August 11, 2008
Dear Nosy Concerned Lady at my Temp Job,
I want to thank you for stopping by my desk and giving me the third degree. I mean, asking a few “harmless questions”. I am aware of the fact that you saw me magically appear in your company’s department one day and you were curious. You saw me all covered up in the headscarf and you assumed so many things about me. Your heart softened when you imagined what it must’ve been like to narrowly escape with my life from a war torn country. You imagined all of the possessions I must’ve left behind or the family members who had been lost in the shuffle or killed. You might’ve imagined me fleeing my family’s compound with nothing but the clothes on my back, trying to escape the inevitable arranged marriage or forced female circumcision. If you didn’t imagine the aforementioned, you thought about the desert, oil rich country I must’ve come from. You imagined the controlling, unreasonably strict family who deprived me of the freedoms a grown woman should be allowed to explore. You also imagined my father (and later my husband) forcing me to wear the headscarf you see me wearing everyday despite the unbelievably hot and humid summer we are experiencing. You felt so sorry for me.
One day you finally worked up the nerve to ask me a few “harmless questions” (all based on your assumptions of course) and discovered that you were completely off the mark. You were surprised by my excellent command of the English language, my level of confidence and ease in an office environment interacting with people from “other cultures”, (you know, Americans) and how very familiar I seemed to you. (And why did I seem so familiar to you? It’s like you’ve grown up around ‘people like me’ or something. Strange!) So you began your third degree- I mean line of harmless questioning- and I watched the disappointment spread across your face as I told you the following: No, I wasn’t from a war torn East African nation, an Arab country, or for that matter any Middle Eastern country. (I purposely saved any discussion of my Caribbean ancestry for another day and another conversation. I didn’t want to confuse you any further). I revealed that I was from the Windy city, good ole Chicago. Home of dah Bears, the White Sox, the Cubs, the best hot dogs this side of the Mississippi, Lake Michigan, and so much more. You were beside yourself. Chicago? Really? Wow!
You started to inquire about my marital status. Yes, I’m married. So you had that one right. You knew it! Women like me are married off early, like in their late teens or something. Arranged, no? I hated to disappoint you again but there it was, the truth trampling all over your certainty. No, actually I met my husband on line like many people are doing today. We were far from arranged. In fact, my family is not Muslim at all. I am the only Muslim in my family. I instantly saw the confusion on your face. “So, you weren’t born into the religion?” you asked as you scratched your head. “No, I converted” I said secretly loving your confusion. Loving the realization as it finally connected, then exploded in your brain.
When you discovered that I was “just another Negro, like, Regular Black” you made one last ditch effort to make sense of my identity, my choices in life. What I was saying did not reconcile with your preconceived notions about who I am. You asked with full confidence in your voice, “Oh you converted when you met your husband, right? He’s from over there!” *Sounds wrong answer buzzer* Wrong again! He’s just another Negro, like, regular Black (just like me.) I hated to disappoint you so. Really, I wanted to be that girl for you. The refugee, the immigrant, the oppressed Muslim woman bound by bizarre (exotic?) customs, the arranged marriage, the desert, the war, all of it. But I can’t change who I am. Do you think that maybe, just maybe, you might want to alter your view of women who “look like me” or share my religion? It would certainly spare you all of the confusion and disappointment.
Instead, I watched you retreat. You wanted to tell your friends about the “real live” Muslim girl from “over there” who recently joined your department. You wanted to provide them with a “real life account” of a Muslim woman’s harrowing, shocking journey to finally be free. You wanted to wow them with the intimate details of my life while they cluck their tongues in horror and exclaim, “That’s terrible!” Unfortunately, I was just a Negro, like, regular Black, who happens to dress like someone from “over there.” And that’s not really the same thing… Hopefully one day you will find someone who can be all of those things and more. You deserve it!