IRVING, Texas — Ahmed Mohamed is watching himself trend on my iPhone.
“Man, I went viral.”
Ahmed’s looking at a video of himself posted online, while he and his sister Eyman argue inside the family minivan over whether it has 24 million or 24,000 views.
“This is seven digits!” It’s 24 million views, in 24 hours,” Ahmed yelps. “I feel like I could just walk on the street and people would know who I am.”
The level of fame he’s achieved 24 hours after his suspension, arrest, and interrogation at MacArthur High School for a “bomb” that was really a clock has gone beyond the streets of Irving. President Obama has invited him to the White House. MIT wants him to enroll. Mark Zuckberg wants him to work at Facebook. Every reporter on Earth wants a few minutes with him, including me.
Ahmed’s story struck such a nerve because the world saw a model student thrown in handcuffs like a suspect whose crime was being brown. Where most would see a white kid holding a crude electronic clock, the school apparently saw a Muslim terrorist.
Walking up to Ahmed’s house and seeing the media, I wondered, What more is there to write?
“The only real news I have for you is that Ahmed’s not going back to MacArthur,” family spokesperson Alia Salem from the Council on American-Islamic Relations tells me. “But, we’re about to drive to the television studio in a minute. Why don’t you come along? Sit next to Ahmed, you can ask him your questions.”
Before we 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 tangle of wires, and, seeing his Koran, grabbed it from his desk and held it up next to the wires. Eyman comes in, sees me taking pictures, and asks Ahmed, “Why are you holding the Koran?”
“I don’t know.”
In any event, she tells us we’ve got to go.
“You’re gonna be late for TV. Like, you’re going to be on it! We can’t be late!”
I climb into the way back of the family minivan. Ahmed sits to my left; Alia and Ahmed’s oldest sister, Eyman, sit in the middle row; Ahmed’s father, Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed drives; riding shotgun is Abbas Abdullah, youth leader at the local mosque.
Ahmed sees his friend through the mess of reporters and cameramen.
“Daniel! I have to say bye to Daniel! Wait, Yaba Yaba! [Arabic for “father.”] Wait! Eyman! Stop!” Dad stops the minivan in the middle of the street in front of their home, clogged with cars. “Hey, Daniel, tell everyone at school ‘thank you’ for giving me support.”
As we drive away, Elhassan asks where were going. Confusion reigns in the minivan. Alia is pulling up maps on her phone. Abbas tells Elhassan, “You have to know what it is you want, every channel, every channel—”
Alia looks up from her phone: “OK, the two newest that came through are Stephen Colbert and Ellen DeGeneres.”
Ahmed is still in awe, looking at a photo of himself on Twitter.
“Oh, man, they can see my address in the background!”
Ahmed shows me a photo of his clock we find on Twitter and the photo of him in handcuffs and a NASA T-shirt in the police station. I ask him particulars about the incident but he’s lost in Twitter again.
“Ever heard that phrase, ‘15 minutes of fame?’” I ask him.
Ahmed looks at me, fat grin on his face: “This is gonna be soooooo much longer.”
Ahmed may be the most famous teenager on Earth, but he is still a teenager, which means getting permission from his father before traveling.
“Dad, I have to ask you a question,” Alia says, “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,” he replies.
“I want Ellen!” Eyman interrupts, meaning Ellen DeGeneres’s show.
“There’s also Ellen,” Alia patiently nods.
Abbas asks what the teenagers plan to do with all this exposure.
“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.’”
Ahmed breaks in with news.
“Twitter says they’d like to intern me! Twitter would like to intern me! One hour ago, they said it.”
“Ahmed, what about Stephen Colbert?” Alia asks him.
“Um, OK.” That’s his response to Stephen Colbert. “I heard about the show before.”
Ahmed asks if he can use my phone to Google the Late Show host and then says: “I’m worried about your data.’ I tell him it’s unlimited. “OK, phew.”
We watch the opening 30 seconds of a Colbert segment and Ahmed nods, “Yeah, I think I’ve seen him before.”
Half an hour later I’m in the control room at the studio watching Ahmed and Alia talking to Chris Hayes on MSNBC.
Ahmed says one of the police officers told him, “That’s who I thought it was.” When Hayes presses Ahmed on what he believes that cop meant, the boy’s throat and face begin to wobble.
No wonder he was scared; the U.S. government is not known for treating Muslims accused of terrorism lightly. Not only that, Ahmed was questioned and allegedly asked to sign something akin to a confession under threat of expulsion. Then police took him in handcuffs to a juvenile detention center. During this whole time he was denied his right to speak to his parents.
After the MSNBC segment, Eyman and I sit down in the hallway where she says the same thing happened to her as Ahmed.
“I got suspended 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 as she gets emotional.
“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 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.”
This part of Texas is a hotbed of Islamophobia. Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne in March claimed Muslim clergy were “bypassing American courts” by offering to mediate disputes between worshippers according to Islamic law. Residents of Farmersville last month fought against creation of a Muslim cemetery in their town. Garland was the site of a “draw Muhammad” contest hosted by anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller that was subsequently attacked by two gunmen inspired by ISIS.
She says she thought it was easier for boys to be Muslims than girls because of the hijab.
“How do you even stick out? You look like everyone else!”
After the taping is finished Ahmed tours the studio: He hits a couple of billiard shots at the pool table, pushes buttons in the in-house theater, and sits in the mock ticket booth out front, signing tickets.
Outside the studio we see electronic equipment from the ’70s, including a camera that looks 40 years old. I ask if he could make it into a clock: “Yeah, 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."
After that we pile back into the van and go home.
“Ahmed Mohamed came up in the Republican debate,” Alia reports from Twitter. “It didn’t go well.” Elhassan looks back, confused. “They didn't like him?”
“Probably not!” Abbas yells.
“Because of Mr. Obama?” Elhassan asks. Alia responds that she doesn’t know.
As we turn onto his street, Ahmed remarks on all the reporters still there.
“My dad drives good, he can get around them, he can park very precisely,” Ahmed says.
Remnants of pizza the family bought for the media are still on the front lawn. Ahmed is running around with a little girl on his back.“Take a picture of us! Take a picture of us!”
Alia stands outside the 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, but it’s fallen on her to let him be 14.
Walking into the living room, there are two daybeds to my left where older women recline; to my left, to men sit up straighter on the couch, point at my camera, and I snap their pictures.
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 purple, yellow, pink hijabs.
“This is Sudanese bread, you must try,” one tells me. They are eating the best pieces of lamb with their hands from communal bowls. “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 a sip of Sprite she’s poured for me. The bigger kids, about 15 of them, are all in the adjacent room gathered around Ahmed, watching him trend online, giggling quietly.
From the living room come the sounds of the men praying, I think, but it sounds more like music, like a capella jazz. “Are they singing? Are those prayers?” I ask.
“They are thanking God.”
A teenage girl sees me eating: “Take a picture of this white man eating.” Someone else says, “I’m gonna tweet it right now. Hashtag: white man eating Sudanese food.”
I can’t eat another bite so 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 little girls are leaning on him.
“Dude, I’m still trending.”