Ahmed Mohamed and the Blessings of God
There was the inner circle of us — father, daughter, Ahmed, the masjid youth leader, the CAIR spokeswoman, and me, all of us climbing into the orange minivan — and there was the press of reporters on the street and the sidewalks and the front lawns. Children played on the grass, now and then running inside the Mohamed home, where the Sudanese-American community of Irving, Texas, arranged themselves into clusters: a cooking crew, a crew at prayer, and numerous lone individuals installed on divans in the tight, 70s-suburban wood-paneled living room. The children understood better than the adults: the children had their iPhones, iPads, Kindles, et. al. tuned in to Twitter and Facebook, posting selfies and watching hashtags and giving shout-outs while the adults inside, almost completely oblivious to what was at that moment a global phenomenon, were busy with the usual concerns: food, prayer, quiet conversation.
I climb into the way-back of the family minivan; Ahmed is to my left. Alia Salem of Counsel of American-Islamic Relations, and Ahmed’s oldest sister, Eyman, sit in the middle while Ahmed’s father drives; in the passenger seat next to him is Abbas Abdullah of the Irving masjid. From inside the van, through the mess of reporters and cameramen, Ahmed sees a friend: “Daniel! I have to say bye to Daniel! Wait, Yaba Yaba! Wait! Eyman! Stop!” Dad stops the minivan in the middle of the street in front of their home, clogged with cars and media vans in both directions, as a 9th-grade kid with bushy hair and bright eyes leans in the window, eyebrows shaped into a question mark: “Hey, Daniel, tell everyone at school ‘thank you’ for giving me support.” “Ok.”
I don’t know what Ahmed Mohamed was like before he was trending. I can imagine him being just the same but, regardless, on the day I spend with him — at the peak of his worldwide fame — he’s become the best sort of prince: soft-spoken, polite, aware of the reach of his voice.
Ahmed’s holding my iPhone — “dude, you have SpaceTeam?” I do; I downloaded it to play with my kids, but we haven’t played it yet, so I ask him how to play.
“Like, you yell out what you want — so, ‘fix engine!’ — there’s an engine button on the other players’ screens. ‘Fix oil!’
“I don’t get it. What do you ‘do?’”
“You just tell them, ‘fix oil,’ or ‘fix engine’ — you’re in a spaceship.”
“What’s the game part?”
“The game part is, you team up. It’s a good game.”
As we drive away, Mohamed Elhassan — “Yaba Yaba” to Ahmed, “Daddy” in Arabic — asks where we’re going. Confusion reigns in the minivan. Alia Salem is pulling up maps on her phone. Abbas and Eyman are both talking at once, Abbas saying to Elhassan: “You have to know what it is you want, every channel, every channel,” while Eyman yells, “Dad! NASA said ‘we’re supporters of hashtag STEM and aspiring kids like Ahmed to pursue their dreams.’”
Alia Salem looks up from her phone: “OK, the two newest that came through are Stephen Colbert and Ellen Degeneres.” Ahmed, looking at the Twitter app on my iPhone, sees a photo of himself in front of his house and sees the street numbers near his front door — “Oh, man, they can see my address in the background!”
Ahmed shows me a photo of his clock that we find on Twitter. At that point I’d only seen photos of him holding what looked like bundles of wire, but here was the original case: metal, the size of a small hardback book — a case Ahmed said you can get for $5 or $10 at Target. Opened up, the case had a digital face the size of half a bumper sticker above, bundles of wires below. We look at a picture of an actual bomb that’s in the #IStandWithAhmed Twitter timeline — “There, see that, that’s a USB splitter, my clock had that too.” To my eyes, the thing didn’t look like a clock or a bomb; you’d have to have a lot of faith to see the clock and a lot of imagination — and hours of 24, which I, admittedly, have never seen — to see a bomb.
“Wait,” Eyman asks, “where are we even going?” Alia: “MSNBC, with Chris Hayes. We have CBS National at 7, BBC, CNN…” Ahmed, to my left, points at the phone: “See, that’s the trigger for the bomb in Iran, and that’s the clock I made. Totally different!”
“This is the most famous photo,” Ahmed says, pointing at the one of him taken from behind, in his NASA t-shirt, handcuffed in the police station. “Who took that picture?” “My sister.” “So, it’s when she found you — when your family walked up, hours after they interrogated you at school, they still had the handcuffs on you?” But Ahmed’s lost in Twitter again, reading out loud, carefully: “I hope one day Ahmed designs clocks like this for NASA.”
I look at him: “Ever heard that phrase, ‘fifteen minutes of fame?’” Ahmed looks at me: “This is gonna be soooo much longer.”
