She says and she smiles, pleased with herself. Her legs are crossed, but her arms open, palms up—tone matching posture: confident, casual, no need for defense. Because we are all white. We are all from Tennessee. We are all Christian and part of her family. Of these things she is sure, without doubt.
The first time I visited a mosque I was living in Japan.
The building was falling to pieces. The passage between the kitchen and the restroom had a dirt floor—wavy, aluminum sheets overhead to keep off the rain.
“Before we had nowhere. And now we have this.” My friend gestured around the women’s prayer room, its concrete padded with mismatched, frayed rugs.
I couldn’t stop fidgeting with the headscarf tied under my chin. The other women kept theirs so perfectly in place. When they asked why I had come, I told them I wanted to learn more about their faith. When they asked about my beliefs, I told them I was Catholic because that was easier than telling the truth.
“You must be hungry,” my friend said. The sun had gone down so she offered me fat, dark dates from Sudan.
Soon, there would be prayers. After that, we would all share in iftar, a great feast. The food would be spread in a long line along the floor and I would try dishes from Tunisia and Tajikistan, Iraq and Bangladesh. They would pile serving after serving onto my plate. They would wrap up leftovers in plastic for me to take home.
One of my students, a little boy from Egypt, plopped down beside me. He reached across my lap and pulled one of the sticky dates from the paper napkin, gleeful as he stuffed it in his mouth. Seeing me outside of school had him elated.
“Cute!” He pointed to my poor attempt at wearing a hijab. “Mrs. Jessica, so beautiful!”
“Do you like it?” I asked, reaching to clean him up.
He nodded and gave me a date-filled grin.
I imagined the people I knew who would look on in horror if they saw me wearing such clothes.
The oldest aunt dominates the living room, a true matriarch.
This is the first large family gathering my husband and I have attended since we moved back to America six months ago. I have started graduate school. I am hoping that soon I will have my first baby. I tell my husband’s relatives these things as I struggle to recall all their names. We had been gone for five years.
Holiday dinners at my husband’s parents’ house are so big that second cousins bring boyfriends and new babies hardly get any attention at all. My own family has just us—my brother, my parents, my husband, and me. Three cats, if they count. My mother argues they count.
I do not want to be here. I am always uncomfortable at these meals, always afraid I’ll say something I shouldn’t—that the words will come out without my permission.
But the oldest aunt has the loudest voice in the room. It drowns out anything I might say, intended or not. It has been that way in this family for as long as I’ve been a part of it. Thirteen years in practice. Four years in name.
She does not love everyone equally. Not the blacks and the gays and the nonbelievers. She would not welcome them into her home.
But this Christmas Day, her cornbread casserole is delicious, and she does not know who I really am.
My second year teaching kindergarten, not even one of my students spoke English as a first language. Twenty four-year-olds and me with a world of words between us. Most had arrived chattering in Hindi or Arabic, Korean or Danish or Bemba. Sometimes, during tears, the best I could do was console. Show them to the toilet. Show them to the toilet again. Give them stickers and hugs and big, toothy grins. Wipe their noses. Read a story. Take out the rabbit to pet. My stomach was often in knots, imagining how scary it must be, getting left in a place all alone where no one can understand you. It was scary enough as an adult.
In a year’s time, my students had to be able to speak like an American. They had to be able to read and to write, to do simple math and play the pianica, to sit still and color inside the lines. The survival instinct kicked in quickly for us all. My first year, I worked fourteen-hour days. The earliest English my students used was to express hunger or pain, or to tattle on classmates for snatching crayons and stealing swings. Parents gave me too much credit for their children’s acquisition. I’d start to explain the linguistics behind it—why the little ones learned so much faster than their moms and dads—but it never made any difference. They thanked me, and I politely turned the compliments away.
Then one evening she came into childcare and found me in my narrow kitchen, my friend who would later offer me dates at the mosque. She wore her hijab over dress pants and a blouse, over a lab coat from her research facility. She had a PhD and worked for a pharmaceutical company, finding cures for diseases. She’d told me about it once or twice, but I’d been focused on her hair, wondering how she kept it from showing, how she kept the headscarf so tightly in place.
Dusk had settled and the air had turned cold. Winter creeps into the bones of Japanese houses, and our international school was in one fifty years old. Down the hall, children were still playing in the computer room. But here in my kitchen, my sanctuary, the silence rang in my ears.
When she appeared by the fridge I looked up. I did not know why she was there till she handed me a thermos of Sudanese coffee, thick and fragrant and freshly brewed. She thanked me, again and again, for teaching her boys. She meant it. Really. Not just for the English. Not just for the math and for coloring inside the lines. I took the compliments to heart. I accepted them. We weren’t friends yet, but that was the start.
