FORT SMITH, Ark. — Abraham Davis was sitting on a thin blue pad on the concrete floor of Cell 3 in a jail in western Arkansas when a guard came around with stamped envelopes and writing paper.
The Two Americans
The first person he wrote to was his mother. Abraham, just shy of 21, had barely spoken to her since his arrest a few days before, and he had a lot to explain.
It all began on a night last October when he borrowed her white minivan and drove to the home of a friend. They’d gotten drunk on cheap whiskey. Kentucky Deluxe. Abraham agreed to drive his friend to a mosque in town. His friend drew swastikas and curses on the mosque’s windows and doors while Abraham stood watch in the driveway.
The next day, the vandalism was all over the news. Abraham watched the reports over and over on his phone, his stomach curdling with regret.
Even now, as he was facing up to six years in prison for the act, Abraham could not explain why he had done it.
He had grown up in Fort Smith, a city of tall oak trees and brick churches that has the look of a faded Polaroid. His father, charismatic but violent, died when Abraham was 5, leaving him with a feeling of powerlessness so intense that he has been trying to conquer it ever since. “Most of my life I’ve spent trying to train myself to become something that’s too strong to be broken through,” he said. Life has teed him up for a fight, and he walks tilted slightly forward, as if someone is pulling him with an invisible wire.
As a poor student in the high school on the wealthier side of town, Abraham often felt like an outsider. He walked, not drove, hung out on playgrounds, not in restaurants. He got into a lot of fights. He did poorly in school, but he doesn’t remember his teachers seeming surprised. Expectations were low, and he bent to fit them. He slept a lot in class. At 18, he dropped out.
Fort Smith has two country clubs, several golf courses, a Talbots and a symphony orchestra. But a proliferation of pawnshops and a circuit court crowded with indigent defendants are reminders of the grinding poverty all around, in the rural areas of western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma.
For years, those divisions had been etched into the city’s geography. Poorer families lived on the north side of town and wealthier families on the south. Race followed the same pattern, with the south predominantly white and much of the city’s black population in the north.
But time has scrambled those old lines. Latinos came here to work in the poultry industry. Pho shops dot the city’s main drag, property of Vietnamese who began arriving as refugees after the fall of Saigon. R & R’s Curry Express serves deliciously spicy North Indian food at a Finish Line gas station.
Muslims from different countries came, too — some to study, some to work in the city’s growing medical industry. Many had money. Hisham Yasin did not.
A Palestinian who grew up just outside Damascus in Syria, Hisham sold fruits and vegetables in an outdoor market. He came to the United States in 1996, joining his parents and an older brother. Hisham imagined Beverly Hills, but found himself in western Arkansas in a rotting house with rats and cockroaches. He washed dishes at the Golden Corral. His father collected cans. He and a brother, Abdul Rahman, opened a used-car business. They called it A & H Auto Sales.
Today, Hisham lives in a grand house in Fort Smith with sparkling chandeliers on the edge of a thick green forest of oak and pine. He is 49 and has the look of an affable neighborhood baker, with a big belly and a broad smile. He is giving his three children what he calls a “five-star life” compared with his own, which he says began at “below zero.” He follows the news about Syria daily. But Arkansas is his home. He considers the day he came to the United States — Feb. 11 — his birthday.
Hisham was one of the founders of the mosque that Abraham helped vandalize. They called it Al Salam — meaning “peace” in Arabic. Since 2009, it has been in a brick ranch formerly used as a law office. It is on a busy road, South 28th Street, between a library branch and a nursing home. The founders wanted it that way. They thought the Muslims of Fort Smith should be forthright and confident, not hiding somewhere off the beaten path. This, they believed, would gain the community’s trust and respect, maybe even help guard against the noxious stream of negative news about Muslims.
The truth was that until the vandalism, few people in Fort Smith knew that Muslims lived in their city.