On this road to somewhere we have never been before

A recurring theme in my conversations over the past two weeks has been how much sadness this year has contained. And, again, we never really stop to think about it long enough until it hits close to home. These days, when we ask each other, “Has there been any news?”, we’re talking about Dr. Zehra Attari, mother of my sister’s best friend, who practices pediatrics in Oakland and has been missing for two weeks now, somewhere between her International Blvd. clinic and a meeting in Alameda. A five-mile drive that they say should have taken her twenty minutes maximum, even in the rainy, stormy weather of that evening.

Five freakin’ miles.

The Sunday before last, my father and sister and I joined a few hundred people in Oakland for a community walk to pass out missing-person flyers, something that Dr. Attari’s friends and family and others had been engaged in all through the previous week as well. The three of us ended up in Alameda with a stack of flyers, and all my father had on his mind was an exchange with a man in Oakland: “I handed a flyer to one couple, and the man looked at it and said, ‘It’s been a week. There’s been no news at all?’ I said no. And he said, ‘That’s bad. What kind of car was she driving?’ When I said Honda, he just shook his head and said, ‘Hondas are popular cars around here.’ “

Five hours of flyering in Alameda, and it didn’t feel like nearly enough. But what’s enough, anyway? “Enough” will be when she walks through the door, when she safely comes home to her family [requires login; punch the link into bugmenot.com to obtain a quick login].

I don’t know what to think of the past two weeks: On the one hand, I’ve been amazed at people’s compassion, like the girl at Peet’s Coffee who said, “Go right ahead and tape the flyer in the window. I’d rather get in trouble for it later.” And the crowd at one bar in Alameda: A man and a woman talking so loudly and gesturing so emphatically out on the sidewalk that I thought they were quarrelling – except, no, they were just talking animatedly, and glanced curiously at me and my sister while our father entered to speak with the owner. As soon as they saw the flyers in our hands, the woman’s face drooped, and she took one while the man read it over her shoulder. While my sister and I spoke with them, the bar owner came bursting out with a missing-person flyer in his hands, tore down some random flyer that was right-smack in the middle of their door and held the missing-person one in its place, saying, “Here, tape it right here!” Walking away, we looked back over our shoulders to see people spilled out from the bar onto the sidewalk, one group gathered around the flyer at the door, another around the man and woman with the loud voices. “That was just like Cheers,” remarked my dad.

Not to mention the crazybeautiful coincidence of wandering into another cafe and having the proprietor ask, “Have you met Alice?” and introducing us to Alice Lai-Bitker of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, whose district includes both Alameda as well as the Fruitvale area of Oakland where Dr. Attari’s clinic is located. “I’ve been thinking of the Attari family,” she said, “but I didn’t know how to reach them to help.” Phone numbers and business cards were exchanged, and the next day I received a call from her office with a request for Mr. Attari’s number.

But then there were also people like those at some cafes, salons, sports clubs, and other places who downright refused to let us mess up the pristine expanse of their storefront windows with our flyers, and others who merely glanced at our flyers and brushed off our offers of “We have tape” with a cold “No, we’ll put it up ourselves,” and then put the flyers aside as soon as we politely turned away to leave. And even the moderators of the Muslim Students Association listserve at my alma mater, who refused to approve and post any emails I sent out (three in 2 weeks does not constitute spamming, kids, if that’s what you’re thinking), which resulted in me sending them an articulate but suitably bitchy email requesting an explanation. All I ever really needed to know about grace and compassion, I did not learn from the MSA. [Edit: I got a nice, explanatory little reply back from the MSA, so I can’t be pissed anymore. Much.]

My father has wryly repeated throughout the week: “The first question all the white people at work ask about Dr. Attari is, Was she upset with her husband? Was she having trouble with her family? The first question all the ethnic people ask is, What kind of car was she driving?

I think about how easily it could have been my father. My well-dressed father with his Infiniti SUV with the personalized license plates, who bought real estate in East Oakland about a year ago and has realized first-hand, since then, how harsh and cold a city Oakland is. We in our safe little bubble of suburbia often forget how the rest of the world lives. My father now calls Oakland “a vicious place.” Until a year ago, he thought such things existed only in the movies: gang wars and auto thefts; people exchanging money for drugs on street corners in broad daylight; rampant, blatant crime and destruction and acts of violence. Oakland opened his eyes. Oakland has further opened our eyes in the past two weeks: such things are not supposed to happen to those we love and know.

A week ago, I remarked to my sister, “I’d be really excited about how good I’m getting at using Adobe Illustrator again, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s for such a sad thing.” That was the night that, while I redesigned missing-person flyers, she had to stand in front of the crowds at the UC Berkeley MSA’s Eid banquet and deliver the statement her friend, Dr. Attari’s daughter, had asked her to read in her place. I know how difficult and emotionally taxing this was, since my sister relayed it all to me first-hand. One of the most difficult things, for her, was to see her classmates walk around laughing, dressed to the nines in their Eid finery, even though they all know H and know her mother is missing.

“But it doesn’t hit some people as hard,” I tried to explain to her. “If H weren’t your best friend and you weren’t so involved in this, it probably wouldn’t hit me and Ummy and Daddy as hard either.”

“Not even if it were someone you knew as an acquaintance? Or any of the Muslim people you went to school with?”

“No,” I said bluntly. “Not even then. I wouldn’t spend so much time on it. Probably just forward out a few emails, and feel bad for a couple days, and… yeah, that’s it.” My friend D doesn’t call me a heartless bastard for nothing.

But when you’ve watched your sister and her best friend get to know one another and grow together during their university years, when you’ve photographed them with silly expressions in the moonlight outside Barrows Hall after leaving the UC Berkeley Fast-a-Thon during Ramadan and listened to all their anecdotes about one another and lunched with them at Julie’s and laughed at their being married to each other on Facebook, when you’ve been to the lovely, gracious older sister’s wedding and eaten their mother’s homecooked, delicious food and smiled at the image of their father serenely washing dishes at the kitchen sink, when you’ve attended community vigils in Oakland and San Jose and seen grown men cradle candles, symbols of hope, in their huge hands as gently as if they were holding fragile babies, then you can’t help but care a whole lot more.

“The worst thing must be to not know anything, one way or another,” I said helplessly to my brother a few days ago. “To not have -“
“Closure,” he finished.
“But at least, this way, they have hope, and that’s the most important thing they need right now.”

I can’t even begin to imagine the massive amounts of hope it must take to walk around and function and continue your daily life step-by-step, to return to school and work and concentrate on people’s words when in reality you’re just standing at the edge of the earth, longing for the one person who, as her older daughter put it, makes everything perfect, who puts everything in place, whose absence leaves a heartbreaking void.

I’ve never known two weeks to feel so long before.

All I can wish for the Attari family is:

Only good things
No in-betweens just
Peace and love.

And all the strength and hope they could ever need.

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