In late January, I was sitting in my cell in New Jersey State Prison listening to NPR when the news came across the airwaves: A Pakistani Supreme Court was releasing the men convicted of kidnapping and murdering Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in February 2002, five months after 9/11.
I didn’t know Pearl personally, but hearing his name made my stomach clench with anxiety. My torturous journey of incarceration started around the same time as his brutal assassination. In that bitter period, emotions ran high and Muslims were the enemy. As a Pakistani-American Muslim, I suddenly became “the other,” a stranger in my own country.
Before I was convicted of a robbery-related double homicide that I have consistently denied, I spent two years in the administrative segregation (ad-seg) unit of New Jersey’s Hudson County Correctional Facility. Those years in solitary confinement were some of the worst I’ve had in my 18 years of incarceration. To pass the time in my cold, cramped cell, I would listen to the New York sports channels and NPR on a handheld radio. I was seeking connection with the outside world through the measured voices of the anchors.
The release of Pearl’s assailants took me back to 2002.
“Yo Maq! Check out WABC; they’re talking about y'all,” I remember one of my fellow ad-seg inmates calling out to me. Sitting in a jail 5 miles from the remains of the Twin Towers, there was little doubt in my mind that it was going to be bad news. Every terror attack by extremist Muslims was placed squarely on my shoulders. To many of the inmates and corrections officers, I was the de facto Middle Eastern guy, despite my South Asian heritage.
The voice of a newscaster filled my cell one night, talking about the murder of Pearl earlier that year. And then there was another noise — a terrible sound. I realized that the news was playing the audio from the murder, seemingly on a loop. I couldn’t even escape it by turning off the radio because the housing unit officer saw it fit to broadcast over the intercom. Later on, the same guard came to my cell to stare me down and shake his head. When I got up to confront him, he sucked his teeth and walked away, disdain etched in his face.
I recognized that particular look. I first saw it the day after the 9/11 attacks, when my fellow office workers cut their eyes at me. After getting arrested, I would continue to see that look over and over, for years to come.
So after Pearl’s murder, I expected people to come by to ask me about it. But I didn’t have any answers then, and I still don’t today. It was a horrendous, shameful act of pure barbarism that had nothing to do with Islam or with being Pakistani. I tried to explain that I too was American and felt the collective grief and anger. But that didn’t matter. Alone in my cell, I felt the weight of my otherness.
Around 2 a.m., just as I was finishing up my late-night prayers, a Hispanic kid I’ll call P stopped by to check on me. “T, you cool, money?” my friend asked with a sympathetic grin on his face. “Don't go putting your hands on no one, dude. But if you must, then let me know. We gonna stomp these motherfuckers out.”
As I shook my head, we both laughed.
“Tariq, on a serious tip, I ain't the judging type, bro,” he went on. “But, as a friend, I want you to seriously think about copping out to your charges, because they ain't ever gonna let you walk, my brother. It don’t matter if you innocent or not. They are missing two towers right across the river; you are in the belly of the beast now. You do the smart thing, you heard?”
I was a young man back then, and I had never gotten in trouble with the law before. It was hard for me to accept that my race and religion, which I saw as parts of my American identity, could be a liability when it came to justice. I wanted to believe I’d have a fair shot if I trusted the system. I was naïve.
I was born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1977. I can still remember the mountains where the snow melts into the mystical lake of Saif-ul-Maluk, making it hard to tell where the sky ends and the earth begins. And then there are the deserts where explorers and conquerors once trekked on the hallowed ruins of Mohenjo-daro. The city of Lahore, though, is particularly special to me. I can still see myself running through the bazaars and stopping to taste the freshly squeezed, lime-green sugarcane juice that made the hot days more bearable. That’s the Pakistani part of me that I carry in my DNA.
But I had also been coming to America since I was a young child to visit extended family members who had settled here in the 1970s and 1980s. With each visit, I absorbed the culture and the language. When I eventually moved to New York City as a young teen, I didn’t even have an accent to separate me from my peers. I threw myself into the typical American high school experience. That meant football, tailgate parties and cheerleaders. It also meant Nathan's hot dogs on Coney Island, pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s deli, New York-style pizza and fresh-out-of-the-oven apple pie.
Enjoying all of these standard American treats while also stopping into my favorite Pakistani restaurants to get my fill of nihari and firni spoke to the duality of my American identity. I was equally comfortable in the flea markets of Queens as I was in the bazaars of Lahore.
