I spent three hours yesterday with N. and her family discussing Islam and life as a Muslim American teen in our community. Fascinating! While I was hoping to get a chance to speak briefly with N.’s kids (like Amr in my story, they were born in America, but their parents are Middle Eastern…and they practice Islam), I didn’t expect them (or N.’s husband) to actually be there for our entire conversation. Nor did I expect the table to be laid out with food (cheese, crackers, chips, baked pita with olive oil and herbs and, I kid you not, the BEST baklava I’ve ever had in my life! Yes, it’s always about the food with me…) Nor did I expect to stay for THREE HOURS (I hope I didn’t overstay my welcome!).
I was amazed how open they were with me. They answered absolutely everything I asked (while I did know something about Islam before I walked in, I wonder just how ignorant I came off???). They even showed me the husband’s prayer rug and they showed me how they pray. I could visit “Saturday School” (which is a class for Muslim kids/teens in our community) if I want…they’d give me a hijab to wear during prayer, but other than that, I can just go and watch and listen. I don’t anticipate writing any Saturday School scenes in my book, but I still might do this just to get a deeper understanding of who Amr is.
I knew that Muslims don’t eat pork and that they don’t consume alcohol, but I didn’t realize the extent of it. For instance, they check labels on foods and don’t eat anything with gelatin in it either, because gelatin is a pork product. Which means no gummi bears, no marshmallows, no rice krispie treats. And no alcohol means no foods that use cooking wines (apparently there’s still residue even when the alcohol evaporates and/or is cooked out of the food), no vanilla, so no chocolate chip cookies. (She uses vanilla powder to make cookies.) When she told me this, I thought of Preteen’s old friend, Amr…I KNOW I’ve served him cookies made with vanilla (and I don’t buy vanilla extract…my vanilla is a bottle of vodka with two vanilla beans soaking in it). I asked N.’s kids whether they adhere to this when they’re at someone else’s house, and they both said they wouldn’t eat anything with marshmallows in it…they just know they can’t have that. (In fact, one of the boys told me about a time in kindergarten when they were doing some math project with marshmallows and then they were supposed to eat the marshmallows as part of it…he wouldn’t eat them.) They’re both in the habit of asking to see a label when they’re in doubt about what’s being served to them at someone else’s house. But they DIDN’T know they were supposed to ask about cookies…they didn’t know about vanilla.
While N. and her family haven’t personally experienced a lot of discrimination, it made me sad to hear stories of other Muslim families they know. Our community is pretty open-minded…there are a lot of people from other countries here, so people tend to be pretty tolerant here. It’s a college town, so people are well educated and liberal minded. But despite this, N. knows of a woman who will not wear her hijab here because she doesn’t want people to know she’s Muslim. In fact, N. also knows of Muslim women who sort of keep their distance from her because N. is pretty obviously Muslim and they don’t want to be associated with that…even though they are Muslim themselves!
I learned what affect 9/11 had on the Muslim community…even right here in Iowa City. I learned about misconceptions Americans tend to have about Muslims. And I learned several ways American kids can be cruel and insensitive to Muslim kids…even Muslim AMERICANS. While N. and her family may live a little differently from how my family lives (i.e. they APPEAR different on the outside), we really aren’t all that different on the inside. We live in the same community, in very similar neighborhoods (she’s only about a mile away). My house does not look all that different from theirs. We enjoy similar foods (though her children don’t like baklava! Or falafel!). We have similar values, common interests…we even raise our children in similar ways. But they are Muslim…and we are not. Believe me, I have felt more uncomfortable around some Christians than I felt with this family.
I will use all this in my book…