Continued from: Chronology of my Faith I
When I was eight years old, I decided to start praying. My mum was against it at first, she told me I was too young, that she didn’t have time to teach me, that I needed to wait; but I insisted. It was also the year I decided to start fasting. Ramadan was my favorite, it still is. I didn’t mind not eating at school, although I thought I would; the smell never really tempted me.
I didn’t like the questions. Everyone wanted to know why I didn’t eat at lunch-time anymore. They couldn’t pronounce Ramadan. The woman who minded us during the lunch break asked me if my parents made me do it. I told her they didn’t. She looked like she didn’t believe me, but it was the truth. She made me feel uncomfortable; they all did.
And so began my descent into ‘otherness’. We had moved to Belfast at this point. The move from London to Northern Ireland was a culture shock in itself. It was a sea of white people, and I was often the only person of color. I was the girl who was exempt from religion class because my parents wrote a note explaining that I already went to mosque on the weekends. I was the girl who didn’t eat pork and always had to take the vegetarian option even though I wasn’t a vegetarian. The girl who didn’t eat for a month during the year.
In hindsight, it wasn’t just my religion that posed a problem for them, it was the culture I came from too, but I didn’t know the difference between the two back then, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I was different, and I hated it.
Mosque School didn’t help either. Gone were the days of the friendly Somali teacher and the classmates I loved. It was hell for me. Our teachers were men now; men who usually didn’t speak much English, men who they had shipped over from some country in the Middle East.
They tried to force me into an itchy, ugly hot pink hijab that was so tight I felt like it was choking me. They would sit me down in a room and yell the Arabic alphabet for what seemed like hours. Then they would sit me down in another room and make me recite the same ayas from the Quran over and over again, without any explanation or translation, until they thought that I had memorized them. Rinse and repeat.
At some point, the mosque had a new Imam. He was from Jordan and insisted on teaching us himself. He made me sit on his lap every lesson. I grew wary of his wondering hands. I started refusing to sit on his lap; he didn’t take kindly to that. One day, my father came to pick me up, the Imam made a point of taking him aside to complain about me. He said I didn’t obey and called me a badly raised child. I was taken home and beaten.
Despite this, and despite the Imam, it was break-time that I hated the most. My classmates were either Pakistani or Egyptian. I was the only Algerian. The only Maghrebi. You would think this wouldn’t matter – one ummah and all; but it did. I was beaten more than once, usually for ridiculous things like my “weird Arabic”. I hated Mosque school. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I didn’t want to wear that ridiculous hijab. I wanted to sleep in on weekends. I wanted to be normal.
At the time, there was only one mosque in Belfast. By the time I was finishing up with primary school, a second one had opened. This one was run by a Pakistani man who set up classes to encourage his own (half Irish) daughters to learn about the religion. The students at this mosque were more diverse. The teachers were mostly women who were patient and understanding, but in all honesty, by that point the damage had already been done. I didn’t want to be there either.
Once I started secondary school, I told my parents I was too busy to attend, that I had too much homework and couldn’t keep up. My parents, caring more about my education, stopped taking me. I didn’t want to be a Muslim anymore, so I stopped being one. I identified as agnostic, because I still believed God was real, I just didn’t want to be a part of any religion.
I started to spiral, I was on a crazed quest to be “normal”, whatever that was. I was resentful of the fact that I came from a different religion and culture, especially as I identified with neither and yet, they were responsible for propelling me into “otherness”. Back then, I didn’t understand. I do now.
To be continued…