Things tend to get heated in an American high school political science classroom. A classroom where the fluorescent lights cast their bright beams onto the rows of tables, whose underbelly is taken over by days old chewing gum. The tables are attached at the hip, encircling ample walking space in the middle of the room. The teacher’s desk lounges in the far-right hand corner, screaming for authority and yet distanced enough to intervene whenever wanted. Natural light from the window cascades on the walls lined with posters of maps, diagrams, and flags. Dry air mixes with the sweat and cheap perfume wafting from the 20 to 30 students, coating the many views, opinions, thoughts, and feelings that are flung around, hurled, and dissected.
For Elia Rathore, age 24-years-old, things tended to boil over in the political science classroom. Currently based in Islamabad, Pakistan, Elia went to Langley High School in Mclean, Virginia, in the United States after moving with her parents at age 15. Prior to that, she had spent her school years around Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Thailand, and Bangladesh. Elia and change were no strangers to each other. With the change came a new environment to explore, a chance to make new friends, and a time to make new memories.
So, when her family prepared to move to the United States, Elia was ecstatic. She had always wanted to be American when she grew up, and now, she would finally be going to the land itself. She had spent years finding and devouring any American movies, and T.V. shows she could find: the Nickelodeon and Disney Channel Shows, Glee, Mean Girls, Superbad, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and anything on MTV. The high school lunch rush, cafeteria food, American football games, the shopping trips to the mall, the sleepovers, the dances, prom, and the rebellious acts against parents and society itself showcased the quintessential high school experience she sought to have. She imagined her love life mirroring the ones portrayed in ‘Pretty in Pink’ and ‘Sixteen Candles.’
She was looking forward to having a group of American friends, of having crushes on football players, and of being a part of the theatre club. The high school American experience was shared so widely and so frequently wherever she had moved that she thought herself lucky to be able to have one. She was excited at the prospect of having a world of possibilities, of being at the center of her own T.V. show.
But that was not exactly the experience that was waiting for Elia when she arrived at her school in 2011. The rush of excitement, nervousness, and hope came to a halt as soon as she found herself in a sea of students with blonde hair, yoga pants, fluffy slippers and short shirts with lace, or preppy pastel shorts and T-Shirts that said ‘Martha’s Vineyard.’ The friendly group of jovial peers she imagined were replaced by classmates who constantly talked about Bin Laden and “whateverthefuckistan” around her. Up until senior year, she made friends with only Asian students or students from South America. She found herself having to play a cultural catch-up in every class, as teachers did not place much value on her multicultural and international outlook when she contributed.
She felt lost, scared, and confused – an experience that she had only seen in a few T.V. shows — like Freaks and Geeks. Early on during P.E. classes, a classmate made fun of Elia for not wearing shorts. A number of people also assumed that Elia was Persian, and no one really bothered to ask and clarify. Elia realized, slowly, that she had landed the role of an outsider.
When it came time to go to university in 2014, she decided to leave the United States altogether. It was a decision that slowly came to cement itself after she found herself constantly pitted against the overwhelming comments shared by her very white, very rich, and majority conservative classmates. She would constantly feel tired, emotionally spent, and exhausted. Most of these interactions happened in the political science classroom, or alike. And when she left the United States, she headed to Lahore, Pakistan for college — an experience that would change her life yet again.
Perhaps that is why Elia is drawn to her work as a journalist, writer, and an artist — she even spent a year in 2018 as a contributor for the New York Times’ newsletter called “The Edit.” But it took her a while to be comfortable sharing her words.
At the present time, over the phone, she sounds a little faint. Her sighs almost threaten to take over the conversation when recounting her experiences. The listener notes that they are sighs of remembrance; of unpleasant things from the past coming to the fore.
“I just feel so tired.”
It takes a little time for her to open up. She begins the conversation by asking about the person on the other end of the line. How they are doing, whereabouts they are in the world, how their morning has been. It’s almost like she is testing the waters. But this sense of trepidation is not lost on her. In fact, it is something she encounters often.
“I just want to know where it is safe to expend my energy,” she says.
When she is met with initial silence, she adds:
By starting off the conversation by listening more than talking, she is able to assess how much to share and in how much detail. The internal gymnastics begin unfolding the moment she picks up the phone and says hello. Trying to gauge whether to trust someone by their cadence in speech is a practice she has been perfecting.
