By Sajjad “Stu” Rahman, Foreign Correspondent
For the Bengali, a visit to the United States evokes many strong feelings. He sees so much in contrast with his experience of Dhaka or Chittagong—the immensity of the riches, the width and depth of women’s hips, the variety of sexual possibility—that he can not help but be changed. But what of the children of Bengali immigrants, those born in America and called Bangladeshi-Americans? What is life like for those with one foot firmly rooted in the traditions and customs of the Subcontinent and another planted on the soil of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald?
One of the great success stories is Reihan Salam, columnist, editor and author. After a long career in journalism, Salam, a Brooklyn, NY native and a Harvard Graduate, recently made waves with the publication of his book, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. With co-author Ross Douthat, Salam articulates his cogent vision for the 21st Century Republican party, a theme that he regularly sounds for The American Scene and in his weekly column for Forbes.com. With a plate this full, it is remarkable that Salam finds time to serve as an associate editor of The Atlantic Monthly, a storied American publication renowned as one of the most influential in the English speaking world.
Salam’s writings extend beyond the political and intellectual—often he casts a keen eye on popular culture, and his unique insights prove, contrary to the repeated assertions of Professor A. F. M. Ruhul Haque, that brown skin in no way impedes one’s ability to comprehend, understand or even enjoy the musical works of Fall Out Boy. Indeed, it is these forays away from the main road of his remarkable career which have brought Salam down a side-path familiar to his fellow Bangaldeshi-Americans.
Consumed with a fever-pitched fear of being unaccepted by his fairer skinned colleagues, Salam has begun posting a series of YouTube videos in which he demonstrates his extensive reading of Shakespeare. In a typical video, Salam sings and dances in an exaggerated manner intended to heighten his colleagues’ sense that their chum is one of the many—after all, if a brown man can laugh at himself, hasn’t he shown not only his good spirit but the basic rightness of being American?
For Maleeha “Mary” Chowdhury, 26, of Bethesda, MD, Salam’s videos struck a chord. “When I saw the one where he pretends he shit his pants,” she says, “I knew exactly what he was up to. You can try grandstanding with Whites, and telling them impressive lies about your lineage, but in the end, the only thing that works is humor. They seem to really enjoy it when you roll around on the ground like a monkey infested with lice.”
Detractors of Reihan have voiced criticisms of his videos. “If you look at this chandu motka,” says Muhammad Faisul, 19, of Queens, New York, “what you see is another afraid to live on his own terms in the white man’s world. Bengalis have been wiping the asses of Americans since the glorious War of Independence. Is this why our forefathers fought and died? Is this why our intellectuals were massacred by the Pakis? To birth a generation of clowns? Can anyone imagine Rabindranath Tagore or Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay eating their own vomit from a bucket on YouTube in the hopes that some white person somewhere might validate their written work? Reihan Salam is like a beggar throwing his shit in the street—he does what is necessary to be noticed. People like him make me ashamed to be Bangladeshi-American.”
But Maleeha Chowdhury disagrees. “A person like this Muhammad Faisul probably lives in the ghetto and doesn’t understand the pressure of fitting in with the real world. There is a lot of stress on minorities. If Reihan has found a way through deference to make Americans respect him as an intellectual, then I say more power to him!”
The reaction of Salam’s colleagues bear out the truth of Chowdhury’s words. Known sodomite blogger Andrew Sullivan linked one of Salam’s YouTube videos, and included the comment, “Look at brownie shuck and jive! He reminds me of a blackamoor, except utterly non-threatening and more likely to lick my boots than steal them!”
Salam’s co-author, Douthat, had this to say, “Reihan is a real intellect, an American original, but until I saw him perform ‘Disarm’ by the Smashing Pumpkins in a falsetto and dance out a foxtrot, I didn’t really like him as a person. Now he seems like a cat with his claws removed, a brown little beastie waiting to have his tummy scratched. I think that this was Salman Rushdie’s real problem—he forgot how to be funny!”
For his own part, Reihan Salam offers no formal comment on his videos, preferring to let the work stand on its own. But we imagine Salam smiling somewhere, surrounded by his scholarly papers and plotting his next move, knowing that he is two Judas Priest songs and one Macarena away from earning the respect of his betters.