For the first time since 9/11, I am afraid to leave the house.
Even when the bombs started dropping on Afghanistan and Iraq, my naive 20-something self at the time was certain I’d be safe here in the U.S. Especially here, in Southern California.
People always tell me how laid back and “West Coast” my vibe is, right down to the relaxed cadence in my speech. I was confident and comfortable in the knowledge that I was from here. Those distant wars were not about me.
Today, things feel different.
Before I wrote this post I had to convince myself that addressing my experience would be useful not only to me but to someone else. It took me more than a year to get over the shame. I did not talk about the things that went on in my relationship for many years even though I was (and am) surrounded by an incredibly supportive family and circles of strong and understanding feminist women. Maybe that was it… how could I, as a so-called feminist and strong woman, come forward with my story of emotional control?
I met my partner while in university; I was 18 at the time. Despite the fact that we were from different cultures, we clicked and managed to build a promising relationship. At the time, I was not Muslim, and I had been raised in a pretty liberal household. On the other hand, he had been raised as a conservative Muslim.
The cultural differences are something that people still ask me about because we were from radically different backgrounds. I would like to think that we were successful at negotiating all sorts of things. I quickly learned that pork was a no-no, and that alcohol, including baking vanilla, was something to avoid. After a few years, he became aware of the importance I placed on my language and my traditions, and he made an effort to study these cultural referents. While I was overly aware of his religion and culture from the very beginning, it took him a few years to understand that being in an inter-cultural and inter-religious relationship requires a lot of work. Part of me assumes that he expected me to be the one to compromise from the very beginning.
I went to my 20th high school reunion on the same day I went to a high school open house for my oldest child.
At the reunion, our name tags had our pictures from our freshman year in high school. There I was with my bangs nearly flopping over my eyes, my entire future unscripted and unknown. I pressed my name tag onto my blouse and thought about my oldest son, with his hair flopping down across his forehead, how he’d be turning the same age as I was in that picture in just a matter of months. In some odd way, I felt as if he was becoming a peer.
I don’t feel all that different from the girl I was in that picture. I remember everything she liked and wanted for herself. I remember all her hopes and dreams and fears. I’ve certainly changed, my priorities and values have shifted, but that young girl is still with me. All I have done for that last twenty years is sleep and wake up, and life has happened around me. I got married, earned degrees, moved, had children, moved some more, and then finally returned to my hometown. Through it all, the years just passed without any sort of fanfare. I wish we had to crank the gears on some giant clock or push time forward in any sort of physical way, because this sunrise-sunset business crept up on me. Wrinkles just showed up on my face; grey hair appeared out of nowhere; and my waistline decided it had enough. After three children, it was done shrinking back to its pre-pregnancy size.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Muslims use Bilal (rA)’s name to support their theories on why racism cannot or does not exist in the Ummah. As if the Ummah is monolithic, as if it were a small community or a classroom or a place that could be static, even for a moment. As if the act of tokenizing a man as a one size fits all patch to the “non racist” racism that “doesn’t exist” is somehow okay. As if they were capable of naming another black Sahaba and not have to resort to Malcolm X in a desperate attempt not to be labeled the “R word.” As if Twitter and other social media platforms weren’t littered with the word abeed, as if in the mad dash to advocate and mobilize for Syria and Palestine we didn’t forget Somalia, and the war on black men, women and children and non binary folks that is occurring right now in our towns, our cities, our homes.
As Muslims we like to knock ourselves in the head with the idea that we aren’t susceptible to racism, that somehow because we were warned by the Prophet (saws) to beware of oppression and to remember that racial hierarchies are bullshit, we are spared from the parasitic nature of anti-black racism. We give the Ummah this projected identity of a safe and equitable space, void of aunties who want lighter-skinned daughters for their sons; uncles who won’t let black men marry their daughters; and masjids that actively work to keep out “urban culture”, i.e., black culture. As if there aren’t brothers and sisters who forget what private naseeha looks like when they see the blackness of someone’s skin, as if there aren’t entire countries being crushed by the foot of neocolonialism that go unsupported because a significant portion of their populations are black.
A few months ago I went to a masjid that was predominately Pakistani. I stopped on my way home from work, it wasn’t my normal masjid, but it was the closest one to me, so I decided to pray there. I generally have no qualms about praying somewhere on the side of the bus stop or in a quiet place at the subway station, but this day I had a little more time, and so I thought I’d check out this masjid I’d never been to before.
Immediately after I walked in, the women were staring at me. As a black woman, I’m used to this. I was also wearing a merlot colour lipstick and big headphones so I wrote off their looks as inquisitive, or disapproving of my chosen aesthetic (I can see how it may be an acquired taste). Either way, their prying eyes were inconsequential, because as a black woman who has experienced being the only black woman in her class, or at her place of work, staring is something I can generally ignore.
They met on a cruise of the South Pacific and immediately hit it off. Back at home in the U.S., they dated and found themselves all the more drawn to each other. In an era when most people their age married right out of high school or college, they were both in their 30s and still single. But they came to realize that this was what they had each been waiting for.
It culminated one evening in a perfect setting: a candlelit dinner at a fancy restaurant. After the meal, he took the diamond ring from his pocket and held it out to her.
“Well?” he said.
We often sit around the shisha for long conversations. The seven of us blow smoke and think through life together. There are days when the puffing conceals our loud laughter over topics that should probably not be discussed in public; on others, the smoke is a soothing reminder of normalcy in a dating world that is dark and scary. Every time I sit to “shish” (yes, it is a verb) with these women, I am amazed. I feel proud, and I feel stronger.
These women are all different; all colours, flavours, stories and paths to the divine. There is Boots, who is the fearless warrior. She is strong, driven and, above all, extremely open. It is she who challenges my Virgo structure, my need for control. She reads me, and questions my every thought and assumption. We also have Buttercup, always observant and analyzing. She is the archetype of the successful woman: independent, knowledgeable, and settled. She grounds me. She reminds me that there is so much out there in the world and that, despite everything, Allah places little snippets of happiness in the most random places.
Then, there is Puff. She often sits there puffing smoke, like an Alice in Wonderland’s character, presenting us with riddles. You need an astrologer? Someone who can analyze your zodiac character? She is your girl! Extremely sweet and sensitive, she reminds me of everything that is cosmically beautiful. S., is our social butterfly. She is cheery, happy, and has a magnetic personality. I have never met anyone who does not like S. She is always surrounded by people, and she has a beautiful friendly aura protecting her 24/7. All I need to do is sit and listen to her quirky stories and the world seems to smile at me.
Then there is Ring, the newbie. She is my Virgo twin, just a little more vocal about her emotions. We overthink and complain together about the uncertainty of the world and, at the end, we try to convince each other that everything will be okay. And finally there is Hoops. She has Sophia’s impropriety and Lorelai’s wittiness. Inappropriate and loud, she is the embodiment of the challenge to the establishment. But underneath all that there is an undying hopefulness. She is the one who reminds me to keep dreaming.