“After Partition, many Muslims stayed behind in Bihar instead of joining Pakistan. It’s an impoverished, mostly agricultural state that is considered somewhat backward by most of Bombay’s middle class, and Akhtar is part of a large migration of young Bihari men who have come to Bombay in recent years to find work. He tells Cassim that he’s never met a foreign Muslim before, or anyone who is partly from Pakistan; the idea of an educated, well-traveled Muslim is exotic and interesting to him.” – excerpt from ‘The Girl from Foreign’ by Sadia Shepard
I am an educated, well-traveled Muslim, and I would be fine with that except I don’t know what being a Muslim means anymore. In Oman it meant something else – reduced school hours in Ramadhan, lots of government holidays, and weekends that conveniently fell on Fridays. There were Sudani Muslims, Egyptian Muslims, Indian Muslims, Phillipino Muslims, Omani Muslims. They all wore their own national clothing and ate their own kinds of food. Masjids were beautiful, grand, clean. In America, Islam was reactionary, so Arabised, so structured. I discovered a new word – zabiha. The Muslims there would look at me funny – you don’t know what zabiha is? I’d only ever heard of halaal. I didn’t wear a scarf, and I would feel slightly insulted that people were surprised to find out that I was a Muslim because I didn’t wear one, as if I was inadequate, not doing Islam quite right. But I was raised in the Middle East! And the more vicious public debate about Islam got, the more I withdrew philosophically into Islam, arming myself with answers to questions that I had learned to anticipate, questions that ordinarily only a scholar should have been expected to have the answers to. Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam. Bismillah-i-rahman-i-rahim. Five pillars, 1-2-3-4-5. Zakaat 2.5%. Polygamy permitted not recommended. No concept of holy wars in Islam. Back off, back off, back off. Self-proclaimed defender of the faith, the Islamic Joan of Arc, brothers and sisters across the Ummah unite. Yes, we can!
Except this past year, I plunged into mainstream India, dying to be set free from the flat two-dimensional Islamic person I’d started to see myself as from the eyes of those around me. I wanted to be more than an example of Islamic pluralism, more than someone’s token centrist Muslim friend, see momma she’s not a terrorist, she’s quite reasonable, she doesn’t even wear a scarf, she drinks Pepsi and goes to the AMC and likes Billy Joel.
This whole past year in India I have not had the time to sleep or dream even. There aren’t so many Muslims around in mainstream India anyway. If they are there, they keep to themselves in their secular speech patterns and professions. They acknowledge each other in silent ways, but they daren’t step over that fine line. They’ll smile at each other and then look away, they’ll say hello and you both know why but will not admit it. You’ve been noticed, you’re been watched over, but neither party will do anything more about it. And what a relief that is. Nobody wants to talk about religion in this secular space where everybody dresses and talks the same. It’s exhausting, it asks more questions than gives answers, and we’re a tired, tired, tired country. I was so grateful that I was just another Indian face whose face and language was suspiciously Muslim-like, but everybody was so busy that at the end of the day, everybody just wanted to talk light. What a relief it was. Nobody had any religious expectations of me, nobody poked and prodded my wilting soul for justifications. We’re all just too busy, everybody just wants to be left alone in peace. We all really just want to have a job and an Internet connection and the occassional trip to the mall or the theater or Bangkok.
But then a Muslim girl from Kashmir told me she looked up to me, I’m guessing because I was educated and well-travelled. Me? But I don’t wear a scarf. I’d fled halfway across this blessed planet of ours just so that people would stop seeing me as a Muslim. Do you know that this whole year I almost never said as-salaam-alaikum or Khuda haafiz to anybody? I never even said insha Allah or masha Allah, and I never said Allah ka shukar in jest the way I usually do. I never said yaar, Khuda ke liye when someone was getting on my case. I didn’t want to. Then when I started wanting to, I didn’t. I didn’t want to stick out again, I didn’t want to sound different again. I wanted to be like everybody else, frivolous and carefree, without worrying about the Day of Judgment or if the French were curbing the rights of Muslim women to express themselves.
I don’t seem to understand the Muslims of India. I don’t know why they live in ghettoes and why they can’t just shake their demoralisations off of themselves and say I’m a bloody citizen of this country and let me see you tell me what to do. Why are they so hostile to the mainstream Muslims who are honestly just trying to make a living? I am not a traitor, I don’t even belong to these people, this is only the first year I have lived in this country. I don’t know how to look at my own self in India the way others do when they detect my religious identity and all the things it means here. No I don’t think it is acceptable to dilly-dally on a court case regarding the demolition of a religious structure where public order is disturbed and oh, people are murdered or tyrannised. Is that a typical Muslim reaction though? I don’t understand how to position myself between the Deobandis and Barelvis and the Sufis and the dargahs and the Syeds and all the others. I don’t have special knowledge of the Mughal period, and I don’t particularly feel too connected to the Ottoman Turks. I just want air-conditioning and regular water supply and no power cuts. I don’t want to be a Sharia expert, I don’t even want to deal with the autorickshaw driver who insists on charging me an extra 10 rupees. Theek hai, bhaiyya, jo aapki marzi. I want to be pretty, I want to smell nice, and I want to live in luxury. Do any of these things make me more or less of a Muslim? I don’t know, I don’t know, I still don’t know what any of it means.