The whole car, listening, laughs, as we slow down in traffic.
“What were the cops like, were they yelling, were they calm?” “They just took me, secretly, after class and then they started interrogating me.” Again, the kid is lost to watching Twitter on my iPhone, watching #AhmedMohamed and #IStandWithAhmed trend worldwide. “They’re already making, like, memes.”
Alia, to Elhassan: “Dad, I have to ask you a question: Stephen Colbert in New York City, the Late Show, wants Ahmed to fly out to New York tomorrow, it’s a really really really really big show.”
“I don’t know.”
“Brother, can I tell you something? Good Morning America, all of these, this show is bigger.”
“Eyman: “I want Ellen!” Alia, patiently, nods: “There’s also Ellen.”
Abbas: “Are you trying to get on there just to say you were on there— “
“Exposure,” says Alia, nodding her head, as Abbas continues “exposure — what is the exposure for? You have to understand, what is the exposure for? What is it for?”
Eyman: “We need Macarthur High School to be like, well, they’re already known to be like—” Elhassan says something in Arabic and Eyman looks at Abbas — “what are you saying, brother?” Abbas begins again: “What I’m saying is, like, scholarships and jobs can come from this, if you sit down and talk to the right people who have influence, that would be the best call. So you don’t wanna just ‘oh I wanna go on this show, and go on this show.’”
“Wait! You guys! Eyman!” Ahmed’s yelling. “Twitter says they’d like to intern me! Twitter would like to intern me! One hour ago, they said it.”
Abbas: “The thing is, you know how to code?” “I know how to code, not really good, but, basic HTML.”
Alia: “Ahmed, what about Stephen Colbert?”
“You like Stephen? You know Stephen?”
“I heard about the show before.”
“Why don’t you Google one of his videos?”
Ahmed asks if he can use my phone again, but looks at me first: “I’m worried about your data.”
“It’s OK, it’s unlimited.”
“OK, phew.” We watch the opening 30 seconds of a Stephen Colbert show and Ahmed nods, mostly certain: “Yeh, I think I’ve seen him before.”
“What are you doing?!” Eyman, distressed. Alia: “Brother, you need to let her use her GPS, you’re gonna make us super late.” But Elhassan owns a cab company; he ignores Eyman and Alia and we make a turn the GPS later agrees with. “Where are we going?” Elhassan asks. Alia: “MSNBC.” “MS?” “MSNBC. Channel 5.” “Channel 5. OK.” “No, this is national, this is a national program.” Eyman: “It’s the one with the like, the green, and the yellow, and whatever like flower kind of things, right? Why are we going?”
Ahmed and I are in the way-back; I’m trying to show him how to post the selfie he just took of us to my Twitter account. Using my account, he retweets the President’s tweet inviting him to the White House, a tweet with over 300,000 RTs. Next he looks up Hillary’s tweet about him. “That’s 12,000 RTs, she’s not as famous as Obama. Let’s check out Zuck — Zuckerberg.” He can’t find an account that’s not fake — “Oh, let’s try Facebook. Maybe he doesn’t do Twitter.”
Half an hour later I’m in the control room at the studio while Ahmed and Alia are on Chris Hayes with MSNBC:
Chris Hayes: “So you asked them, can I talk to my parents, can I call my parents?” Ahmed: “Yes.” “And what did they say?” “They told me, ‘no, you can’t call your parents, you’re in the middle of an interrogation.’” “And what kind of things did they ask you?” “They asked me a couple of times, ‘is it a bomb?’ and I answered a couple of times, ‘it’s a clock.” “That didn’t seem to satisfy them?” “No.” “How long were you in that room?” “About an hour and 25 minutes, around an hour.” “How’d you feel?” “I felt like a criminal, like all the names I was called.” “What do you mean all the names you were called?” “In middle school I was called a terrorist.” “So you’d been called that before, by kids in your school?” “Yes.” “And were the officers saying things like that, too?” “One of them . . . he got back in his chair and he saw me and he said ‘that’s who I thought it was.’” “What did you take that to mean?” “I took it to mean that he was pointing at me for what I am, my race, he took it at me because I was . . . I mean, I was just a student, never had contact with cops . . .” Ahmed’s voice trails off here. His throat, his face are wobbly; it’s the first time since I’ve met him that I’ve seen anything but excitement. Chris Hayes notices it too, and moves on to Alia with his next question.
Later, during another taping, Abbas, Eyman, and I are in the hallway sitting on the floor. Eyman: “Is he gonna be wearing that NASA shirt every day?”
Abbas: “I think we should ask NASA to send him a new shirt.”
Eyman: “Everybody’s tweeting NASA, like, ‘we’re wearing that shirt,’ they even made a logo, I dunno if NASA did it but it’s like the NASA logo with his name in it.”