What seems to break the ice, however, is not assurances from the person on the other end of the line about being South Asian, or having experienced similar unsafe environments to share their voice. Not to say that it didn’t help – it definitely did. But the wall truly comes crashing down once the other speaker accidentally trips and falls and curses on the line. Elia’s surprised laughter rings through, but she immediately follows up with genuine questions of concern.
The speaker on the other end of the line is absolutely mortified – how unprofessional is it to trip and curse during a first-time call? But after the speaker vehemently apologizes, Elia informs the speaker that she also trips while pacing around the room during a phone call. And so, the ice is broken. The wall is torn down. Almost. The speaker is reminded that the heavier part of the conversation is still yet to come.
But there is a shift in Elia’s voice – it is almost, just almost, vibrant. Her sighs are replaced with words that tumble onto one another, like children sprinting to the end of a relay race. She has so much to share. So much to say. All at once.
But maybe it’s not like children sprinting to the end of a relay race, as that implies an end goal to aspire for and reach. But perhaps it is more like water rushing through a broken opening in a dam, to take up space in whatever reservoir is available. And the speaker on the other end of the line is careful to listen and provide that space.
“I think it makes a lot easier to share these things with someone who just gets it.”
Elia takes one more deep breath. Another sigh. She is ready to share.
Years ago, on one very ordinary Tuesday afternoon during her sophomore year, 15-year-old Elia decided to take a debate class. She was still quite uncomfortable with the American school system, still figuring out her primary role in that world, but it was nice that she could choose an elective like debate. In this particular class, students would take a stance on a news story, on a rotating basis, usually twice a week. The purpose was to foster conversation, intellectual stimulation, and analytical thinking. Elia was excited. A little nervous, but it seemed like a scene out of one of the T.V. shows where the main character would take a stand against one of the many injustices facing the world to a classroom of applause and support. She had opinions. She had thoughts. She felt prepared to have her shining T.V. moment.
But the actual experience was not quite as sparkling. Being one of the only women of color, she would feel her heart rate beat a little faster as she walked into a classroom. Her body would tense up, and she would suddenly be aware of every breath of hers reverberating through her body. She would walk towards the corner desks closest to the door. She would watch her back as she would watch her tongue, careful about what she would say. And she would observe. She would take in her classmates’ easy confidence in raising their hands, in making a presence, in taking over one another. Their natural rapport with the teacher demanded they be taken seriously. It was their world she had stepped into, and she didn’t want to appear too different.
She didn’t look forward to debate, nor did she dread it. It just became a part of her routine, where she would slip into survival mode whenever she entered the school environment. She tried her best not to let the survival instinct affect her overarching school experience too much. Otherwise, she felt as though she would stop going to school altogether.
On this particular day, a particularly conservative member of the class was presenting his choice of a story – fracking in the United States. Sarah Palin had said something regarding the topic, and it had become national news. In the process of arguing for it, this classmate touched on the point that OPEC would no longer be the world’s authority on oil. That Iran, the “terrorist nation, would lose the smidgen of global clout they had if the U.S. stripped them of oil power.” He said it almost in passing. Elia might have missed the statement if she wasn’t so against fracking, and therefore was actually paying attention.
When he was done, Elia raised her hand, cautiously, to take issue with what he said about Iran. This was one of the first times she would be speaking up against a classmate, and she didn’t know what to expect. But this was part of debate class – to address the biases and prejudices of those present. Or so she thought.
“You can’t call Iran a terrorist nation. That’s extremely insulting.”
“But they are a terrorist nation. They fund terrorists, follow terrorist ideologies, and chant ‘Death to America.’ Of course, they’re a terrorist nation.”
“The U.S. has committed war crimes, massacred people in the name of democracy, and they’ve funded all sorts of killer militias too.”
“You can’t seriously be comparing the U.S. to Iran.”
Finally, the teacher decided to interrupt. Things had started to get heated, and the teacher wanted to cool things down. Elia breathed a little bit. Finally, someone other than herself would tell the classmate that he couldn’t go around calling people terrorists because he disagreed with them. Instead, the teacher tried to explain Elia’s position, and quite poorly at that.
“I think what Elia is trying to say is that not every person in Iran is a terrorist. Let’s move on.”
Elia felt her jaw fall to the floor in disbelief. She did not anticipate that a very basic understanding, to her, that nationals cannot be generalized by the actions of a few, would be something she herself would have to articulate to her classmates. Her teacher, while trying to be helpful, had merely scratched the surface of what the classmate had said, and decided to brush it off. Perhaps it was too heavy a topic.
