Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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The calligraphy is Arabic for “God is greater.”
The evening after his first day of sixth grade, my son Khalil was at the dining table in our home in North Carolina, bent over his first assignment of the year: to draw a self-portrait on a handout and then answer a list of questions about himself. Each had room for a couple of sentences in reply. One read: “What is your culture/race/ethnicity?” It was a big question to answer in such a small space. I leaned over his shoulder, intrigued. Khalil had penciled in one word in large capital letters: WHITE.
“What?” he said defensively, following my gaze to the page.
“Aren’t you ignoring half your family?” I asked, wondering what his Libyan father, Ismail, would say if he found this assignment on the kitchen counter.
Seventeen years ago, when I was pregnant with our first child, Aliya, Ismail shook his head at the girls’ names I suggested. “Too white,” he replied to each one. And then he said: “This child will be raised in your culture. She’ll speak your language and know your family. Can I at least give her an Arabic name?”
At the time his request seemed reasonable, but the world was different then. It was before September 11, heightened airport security, Iraq, ISIS, Trump, the Muslim ban. It was long before I discovered that many of our Muslim friends — Amira, Latif, Fatima, Omar — also use non-Muslim names as a form of protection. They are Jennifer and Michael and Sheila and John when they order drinks at Starbucks or fly on airplanes or send out résumés. I had not yet discovered that in this country an Arabic name is a liability, or how little melanin it takes to make you not white in America.
During the first six years of Khalil’s life we were reluctant to bring him with us on trips to Libya, because it remained under Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal and unpredictable regime. After the dictator was overthrown, Libya descended into lawlessness and violence, becoming a failed state. It’s been unsafe for any of us to visit ever since. Khalil has never met his Libyan relatives or seen his father’s native country.
Troubled by Khalil’s answer on the assignment, I suggested we think of ways to describe his family on his father’s side: North African? Libyan? Muslim?
Khalil shook his head.
“You don’t get it, Mom,” he said. He explained that none of these was a good choice, but if he had to choose one, North African would be far better than Libyan. Muslim would be worst of all: social suicide. “There is no way I am going to write ‘Muslim,’ ” he said, crossing his arms and daring me to challenge him.
“You should be proud of your heritage,” I said. “Where did you get these ideas?”
I did not tell him how many times I have said my husband is “North African” instead of Libyan. Or how many times I’ve said he’s “Muslim — but different from other Muslims.” Or how often I avoid disclosing that I am Muslim, too, having converted six years ago.
When people ask for the story of how I became Muslim, I never know where to begin. Maybe my conversion story starts late one night several years ago, in the harsh fluorescent light of the emergency room: I had returned home from an evening out with friends to find paramedics wheeling Ismail out the front door. They told me he was having a heart attack. In the ER nurses circled Ismail with needles and tubing and IV stands, and someone handed me pages of small print that might as well have been written in another language. My husband locked eyes with me and gave me a sad, loving smile. I saw with bracing clarity that he was in a state of surrender — and that this was the essence of his faith.
Or maybe my conversion story starts long before that, in college, when I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. As a lonely and anxious freshman secretly struggling with an eating disorder, I was inspired by his personal transformation through faith — including his experience, during the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, of embracing people from all over the world as brothers and sisters.
Or perhaps my conversion story begins decades before that, when my father, whom I never really knew, went looking for a guru in India while his wife and two small children barely scraped by in California. Or on the day he jotted down a few sentences on a sheet of paper torn from a notebook, left that note on the kitchen table, walked out to the woodshed, and hanged himself. Decades later, in a New Jersey diner, I asked his brother to explain to me how a parent of two young children could find no reason to continue living. He told me my father had never been satisfied; he’d always insisted there must be more to life than these routines we call reality. In my thirties then, I felt a shiver of recognition. I’d meditated in the Indian Himalayas, purchased a vial of holy dirt at the Santa Fe flea market, and prayed at Sufi shrines in Libya and Tunisia. Still, I was restless and unsatisfied. I thought I’d left my father behind long ago, but now I realized I’d been following in his footsteps the whole time.
In hindsight every experience seems to have led me here, but mercy is what appealed to me most about Islam. The first time I tapped my forehead to the ground in prayer, I felt my heart open and my burdens roll off my shoulders. God is described most frequently in the Qur’an as compassionate and merciful. Some people might be surprised to know that in Islam the story of Adam and Eve is about forgiveness: The original man and woman knew they weren’t supposed to eat the apple, but they got caught up in the moment. When they realized what they had done, they sought God’s mercy — and because they were sincere, God forgave them. They could put their past behind them and move on. In Islam there is no lingering shame, no original sin or debt to be repaid for that human lapse in judgment. By the time I became a Muslim, I was done with a distant God who judged and condemned me. Fear and guilt could take me only so far on my spiritual path. In Islam, along with gratitude and awe, I discovered an intimate God who loves me like a mother does her child.
