Culturally, too, we are generally treated as a separate race, hence our almost universal portrayal of villains or victims in popular media. In books and newspapers, Arabs and Muslims are generally seen through the prism of current events – foreign wars, global migration and especially terrorism. The association is so pervasive that references to it crop up even in situations that have nothing to do with terrorism. During my literary events, for example, I have been asked many questions about Al Qaeda and ISIS, as if being a Muslim gives me a particular insight into transnational terrorist groups that combine Islamist ideology with tactics. guerrilla warfare.
Muslim Americans who appear in a public forum will sooner or later be faced with this question, whether the forum is a literary event or a fashion show or the halls of power in Washington. It can take the form of an accusation, from someone who has been fed a propaganda diet, or it can take the form of a heartfelt remark; it can even take the form of a joke, intended to lighten the mood of the audience. But it will come. And when it does, the Muslim faces an impossible choice: ignore the comment and perpetuate the association with terrorism, or respond to the comment and perpetuate the association anyway. There is no right answer. There is only hope, in speaking of oneself, to make room for individuality.
My own life took turns I couldn’t have imagined when I got off a plane at Los Angeles International Airport one late summer afternoon in 1992. At the time, my intention was to finish a Ph.D. in linguistics, then I returned to Morocco, where I planned to work as a university professor. A few years after graduating, however, I met an American, we fell in love, and we finally got married. By choosing to be with him, I also chose to embrace his country. It made me an immigrant, the kind of person America has long mythologized in art if not in life – from ruthless gangsters in “The Godfather” to hardworking women in “The Joy Luck Club” to the founding father. eponymous in “Hamilton.”
But even under the best of circumstances, immigration is a traumatic experience that cuts a person’s life in two: there is the life before and the life after. Long after moving to the United States, I wore two watches: one showing Los Angeles time and the other showing Rabat time. In the morning, as I prepared for class, I often thought of my family, 6,000 miles away, sitting for afternoon tea. In my memory, everyone at home has remained exactly as I had last seen them, as taken in a photo. It never occurred to me that day after day they were getting older, making new friends, changing jobs or moving. They were changing, just like I was changing.
Every time I left my apartment, I was acutely aware that I was speaking a foreign language, the sentences of which I had to compose deliberately before I could speak them. In graduate seminars, my classmates laughed or even laughed when they heard me mispronounce certain words, especially ones I had only known in print – “epitome” and “fortuitous” and ” onomatopoeia â. Sometimes the phonetic rules of English didn’t make much sense to me: why did âroughâ rhyme with âtoughâ but not with âdoughâ? Eventually I adapted to the local dialect and my foreign accent became less noticeable. One morning, a few years after arriving in this country, I woke up with the surprising realization I had dreamed of in English.
The language was the easy part, however. There were so many cultural differences that hardly a day went by that I didn’t notice a new one. It was not rude, for example, to have breakfast in front of others in the dormitory common room without offering to share it with them. It was not considered rude to invite someone to lunch at a restaurant and expect them to pay for their meal. If I seem singularly focused on food, maybe it’s because food is so intimately linked to culture. It seemed to me that Americans always rushed, never taking the time to sit down for a cup of coffee or a nice dinner. I was shocked the first time I saw a woman eating a burger as she was driving down Hwy 10.
My immigration story has been enriched by the love of my husband and my family, the joy of lasting friendships, the fulfillment that I find in my work. But nothing could have prepared me for what I lost. I missed my grandmother’s funeral, the weddings of four of my cousins, and countless birthdays and celebrations with my family. If there was a crisis, I could never be sure I would be there to help. Once, I remember, I was on vacation in Wyoming when I got a text message in the middle of the night telling me that my dad was in the hospital and he might not make it. For several minutes, my mind could not understand the text I was reading. All I wanted then was a chance to say goodbye. I hastened to book a flight and returned to my hometown. To my relief, the treatment my father received worked and while he recovered we were fortunate enough to spend some time together.