A MUSLIM GIRL AND HER FAMILY by Saadia Faruqi
I grew up in Pakistan, where books were scarce. My mother would drop me and my two younger sisters at the British Council library and leave on errands. We’d roam the halls all afternoon, from the colorful children’s section to the quiet and somber reference area, and back again. I remember dozing off on a rug near the picture books more than once. I remember reading until my stomach hurt, then taking a pile of books home to read some more.
When I was 22 years old I emigrated to the United States with a dream in my eyes. I was newly married and excited to see what life had to offer. Then 9/11 happened, and things changed. Everyone who was Muslim was treated with suspicion and fear. I realized the burden of being Muslim in America could be offset by shouldering it in a positive way. I created an interfaith outreach program at my local mosque, starting writing opinion pieces in my local paper, and slowly became a spokesperson for some of the issues ordinary Muslims were dealing with. It’s not a small thing being judged by impossible standards for one’s religion or culture or dress, but those are also things that can bring people closer together.
Seventeen years have passed since 9/11. I’ve trained thousands of people including law enforcement, wrote hundreds of articles, sat in countless round table groups. What stands out in those seventeen years is a feeling of exhaustion, of being burnt out, of despair at answering the very same question over and over for the millionth time. I’m not the only Muslim doing outreach work by a long shot, but with everything being done, the questions are still the same, the fear and bigotry no less.
I turned to fiction in 2014 in a desperate attempt to heal my wounds. I wrote Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan to show people a more accurate picture of Pakistan, my birth country. My children started school, and were bullied for their looks, their culture, their religion. In all of this, the public library was our haven. We spent hours there, reading, attending story times – and as my son got older, author events. My daughter bemoaned the fact that none of the girls in her picture books looked like her. None of them had moms who wore hijab. None of them spoke Urdu.
The reality was that my children were not happy being first generation Muslim American kids. Life was too complicated. They fit nowhere. When we visited Pakistan to see my parents, they couldn’t relate to anyone. The food was too spicy, their accents were all wrong, everything made them sick. When they were in the U.S. kids at school told them they should go back home. They struggled to fit in, and books – the one thing that should have helped them deal with all this – didn’t have any answers. There were no beloved Muslim characters with the same problems they had.
I realized I had a different mission now. I was a writer, after all. What was I waiting for? I wrote a story about a little girl called Yasmin, a most well-adjusted and happy second grader. Yasmin’s mother is Mama, and her father is Baba. She wears a hijab, he sports a beard. Yasmin has grandparents who live with her, just like me when I was a little girl in Pakistan. Yasmin is not facing Islamophobia. Yasmin is happy and healthy and faces everything that comes her way with determination and courage. She’s someone we all want our kids to be. She’s just an ordinary American girl, and my kids need her so much.
I think probably lots of kids need her, to see how life can be good and kind… and normal. Meet Yasmin! is not about being Muslim, or being Pakistani, or being first-generation, although all those things shine through with pride in the book. Meet Yasmin! is about being a child, facing obstacles at home and school, in the park or in the street, and figuring out how to solve life’s little dilemmas. Those are the worries our children deserve to have, not big soul-crushing issues that will haunt them forever.
Yasmin is more than just a little girl. She stands for everything good and positive America has to offer. She also stands for everything good immigrants and their families have to offer this country. She can be a teaching tool, or a model to follow, or even a reflection of how we want our lives to be. You can’t help but smile when you look at her sassy face. You can’t help but wish her well in life. She’s our future generations, the America that welcomes immigrants and doesn’t let fear overcome.
Happy birthday, Yasmin. I hope you make many little boys and girls feel good about themselves.