I did not cry when my mother told me I could not have a Christmas tree, because of my religion. I just put paper clips on our lemon tree instead. I did not cry when my aunt told me I could not eat marshmallows, because of my religion. I just bought Kit Kats instead. I did cry when a commenter, who has given over 40 ‘likes,’ said “those Muslims need to go back to where they came from,” in response to an article about head scarves, or hijabs. I did not cry when my high school wouldn’t give me the required swim class because I had “too many limitations other students don’t have,” because of my religion. I did not cry when Bill O’ Reilly told The View that “Muslims killed us on 9/11.” I did not cry when a pastor in Florida threatened to burn the Quran. I cried when people agreed with him.
I don’t cry a lot, and that is the truth. I hate crying, the real crying. The crying when the tears you want to hold in your eyes just fall out, as if there’s not any room. When you don’t want to cry, but your body doesn’t listen and thrusts the cry out of you. When you’re alone in your room trying to finish physics homework, and you remember the news or an article, but you try not to make a sound. You don’t want to attract attention; you don’t want anyone to hear you when you’re weak and vulnerable. You cry so hard, but so silently, it’s almost scary, and you can hear the bed shake against the pine wood floor that has been there for 30 years, and that’s why it creaks. It shakes because you tremble so hard. A real cry means you cry with your whole body and it hurts, it hurts so much but you can’t stop. You hear the faint sound of a television downstairs and a plane rumbling outside in the sky. Your mother’s about to come into the room, but you tell her not to, because you’re changing your clothes, but really you’re not. That’s a real cry. I don’t really cry a lot, just when I need to and it’s not worth the fight.
I was only 5 years old when my father pulled me out of my first grade class and brought me home to my family huddled around the television, watching smoke. They said it fell, but I didn’t know it. I later found out that that day the World Trade Center crashed down, because of a bunch of criminals. I didn’t get how it could possibly affect me; it was after all, another news story. I wasn’t even old enough to understand it, I’d never even been there, and I didn’t know what it was, but as those two towers fell, my life took a turn I hadn’t anticipated. The criminals were called terrorists. They were evil. They were Muslim. I am Muslim. I remember thinking it wasn’t a big deal that our religions coincided. I was so different from them, but I don’t think other people knew that. It didn’t stop there either. The terrorists killed more, blood lined their fingers, and it stained them, and soon the word Islam too. The people cried more, they yelled more, they hated more. America was like a bridge that suddenly collapsed into the river. The water muffled everything, and so much was happening at the same time, that it all came out as a huge bubble that would burst, only to splash back at it. America was underwater and the people were fighting an endless battle for air.
At first the impact was small, like when I went to the Statue of Liberty and people couldn’t go to the crown anymore because of the fear of terrorist attacks. But that was when I was little, and so blind. My excuse for not understanding was that I was young and a child. You weren’t supposed to understand when you were a child; there would be plenty of time for that later.
In middle school, the other kids would call their Muslim friends ‘terrorists,’ but it was just a joke. That’s how it was supposed to be, everything was really just a joke, but soon I couldn’t really laugh anymore, and I guess it just stopped being funny when I understood.
I once had a substitute teacher who decided to talk about the war in Iraq. It was 2008, and we were all really tired of the war. The room was cold, because a window was open right behind me, so I could feel the October breeze scratch my back. The room was an ugly green, and it was dark, but all the lights were on. I remember he told us, “I don’t get these people, what kind of religion says to kill innocent people?” I knew he was talking about Islam. I wanted to remonstrate, but I couldn’t, because only air would come out of my mouth if I tried to speak, no sound, nothing resonant. I was afraid to speak, because I was an underweight eighth grader who was below average height. I felt like nothing, because he had diminished me, he made me feel like I was worthless, and like I was being framed for committing a crime I didn’t. So all I did was look down at my folded hands on a wooden table. I stayed quiet, because when you’re an eighth grade Muslim girl, you’re supposed to.
As I matured, I started to doubt myself. I had so many questions, too many, really. I wondered about God and my religion. I thought about what my biology teacher told me, and what the Quran told me. I wasn’t allowed to question these matters, so I decided to accept the theological explanations. Once, a friend and I were discussing the beginning of the world. She was atheist and supported the idea of evolution.
