Are You Muslim? and Other Questions White Landlords Ask Me

Photo credit: Wynand van Poortvliet/Unsplash

I am on my way to look for a new living space that I need starting this summer. It has been hard looking for a place. The leasing cycle in this city works like the semester system. Just like how you can’t enroll in a course in the middle of the semester, it is next to impossible to find an apartment in a preferred location during what they call the “off season.” I have been living in Athens, Georgia, for one-and-a-half years, but this is the first time I am looking for a house on my own. When I first moved here, it was December and everyone was busy enjoying the holidays. The streets were deserted and the town felt lonely. A generous colleague drove me around the deserted city, looking for apartments. He was a tall man in a black jacket. It was hard not to like him because he addressed everyone as ma’am and sir, because he always smiled while talking, and because he listened to people with the patience of a therapist.

Feeling reassured, and slightly jet-lagged, I let him handle most of the conversations with leasing agents, landlords, and receptionists at rental agencies. I was grateful that it wasn’t too cold in Georgia. When the leasing officer said that she couldn’t rent it to me because I didn’t have a credit history in the country, it was my colleague who stepped ahead to speak on my behalf, presenting a request she couldn’t walk away from, “Ma’am, if you don’t mind, can we please explain the situation to you?” First, he thanked her for being patient with us, thanked her for running my credit history, and then explained to her the funny problem of not having a credit history because I had just immigrated to this country a week ago. “He is going to have a credit history, and you wouldn’t have any problem with him as your tenant.” He looked at me and suggested, “Maybe you could show them your contract with the university?”

Last week, I made 30 phone calls and viewed seven possible places to rent. Since it is the offseason, my options are limited. When a colleague tells me about a home that would suit my needs (two bedrooms, around $1200 dollars, not far from downtown Athens), I look it up immediately. The house is a little over my budget, but I have told myself that if I love something, I will take it. If I can imagine myself doing housework in my underwear, I would rent it. The house has a sunroom, two bedrooms, and two bathrooms. I love the sunroom. I would like to sit and read with a cup of hardboiled cardamom tea, and my henna hair-mask and sandalwood face pack on. There is a clean backyard with a dead tree and a storage room. My mother would have disapproved of this dead tree: You need things that are alive and growing around you, not a tall dead tree.

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But there is something beautiful about this tree with its branches outstretched to the skies as if begging for rains. The local bookshop, my favorite one, is in the vicinity. I attend many events there. Good cafes that sell turmeric tea are less than a mile away. There is also an excellent vegan restaurant, though I am a proud omnivore. And just to be clear, I don’t drink turmeric tea. What I mean is that this is the “cool part of town”—most of my colleagues and students think so. I am often told, this is the liberal part of Athens. When I drive through the neighborhood, I see so many blue-colored Stacey Abrams for Governor signs in front of pretty little houses. The yard is lined with shrubs and plants. The neighborhood is quiet. I take out my phone and note down things: rent, power, gas, square feet, rental insurance, maintenance. I like what I am seeing, and as we move from room to room, I fall in love with the house.

“Maybe you can sit down on a Sunday with a book here,” the lady says, standing in the sunroom. In reply, I smile and nod my head. I like that she suggests the idea of reading a book. The husband, who is wearing a white polo shirt, assures me that I can call him to take care of anything, “Any maintenance issue,” he says, “you can call me anytime.” The rooms aren’t massive, but they aren’t small. I imagine placing my queen bed in the bedroom. I am sure I would be able to fit in a dresser and a couple of bookcases. I have a lot of books. I keep books even in my bedroom, on my bed’s headstand, on the bedside table. I am always buying bookshelves. “You asked about natural light.” The woman steps into one of the bedrooms and pulls the blinds. “You will get ample natural light. The second bedroom receives the afternoon’s light, you know?”

I like the couple most when they tell me that they attend events at my favorite bookshop and when they name professors who work at my university, asking me if I know them. I tell them that my university is huge and there are thousands of professors. They nod in agreement. They say that the university is huge, and that you could work there for decades without knowing most people. I nod back. We have a bond. I decide to rent the house. I tell them that I love what I have seen, but hold off on telling them about my decision because I have another home to view that day. The husband and wife look like people who would vote for Stacey Abrams. I like them. They are chatty and warm, and they bitch about rental companies that prey on young students who “come to our country for education, and we treat them like shit by exploiting them.”

A Measure of Belonging: Twenty-One Writers of Color on the New American South edited by Cinelle Barnes (Photo Credit: Hub City)

But it is a small question from the lady that ticks me off. “So, I was just wondering, you know—I mean—are you a Muslim?” Later, a friend of mine would tell me that it is illegal to ask questions about my religion. Another friend would be furious to hear this, but I laugh about it. When the couple asks me if I am a Muslim, I am just exhausted. Perhaps, I don’t want to accept that these people, who are funny and chatty and sensitive about immigrant students, who are astonished that I am a professor—Oh wow, you must be so intelligent that they hired you from India—are just like everybody else. I have heard variations of their question from landlords, colleagues from other departments, and cab drivers. I am actually born a Hindu though I don’t care much about my religion. I am not an atheist. I eat beef.

