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?"
"Because you're trivializing our democratic values. And as president of all students, you should know better."
I confess to not realizing that Ayatollah Khomeini's regime oozed totalitarianism. I hadn't done my homework. Seduced partly by propaganda and partly by the pride of living in a free society, I wanted to advocate diversity of opinion so that the Star-Spangled Banner wouldn't strangle other perspectives. So I argued. "I'm trivializing democracy? How is it that you're supporting democracy by telling me that I can't express myself, but," pointing ot the flag-dramped locker, "somebody else can?"
We stared at each other. "You're setting a bad example," the vice principal said. He stiffened his back and walked away.
You've got to credit him for letting diversity of opinion survive at Burnett Junior High. It's all the more admirable given his own embrace of evangelical Christianity. He didn't veil his personal beliefs, but neither did he foist them on the students-not when the student council president appeared to be a booster of Khomeini's theocracy, and not even when the students lobbied for school shorts that revealed more leg than he thought appropriate. After a heated debate with us and a few strategic delays, he okayed the shorts, bristling but still respecting popular will. How many Muslim evangelicals do you know who tolerate the expression of viewpoints that distress their souls? Of course, my vice principal had to bite his tongue in the public school system, but such a system can only emerge from a consensus that people of different faiths, backgrounds, aspirations, and stations ought to tussle together. How many Muslim countries tolerate such a tussle?
Lord, I loved this society. I loved that it seemed perpetually unfinished, the final answers not yet known-if ever they would be. I loved that, in a world under constant renovation, the contributions of individuals mattered.
But at home, my father's ready fist ensured his family's obedience to an arbitrary domestic drill. Don't laught at dinner. When I steal your savings, shut up. When I kick your ass, remember, it'll be harder next time. When I pound your mother, don't call the police. If they show up, I'll charm them into leaving, and you know they will. The moment they're gone, I'll slice off your ear. If you threaten to alert social services, I'll amputate your other ear.
The one time my father chased me through the house with a knife, I managed to fly out of my bedroom window and spend the night on the roof. My mum had no idea of my situation because she was working the graveyard shift at an airline company. Just as well; I'm not sure I would have crawled down for any promise of safety she might have offered. For the same reason that I liked my school and Rose of Sharon Baptist Church, I liked the roof. From these perches, I could survey a world of open-ended possibility. In the East African Muslim community from which I came, would I have been allowed to dream of a formal education? Of landing scholarships? Of participating in political races, never mind holding office? To judge by the grainy black-and-white photos that showed me, at age three, playing a bride with her head covered, hands folded, eyes downcast, and legs dangling from the sofa, I can only guess that unremitting subservience would have been my lot if we'd stayed in the confines of Muslim Uganda.
One flight up was the madressa, with its depressing décor of burnt-brown rugs, fluorescent lights, and portable partitions that separated the girls from the boys. Wherever classes congregated within the wide expanse of that room, a partition would tag along. Worse was the partition between mind and soul. In my Saturday classes I learned that if you're spiritual, you don't think. If you think, you're not spiritual. This facile equation rubbed up against the exhilarating curiosity in me that Richmond indulged. Call it my personal clash of civilizations.
The solution wasn't simply to accept that there's a secular world and a nonsecular one, and that each has its ways of being. By that logic, the decidedly nonsecular Rose of Sharon Baptist Church should have quashed my questions. Instead, my curiosity brought me praise there. At Burnett Junior High, a secular school, my questions bugged the bejeezus out of my vice principal but nobody shut me down. In both places, the dignity of the individual prevailed. Not so at my madressa. I entered its premises wearing a white polyester chador and departed several hours later with my hair flattened and my spirit deflated, as if the condom over my head had properly inoculated me from "unsafe" intellectual activity.
Before airing more dirty laundry, let me be fair to my madressa teacher-we'll call him Mr. Khaki. He was as sincere a Muslim as they come. This bony brother with a finely trimmed beard (signifying cleanliness) and a Honda Mini Compact (indicating modesty) volunteered his services each weekend (proving charity) to give the children of Muslim immigrants the religious education that they might otherwise forfeit to the promiscuity of values in a multicultural country.
No easy task, since the madressa attracted students from across the age spectrum: self-conscious prepubescents struggling with acne, giggly types who took cover in the bathroom, adolescents sprouting moustaches-and that's just the girls. I'm kidding.sort of.
Most of us saw the madressa not so much as a place of learning, but as a pond from which to fish out our future mates. Because mouthy chicks don't get husbands, my girlfriends rarely argued with Mr. Khaki...
"Then why not reward girls for our maturity by letting us lead prayer?" I asked.
"Girls can't lead prayer."
"What do you mean?"
"Girls aren't permitted."
"Allah says so."
"What's his reason?"
"Read the Qur'an."
I tried, though it felt artificial since I didn't know Arabic. Most Muslims have no clue what we're saying when we're reciting the Qur'an in Arabic. It's not that we're obtuse. Rather, Arabic is one of the world's most rhythmic languages, and weekly lessons at the madressa simply don't let us grasp its intricacies. Haram, for instance, can refer to something forbidden or something sacred, depending on which "a" you stress. Forbidden verses sacred: We're not talking subtle shifts in meaning here. To the inherent challenges of this language, add the realities of life.
In my case, a violent father who practiced religion mostly for show and a mother who did her best to be devout while striving to sustain a household on shift work. You can appreciate why Arabic study failed to rate as a family priority.Frankly, Mr. Khaki's stock reply to my questions-"Read the Qur'an''-fell about as flat as my chador-chastened hair.
Over time, this read-the-Qur'an response generated more questions: Why should I perpetuate the fib of reciting Arabic if it makes no practical sense and strikes no emotional chord? Why must we suspect that every English translation of the Qur'an "corrupts" the original text? I mean, if the Qur'an is as straightforward as the purists tell us, then aren't its teachings easily translated into a thousand tongues? Finally, why should stigma stalk those of us who haven't been weaned on Arabic when the fact is that only 13% of Muslims worldwide are Arab? Translation: 87% of us aren't Arabs. "Know Your Islam," they say blithely. Whose Islam? Is this a faith or a cult?