“If everything evolved from something, even if it was the smallest cell, it had to come from somewhere, and I think God put us here on Earth,” I told her.
“Well, then where did God come from?” she had asked. That question made me wonder. Where did this all come from?
“We aren’t supposed to think about that, you just have to accept it,” I replied. It was a terrible answer, and I knew it once I said it, but it was the right answer. I saw the confused look on her face, like I was ridiculous and didn’t know what I was talking about, and I don’t think I did. She wasn’t the only one who asked me about this, because I think people who didn’t have the answer thought I did, since I was religious. I tried to make it seem like I did, but I was just as uncertain. That’s the trouble with being young. I have so much I want to know, but it’s like digging through the sand for a diamond. Soon, I’ll just get tired and give up.
It’s this precariousness that led me to start believing what I heard on the news. When you constantly hear that people who believe in what you believe are doing things you would never do, you start to doubt life. No matter how much you love your culture, your religion, and yourself, the media has its way of poisoning you into thinking adverse things. After hearing on CNN about a Muslim man who had tortured his wife, I turned to my mother and said to her what I’d been thinking for a long time, “You see these are things that make people hate Muslims. I sort of get why.”
“Don’t say that, there are people of every single faith that screw up. The media just wants you to think that. In Oprah, she brings in women who are abused all the time, so many of them aren’t Muslim,” she told me. I realized that people, especially on the news, or politicians, could easily blame Muslims, because our voices did not echo as loudly as theirs. Everything in America is like a popularity contest, because you give the public what they want, and all is well, and the public didn’t want to sympathize with Muslims, so the media never gave them the chance.
I started to keep my identity hidden, and I didn’t want to tell people I was a Muslim, because I never knew what they would think of me. It’s not healthy, because I’m a teenager in America, where most teenagers argue about wearing revealing clothes, because it allows them to express themselves. I can’t wear revealing clothes; I can’t even find the courage to say I am a Muslim and not care about what other people think. I used to think that I was a good, strong, true, Muslim girl. I listened to what my parents said, I never dated, I never showed too much skin, I prayed, I went to mosque. I did all the things so many other girls I knew didn’t. I tried to follow the right way of life that seemed to work fourteen centuries ago, but in this risqué and modern society, where women had already trampled the glass ceiling, I was afraid to make a scratch. In the contemporary world, religion seems to fade away, spiritual ideologies are forgotten, and you aren’t cool if you follow the rules, but religion made me feel safe. I believed in God, I sewed my culture into every seam of my life. But when someone asked me why I didn’t wear the traditional head scarf, I flinched. “Well, because it’s sort of optional, I think I’ll do it when I’m older,” I replied. I wasn’t the perfect girl I thought I was. I now realize I don’t wear a hijab because I didn’t want to stand out. I was already the girl who wore sweats in gym, because I wasn’t allowed to wear shorts. I never wanted to assimilate, because I thought I was above all of that, but here in America, in New York, in high school, I subconsciously, yet deliberately changed myself to become like everyone else. Wearing a hijab would mean that everybody would know I was Muslim, and no matter how many amendments or how much freedom we have, people would still judge me, because in the end, America is fighting a war against people, enemies, who are Muslim. No amount of speeches about love and acceptance will ever make it easier for people to differentiate between enemy and comrade when the faces look so similar. In New York, you don’t have time to get to know a person.
I cry rarely, because I have to fear for things other kids don’t. I want to be innocent, to be the 5 year old girl who didn’t know what the World Trade Center was, who didn’t have to worry about whether or not someone would dislike her because she was Muslim. I want to stop being so uncomfortable when the kids in my history class allude to blaming Muslims for pushing America into such a deep hole. When people ask me where I’m from, I want to be able to tell them I’m from America and have them believe me. I don’t want people to pity me. This isn’t a cry for help. I love who I am and what my religion has made of me. I cry because it’s when I’m weak, yet strong enough to face it, to finally understand it. I cry, because I have to, and I need to. I cry because not everything is easy, and I can’t tell anybody about why I cry, because nobody can feel the feeling that strains me. The feeling that’s so heavy, it’s a weight that won’t let me walk, but makes me want to feel like a feather, where only the wind can direct me. It’s the feeling of not knowing what to think and hoping that it’s okay to write this.
Age 16, Grade 11
Stuyvesant High School