Hearts, Hope, & Hijabs
Nonfiction by Karen Koretsky
Karen Koretsky talks about the dark days after September 11th & the parallels to now.
All religions try to benefit people, with the same basic message of the need for love and compassion, for justice and honesty, for contentment.
When I interviewed Zeinab as a potential caregiver for my two-year-old son, Michael, she wore classic attire: a navy tunic, crisp linen pants, and sneakers. No jewelry, no makeup. Her hair was tucked in a white crochet cap, a strange accessory on a hot summer day. Zeinab spoke with an accent I could not discern. Her face was unlined and fine, with a hairline streaked with gray, so I suspected she was older than I was, maybe in her early forties. She mentioned that she was not married and had no children.
That August afternoon, we met in my living room. Backlit by streams of sunlight, Zeinab listened as I described my son: “He’s very energetic. He loves animals, music, and being outdoors.”
“I was born in Egypt, then taught in France before coming to America,” she told me, as we described ourselves.
“Do you ever go home?”
“Yes, Egypt? Or maybe France?”
“Well, every few years I visit family in Cairo, but this is my home now.” She swept her arm toward the neighborhood beyond my front window and looked at me with confusion.
I liked her air of dignity and calm, so I hired her to watch Michael for a few mornings each week. This was in 2000, Y2K, the new century, hyped as an era for progress and success. I lived in a suburb outside of Boston with my husband and two small children. I telecommuted part-time as a tech writer for a web developer.
Zeinab told me that she could not watch Michael on Friday afternoons because she went to her mosque.
“Yes, I am Muslim.”
Growing up Jewish in a predominantly Christian community, I had never encountered anyone who was Muslim — that I was aware of.
“So, during Ramadan, I will fast for one month. No food or water from sunup to sundown. I will only be able to work half days then. Will that be a problem?”
“Gosh, no. Fasting all day for a month? Of course, we can adjust your schedule during the fast.”
Eventually, Zeinab replaced her crochet cap with a traditional hijab — or veil. Once we got to know each other a little better, I asked Zeinab about her religion. I was surprised to learn that there were striking similarities between our two ancient religions. Both the Judaism and Muslim faiths started in the Middle East and shared a Biblical father, Abraham. Both faiths followed a lunar calendar. When Zeinab spoke Arabic words to Michael, it sounded to me like Hebrew with heavy consonants and throat-clearing kuh sounds.
Zeinab tucked Michael in his stroller a few mornings a week, and they set off on what she nicknamed their “adventures.” They returned in the afternoon flushed, smelling deliciously like fresh air, and sharing details of their day.
On these adventures they took the bus to Boston to explore. To the aquarium, where they watched the penguins and seals, at the science museum, where they danced on the piano-keyed steps, and to the Boston Public Library, where they became regulars at story hour. Zeinab even rode the commuter train for hours into Concord with Michael, so he could see the fast-moving landscape zip past his window.
I soon realized that Zeinab was expanding my little boy’s world, exposing him to the city, a diverse population of children, and the serendipitous moments that happen beyond the familiar framework of our town. Michael learned to say “ahebek,” which means “I love you” in Arabic, and he emulated Zeinab’s French accent, calling onions “onyon” and cheese “sheeze.” Michael was becoming who he was in part because of the two women raising him and exposing him to differing worlds.
“He wanted to know why the seals are trapped in a tank at the aquarium instead of free in the ocean.” She stifled a giggle. “Then he suggested we talk to the boss and tell him to let them go. You have a little Albert Schweitzer here.” She pulled Michael toward her in a hug. “And yesterday, as we walked past the meat section in the grocery store, he pointed to the ground beef and asked with great tears forming in his eyes, ‘WHO did that used to be, Zeinab?’ All the other shoppers looked very uncomfortable.”
We chuckled, and Michael hid his smiling face against my thigh.
One morning, Zeinab watched me put a container of hummus in Michael’s lunchbox and scolded, “Michael should eat authentic hummus. Not store-bought.”
I shrugged, feeling a little judged.
