Being Muslim: Post 9/11 Reflections

“Please don’t be an Arab or a Muslim. Please don’t be an Arab or a Muslim!”

That was the prayer that came to my mind once I learned that the plane that flew into the  World Trade Center in New York on the morning of September 11, 2001 was not an accident but an attack. 

It was my day off from college. I woke up early, poured my cereal and milk into a bowl, and turned on the TV. Every, single, channel showed a building that was on fire….. I was still half asleep so it didn’t register that it was one of the Twin Towers that had smoke billowing out of the top; that the building was so close to home, and that we, as a country, were under attack. 

I was living in Jamaica, Queens at the time. My parents were the administrators of a private Islamic school, also in Queens, but just a few miles from the Manhattan border. I had been to the Twin Towers many times – especially when showing guests around who were visiting from out of state. 

Just a minute later another plane crashed into the second tower. The realization of what was happening all hit me at once, and I felt sick to my stomach. 

I tried to reach my mom on her cell phone. Busy signal. Her work phone. Busy. I tried again. Busy… I felt alone and scared. Is she okay? 

When the TV anchor said the planes had attacked the towers, that’s when I remember thinking: Please don’t let it be a Muslim or an Arab behind this. I knew what this would mean. We would be persecuted as a whole for the heinous actions of a few. 

Some people have told me that having those thoughts meant I believed that Muslims were the victims of the 9/11 attacks. No, that is not what that meant. The nearly 3,000 people who died on that morning were the victims. The people who lost loved ones were the victims. Police officers. Firefighters. 

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Photo by Tobe Roberts on Pexels.com

But here is the reality: Americans were afraid of another attack happening on their soil, but Muslims and Arabs were afraid of being attacked, assaulted, raped, by their fellow Americans. 

My family, just like many other Muslim and Arab families, stayed home for a week. We heard about women getting their hijabs yanked off and being raped, both men and women being beaten (not just Muslims but people who looked like us — Hindus, Sikhs, and Christian Arabs), mosques being set on fire. According to FBI figures, the number of anti-Muslim hate crime incidents jumped in 2001, from 28 to 481 incidents. The number dropped in the following years, but has never returned to levels reported before the 9/11 attacks.

I remember emailing the dean of my university (College of New Rochelle) and telling him I was worried about what would happen to me on campus (I was wearing hijab at the time); could I be attacked, physically or verbally? The dean assured me that anyone who did so would immediately be expelled. I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. I felt supported.

I finally went back to school a week after 9/11. The city had pretty much been shut down for days. When I arrived at the campus some fellow students came up to me (I had no idea who they were) and said, “If anyone messes you, we got your back. Don’t you worry.”

These young women who didn’t even know me just swore to protect me. I almost cried. 

In the months following 9/11, I was asked more questions about my religion, my hijab, my traditions, my culture. Random people in the streets of New York City would approach me and tell me how they knew I wasn’t a terrorist and that Muslims as a whole shouldn’t be blamed for the attacks. It was a little strange to hear, but definitely a nice gesture. 

On the flip side I was told to go home to my country (that would be Vienna, Austria for those who don’t know me). I was called un-American. And I did get asked a few times if I supported Al-Qaeda or what happened on 9/11 – as if I, being a Muslim Arab, was supposed to have a deeper insight into the tragic event. I remember furrowing my brow and almost laughing at how absurd those questions were. It’s sad that I would even be asked that. It’s also sad that Muslim leaders across America were expected to denounce the attacks and apologize for them on behalf of all of us, while I don’t see a white leader apologize for his race when a school shooting takes place. We, as Muslims, obviously reject the hateful ideology and violence of terrorist organizations. So why do we feel the need to voice an opposition to an attack by a fanatic and a murderer who does not represent us and our values? It’s because we as members of an entire religion or ethnicity get blamed when an extremist commits an act of terror.

I refuse to apologize for something I didn’t do and would never even fathom doing. I’m an American. I am proud to live in this country and wouldn’t go any where else. This is and always will be my home.

