With everything that’s been going on in the news lately, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences as a Muslim American. Most of my childhood, my identity was something that I did not question. While I do have one vague memory of ‘being different’ as a child because I didn’t participate in Halloween or Christmas arts & crafts in Pre-K, most of my childhood I spent surrounded by Muslims, people who ‘were like me’. The privilege of attending a private Islamic school in California from kindergarten through fourth grade meant that for most part I was not forced to confront my identity. In my mind, we were all ‘normal’. We all prayed together after lunch, we all celebrated Eid and made paper lanterns, and most of us had Arabic names. Even outside of school, my Girl Scouts troop consisted completely of Muslim girls. In fact, I don’t remember having a single non-Muslim friend before going to public school in the U.S. during my junior year of high school.
It wasn’t that my parents were opposed to me having non-Muslim friends; as many of you know part of my extended family is Catholic. I just grew up in an area with a large enough Muslim community that I was never forced to look elsewhere for friendship. I may have made a few non-Muslim friends during summer classes at the local pool and community art classes, but with my Muslim best friend from Kindergarten at my side, no one else could compete.
Then one day when I was in second grade, things changed. It all started with a phone call my mom got while driving us to school one morning. Suddenly she turned around and told us that school had been canceled. I watched the devastation of the plane crashing into the tower on TV but could not understand what was going on, nor the consequences. After that, the title of our school was removed from the front of the building, as it had the word ‘Islamic’ in it. We were taught in school what ‘code red’ was, and what to do in case of an emergency. I remember a few incidences that occurred after that, where our safety as Muslims in America was questioned. However minor these aggressions were compared to the experiences of other Muslims in the U.S., the still were enough to put my family at unease.
The summer after fourth grade my family packed up all our stuff and said goodbye to our friends. We moved to Morocco and stayed there a month, and then we moved to the United Arab Emirates. A safe, family-friendly, majority Muslim environment. While the first year I struggled academically at a school that taught almost all its subjects in Arabic, but once I moved to an American curriculum school I felt more at home. Everyone spoke English, and I was the only American kid which made me unique. We moved to Dubai, changed schools a few more times, but it was never too hard to make new friends again, readjust to a new setting.
While many friends back home (especially those going to a public school) faced the repercussions of 9/11, I was distant from that reality. I was surrounded by people who accepted my identity for the most part. I was surrounded by other Arab and Muslim kids, we had Eid off as a holiday, and we got off early from school during Ramadan. Wearing the scarf was an easy decision for me to make, considering a large portion of the female population wore one. Fast forward six years later, and my family was moving back to California in the middle of my junior year of high school. For the first time in my life I went to public school.
Now, I was excited to attend public school. I would have never guessed that I would experience culture shock in the country I was born in. After all, going to a public school in the Bay Area, California, the student population was pretty diverse. There were a bunch of girls who wore hijab and there was even a Muslim student club. As the year progressed, I started to make both Muslim and non-Muslim friends. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was different, and I didn’t fit in. I was used to going to an all-girls private school where everyone was Muslim, instead of being the only Muslim girl in most of my classes at public school.
While going to college and making friends with people of all different backgrounds made me feel more comfortable about my own identity (as I reflected on in this post), I still often wonder sometimes if my experience as an American Muslim today would be completely different if I had been raised my whole life in the U.S. I am thankful, especially today, for each non-Muslim person who chooses to get to know me and sees me as more than just my religion and a bunch of stereotypes.
Side note: I was pleasantly surprised by an article on Variety the other day that addresses the issue of Muslim’s lack of representation in the media and how it relates to people’s attitudes about Muslims living in the U.S.