Zeeshan Ali could not have been less thrilled with his first Fourth of July on Memorial Drive. Nearly
2 years old, he didn’t care about the patriotic decorations, the fleet of ice cream trucks, or the perfect weather. All he wanted was his red ball, his yogurt drops, and his mother, Meryum Ali.
Malik Khan smiled as his grumpy grandson fussed.
“He doesn’t really get it yet,” he said. “He’s just tired and hot.”
This year marked the 41st Fourth of July celebration along the Charles River for Malik and his wife, Tina. Their first was during the nation’s bicentennial when Malik was a graduate student at MIT. The Muslim couple said they’d never seen anything like the Boston fireworks display in Pakistan, the homeland they’d left behind. Attending the show eventually became a family tradition.
“My parents love the American holidays so much,” Meryum said. “I have memories of coming out for the fireworks as a little kid.”
The Khans said it would take a lot to get them to skip the event — they once left the celebration covered in soot when rain mixed with smoky residue. But the reaction to the recent presidential election gave reason for pause, emboldening as it did some voices that had been silent before. And this most American of celebrations could particularly encourage fresh outbursts of hate.
The Khans have already had a sample. In December, Malik received a letter filled with anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic language at the Islamic Center of Wayland, where he is the president. The missive called President Trump the “new sheriff in town,” threatening that he would do to the Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.
Meryum said a stranger told her to “go back to Mexico” one recent afternoon when she had Zeeshan out on a walk. Ahsan Ali, her husband, said his mother was confronted by someone who started screaming “Trump” at her out of the blue.
“Am I a little afraid of people saying something racist to my parents when they go to public areas? Of course,” said Noorjehan, Malik’s youngest daughter. “It’s always in the back of our minds.”
Tina said that she now feels less comfortable going out in public wearing traditional Pakistani clothes.
“Up until this last year, I never was conscious of the fact that I’m brown, or a Muslim, or anything else because everybody always welcomed me as the way I was,” she said. “But we have lived our lives, and we are almost done. But we worry about our children and little grandchild.”
Up ahead, Zeeshan tripped over his feet and landed on his backside. His face scrunched up and his eyes filled with tears as Meryum scooped him up.
“Fun’s over,” Ahsan said.
The young father said he worries that the climate of increased Islamophobia will only worsen as Zeeshan grows up.
“In the back of my head, I worry that all these terrible things will happen to my son,” he said. “If Meryum is out with him and doesn’t pick up her phone for a while, I get anxious.”
While all are concerned, Malik and Tina see more cause for optimism that their children.
Malik talked about the hundreds of people who attended a vigil at the mosque after they received the hate letter, including a 90-year-old woman in a wheelchair. Tina beamed with pride when she talked about how Noorjehan was selected to sing the national anthem at her graduation from Northeastern University — just months after the Boston Marathon bombings.
“We have had experiences from other parts of the world, and we’ve seen the other side of the coin,’’ Malik said. “The thing is that there are no other countries that are made like this. That’s why we have a much more positive attitude toward those things.”
Tina agrees. “This is our home,’’ she said. “The best thing we can do is look at how many good people there are. We can’t live life thinking about people who want to harm us.”
Tina recalled a January train ride to join a protest in Copley Square against Trump’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries. She said that although she was the only apparent Muslim on the train, there were at least 50 people around her with signs opposing the new president’s order.
“I was so emotional,” Tina said. “And I couldn’t help it, I had tears in my eyes, because I looked at everybody and thought, ‘They’re doing this for me.’ ”
It was dark now. Meryum and Ahsan had taken Zeeshan home to put him to bed. Malik and Tina stood next to the river, waiting patiently for the fireworks to start. The Pops struck up “YMCA.” The sea of people, old and young, a mix of races and ethnicities began to sing and dance along.
“This is the best part of everything,” Tina leaned over and whispered. “When everyone comes together. That’s what the Fourth of July is about.”