After submitting a few chapters from my memoir to countless literary agents, I was summarily ignored by 99% of them despite the industry-wide calls for Muslim writers to submit their work after Trump attempted to impose his illegal Muslim ban. I expected this sort of hypocrisy from literary agents: I knew that the industry was still thirsty for more boring books bashing the Islamic Republic. As shape shifters, these agents only seek one point of view when it comes to the Middle East. The truth is just too dangerous for them to get behind.
Despite all this, I still wrestle with one agent’s commentary because she represents talented people of color who aren’t political pawns. She’s not your typical New York literary agent so I have been stuck on the question she asked me: “Why doesn’t the reader ever see the family celebrating any Muslim holidays in your chapters on childhood?” She may as well have asked me, “Why are you calling yourself a Muslim?”
My grandfather, who died before I was born, was a Muslim cleric in Iran. My father did not follow in his or my pious grandmother’s footsteps and was an atheist for most of his life. At age 90, however, he has a newfound faith in God. When I ask him if he considers himself a Muslim, he says no. He still believes that organized religion is only for the dim-witted and speaks especially negatively about Islam.
Despite my father’s disdain for religion, I attended the second most holy Shia pilgrimage in the world with my mother when I was a baby. She took me to Mashad, Iran after her father died. He was called “Haji Baba” because he’d performed the haj in Mecca, the holiest Muslim pilgrimage. I never met him because he died before I was born, but in his honor I attended mosque for the first and last time in my life.
Haji Baba’s wife, my Turkish-Iranian grandmother, had blonde hair, wore copious amounts of lipstick and prayed five times a day every single day of her life, even when she lay dying in the hospital. My mother calls herself a Muslim, too, but she didn’t carry on very many Islamic traditions at home. We never observed Ramadan or attended mosque. We weren’t even taught namaz, the Muslim prayer. Occasionally, my mother said a prayer under her breath that she memorized as a child, but those prayers were familiar noises to me only. She never taught us the tenets of Islam or about the prophets (hazrata), but she always kept a Koran in the home, and she even made me kiss the book three times when I moved away to college.
I say “Mash Allah!” to congratulate fellow Iranians after they’ve gotten engaged, had a child or found the perfect the job. Even though I smoke cigarettes and eat meat that is not halal, I feel guilty when I eat pork (but I do it anyway.). I also find myself swearing on Hazareteh Abbas (an important prophet I know little about) when I insist that I am really telling the truth. Islam is embedded in the Persian language and culture.
I’m culturally Muslim. I believe in God but like my father I choose to express my faith as an individual and without ties to any mosque. I don’t pray and I swear often. I’m a bad Muslim, but I am a Muslim nonetheless.
For most Muslims in America, there was life before 9/11 and life after 9/11. Before that awful day, when people asked me about my faith, I said that I was born Muslim but that I didn’t practice. I felt like a hypocrite claiming Islam as my religion without an explanation, especially when asked by women at college who chose to wear hijab.
After 9/11, I didn’t have a choice but to identify as a dreaded Muslim. I couldn’t find a job and people were suddenly afraid of me, even my all-American roommate, who began locking her bedroom door at night. I had to show my passport nearly everywhere I went, even multiple times at the college where I’d enrolled for my MFA in writing. When classes began, I was talked over by my classmates, who treated me as the enemy who didn’t deserve a voice. Hardly anyone commented on my work, a complete break from etiquette in a workshop setting, and I was unfairly bashed when it came time for review. It was clear to me that most Americans saw me as a terrorist at the cellular level and wanted me to disappear.
The word racism is something I’m not allowed to use when describing the persecution I’ve faced as a Muslim because Islam is not a race. Yet, the majority of Americans think that all Muslims are Arabs even though Iranians are Caucasian.
This complex form of bigotry that I’ve wrestled with now for years has created a deep psychic wound and the salt thrown on it are the atrocities I’ve been forced to witness at Abu-Ghraib, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Libya, Myanmar, Syria, Yemen and even here at home. The Muslim genocide that no one is talking about is in full swing. I no longer have a choice but to call myself a Muslim and speak on behalf of those suffering in these never-ending and unjust wars.
If atheists of Jewish ancestry can claim their Jewishness as a part of their cultural identity, I most certainly can claim a Muslim one. If Christians who never attend church can call upon Jesus after a loss, why can’t I call upon Allah after losing so much human dignity since 9/11?