How Meeting Another Mother Reminded Me What America Is Really Like For Muslims

After 9/11, there was a dramatic shift in tolerance of Muslim Americans.

It wasn't her hijab that made other parents uncomfortable. 

In the Bay Area, most locals pride themselves on their tolerance of other religions and lifestyles. Even her superior tone when she spoke of Iranian culture didn't cause concern. But the fact that her son didn't speak English, despite speaking fluent English herself, did cause some parents to grumble. 

Even in our accepting area, there is tension when religious values interfere in the lives of others. Parents occasionally work alongside the teachers in our cooperative preschool and are taught many approaches to deal with separation anxiety. But without a common language, we could not explain to this woman's son when his mother would return or validate his feelings. 

On the days she didn't work in the classroom, her Farsi-speaking son wandered around the preschool like a lonely little ghost, pausing his sobs to wipe away tears and snot. One day, I spent much of the morning trying to connect with him. After offering toys that he rejected, I told him in English that we would draw a picture for his mother to show her how sad he was. I drew a picture of a little boy crying and wrote "I miss you Mommy" on the top. He watched intently, then grabbed the marker from me and slashed a long straight line from the words I had written to the bottom of the page. Then he took the picture and placed it tenderly in his cubby. 

At the end of class, his mother approached me, her hair wrapped in a bright blue scarf. "This was so kind," she said, holding the picture. "We'll treasure it forever." 

I suggested that she have a playdate at my house, thinking that it might be easier for her son if he was more familiar with some of the other parents and children.

When she arrived, her first question was whether I was expecting any men visitors. When I said no, she untied the hijab. I served tea and we began to sip it while our children explored the toys in our playroom. I decided to be direct, asking the question I'd heard other parents ask outside of her presence: "Why didn't you teach your son English in these first four years?"

She explained that it was one of many decisions she'd made to keep her children attached to Iranian culture. In this way, she was following in her own parents' footsteps. She was born in the United States, but her parents returned to Iran when she was six because they wanted to steep their children in Iranian culture, rather than being assimilated into American culture. She returned to the U.S. as a student a few weeks before 9/11.

After 9/11, there was a dramatic shift in tolerance of Muslim Americans. As acts of violence toward Muslims increased, her local family—those more assimilated to Amercian culture—told her to remove her hijab. "Why make yourself a target?" one of her uncles argued. But the persecution only strengthened her resolve to keep her faith public. 

I told her that it seemed like an even more difficult time for Muslims in the U.S. now than 10 years ago, based on the political rhetoric in the primaries.

"Wherever you are in the world, there is either violence or the threat of it," she said. "What to choose?"

With some people, the conversation flows so effortlessly that you glide along until you realize that time has fled. That was the way it was with us that day she had tea at my house. There was a kind of instant kinship and understanding of each other; her tea was left on my kitchen table, half-full. There had been no time to drink it since we had been so busy talking.

The next time we got together, it was at her house — immaculately clean, floors covered with huge Persian carpets. She made lunch worthy of a Persian restaurant — a dish with red kidney beans, spinach, lamb, and saffron-flavored rice. Afterward, we had amber-colored tea poured into tall glass mugs. 

Hours passed while we talked of my own upbringing in a conservative Christian home: I married at 22 because my parents would not approve of me traveling with my then-boyfriend before marriage. "I have great respect for your parents," my new friend said.

I realized the comfort I had in her presence came from the fact that she reminded me of the conservative Christians I had grown up with. Though I do not consider myself conservative anymore, I also never fully rejected my upbringing. I feel affection for my parents and the careful, God-fearing way they raised me. 

My friend's strict moral code reminded me of myself when I was younger, bent on converting others to Christianity and living a morally flawless life. My friend would not even shake hands with my husband when she met him, per religious custom. But it didn't bother me — I was used to weaving religious expectations into daily life. Even if her actual practices differed from my parents', her belief in her religious superiority and strict adherence to rules was familiar to me.

Later in the year, when the preschool class was planning its last parent meeting, usually a party held at someone's home, my new friend offered to host. "There are only a couple issues," she said, smiling. "People would have to remove shoes. And no alcohol. Would that be a problem?"

The other parents hesitated. She was quickly assured that the shoes were not a problem, but the alcohol was trickier. "There's usually alcohol," one mom started. "I mean … maybe we could have a dry party," she stammered.

The only other person who I could imagine making such a request was my father. The son of an alcoholic, he was very strict not only about refusing to drink himself, but about even allowing the substance in his home. More than once, his pious stance had caused friction at family reunions. As a teenager, I used to cringe when my parents took their unpopular stands — on everything from refusing to own a TV, to not drinking, to confronting my cousins when they moved in with their partners, rather than marrying them. But time and perspective have allowed me to see the wisdom in some of their traditions, even if I don't relish the judgment and guilt that occasionally come with them. 

Several weeks after my friend and I spoke for hours at her house, I was having a pity party for myself at home. It had been a grueling time that moms know so well — my three young children had gotten stomach viruses, colds, ear infections, and pink-eye. We were supposed to travel the next week and my patience and energy were fading.

Adding to the annoyances of sick children, the darkness that had seeped into politics was feeling more personal every day. When politicians railed against Muslims and refugees, my friend's face came to mind. My political feelings remained the same as they always had been — I know that most Muslim terrorists are extremists terrorizing other Muslims. 

The Syrian refugees, for example, are fleeing the same terror, whether they are Christian or Muslim. In fact, Muslim extremist terror is much more personal for the Muslim Americans I know — another American Muslim acquaintance who served as an interpreter for U.S. troops in Iraq lives with the fear that her sister is 40 kilometers from ISIS territory. But just as Christians in the Bible Belt are stereotyped as gun-loving and stupid by many well-meaning liberals, so Muslims are being lumped together by those who run their campaigns on fear.

I was skimming through the news, reading some politicians' inflammatory statements on Muslims, when my phone buzzed and I saw my friend's text: "I heard you were sick and I have something for you. Can I come by?"

"Sure," I texted.

A few moments later, my bell rang and I opened the door to her face, framed by the scarf, and the bag of delicious-smelling food she had in her arms. "In Iran, we think that kabobs support the immune system," she said, smiling as she handed the bag to me.

When I was 7, my grandmother, the wife of a Methodist pastor, passed away in North Carolina. Folks came from all over town, their arms filled with food. I remember asking for orange juice in a rainbow glass, feasting on turtle cheesecake, deviled eggs and Southern casseroles. Food is one of the only things I remember about the time surrounding my grandmother's funeral. There is something about how it permeates all of the senses and nourishes us in a deep place.

Gathering my friend's bag of kabobs into my arms, I realized that for the first time in a long time, I felt at home.

I could only pray that my friend felt the same.

Mary Anne has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Pacific University. She writes about family and culture from the Bay Area, where she lives with her husband and three young children.

Cover photo: Spencer Platt / Getty