Calling Home

on the back stoop

bright hot sunshine warms my head

golden breeze whips my skirt

I sit dreaming

Dreams of a hotter place than this

Brighter.

In my head, all the way across the sea-

stuccoed houses, brighter skies,

dark haired children, darker eyes.

I squint

At blue and clouded sky . I see another sky-

Darker. Stars are out- adornments of the heavens, bright

Pinpricks on an indigo sky.

The adhan echoes through the night

Silver as the stars-

My heart sings-

Over lands, across the sea,

Call to the faithful, calling me,

Home, they say

Is where your heart is.

I find my heart in Yemen.

stuccoed houses ,brighter skies,

dark haired children, darker eyes.

Brighter, and yet darker. I sit quiet, try to see-

Yemen’s stars are calling me.

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Little Strengths

“What bothers you most when we go out?”

I turned from stirring to look over at my eleven-year-old sister. She was sorting out plates for lunch, seemingly calm, but I couldn’t help wondering if someone had bothered her.

“People following us around,” I said mischievously, referring to a neighbor of ours who practically follows us everywhere we go.

“I mean, rude things.”

“I think that counts as rude. To some of us.”

“Like, people making nasty comments and stuff. Staring.” (She wasn’t about to be deflected from a deep conversation.)

I had to consider this for a moment, but before I go on, let me tell you how sad it is that my little sisters and brother have to worry about this. That it’s honestly something they think about, and worry about sometimes, when we go out- not kid-on-kid abuse, but grownups saying these things to them. They don’t go to public school and worry about being picked on. For them, it’s as simple as going shopping and having the woman across the aisle make a ‘nasty comment.’

My little sister- this particular little sister- is sensitive. She broods over things she hears. During times of disturbance or emotional distress, she washes her hands compulsively, again and again until they’re chapped and cracked, as painful as her soul.

Even my five-year-old sister has silently absorbed- without being told- that some people, people we walk past in the grocery store and have little girls like her, hate us for being Muslim. She knows, but as far as I know it is just part of her world, a little inconvenience like a rainstorm on grocery day. She plays every day with her friend- a blond little girl who goes to a Baptist church and said once we were ‘kind of like we’re cousins’. She puts on her little peach silk beaded khimar and pink cowboy boots and sashays out to face the world. She doesn’t absorb the snatches of alarming conversation yet, and often, I like to think, is a little ambassador in bright small scarves.

They’re on different planes, and I am on yet another.

I hear the comments. Catch the stares. I have been told to get out of the way before I am shot, heard the hurled whispers, the incredulous, meaningfully painful exclamations.

But for each ‘holy cow!’ and each threat, and each muttering of insults, I get a little stronger. Like another veneer of strength, and by now I feel like I’ve heard it all- threats, insults, rude questions, the hurled words to break our souls, and each time I hold up my head and keep walking. I have to let it go, forget it, not only for myself but for my little brother and sisters who take it from me. And for some of them, they forget too; for one of them, she remembers and grows nervous, unable to let it go, already wounded.

It comes hard to realize that this hostility is shaping this second generation- the future. I don’t want her to grow up afraid to walk out of the house, to repeat the hurt herself after someone has already wounded her. Like any big sister, I want to spare her the pain- but I know she’ll come through, the way she did since she was little and loyally believed that zucchini was chicken because under siege in Yemen we had no chicken, and ate it. She made the best of the bad then and I hope she always will. And I hope I’ll be there to help her, but if I’m far away she’ll still hold on, because I have learned a lesson from this.

The littlest people can still be very strong, and hold on even when we assume they won’t. We can learn from them if we let ourselves. Yesterday she decided to start wearing her abayah out in public. ‘Since I know I have to wear it in a little while, I thought I can start now so I don’t have to do it all at once suddenly, you know?’

Even though she worries.

Let us all be that strong.

To Never Hide

I’m eighteen years old, American, and am living in the wilds of Missouri State at the moment. Not that anyone notices that about me at first sight. The first thing they notice is that I wear hijab. I wear niqab, to be exact, but until I came here that was just called wearing hijab.

 

It wasn’t the world’s hugest deal. It wasn’t a barrier between me and life, a sign of Worse Things, an expression of any kind of rebellion. It was the way I wore hijab. It was the way most people wore hijab back home, where hijab wasn’t the first thing you noticed- no hijab was the first thing you noticed. It was worn outside, and taken off inside, and it wasn’t a sign of special faith or super bravery.