Later, years before my husband and I moved back to the States, I would visit home briefly and see protests in Sudan on my parents’ TV. For the first time in my life, it would not be just a place with a name in a part of the world far away. It would be a place that gave birth to my friend. A place where she gave birth to two boys that I loved. For the first time in my life, there would be faces of people in parts of the world far away.
I would sit in the living room, thinking of Sudanese coffee, and cry.
I change into a sweater dress in my husband’s high school bedroom. I paint my nails to look like Christmas tree lights. I help my mother-in-law in the kitchen. We make mashed potatoes drowned in butter and brown sugar ham. The creamed spinach has more cream than spinach and I keep sneaking anxious forkfuls.
After we’ve all prayed and eaten and eaten again, after the children begin to chase each other up and down the stairs, the political talk rises in volume. I move to another room, but an election is coming, and the things I don’t want to hear edge ever closer. They reach the other end of the couch.
My mother-in-law appears, a savior with the game Catch Phrase in hand. The children hear laughter and come join. For an hour, I am still safe.
And then the game ends.
We are sitting in a circle. She is at its center, the oldest aunt, and I do not remember how she got there. She was not playing with us before. She was not in the room. But now she is there and the children have gone. With one hand she presses in pieces of a puzzle abandoned on the low table beside her. With the other hand she addresses the group, palm up, legs crossed.
She is telling a story about her friend who owns a small business, about how proud she was of this friend for refusing service to a Muslim couple, forcing them to leave the store.
“They were in the jewelry section anyway, which was suspicious. Muslims don’t wear jewelry.”
I start to fidget with my hair, trying to keep my face blank. My husband, who is sitting beside me, had promised that if conversations took this turn we would find a way to change the topic. We would show pictures on our phones of our favorite kaiten-zushi restaurant where the Ұ100 plates come to your table on little trains, or the cat cafes in Tokyo where you pick out a kitty to cuddle while you eat parfaits and drink tea.
We do not do this. The topic does not change.
My pulse begins to quicken.
Because I cried over footage from Sudan, because of my time living abroad, because of my job at an international school—with students from Sri Lanka and Poland and China, coworkers from Romania and Zimbabwe and Uzbekistan—I believed I was incapable of prejudice. I believed I was as open-minded as it got.
And then two new children joined my class.
It was late in the semester and they were older than the others. They’d been placed in first grade, but their English was poor, so they’d been sent back to me. They were twins. They were trouble. And they were Muslim.
I had had many Muslim students before. In that same class, in fact, there were three or four others. Each year, a mix of most of the major religions were represented in my room—one or two tiny kindergarten ambassadors holding the place for hundreds or thousands of millions. At lunch one hot summer day, I listened as the children of Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus discussed someone’s ham sandwich and whether or not they could—or would—eat such a thing. There was a lot of giggling. It was all very polite.
But when these two new girls arrived in my class, their mother came too. She was dressed in an abaya, loose black cloth from head to toe. Even her hands were barely visible. Instead of wearing a hijab, she wore a niqab, leaving only a slit for her eyes. She spoke little English. No Japanese. And of course, I knew no Urdu.
She was frustrated, upset that her girls had been dropped down a grade. I was anxious because I couldn’t read her facial expressions, couldn’t make out her gestures. These were the things I used when verbal language failed me. I had nothing else to grasp.
At lunch, another teacher came into my room and we gossiped.
“Did you see what she was wearing?”
“Their family must be very traditional, very conservative.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little strange? You never see women dress like that here. Usually they loosen up when they’re abroad.”
“She seems pushy. And it’s hard to understand her.”
“She makes me nervous. We’ve had families from Pakistan who’ve caused trouble before.”
And there it started. Right beneath my nose. Right inside my own mouth. I didn’t recognize the feeling in my gut because I’d believed myself immune. I thought I was beyond it.
Then one afternoon, between my day class and after-school lessons, she forced her way into my path. Her eyes beneath the black cloth pinned me in place as she asked about the twins’ progress. She wanted privacy, so I invited her back to my kitchen, where student drawings plastered the walls and cabinets and windows.
She handed me page after page of multiplication drills and printed alphabets. She insisted her daughters could read and do high-level math. She insisted they be put back in first grade. I insisted the problem was language. I insisted that the principal would not let them move up.
“English? Their English?” the woman pressed.
“Better. It’s getting better day by day.”
There was relief in her eyes. “Speaking English?”
“Yes. A little. But they need more time.”
She looked around the room, her eyes flitting to all the pictures pinned to the walls, taped to the cabinets, hung up with ABC magnets on the fridge. She pointed at me. “You can teach? You are a good teacher?”
