I think it was about two summers ago my mom took me and my sisters to the opening of a friend’s recording studio. It had that cool artist vibe that comes with the flannel-wearing hipster crowd that attends these events and since I didn’t know anyone, I settled in with my mom at a table with some food. It wasn’t too long until an older gentleman sat at the table with us and began chatting. My mom introduced him as someone’s father and once I told him my age, he asked what I was majoring in.
Me: “English and International Studies, with an emphasis in the Middle East.”
Him: “Oh. So you’re going to go learn about those Muslims.”
I was taken aback by his tone and his generalization, but having grown up in the post-9/11 age, I wasn’t especially surprised by his wording. I did my best to steer the conversation in a more positive direction.
Me: “I’m actually interested in learning about the entire area. The history, people, culture. Especially the food.”
Him: “You just stay away from those Muslims.”
Me: “What? No. I just-”
I took a deep breath and tried my best to maintain a level head. The point is, it didn’t matter what I said in response. I had every desire to set the man straight. To explain to him why I wasn’t scared and why the Middle Eastern culture was so interesting and not something to run away from.
That was two years ago. Now I have almost reached graduation and I’ve had my fair share of Middle Eastern classes and am currently studying in Amman, Jordan for a semester. And I feel like I can confidently say this to people back home:
Get your shit together, people.
Read a book.
Ask intelligent questions.
Diana and I meet every few days and she helps me correct my Arabic homework and answers any questions I have about class. Then we switch and she talks in English and tells me about her life, school, hobbies, anything. She eventually wants to be a translator and she’s extremely dedicated to learning English. So she talks and I correct her on grammar and pronunciation (She says I’m perfect to work with because I don’t have an accent).
Diana is, believe it or not, chattier than me. She’s 19, hates scary movies, loves to read, and blushes when she talks about the boy she likes.
She’s originally from Syria, and has a strong desire to continue her education, travel the world, and help people who are in poor countries. She has a particular soft spot for children. She told me that children don’t deserve to grow up without love and without a safe environment. Children should be happy. Her father wants her to get married and has tried to set her up with a few young men, but Diana refuses, saying that she would not be able to make a husband happy. Her goal in life is to help people, and if she got married now, she would only be doing her family a disservice. She says first she wants to go to school and work.
Yesterday we had a long conversation about Islam. She brought up 9/11 and said that ever since then, she has heard people say terrible things about Muslims and about Americans. She explained to me that there are bad intentions everywhere you go, but that’s not the purpose of Islam. She was adamant about explaining to me that the real Islam is about love, hospitality, and healing. She thinks that everyone, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and those who don’t believe in a God have a spirit. And that spirit comes from the same place. And as long as you try to be a good person, you will go to heaven.
Diana is not the first person to tell me these things.
I have met multiple people who have, with great passion, told me what the real Islam is. How much they want to destroy the bad image a few cruel people have given Islam. Women who insist that they are not oppressed and teach me the beauty that is Hijab. Or rather, the beauty that is the choice to wear Hijab.
Is there tragedy, oppression, and violence in this part of the world? Yes. But is there also hope, humanity, and love? Yes. The Middle East that we see in America does not even come close to the Middle East that actually exists.
My Gender in Islam teacher, Hind, is one of my favorite professors. She’s hilarious and has one of those dispositions that draws people to her. Her love for God is apparent. She begins every class with a prayer and every time she says one of the Prophets’ names, she follows it with “Peace Be Upon Him.” She’s extremely intelligent, got her PhD in England and has studied English literature in depth.
She’s also read “50 Shades of Grey.”
We disagree very strongly on a lot of things. But I think one thing that we both agree on is the necessity to have a dialogue. She has denounced organizations that claim to be Islam and has asserted her strength as a woman.
But how many people would guess that after seeing her in her Hijab?