 

De-Hijabi Chronicle: Taking Off My Scarf

I’ve written this piece and deleted it at least five times. I want to make sure I get it right since this was one of the biggest decisions in my life.

About three years ago, I decided to take my hijab off. Something that had been on my head, literally, for about 21 years.

It’s hard to explain why I took it off. I guess the best way to describe it is I wasn’t feeling like myself any more. The scarf wasn’t a part of who I am. My heart really wasn’t in it. Have you ever put something on that you knew just didn’t match who you were? And you were almost uncomfortable with it? That’s basically the feeling I had.

I thought about taking off my hijab for about 5 years before I finally did it. I think I was so worried about losing friends (only to realize later they weren’t my real friends if they cut me off for MY life decision). I was also afraid of disappointing people and being judged. I grew up with a father who always said, “What will other people think?” It was rarely a case of “that’s wrong,” and always the concern of how other people would perceive me, and in turn, us as a family.

Me being stuck in that mindset meant I worried how the community would react. How would my mom react? My family? My friends? All this came into play about my decision to take my scarf off.

Another reason it took me so long: I was worried to lose a part of my identity. I was always the girl who stood out in classes, at events, at restaurants when I hung out with my non-scarf wearing friends. People could easily identify me. I was the strong, independent, outspoken Muslim woman.

(I always matched my scarves with what I was wearing.)

I’m also a journalist, and I pushed other Muslim women to follow their dreams, and not let the scarf limit them in reaching their goals. Would this change everything? Would this change my message? I want people to know that I never felt like my scarf held me back. In fact, it made me try harder. And work harder towards what I wanted to achieve in life. I remember one time I talked to an agent about getting a job as an anchor on TV. He said, “With your scarf, you probably won’t go very far.” Instead of getting discouraged I laughed and told him that I didn’t give a shit about his opinion. That if I wanted to become a TV reporter with a scarf on, I will. He was left speechless.

(I found fancy scarves to go with my fancy outfits at events)

I also never felt oppressed wearing hijab. Ever. It never crossed my mind. When I took the scarf off, a lot of people congratulated me on “being free.” I know that they were just trying to be nice and didn’t really know what else to say. But I was always free. Now, I just feel more like myself.

About a year before my 30th birthday, I went up north and didn’t wear my hijab the entire weekend – just to get a feel for it. To make sure that this was what I really wanted. And it was. Now to just get the strength to take it off and face possible backlash.

It was a few months after my 30th birthday that I finally decided to pull the trigger. I told my sisters first. They told me that I would always be loved by them, with or without my scarf. My mom was next. I expected a lecture, but instead she told me she was disappointed but that it was my life and my decision. She was right. I realized that I didn’t care if others had something to say about this. This IS my life and my decision. I took my hijab off the following weekend. And haven’t looked back since.

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(This was the first picture I posted without hijab on Instagram and Facebook)

I think the best reaction came from my co workers. I just walked into work one day, scarf-less. No one recognized me and everyone was convinced that I was a new employee. I actually regret not recording the whole day. People even came by to see me because they had heard that I had let my hair out (I was a fake blonde at the time). Some people even touched my hair to make sure it was real and that they weren’t dreaming.

(I went from super blonde to super dark in one day.. the blonde days are over folks)

I got a few messages from some people on Facebook. They told me I was wrong and that I was going to hell for my decision. I kindly thanked them for their concern and moved on (*unfriend*). A few others texted me and told me not to lose my religion and to make sure I still kept up with prayer, etc. Why does taking my scarf off immediately make me less of a Muslim?

I do have to mention that I found it somewhat amusing the things people in the Dearborn community said to my closest friends behind my back the moment the hijab came off. “She must be getting drunk now too.” “So does this mean she’s out partying all the time? Going to clubs? Having lots of sex with guys?” “Is she going to dress slutty?”

