Like millions of Muslims over the last 40 years, my family immigrated to the West. We arrived in Richmond, a middle-class suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1972. I was four years old. Between 1971 and 1973, thousands of South Asian Muslims fled Uganda after the military dictator, General Idi Amin Dada, proclaimed Africa to be for the blacks. He gave those of us with brown skin mere weeks to leave or we would die. Muslims had spent lifetimes in East Africa thanks to the British, who brought us from South Asia to help lay the railways in their African colonies. Within a few generations, many Muslims rose to the rank of well-off merchants. My father and his brother ran a Mercedes-Benz dealership near Kampala, benefiting from the class mobility that the British bequeathed to us but that we, in turn, never granted to the native blacks whom we employed.
In the main, the Muslims of East Africa treated the blacks like slaves. I remember my father beating Tomasi, our domestic, hard enough to raise shiny bruises on his pitch-dark limbs. Although my two sisters, my mother, and I loved Tomasi, we too would be pummeled if my dad caught us tending to his injuries. I knew this to be happening in many more Muslim households than mine, and the bondage continued well after my family left..
I don't apologize for being offended by the notion of having a Tomasi. Most of you, I'm sure, oppose servitude, too. But it wasn't Islam that fostered my belief in the dignity of every individual. It was the democratic environment to which my family and I migrated: Richmond, where even a little Muslim girl can be engaged-and I don't mean for marriage. Let me explain.
A couple of years after the family settled down, my dad discovered free baby-sitting services at Rose of Sharon Baptist Church. (Say "free" to an immigrant and religious affiliations take a backseat to the bargain at hand.) Every week, when Mum left the house to sell Avon products door to door, my less-than-child-friendly father dumped the kids at church. There the South Asian lady who supervised Bible study showed me and my older sister the same patience she displayed with her own son. She made me believe my questions were worth asking. Obviously, the questions I posed as a seven-year-old could only be simple ones. Where did Jesus come from? When did he live? What was his job? Who did he marry? These queries didn't put anyone on the spot, but my point is that the act of asking-and aksing some more-always met with an inviting smile.
Maybe that's what motivated me, at age eight, to win the Most Promising Christian of the Year Award. My prize: a brightly illustrated edition of 101 Bible Stories. I look back now and thank God I wound up in a world where the Qur'an didn't have to be my first and only book, as if it's the lone richness that life offers to believers. Besides, 101 Bible Stories riveted me with its pictures. What would 101 Qur'an Stories look like? At the time, I hadn't seen such a thing. Today, there's no dearth of children's books about Islam, including A Is For Allah by Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens). Free societies allow for the reinvention of self and the evolution of faiths.
Shortly after I earned the title of Most Promising Christian, Dad plucked me out of the church. A madressa, an Islamic religious school, would soon be constructed. If my Sunday school experience was any barometer, the madressa would be fun, or so I innocently assumed.
In the tenth grade, I ran for student body president at J.N. Burnett Junior High School. The year before, I'd lost my bid to become homeroom representative, the deciding vote being cast by a grungy twerp who didn't want a "Paki" in charge of his classroom. Only a year later, a majority of students in the whole school made this Paki their leader. In Richmond, racism didn't have to fence my ambitions any more than race itself had to define me.
"This isn't appropriate," he cautioned me. "Take it down."
I pointed to the next locker over, whose door had an American flag hanging from it. "If she can express her opinion openly," I asked, "why can't I?"