Another Muslim belief resonated deeply with me: that we are born knowing the truth but are forgetful creatures who need frequent reminders. My life felt like an endless cycle of remembering and forgetting: where I put my keys; that my husband was not my enemy; that all emotions pass; that I have much to be grateful for; that, soon enough, I will be gone.
Ten years into our marriage, when I told Ismail I had decided to convert, he was wary. Not once had he encouraged me even to learn about his faith. “You’re already a Muslim,” he sometimes told me in intimate moments, to express his affection and respect. Now he warned me not to embrace a distortion of Islam. He was afraid I might disappear, like many converts do, behind rigid practices and layers of cloth. “Promise me you won’t lose touch with who you are,” he said, “because that is the woman I love.”
The day I converted, I sat cross-legged on our living-room carpet with Ismail and two Muslim friends. “La illa ha il Allah,” I repeated three times, my eyes brimming with tears: There’s no God but God. Then I went upstairs and took a long, hot shower, scrubbing myself clean as required. When I came back downstairs, our friends asked me to pray for them. As a brand-new Muslim, I was considered as pure as a newborn and especially cherished by God.
If only shedding my doubt were as easy as scrubbing away dirt. I was not awash with certainty when I stepped out of that shower, pink skinned and smelling of lavender and coconut. I felt both inspired and uneasy about the path I had chosen — but those feelings had been with me since the first night I’d spent with Ismail. To love him meant learning to live between worlds. I would now have to stitch together a new identity from the seemingly ill-fitting pieces of myself: a white American, a feminist, a Muslim.
Not long ago Ismail and I were visiting old friends in Ohio, and they invited us along to a dinner party. Our hostess poured drinks as we introduced ourselves. Then I followed her upstairs to admire the subway tile in her renovated bathroom while Ismail headed out to the grill with the men.
During dinner the host raised his glass and announced that his daughter, who was at the Air Force Academy, had decided to become a drone pilot. There were murmurs of congratulations and clinking glasses all around. “The money is incredible,” he went on. “You would not believe the bonus they get just for signing up.”
I glanced nervously at Ismail, whose glass was raised but whose smile was tight. The United States has been at war in Muslim countries practically as long as I’ve known him. It’s been a constant backdrop to our children’s lives. I remember Aliya at the age of four, having recently returned from visiting family in Libya, pointing to images of Iraqis on the news. “She looks like my grandma!” she would say. “He looks like my uncle!” She wondered: Why was that grandmother weeping? Why was that uncle seated in the dirt with his wrists bound and an American soldier looming over him?
Certain subjects should not be discussed at dinner parties: Sex. Religion. Drones. If this last topic does arise in conversation, do not mention the innocent people they kill. But it’s hard not to when our Libyan relatives are struggling every day to survive the fallout of American foreign policy. “We came, we saw, he died,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quipped after the U.S. helped to topple Gaddafi’s regime — and then the U.S. government turned its attention elsewhere just as the work of establishing a free Libya was beginning. Our Libyan relatives report violence, scarcity, and chaos. Our twenty-eight-year-old nephew, who once posed with his arm around our daughter, each of them raising a two-fingered peace sign for the camera, was murdered. My mother-in-law’s neighbor was killed by shrapnel. Two people Ismail knew were shot during a carjacking. My widowed sister-in-law fled into the desert with her two children to escape the shelling in her neighborhood — only to return because she had nowhere else to go. My mother-in-law, sick and unable to acquire basic medicine, lies curled under several blankets in a dark, cold house, enduring power outages that can last for days. I could go on.
Our host admitted he was worried: What if his daughter was traumatized by the work? In a framed photo on the wall this young woman was laughing at the beach, feet dug into the sand, wind whipping her hair. I understood the father’s concern. The last time I’d taken Khalil to the movies, my hand had gone up to cover his eyes at any hint of violence, causing him to protest and pull my fingers away.
Thankfully, our host continued, there was a system in place to protect “these kids,” by which he meant the pilots: one navigated the drone to the attack site and pressed the button, and then a second pilot confirmed the target had been destroyed.
Ismail put his glass down and leaned in to speak.