I look at Eyman: “You’re his oldest sister?”
“Have any of your brothers or sisters been jealous?”
“Not really jealous. I dunno, I am a jealous person, but at this moment I’m more of like—because I got expelled from school for three days from this stupid same district, from this girl saying I wanted to blow up the school, something I had nothing to do with—”
Eyman talks with the slightest lisp, almost imperceptible, but it becomes stronger here.
“I got suspended and I didn’t do anything about it and so when I heard about Ahmed, I was so mad because it happened to me and I didn’t get to stand up, so I’m making sure he’s standing up because it’s not right. So I’m not jealous, I’m kinda like — it’s like he’s standing for me.” Eyman graduated high school two years ago; she said her suspension was in her first year of middle school — “my first year of attempting middle school in America. I knew English, but the culture was different, the people were different.” “Were you wearing hijab by then?” “Oh yeh.” Emphatically: “I thought it was easier for boys ’cause you really couldn’t tell, it was just the name that gave it away, but being a girl it’s like ‘oh!’- everybody knows.” “Everybody knows you’re Muslim?” Eyman nods, yes. “I hate to stick out, so that sounds hard,” I told her. She laughs. “How do you even stick out? You look like everyone else!”
After the taping is finished, Ahmed and Randy — a studio hand with my name — and I walk around on tour: Ahmed hits balls at the pool table, pushes buttons in the in-house theater, and sits in the mock ticket booth out front, signing tickets. It’s still the best day. Fame is for kids, really: the fruits, more than the money and name recognition, fruits like this: free reign on a pool table, nobody else around.
Outside the studio, we see electronic equipment from the ’70s, large pieces of metal with orange buttons bolted into the ground, like a shuttle had broken up in the sky above us. Ahmed looks at the 40-year-old camera and I ask him if he could make it into a clock: “Yeh, sure. It has a timer in it so, I guess I take that timer out and use it. It’d have moving parts cuz it’s old.”
We’re finally all back in the van, going home after the TV taping. Ahmed, looking up from my iPhone Twitter app: “Arrow, you know Arrow?” “No, what’d he say about you?” “He was like, Texas is in my traces.”
Alia, to the whole van: “It’s the biggest show in the entire country, Stephen Colbert.” Ahmed: “Yeh, I want to do that tomorrow.” Abbas, cautiously, concerned: “Yeh, but Stephen Colbert, he’s like” — Ahmed: “Yeh, but like, it’s a one-time offer!” Alia, nodding vigorously: “There’s President Obama, and there’s Stephen Colbert. If you want exposure, this is — this is more exposure than ever. Remember David Letterman?” Abbas and Elhassan don’t remember. They’re skeptical.
Ahmed looks at me with my camera: “Are you paparazzi?” “Yeh, sure, I’m paparazzi, you have paparazzi now.” “I didn’t expect them to be in the same car with me! Usually they’re chasing, like, you don’t even know, they’re undercover or something.” He looks at Alia: “Are you my manager?” “Huh?” “Are you my manager?” “No, I’m not your manager, but maybe I’m your media coordinator.” Eyman interjects, loudly, quoting from Twitter: “’Ahmed Mohamed came up in the Republican debate. It didn’t go well.” The minivan explodes; a moment of levity. Elhassan looks back, confused, and Alia repeats: “Ahmed came up in the Republican debate; it didn’t go well.” “They didn’t like him?” Abbas: “Probably not!” “Because of Mr. Obama?” Alia: “I dunno.”
Alia, to Eyman: “Do you want to head up the launch campaign?”
“And help push it? It’s crowdfunding.”
“I don’t know.”
“He’s asking one of you two — ”
Ahmed: “Say yes!”
Alia: “No!…This is …”
Ahmed: “It’s my campaign! I own the account [the Twitter account.] I own the password to it.”
Alia: “But he’s asking if you’re going to be able to manage it, you’re not going to be able to manage it.”
Ahmed: “I can manage it. I made a Kickstarter once, I made $10 on it. I took it down right then.”
I asked Ahmed: “How’d you make $10 on Kickstarter?”
“Free money. I just wrote ‘Free Money — pay ten dollars, win or lose, you get the blessings of God.’”
“Did it work?”
“Yes. It was 4 people. I didn’t go over. I was 100% honorable.”
“It was my Dad’s PayPal account and my Dad was like, ‘where’d $10 come from?’”
Later, almost home, Ahmed’s face still in my iPhone: “Man, I went viral.” Ahmed’s looking at a video of himself posted online, and he and his sister are arguing over whether it has 24 million or 24 thousand hits. Ahmed is right — “this is 7 digits!” It’s 24 million views, in 24 hours. “I feel like I could just walk on the street and people would know who I am.”