Let me answer all those questions for you with a big, fat NO. I mean of course my outfits changed a little. Come on. I always wore long sleeves when I went out and pants to my ankles. Now I wear sleeveless and capris. But that’s not slutty. At least not in my mind (I’m sure some would beg to differ).

I kept my Instagram and Facebook photos up of me wearing the hijab. A few people told me to take it down “because it looks bad.” But it’s part of who I was and my past. I’m not ashamed that I used to wear the scarf. Why should I hide that I did?

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I’m still a proud Muslim. Yes, I’m a little more liberal than most. But any time I get a chance to tell people that I am a Muslim, I do so. And honestly, I’ve met girls who wear the scarf and are actually getting drunk or are out partying. Or dress slutty. I think that helped with my decision as well. Just because there’s a piece of cloth on your head doesn’t make you a better person, or more religious.

But to those who do wear it despite everything that’s going on in this crazy world, kudos to you. You are strong and beautiful. I have to add here that I also never took my hijab off because of fear of how I was treated with it on. Although I do realize I get fewer dirty stares from people now.

There are a few other things I’ve learned from taking the hijab off:

  1. Bad hair days are REAL.
  2. Lipgloss (sometimes lipstick) is the enemy when your hair is down.
  3. I now understand why my friends all hated having the windows down in the car.
  4. Doing my hair for an event really is quite the task.
  5. Dry shampoo is my best friend.
  6. So are buns.
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    (Photo Credit: Steph Rhoades)
  7. If I get a zit on my forehead it’s front and center now. I used to be able to hide it with my scarf.
  8. Humidity is also the enemy.
  9. So is rain.
  10. And snow.
  11. My ears get really cold in the winter. Not used to that.
  12. So does my neck.
  13. This mean neck scarves and hats are my friends in the winter.
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  14. Matching earrings to outfits is fun — but I had to buy a lot more earrings.
  15. I actually get to go through TSA pre sometimes when the airport is busy.
  16. No more “random screenings” or custom checks at the airport.

To all the Muslim women (and women in general), don’t let what other people think control how you present yourself to the world. And always be yourself. Always.

Coffin Beds and Dance Parties: On The Road With A Christian Band

What are the first things that come to mind when you hear about bands touring?

Take a second.

For me it was drugs, sex, booze, and the glam of it all. But believe it or not, that’s not always the case. At all. At least not during my recent experience.

I got the opportunity to have this eye-opening experience this past winter thanks to a good friend of mine. Chuck is the tour manager of a band called Family Force 5. Yeah, I’d never heard of them before either but turns out they’re pretty awesome (and if you get a chance make sure to listen to their latest CD “Time Stands Still”. You won’t be disappointed). I asked Chuck once what it was like to tour with a band, and he invited me to join them for a weekend on Winter Jam, a Christian tour with ten bands which travel to 47 cities, every weekend for 3 months. I thought Chuck was a little crazy for asking me at first. I mean, I’m going to just get on a tour bus with a bunch of guys I’d never heard of, and travel to different cities? I remembered my promise to myself when I turned 30: do something out of the ordinary. So I took Chuck up on his offer, and my life will never be the same. I learned how things worked behind the scenes, met new people, and really understood the sacrifices some of these musicians make.

I first met Family Force 5 after flying out to Chicago at the end of January. I stood in front of the tour bus freaking out a little because I wasn’t sure what to expect.

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On the inside was well, a tour bus: a front lounge, bunks in the middle, and then a back lounge. Oh, and a tiny little bathroom where you can’t flush toilet paper or poop into (TMI? Sorry, this was one of the first things everyone warned me about). The five members of the band and the crew welcomed me. Lead singer Jake already had a nickname for me: “Zar Zar Beans.”

Jake then set up his steam thingy-ma-bob and started inhaling steam for that night’s performance (guess it helps his voice), and his brother and bass player Josh was in the back strumming his guitar. It was so cool to see how these guys prepared.