Then we came here. One of my first bewildered impressions of America was the amount of skin that was showing the frigid day after Christmas in New York. We were the only Muslims in the whole place, it felt like. Covered.

It didn’t get a whole lot better at the masjid there (at least we had one) where although it was a large community we were the only family of girls that dressed that way. We stood out, a bevy of doves in a crowd of bright parrots. We were the niqabis, fresh from the Middle East. We were, it sometimes felt like, the strangers. We found kindred spirits more often with Arabs than anyone else, often glad to hear their home tongue or see something familiar to home (us, lol. No one wanted to believe we were full-blooded Americans).

At first this continual singling out of my hijab passed me by. Then it bothered me. Why was it so- continual? The society in which no one bothered to ask further if they were confused. They simply assumed. A place in which I was more likely to be threatened than respected. Where if a man stopped in front of me in public, I half expected an insult rather than anything else. A place where I still do.

I understand now why it’s a big deal. It’s a not a societal norm in any way. I have to work around it. I can’t say I never resent it- the way we who wear this type of hijab are somehow often excluded from the popular hijab dialogue and given our own little platform, sometimes, only when someone wants to ban it. The way people assume at once- even if it’s an assumption I wish were true. The way other Muslims take the trouble to paste us as too extreme in words others hear as truth and they can never take back.

Feelings I never had to bother with before all come to the surface. Like wishing people would acknowledge me. Or how, hearing how a sister in niqab was chased down by policemen and stripped, my chest clenches in fear and anger. Or wondering if today is the day someone will choose to turn around and insult me.

But I promise myself I will never turn around and take it off to make life easier, because I won’t bend to prejudice. I won’t give you the reason to say it is so hard to do. I refuse to stop doing something right for myself because someone else is doing something wrong to me. I can’t give my reason for taking it off as because it prejudiced people, because the way to overcome prejudice is to face it, not remove the disturbance and hide.

I don’t go to school and I work from home. All of you out there who have to go to work and school every day, not sure if today will be the day you need that extra strength, I give you a Muslim sister salute.

Food Talk

Eating in public. I mean, it’s simple, right? You buy the food (if you have any money, or if you don’t, sit around sadly until someone offers at least a drink)  and you usually sit down. Then most people will lift their greasy goodness or their loaded fork to their mouth and- well, you know the drill.

But what if……..your mouth………is covered up? That is, behind a veil of cloth. Light cloth you can breathe through, but………not light enough to let a fork through?

That can present a major problem- for me. (Well, only minor, because my part time job isn’t really an eating out salary and I haven’t yet mastered the art of bamboozling men into buying me food on a date. Or- okay, I don’t go on dates, but still.) Often it’s not so much the eating itself as people all watching intently to see how you eat veiled, thereby depriving you of the privacy needed to lift the veil and……..eat. (There, I said it. Lift the veil.) Not even lift it all the way, but if you want to fit a burger underneath without making a mess, it requires a pretty good flip of the niqab and everyone sees what you were covering.

So sometimes, you just can’t eat. You sit there staring at your food while the rest of the patrons stare at you, and count the sesame seeds and salt granules and wonder if the restaurant will ever empty. And then everyone gets a bit impatient. ‘I just don’t feel comfortable,’ only goes so far with other people. Even if you truly do feel uncomfortable with giving people a show when all all you wanted to do is eat- the stares are uncomfortable, the not eating is uncomfortable, and starving, I have to say, may top both.

But wait! All is not a bottomless pit of despair and starvation! There is a savior- permit me to introduce the Side Flip.

It’s not really so much a flip as an artful lift. (An artful lift of the veil- shades of Orientalism!) It’s lifting your niqab not up from the front, but open from the side. Sounds weird, but it looks fine, and if I can eat ice cream…..well, I’m weird already. I wish I could say it took a twirl of the finger, a specially timed lift, and a tilt of the head, but really you just slip it open on the side away from people (in case you always wonder why niqabis like getting a seat by the wall, it’s not because we’re afraid of being shot) and eat like everyone else. If you’re eating something big- I guess you guys can tell I like burgers- you can lift it open further and hold your hand- the hand that’s already holding it open- open a little, or in a delicate half-fist or something to provide coverage. That works. But if you’ve got a seat in the center of the arena and an audience to boot, you might not be comfortable, like I said- in which case I order a smoothie. Delicious, fulfilling, and you can always tell your friends your niqab makes you svelte. (Even thought you go home and tear off your hijab and pig a grilled cheese.)

