March 11, 2015
In the summer before I started 8th grade, there was a conflict in the Middle East. Tension was rising as people in the Gaza Strip were trying to save themselves from Israeli rocket attacks. They were aimed at Hamas, a Palestinian organization that had been firing missiles at Israel. I had heard a lot about the issue from my parents and from the news, and it troubled me that so many innocent lives were being lost and the two sides couldn’t resolve their differences with peace.
One day, I was forced to accompany my mother on a trip to a department store. My mom was visibly frustrated when I refused to step out of the car, so she and my sister left me to wait. A few minutes later, my mom came back and convinced me to accompany her since she was going to take a while, as usual.
I absolutely resented that store, but I had no choice. In the store, I walked around aimlessly. After requesting my mother about 10 times to leave, I had finally given up. Suddenly, I heard something familiar. Was it really my favorite band as background music in this store? Suppressing my inner fangirl, I continued to roam around the store, now slightly at ease.
After a few minutes, I walked up to my mom, hoping we could finally leave. Around the same time, I saw two guys approaching us. They were young, probably in their early 20’s. One of them was pointing his phone at us, probably making a video. As his companion laughed mockingly in the background, the guy with the cell phone started yelling out a string of curses at us in a very thick accent:
“Kill Palestine! Go to hell! F*** you! You deserve to die!”
Is that really what he was saying? I froze in place, silently watching them and noticed the piercings in their ears. What was wrong with these guys? They probably just wanted a reaction from us. They wanted us to lash out at them, so they could post it everywhere and there would be more “proof” that Muslims are vicious terrorists. We just stood there quietly, watching them. If I wasn’t so shocked, and I had the courage, I might have started yelling back at him. My mom called over a store worker and said that he was harassing us, and the guys walked away.
I was dryly laughing at this point, but my younger sister started crying. Annoyed with her helplessness, I told her to toughen up. The store lady said she couldn’t really do anything except kick the guys out of the store. She went up to them and started talking to them. All I learned was that these two men were very persistent. The guy took out his phone again and started making another video. He started screaming the same curses that he had before. He was not a very creative guy, I guess. I found the situation hilarious, so I started laughing again. At this point, the manager of the store came over and tried to get the idiots out of the store. After screaming a few more profanities at us, they finally left the store.
Later, I told my mom that she should have called the police, but she told me that this was nothing compared to what was happening on the other side of the world. This was the first time I had been directly ‘targeted’ because of my religion. The guys were ignorant for thinking that since my mom was wearing a hijab we were from Palestine. I had been laughing before, but it actually saddened me that those men really wanted people to die. I knew that people could be a bit cruel, but I had not actually experienced it with my own eyes, a cruelty directed toward me, until that moment.
A few days after the incident, I had an unusual dream. I was in a school of some sort, which I could tell by the chalkboards on the wall. The walls were cracked and the floors needed a really good cleaning. The weirdest part, however, was the fact that there were people screaming. The ground was shaking and pieces of the ceiling were falling down on us. The only people I saw were women and children. Most of them (not including babies and children) had scarves on their heads. All I saw was chaos. I noticed a woman in the corner and her head bowed down, reading a book and rocking back and forth on the floor. I went closer to see what she was reading, and saw that it was the Holy Qur’an, or the Holy Book of Islam. That was all I saw before I woke up.
I feel this dream was a sign that I needed to do something. And I wanted to. I felt an urge to help the innocent people being slain in the Middle East and anywhere else in the world where there was discord. But I’m just a kid. What on earth could I do that could possibly help? So I did the only thing I could do that I thought could help, if only a little: I prayed. I may never know if my prayers were ever heard, but I keep good faith and tell myself they were.
In early February 2015, three young Muslims from Chapel Hill, North Carolina were shot and killed by a 46-year-old man. The victims were two sisters, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, age 21, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, age 19, and the husband of Yusor, Deah Shaddy Barakat, age 23. I was not shocked at all. I was hurt, of course, but not surprised. I guess I had become numb to the whole aspect of “Islamophobia”. I had already seen so much hate for Islam and so much hate from so-called Muslims that I was just in a sort of daze. I had become a part of daily life, unfortunately. Of course, I was angry. I was furious, but what could I do? Nothing.
Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha once said on a StoryCorps podcast, “Growing up in America has been such a blessing. Although in some ways I do stand out, such as the hijab I wear on my head, the head covering, there’s still so many ways I feel so embedded in the fabric that is our culture.” Hearing the delight in her voice, the pride and gratitude she had towards her country, made my heart ache. The irony. I feel just like she did, however. America is the only country where everyone can be free to practice what they want. However, nothing can be perfect, right? There will always be people that love to hate.
Religion has always been a huge aspect of my life. Through it, I find a sort of peace that I cannot find elsewhere. Reading the Holy Qur’an helps me understand life in a whole different way. I can search for answers and find them there.
Of course, when I hear news about extremist groups, such as ISIS, everywhere, it almost embarrasses me. Those terrorists’ actions make me feel like I have to apologize for them, even though I know that they truly have nothing to do with the true message of Islam, which is peace and love. Islam has become so terribly misrepresented and misinterpreted, which is a shame. If only its name hadn’t been used in such horrific ways, by suicide bombers and terrorists, then the world would know what the actual meaning of Islam is.
I have a four-year-old brother named Muhammad. He was named after the Holy Prophet of Islam himself. Of course, my brother doesn’t know who that is yet. But when he is older, I hope he feels lucky to have such a meaningful name. He should feel pride for his religion and his identity, and not be ashamed of who he is. My brother attends preschool at a Jewish temple, which seems pretty unusual, but I think it is a good experience for him to learn about other religions, even at such a young age. Every Friday, he comes home singing Shabbat songs. During the holiday season, he brought a drawing of blue, glittery menorah home, along with a dreidel and chocolate coins. This exposure could make Muhammad more accepting of other people when he gets older, even if he doesn’t have clear memories when he grows up.
Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore once said, “Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.” This quote reminds me of the first line of the United States national anthem, which goes, “Oh, say! Can you see by the dawn's early light.”
In a way, faith is hope; a hope that light will come before you see it yourself. A country always has hope. The United States started out as 13 little colonies being ruled by some Brits, but they rose up and defeated them. That took a lot of hope and trust, just like in our national anthem. Just like the patriots during the civil war, and any other person who has some sort of faith in them, religious or not, the bird knows that the dawn is there, and that it is coming with light.
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