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It was time to eat lunch, so inside the venue we went (the tour has chefs who travel with them). The halls were filled with band and crew members, people running around, pushing giant pieces of equipment around as they tried to get things in place for the night’s performances.

In catering, the bands didn’t just sit with their band mates, they sat with everyone on the tour. There weren’t really any cliques. It honestly felt like a giant family. I loved (and was kind of giddy) that I was able to eat with all these talented musicians. I stared more at the people than the food on my plate (and that says something about me). Things got even more exciting when I realized that John from Skillet was sitting at the table across from me. Skillet was really the only band I was familiar with on the entire tour.

Next stop was to see the stage being put together for the performance. So much went into it all: the lights, the screens, instruments. I just sat there with Chuck in silence and watched the stage slowly come together and the whole thing get built up from the bottom.

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(Pictures are of different stages in a few of the cities)

Soon it was time for the concert to start. Thousands of people who had stood in line for HOURS streamed into the venue to see their favorite bands perform.

Thanks to Chuck I got to stand to the side of the stage and watch the musicians prepare before their acts started: getting mic’d up, checking their instruments, maybe sing a note or two. They went on stage and performed. Then once they were done, they had to grab their gear and get it out the way for the next band. It was rushed and seemed quite hectic and made me sweat just watching them run around.

The time had come for Family Force 5 to perform. They came to the side of the stage and got ready for their act. The five guys were all dressed up in their brightly-colored outfits and ridiculous jackets. They high-fived me as they each climbed the steps to get in place for their performance. Getting to see Family Force 5 on stage was extra special because I had just met these guys that morning and watched them prepare for the show… and here they were in costume and putting on an amazing performance for the thousands of people in the room. The lights. The music. Jake’s LED jacket. The jumping around on little trampolines. The moment when Jake took the camera from the camera man and walked around the stage with it. It was spectacular and I was soaking it all in. (You can watch their entire performance here)

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Watching Skillet was a lot of fun as well because I’d been listening to their music for years and had never seen them in concert until that night. I especially enjoyed watching Chu, the violinist, play his violin and jump around just a few feet in front of me as he got ready to take the stage with Skillet. I’ve always had so much respect for his talents.

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After the show was done, we had to rush upstairs and wade through crowds for signing. Hundreds upon hundreds of people stood in line to get autographs and take pictures with Family Force 5. Children were so excited as they got closer to their turn. One kid, who was probably 5 or 6, screamed, “I’M SO NERVOUS I’M GOING TO DIE!!!!” And the five guys signed every…single…CD, paper, hat, shirt, whatever it was…and took selfies until there was no one left in line. There were never any sighs or signs of annoyance on their part (even when I thought, “Oh my God…this person is being obnoxious”). They just kept going.

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When everything was over we all headed back to the tour bus where everyone hung out and talked. Some of the guys called their wives to tell them about their night (something I realized they did every night). I felt so lucky to be part of this whole crazy day.

And then it was time for the bus to leave to the next venue (shout out to the most awesome bus driver Aaron). Chuck looked at me and said, “If you need to do anything but pee, go now because we’d have to stop otherwise.” This of course caused panic to set in. What if I suddenly had to poop in the middle of the night (that’s never happened by the way) and then the whole bus would know why we stopped at a truck stop?? My other option was taking a plastic bag and lining the toilet with it and then pooping in that. I was mortified. Thankfully, I never had to poop in the middle of the night and none of these things had to happen.

More panic set in when it was time to get into my bunk to sleep. So here’s how it works. Everyone has a bunk. There are 12 of them: 3 stacked high, 2 wide. And they’re small. Like a coffin. With a curtain for privacy. I am claustrophobic. So when I climbed into my bunk, which was the top one, I was not happy. I was sure I was going to suffocate or die in the tiny little 7 by 3 death bed. I’m glad to say I’m still alive and did get some sleep once I got somewhat comfortable. I do also have to point out that there was a lot of rocking because of all the bumps in the road. That’s something the band apparently gets used to. For the record, I never got used to it.