There’s also another solution. Just put the food under your niqab and make a mess if you’re the arty careless type. Then go home, because you’ll be a mess.

A fork is in some way another story. I’m pretty sure every niqabi has at some time or other lifted a fork (probably while talking wittily to someone) and tried to put it in her mouth right through the veil. I know I’ve done it; it’s a bit awkward because people don’t understand how you can forget you have it on, and you come across as a complete airhead. (I mean, you can’t forget you have pants on, they think. Well, if they were as light as a well made niqab, you probably could!)

(I’m sure there will be some incredulous wonderers as to why on earth we go to all that trouble. Read my previous articles! )

Disclaimer: The picture does not depict me. I would never be able to eat rice with my fingers in public; so whoever you are, you have reached a talent above mine and I will refrain from claiming your accomplishment.

 

 

Since You Know Me.

You decide for me, that I’ll never ride a horse or go skydiving (ambitions of mine). You know me, straitlaced and innocent. You know me better than I know myself.

I’m what a lot of people- too many people-would call extreme. Unfathomable, maybe.

Walking down the street all I uncover is my eyes and my hands. Although I’m not walking like a dying flower, I don’t swing my hips or wear shoes that click super loud. Just eighteen. I get a smile. You’re eighteen? I’ve never even had a crush! Not even from a distance! I’ve never been to prom, never been to a movie! I mean, the closest I’ve gotten to drugs and alcohol is Dramamine and the vanilla in my grandmother’s cake! I’ve never touched a man who wasn’t related to me, never been made a pass at (understandably!) don’t listen to music, and for Pete’s sake I’ve never even taken a selfie!

So I guess people get an image. I must be really demure. Probably nice, at best, and at worst a crusader to get you to be like me. My mother is a religious teacher- wow, I must be the most straitlaced person ever. I have a soft voice unless I’m really lively; my teacher used to laugh at me because I had such a ‘soft little voice’ and people tend to shape up around me. You said a four-letter-word??? See me swoon! You walked past me without…a…shirt???? I’m forever corrupted, tumbling offended in the dirty world of shirtless men! You mentioned sex? Sure, I’m eighteen and think babies come out of a- an incubator! Yeah. Or at least I only have a faint idea!

It can be both amusing and tiresome. I don’t use curse words, and I prefer you don’t, but I’m not eternally offended and condemning you to my blacklist. It’s kind of sweet when people cover more in respect to me, but I don’t expect you to and won’t be offended if you don’t.

But you never think of the side of me that wants to get red streaks in my hair.You think it’s impossible for me to have a (slightly wicked) sense of humor.You wouldn’t guess I’m the one who sometimes says the things that make my sisters gasp.You don’t guess at the girl who plugs in her earbuds and tears it up dancing down the forest trail near my house.You don’t ever imagine that I can be a little wild in my own way, a little crazy, and still stay inside the lines Islam draws for me.

I want to get my nose pierced, but am yet summoning the moxie to charge into the town’s intimidating tat place and demand a piercing.My fashion preferences are crimson and peacock blue and black, silk and denim and cotton, elegant and restrained, but wait. I don’t know fashion, out in my fashionless hijab, and for you there is no other world for me. You decide for me, that I’ll never ride a horse or go skydiving (ambitions of mine). You know me, straitlaced and innocent. You know me better than I know myself. You know my teenage years- but wait.

You don’t. You just don’t. You don’t know the raging storm my teen years have been. They weren’t like yours, but my fight was real and painful, and loving Allah fiercely as my stay the entire time. I wasn’t in agony and rebellion because I wanted to uncover and go out to a bar. I didn’t want to break the boundaries; I wanted to break myself. (But of course, it was probably because I was so strict. Right. Remind me again, you’re the expert on my life while I take notes.)

Tell me again, all I’m missing in life.Tell me it’s so sad I cover, because I’m so beautiful. I’m ruining my life. Tell me that when I leave my mother’s house I’m going to be tearing off my hijab and turning up Beyonce in my car. You haven’t seen me dance, haven’t seen me cry, haven’t seen me love, but you know me and I’m like the others.