He and I have been in many similar social situations, when the conversation turns to the Palestinian territories, or immigrants, or Muslims, or terrorism. In the early years of our relationship I would have shot him a pleading look: Don’t make a scene. I would have emptied my wineglass in one gulp, wishing he wouldn’t make white people feel uncomfortable by speaking his mind. It hurts me now to imagine how this must have felt to him.
Ismail cleared his throat and chose his words carefully. (He is more practiced than I am at being offended.) He said that his family had been directly affected by American foreign policy, and that drones killed many innocent Muslims, so he couldn’t help but feel sensitive about this issue.
“Understood,” our host said, holding his palm up in the universal sign for stop.
The man beside me broke the tension. “Let’s face it,” he said in a conciliatory tone. “None of us likes to know exactly what our military does. But, on the other hand, we all want our children to be safe, right?” Then he complimented our host on the short ribs, and the conversation began to flow again, as smooth and steady as the air conditioning keeping everyone cool and comfortable on a sweltering day.
Over and over I have discovered that my children feel alienated in environments where, at their age, I felt an automatic sense of belonging. In elementary school Aliya’s classmates teased her for eating “stinky” Libyan food and held their noses when she sat near them in the cafeteria. A boy in Khalil’s class imitated Ismail’s accent to make the other kids laugh. Recently my daughter’s high-school art teacher crossed his arms and leaned back against his desk after taking attendance. “Aliya,” he said, “you’re Muslim, right?” When she nodded, the teacher asked her to tell the class about Islam. Aliya asked what he wanted to know.
“You know,” he said. “The basics. Do you all believe in Jesus?”
When she told me this story later, what surprised me most was not the way her teacher singled her out, or his ignorance about the basics of Islam. (Muslims venerate Jesus as a prophet, the way they do Mohammed.) It was discovering that Aliya considers herself Muslim. I have never seen her pray or read the Qur’an. Though she has participated in passionate political conversations ever since I can remember, she excuses herself from religious discussions, and when some of my more conservative Muslim friends visit, she retreats to her bedroom. She feels judged by them for her crop tops, her tight jeans, her outspoken personality. On social media she confronted a Muslim elder in our community with a long public post that began: “As a queer Muslim, I object to your homophobia.” She uses the prayer mat I bought her in Mecca to decorate the top of her dresser. It is covered with tubes of lipstick, bottles of nail polish, and incense ash.
It never occurred to me that she might consider herself Muslim. I had never even bothered to ask. Now she explained to me that she prayed in her own fashion. She reminded me that Islam is above all a religion of social justice; Muslims are called to speak truth in the presence of tyranny and to stand up against oppression of all kinds. For her, to practice her faith was not to cover her skin or to be punctual about the five daily prayers. It was to march in front of the North Carolina governor’s mansion in support of transgender rights; to walk out of class to protest gun laws that fail to protect students; to document incidents of sexual harassment and assault at her school; to advocate for Black Lives Matter. Everything she said made sense to me. Still, I was tempted to reclaim the prayer mat I had given her. I had meant for it to be used for worship, not decoration.
After I signed Khalil up for a weeklong YMCA summer camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I received a registration packet warning that children would not be allowed to use the phone except in emergencies. But Khalil called me every night anyway, choking back tears and pleading with me to come get him. I dreaded the sound of my phone’s ring.
One evening he sounded particularly desperate. He told me that the boys in his cabin had wrapped their sweatshirts around their heads like turbans, then marched down the gravel path to the crowded dining hall for breakfast. Dropping their backpacks onto the long table, they’d yelled in unison: “Allahu Akbar!” He said everyone, even the counselors, had laughed.
Light from the low-hanging sun cut through the blinds and landed over our mantel, on the framed Arabic calligraphy there that reads, “Allahu Akbar.” Often translated as “God is great,” it actually means “God is greater”: greater than any word I could dream up to complete the sentence; greater even than religion or any human concept of God.
Khalil’s voice was trembling. “Mom, I am begging you.” He told me he felt sick. But he was five hours away, and the friend who had driven him to camp along with her own son was counting on me to collect both boys when it was over. Ismail was out of the country. I could not make two ten-hour trips in the next few days; nor could I expect my friend’s son to leave early because mine was suffering. So I stayed put. I told Khalil I, too, had felt homesick when I’d gone to sleepaway camp. I’d missed my mother so much that I’d written her letters each day and cried each night. I told him I understood.
