Culturally too, we are usually treated as a separate race, hence our almost universal portrayal as villains or victims in popular media. In books and newspapers, Arabs and Muslims are typically seen through the lens of current events — foreign wars, global migration and especially terrorism. The association is so pervasive that references to it crop up even in situations that have nothing to do with terrorism. At my literary events, for example, I’ve been asked many times about Al Qaeda and ISIS, as though my being Muslim grants me special insight into transnational terrorist groups that combine Islamist ideology with guerrilla tactics.
Muslim Americans who appear in a public forum will, sooner or later, face that question, whether the forum is a literary event or a fashion show or the halls of power in Washington. It may take the form of an accusation, from someone who has been fed a diet of propaganda, or it may take the form of a sincere remark; it may even take the form of a joke, intended to lighten the mood of the audience. But it will come. And when it does, the Muslim faces an impossible choice: Ignore the comment and perpetuate the association with terrorism, or address the comment and perpetuate the association anyway. There is no right answer. There is only the hope, by speaking about oneself, to create room for individuality.
My own life has taken turns I could not have imagined when I stepped off a plane at Los Angeles International Airport on a late-summer afternoon in 1992. Back then, my intention had been to complete a Ph.D. in linguistics, then return home to Morocco, where I planned to work as a college professor. A couple of years into my degree, however, I met an American, we fell in love and eventually married. In choosing to be with him, I chose to embrace his country as well. That made of me an immigrant, the kind of person that America has long mythologized, in art if not in life — from the ruthless gangsters in “The Godfather” to the hardworking women in “The Joy Luck Club” to the eponymous founding father in “Hamilton.”
But even under the best of circumstances, immigration is a traumatic experience that cuts a person’s life in two: There is the life before and the life after. For a long time after I moved to the United States, I wore two watches: one that told the time in Los Angeles, and the other the time in Rabat. In the morning, while I was getting ready for class, I would often think about my family, 6,000 miles away, sitting down to afternoon tea. In my memory, everyone back home remained exactly as I had last seen them, as if caught in a photograph. It never occurred to me that, day after day, they were getting older, making new friends, switching jobs or moving houses. They were changing, just as I was changing.
Whenever I stepped out of my apartment, I felt keenly aware that I was speaking a foreign language, whose sentences I had to compose with deliberation before I could speak them. In graduate seminars, my classmates would chuckle or even laugh when they heard me mispronounce some words, especially those I had only known in print — “epitome” and “fortuitous” and “onomatopoeia.” At times, the phonetic rules of English didn’t make much sense to me: Why did “rough” rhyme with “tough” but not with “dough”? Eventually I adapted to the local dialect and my foreign accent became less noticeable. One morning, a few years after arriving in this country, I woke up with the startling realization that I had dreamed in English.
The language was the easy part, however. There were so many cultural differences that hardly a day went by when I didn’t notice a new one. It was not considered impolite, for example, to eat one’s breakfast in front of others in the dorm’s common room without offering to share it with them. It was not considered rude to invite someone to lunch at a restaurant and then expect them to pay for their meal. If I sound singularly focused on food, perhaps it’s because food is so intimately tied to culture. It seemed to me that Americans were always rushing around, never taking the time to sit down for a cup of coffee or a proper dinner. I was shocked the first time I saw a woman eating a hamburger as she drove down the 10 freeway.
My story of immigration has been enriched by the love of my husband and family, the joy of enduring friendships, the fulfillment I find in my work. But nothing could have prepared me for what I lost. I missed my grandmother’s funeral, four of my cousins’ weddings and countless birthdays and celebrations with my family. If there was a crisis, I could never be sure that I would be there to help. Once, I remember, I was on vacation in Wyoming when I received a text in the middle of the night telling me that my father was in the hospital and that he might not make it. For several minutes my mind couldn’t comprehend the text I was reading. All I wanted then was a chance to say goodbye. I scrambled to book a flight and traveled back to my hometown. To my relief, the treatment my father received worked and, while he recovered, we had a chance to spend some time together.