But again, Elia could only make conjectures as to why the teacher didn’t intervene sooner, or much more effectively. Or why he hadn’t asked Elia for her to clarify what she meant. Elia began understanding that maybe there was a reason why American T.V. shows didn’t show characters like herself in those shining T.V. moments, taking a stand against injustice. Maybe it was because the injustice was directed towards people like her. And they don’t get to do the talking.
Now in the present time, Elia sounds more resolute on the phone. The uncertainty she felt in the debate room is now channeled into fury and anger at having felt pressured to be less dramatic. To be less enraged. To be less.
“I avoided white people more after my sophomore year. Only one of my best friends was white by the end of high school. The rest were Black, Brazilian, half-Peruvian, Egyptian, Iranian, and Afghan.”
The listener asks if there were any other instances that come to mind, and she can hear Elia thinking deeply, either about the incident or whether she has the capacity to share it.
“Yes, there is one more. My senior year…”
As a 17-year-old, Elia found herself in a political science classroom. Actually, it was more like she had sought it. She had been in the school environment for enough time now to understand the dynamics in place. Therefore, she felt more comfortable and assimilated. She was actually pretty excited for the class, as she was a huge history nerd in general. She even made further progress by sitting closer to the middle of the classroom.
“I began almost enjoying the challenge of taking on an entirely conservative-leaning white-majority class by then. I looked forward to it usually. I remember going head-to-head with a girl who argued that immigrants who come to the U.S. for college shouldn’t be able to get American jobs – stuff like that was satisfying.”
But there was one moment that wasn’t as satisfying. On this particular day, her class was discussing the merits of drone-striking terrorists – a topic that was broaching an emotionally and racially charged reality for Elia. The people in her country were humanized to her in ways that they were not for her classmates. What they saw as collateral damage, she saw as dead grandmothers and traumatized children. Her, again, very white, rich, and majorly male classmates were reaching a preliminary consensus that drone striking terrorists were a necessary fact of war – in this case, the “War on Terror.” Elia was one of the only people of color in the room. Being the only Muslim student in that room, Elia felt all eyes on her.
“As much as I enjoyed arguing and speaking back, I still felt weird being one of the only non-white kids. It was like I was a spokesperson.”
It is a strange feeling being watched and observed, as the listener concurred. It wasn’t like being in a pageant where one might willingly dress in an outfit to present the best version of themselves to a crowd, a crowd of people who were willingly in the seats wanting to admire, marvel, or just watch. But rather, it was more like being in a zoo, as an exhibit, where one was automatically the spokesperson or representative of their home, culture, country, or all of the above. It was not Elia’s first foray into being a cultural and religious representative. After three years in this school environment, she was used to it. But the feeling of being scrutinized, while familiar, is never a feeling she was able to brush off.
“A classmate had once asked me if Pakistanis rode to school on camels. With a straight face. I did give them a straight answer, but I would get questions like that all the time.”
In a political science classroom, though, the air was slightly more charged. And for Elia, it came with the pressure of being the token spokesperson teenager in the middle of various heated discussions.
So, on this particular day, Elia felt all eyes on her. It only made her more passionate. She had become known as the Muslim girl who spoke her mind, and so it was almost expected of her to take a stance. And so, growing uneasy with the direction the conversation was going, Elia firmly yet politely countered:
“In my experience, people, especially white people, don’t see the large collateral damage as a problem because they are fundamentally racist against Muslim people.”
One of her classmates, a boy called Michael, raised his hand. Elia sighed in relief. Michael had repeatedly been on what she had considered ‘the right side of things’ in the past. He had supported Trayvon Martin when many people in the class had not. He was for gun control. He believed that abortion was a right. All in all, Michael seemed to be a stereotypically ‘good’ white liberal. She thought he would have something beneficial to add that would support her point.
“What followed after the statement added fuel to a growing resentment against Americanism.”
Michael looked at Elia, and then their teacher, Mr. Kuhn, before adding: “She’s getting something wrong, could I just point it out?”
Elia looked at him in confusion.
“You can’t be racist against Muslims. Muslims aren’t a race.”
