What A Muslim Looks Like

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Photo by Maha Ahmed
Several years ago, my mom told me about an incident in which one of my cousins and his friends were told, or more fittingly "yelled at," to "go back to their damn country." They were playing basketball in a local, empty outdoor court, when some white people drove by and started slinging slurs at them. Punches were thrown. Someone got hurt.

When she told me, I remember wondering to myself whether this was only a petty classroom feud that had seeped out of school walls and into the neighborhood, whether it was an isolated incident.

My cousin and his friends weren't even old enough to drive at the time, but they did look like the post-9/11, media-curated image of terrorists I'd grown up seeing all around me --their skin was brown, and one of them wore a turban. They looked like me.

I remember being angry about what had happened to this group of boys precisely because they were a group of boys I had personal ties to, and not because of the deep-seeded racism and Islamophobia at play. Naturally, this anger subsided and was filed away into the deep recess of memories I would later develop that are similar, memories of graffiti left on friends' garage doors and jokes about the men in my family having ties to Al-Qaeda.

After all, this is Sugar Land and they were really only jokes. Nothing serious happens in Sugar Land, everyone always says. Nothing serious happens in Sugar Land, because it's just a suburb and it's not like the rest of the South. Here, going to a restaurant and seeing someone dressed in nonwestern clothing or speaking a language other than English is more a norm than an accepted anomaly. Here, especially in recent years, people who aren't Hindu take part in the annual Festival of Colors called Holi. Here, just last week, a local mosque held an iftar (breaking fast) dinner that Christians and Mormons attended.

So, yeah, my high school classmates and I had self-deprecating humor about our families and backgrounds, but there always seemed to be this unspoken disclaimer that no one should take anything seriously. In hindsight, I've come to recognize that it doesn't just take cultural difference, but conversations about those differences--serious conversations--to combat the type of insidious racism that eventually leads to what my cousin experienced. This past Monday was Eid al-Fitr (literally "festival of breaking of the fast" in Arabic), a day that marks the end of the holy month of fasting in Islam. The night before, thousands of people around the city tattoo their hands and arms and feet with henna, sing and dance into and through the actual day of Eid, eat inordinate amounts of food, and prepare their bedazzled and embroidered outfits for the next day: a series of events that can only be described as culminating in a collective effervescence.

Growing up in a Muslim family, I've learned to consistently anticipate this day with the excitement of an awestruck four-year-old. I got henna applied to the back of my hand Sunday night and chose an outfit that my father had brought home from Pakistan. We aren't the most devout Muslims on the block, but watching my mom's quiet and strong faith remain consistent for 18 years has left me instinctively muttering familiar, comforting prayers during difficult times.

I used to treat my family's culture and religion as a source of angst, believing it didn't allow me to fully express myself. I felt disconnected from people who I was supposed to feel a sense of unity with because of the color of our skin and how our last names were spoken with similar intonations. I thought I was in a bubble.

When I went off to the Midwest last September for college, I felt like a deer-in-headlights--blindingly bright, very white headlights, literally--and I understood that Sugar Land isn't even like the rest of the country, much less the South. The friends I made in Chicago, admittedly an abnormality in a region of endless cornfields, told me again and again how this was the most diversity they'd experienced in their life. I was shocked. I felt out of place at times. The jokes my friends and I made back home turned into something taboo, something I had to become excruciatingly conscious of. People engaged in serious conversations about cultural and racial difference.

My bubble had popped just like I wanted it to, and it meant not being around many people who looked like me. I lay awake in bed for hours this past Sunday night, unable to sleep and acutely aware of the looming early start to my morning, but not dreading it. It was more like the night before an exciting family vacation or childhood field trip, and walking into the NRG center Monday morning felt like just that: a fieldtrip. A cultural immersion, but by no means a homogeneous one.

Thousands of people piled in for the traditional morning-of-Eid service from around Houston wearing the simplest black or white garments, jeans, jeweled dresses, traditional attire, sneakers, or dress shoes. People with or without hijabs, alone or in a group, English-speaking and non-English-speaking all walked alongside my family through the halls of the building. West Africans, Arabs, South Asians, East Asians, whites, Latinos.

This was not a group of people that looked like me in the way that the group of boys my mom told me about five or six years ago did.

On NPR last week, I listened to a South Asian comedian talk about how growing up he "didn't even know what diversity was." Not because he lived in a homogeneous place, but instead one much like Sugar Land. For him, what people called "diversity" was just life. Here, my neighbors are Indian and Pakistani and Chinese and Vietnamese and Mexican. My friends are Taiwanese and Algerian and German and Bangladeshi. The New York Times told us that we are "what ethnic diversity looks like," closer to having equal percentages of every racial group than anywhere else in the country.

But I've realized that the groups these statistics constitute of are themselves diverse. What I was seeing and experiencing Monday morning was a cross-section of the larger worldwide Muslim population, one that hadn't made it to the sensationalized post-9/11 TV reports and one that gathered solemnly to exude a silent and unconscious protest against the harassment and racial profiling their brothers and sisters experience on a daily basis. One that filled me with pride, and appreciation, and a sense of solidarity. One that burst multiple bubbles.

And, because of that, I disagree with everyone who says that nothing serious happens here. That's not to say that the jokes have necessarily stopped or that there aren't problems within the Muslim community. There are, in the same way that there are problems within any community. But on days like Monday, and during times like Eid al-Fitr and Ramadan, I'm reminded of what a Muslim really looks like.

A Muslim looks like everybody.

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