The next day she arrived with a batch of homemade hummus. “Try it.”
“But it’s only 8 a.m.” I shook my head. “I haven’t had breakfast yet.”
“I eat hummus for breakfast!” Zeinab waved a palm in the air. “Try.” She pushed the blue bowl covered in wax paper into my protesting hand.
We went to the kitchen. I sliced up some cucumber and pita bread. I spread the hummus. Zeinab was right. Her hummus was delicious, creamy with garlic and lime.
In summer, when Michael’s skin tanned to a dark brown, people mistook the two of them for mother and son. Zeinab told me of these remarks and appeared pleased by the implication.
Months passed. I worked from home, the technology industry thrived, and Michael’s confidence and sense of wonder developed, thanks in part to his adventures with Zeinab. She also amplified Michael’s sense of place by helping him feel at home anywhere and providing maternal love from a heart formed on another continent.
Then, Tuesday, September 11th, 2001.
American optimism vanished when jets crashed into the Twin Towers. America was being attacked in a way I’d never experienced. Americans retracted and retreated, and many citizens treated their foreign neighbors with distrust. The Y2K hope was replaced by fear and a palpable and horrific hate.
Days later, Zeinab arrived for Michael’s adventure. She wore a Red Sox cap in place of her hijab. We embraced, trembling, holding back tears.
“How are you?”
“I am afraid to go to my mosque,” she whispered, clutching both my hands.
“I am worried about going to temple for the high holidays,” I admitted.
We stood on my front stoop while the echoing thumps of surveillance helicopters crisscrossed overhead, and it sounded like someone was dicing up the heavens. In whispers, we talked about the threats being made against Muslims in America, and I promised to take her into my home and protect her if she needed somewhere to go. She smiled at me and nodded, her eyes brimming with tears.
By mid-October of 2001, America was awash in prolific patriotism. American flags waved from cars, homes, and businesses. One afternoon, I found a shopping bag hanging from my doorknob. Inside was a container of Zeinab’s hummus and something wrapped in bright green tissue paper. I unwrapped the package, and three pairs of little boy’s knee-socks unfurled with American flags on them. There was a simple note in the bag: “For Michael, love Zeinab.” This was the modest way that Zeinab left gifts, undiscovered joys waiting to brighten a dreary day.
The following day, when the two set off on their adventure, my little Jewish son wore his patriotic socks, hand-in-hand with a loving Egyptian Muslim woman wearing a Red Sox cap because she was too frightened to wear her hijab.
The news reported acts of violence in New England against Muslim Americans or anyone of Middle-Eastern ethnicity. Instead of chatting about the weather, Zeinab and I whispered when Michael was out of earshot about horrific situations where Muslim men were pulled off trains and beaten, where racist graffiti was scrawled on mosque doors.
“I am so frightened and sad, really,” Zeinab said. “But I will not let this change how I live my life, nor will I move unless I have to.”
I bent down to remove Michael’s rain boots. “Would you feel better not taking the bus or trains with Michael? Do you feel unsafe now?” I asked.
“Ah, no. Michael and I must continue our adventures. That is how we have our fun, and life must be fun for curious little boys.” Zeinab gave Michael a kiss on his cheek. Michael smiled back and reached up for her.
It was this unwavering devotion of Zeinab’s to Michael and to her own faith, courage, and tenacity that made me realize this extraordinary woman was of the highest integrity. She expanded my worldview with her stories of Egypt and Europe. She gave me a sense of kinship by sharing details of her faith and helping me realize the similarities to Judaism.
By the time Michael entered grade school, Zeinab was taking care of twin boys in a neighboring community. I would see her walking to the bus stop, and I often stopped to give her a ride up the long hill to the big, old Victorian house where she rented a room.
In 2008, my daughter, Rachel, became a Bat Mitzvah. We invited Zeinab, still a cherished family friend, to the ceremony and reception. At the party afterward, she admitted to me that it was her first time in a synagogue, and she was surprised by how much of the Hebrew she could understand. Over her purple hijab, she wore a black velvet beret with a sparkly pin decorating it. A Muslim woman celebrating in a Jewish temple — how far we had come since those dark days following September 11th.
