveness on that issue finally shut you up long enough for me to get back to my book. Seriously, though, yaara, does this really work for you? Hitting on women on BART, I mean? You should take some pointers from this guy, perhaps. I mean, he may have rambled on about gypsies and Egyptians, but at least he finally wore thin my defenses enough for me to smile quite genuinely at him, in the end.

PS: Thanks for providing so much amusement for our fellow passengers. Do you understand how many smirks I had to walk past when exiting the train?

Dear Pissed-Off Girl:

Your loud, disgruntled phone conversations all the way from the Pleasant Hill to the MacArthur BART stations (“I can’t believe that shit!”) kept making me laugh. Also, I kind of envy your lack of concern for all the head-turning you caused amongst your fellow commuters every time you screeched into your cell.

One more thing: How did you manage to get full-reception for the entire ride? I barely get a single bar, if I’m lucky, which makes me disgruntled because all I want to do on BART is send my friends textmessages about strange characters like you whom I keep encountering.

Dear Man with the Business Suit & BlackBerry:

I was so glad you were there when it came time to board the Fremont train and the man with the curly white hair and thick Italian accent shouted behind me, over the din of the rapidly-approaching train, “Excuse me! Downtown San Francisco?”

I looked helplessly at the Fremont sign, trying to recall BART-line configurations in my head, but then you came along, BlackBerry at your ear, and said, “Yes, you transfer at MacArthur.”

“MacArthur? Which train?” asked our friend.

“This one. I’m going that way, too,” you said soothingly. “Come.”

We all boarded together, and you—phone still in hand—pointed out to him all the relevant stops on the colorful map hanging across the carriage. When we got off with the mad crush of people at MacArthur, I craned my neck over the crowd, and saw you, tall and steady, shepherding him across the platform to the waiting San Francisco/SFO Airport train. I smiled to myself and ran down the escalator and back up another flight of stairs to catch my Pittsburg/Bay Point train on the next platform, all the while thinking about how awesome you were.

Dear Sweet Man with the BlackBerry:
I think I’m in love with you.
Marry me?