I ran up the stairs to find my eight year olds’ knitted hat to keep his head warm during the chilly night ahead at soccer practice. Father and son stood at the bottom pleading with me to hurry or else they would be late.
“What about your blue kufi, Zayd? It will just as easily keep your head warm.” My son looked down at his cleats, avoiding eye contact.
The frantic mood at the bottom of the stairs turned to silence.
Zayd replied in a low voice, “I don’t want to.”
“Why?” I asked.
“No one knows what that is.”
“So, you do” I shot back. “Be proud of who you are.”
Zayd responded, “Zinedine Zidane doesn’t wear a kufi on the field and he’s a Muslim.”
Meanwhile my husband shot me a look, the look that says, “Please, just drop it.”
I sighed. My son loves to wear his kufi on homeschool field trips with his young Muslim brothers. That is the extent of his fealty to this outward symbol of our Islamic faith.
He is well liked on the team and loves the game. When he is close to the net, his team members call out “shoot, ‘Z’, shoot.” They call him “Z” for short; he likes that too. I like the name on his birth certificate.
“So, what about my hijab? I’m not shy to wear it at your games. Does it bother you?” I called down to him.
He replied, “It is different for girls, Mama, everyone knows that Muslim girls wear hijab, so it’s normal.”
I grew up a white Protestant child in a white Protestant-dominated small town. His father grew up as a Muslim in a Muslim-dominated town. We cannot relate what it is like to grow up as a minority. Sometimes I wish I had that card to play…if only to say, “I understand, I’ve been there too, you’ll be all the better for it, just like me.”
I almost spouted out a Muslim pride pep talk, and then hesitated. The heart of that message doesn’t always resonate if his imagination goes wild with thoughts of freckly-faced peers heckling him.
I said, “Zayd, you are an American, don’t be ashamed of your American heritage. Be grateful for what you are!” He looked up at me; I had his attention; his expression turned quizzical.
I continued, “You are part of a strong tradition of people who practice their beliefs faithfully even if those beliefs are not all the same….Many struggled for this….It is an American value and it is a Muslim value to be true to yourself.”
Zayd parted quietly out of the house…no trace of a kufi, though.
I did not score a win, I pouted to myself after they were gone. Still, we did not express disappointment that he did not answer my battle cry. At the night’s end his father and I leaned down as usual for a goodnight farewell kiss on the cheek.
The next evening he prepared for a Cub Scout den meeting. We poured over the handbook noting the list of accomplishments for earning the next badge. We came to an item which asked the child to list a way to help his church, synagogue or “mosque.” I suggested he write about the upcoming bake sale at the masjid. Zayd pointed out that non-Muslims only use the word “mosque;” that they do not know that Muslims more commonly refer to it as a “masjid.” He decided to use the word “mosque” as well in his sentence because he said, “I don’t want the other kids to say it’s strange because it’s a different word they don’t know.”
I explained that while he had one way of looking at it, more likely the other kids would think it is interesting to discover a new word. I reiterated that it is a teaching opportunity. My son didn’t acknowledge either way and continued to scan the pages for more achievements. Another episode of banging my head against a concrete wall, I lamented to myself.
Just before heading out, he gave me the book to sign off on several items. I came back to the earlier page; there it read: “I can help with the bake sale this winter to give money to the masjid.”
“You wrote ‘masjid,’” I pointed out.
“I know,” he said simply, and a wide grin grew across his face.
I grinned back and wrapped my arm around his shoulders and pulled him in tightly.
The soccer game was the following Saturday; they faced an undefeated team. Zayd came ready for a good play, vowing to win, and engrossed in his own battle cry. He still bore no interest in sporting a kufi; he would rather have a head chill. Our team did get their big win. The kids jumped up and down and reveled in the moment. We parents were equally elated. Zayd came to me, “Mama, I said Bismilliah, AllahuAkbar before I made a goal, every time!”
In his own way, I understood, on his own turf. I felt an outcry of relief quivering inside. He’d won more than just the game. He claimed a piece of himself, closer now to being fully integrated within.
The best I can do is make sincere du’a for strength and wisdom on this journey. When the situation is appropriate, I can let go, nurture and love my children through the thickets and easy strolls….no matter. AllahuAkbar. God is Great.
Danette Zaghari-Mask is a Muslim homeschooling “mama,” attorney and activist, from many generations of Florida natives. She draws sweet joy and humor from nurturing her family’s shared Southern American and Maghrebi heritage. She lives in Maryland with her husband, daughter and two sons.