I hesitated. “I can teach them.”
“They take your class. Then they speak English?”
Again, hesitation, but I nodded. “Yes.”
She looked around once more. “You are from America?”
My insides clenched. In this moment, I wished I wasn’t. I wished I was from somewhere, anywhere, not sending drones to drop bombs on her country.
“Yes,” I said.
She tilted her head side to side. “You like art?”
She gestured to the pictures of Mrs. Jessica the Robot, Mrs. Jessica the Cat, Mrs. Jessica battling sharks or dressed in rainbows and ribbons.
I smiled, still cautious. “Yes. But I can’t draw.”
She reached up and pulled the veil down from her face. She pointed at herself. She was smiling, too. “I can draw.”
I got her paper and oil crayons from the student supplies. Her hands twitched across the white surface, filling it with color. Trees and mountains. The ocean. Birds overhead. As she worked she told me about how back home she’d painted a huge mural on a wall. Back home, she wasn’t stuck in a little apartment all day. Back home, she was an artist.
And I knew then the things she wouldn’t tell me till later, till after we were friends, till after I visited the mosque with the parents of the boys from Sudan. I knew she missed her home. I knew she was sad. I knew she didn’t want to be there, in Japan, that she was uncomfortable, that she was just following her husband, just trying to hold her family together.
And though I had left my own country by choice, I knew what it was like to feel frustrated, to feel angry, to feel like no one understood you—not just what you were saying, but who you were. I had lived abroad for too long not to know these feelings. I had been going to Christmas dinner at my husband’s parents’ house for thirteen years.
They all believe I am Catholic. It’s only mostly a lie. My parents still say they are Catholic if asked, though they haven’t stepped inside a church in many years. I went to Catholic school for first grade. My most meaningful memory is getting punched in the nose.
I say I am Catholic because there is precedence—the first wife of the second husband of my husband’s grandmother.
I say I am Catholic because it is easier than telling the truth.
I know these people, but they do not know me. I fear they would not love me if they did. I fear that conversations, already awkward and strained, would turn hostile and desperate. For thirteen years, I’ve kept the peace because he’s asked me to. For thirteen years, I’ve kept quiet because if I show them who I really am, I show them who he really is, too. And that is not my secret to tell.
I feign ignorance. I plead sleepy. I take phone calls from no one and step out of the room.
But tonight she has turned her eyes on us.
“You two talk about how Japan is so safe, but you know why? You know what they’re doing? They’re turning all the Muslims away. They won’t let them in the country. And the ones already there, they won’t let them practice their religion.”
My stomach is so tight I feel sick. My cheeks are hot and I can hear my pulse in my ears. I want my husband to correct her, to tell her she’s wrong. If she tries to argue, I want him to scoff, to ask how Fox News made her such an expert while we were away.
But he does not say anything.
“All these politicians, they keep telling us that diversity will make us stronger, but that’s a lie. It’s a lie. Diversity is dangerous. It divides us. It makes us weak.”
The room starts to blur and I realize I’m holding my breath. I realize I’m biting down hard on my cheek, that there’s blood in my mouth. My knuckles are white, the little Christmas tree lights on my nails digging into my palms.
There is still a child in this room.
I had not noticed her before because she is small. She listens with wide eyes, watching her great aunt press pieces into the puzzle as she preaches.
I want my husband to snarl that we are not part of this choir. I want him to challenge his aunt in front of this child so that she will not grow up believing these are the only eyes through which to see the world.
But he stays silent beside me, so tense that he twitches when I let out my breath, draw it slowly back in.
“There are no good Muslims,” she says and she smiles, pleased with herself.
Her legs are crossed, but her arms open, palms up—tone matching posture: confident, casual, no need for defense. Because we are all white. We are all from Tennessee. We are all Christian and part of her family. Of these things she is sure, without doubt.
But I do not believe in her god. I do not believe in theirs, either.
And I am not a part of her family.
Because in my family there is a scientist from Sudan who gave me coffee and dates, who helped convince me to go back home, back to school, to have my babies while I studied because she’d done the same and survived, because I was just as strong. In my family is an artist from Pakistan who taught me how to cook biryani with raita, the most delicious food in all the world, who lived in an apartment the size of a bedroom with three children and her husband, but who gave me, on our last meeting, a box with a beaded bracelet inside, one of the few pieces of jewelry she’d brought with her from home.
If there are no good Muslims, there are no good people at all.
I stand up.
I do not start crying till I am out of the room.
But she sees my eyes and I see hers. And in that moment before I walk away, before I get my bags and have my husband drive me home, I say a prayer of my own that she has heard me.
Image credit: Catherine L. Mommsen, licensed via Flickr/Creative Commons.