Embracing My Religion
by Lujayn Ahmed
Up until I was twelve, I was confined to the borders of Minnesota. It did not faze me, and I never thought about what life was like outside my home. My parents always told me we would one day travel back to their hometowns. They are both Somali; my father grew up in Somalia, my mother Saudi Arabia. It was always something in the back of my mind, hidden away and ignored.
It was Halloween and I was five. I entered my classroom that morning and my eyes widened in shock. Everyone was wearing costumes, something I have never heard of until that day. One boy looked like Spiderman, another looked like Harry Potter. I saw one girl who looked like a princess, and I huffed loudly, slumping my back against the wall. After school that day, I stomped to my mother. I asked her what on earth Halloween was, and why she didn’t tell me about it. She laughed, and told me that we were Muslims, and Muslims don’t celebrate Halloween. I asked her when I could get candy and presents. She told me I could get them on Eid, our own Islamic holiday. I asked her if we could celebrate Halloween instead of Eid, because everyone celebrated Halloween, and nobody celebrated Eid. She laughed again and said, “Billions of people celebrate Eid, just you wait and see.”
When I went to Saudi Arabia the summer before seventh grade, everything changed. For the first time ever, I have left my Minnesota safe ground and broke out of my boundaries. I
couldn’t stop bouncing up and down on my seat. I was going to see my mother’s hometown, meet extended family, try new things, and best of all, perform umrah, an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, and visit the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque (peace be upon him) in Medina.
My friend in fifth grade would always ask me questions about my hijab. When I told her since she was a girl she could see my hair, she was ecstatic. She begged me to take my hijab off and show her my hair.
“Just because you’re allowed to doesn’t mean I want to show you!” I told her.
But that did not stop her from yanking my hijab up to see my long dark pigtails. I slapped her hand away as I stared at her, unable to process what just happened. “Why did you do that?”
“Your hair is so pretty!” She didn’t seem to notice the look of resentment I had on my face. I didn’t confront her; people were starting to see what was going on and I was too embarrassed.
I stepped out of the airplane first and was blasted with hot air. I took a deep breath, letting the humid Arabian air go through my lungs. One by one, I heard my siblings yell in surprise over the hot air. When we arrived in Jeddah, the streets were loud and busy. Cars drove recklessly on the road, and I watched people walk on the sides of the streets with shopping bags. I was shocked, I’ve never seen so many Muslims in one place before. Everywhere I looked, I saw hijabis and men in thobes. Then I heard something loud, something that seemed to echo through everyone’s ears. “Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar…” It was the call to prayer, something I heard five times a day from my mom’s phone. A phrase almost every non-Muslim was terrified of, a phrase that means “God is Great” in Arabic. I looked around in confusion. Why was my mom’s phone so loud? But it wasn’t her phone, it was the speakers from ten different mosques all within less than a mile from each other. I watched as everyone started to close their shops and walk towards
the mosque to pray together in congregation. It was beautiful. And suddenly, I had a strong nostalgia for something I never experienced.
When I was in sixth grade, I learned that most of the kids in my class knew nothing about Islam. That didn’t bother me much, they were kids anyway. But those same kids would ask me questions that hurt me, questions that made 11-year-old me question if I really fit in or not. Questions like “Do your parents force you to wear that thing on your head?” translated in my head to “How on earth could you wear that thing willingly?” And to 11-year-old me, I felt hurt that my peers didn’t like my hijab as much as I liked it myself. Instead of having my own identity, I was allowing my friends to mold me like clay, turning me into someone more desirable to them. My so-called friends would say, “Why is your religion so strict? You can’t even do anything fun!” Hmmm.. maybe they’re right. Maybe I don’t have any fun.
I was touching the Ka’bah, and I could barely contain my happiness. I did it. My hands brushed against the hard black fabric as mayhem occurred around me. I tried to move but there were so many people. It seemed like everyone in the world was trying to touch the huge structure that I knew Prophet Ibrahim and Ismael built a long, long time ago. I looked to my right, and saw an even more congested group of people. They were trying to touch the Black Stone, a stone that was sent from the Heavens from Angel Gabriel. I felt a connection to my identity I have never felt before. I was proud to be a Muslim.
I was home from my trip, I came home from my month-long trip from Saudi Arabia with brand new eyes. I saw things differently, and I was a more conscious person. I was homesick, and when we walked through the front door of our small home, it suddenly looked like a palace to me. Not because I missed it so much, no. It was because I knew there were people who would
have loved with all their being to live in the place I always thought was too small for my big family.
We were walking the streets of Mecca when my father was stopped by a man with dark bags under his eyes. He looked young, no older than thirty. He was holding a stroller, and sitting on it was a little boy. His eyes were closed, and it looked like he was sleeping.
“Please, my dear brother, I am in a difficult situation. I have no money, I have no home, I’ve lost almost everything. My son is hungry and I cannot feed him. He is running a fever and I am so worried. Please, on this blessed day in Ramadan, help me get my child some food. May Allah bless you and your family.” He sounded so desperate, and his hands clenched the handles of the stroller firmly, as if he was terrified of losing his child. My heart hurt watching him, knowing the situation he was in. I haven’t encountered many people in need back in Minnesota. I was so closed off that I didn’t think about the millions of people in countries where it was easy to fall into poverty. I watched as my father gave him money and he continued to thank him and promise to make dua for him.
I remember crying that night, the little boy’s feverish face and the father’s helpless one etched into my brain. I felt foolish as I thought about the petty things that derailed me. I also felt foolish about the times I allowed my friends to mold me into what they desired. How could I feel embarrassed about a religion that teaches you to do only good, to help the needy, to respect your parents, and to worship Allah? How could I feel embarrassed for the religion that turned me into who I am today?
I realized two things that night: What America thought Islam was, was drastically different than what Islam really was. I also realized that I needed to make a decision. To never, ever, ever, let anyone try to make me feel bad about my identity. I learned that most people are prejudiced because they aren’t educated. I am grateful to finally understand that I need to stand for my rights and my love for my religion.
To the countless people I have met that judged me before they got to know me, I want you to educate yourself before you make judgements. Meet Muslims. Understand that Islam is a religion that many Muslims are proud to be a part of, and it is a huge piece of their identity. Learn that maybe that Muslim you saw at the store isn’t oppressed, maybe they are proud. Understand that maybe the girl that’s in your class isn’t forced to wear a hijab, maybe she chooses to wear it because she loves it and it means so much to her.