Most people’s earliest memory has something to do with being a young and carefree child. They remember chasing fireflies or licking the sidewalk, or in my sister’s case, ruthlessly pursuing a grumpy pair of geese like Ahab plowing after Moby Dick.
My earliest memory is like a movie scene where the main character flashes back to a defining moment in their childhood. It’s got drama, it’s got conflict, it’s got emotion.
It involves a little pip-squeak in my first-grade class teaching me just how hurtful stereotyping can be.
I remember that in first grade, I strongly resembled a short brown stickbug, and I was as shy as one, too. But there were a couple of facts I knew about myself:
- I was one of the five non-white minority kids in the class
- That meant being friends with the other non-white minority kids, because people who looked alike had to be friends, of course
Clearly, the pip-squeak in question didn’t have my moral standards, because despite being South Asian-American too, he landed me in a humiliating situation. He strolled up and asked, “Hey, are you Muslim?”
There was no reason for me to lie. So naturally, I said yes.
Even though I’ve been told I have The Worst Memory of All Time (quote: my sisters), I still remember exactly what happened next. The kid started laughing even as he ducked away, his hands over his head.
“Aah! I’m scared of Muslims!”
In addition to being a short brown stick bug, I was also an emotional wreck of a stick bug. I went home bawling, because who could ever be scared of me and my family? We were normal human beings, aside from the fact that we made weird Urdu jokes and ate the occasional chopped goat liver. What had possessed that child to say such a horrible thing?
My mom had the difficult task of explaining to me, that night, about 9/11. She taught me that a small group of extremists can cast a stain on everyone who even faintly resembles them.
‘Twas a tough pill to swallow for small, naive Safa, who had learned just a few class periods ago that racism died with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Spoiler alert: this, like my assumption that all brown people stick up for each other, is a big fat lie.
I call this the defining moment of my childhood, because it was the first time I ever thought hard about identity. About what it means to be proud of yourself and your people, even if the rest of the world sees you as either a threat or someone to be pitied.
When someone asks me where I’m from, I generally don’t take it as an offense. I give them my three-pronged answer: “I’m from Raleigh, but I was born in California, and my family is from India.” I can’t not tell people where my family originates from, even if that’s not what they’re asking about. If you don’t know my cultural upbringing, you don’t know me.
Just like any family back in the homeland, there are a whole bunch of us living in one house. That includes my parents (Ammi and Abbu), myself, my sisters (Zainab, Mariam, and Asiya), my maternal grandma (Nani), and my paternal grandma (Dadi). Like most Indian families, we have our distinct roles within the house. Ammi cooks and screams at us not to be lazy bums; Abbu works and makes too many dad jokes; Nani talks to distant relatives so loudly over the phone that you can hear her from any room in the house; Dadi worries about her health and wonders every day if she’s eating enough bran. My sisters and I are the dutiful daughters who run errands in the Elantra, while our grandmas call us cute and pray that we’ll all find good husbands someday.
We take off our shoes in the house. We eat everything with our hands. We drink at least one mandatory cup of chai each day. Stories are told in Urdu, because everything sounds funnier in Urdu. When my sisters and I were little, we got smacked with flip-flops if we stepped out of line.
Very, very Indian.
But more than being Indian, I was raised to be Muslim. To choose when to wear hijab (at age eleven). To pray five times a day. To memorize the entire Qur’an. To never drink a drop of alcohol.
To be good, and do good to others.
“You are an ambassador,” my mom will tell me. “Go out and show people the best side of Islam.”
She tells me this often, even though I’ve never been called a slur to my face. She knows that since the encounter with the pip-squeak back in first grade, I’ve been aware of how people see me. I’ve known that the media paints them a certain picture, and most people just go along with it because they’ve never met a Muslim before. And when they do meet a Muslim, they don’t know how to get their misconceptions cleared.
I know what most people are thinking, even if they are well-intentioned liberals:
- Sharia law is what you see in Saudi Arabia and ISIS-controlled territories
- If Muslims just went secular, they wouldn’t have so many problems
- Muslim women are trampled underfoot and need to be told how to live their lives
- She’d be freer if she took off that scarf and wore shorts, girl don’t you know it’s HOT outside?
But hey. I’m an ambassador. I’m a walking destroyer of stereotypes, even when I’m not trying to be.
So I try to stay good. I try to learn as much as I can about my religion, from the meaning of the Qur’an to the basics of Islamic jurisprudence. I try to stay funny, and show that I’m not someone to be feared. I show people that I’m bold enough to be different – and brave enough to take pride in it.
I am Indian. Muslim. American.
This is my identity.
And I’m proud.