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Monday, September 20, 2004

Sabr and Smile From ER

By Dr. Altaf Kaisaruddin
It happened again. Subhanallah. I know it happens, and I know it will happen, but no matter how much I prepare myself and rehearse how I might handle the situation, it catches me off guard every time.
I was talking to a patient in the Emergency Department, trying to understand his condition and formulate a plan of care. That's when it happened. The elderly patient's grown son remarked, "You know, your English is pretty good."

I laughed, hiding my frustration, and said, "It should be I was born in Kansas and raised in Chicago."
His sister interjected, "Oh you were? Kansas? So, but, uhh! What's your background?"
"Oh, my parents are from India," I replied casually.
"I'm sorry, I guess I just assumed," then the familiar awkward silence.
"I know," I said, filling the void "Don't worry about it, it happens all the time." Some people understand that bit of social commentary. It's actually my way of determining what to say or do next.

If there is no reaction, the assumption is that there's nothing wrong with assuming that Americans are white and maybe black. A brown man cannot possibly be American, and certainly not one with a kufi and beard. If I sense this is the attitude, I drop it and move on. I really can't take the time to explain contemporary American sociology while delivering care in the ER.

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In this case, however, the brother and sister smiled, hinting that they picked up on the discrepancy between the textbook theory that anyone can be American and the reality of their attitudes. So, I continued. "You know, the funny thing is that when Columbus got here, he looked around at the people and said, Oh, Indians!' Now people see a brown person, and they automatically think, Oh, a foreigner. It's just a sign of the times."

"Oh, but you're", the brother started and faded to another familiar silence.
"Yup, I'm Muslim." I filled in again, emphasizing the softness of the "s" sound.
I always try to keep it light, chuckling through it all. I never want to sound offended or preachy. Allahu a'lam, but I think that most people put up a barrier when they feel preached to. And, Alhamdu lillah, people in general, are nice. This inherent kindness leads to a defensive mechanism when they feel they might have offended somebody. It's a reflexive tightening up of the person's senses anticipating verbal retribution just as we might tighten our muscles when we expect to get hit. So, I keep smiling remembering that Prophet, peace be upon him, always smiled, and try to further the cause of knowledge and understanding in what little time I have.

After learning the problem, explaining what we were going to do and answering all their questions, I turned to leave. I stopped at the curtain, smiled and said, "By the way, Muslims have been in America for a long time. A lot of the African slaves were Muslim, and Muslims were here long before Columbus."

I watched them as their expressions said, "Really? and I smiled and left to tend to another patient.
A couple of days later, I saw the sister in the hallway of the hospital. She stopped me with a smile saying, "There you are!"

I stopped and smiled asking how she, her father and the family were, standing with my hands behind my back. People tell me it makes me look more intellectual. Alahmdu lillah, but I do it to avoid the handshake.

Her brother came up the hallway and joined us as she started a story.
"Well, I just wanted to tell you that we were at a party last night and we were laughing about you."
"Uh, oh," I thought, "what did I do?"
"Well, not about you, but about what happened. We just had to tell everybody there how we remarked that your English was so good and how you responded that it better be since you were born in Kansas and raised in Chicago! Oh, it was great! Oh, I mean how we assumed that since you had a beard and uh, you know," she motioned around her head, "that you must be from somewhere else! We all had a great time."

Subhanallah. Sabr and a smile; the wisdom of Allah and His Rasulullah Sallallahu Alaihe Wasallam peace be upon him. May Allah grant us all guidance.

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