I was almost run over by a car while crossing a road the day after I landed in New York last August. I knew in America the traffic moves on the right-hand side of the road. But I had walked on the left-hand side all my life in Kashmir and Delhi. Moving to a new world brings new opportunities and perspectives but also new rules to follow. I longed for something familiar, something that connected me to the life I had lived.
A friend told me about Jackson Heights, a neighbourhood populated by south Asians in Queens; I went there, ate spicy Indian food and listened to bad Indian pop. At a DVD store, I noticed a film titled Al-Qareem, based on a true story about post-9/11 hate crimes against Muslim immigrants in Queens. The story of an Afghan immigrant's arrest and death in police custody reminded me of similar arrests and deaths of Kashmiri men in Delhi police custody. New York was becoming familiar in an eerie way. I was curious about the lives of south Asian Muslim immigrants in New York five years after 9/11. A street name kept coming up: Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn.
On a Thursday evening I took the subway from Upper Manhattan to Brooklyn. I was surrounded by faces from all corners of the world, heard more than ten languages in half an hour, and heard two homeless black men sing Christmas songs before holding their caps out for a dime or a dollar. An hour later, I was walking in Coney Island Avenue, which stretches for miles and is home to Pakistanis, Indians, Russians and Italians, and to Chinese and Latino immigrants. A few minutes later, I knew I was in the part of Coney Island Avenue that American newspapers describe as "Little Pakistan". The shop signs were written in Urdu and English. Posters of President Pervez Musharraf appeared on doors with the words: Front Man Against Terrorism. I was there soon after sunset on a Friday evening but the pavement and shops were rather empty. I walked into Nawab Palace, a huge restaurant selling Indian and Pakistani food. Two workers stood behind the counter, and I was the only customer, where a hundred could be seated.
After 9/11 the US agencies deported hundreds of Pakistani immigrants from Coney Island Avenue. "The police raided every day, the community was scared, and people began to leave. Some went back to Pakistan, some went to Canada, some moved to other places in America," said Tariq Khan, a middle-aged waiter, adding: "The fear lessened a lot after 2004 but the scrutiny of immigrants continues."
In December alone, more than 15 people were deported to Pakistan because of visa irregularities. "Eight of them including three women were sponsored by a local mosque and that became an issue," a long-time resident, Ellias Khan, who owns two stores, told me. Khan is worried that the neighbourhood is dying rapidly. "More than half the businesses have closed. Shopkeepers have trouble even paying the rent. Anyone who can leave is leaving."
We walk along the street and he waves his hand in an arc at the empty road and shops around us. "Before 9/11 this place used to be full of life. You saw people in shops long after midnight. It was like Lahore and Karachi. Now it is dying." More than 20,000 people are estimated to have left the place. He worried about tomorrow; the American dream seemed to be falling apart. As I began walking back towards the subway, I continued noticing many more American flags waving outside houses and shops than I had seen anywhere in New York.