I am writing this towards the end of September, as I sit on the beach with my mother-in-law, watching my husband cast his fishing line out into the sea. The lights from the city are reflected in the water, and a soft breeze carries the ‘isha athaan into my ears. There are a couple of drops of rain falling on my page as I write, but it is a warm, end of summer kind of rain.
I am truly blessed to be where I am right now.
I hear the athaan five times a day, I don’t have to worry about finding a “halal” shop for food, I am not persecuted for wearing my hijab. I don’t have to explain myself when someone catches me sicking my feet in the sink, I don’t have to find somewhere to celebrate Eid with other Muslims, when I tell people I am fasting I am met with “mashaaAllah” instead of barely concealed horror.
When I first converted I was always a little bit jealous of those who had grown up in Muslim families and Muslim countries.
And now here I am, living in a beautiful city that is by all appearances in a Muslim country.
So I can’t help but be a bit sad as I begin to wonder, where is all the Islam?
Hardly anyone greets me with salaam here, and when they meet me for the first time the first thing they say is often “Are you a Muslim?” (No, I am dressed this way because a black abaya is super comfy in 100 degree heat, not to mention highly trendy these days.)
If you can get someone here to stop fighting with people in the streets, shops, markets, and parks for long enough to ask them what time the afternoon prayer is, they will likely have no idea. And shout at you for asking.
Not only are cars driven and parked willy nilly according to the drivers every whim and fancy, but there is also rubbish strewn about even in what could be some of the loveliest nature spots I have ever seen.
Everyone wants to argue here, and if someone is being nice to you it often times means they want something from you, or are about to try to cheat you out of a lot of money.
Hijab is widely practised, but so little understood that I actually find it more difficult to retain my modesty here where it has become so infused with cultural practise. Mahram and non-mahram has become family/friend and stranger, and nobody at all sees a problem if brothers, uncles and cousins are walking in and out of the house all day long while I’m not covered. Not to mention everybody and their father wants to shake my hand when they meet me.
Plus, the implicit knowledge that every woman in the city is watching and/or talking about you at all times…
I compare the way I feel and live here to how I felt and lived in California—yes, I was pretty much a vegetarian because I had no access to halal meat. Yes, sometimes people shouted at me or spit on me in the street because they were ignorant (this, I am sure has become worse since I wrote this pre-election). Yes, I had to wake up to my blaring alarm clock rather than the beautiful athaan.
But for the most part people respected me and left me alone to practise my religion as I pleased.
My male colleagues and co-workers gave me my space; they never tried to hug me or tell me things like “hey there sexy” when I got to work like they did with their other female friends. If I had a slight scarf slip they would all keep their eyes averted until I gave the all-clear that I had fixed it.
My housemates understood that they shouldn’t come into my room unannounced and my mother always gave me a good hour’s notice if any man besides my grandpa was going to be coming over.
At the time of prayer my family would turn off the TV and not raise their voices above a whisper (good luck with that here!).
People in California never threw trash in the ocean, or blocked an entire road with their VW Golf because they needed a sandwich NOW.
I still don’t quite know how to process all of these feelings, especially now that the election has occured. And I am feeling a great deal of uncertainty as to where I will be in a year or even a month.
Here, I have the blessing to be in a Muslim country. Halal food, athaan, mosques on every corner. Places I can buy modest clothing at less exorbitant prices. And for sure there are some wonderful, warm and kind people here, but often there is no Islam in the peoples’ hearts.
In America, it is not a Muslim country. My hijab is often misunderstood and despised, halal meat is hard to come by. But there I live my life simply and practice my religion freely. There are more Islamic manners there than I have ever seen here.
I guess I can only hope that some day I will find a place that is a perfect blend of both of these things, where I can live my life and practice my religion to its fullest, and where everyone else does the same.