By Jeannette Hinkle, Melrose Free Press.
Maisa Masoud pauses a lot, she sighs a lot.
Encased in every word uttered are fuzzy spirals of thought that fritz out, looping in on themselves tighter and tighter before spinning outward – like the thought pattern of a person trying to comprehend the size of the universe.
Masoud owns Moderno Salon & Spa in Melrose with her sister, Feda.
She is still reckoning with a jarring misunderstanding of America, the half that voted for President-elect Donald Trump. She works hard not to generalize, she tries to empathize with a choice by so many strangers that caused her a deep, familiar pain.
“I’m not saying there are a lot of bad people that voted, because that’s not true,” she said. “People that voted for him because of jobs or Obamacare, they don’t see the hate part of it. But the people that have hate listen to it and magnify it. It could be maybe 20 percent of the people that voted for him, but that 20 percent can do so much damage.”
She feels the intersectionality of the identities that permeated Trump’s rhetoric deeply. She is a woman – ‘pig, dog.’ She is an immigrant – ‘build the wall, temporary ban.’ She is a Muslim – ‘carpet bomb, registry.’
Many of these identities were points of persecution in her childhood in the Middle East. Her parents were Palestinian, but Masoud was born in Kuwait and lived there until age 9, when she and her mother moved to Jordan.
The pair lived without a man in Jordan, where, she said, “it is your fault for being a woman.” As a Palestinian in Kuwait, she was seen as an immigrant, even though she was born there.
“We were always segregated in Kuwait, no matter what,” she said. “If you are born in Kuwait but you don’t have Kuwaiti blood in you, you are not a Kuwaiti, you can never carry their passport or citizenship.”
Her religion was always the majority, but she saw how hegemony can demonize the few.
“When I lived in Jordan, I saw a lot of hate and a lot of ignorance and I would go and question my mom like, ‘why are they hating? What is that?’” Masoud remembered. “I didn’t understand that. She said, ‘that’s the difference between education and not.’ I learned how a person can be brainwashed.”
Taking the oath of citizenship in the United States, she said, was a type of happiness that a native-born American can never experience. She described the heavy promise she read into the ceremony.
“When you don’t belong to a country and for the first time a country says, ‘I will protect you, I don’t care who you are,’ it’s the most wonderful feeling on earth,” she said. “I don’t think an American understands it because they were born with that right. That day, I swore that I will fight for this country through anything. I love this country. I would mean no harm to it because it gave me the freedom to be anything I wanted.”
She lists freedoms – change your job, go to school, come home at two in the morning. It’s the little things, she adds.
Masoud thinks things will be OK, meaning she doesn’t expect Trump to fundamentally alter the fabric of her days. But at the same time, she feels as if everything has changed.
She looks out on Main Street through the window of her shop as she thinks, watching the routine of our suburb go on. There is a woman pushing a stroller, someone goes in for a slice of pizza.
“It feels like I am surrounded by some form of glass,” she said. “Like it’s so fragile that it could break.”
Masoud went to bed at 3 a.m. on election night. She had to work, she said. The next morning she woke, made coffee and sat on her couch. She thought of turning on the TV, then decided against it. That’s when it hit her, she said, because everything slowed down.
“For 27 years, I felt safe and at that moment, I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t have tears – I still haven’t panicked. I don’t know how to describe the fear. It’s not that I’m afraid for my life.”
Another long pause.
“I feel there is no more justice,” she said. “For this man to talk about Mexicans, Muslims, women, gay people and it’s OK? In our time? And he wins? That means there is no justice in this world.”
She shakes her head, as if chiding herself for ever believing otherwise, then says, “I discovered that a long time ago.”
Her friend started to have a panic attack on election night when it became clear that the pollsters may have gotten everything wrong. Her friend is Catholic, engaged to a Jewish man, and she has black siblings. She was afraid for them. Masoud remembered talking to her on the phone.
“We were doing the math,” she remembered. “We went on CNN and were counting the electoral votes. My friend would say, ‘what did Rachel say? Does she look sad? Does she look happy?’ And Rachel Maddow was not happy. That’s when we knew.”
Masoud says she was able to stay calm because she reverted to a wartime pragmatism that had lain dormant since her childhood.
“My friend felt the world was shutting around her,” she said. “We stayed cool. When you’ve lived through war, you are like, I’ve got to take this on.′ We were taught in school in Jordan during the Gulf War how to load and shoot guns in school – in school. I was like 9 years old.”
She remembers other things from her childhood, some that left physical evidence of their trauma. Masoud now suffers from sarcoidosis, or tumors of the lungs, that she attributes to the air she breathed after oil fields were set ablaze during the Gulf War.
“I remember the black rain and when it turned orange,” she said, “from the oil burning.”
Masoud moved to the United States when she was 13 years old. Her brother, a mechanic, had a client that worked as a nun at a Catholic school in Newton. The nun, Sister Suzanne, worked hard to get Masoud enrolled there.
“That changed me a lot,” she said. “I went to to my brother and said, ‘I’m Muslim, how dare you put me in a Christian school?’ He said, ‘we believe in all three religions and you need to study it as history and respect others.’ So I did, for four years.”
She read the Bible, she read the Quran, and she didn’t see much difference. Masoud said she loved Christmas masses, but she held onto her Muslim beliefs.
She doesn’t wear a hijab, but her mother does. When Trump proposed a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants, Masoud said her mother was spit at on the street.
“The minute he said that, I saw a huge difference,” she said. “That’s when people started to look at us different. I thought that never happens in this country. You need that leader to take you by the hand and say, this is not how you do things.’”
Masoud said Election Day was a day that democracy did not win. She said Trump “doesn’t have that much hate in him,” but he’s let a dangerous genie out of a long dusty bottle by playing to America’s worst impulses.
“He learned advertising at a very young age,” she said. “With advertising, you throw something out there and you see how it works. If it works, you take it all the way. He knew how to manipulate the system.”
But the response by many to his election gives her hope. Masoud has become more involved than ever in the Melrose community. She went to the Human Rights Commission’s International Welcome Potluck, she went to a post-election forum at Temple Beth Shalom.
“I am Muslim,” she said. “I was wondering if I could even get into the temple, and the rabbi made me feel welcome and OK and safe because he feels my pain. Now everyone I know is saying if they do the [Muslim] registry, white people, Jews, Christians, will go join the registry, too.”
Masoud estimates she’s met between 30 and 40 new people since Trump was elected. That, she says, is a sterling silver lining.
“He is our president and that is democracy,” she said. “But I’m starting to think this might not be as bad as we think because it’s bringing community from all different places to protect each other. It might be a little bit of an awakening to the world. Who is my neighbor and how can I protect that neighbor?”