You think, because you read a book written by a white middle class journalist about her ‘journey into the fascinating world of Muslim women’-awww– you know me. Or maybe you happen to read Muslim Girl, and I’m the classic millennial feminist they like to portray, railing against patriarchy and bright in the world of fashion with a liberal sense of religion. Perhaps you picture me as a some kind of houri under the flowing cloth. Or I’m a radical, imported straight from the wild Middle East. Or I’m ‘just a normal girl, but covered!’

A little crazy, innocent, strict, so young, just weird, unbreakable,fragile, little, radical, sassy, extreme, unique, boring. I’ve been called nothing and everything, some of those and none of those, again and again and again.

I’m a mystery. You hate that, admit it.

I love it. And that’s what makes all the difference in the world.

 

 

Falling

 I was running in the sunlight. I remember that vividly, my skirt whipping in the breeze as I ran down the dust road in the buttery early morning light. My sisters were racing right beside me, and I had my doll clutched in one arm.

I was five years old, and we were on our way to morning lessons in Ma’bar, Yemen. I don’t remember a lot from then- the dust roads, the way the sun rose over the edge of our walled roof, the stained glass window with the name of Allah on it in red glass-but I remember strangely, sharply, running down the road in the morning.

We’ve been in America for nearly four years now, watching Yemen’s bloody ruin from across oceans-the homesickness never goes away.

Yemen isn’t even technically my home. I am American, about as American (in blood, anyway) as it gets, my ancestors Irish and German, African and Czech. I’ve spent a total of eight years in the U.S and about ten years in Yemen, so maybe that’s why; why my heart is a maze of dusty roads and the sunset adhan and barefoot children, why- when I can’t even speak Arabic anymore- hearing a San’aa accent touches me still, and why sometimes I weep for everything I had in childhood-had in Yemen- and lost. Why I really don’t mind when someone says I look Arab. Why all it takes is looking at old pictures of Yemen to bring tears to my eyes.

I didn’t want to leave. Warplanes thundered over in the weeks before we left, and protests were a daily occurrence. (Once my little brother was taking out the garbage and was overrun by a crowd of protesters, chanting the separatist slogan of the South.) I remember talking to my older brother on the phone one last time before we left. He was in a village under siege; they were running out of food, and as I tried to tell him how much I would miss him, I could hear the explosions in the background. Sounds of war.

After I got off the phone I collapsed in my bedroom and cried.

When we arrived in the JFK International Airport we were run ragged by two days of traveling. It was December, and out in the bitter cold everything was so different I was numb. My mother slowly folded up her coat and placed it in my baby sister’s pillowcase to nurse her- a little bit of home for my bewildered little sister. I looked down at my pale pink backpack, lumpy from being searched too many times to count, too many airports to count, and tried to think- I was too tired, exhausted by loss and jet lag.They were questioning my father when my older sister fainted from exhaustion.

It wasn’t the way I had imagined ‘coming back to America.’

I want to go back sometime. Maybe as an aid worker or a teacher, to help and slowly restitch Yemen’s torn seams. It’s not a dream likely to come true any time soon. Next best would be a different Gulf country, someplace where I could form memories new.

 I was still running, gripping the doll, when I fell. Dust flew, the doll flying to land ignominiously on the road, and I stared a moment into the sunlight.

 That was like Yemen, running with my dreams tucked under my arm. Coming back was falling, my dreams suddenly sailing out of reach. Gone.

 Sometimes I feel like I’m still falling.

 

Cracked

In face of my apprehension of the outside world because of Islamophobia
after the recent events. I’d come to America in a more stable period ( Or maybe it was me, and something changed)  and was surprised to see the dirt come to the surface as soon as something jarred it free. Add this to the fact that I was in a period of intense curiosity and discovery but I wasn’t ready for the ugly reality-of how the way I lived my life could connect to something that I felt utterly separate from,and feared, how that could impact my world.Maybe then you can understand, maybe, how it felt to hear of Donald Trump’s
popularity rates and the rise of a lot of intensely ugly Islamophobia.
Do you talk and make a fuss? Defend yourself to the point of exhaustion to deaf
ears??????

confusion
like an unexpected
dizzying slap
a fracture
of stability
i thought was tight
a measure
of ability
to stay upright.
the opening
of a world
left too long shut
the jerking of my orbit
the cracking of a nut.
stand up?
talk fast?
leave well enough alone?
the shatter of a window
a sharp hurled stone….