It was an expression of hard, cold hatred I had never seen before, and it followed me down a street in Mumbai until I was out of sight. I felt targeted.
The man who locked me in a dark and threatening stare was tall, perhaps in his 30s and dressed in black. He wore a turban. I had noticed him in the first place because of his face. His eyes were dark and his jaw set. He stood out in the crowds that moved through the streets of one of the world’s busiest cities the way a flash of light or sudden, unexpected movement attracts one’s attention.
My wife saw him too. She said, “He’s looking directly at you.” There was no doubt of that. His head turned as we walked down a street of shops and stands so that his gaze was fixed directly on me, the way a hunter tracks his prey through the cross hairs of his rifle.
Just before we were out of range of his view, I looked back to see if he was following. He was nowhere in sight. But for the imprint of his face on my brain, it was almost as though the moment had never existed.
We were in India for a month just a year ago, a journey of the soul we had always wanted to take. Vacations ought to be a learning process, a look at a world we don’t usually see. We were greeted generally by a people whose sweetness and spirituality are an integral part of who they are.
We attended their festivals, hoteled in their palaces and dined in their restaurants. We rode elephants, camels and rickshas, both motorized and man-pulled, and honored their heroes at ancient shrines. We respected their traditions and took hundreds of photographs.
It was the kind of odyssey into a dream world that we had anticipated, full of surprises and intriguing scenes. There was only a single moment of discomfort, and that was the face of hatred in Mumbai. Not even at war had I been confronted with such intense and silent hostility.[ad#foreign-languages-125×125]I think about it now as blood flows in the city once known as Bombay and realize that the hatred was directed not at me but at an American. To the man in black I represented what many throughout the Middle East were being taught by Islamic radicals to despise.
One is overwhelmed with a feeling of both vulnerability and helplessness when coming face to face with the kind of hatred that seems to spring from nowhere, directed at an idea embodied in a man. It would have accomplished very little to stop and talk to him; his indoctrination in the concept of rage was complete. He was beyond civility.
Being targeted by the face of hatred and subsequently viewing scenes of the current massacre in Mumbai, I came to realize how deep the loathing was. While the death toll included citizens of India and elsewhere, it was Americans and Brits the killers were seeking; it was their holy mission to destroy us.
The man in black had decided we were among those he despised.
Had we not marched into Iraq like an army of crusaders and instead sought diplomacy as a tool of detente; had we not “gone it alone” and instead gathered the world to condemn the dictatorship that was theatening global stability—things might have been different.
Now it’s too late.
Whatever communications we might establish under Barak Obama with our “new enemies” a half a world away, the residual effect of the Bush-engendered warrior attitudes will continue to impact upon us for years, and perhaps generations, to come. Bombs will explode. Guns will fire. Many will die.
The face of hatred, the kind I saw in Mumbai only months before the slaughter, will haunt our future just as it now haunts my dreams. We are a people under siege. How sad. How terribly, awfully sad.
Al Martinez on Everything Else
Al Martinez is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times, author of a dozen books, an Emmy-nominated creator of prime time television shows, a travel writer, humorist and general hell-raiser. Try him. He’s addictive.
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