For a long time, my religion was no more than a funny-sounding name and something to brag about to my classmates.
And that’s what I did: I flaunted my culture to the rest of my plebeian friends at every given opportunity, starting from the ripe age of seven. Second grade was in full swing by the time Ramadan came around in September, and lunchtime saw giggling kids munching on Lunchables and square school pizza. Meanwhile, I would sit there stubbornly, not a single lunch tray or zippered bag in front of me.
Of course, none of this would have mattered if nobody was watching me. So every five minutes, like clockwork, I’d break my trance of condescension and superiority to check if I was getting my well-deserved attention.
“I couldn’t possibly eat with all of you,” I’d sigh patronizingly to those listening (which, nine times out of 10, was no one). “I’m fasting, no eating or drinking the whole day — not even water! I’m starving, you guys, but trust me, I can handle it. You wouldn’t understand. It’s a Muslim thing.”
And there I was, stomach grumbling, breath reeking, ready to be interrogated in that sticky cafeteria. I brashly wore my religion purely on the surface, with the class and subtlety of a shiny yogurt lid safety-pinned on my chest.
A week went by, and one of my classmates was celebrating his eighth birthday at school with chocolate cupcakes. The tray was opened in class, and my memory of fasting quickly vanished — I reached for one without a second thought. Once I remembered I was fasting, I was horrified with myself — for maybe three seconds, before the guilt quickly vanished. I continued on for the rest of Ramadan aggressively jumping down the throats of anyone who dared to question my religion. I came out of that day with a new affinity for chocolate frosting and my resolve just as strong as before.
I never thought about why I was depriving myself, or why fasting was so significant, because I was content with my mother’s explanation: “This is what God tells us to do this month, and we do it.” My parents knew I was doing this to feel like a grown-up along with the rest of my family, acting as a warrior for the Muslim community along the way. And for all intents and purposes, I was.
Ten years later, I find myself switching the narrative.
Unlike the flashy tinfoil badge I might have donned back in elementary school, my religion is now worn like a small brooch at most — still intentionally placed, but maybe not as obvious at first glance.
And now I have ample opportunity to defend myself, because people are actually listening. With every current news update, I’m expected to be a representative for millions of faceless individuals who are supposed to be the same person as me, with the same beliefs and attitudes and experiences. There are now verses I’m supposed to explain that I previously didn’t know existed, and tragedies for which I’m supposed to apologize to millions more in front of me who seem to share the same face as well — the face of anger, accusation, fear and confusion.
I am shoved to this podium when I have no right to be, no possible qualifications other than the religion I so staunchly defended as a seven-year-old and live through today. And the limelight is so blinding that I can’t see the rare looks of genuine support in the crowd in front of me unless I squint.
Granted, I should’ve been prepared for this moment since I was seven. I finally have my chance to express how big of an influence Islam is on my life, how it is so much more than a belief system, how I want everyone to know and appreciate the culture I hold dear. But when people are only listening to refute everything I say or shove another tragedy in my face, I start to question things.
Maybe the news isn’t full of just isolated incidents. Maybe I should buy a huge tub of chocolate frosting and forget I ever lived without it. Maybe there’s nothing in the crowd worth squinting for.
But I don’t. I’m starting to think I probably can’t. I wouldn’t be able to recognize the girl with the tub of chocolate frosting, and I wouldn’t be able to imagine myself in the crowd leering at another person in the limelight.
So, this column is about my life up on that podium, complete with the angry fearful mob and the rare faces of compassion, and how I’m getting better at squinting.
Subaita writes the Monday column on Muslim identity. Contact her at [email protected].