But I didn’t exactly, because when I was his age, I had the same skin color and religion as the others in my camp cabin, including the counselors. My name rolled easily off their tongues. At night around the campfire we sang songs about Jesus, and after zipping into our sleeping bags, we told Polack jokes in the dark. The jokes made us giggle. I had no idea who Polacks were, but the punch lines suggested they were idiots or fools — unlike all of us tucked into our sleeping bags in that darkened cabin, feeling connected.
Khalil’s friend Isaiah lives just a few blocks away, in an apartment he shares with his mother, Carla, and a ferret named Casper. I’ve lived in this small town for twenty years, but I’d never been on Isaiah’s street or even noticed it until he gave me directions to his house. Carla and I got to know each other through text messages with lots of emojis. I knew her first as two raised brown hands celebrating the end of the school year.
From what I can tell, one reason Isaiah and Khalil get along is that they are both uncommonly gentle and expressive. Carla told me I was not the first to comment on Isaiah’s sweet personality. “People have been saying that ever since he was a baby,” she said. “He’s been surprisingly easy. He’s brought me so much joy.” Khalil, too, has brought me joy since the day of his birth, which felt strangely serene. At the epicenter of my labor I found a small, peaceful place and clung to it like a raft while the contractions rolled like waves underneath. He slipped from me, wide-eyed and gasping. A friend who saw him shortly after he was born said he looked like an old Indian guru. She was right. He was brown and wrinkly and tranquil. Twelve years later I’m trying to protect his innocence as long as possible.
“I have to be tough on my son,” Carla told me one day, her voice hardening, as we discussed our different household rules. “Isaiah needs to know how to survive in a dangerous world. Let’s face it, he already has one strike against him: he is a black man in America.”
Our boys are far from being men, I thought. When I drove them to the middle-school dance, they counted their coins in the backseat, talking about the candy they would buy. When Khalil kisses me good night, he still presses his face into my neck, breathes me in, and tells me he loves me “so, so much.” They are children. They are the same age as Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by police in Cleveland for carrying the kind of toy gun that sits on our back porch, the one Khalil uses to scare squirrels from the bird feeder.
Aliya’s best friend, Angela, told me she is skeptical about investing in a U.S. college education. American society is so rigged against her, she said, so thoroughly corrupted by racism, that she might be better off moving to the Caribbean. She paused. “Do you want to know the real reason?” she asked me, then answered her own question: “Nah, you definitely don’t.”
We were sitting around the kitchen table in her small apartment: Aliya, Angela, her mother, and I. Lauryn Hill’s music drifted from the back bedroom. I told Angela I really did want to know. She gave me a half smile and shook her head and stared down at the carpet. Then she met my gaze. “I don’t like white people,” she finally said.
I tried to take in the painful gift of her honesty. Long after the conversation veered to lighter topics, I still felt a heaviness in my heart and a strong impulse toward self-justification. “I want you to know that I heard you,” I said to her later, before I left. “And I still feel the impact of your words.”
I was the only white person in the room. Though my daughter’s skin is not much darker than mine, her Arabic name and North African face — dark eyes, round cheeks, full lips — make it clear she’s not white. People often ask her: “What are you? Where are you from? I mean really from?”
When I was her age, I still believed the American legal system was just. Aliya does not have the comfort of such illusions. She’s outraged by the injustice she sees everywhere, and she takes it personally. At her age I could recite lines from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off by heart. She spouts statistics from the documentary 13TH, about this country’s prison-industrial complex. She has watched it three times. She insisted I watch it, too, with one condition: that I not turn away from the footage of a young black man being murdered. I’ve explained to my kids that I believe the images we consume affect us just as much as the food we eat. She has seen me turn away from such violent scenes.
“Protect your heart,” I say to my daughter.
“Open your eyes,” she replies.
I did not change the way I dressed when I became Muslim. It made no sense for me to adopt the style of women who lived in the Arabian Peninsula 1,400 years ago. So I still wear shorts and T-shirts, although I try to practice modesty in my behavior and intentions. But when I had the opportunity to interview a Muslim spiritual teacher whose teachings I had been studying for years, I decided to cover myself as an expression of respect.
Less than thirty minutes before I was scheduled to meet the teacher in a hotel conference room in Washington, D.C., I stepped into a bathroom outside the cocktail lounge to change out of my jeans and tank top. I set my notebook, with its long list of questions about peace and personal transformation, on the bathroom counter, then slipped into loose clothing and wrapped a scarf around my head and neck, pleating it neatly at my temples and pinning it above my ear, the way my sister-in-law taught me to do when I was in Libya. Two women at the bathroom mirror glanced from me to one another with raised eyebrows. They avoided eye contact with me and did not say hello. In the lobby I had been one of them, but when I put on a head scarf, I felt both scrutinized and unseen.
