I was in the first grade when I decided I didn’t want to go to school anymore. I can’t remember how or where, but just that I didn’t want to be in another class and face those mean little girls again. I was six and it was the fight-or-flight instinct people say comes naturally. My body was begging me to fly. All I remember is being scared, humiliated, and upset. I didn’t have the words to say what I wanted, and even if did, I didn’t trust that those girls would be any less ignorant. My eyes were closed and, as I tried to keep my head up and swallowed back tears, those two little girls said things like, “You can’t play with us because you’re a terrorist.” They laughed as I stood there, realizing that this would be a title I would have to deal with for a very long time.
Being a Muslim American made things really difficult in school because I always felt uncomfortable. Growing up, I was always taught never to hit anyone or speak if I had nothing nice to say. So I stood there, me against them, feeling helpless. I no longer looked forward to another day of school.
After I moved into my second year of first grade, I became successful. Because I bantered my way out of further conflicts, I had failed first grade. During my second year, I was selfish and inconsiderate and gave my parents a hard time so I could avoid as many school days as I could. I hid in my closet on mornings leading up to school, the trunk on my arrival to school, and toy structures or in the reading hall during our free play. Despite my resistance, the second year was better and I finished at the top of my class. I never said a word to anyone about what had happened. I would like to believe I am stronger now than when I was six and that my experiences made me stronger. But I think I just became used to it.
Growing up as an Arab Muslim in America taught me to admire both cultures. I always thought of them as equals. As I grew older, I cherished my Arab side more because I found it to be an important part of who I am and loved. It was, however, something easy to lose while growing up in a Western society my whole life. It helped having such a liberal family. My family is very liberal, which just means that they are open to new things. Although we maintained our traditional language, food, hospitality, and music, we also incorporated many American things, like conforming to the Western way of dressing and celebrating such holidays as Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.
We were just normal people doing normal things. Anyone who knows us understands the types of good-hearted people we strive to be. But it was the constant casualties of walking down the street or going to the mall with relatives who wore the hijab that I found difficult to endure. Simple things always seemed to involve some type of stereotypical interaction. Some days, it would be simple and we’d get the usual “terrorist blah blah blah get out of my country blah blah blah,” or the hilarious “helllooo it is ve-ry niiice to meeett youu,” which stretched out every syllable two seconds too long. To this, we would reply in fluent English, “You, too,” slightly questioning whether it really was nice to meet them. I always tried to hide my dirty looks or condescending smile when they appeared dumbstruck. People sometimes assume that if you wear the hijab, you aren’t educated, aren’t from here, or don’t speak English. Other days, it was worse. The physical incidents were the most terrifying. I always heard of the things other people encountered, but I always hoped it was exaggerated.
Fast forward to fourth grade. I had been living in Daly City for almost two years and visiting my family in San Francisco. One day my sister, three of my cousins, my aunt, and I were on our way back from Safeway. We were crossing the street and waiting for my aunty on the opposite side of the crosswalk when a red truck came rushing around the corner. Two white men shouted dirty racial slurs and threatened to hit my aunt and her baby lying unaware in the stroller. I was silent and everything seemed to go mute. She sped down the pedestrian walk, running for her life. It was really frightening and painful for her children and me to endure.
Now listen. I am not saying that all Arab Muslims are saints. There is some truth to the stereotype, as each one originates from some small truth. A few people who identify themselves as Arab Muslim have done totally unjustifiable things. In reality, none of what they claim to be Islamic is true and their actions are, in fact, blasphemous. Muslims all over the world condemn these actions and stand together to try and stop the stereotype. As The Daily Beast states:
And once again with ISIS, we have seen universal condemnation by Muslims leaders in the United States and abroad. For example, the two biggest Muslim-American groups, ISNA and CAIR, unequivocally denounced ISIS. CAIR’s statement notes in part: “American Muslims view the actions of ISIS as un-Islamic and morally repugnant. No religion condones the murder of civilians, the beheading of religious scholars or the desecration of houses of worship.”
Muslim people around the world are constantly standing up and proving themselves to be peaceful people. We are trying to reach past the blinding labels on the television screens and newspapers to show the world the true representation of who we are, rather than the negative things they’ve heard.
Even though being an Arab Muslim American can sometimes put me in uncomfortable situations with others, I will never let their opinion sway mine. I know who I am and I do not need a bunch of ignorant people to tell me otherwise. I know what my people are like and that each person is different in their own way. I know that being an Arab Muslim American means that I am supposed to represent peace and acceptance, and I will strive my whole life to do so. I will continue to be who I am in hopes that one day, the perception of my people will change. But for now, knowing who I am and being strong enough to stand by are enough for me.