Sometimes, being Muslim in this country means pretending to be something you’re not

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Illustration: Emmen Ahmed

Yesterday I tried to solicit an assassin to come to my house for a hit job. I called an 800 number I found on the internet. I called from inside my home as I stood by the window, trembling. I was put on hold for a long time, which was stressful. What if the masked bandit was on my property, plotting his next murder?

The masked bandit I am referring to here is the fat raccoon that lives in my gutter. The assassin is an employee at Animal Control. I don’t know too much about raccoons, but my scientific understanding is they are ruthless interspecies killers who have rabies. I live in perennial fear that this raccoon will pounce on me while I’m outside, bite me in the face, and then I too will have rabies. I don’t know what exactly happens when you have rabies. …

As a teenager in Riyadh, removing my veil was an act of rebellion and a reclamation of power

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The author wishes to thank Ayqa Khan for use of this illustration.

I’ve been a student at this Islamic high school for nearly three years, during which time I have faithfully worn my uniform — a gray, colonial lady-nightie with a drool-bib collar — every day. When I go out in public, off school grounds, I shroud: a black abaya overtop, a black headscarf, a face cover made of some kind of cheese cloth material. I cover without objection, wear what the Saudis tell me to wear. There are strict laws here about clothes and bodies, about love and worship. God’s laws, they say, and who am I to argue with God?

In Riyadh, inside this school, hidden behind a 12-foot iron gate, I have not found God. Sometimes a wanting rattles, and curiosity stirs, and I open the Holy Book, follow the verses inside like a trail of food into the heart of a forest — searching, hopeful. In the days after my mother’s cancer diagnosis especially, I search this way. I search knowing I’m at the mercy of things I can’t control. …

Not Another First Time Story

How one Muslim woman reconciles faith and coming of age

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Credit: Rhoda Rochelle Ocon/EyeEm/Getty

“Do you ever feel like life is just a movie?” Whiskey Sour, business pants. July, 10:15 p.m., Friday.”

This is a note I wrote to myself. It’s my handwriting, my spiral blue notepad, so I know it’s me. I can even picture the guy, but I don’t know why I wanted to remember what he said. As far as lines go, this one isn’t very original. It’s like something your college roommate might say, the one who owns a Himalayan salt lamp.

The man had a spray tan, capped teeth. He’d recently broken up with someone and was now in this restaurant bar, where my friend Arda and I served people like him weekend nights year-round, including all major holidays. …

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Illustration by the brilliant Aykut Aydoğdu.

Elif stood in front of her closet, the door open as wide as it would go, and she considered her options. She could wear the black skirt, but was it too short? It came down to the knees. Probably too short. She slipped on a long cotton dress, sleeves at her elbows. Appropriate. Somber, but not depressing. Should she bring a scarf?

She examined her reflection in the full-length mirror that hung inside the closet door. I’ll take a scarf, she thought. He might not like the way I look when I cover, but I should wear one anyway.

She stood, head at a tilt, and fidgeted with the silver chain of her necklace, drawing it back and forth between her index finger and thumb. Scarf, yes. Dress, good. She heard her mother’s cough from down the hall. …

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Credit: Jeromy Velasco.

How the entertainer was blacklisted for standing up to the President

Before Colin Kaepernick, before the Philadelphia Eagles football franchise, before all the men who have taken a knee, and thrown up a fist in protest, there was Eartha Kitt. Eartha Kitt: entertainer, star of the stage and screen; fierce, feral, barely five foot four. Eartha the great, standing alone and tall against the White House when it mattered most. Before Adam came Eartha. Mighty, mighty little Eartha Kitt.

The day she took a stand, January 18, 1968, was the day after her 41st birthday, but Kitt didn’t know this at the time. She only found out her date of birth at age seventy-one when, during a campus Q & A, she challenged students at Benedict College in South Carolina to find her birth certificate, and they did. …

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Identity Politics Podcasters, from left: Makkah Ali and Ikhlas Saleem.

Women on a mission.

Friends Ikhlas Saleem and Makkah Ali are hosts of the defiant, honest, very smart podcast, Identity Politics, available on iTunes, and Soundcloud, Stitcher, and through their website. Theirs is a show that considers Muslim American experiences; that considers race, gender, pop culture, and what it means to stand at the intersection of multiple identities. Each episode is a gem.

On the eve of Ramadan, I talked to the pair about the holy month, about why Mahershala Ali’s acceptance speech matters, and what to do about social media addiction.

Hilal Isler: First of all, thank you for making the time, and happy Ramadan. I’m a devoted fan. …

Observing Ramadan in the US after just leaving Saudi Arabia

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Illustration by visual artist Safwat Saleem.

I used to live in Saudi Arabia, where Ramadan is a big deal. You’re expected to fast and if you can’t, the rule is you’ll respect everyone else by not stuffing your face in public. School hours shift. Store hours change too, and nothing is open until after iftar, the meal you have at sun-down to break your fast.

At night, the streets burst to life, and there are bright lights and music, and kids stay out until one in the morning. …

Starting an underground yearbook in Saudi Arabia

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Original art, for The Aerogram, by Nirja Desai.

I attend an all-girls conservative high school in Saudi Arabia. Our uniform is gray, grazes the ankles, and resembles something Queen Victoria would wear at bedtime. All we do is dream about boys, read contraband American teen magazines, and hide from our principal at prayer time.

In the twelfth grade, my best friend Tara and I lobby for a yearbook. We approach Principal Tagreed in her office, to ask for permission and money. She looks up from her enormous slate desk.

“Why aren’t you at prayer?” she barks.

“We’re menstruating, Miss,” Tara says.

“Seems you two are constantly menstruating,” she says. …

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Jawaher, the night of her birthday. You can sort of see Sahar’s choker.

From the start, there is something unknowable about her. Jawaher arrives, zero fanfare, in the middle of the school year. At recess, we stare at her from across the courtyard: her coral lips, legs for miles that end in Doc Marten’s, untied.

The first among us to approach her is Aya, unsurprising as Aya is always like this, walking straight up to whatever scares us most. Maybe that’s what growing up in a war does to a girl.

“Cool shoes,” Aya says. “American or what?”

Jawaher has these widely-spaced eyes that give her the appearance of a fawn, and the sort of glossy, full hair that’s always slipping out of its ponytail. …

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“Emotional Digging,” by Balqis Al Rashed. Balqis is a Saudi-born artist, who was raised in Beirut. Please visit her online for more.

It’s basically just the Quran, right? Yes. Yes and no.

My mother and I are on a tour of my new high school when I find out about the books. We’re in a small box of a room, no windows, sitting on hard plastic chairs meant for little children. Arabic calligraphy hangs, framed, on the walls.

“And where’s the library?” I say to our tour guide. She’s an Islamic Studies teacher for the lower grades, with a pock-marked face and beady eyes that narrow every time she talks. She points to a shelf behind us, stacked with copies of the Holy Quran.

“There,” she says. “The only book you need, all praise to Allah.” …

About

Hilal Isler

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