A black man with a few wiry silver strands in his hair maneuvered a cart into the elevator with me and stood by my side, our shoulders nearly touching. After the doors closed, he turned to face me. “As-salamu alaykum, sister,” he said: Peace be with you. His kind tone and unguarded smile caught me by surprise. “Wa alaykumu as-salam,” I replied: And also with you. My scarf could be a barrier — or an invitation.
“I just converted last month,” I confessed. I hadn’t even told my own relatives yet and was eager to share the news with someone who would receive it without wariness or need for explanation. His eyes widened in surprise and delight. “Alhamdulillah.” Praise be to God.
The elevator stopped at his floor. After he pushed the cart into the hallway, he turned back to me and said, “May God protect you always,” putting his right hand over his heart and bowing his head slightly.
One weekday afternoon, the summer before my daughter’s senior year, when I was reading aloud the names of colleges and universities from all over the country whose brochures had arrived in the mail that day, Aliya told me she had decided to limit her college applications to nearby schools, because she did not want to be far from home.
“What a shame,” my running partner, Megan, said when I told her about Aliya’s decision. “She could have explored so many other good schools.” Like me, Megan had shot out of her home like a cannonball after graduation, landing as far away as possible.
“What a blessing!” my Muslim friend Intissar said when I told her. “Congratulations!” We were speaking by phone, and it was hard to hear her over the din in the background. She was living temporarily in a hotel room with her husband and three college-aged children while their home underwent a major renovation. She’d had no need for a bigger home when her kids were young, but now that they were adults, she wanted her house to be big enough to accommodate them.
Aliya was accepted into her first-choice school. After we moved her into her dorm, I cried the whole way home — all three miles. The first week of classes she sent me ecstatic text messages about her Muslim teaching assistant and her African American political-science professor, who teaches U.S. government through the lens of race and class and gender. “I am finally learning about what matters to me,” she wrote. “I feel like I was made for this.”
The second week she called to ask if she could come home with laundry and to pick up a couple of things. My calculating mind told me I needed to shove her out of the nest, but my believing heart told me to simply trust her to fly when the time comes. Besides, I enjoyed folding her laundry that weekend. Fresh from the dryer, her cotton T-shirts were as warm and soft as her skin.
The items she came back for were her guitar and her prayer mat. As I pulled the mat from the top of her dresser and shook it off, I recalled the day I’d selected it from a stack in a crowded outdoor market in Mecca. Its intricate floral pattern, gold-embroidered vines, and lush velvet had reminded me of her. Just as I’d made my purchase, the haunting call to prayer had drifted over the crowd. Vendors all around me quickly covered their wares with cloth and turned away from customers and toward the Kaaba, which Muslims all over the world face during prayer. Looking up, I saw construction workers on high floors of unfinished buildings lay down their tools and line up under the open sky. In every direction people formed concentric circles around the Kaaba, like the rings of an ancient tree. When we sank to the ground as one, I felt deeply connected yet free.
Now I wondered if Aliya would touch her forehead to this cloth, or if she’d hang it with double-sided tape on the cinder-block walls of her dorm room and sit beneath it, strumming her guitar. And then I realized it doesn’t really matter. Nor does it matter how she chooses to describe herself. What matters is that she knows how much I love her — and discovers inside herself a wellspring of mercy.
I was moved by the dinner party scene in Krista Bremer’s essay “Notes on Surrender,” in which the host toasted his daughter’s decision to become a drone pilot in the Air Force [December 2018]. Almost everyone in the U.S. knows so little about the reality of war.
I was a platoon medic in the Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese call the American War. My platoon took heavy losses. It quickly became obvious, however, that Vietnamese civilians bore the brunt of the losses. The landscape that sustained them was often destroyed. The Vietnamese continue to suffer from the effects of Agent Orange. And farmers tending crops and children playing in fields still lose lives and limbs to forgotten explosives.
In 2008 I gave my Purple Heart to a Vietnamese woman who suffered from Agent Orange–induced thyroid cancer, and I gave my Combat Medical Badge to a young woman born without legs due to her mother’s exposure to that same chemical.
The dinner party chatter Bremer describes is sadly realistic. Maybe her husband, Ismail — commenting that his Libyan family had been directly affected by U.S. foreign policy — planted a seed or two in the minds of other guests.