Elia scrambled for words. She looked to Mr. Kuhn, her favorite teacher in high school. This was the man who once pulled her aside to ask if her family was okay when he heard someone with her last name had been in a plane crash. That someone was a non-relative friend of the family, but thankfully he had survived. During the school’s break period, called ‘Saxon Time,’ Elia would often sit in Mr. Kuhn’s classroom and discuss all sorts of history. He recommended some of her favorite books and would always take the time to listen to her. But on this day, Mr. Kuhn didn’t step in. Elia looked around the room for any pair of sympathetic eyes. Someone to fight for her, just a little. She found none. Nobody was meeting her gaze.
“He was right, of course, in the way pedantic ‘intellectuals’ often are, by being technical.” But as the only Muslim in the room at the time, she fought for herself. Elia told him that the sentiment remains the same.
“People have biases against Muslims, and Americans have dehumanized us to suit their foreign policy.”
She also mentioned how Pakistan gets bombed regularly, and never once did she expect to have to explain to people, much less her classmates, why killing innocent people is a bad thing. She also drew from her own life but was careful to change the name of the girl whose story she was sharing. Ironically, it was one of the only opportunities where she would be able to narrate a story about a Muslim lead – one who is a high school student, like those from the many T.V. shows she had imbibed over the years. But, she didn’t feel safe enough to depict things as they were truthfully. One of the ways of being true to the story was by using her own name, and she felt as though she couldn’t even do that.
Elia started tearing up near the middle of the emotional speech, and then gave in to the tears near the end.
“Mr. Kuhn had completely ignored the fact that I was crying and moved on to the next topic. I’m sure he meant well like he wanted to divert attention from me and not make it a bigger deal than it was already going to be, but it came across like he didn’t care at the time. Which was odd.”
After the class, Elia ran out of the class. She stood outside, waiting for the one friend, a Jewish friend, who would take her side in political science class. She asked her if she thought it was wrong of Elia to cry. The friend shrugged and said:
“Not wrong, exactly. I just thought it was dramatic.”
So, when it came time to decide on where to go for university, Elia decided to leave the United States altogether – a decision that many of her friends and family from home found even more dramatic.
“But America is the best country in the world!”
“Why would you let go of your golden ticket?”
“Who would leave such a place?
“This is America!!”
Perhaps, four years ago, before Elia had moved to the U.S., she would have said the same thing. Through the constant American cultural exportation, media coverage of events around the world, and the way her friends and family talked about the country, she was taught that America was the only place where people could be free. It was the damn home of the superheroes and icons she had grown up watching. And now, she wanted to leave? Wasn’t she finally free? Her own sweet, but very white, guidance counselor also found the decision to be bizarre.
“Honey, consider different places in the U.S. Like Kansas!”
But Elia pushed back on that notion. What did it mean to be free, for someone like her? To be constantly scrutinized and told that her beliefs were wrong or not valid. To feel as though the dimensions of the space she took up was always determined by someone else. Reduced to a second-class human being, Elia felt like she needed to leave. To go somewhere else where she could collect her thoughts, her feelings, and process her experience. She knew if she stayed in the United States, she would have completely shut down or drowned in her own bitterness.
“And I really don’t like holding onto bitterness. My mom says it takes over the soul.”
She needed to be free from the land of freedom. She needed to return to the home base and collect herself to try and fill in the new cracks in her identity. Her parents understood, and that was all that mattered to her. Even though her Pakistani friends, American friends, and her guidance counselor thought she was dramatic, she didn’t care.
“Colonialism does that to the mind, you know. It cements the white man and his ways as superior. And I had broken that illusion in myself a long time ago without even realizing it. I needed to be in a place I’d be recognized for my entirety.”
Elia applied and was accepted to one of the best universities in Pakistan – LUMS University. At this point in the call, the listener can almost hear her smile.
“I’ve thanked my past self for that foresight regularly since.”
Even though Elia was resolute in leaving the U.S. for Pakistan, it didn’t mean that her goodbye was free from tears. She stayed with one of her best friends (to this day) for two weeks before leaving – her mom had left for her posting in Morocco early, so Elia’s friends dropped her off at the airport. She keeps in contact with a lot of her friends, and over the past few years, met up in different parts of Europe with five of them, whenever there was a chance.
“Just because I left the country behind doesn’t mean I forgot about the beautiful experiences and wonderful people it gave me. Anger isn’t something I like to hold on to, either.”
