Sunday, I went out for breakfast. My mother and daughter were with me. My mother observes the traditional Muslim dress code, with head-cover and long conservative clothes. At that local place where I have been going for years, our path crossed with that of at least four people who were also walking in. Our eyes met for few seconds as we opened the door. We stood in line, got seated, ordered food, conversed together in Arabic while standing. They made the extra effort to show us that we are “welcome” in that space at that time that “we” and “they” happened to share. One flashed a quick and shy half smile; another gave a tense and slight shoulder shrug; and the other two quickly tilted their heads apologetically. That is sort of nice, right?!
We found a table and sat down. At the table next to ours, there was another young man whose attitude was not yet clear to me. He was with his family. His chair was positioned in the same direction as my mother’s with his back facing her. He turned two or three times, full body and head turns, toward my mother. Were these turns of support, curiosity, disapproval? I could not tell. I thought to myself, my mother is receiving a celebrity’s attention this morning. Enjoy it Mom! She couldn’t care less! I found myself speaking louder in Arabic, consciously keeping my conversation monolingual. I avoided switching back and forth to English as I, and most bilinguals, often do. Was that an act of defiance, resistance? I do not know. Did I need all that work? Couldn’t it be just a Sunday morning outing for breakfast with the family instead of our outing turning into a spectacle?
At night, my daughter said “Mom did you noticed those people smiling at us when we went for breakfast with ‘bibi’ [Grandma] this morning? That was uncomfortable” I laughed, I had not known that she noticed. I replied “yes, I did. Bask in the love, tomorrow we will be bad again.” We both giggled.
We were the bad guys yesterday when the terrorist attacks took place in Brussels, Nice, and Paris. Now that Trump placed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US from seven countries, we are (seemingly) loved and welcome. Then, we were normal everyday people who happened to be Muslims receiving hate, today we are normal everyday people who happened to be Muslims receiving love. Different political contexts give rise to different social public responses. Muslims were visible then and are visible now. When will be just people, ordinary, not necessarily loved or hated for our religion? When can we stop being hyper-visible? When will diversity be normalized?
I would like my encounters with strangers to be effortless and normal. Is it too much to ask that my Sunday and everyday outings be like everybody else? How about if people are loved or hated according to what they do and what they project in this world? How about if religion, ethnicity, color, appearances are not the factors by which people are received? How about if diversity and hegemony are treated just as phenomena emerged out of their natural historical, geographical, social, and political contexts?
How about if I tell you a story?
I heard this repeatedly from my mother when I was a child. She found ways to bring it up in friends and family gatherings as an example of what could have been a great love story. It was Mom’s neighborhood’s Romeo and Juliet. I loved hearing it from her, loved imagining the young couple, I loved it for reasons I did not know then. A young man sought my father’s help to appeal to my mother’s friend in asking for her hand in marriage. Both young people were colleagues at the elementary school where my siblings and I attended. My mother had formed a very close relationship with that female teacher. My mother was dearly loved and recognized for her great artistic sense, perfectionism, and talents in painting, sewing, knitting, and so forth. She had worked with the teacher who was the object of the man’s desire on many school projects. She used to visit us at home and share tea and sweets while talking and laughing for many hours. My mother always imitated the man’s voice as he expressed to my parents how much he admired his colleague, how much he noticed her tender work with the school children, how much he was too shy to compliment how she looked or dressed. He wanted my dad to find out where the teacher stands if he asked for her hand in marriage. He was fearing rejection and the awkwardness that might create being co-workers and see each other daily. “Perfect that would have been,” my mother would always comment when she narrates the story” both young, both beautiful, both loved and respected, both had the same career, both lived in the same neighborhood, what could be better than that?” My mother used to say. Except one thing, he was Muslim, she was not. The teacher told my mother that she does not want to marry out of her religion. That is how the story ends. I do not know what happen to them. As a child, I did not ask. As an adult, I do not want to ask, just another failed attempt at true love. No big deal.
Then, what is the big deal about this story?!
Those people — my mother and her friend, my father and the young man, shared wonderful moments in each other’s lives. They laughed, worked, and shared feelings and hopes. They did not talk about their religion. They did not care to know. Religious affiliation was not hidden nor visible; it was just not relevant. It only mattered under a particular circumstance.
You might say, but it prevented them from being together. Yes, it did. But they had the right to choose. Religion does matter, on an individual level, but that is where it should remain. Do you see the difference?
I do not need to know your religion to be your friend, to love you, hate you, support you, or talk to you. Nor do I need religion to share a laugh, an interest, a public space, or a casual moment. I do not need to accept you or reject you. I do not need to pass a judgment. I care about what is relevant to you and me at the time, that place, that moment you enter my personal life. Otherwise, you are simply you and I am simply me and that is good enough.