A Comprehensive Travel Guide for Muslims in America
“Travelogue,” an essay by Farah Kader
Begin your journey when a boy in class asks you if you’re from Afghanistan. That’s where all the Muslims are, he says. When he inquires if you have an Uncle Osama, ignore him with the air of a nine-year-old who doesn’t have time for these petty questions. After all, your fourth grade teacher put your desks together only because she thinks you will set a good example for the class troublemaker.
Navigate an atmosphere that is not quite clear of the smoke and rubble left by the Twin Towers. With the media panic surrounding the Middle East, you will discover how easily activated your own panic button has become. Brown bodies in the tri-state area will vaporize, their own families uncertain of their fates. The shadows they leave behind will appear in your night visions as you lie awake.
The Indian boy in school will get asked by the social studies teachers to bring his mother in for show-and-tell. She will talk about Hinduism and why they don’t eat cows. She’ll bring gulab jamun for everyone to try and your classmates will shriek with disgust as they pluck apart the gooey balls. The boy who inquired about Uncle Osama will now ask if your mom makes this dessert at home. You will scrunch up your face and say that that you’ve never even heard of it before, to which he will reply, that’s good because even your food is probably better than this.
Your sixth grade teacher will talk about why the Twin Towers fell, and hand out TIME for Kids articles for you to share with the person sitting next you. You’ll see pictures of women in black niqabs and shouting men with unibrows. The caption reads: Protesters in Saudi Arabia wearing traditional Arab clothing. Kathryn C. and Catherine B. both will ask why you don’t cover your hair.
At 17, pack up and head west with two suitcases, one full of short sleeves and capris. When you land in San Francisco, you’ll discover that you did not pack nearly enough outerwear to survive the Bay Area in August. Bundle up in a gift-shop I Heart SF hoodie and tuck the sandals into the back of your dorm closet. The resident advisor will assure you that the layers will be shed by September. We call it Indian Summer, she’ll say.
Now that you’re far away from the person you were, imagine a new version of yourself that escapes all religious and ethnic labels. In the mirror you will see urban brown stretching towards a California chic that could only decorate pale skin. You are compelled by magazines glossed with translucent blue eyes, wispy hair and summer freckles. The hope that you will one day unravel into a person that is worth loving will give you solace after the flood of night terrors evaporate away with the sunrise.
Think about Mahmoud Darwish and Rhythm and Poetry. Think about a victim of systematic racism, marked by years of historic oppression, submerged in a genre invented by people who are also stained bottom-up by bloody water. Muslims will be surprised to learn that you can memorize rhymes in the bleached language of the colonizers but the history and complexity of your Arabic has been wrung dry by the dread of a transcontinental banishment. You are only completely fluent in apologetics.
Get involved in politics very early in your college career. Your parents were always apathetic towards social justice. We can’t change what the world has become, they would say. But now, student groups send you back to the West Bank border with a rifle resting on the taxi’s open windowsill right beside your temple. Flash mobs for Syria, mock checkpoints for Palestine, protests for Egypt. Apathetic students brush by while white boys with ponytails shout at them to brew up a disorderly civil unrest that fails to materialize.
You will be a useless volunteer for these causes. Hold a stack of quarter-sheet flyers and chat with other bored advocates. You will get tired, not from lack of sleep, but from the fake smiles you force and the sideways glances that scan you. Go sit on a bench by yourself and watch the sea of slumped shoulders and book bags blur by. Your attempts at identity transformation are never complete or whole.
The television lays out blueprints of your faith to serve as guides for the construction of a religious fundamentalist, and you are not quite sure what these fundamentals are. Panic consumes you under the looming threat of surveillance, both by the government and your own peers. And despite the performances you put on to assert your national loyalty, to self-define your religious fundamentals as something perfect and beautiful, you will still be diminished to a veil and beard. You have always been dissolved in homogeneity, tangled up in a role-play, encoded in an alienation you couldn’t uncover until now.
Cry in the shower about your shitty grades. Smash a dish in your apartment kitchen because your roommates’ friends are over and you can’t breathe. Take a bus to Oakland because you are so sick of this goddamn city where no one cares about you or where you go. Get off the train and realize you still have nowhere to go. Try not to cry. Read The Lord of the Rings and think about Middle Earth.
You’ll wonder if your parents ever felt as displaced in America as you have in your own body. You’ll call your mother to tell her that she is the reason why you moved across the country. Your constant state of dispossession begins to feel like home.
Arts & Culture
You are a hastily assembled structure that constantly needs the approval of others to stay composed and intact. You, who cannot breathe when you speak in front of strangers. You, who cuts herself to see the blood of the Intifada from which her parents fled. You, who reads and reads and inhales and soaks up every word, movement, and face but still cannot project half of what you take in.
Attend a gallery fundraiser for a Middle Eastern children’s charity. Meet one of the main organizers, a Colombian-American with clear eyes and baby skin. She tells you Subcomandante Marcos was a supporter of Palestine, and you tell her that you are a supporter of The House on Mango Street.
The departure from your hometown makes you study yourself, explain yourself, and doubt yourself. And when you finally return, you mother will fill you with pita and shorbat adas after you’ve cried yourself empty. Remember she spends her days sweating the salt of the Dead Sea, tries to cleanse you of demonic shadows until your high-maintenance body thwarts her. Muslim women tuck grief into their wombs and let it cultivate, hardening into a child of despair that can only be cut out with a sword. We somehow hold together with the faith that someone will hold our hands as we stumble through darkness.
About the Author
Farah received her BA in Public Health from the University of California-Berkeley. She is currently pursuing her Master’s in Public Health at the University of Michigan. She is part of Washington DC-based art collective, The Sanctuaries, which uses the arts to transform issues of race and religion into forces for personal growth and social change. She also loves tea, marine animals, and Will Smith.