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I was very happy to still be alive the next morning when we arrived in Pittsburgh. It was this day when I realized something about bands that tour. A lot of people think band members get to see so many cities. But all they really see, for the most part, is the outside and inside of the venue, maybe a nearby coffee shop if they get lucky. Their day is spent preparing for their performances and there really isn’t much time to explore or do much else. Like in Chicago, a few of us did get lucky enough to get away for about 45 minutes. Josh, Chuck, and I got a chance to head to a Target nearby and get some Starbucks.

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Unfortunately I had to go back home that evening before the show in Pittsburgh. But the moment I stepped onto my plane, I told Chuck that I wanted to come out on another tour and experience it all over again. And I did. I flew out to Cincinnati a few weeks later, and then a third time to Wichita.

Despite seeing the show several times my third weekend in, I still looked forward to all the performances. On my last day in Oklahoma City, show time came quickly and I watched the bands (for the fifth time) go on stage, perform, and rush off  for the next group. It was pretty much the same spiel as every other night before for each band: “Hello (insert city name). How are we doing tonight?!” etc. I thought, “How can these bands do this every night and not get bored with it?” I think I get it though. It was the reaction from the crowd, that energy and excitement, that really seemed to make everything worth it.

For instance, Joel from For King and Country gave out a bracelet to a young girl every concert to pretty much tell her she has worth and that men should honor and respect her. I’ve seen that moment happen several times, and it becomes routine most likely. But watching the reaction from the girls who get those bracelets is so emotional. It tears at my heart strings when the girl takes the bracelet from Joel, looks completely shocked, and then begins to cry and laugh at the same time. I’m sure it’s a story and moment they’ll remember forever…and it could possibly, for at least one night, change the way they feel about themselves.

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I was lucky that I was able to tour with Family Force 5 for those three weekends, including in my own home state, good ole’ Palace of Auburn Hills. And each time, I understood more and more that it wasn’t all glitz and glam. On every tour, the guys would talk about missing home, missing their wives, their family (although sometimes the wives/family members came out for some of the tours, which was great to see them being supportive). One night Derek’s (guitar player) parents came to the show. I stood next to them when Family Force 5 performed. I watched Derek’s mom and dad react as their son played his guitar and danced around on stage. The smiles on their faces and the obvious pride they had for their son was so heart-warming. I think I watched them more than the band that night (creeper right here).

I really realized that things weren’t all that glamorous when I talked with Deena from the group Veridia one day as I was waiting for the shower to become available. (I had to use the showers in the girls’ dressing room. Side note: I was more comfortable the second weekend asking if I could use their shower and actually held conversations instead of awkwardly running out the room once I was done). Deena said she loved touring but she never realized all the things that came with living her dream of singing and performing: being away from her husband, missing important events, friends, family. But despite all this, Deena said it was worth it. Musicians continue to do it all because it is something they love to do and because of the fans; the fans who come out to see their favorite bands perform, who scream in excitement when the groups come on stage, who sing every word of every song and look up to these bands, maybe as role models, or maybe to get away from sadness in their lives.

In just the three weekends I got to travel with Family Force 5 during Winter Jam, I met so many people and learned so many things. I have to be honest, going into it all I had no idea what to expect. I was also worried that me being Muslim would be an issue on an all Christian tour, but everyone was so friendly.

I still miss the after-show dance parties that were held on the bus where people did gymnastics off the bunks and danced against the side of an open bathroom door. I miss the late night talks and laughs with some of the crew and band members as we traveled to the next venue, and I miss getting to know and talking to the musicians on tour.

And by the way, there was no booze, sex and drugs on this tour. Just a bunch of wonderfully-talented people who love to have fun. And I’m lucky I got to experience it and be a part of it all.

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(Wearing Jake’s glasses)

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(Should I mess with the board during FF5’s performance?)

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(posing with Skillet)

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(I love their silliness.. Left to right: Derek, Teddy, Josh, Nate, and Jake)