These days, my mind and heart are conflicted. I’m learning and growing as a white woman, who has been raised in a small-ish midwestern town, in a predominantly white environment. I never considered myself racist, but to be honest, I wasn’t cognizant of my privilege until I married Khaled.
Even though he is fair, white people see him as ‘other.’ I struggle with this category. We joke about it, but it is always there. People ask him constantly where he is from. Our knee jerk reaction these days is to tell people we are from Sylvania, but then they look confused…”no, where are you originally from?”
The answer is always the same, Egypt. But I’ve been here for 30 years. You can see in their faces as they look at me and glance at our children they want to ask more questions, but most often, they don’t.
When we go to into Dearborn or the Muslim quarter of any major city, we are prepared to be looked at, questioned. I’ve learned to be ignored or followed..because I am the ‘other’ there. They ask me where I am from. Often, it is assumed I’m Syrian, and it is confusing when I open my mouth and out comes the voice of a midwestern girl. When we visit mosques during our travels, it is confusing to see us. We are stared at, they cautiously watch us to see if we know what we are doing. We know that in many arabic clothing shops, the prices go up because of me.
Our children are comfortable in their unique makeup. They pass for caucasian, white. Their skin is fair, their hair isn’t more than dark brown. They speak with midwestern, Ohio accents. They love the shock value when they tell people that they are half Egyptian. They love to walk into Muslim spaces and see the surprise when they feel at home and others expect them to feel out of place. They seek out Arabic food shops when they need a touchstone because Arabic style food, like kafta, kibbe, shawarma, hummos and rice are their comfort foods.
So, while I teach them of the privilege they have because of their skin, we are also teaching them to be careful because of their religion. Its a double edged line that isn’t easily navigated. In our every day life, if I needed legal help, I wouldn’t hesitate to call the police. I know that this trust I have in our police force is because of my privilege. My kids all feel the same. They would call the police. But would the police react the same to my ladies if they were wearing hijab? If my son decided to wear a kufi? It scares me that I don’t know.
I read the news and listen to what is being said by people who don’t share my privilege. I amplify and do my best to educate myself. Then I take this knowledge and share it with our kids. I want them to know that fine line they walk so they will be armed with as much knowledge as I have. I strive each day to do better, to listen better, to hear better and to say better.
A few weeks ago, we were in Cleveland for the day. We went on a Friday and as it is our custom, when we are in a new city on a Friday, we search for the local mosque. Khaled pulled up the app on his phone and it directed him to Masjid Uqbah. He called, asked if the mosque was Sunni or Shi’a and what time the Jummah was taking place. The Imam was very kind. He said that the mosque was Sunni, but would direct us to other mosques if we needed a different one. He told Khaled what time the Jummah began and that he would look for him after the prayer.
We are always excited when we find a mosque in the city we are in and it looks nice, clean and welcoming. I’m usually apprehensive because I don’t like the unknown. I hate being separated from Khaled, he’s my touchstone when I’m in a new environment.
We entered in the ‘women’s entrance’ along the side of the building after many people hurriedly told us we couldn’t enter the same door as the men. After entering, one of the ladies told us that we could stay downstairs (handicapped accessible area) or there was another area upstairs. We walked down the hallway, stopped at the restroom so the ladies could make wudu and then went upstairs.
The prayer was uneventful. It was as you would expect. Women and children scattered around, sitting on the floor. The wall overlooking the main prayer space was filled in with glass block and there was a small television hanging in front, broadcasting the sermon. We were looked at while we sat there listening to the khutbah. I was happy it was in English. The room was clean and most of the children were well behaved.
What set this mosque apart was what happened afterwards.
One of the women came up to me and smiled. She welcomed us to the mosque. She said she was happy to see us there. She offered me her hand to shake, and it was before I had a chance to stand. I stood up, shook her hand and then greeted her properly.
The warm, welcoming hug I received was the first true, pure hug I had ever had at a mosque. Her whole heart was there, welcoming us and sharing greetings of peace with us. It brought me to tears. I was so filled with the kindness this lady shared with me that as we made our way out of the room, I smiled and greeted the other women. As I walked to the door, another woman grasped my hand, pulled me into a hug and held me. She told me, “be safe out there.”
This woman. This beautiful black, muslim woman told me, a privilege having, non-Muslim woman to be safe. In that moment, as tears came down my face, I looked deep into her eyes, touched her cheek and told her, “You. Be Safe.”
We went down stairs to retrieve our shoes and I tried to collect myself. Once we got there, I looked around and realized that I was the only white woman there. I greeted everyone I made eye contact with and whispered to them, after Salaams, Be Safe.
It is my greatest wish and hope that the rampant violence ends. That we continue to level the playing field. That people, no matter what race or religion they practice are seen as good until they prove otherwise.
Until then, Be Safe.