British culture made me feel weird for upholding the traditions of Islam, whether I was a believer or not. Glancing eyes would make me feel like an extremist. Maybe those eyes were glancing over out of curiosity or ignorance, but being young and just wanting to fit in, not yet having the awareness or experience to realise my peers probably just didn’t understand my cultural ritual, I stamped out any association with Islam.
This was post-9/11, where Allah hu Akbar didn’t translate to the intended Allah is Great, but would cue cackles and bomb sounds. Where the name Mohamad – my dad’s beautiful name – would be bastardised as the butt of a white teenager’s joke. I laughed along. It felt like the best option. I’m not Muslim, I told myself, and while technically this is partly true; I don’t identify as a practising Muslim, just a cultural one, I was subconsciously burying any semblance of Islam and all its associations, rituals and traditions due to shame.
“My mum wanted to have children desperately and she wanted them to be able to choose a religion or none at all.”
I valued fitting into my surroundings and being seen as British in favour of my Islamic heritage. Whilst standing up against Islamophobia and racism when I witnessed it among my peers – which would often be met with the customary, “Why do you always have to make everything political, Dalia?” – I was simultaneously telling my peers, “I’m not like the angry Arabs you see on the news. I’m a cool Arab. I’m secular.”
One day, when I was young, I came home from school telling my mum we’d had ham sandwiches for lunch. My mum told me “We don’t eat pork, because we’re Muslim.” Cut to a few years later, we’re eating bacon at home. So, when did this shift occur?
My mum loves Ramadan for the tradition, the health benefits of fasting, the discipline, the gatherings, and of course, the great food. What she didn’t like was being told what or how to believe. When she was in Iraq, she felt like her religion was forced on her. When she first arrived in England, she tells me she wasn’t fleeing any war – the Gulf war hadn’t begun yet – she was fleeing an ideology and what she felt was a restrictive society. My mum wanted to have children desperately and she wanted them to be able to choose a religion or none at all. “I always said that when I have children, I will not impose anything upon them. I will not tell them they have to be Muslims, and I will not say to them, ‘you have to pray, you have to fast.’”
“What my mum wouldn’t have been able to foresee was the inner turmoil of being a young Arab with a visibly Muslim heritage in the British schooling system.”
My mum tells me that as an immigrant parent, things started to get complicated. Her Muslim friends who emigrated with her to the UK would tell their children not to eat pork, that they should pray, and to fast during Ramadan. My mum, wanting to make sure I wasn’t void of a familial and comforting Arab community growing up in this country, found herself telling me to do the same in order to fit in.
With time, she became frustrated with herself for not embodying the ‘free will’ ethos she had held herself to, so my parents eventually told me and my brother that we didn’t have to adhere to the rules of Islam if we didn’t want to anymore. This, of course, made it much easier for my brother and me to assimilate seamlessly into British middle-class life.
What my mum wouldn’t have been able to foresee was the inner turmoil of being a young Arab with a visibly Muslim heritage in the British schooling system. Over a lunchtime phone call, I ask her, out of pure curiosity, what led her to put us into an environment where we were the only brown faces. I wonder, was it because she thought in order to succeed, we had to be bacon-butty eating, pint loving, Jesus-loving cream of the British crop?
“Not at all,” she said, repeatedly stressing how important education was for her. “Education is the only thing that can make you face this really hard life head-on.” Whilst she didn’t want us to “become English,” she also wanted us to “have the best of each culture. “I thought,” she continued, “when I first arrived in this country, that an English private school was the best education money could buy. I wanted you to be neither fully Arab nor fully British, and to have a balance of cultures. Maybe I failed.”
“You didn’t fail,” I responded plainly.
“I feel stronger and slightly more equipped for this world having had to work twice as hard to learn what aspects of each culture I want to embody and which ones I would rather drop.”
She’s right, of course, as my mum always seems to be. My brother and I did end up, after much trial and error – and probably a lot more ‘soul searching’ than our white counterparts – being a mix of cultures. I feel stronger and slightly more equipped for this world having had to work twice as hard to learn what aspects of each culture I want to embody and which ones I would rather drop.
My Arab culture is inherently tied up with the culture of Islam, so I can’t ignore how important a role Islam has played in my ever-evolving identity. Charity, discipline and community have always been important to me. I also love prayer as meditation and vice versa. I don’t pray in Arabic or by reciting surat, and I don’t do it five times a day, but I pray in my own way. And every Arab loves Ramadan.
“This time of year is always strange for me. It brings up conflicting feelings about my love of Islamic tradition versus my resolutely un-Islamic lifestyle.”
As my mum says, it’s like Christmas for us. You don’t need to be a practising Muslim to engage in Ramadan, just like you don’t need to go to church before you get drunk at your annual office Christmas party. Iftars of copious amounts of food, the Arab soap operas, seeing your extended family every other day, gifts, dates, chai, the annual viewing of The Message.
This time of year is always strange for me. It brings up conflicting feelings about my love of Islamic tradition versus my resolutely un-Islamic lifestyle. As I’ve grown, I’ve been able to find a community, mostly forged online, of people who understand these same feelings. Communities of young, creative Muslims in the UK have reminded me how valuable and rewarding this time of year is. These communities are made up of mostly queer Muslims who have had a much more complicated relationship with their religion than I have.
What we have in common is the freedom with which we approach Islam, and what it means to us all, individually. They’ve also reminded me just how fun it is to get together and celebrate with a group of people who look like you, speak like you, eat like you, and share a common history or lineage. Growing up at this time and in a country that is abundantly rich with multiculturalism has made me appreciate just how important it has been to find my own sense of religion.
Dalia is a freelance Iraqi-British journalist and editor with bylines in Huck, Cosmo Middle East, Riposte & Notion.
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