He’s a graduating senior. He’s very articulate, and passionate about diversity issues on our university campus. His family fled Iran when he was a child, soon after the revolution (Which revolution? cracked my father, when I came home and recounted my day to him. Iran goes through a revolution every few years.) He doesn’t consider himself American even though he’s lived in the U.S. for most of his life, because, in his mind, he’s still an immigrant and very much Persian.
These are the things I observed and learned about him during the course of our group discussion. As part of my internship, I’ve met and interacted with many interesting people during the past year. Still, but for the exchange that followed, I most likely would have forgotten about the Persian boy by the end of the evening.
As we remained in our circle of chairs, waiting for the other group to finish its discussion, he crossed the room and dropped into an empty chair beside me. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Are you Muslim?”
He moved his hand in a circle around his face, referring to my headscarf. “You wear hijab.” He then looked down pointedly at my feet. “But you’re wearing sandals.”
I couldn’t help laughing a little. “Wait, so, as a Muslim, I’m not allowed to wear flip-flops?”
He held up his hands. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“I’m not offended at all,” I said. “But, based to my understanding of Islam and modesty, what I’m wearing right now is in accordance with hijab.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” he repeated. “I was just curious, because I’ve seen Muslim girls on campus who won’t wear sandals.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You sure it’s not just because they don’t like sandals, maybe?”
He laughed. “No. I went up to them and asked them about it. Like I said, I’m very curious.”
“That’s interesting,” I said. “I’ve never even noticed that. I guess, for some people, it depends on where you’re from, where you live. Like I said, for me, what I’m wearing right now constitutes hijab.”
“I think you mentioned this earlier, during the discussion, but you’re Pakistani, right?”
He jerked his chin at my flip-flops again. “And would you be able to wear those, if you were in Pakistan?”
“Of course!” I said, both bewildered and amused. “I’m from a village, and everyone there wears sandals and flip-flops. It’s a normal part of life. In the summer, it’s really hot â€“ you need sandals. And even in the winter, not everyone can afford to buy real shoes.”
He nodded. “Okay. But Pakistan â€“ it’s very strict, isn’t it? Like Saudi Arabia?”
“I’ve never been to Saudi Arabia, so I don’t know what it’s like there,” I replied. “And I’m from a village in Pakistan. A village is like â€“”
“â€“ its own little world,” he finished.
“Right,” I smiled. “There’s a lot of cultural influence there that is not necessarily Islam. If I wanted to step out into the main part of my village in Pakistan, I had to wear a chador. But in the Pakistani cities, as well as in many other places, I think what I’m wearing right now would be commonly accepted as adequate hijab.”
He nodded in understanding. “I went back to Iran after tenth grade, and everything was justâ€¦different,” he said. “Before, women were totally covered, fully veiled. I went back and, all of a sudden, women were wearing capri pants. They said that it was okay, they had found justifications for it. But you know what, people are always going to find ways to excuse what ever they want to. The lines and boundaries are constantly extended.”
“Yeah. Each community tends to have its own interpretations.”
He smiled wryly. “I really hope I didn’t offend you with my questions. I’m just fascinated by hijab.”
“Trust me,” I said, “If I were offended, I would really let you know.”
“I used to be Muslim,” he commented. “Up until tenth grade, when I went back to Iran.”
The casual ease with which he made the remark stunned me. I tried to hide my blank shock behind a noncommittal nod. He turned to me again. “So how long have you been Muslim?”
Taken aback, I replied, “I’ve always considered myself Muslim.”
“But how long have you been practicing?”
I thought about it. “My parents raised me so that I was constantly surrounded by and reminded about Islam. But I guess I didn’t really start practicing on my own until I went back to Pakistan when I was thirteen, and lived there for eighteen months.”
He looked at me with an inscrutable expression on his face. “I guess we have opposite stories, huh?”
“I guess so,” I agreed.
I had so many questions, but I didn’t get a chance to ask him any of them. The other group had finished their discussion by then, and it was time to wrap up and head home. I smiled politely at the Persian boy and wandered back to my colleagues.
While walking across campus toward the end of the week, I saw him performing a spoken word piece during a culture show he had co-organized. Since I love spoken word but rarely get a chance to be at an event, I stopped to listen, and found I could relate to many of his experiences and struggles in balancing his ancestral culture with life in America. He has his grandmother’s nose and his father’s eyes, he was relating to the crowd, and as a young child newly arrived in the U.S. he used to be terrified of tennis lessons because the relentless speed of tennis balls shot his way made him think of cannons. I tried to fit these pieces together with what I already knew of him.
A few days later, a friend admitted to me, “I used to drink alcohol, smoke drugs. Yet even at the height of all that, I couldn’t bring myself to eat meat that wasn’t halal.”
“Why?” I asked. “What made you stay Muslim? Why didn’t you just totally give it all up? What made you keep identifying as Muslim even though your lifestyle didn’t reflect it at all?”
He looked at me and replied in all seriousness, “Because I have an English translation of the Quran, and whenever I opened it and read it, I felt that God was speaking directly to me. I could just feel the power of the words. That’s the one thing that kept me connected to Islam, even though my life, and the world, and everything else was completely jacked up.”
I find it interesting and intriguing, juxtaposing these two young men’s very different approaches to Islam. If I were to meet the Persian boy again, I wouldn’t be able to stop asking questions. I want to know why this boy – who is such an expressive communicator, deeply involved with student-campus relations, genuinely proud of his cultural heritage, passionate about intercultural dialogue, understanding, and alliance – doesn’t align himself anymore with the religion he was raised on.
Other things I would ask him:
What made you decide not to be Muslim anymore? Was it something specific, or a series of events? How did you decide? Did you sit down one day and say, Okay, I’m not Muslim from now on? Did you wake up one morning and not feel Muslim anymore? Why did you totally break away from Islam, as opposed to – like so many others – remaining Muslim in name only yet not practicing? And, by the way, what is your definition of Islam anyway?
But most of all, I want to know why a boy who doesn’t consider himself Muslim anymore remains so obviously fascinated by hijab.