Sarah Fathima Mohammed
It’s September 11, 2011. I am in second grade and, as usual, the TV in Mama’s bedroom plays the news before school—today it is blasting out those horrific headlines once again in remembrance of that shocking attack that amplified the threat of terrorism here in our country and brought home a fear that challenged the idea that we are “the land of the free and home of the brave.” The footage before the bombing shows New York in its best season on a breathtaking late-summer day; the images of this angelic haven make me feel the warmth of the balmy sun against the clear, cloudless sky as the gleaming building glitter with life. Then, my rich brown eyes widen in disbelief as the planes crash straight into the towers, sending chills down the valleys of my spine as they collapse.
After school, my friends have heard all about that day and, faces bright with a gawking curiosity, they start probing me with questions about terrorism:
Why do they do that?
Does their family support them?
Who teaches them that?
I am seven, so I reply curtly and softly:
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
They eagerly lap up my short responses like warm chocolate melting against their tongue, and each word only seems to encourage them. Just kids themselves, they press on and on, asking me how in the world I could not know.
I finally ask them why they choose to spit these questions at me, and they look at each other knowingly, finally pointing to my smiling aunt walking towards me to pick me up, her hair neatly wrapped in a hijab. They glance back at me, expressions wary, and ask me a final question before leaving:
Are you a terrorist?
My eyes drop and I feel scared, for the first time, of who I am. Why does it have to be me that my friends think is terrorist? Why does my religion and culture suggest I am a bad person?
On the streets with my family, I see a few streets down that folks are lining the crowded traffic lanes with anti-Muslim signs. Some people walk by freely, ignoring the hateful messages but, when we walk past them, they scream savagely at us, guttural voices cracked with a jagged sort of hatred. One man waves a tattered cardboard sign in my face:
Go back to your country
I am a child of this country. I have nowhere else to go.
I laugh at my aunt’s funny jokes as we help carry Mama’s home-cooked meals to the park to celebrate Eid, a time of celebration, silence, prayer, family and happiness. The grass still sparkles with morning dew, and the trees rustle as the soft wind caresses their branches. The sun is just starting to rise, painting bold, colorful streaks across the depths of the sky. The powerful aroma of the spices, unleashed by Mama’s deft hand and her skillet, waft through the entire park, and my eyes shine with joy as I tell Mama: This is my favorite day in the whole entire year!We had just put out the blankets and carefully spread out the banquet when a mob of yelling people approach—they chant and wave their signs telling us to go back, as if America were not our home as much as theirs, as if I were not formed in the body of this country, my only home. They spit at us until we back away, our faces crestfallen. We scramble to head back, quickly gathering up the home-cooked banquet and confining its aromas in sealed containers. As we approach the safety of my Uncle Waffiq’s car, our alarm grows as we make out the words “go away terrorist” spray painted on his window shield. Our dismay is complete when we arrive to find his car broken into and defiled by someone’s defecation. He spends three days repairing it, missing his work at the local jewelry store. I will never forget the look on his face, tightened with anger and melancholy, usually so reserved and graceful.
We stay home for a week, afraid to go out except for work. We celebrate Eid in solitude, exiled from our community. We can’t even feel comfortable buying groceries, not with people spewing hate at us in the aisles and telling us to leave Americans alone. All we want to do is share a meal together. I was born here and raised with American values—you know, the self-evident truth that “all . . . are created equal,” that “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion is so fundamentally unAmerican that the first article of the Bill of Rights forbids any such thing. In spite of these fundamental American principles, I am an American child who is not treated as American because of the color of my skin and the religion I practice.
Eid is no longer my favorite day in the whole entire year.
On the first day of school, my teacher calls the roll but stumbles across my obviously Islamic last name. My classmates’ previously bored faces turn as one towards me, alerted by my name, and I watch them whisper to their friends and point in my direction. Trying to recover the class’s focus, my teacher says that he will always remember my name since I am the only one in my class who looks like she could have that name. He laughs, as if poking fun at my name, race, and culture is a joke, and the other kids chime in with their own derision-stippled giggles.
But I don’t laugh.
The next year, I try to register my name without the last three letters at the end.
My friends ask me where I am going to spend summer vacation and, filled with excited anticipation, I tell them I am visiting my grandparent’s homeland. They glance at each other and laugh —not a full-throated laugh but a kind of choking, sarcastic sneer. Then they ask me:
Are you learning to be a terrorist?
They laugh again, so I roll my eyes and, once again, my lips crack that exasperated smile. “Allah,” I say, the Arabic equivalent of “oh my god.” As the name for God rolls off my tongue, it comforts me in a way they never could. But my friends suddenly back away from me, their faces no longer playful. I hear:
Stop using that terrorist talk on us!
Then they are gone, all hurrying away from me in a tightly packed row, their arms protectively around each other as if finding safety in numbers.
My eyes turn glassy as I consider the unfairness of it all. How can this simple Arabic word be so frightening and alienating?
Why must a girl in a scarf traveling east be accused of training to be a terrorist? Since when has terrorist training become a joke?
Mama smiles at me as we fill out the forms to move to a new school. She has always taught me not to run away from my problems but to stand up for myself and be who I am unabashedly, but it is not working anymore; instead, I feel excluded and stereotyped at the institution that is supposed to enrich my learning and empower my life.
Mama assures me that this is for the best, and she slowly rubs her soothing fingers in circles across my back. I may never “blend in” with the other students, but I can use what I have learned from the years of stereotyping to embrace the fresh start that I will get and to welcome the change that I will get from it all.
I start my new school in fourth grade, still embracing my culture, my religion, and my heritage. I hold my head up high as September 11th passes, as I enjoy my dinner at the park in celebration for Eid, as the teacher stumbles over my name and as I tell my friends about my summer plans, tossing in an Arabic word here and there.
Although my fellow Americans’ assumptions about me might not change, their adversity has strengthened my self-confidence and taught me that their mistakes have no bearing on who I really am.
Sarah Fathima Mohammed is a freshman at The Harker School, CA. In 2019, she received a silver medal for the NJCL national creative writing contest and a gold medal for national Latin. Her work has been accepted in Stone Soup. She enjoys writing various pieces in literature and Latin; poetry, to her, is a raw form of self-expression that can be conveyed at any depth without the worldly barriers. When she is not writing, she teaches English to disadvantaged students, plays music to raise funds for kids in hospitals, and enjoys archery.