Spending most of my formative years in New York City, the Mecca of diversity, my reality was that of a multinational, multilingual and multicultural human being. I went to college, worked in corporate America and then created my own successful cell phone business at the age of 25. I belonged here in America. To paraphrase President Obama, nowhere else is my story even possible.
But in the end, what I felt and how the world saw me became two completely different realities.
In my two years of pre-trial incarceration, almost going crazy in solitary confinement, the U.S. became embroiled in the “War on Terror.” American patriotism meant choosing sides. But no one asked me what side I was on. They just assumed I was the enemy, and that reality was reflected in so many ways.
First, my case was bumped up to a capital crime. That meant I was facing the death penalty, an oddity in New Jersey. My trial took almost four months, largely due to a three-month jury selection process in which lawyers kept introducing my religion and race in a crime that had nothing to do with either.
Even though I was an American citizen, lawyers on both sides asked potential jurors whether the fact that I was Pakistani and a practicing Muslim impacted their ability to judge me fairly in this case.
“Does the fact that terrorists who [practice] an extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism are at war with the United States in any way affect your ability to be fair or impartial to this defendant?” my defense attorney asked one of the potential jurors.
She was a beautiful young woman with dark hair and diamond studs in her ears that glinted in the light. She was one of the few to smile at me and say hello as she took her seat. It was a small thing, but it made me feel human. Seen.
But then I watched her face harden at the question. “I could never be fair or impartial to people of his religion,” she said, her voice calm and matter-of-fact.
I just sat stunned as one jury candidate after another got up and left, stating that they couldn't be fair to someone like me. It was a pain like no other. Yes, I was born in Pakistan, but I grew up in the United States. This was my home. But it didn't matter how American I felt. My ethnicity and religion would always be seen as foreign, and my patriotism would forever be rejected. From that point on, “foreign,” “terrorist,” “inmate” and “other” were the labels applied to me.
Over the years, being treated with disgust has become the norm. When I get patted down, I expect the frisking will be a bit rougher than what others might experience. At times, the officers make my cuffs so tight that my fingers get numb and my shoulders hurt from the strain.
I remember when I got major surgery on my wrist a few years ago. As I was cuffed and shackled, a hospital staff member tried to interject, reminding the officer of my freshly bandaged wrist. “You don’t know who he is, lady,” the officer barked. “You focus on the medical stuff and leave the security shit to us.”
Beyond the extra scrutiny, I’ve also gotten used to the exploding noises both inmates and officers make when they encounter me. To survive in here, I have to ignore the dark “comedy” of those who hurl racist and Islamophobic labels toward me with a laugh and a wink.
For example, there’s the C.O. who said, “Hey, let me check your shoe,” as he searched me.
“You already checked it,” I replied.
“Nah, you gotta check it again,” he said to another officer. “They caught his cousin on a plane with a shoe bomb.” Cue laughter.
It’s all just a joke, they say. But in my cell, I sit and think about their words, about the wall it creates between me and the other men who roam these tiers.
There is a Muslim community here in state prison. I even work in the chaplain’s office and help organize the communal prayers. We line up together and prostrate together towards Mecca. Every Ramadan, I break my fast with the other Muslims inside.
But I’m still apart. My African American Muslim brothers in prison are quick to make a distinction between me and themselves when the news reports on terrorism by extremist Muslims.
“Y'all crazy, man!” I’ve had a few brothers yell in my direction. Others have simply stared and shaken their heads, as if to say, “There your people go again.”
In those moments, I feel abandoned. I am always surrounded by people, yet I feel utterly alone.
I felt that unease rising again in January when the news channels invoked Daniel Pearl’s name. I lowered my head to take a deep breath, and I waited for the inevitable.
“Yo, Tariq, you saw that on TV? They released Daniel Pearl's killers in Pakistan,” one of my overly excited Muslim brothers asked me as he banged on my cell door. “Why did they do that?”
It has been 20 years since 9/11, nearly two decades since the murder of Daniel Pearl and 16 years since I lost my criminal trial. But my trial for being a Pakistani Muslim in America continues. Perhaps I will remain a stranger searching for an identity for the rest of my life.
Tariq MaQbool is serving a life sentence at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, New Jersey. He is a contributing writer at the Prison Journalism Project, and you can read more of his thoughts on his blog, Captive Voices.