My very first dancing partner was a clammy, 10 lb turkey that I affectionately named Mr. Turkey. The turkey in question, thawed from the night before, was always my mom’s specialty dish, the guest of honor for the evening. My mother, bless her heart, would stand at the kitchen sink for what seemed like hours, elbow deep in her yellow Rubbermaid gloves, massaging pocket fulls of cardamom, ginger, garlic, and olive oil into the turkey’s cavity.
“You have to diiiiiiig in za flavour,” she’d say to me in her thick Middle Eastern accent. My mother, in her defense, was a woman who commuted over three hours a day to a job she loved, read an American novel a week since the day she landed in the States, and walked the duration of the Brooklyn Bridge every single day in order to work up a sweat. So for her, Thanksgiving was more than just a day off from her government job in New York City. It was a holiday that was free of religious affiliation; a holiday of inclusion, free of controversy. And most importantly, it was a day that we were free of judgment, free to reconcile, both our Arab selves, with our American selves.
And so it was year after year, turkey after turkey, that my family and I participated in this quintessential American ritual. The kitchen was our temple; the menu our sacrificial offering. We supplied hefty portions of beef cubes with rice and yogurt sauce, mashed potatoes with roasted lamb gravy, penne pasta with bechamel cream, grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice, sauteed okra seeped in tomato sauce, and of course, one oven roasted turkey with garlic infused stuffing. Sarah Lee always made sure to present us with the plentiful amount of frozen pies necessary for dessert. And as we laid around the old style television set, comatose and happy, watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, we knew that we had made more than just a meal that night. We had made a home.
It was, however, the Thanksgiving of 2001 that marked a seemingly different tone for our family. Only two months had passed since the appalling terrorist attacks, and the country was hurt, rash, and frantic. Entering my third year at Rutgers University, with a major in Journalism, I had decided to wear the hijab just a mere two months before September 11th. For me, the decision to wear the hijab was just my way of freeing myself from the constant need to please others. My addiction of choice has always been people pleasing, and wearing the hijab was my way of harnessing this insecurity.
This deeply personal decision was ironically made one morning over a large Vanilla Coolata at a local Dunkin Donuts. And even though the hijab was just my way of bettering myself, it was now viewed as a full fledged political statement; a statement that angered a plethora of people around the country; a statement that left my mother and I in fear of leaving the safety of our homes.
My seemingly innocent acts of everyday life were now examined for ulterior motives. When carrying a pecan pie to my friend’s Christmas party, I would get suspicious looks that said, “What precisely is she carrying inside that large cardboard box?” When trying to choose a paint color for our living room, I would get watchful glares that said, “What exactly is she buying at the hardware store?” And of course, when going on a flight to anywhere, the person sitting next to me would shift uncomfortably in his chair and ask the flight attendant, “Is there a way I can change my seat to some place else?”
At the ripe age of twenty, I had to grapple with how and why my very existence caused such panic and fear in my fellow Americans. Did this all really just stem from my decision to wear the hijab? Did I not pledge allegiance to the same American flag as everyone else for the duration of my entire schooling? Did I not go to the same school functions and study the same academic curriculum as my classmates?
While tempted to take off my hijab in response to these judgments, I realized that my taking off of the hijab would signify my very loss of hope in the American people. Influenced by Nick Carraway in the opening chapters of The Great Gatsby, my young, impressionable mind believed that, “reserving judgment [was] a matter of infinite hope.” To take off the hijab would mean that I judged the American public as an aggressive, intolerant culture. I infinitely hoped that, in time, Americans would come around, and that they would eventually see that I too was just as much a part of them, as they were very much an elemental part of me.
This underlying belief continued to shape my perceptions of people for the many intrusive years to come. Like when when my kids and I ecstatically went to go watch the Macys’ Thanksgiving Day Parade, and an NYPD officer felt the need, from an obnoxiously close distance, to monitor and watch our every step and move for the rest of the morning. Or when I anxiously, and nervously, sat through my father’s surgery in a hospital’s waiting room, and a woman sat down next to me and said, “I don’t know why you people think you can still stay in this country.”
But it was one instance in particular that forced my husband and I to reconsider whether we could continue to raise our children in America. An incident, one that some Muslim American parents could relate to, occurred when picking up my son and daughter from a Gymnastics summer camp in New Jersey. My son, a rambunctious, hyperactive kindergartener, hit his sister in a moment of anger. Upon picking my children up from camp, the instructor met me in the parking lot and condescendingly said, “I don’t know what your son learns from you and your husband at home, but at our camp, this type of behavior is unacceptable.”
The instructor, in her sheer ignorance, assumed that my son hit his sister because he saw his father beat me at home. A gross stereotype of Muslim families. If only she knew that in our house, my husband made our beds, coffee, and breakfast each morning, while the kids and I got ready for work and school. Would she have still assumed this abuse had my son not come from a Muslim family? I doubt it.
It was right then and there that my husband and I realized that our children no longer had the luxury, opportunity, or privilege of having regular, everyday experiences. We knew how dangerous the stereotypes about us really were- that my son wouldn’t be seen as an overactive young boy for long, but instead, as a dangerous potential terrorist.
It had become overwhelmingly apparent that our country, our home, was no longer a place that could foster the emotional and psychological well being of our children. Although I still had hope in the American people, we could not let our children suffer the consequences of waiting for change. We had to leave.
In order to make the heart breaking decision a little easier on me, I compared my migration to that of the Lost Generation, a small group of writers and artists who migrated from America to Europe during the 1920’s. They, too, were discouraged by the ways of Americans and left to find a better life for themselves. I convinced myself that my move abroad was actually a very American practice, and that I would be following in the footsteps of literary greats like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Eliot. We opted to live in the Middle East for the next few years, hoping that a return to the land of our ancestors would provide us with some comfort.
But similar to a woman in an abusive relationship, I found myself missing my life in America. Not for its freedoms and opportunities, but rather, for my irrational need to make our relationship work. When hurt, I sought desperately to find the good times to hold on to. The times of togetherness and dancing turkeys. The times that America didn’t make me feel so badly about myself.
But it is this Thanksgiving that marks a seemingly different break in our relationship. America’s recent election of a man who outwardly proposes a ban on Muslims has left me heartbroken. A final, backhanded slap to the face that shakes me at my core.
America, in all the days and nights I dreamt about going back to you, reuniting myself with you, loving you and only you, I wake up now to find that you, all the long time, never yearned back for me. Never missed me or churned for me. And so my hopes, like my dream deferred, will continue to dry up like a raisin in the sun, forcing me to pose the painful question: Will America ever accept me?