Sharing Heritage with a Muslim (the Stabbed NYC Cab Driver)

Usually, I try to do pieces filled with objective information, data, etc.  Not today.  Today I want to tell you about the culture and the people that are my heritage.  Ahmed Sharif was the cab driver in New York City that was stabbed after confirming to his passenger that he is Muslim.  Ahmed Sharif also comes from the same land and culture that I grew up in.  No, I'm not Muslim.

I have prepared a transcript of the Mr. Sharif's interview, from a segment on Countdown on MSNBC on Thursday night (video follows).
He asked me where I'm from. I answer(ed) him, 'Bangladesh.'

He then questioned [if] I'm Muslim. "Yeah, I am Muslim." Then he told me 'Salam Alaikum.' I returned 'Alaikum a Salam.' He said that's the month of Ramadan, how I'm doing. I said I'm doing good.

Then he started making fun of the month of Ramadan. Then I decided to keep my mouth shut.

He started yelling and screaming. "This is the checkpost, this is the checkpost, you motherfucker. I have to put you down. I have to bring King Abdullah to the checkpoint." So I said, "What are you talking about, 'what checkpoint?' " In this time I saw the knife coming to my neck.
Here is the video of Mr. Sharif's interview from his hospital bed:



The man who was stabbed was Bangladeshi - Bengali.  When I saw that on Countdown, it broke my heart even more than it was already broken.  Because I have a special connection to him. You see, I'm Bengali. I was born in Kolkata - which is in the West Bengal province of India, and grew up there until my family moved to the US, when I was 15. Although two different countries (and Bangladesh has a Muslim majority while West Bengal has a Hindu one), Bangladeshi and Indian Bengalis share a greater cultural bond than any I have ever known. The people of the greater Bengal - Bangladesh is often referred to as "East Bengal" - are separated by a national border, but we began as one culture, one civilization, and to this day, remain one. People often talk about the two 'Bangla's" - Bangla, or Bengali, referring to both the language and the people.

A Bengali poet - India's first Nobel Laureate named Rabindranath Tegore (whose birthday is shared by yours truly), who was neither Hindu nor Muslim - penned the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh.

Historically, it was one civilization, built around the rivers that flow through both Bengals.  We read the same poetry from the same poets, are taught the same language from the same books, eat the same staple foods - rice and fresh water fish (hence the overarching importance of rivers in the Bengali culture) and grow up with the same music.  If you will indulge me, here is one of those songs - it's about the one-ness of the two Bengals, a story told through using the rivers in the greater Bengal as proverbial mothers.  You won't understand the language probably, but I hope you will enjoy the imagery and the tune:



I was born speaking the same language as Mr. Sharif. And let me tell you something about these people that are my heritage.  Even though I'm not Muslim, Ahmed Sharif's culture and customs are far closer to mine than they are to any Arab countries, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan.

Whether you are Hindu or a Muslim Bengali, you have the same customs, the same big hearts, the same neighborly love. Whether you are in Bangladesh or West Bengal, people will not let you leave their homes without offering some food, and they will insist that you stay for lunch or dinner - even if you showed up uninvited, and even if there isn't much to eat at your host's home. They will insist on sharing what little they have, and do it with smiles and big laughs. These are people who will go to great lengths to make you feel like you are one of their own.

Bengalis - whether they are Indian or Bangladeshi, Hindus or Muslims or Christians - are some of the simplest, most generous, biggest hearted people on the face of this planet.  We may have different religions and be separated by a political border, but we are indistinguishable from one another.  We are far more intertwined by language and culture and music and food (oh yes, the yummy Bengali cuisine) than by religion or politics.  Sure, I'm probably biased in saying that.  My Bengali heritage is something I don't talk about often, but it's one I am incredibly proud of.

Islamophobia, stoked in this country by the irresponsible and dangerous right wing, is hurting more than Muslims.  It's hurting people - people I have a deep connection with in every respect, in culture, in language, in humanity, in love, in family, in neighborliness.  If as Americans we learn nothing, we need to learn that just like any other religion, Muslims come from all walks of life, all different lands.  When you are attacking one person belonging to one community, you have no idea how many other communities just as intricately related to that person you are hurting.

I am a proud Bengali American.  I love my country - the United States.  I love my heritage - the Bengali heritage.  And last week, one of our own - another Bengali American - got stabbed because he drove a cab while Muslim in New York City.  Words don't even begin to describe my feelings.