Laura El Alam

“You speak English so well!” gushed the soccer mom sitting next to me. For several consecutive weekends, Linda and I had been sitting side by side and chatting as we watched our daughters’ games. I had come to think of her as a friend. We had so much in common and never ran out of things to discuss. Linda and I were clearly two peas in a pod . . . or so I had thought. But when that statement burst out of her lips — like she’d been holding in the “compliment” about my English for weeks — I realized she had been seeing me as a foreigner the whole time — a pea from an entirely different pod.

“Well, thanks, Linda,” I said a bit awkwardly. “I’m from Missouri, and English is my native language.”

“But where are you originally from?’ she asked.

“Missouri.”

“But . . . you know . . . where are you from?”

Clearly, Linda didn’t see me as an American. In fact, I challenged her internal definition of “American” so much that even when I had “proven” my Americanness by speaking like her, knowing the same cultural references, sharing many of the same interests, jokes, and mannerisms — even when I told her I was from America! — she didn’t believe me.

“I’m from Missouri. I was born there and grew up there. I wear this scarf because I’m a Muslim. I’m an American who chooses to practice Islam. I converted when I was 25.”

I almost feel tempted to print a version of those sentences on a button to pin to the front of my shirt. It would probably save me a lot of time and headache. The first twenty-five years of my life – before I embraced Islam – were fairly uncomplicated in the sense that no one ever questioned me about where I came from, what my native language was, or where I belonged. Thanks to my uncovered blonde hair, pale skin, and green eyes I was assumed to be not only American but even “the girl next door” – trustworthy, down-to-earth, friendly. I am actually still that person, but nowadays I have to work much harder to prove it.

Like Linda, many people get confused when they see the scarf that covers my hair. It doesn’t matter that the rest of my clothes (usually loose pants and tunics) are purchased at the very same department stores they frequent. It doesn’t matter that I speak English like the native speaker that I am, or that I am fully immersed in (and a product of) this culture, or that I am well educated. It throws people off to meet such a “normal” person wearing an item of clothing that seems incongruous to their preconceived notion of what a white woman should dress like, or what an American should be.

For such a simple piece of cloth, the headscarf (also called hijab or khimar) elicits a great deal of preconceived notions, assumptions, opinions, and political feelings. Light as a feather, it is nevertheless the heaviest piece of clothing I own. Wearing it has transformed, complicated, and yes, also enhanced my life in many ways. Every day I choose to wear it with the hope of pleasing God. Thus every day I open myself up to conversations like the one I had with Linda. Although it can be exhausting to have to explain and re-explain my nationality and my beliefs, I have decided to look at the silver lining: those encounters are opportunities to teach people about Islam.

Like so many Muslims I know, I go to extra effort every day to be a positive example of my faith. I know that many Americans haven’t gotten to know a Muslim before, so my words and actions will probably make a big impression on them. That’s how Muslims are, some people will think when they observe me. It’s a lot of pressure to feel like a walking billboard of one’s faith, but Islam requires us to strive to display the best manners like our beloved Prophet, Mohammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Muslims should be kind, compassionate, patient, helpful, sincere, trustworthy, and modest. Living that way is not noteworthy; it’s simply a manifestation of our faith.

Islam is indeed a beautiful faith. I didn’t know that years ago, but I know it now. At the age of 25 I came to the end of a path I’d been wandering for several years. My doubts about the Catholic faith of my upbringing had led me to spiritual questioning throughout my high school and college years. Is there really a God? If so, is there a right way to worship Him? What’s the purpose of life? Do we need religion? If so, which is the right one?

I read books, took religious studies classes, spoke with people of different faiths, traveled, and did a lot of soul-searching. Islam was never the religion I expected to follow; it wasn’t even on my radar, to be honest. I didn’t know much about it, and the few impressions I had from movies and news coverage were negative. When I really understood Islam, however, I found the peace, clarity, and guidance I’d been seeking.

For non-Muslims who have questions about Islam, I encourage you to ask! Many Muslims are happy to explain their practices and their faith. But please try not to make assumptions about people. While Muslims do share one faith, there is quite a lot of diversity amongst us. We come from all parts of the world, have a wide array of cultural influences, differ in some of our practices, and are each unique individuals. Meeting one of us is not meeting all of us! Lastly, if you ask us where we’re from, please respect us enough to accept our answer. Muslims can be from many places, and we can even be the girl next door!

Raised in a Midwestern Catholic family, Laura El Alam became a Muslim in 2000. She is a prolific writer whose work has been published in various magazines. Laura is the founder of Sea Glass Writing & Editing www.seaglasswritingandediting.com and runs the Facebook page The Common Sense Convert which aims to provide a beneficial online forum for Muslim women.

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