I have Saraswati statues in my house because Saraswati is the Goddess of Learning, like Minerva, but I never pray to her. I have her statues because she is a stunning goddess who refused to marry, and she traveled on the back of a giant white swan with a black bindi on her forehead and a red lotus in one of her hands. Is this the answer the couple was looking for? Are you a Muslim?  I look around for a chair to sit, but we are outside the house now, in the front yard. I am about to leave. It is almost noon, and there is a lot more to do, such as view another house, buy groceries, and search websites for apartments, but I feel like taking a nap. I just want to go home and lie in my bed and stare at the white ceiling. I say, “Excuse me?”

I think about the several places I have viewed—good areas where good white people live with other nonwhite people from around the world, people who would probably vote for Abrams again. I think about the apartment on Dearing Street that I found on Facebook. After viewing the apartment rented by a young lady, we talked about the huge sectional that she had bought from a store called Anthropologie. She said she had only received two queries, including one from me. She was in a hurry to get out of her lease. The other query was from a “young freshman” who couldn’t move in until August. I said, “Then it is a great fit for me.” I said that I would confirm after an hour, once I viewed the apartment on Prince Avenue, another “cool” part of the town.

“I could use my Hindu privilege to get this house because it is so tempting, because I am exhausted, but I am not sure if I would be able to sleep well in this house if I do.”

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When I texted her later that day, I thought about the adequate natural light the house received and where I would place my writing desk. I was sure my house hunting was over. To my surprise, I received a text: Sorry, the other girl applied and got approved. Last week, I also looked at a townhome on South Milledge Avenue, next to my favorite Chinese restaurant. The townhome was available in the summer, was just the size I needed it to be, and the right price. I told the manager that I liked the townhome and would rent it. He promised to email me a lease. I stopped looking for houses, relieved that my house hunting was finally over. When the lease didn’t reach me, I gave him a few days, and then sent a message. I emailed him after six days, left a voicemail after 10, called and texted again after two weeks—no response. I had started to feel like a stalker. In the meantime, the other houses I could have rented were snatched away.

Last week, I also visited an apartment in a filthy neighborhood where the grass was tall and bugs fine like pollen entered my nose, making me sneeze as I walked toward the door. Inside, a young man, perhaps in his late 20s, greeted me. The apartment smelled. A beagle growled at me from a cage, and a gun was on the dining table as if it were home decor. I don’t want to look for apartments anymore, and that’s why I feel like resting on a bed for several hours. That’s why I say, “Excuse me?” Actually, I know what to tell them to get this house. I could say to them, No, I am not a Muslim, and they would laugh, and I would laugh awkwardly, and I would get the house. After all, unlike the landlord of the house on Carlton Street, as if to test my knowledge when they hear what I do for a living, they haven’t asked me “Who is your favorite American author?”

At least, like the landlord of the two-bedroom apartment on Boulevard, they aren’t asking, “Can you also teach Shakespeare? Do you know where ‘To be or not to be’ is from? Hahaha!” They haven’t asked me with lifted brows, like that landlord who told me about his guru in Delhi and asked, “You teach the English language?” And when I answered, “No, I teach English literature,” he asked me again, “I mean, do you also teach American kids?” “Yes,” I replied after a pause. He showed me two horrible houses. One landlord went on to quiz me further about my responsibilities: Was I a professor who also taught graduate students or “just undergrads who need ESL help?” This constant questioning is so wearing.

I can say that I am a Hindu and solve this problem. But I do not. I could use my Hindu privilege to get this house because it is so tempting, because I am exhausted, but I am not sure if I would be able to sleep well in this house if I do. I want to say, I am sorry, ma’am, how is that question relevant? I am a writer and teacher, that’s all that matters. Instead, I say, “I am not comfortable answering the question.” I am not sure why I am so polite. After a pause, the husband laughs loudly. Too loudly, in fact. Too cheerfully. It is the kind of awkward laughter that acknowledges guilt but tries to laugh it away. “Oh, that doesn’t matter,” he says. Flustered, the lady tells me, “But you asked so much about the sun—if this house will get enough natural light? So we thought…” I want to ask them back: Don’t white people like natural light in their houses?

But I don’t.

I smile.

I laugh at their jokes.

I exit politely, promising to get back to them, though, of course, I won’t.

Excerpted from A Measure of Belonging: Twenty-One Writers of Color on the New American South by Cinelle Barnes, Editor. Copyright 2020. Excerpted with permission by Hub City.

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Author Aruni Kashyap.
by Aruni Kashyap
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Aruni Kashyap is the author of three books of fiction in English and Assamese: The House With a Thousand Stories and His Father’s Disease: Stories, and Noikhon Etia Duroit. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia and has written for Catapult, The Boston Review, Electric Literature, The Indian Express, The New York Times, and others.