People Don’t Like it When I Curse
Growing up in America as an Arab-American Muslim girl, I never really saw myself as different from the rest of the gang. I knew I had restrictions from an early age, such as no excess or inappropriate interaction with boys, no pork, no revealing clothing etc., but as a kid these didn’t really strike me as things of consequence. I dressed modestly, tried my best to limit my excess talking with peers of any gender for that matter (I was the kid who received ‘A’s’ but had the worst teacher comments on her report card due to talking and hyperactivity), and I never really cared for the repulsive smell of pork anyways. (Funny that I should become a vegetarian years later). To put it shortly, being Muslim wasn’t ‘hard’ or ‘different’ to me, I didn’t view myself as abstract. Even with the headscarf or hijab, which I began wearing at a very young age. In fact, from kindergarten and up, my school photos chronicled my eclectic array of horrible hijab fashions (exclusion being 1st grade in which I had a big groovy side braid and no-hijab). I wore it because my most of my cousins wore it, and was actually easier for me to throw it on in the mornings instead of wrestling with my then waist-length thick Arabic hair. I would usually rip off the scarf as soon as I got home and wouldn’t really bother with it on family outings and general occasions, but it became a part of me. I knew that it was for modesty, even as a young age, and though it wasn’t forced upon me (my mother didn’t begin wearing a scarf until her mid-twenties), I became loyal to my head covering.
In short, I was an obvious ‘Muslim’ but I didn’t focus on it. My religion was like a birthmark; a born trait and a part of me, something I forgot was there unless pointed out really. I played outside like a kid, I used baby powder as magical fairy dust, I loved Even Stevens and Boy Meets World, I was a tomboy who hated the color pink, was into remote control race cars, thought my Nsync cassette tape was the best thing ever to happen to me (since the Backstreet Boys of course), and was a member of the very cool and very nerdy Harry Potter after school 4th grade Book club. Then September 11th happened and for the first time I became conscious of the fact that I perhaps wasn’t quite as ‘regular’ as I first imagined.
Two memories come to mind that really stick with me regarding this. I remember being in class right after 9/11 (the same day or day after, I don’t remember), and watching as my 5th grade classmates, having become top notch investigative journalists overnight, all discussed the very horrid fresh events. “There were two planes and they just smashed through, and everyone just exploded” “Muslims did it!” “They said it was Muslims”
I remember feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable, my very non-Arabic, non-Muslim teacher, Mrs. McDonald, allowing for the array of hyped up munchkins to speculate and discuss away. I wanted to make a point as well, “Well they don’t even know if they were Muslim yet, they said maybe they aren’t”
After the words left my little girl mouth, I just remember the silent look Mrs. McDonald gave me without issuing a word. Even at that age I was perceptive enough to read her internal thoughts, “No, No, they were your kind.” I had never felt so uncomfortable, it was a new feeling.
What followed was an inexcusable event at Walmart not too long after. As I perused the aisle of poorly made children’s clothing, I ran into an older Gothic kid with a spiked dog collar around his neck, dark smudged eyeliner, over-sized black clothing and lifeless shoulder length hair. I remember thinking he looked strange, and like magic just as the thought entered my mind he addressed me. “Get that weird thing off your head, you look weird.” He said it with this mean smile that hinted at his knowledge of the news. I remember rolling my eyes at him with a resilient expression before calmly walking away. Funny that I had originally thought him the rather peculiar of the two, but unlike my Gothic counterpart, I had planned on keeping my comments to myself and they were entirely first impression based. My 5th grade-self found it ironic.That same day, same department store, my parents were harassed by some ignorant customers who thought it common decency to scream for them to go back to their country. Unfortunately for the white guys, my father never took well to indecency. He may have had an accent, but he definitely knew how to return the verbal greeting with a few good ol’ American choice words. As far as my mother, she was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and Ohio wasn’t really a country.
But the fact was, the bubble of acceptance and normality around me had suddenly popped. The fact that I was Muslim, the fact that I was Arabic came crashing down on me. And on a larger scale, the fact that Muslims had lived in harmony with their fellow Americans up until this point became nothing but a memory.
When someone is pushed into a corner, a lot of things can happen. Some people began to hide their Muslim identity, shedding all of their outwardly connection to the faith, rationalizing that it was easier for them to blend in and be left alone, and adopted a new way of life. Some became defensive, began to delve into their religious and cultural identity head first in response to being judged and discriminated against, and shunned the western ways. I just chose to be proud.
“Yea, I’m Muslim, yea I’m Arabic, and Yea I wear a scarf. No I’m not oppressed, No I don’t date, Yea 9/11 did suck- probably more for me than for you, Yes I believe in God- Allah means God in Arabic, Yes I love Jesus too- he’s actually a very beloved and respected prophet.” And so on.
The fact that people found a part of who I was intolerable, only motivated me to be more content with myself. I didn’t go around proclaiming my religion or ethnicity, I didn’t think it solely defined me, but I didn’t hide it and I welcomed questions. I still saw myself as an America who dealt with regular American things. I too had a dysfunctional family like you, I too had a glass pink piggy bank I kept on my top drawer (hey just because we couldn’t eat them didn’t mean we couldn’t use ‘em for financial safe-keeping), I too had a dog at one point (I also had two geese, rabbits, numerous kittens, birds, a frog, and a few very-temporary pet lambs…). And I too cursed.
I found that over the years, people who asked me about my faith were always most curious about how covered up I was, and were always most shocked at the fact that I didn’t date. I came to accept this and understood why it might seem so strange to them, especially in a post-flapper age and the current era of ‘Teen Mom’ and Maury. I generally related it to the 1800-1900s, little house on the Prairie, the Virgin Mary, etc. We were old school. And it was for modesty, that’s all. Most of the time people respected this and found it commendable and intriguing. And at other times, people found it awfully restricting. But either way, I found that people didn’t like it when I cursed.
As a Muslim, I am sometimes oblivious to the respect and standard that even those who don’t necessarily agree with our ways hold me too. There is no better way to explain this except in the numerous experiences I’ve had over the years with profanity. Now, I’m no sailor, but I am not perfect by any means. Everyone has their vice, and now and again I’m known to let a profanity grace my vernacular. Though not every day commonality, when it does happen, unbeknownst to my consciousness, I am always intrigued when my fellow non-Muslim companion’s head raises or turns in shock. “Did you just curse?” “Omg, did you say a bad word?” “Did you just say _______?” I always feel guilty, and kind of frustrated in the moment that I wasn’t allowed my non-smoking, non-drinking, non-partying, non-druggie method of venting, “Yes… I’m sorry, excuse my language.” But learned that it came with the territory.
Ironically, I also found that people who cursed in front of me, even strangers, found it necessary to apologize to me. Even if on an elevator with other people, they’d turn to me and apologize. “Excuse my language.” “I’m sorry, excuse me.” Sometimes they’d forget my presence, then, just as they finished their brief moment of irrationality, their head would jerk up ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to say that”. Even my non-Muslim friends, felt compelled to apologize for their ‘slip up’. I always found this funny. But over the years, I came to appreciate it. I was the nun. You don’t curse in front of nuns. Despite having been friends with the nun, who is kinda not a nun and is kinda just like you, but still.
So, what is it like being a Muslim girl in America? It’s taught me that I can’t curse.
To read more from the author, visit her blog at www.littlebirdofwhy.wordpress.com