The Person Behind the Muslim
By ANAR ALI
Published: June 10, 2006
I WENT to a school in rural Alberta from sixth grade onward, and each year I had to endure the annual school rodeo. Most of the students at my school were avid 4-H members, so the rodeo was the highlight of their year. It was an opportunity for them to exhibit their award-winning cattle or show off their skills in events like barrel racing and bronco riding. In an effort to convert the few city slickers among us, the school also provided less challenging events like the greased pig race.
I wasn’t interested in participating. My parents owned a motel, not a farm; my skills were honed as a chambermaid, not a cowgirl. I told my teacher that I was Muslim and it was against my religion to touch a pig.
“I thought you just couldn’t eat them,” she said.
“No, I can’t have anything to do with them,” I retorted, knowing full well that I was stretching the truth.
When Mrs. Ritchie refused to excuse me from the rodeo, I took the matter up with my father, certain he would side with me, not because of religion, but for hygiene and safety reasons. (Only recently, he called me at 11 p.m. to let me know he wanted to install anti-slip strips in my bathtub.)
But I was wrong. My father insisted I join the rodeo, even bought me cowboy gear from Kmart. Each year I tried protesting, emphasizing my inability to a catch a pig (let alone drag it across the finish line) as proof that I was wasting my time. But none of that mattered to my father. He was keen for me (and my sisters) to participate in all things Canadian. He refused to let me eat the hot dogs at the rodeo barbecue, but I had to enter the greased pig race.
This battle portended the many I would have in the future — not only with my father, but also with myself on where to set the dial between assimilation and retaining my own culture. I grew up living between worlds, in the hyphenated spaces of Indo-Canadian, Tanzanian-Canadian, and Ismaili Muslim-Canadian. It was a fractured existence, and one that was often unsatisfying. I never belonged anywhere completely.
Meena Alexander, an Indian-born poet who has lived in Sudan and the United States, puts it eloquently: “I am, a woman cracked by multiple migrations. Uprooted so many times she can connect nothing with nothing.” But I did not want to live in the cracks; it was exhausting. I wanted to live in a place that held all my multiplicities.
After years of hard work (and 30 years in Canada), I finally arrived in a new geography. It wasn’t a physical space, although being in Toronto, a city made of many cultures, helps. But it was a cultural and psychological place, one that coalesced my identities into one and gave me a sense of home. I called this place Canadian.
Sept. 11 changed all that. So have subsequent acts of terrorism — or attempted acts of terrorism, like the ones authorities said were planned by the members of Islamic terrorist cells arrested here last week. These events have all, in one way or another, expelled me from my new home. It was dismantled; my Muslim identity was teased out like code from a DNA strand. One piece of code does not tell you the whole story, but it is the only one placed under the microscope for investigation.
This is all you are. Muslim Magnified…
After 9/11, I soon became used to the new rules: double-checking at borders, detentions at airports, suspicious glances on subways, especially if you are carrying a backpack. One memorable incident: I was detained for three hours en route from Calgary to Los Angeles when the South Asian Arts festival I was attending in 2004 was suspected of being a radical Muslim group. The festival’s name, Artwallah, is a play on words, a mix of the words “art” and “wallah.” Wallah is a Hindi-derived word that denotes a profession; examples include taxi-wallah and chai-wallah. The presence of (w)Allah in the festival name raised flags.
I had to do a lot of explaining. Something, as an immigrant or person of color, you get used to from a very young age. (Where are you from? What does your name mean?) After a thorough investigation and phone calls to England to confirm the whereabouts of an “evil person” with a name similar to mine — “Ali,” I reassured the officer, was akin to “Smith” — I was finally released.
Whether you want it or not, as a Muslim (secular and otherwise) you are automatically pulled into the debate on terrorism. Not that I don’t want to discuss it, I do. But I want to discuss it as a citizen, not just a Muslim.
As a Muslim, people expect you to be an expert, to have special inside knowledge on the topic. They want your opinion on the issue, your help in explaining and analyzing complex political issues, the history of Islam, the psychology of suicide bombers.
I have no sense of what motivates a terrorist (except maybe as a fiction writer, since it’s my job to enter the hearts and minds of characters). Terrorists and radical Islamists live in a different place from me, psychologically and culturally, even if they were raised in Canada just as I was. To better understand these young men and why they turn to violence as a means to an end, it might make more sense to ask someone who was a skinhead, a member of the Irish Republican Army, a Tamil Tiger, or a Weatherman.
If you asked me, I would have to speculate, as most people do, from the sidelines.
Anar Ali is the author of “Baby Khaki’s Wings,” a collection of short stories.
The piece above was written for the NY Times back in June, but I found it among my emails and had to repost it. A permanent link to the piece can be found here.