Twenty-seven years ago, I arrived in the US, and shortly thereafter, began graduate school at a small technical school in Newark, New Jersey. Once classes picked up speed, I spent increasing amounts of time in our grim library–rather inefficiently if I may say so–struggling to stay awake while finishing my readings and programming assignments. To this end, I would often park myself in one of the many carrels that ran along the walls of the library. Thankfully, some of these were positioned next to windows through which one could cast despairing, if drowsy, glances at the world outside.
It was on one of these desks that I spotted a bit of illegible graffiti in Arabic. Written below it, clearly in response to its provocations, was a blunt and sharp message:
Look out of the window, camel jockey. Do you see any sand? Do you see any camels? No? Then learn how to speak English or fuck off back to where you came from.
My graduate school’s student body was richly populated with international students (like me then). Most of them, unsurprisingly, originated from the usual suspects–India and China/Taiwan–with the rest drawn from the Middle East and other far-flung corners of the world. They were often a source of much perplexity to the college’s administration, which desperately sought their tuition payments, but didn’t quite know how to cater to their visible and vivid presence on campus. Neither, it seemed at times, did the staff, the faculty, or the rest of the local student body; stories of brusque, unhelpful, rude, or racist behavior were all too common. Administrative staff disliked the daily negotiation with unfamiliar accents and incomprehension of bureaucratic procedures; faculty were made irate by the constant, anxious requests for fellowships; local students found the international student’s cliquishness annoying and intimidating.
International students found their own ways to combat this prickly response to their presence; some retreated, as noted, into cliques; yet others into heavy drinking. And some began counting down the days to their graduations and onward movements to jobs or returns back home.
One member of that demographic had decided to lazily doodle on a desktop in the library; perhaps he or she was thinking out loud about distant homes; perhaps a witticism or rude joke or dirty ditty had occurred to them, which needed immediate commitment to concreteness; perhaps, sloppily, a note was being left for a fellow student.
Whatever the reason and rationale, the effort had not gone unnoticed. It hadn’t been appreciated. It had reminded someone of the ever-present imposition of the unfamiliar on the previously familiar; it had evoked prejudices and disdain of all sorts. It provoked thus, a sharp and pungent retort, an exhortation to remove themselves from the premises if they were unable to abide by its rules.
I wasn’t from the Middle East; I didn’t speak Arabic; I was not a “camel jockey.” But I was unnerved anyway. I knew that for those who could and would write graffiti like that, these variations were irrelevant. It certainly kept me on my toes.