“Are you new here?” she asked; a question that felt like an intimidating interrogation. “Erm, no,” I answered, shifting uneasily in my seat. I could feel my face getting warmer as the seconds passed. “Where are you from?” she continued probing without the least bit of concern that she was crossing into personal territory. Curious to see where the conversation was heading, I told her to take a few geographical guesses. “You are Muslim. Are you Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim or some other Muslim cult?” Her eyes narrowed into angry slits and the menacing glare turned her into an inquisitor of sorts riding high on some special kind of a hate-laced drug. With my heart now galloping, I let out a deep breath and answered as calmly as I could: “You asked me where I was from, not what religion I belong to.” Her eyes continued to bore into mine and without as much as a blink she declared: “Whether you are from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Ethiopia, I don’t appreciate you people coming to my country and trying to lay Shariah law on the land. I know your type and I’m watching you.”
I had no response.
It’s not that I had nothing to say back to her. Sure, I could have tried to correct her misconceptions of where I really was from, or asked her why she had made the jump from country to religion so quickly, but I could tell that she had no interest in learning. She was comfortable in her ignorance. For about 3 seconds, I stared at her in silence in an attempt to find a shred of love in her being—there was nothing there.
Her face brought forth many unpleasant memories I had accumulated throughout my life as a Muslim woman. She reminded me of the horror stories my friends had told me of Mary, a new American convert, who was yelled at by a man in a truck and told to ‘go back to the dunes’ and that of Sarah, a gentle Egyptian-American, whose headscarf was yanked from her head while she was studying in the library. Then there is the story of Camila, another convert, who cried everyday because her devout Christian family was close to disowning her given her decision to wear the niqab.
Ironically, this woman’s face also reminded me of my fellow Muslims. It reminded me of the ones who constantly pointed out that I wasn’t wearing the hijab properly because a strand of hair was showing, or that I wasn’t a true Muslim because I didn’t wear the abaya, or that women were inherently evil and so my chances of going to heaven were slimmer than my own brother’s simply because of my gender.
All those memories that surfaced were a bit too much to handle so I looked the other way and swallowed the painful lump in my throat. I could still feel her hateful stare at the back of my covered head and my quiet recitations of dhikr (remembrance of God) were all that I had to keep me from shedding tears.
Fa inna ma’al ‘usri yusra (Surely with difficulty is ease.)
Inna ma’al ‘usri yusra (With difficulty is surely ease.)
(Quran 94, 5-6)
I let out a sigh of relief and felt myself relax in my seat. My heart was beating at a normal pace now. I knew deep down that every trial, big and small, had a purpose and that this incident was no different. I fiddled with my phone and quickly wrote this status on my Facebook page: “I have just experienced my first religious hate comment/threat in this country. It’ll take a long time to erase this moment from my head. — feeling sad.”
A few stops later, the woman stood up to leave and I looked back at her and smiled. “Have a wonderful day,” I said. “You also have a wonderful day,” she answered back harshly, and then she was gone. I was still trying to digest what had just happened when I reached for my phone again and found some comments underneath my status.
“Alhamdulillah… may Allah protect you all and make their hate turn to love.”
“It cuts deep but understand that you aren’t the problem, they are. *hugs*”
“I can only imagine how awful that must be. So sorry you were the recipient of someone’s ignorant and despicable hate. May love cover and protect you. Sending you my big hug!!!”
In that moment, I realized that for every one person that spews hate, there are ten others that radiate love. The sympathy might have been via Facebook but those comments made me feel like I was getting enough love to neutralize my negative encounter. It was enough love to see me through future personal battles. I said a prayer of gratitude, picked up my bag, got off the bus, and walked to work.