With two children in high school, my life moved at a hectic pace. Zeinab and I fell out of touch, and while I thought of her often, I rarely saw her, then didn’t talk on the phone with her for a few years. But when Trump announced his Muslim ban in 2017, it horrified me that Muslims in America continued to be subjected to hatred and linked to terrorist activity.
The anti-Muslim racism revival brought Zeinab’s well-being to mind. I reached for an old hardbound address book that contained her contact information from 2008 and dialed the last number I had for her, waiting to hear her high-pitched voice. Instead, I heard a loud buzz and a message that the number had been disconnected. I searched for Zeinab on the Internet, but nothing. No social-media account, either. Could I have lost contact with her?
Meanwhile, Michael moved to New York City for college. At almost 20, he had traveled to Japan, Brazil, and Italy. I had no doubt that Zeinab’s adventures gave him a curiosity and confidence to travel that he may not have acquired otherwise. With the kids now grown, I moved into a new home following a divorce. One afternoon, as I unloaded groceries from my car, I heard my name. I turned and saw Zeinab. She looked a little older but mostly unchanged. Turns out that I moved to a street she walks weekly on her way to work to care for a disabled woman. She greeted me as she always had, with a big embrace and a kiss on each cheek. Once again, we reconnected, and I vowed this time to stay in touch.
One Labor Day weekend, I visited Michael and Rachel in New York City. It was hot and crowded, and I wanted to escape to the open expanse of water. I talked my children into going on a boat tour. We clipped across the harbor as the tour guide pointed out landmarks. A sound system on the boat blared New York-themed music from a loudspeaker.
“We are about to see Lady Liberty,” the guide announced.
Two young women in hijabs approached my daughter and asked if she would take a picture of them with the Statue of Liberty in the background. Alicia Keys’ song “New York” blasted. The women wrapped their arms around their four children to pose in the picture. The children smiled on cue, dressed in T-shirts that said: “I Love New York.” The mothers bookended the children and tried to keep steady footing on the swaying boat floor. Rachel snapped a series of pictures of the beautiful group.
Remove the modern elements of technology and music, and the scene could have taken place in the early 1900s, mothers wrapped in babushkas, fathers in caps, immigrants and visitors ecstatic when welcomed by an American icon. This was my first up-close glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, and framing my view was a beautiful, beaming, gracious family of Muslim tourists.
Would they post their family picture on social media? Frame it and display it on a bookcase? Their admiration and interest in an America that makes it clear that they are not welcome was heart-wrenching. I was overwhelmed by my rising column of grief and started to weep.
My children cannot remember September 11th. They were too young, and I protected them from it. But since Trump was elected, I’ve worried about an America pockmarked by a revival of hatred and distrust that feels to be even more of a credible threat than the racial violence following September 11th. In October 2018, Jewish observers were gunned down in a Pittsburgh Synagogue, and Black citizens were killed when they tried to do their shopping. The death of George Floyd, the storming of the Capitol, acts of hate and racism shower this country like acid rain. The current situation in America feels worse to me than in those days after September 11th.
As the boat returned to Battery Wharf, I cried while we bobbed in the rough water and the music intruded my thoughts with waves of pop patriotism. My throat constricted, and my stomach lurched. I was embarrassed and just wanted to stop crying and despairing over the rabid hate in our country and the circle of prejudice that seems ceaseless.
Michael touched my shoulder. “What’s wrong, Mom?”
I shook my head. What was wrong was more than I could say.
Later, in his apartment, I told him that I cried over my childhood experiences with antisemitism, the horror of witnessing hatred toward people from the Middle East post-September 11th, and the opposing beauty of hijabs and hearts filled with hope and love. Of Zeinab, my sister of great integrity, devotion, and compassion — a woman who continues to help the helpless.
And like the beautiful mothers on the boat in NYC, Zeinab has always made it clear that she is proud to be in America, and I believe she does America proud.