BY NARJES ALBAKSHY
Once I stepped foot in Hector International Airport, I noticed something that concerned me – I was getting funny glances and cold stares from fellow travelers. I went into the bathroom to check if there was anything out of the ordinary. While fixing my hijab (head scarf) I got a good glimpse of my reflection in the mirror under the harsh white lights of the bathroom. Then I glanced at the tall, fair-skinned, blonde woman sharing the mirror, and it hit me. I was different.
Fargo-Moorhead was not my first option for studying abroad. I had spent two years away from my country of Saudi Arabia, studying in the United Arab Emirates. My interest in business administration, a popular major among young Arabs, started to fade. My English professor sparked an interest of journalism in me. Even though my parents supported my decision of changing majors, I felt that the Middle East was not the best place to earn a degree in mass communications. Moving back to the United States where I grew up seemed like the best choice.
I decided to move here after reading about the perks of living in the growing metropolis of Fargo-Moorhead. I researched a lot about the area before deciding to transfer to MSUM, but I knew little about what I was going to face after moving here.
Being an Arab-Muslim was never an issue when I lived in Texas and New Jersey. The number of Arabs and Muslims where I had resided before were so plentiful, they had their own neighborhoods and communities.
Even so, after the tragic events of September 11, my parents decided to have me stay home from my 4th grade class. I spent two weeks at our house in Houston for my safety, until the shock of the tragedy subsided. We resumed our lives without realizing that the reputation would change dramatically for Muslims and Arabs around the world.
By now I thought that Americans would be more aware of Arab culture and Muslim beliefs, but unfortunately, I was wrong. After the attacks, I predicted that the mainstream media would clarify that the radical jihadists who were behind the terrorist attacks did not define all Muslims and Arabs. The opposite happened: a new definition of Muslim and Arab has been created based on stereotypes and fear of a misunderstood religion and culture.
What was baffling to me after living here for two years was that I faced the stereotypes firsthand. I was surprised at how shockingly little the residents of F-M, regardless of their religion, nationality or age, knew about the Middle East.
I have jotted down just a few examples of bizarre encounters I have experienced in just three months.
Contrary to popular belief, Islam is spread globally and is not only in the Middle East. Islam can be found in almost any continent which is why Muslims are very diverse.
Not all Muslims are brown-skinned; they come in all different colors and from all different origins. This is why in F-M alone, you can find a growing number of African, Asian, Middle Eastern and European Muslims.
The language of Islam is Arabic and our holy book, the Quran, is written in Arabic script. However, not all Arabs are Muslims.
In fact, the Middle East is the birthplace of the three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and they are all still practiced there today.
Some people regard the head scarf as some sort of symbol that I do not speak English, which is annoying since I am actually a better English speaker than I am of my native language of Arabic.
While I was at a local pizzeria, an old man approached my table. He asked in a loud tone, as if my head scarf, which lightly covers my ears with fabric, affected my hearing, “Do you speak English?” I told him where I was from and he replied with a chuckle, “Oh yeah, Arabia. Lots of sand there, yeah?” I did not know what to think of his comment. He asked the same way you would normally speak to a child. I was disheartened that my hijab could be regarded as a handicap rather than a symbol of my religious faith.
On my daily bus route, I see a lot of different people at the station. I enjoy observing the commuters who all have something to do and somewhere to go. In fact, besides international grocery stores and universities, the bus station is one of the most culturally diverse places in the area. I was delighted to see that a Muslim woman, adorning the head scarf, was a driver for MAT-Bus.
Despite that, I constantly get funny looks from fellow bus passengers. Smokers in the smoking section of the station stop talking when I pass by, whispering once I am out of earshot. People on a full bus avoid sitting in the empty seat next to me as though I have a contagious disease.
Once, while I was on the bus a few minutes early before its scheduled departure, a bus driver was curious about me. When I was making small talk with him, he was surprised by the fact I am studying in Fargo without the companionship of my father or a male guardian. “I thought women of your religion and country are oppressed and do not have much freedom,” he said.
After living here for a while, I grew accustomed to the reaction of some locals regarding my religious choice. I do not regard it as a sacrifice of some sort, but as a submission to my faith. The ideology behind the head scarf is to cover a woman’s body, hair and neck from men that are not related to her as a form of self-respect and modesty, as well as to avoid being looked at as an object from males.
I enjoy my decision and the situations I endure because of my head scarf. Even though my religion has resulted in some inconveniences, I have met many F-M residents who are warm and friendly, contrary to the weather.
With that in mind, my head scarf is always a convenience during the long, harsh winters we endure.
Narjes, this is a very well written commentary. I appriciate that you don’t have a hateful stance towards the people who are disrespectful towards you. I think the Fargo area is a difficult place to live for those who are different, but I imagine that if you can make it there, you will be less intimidated by people in the future. It’s only through exposure that ignorance can be erradicated, so I thank you for being part of that.
Thank you for your feedback. I understand that sometimes, some people have a hard time to dealing with something different. Fargo-Moorhead is a wonderful place to live in, and I have met way more people that are open-minded and friendly than those who aren’t.