Eyman grabbed my phone from Ahmed, then asked the whole car: “Wait, who’s GPL?” Abbas: “GPL, or JPL?” “JPL.” “Jet Proportions Laboratory. That’s like a division of NASA, they’re the ones who put the rover on Mars. I used to want to work for them.” Eynam: “You used to! — “ “And, yeh, I turned down the job to work with them, I don’t know why, and now I work at the masjid. So, keep on fielding that.”
Ahmed, as we turn onto his street: “Wow, there’s still news reporters.” Abbas: “We’re gonna have to ask them to leave.” Eyman: “What’s — G — O — P Debate? G — O — P -.” Ahmed: “My dad drives good, he can get around them, he can park very precisely.” Looking at Elhassan, he shouts, “Dad! — it’s clear, it’s clear, I can see—” then says something in Arabic and we pull into the driveway.
It’s getting dark. The street is only half-full now; the remnants of the pizza the family bought for the media are still on the front lawn. Locusts are whirring so loudly you forget, for a moment, that downtown Dallas is only ten miles away. Ahmed is running around the front yard with a little girl on his back — “Take a picture of us! Take a picture of us!”
Alia Salem stands outside the Mohamed home keeping reporters at bay; one said he flew in from New York City, another says he’s from London. They all want to speak with Ahmed. It’s fallen on her to let him be 14.
The sun is setting and the front door has been left open. Walking into the living room, there are two day beds to my right where older women are reclining; to my left, two men sit up straighter on the couch and point at my camera; I oblige, taking a photo.
I am trying to find Ahmed to say goodbye. I walk through the back room, where a large dining room table is pushed up against an opening in the wall that looks into the kitchen; three women sit at the table in three brightly-colored hijab: purple, yellow, a pink hijab with rhinestone sequins. “Wanna eat?” “No, no, I can’t, I—” “This is Sudanese bread, you must try.” “Thank you.” “I give you plate?” Nobody else has a plate; they are eating with their hands out of communal bowls and I insist on doing the same; a bowl is set in front of me anyway and the best pieces of lamb and injera and salad are scraped into my large bowl and a warm, viscous, green okra broth poured over everything. “I know you guys don’t like to share food. You like to share like this—” she says, pointing to my camera, “but not food!”
Small children are everywhere; one brings me a clear plastic cup with half a sip of Sprite she’s poured for me; the bigger kids, about 15 of them, are all in the adjacent room gathered around a Kindle-sized screen held by Ahmed, watching Ahmed trend and giggling on Ahmed’s parents’ king-size bed.
From the living room come the sounds of the men praying, I think, but it sounds more like music, or like a capella jazz. “Are they singing? Are those prayers?” A woman at the table nods: “Praying. They are thanking God.”
A teenage girl sees me eating: “Take a picture of this white man eating! I’m gonna Tweet it right now. Hashtag: white man eating Sudanese food.” The woman next to me, in the pink-sequined hijab, says she moved here 19 years ago to work for Nokia, but didn’t give me her name. “And is America home now?” I ask. She nods: “This is my home now. This is my community.” “And Ahmed, he is family?” “Well, I’ve been here 19 years. We are all family. Everyone in this house. That’s the way it is.”
I can’t eat another bite. I sit and listen to the men thanking God, hands on my full stomach. I get up and find Ahmed on the bed in his parents’ bedroom — “Hey, man, I gotta go. It was so great to meet you.” He tries to get up but too many kids are leaning on him. He smiles: “Dude, I’m still trending.”
Earlier, before we’d left for the television studio, Ahmed had taken me into his bedroom to show me the now-famous desk where everything gets built. I asked if I could take a picture; he nodded and sat on his desk chair holding up a mass of wires, and, seeing his Quran, grabbed it from his desk and held it up next to the wires. Eyman comes in, sees me taking pictures, asks Ahmed — “Why are you holding the Quran?” “I don’t know.” The bedroom is small; his desk is against the wall between the closet and the door; the adjacent walls are each lined with a twin bed. “Whose bed am I sitting on? Is this yours?” “Yeh, that’s my bed, and that other one is my grandma’s. I made it. I built her bed for her.” Eyman: “Ahmed! We have to go!!!!!!! You’re gonna be late for TV. Like, you’re going to be on it! We can’t be late!”
Randy R. Potts is a writer and photographer living and working in the Red State Confederacy. He recently completed what is likely the first longform piece on Instagram, "The Bible Went Down With The Birdie Jean," 80,000 words and 300 photos, found here, @thebirdiejean.