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Calm Down, It’s Just a Tote Bag

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My bag is like any other, except for the line written in Urdu on the front.

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My bag is like any tote bag you have seen or owned. I put things in this bag; I sling it over my shoulder. Sometimes, if I am in a hurry, it hangs from the nook of my elbow while I bolt to catch my train. Depending on what I have planned for the day, it might contain a book I am reading — these days, it’s a collection of essays on music by Theodor Adorno — or a snack for me to nibble on. Sometimes, it is my makeshift pillow for the train when I am headed home from downtown to Brooklyn. Other times, it is something I stare into aimlessly.

Like other bags, it is black and rectangular; unlike other bags, it has Urdu text imprinted on the front in white. It simply reads: “There is no other purpose for this sentence than spreading fear among those who fear the Urdu language.” It was inspired by Rock Paper Scissors, an Arab company that manufactured the original bag in Arabic as cheeky commentary on Islamophobia. For good reason, it went viral.

The text is in a language that a minority speaks. But it is just not any minority in the United States. It is a predominantly Muslim minority from Pakistan — where American drone strikes have fallen — and its people are forever perceived to be on thin ice with the West. The text is in a language that is routinely mistaken for other equally “terrifying” languages like Arabic or Farsi. Since these languages often share the same script, it only takes a single line to get people to gawk at my tote.

I have had interesting things happen to me because of this bag. One time, on my way to Manhattan on the B train, I overheard two white men speculate about it. “It looks Middle Eastern,” the first one said to the other. “Do you think it has religious meaning?” the second furrowed his brows. “It shouldn’t be in public. It can scare people,” the first one concluded. The most incredible aspect of that exchange was that both men appeared to think I spoke and understood zero words of English. When I hopped off the train, I heard the word “immigrant” float in the air for a second.

Another time, a woman on the subway platform told me very matter-of-factly to “f*ck yourself” after looking at my bag. I grinned and asked her if she knew what the text said. “I don’t need to know what that ISIS shit is saying,” she informed me. I wanted to tell her what the sentence said. I thought she would perhaps see the irony and find dark humor in it. Before I could respond, she had already left for her train.

On a different evening, a young guy came up to me at a cafe and asked “May I know what your bag says?” I steeled myself for the umpteenth altercation and told him what it said. He beamed. “That is so brilliant.” Sometimes — and only sometimes — the bag yielded some refreshing moments of compassion, humor, and comprehension.

Other times, native readers or those who share the script will spot it and smile. A young mother on the Q train looked at my bag and laughed, giving me the thumbs-up. My day was made.

In one case, this bag is what got me pulled aside at the Union Square station by an NYPD cop. The officer told me to place my bag on the table and dumped my belongings onto the surface: my weathered journal, a chewed pencil, a half-eaten Twix bar, and my keys dangling from the chain of my wallet. The usual terrorist paraphernalia. Confused, he demanded, “What’s the text say?” I told him. He squinted, frowned, and — as if embarrassed — dismissively gestured me to move along without meeting my gaze. Instead of feeling fear, I was saddened that a few words in a foreign language could invoke such suspicion from someone who is purportedly appointed to protect citizens. I had assumed this cop had more pressing responsibilities to fulfill. Scowling at Urdu text was not one of them.

It’s amazing what a simple tote can do. Taking up only a few inches in black thread and white ink, this bag carries the alphabets of one civilization and lays bare the misguided fear of the other.