This anger also dissipated when Elia finally moved to Pakistan for college. The different schools had different buildings. Business and science classes had large auditoriums, with white lighting that would overcast the endless rows of students seated side by side. The focus was on the material projected or chalked onto the wall in front of them – they faced the knowledge, and by being next to one another, they were together in their quest to learn. But these large auditoriums also lacked a certain soul, a spirit that she found in the Humanities School. Humanities courses had smaller auditoriums, to foster more student-involved conversations.
The teachers could limit how many people were allowed in each class, and the students made a huge difference in the quality of learning. Whereas, in the business auditoriums, the students were simply spoken at. In these classes, they were in conversation with the teacher and each other. For Elia, the professors in her history department changed the trajectory of her college experience, and, she says, her entire life.
“It is a tiny department, so they all knew us by name and regularly checked in with us to see how we were doing. They put a lot of unpaid effort into helping us out with what the administrators neglected.”
Elia’s voice is animated again. Within ten minutes, she strings along words that are unable to encompass everything she learned from her history classes: Latin America, revolutions all around the world, decoloniality, negritude, the subaltern, film studies, and historical, transnational connections. She studied many people who had been erased from the textbooks in her high school in Virginia. Bell hooks and Fanon and James Baldwin, all introduced to her for the first time.
She finally understood the Cold War from a perspective other than the usual American rhetoric, and she found out more about true history, American and other topics than the debate and political science classes ever taught her. She understood the complexity of race, its historical underpinnings, and its relationship to the colonized mind. She read literature from all over Africa, India, China, Vietnam, and had an entire class dedicated to discussing how the Western conception of Shakespeare as the pinnacle of writing had failed students from around the world. She learned about drama, Ibsen, and Beckett, and the ways a lot of the greats had been racist. She learned about the entire world.
“In America, it was just America, and the rest of us were a footnote.”
Friends also came easy for Elia. Her body, which was constantly tensed and shriveled in America, felt free and open in Pakistan. People liked that Elia had a varied background and that she did stand out just a bit. But Elia was far too socially observant to ignore that there was an added admiration placed on her because of her return from the U.S., the land of freedom. Even in a place where she felt accepted, even embraced, she felt observed.
Elia trails off in thought over the phone, and the listener decides whether to jump in or intervene. But her silence speaks volumes – her ties to America, even if she had cut them, placed her on a different pedestal. Her immediate family had also been posted to Berlin, so there was another foreign connection exoticizing her. The majority white, conservative classmates in Virginia were replaced with the primarily upper-class demographic in Lahore. She had entered another bubble, one that felt safer, but still provided a barrier to what the world actually looked like in Pakistan and beyond.
So, Elia made an effort to be more vocal. During her first semester, she performed a long monologue that she had written about rebelling against the inhumanity of people who have always considered others primitive. It was a chance for her to use art as a medium to communicate all that she had been feeling without having to intellectualize her experience in a debate setting.
She performed in one of the smaller auditoriums for an open-mic set up by a social club. Instead of taking a seat in the fourth row next to her friends, she stood before them all, under the cascading orange light. She felt anxious; her hands clutching the thin pieces of paper. It was easier to speak amongst her friends in the auditorium seats, as only her voice, and not her physical being, carried through the room. But being on stage was different – this was her first semester, and she was already opting to put herself in a situation where she would be observed and scrutinized.
She coughed once or twice, feeling a scratch in her throat. She took a sip of water and indulged in deep breaths. She was okay. She was fine. She took the time to derive power from some angry rap. She was just reading aloud a few words from pieces of paper, after all. She started off quiet, her voice almost indiscernible.
“Elia, a little louder, please?” her professor asked, seated in the front row, watching her. He was next to some of her closest friends, and he accompanied his request with a smile. He would remain by her side until she graduated.
“Even the fights we have to contend with here, such as uber-conservatism and extremist Islamism, were easier to fight because we felt like our voices actually had value.”
So she raised her voice louder. She felt her body expand, and she breathed into her words. With each passing line, she loosened her grip on the pieces of paper and eventually let go of it altogether. She felt safe. She didn’t feel guarded. She didn’t feel as though she had to abide by every planned prose. She could just speak freely. She ended with a quote from her favorite rapper, Childish Gambino: “Speak from your heart and never compromise what you feel is real. And never let these white people tell you how to feel.”
Her final words were soon followed by applause. Her friends had stood up in the front row, gushing over her bravery and performance. Elia felt herself smile and blush. Sometimes it was nice to be observed after all.