A Weird Place to Be

The Muslim Community Center depicted in Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story

The Muslim Community Center depicted in Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story

Four years ago I wrote a book about an 11-year-old girl named Amina. The story centers around Amina dealing with the start of middle school, friendship drama, family conflict—familiar challenges for any kid. But Amina is also a Pakistani American Muslim, and the book is a window into her faith, culture, and community.

Amina’s Voice is finally due to come out in less than two weeks. I’m proud that it’s the first release on Salaam Reads new list of Muslim-centered books. It was a long road to publication that I won’t bore you with here. But at a time when Muslims are more misunderstood than ever, it feels extremely timely and relevant. The response to it ahead of publication has been wonderful.

At the same time, it feels unreal that the fictional events I wrote about in Amina’s Voice are becoming a reality in more and more communities across America. In the book (spoiler alert!), Amina’s community faces tragic mosque vandalism. The community center she knows and loves is trashed and filled with hateful graffiti, and their beautiful mosque is burned.

While I was writing the book, Islamophobia was already firmly rooted in America. Headlines shared tragic events, including mosque attacks, Quran burnings, and a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, which I chose as the setting for my novel. But these events, thankfully, were far and few between, and my hope was that they would become less and less common as our community matured, and as Islamophobes were exposed as the self-serving hate-mongers they are.

I drew from my personal experience when I imagined the community in Amina’s Voice. To anyone who knows the Muslim Community Center (also known as MCC: The Place To Be) in Silver Spring, Maryland, the physical descriptions in the book will be familiar. Years ago I was happy to discover that MCC was illustrated in my first picture book, Night of the Moon, after I had given the artist examples of mosques in America. When I wrote Amina's emotional reaction to the heartbreaking destruction of her community center, I pictured myself walking through MCC's lobby, the community hall, past the library and the kitchen.

I never in my worst nightmares imagined ever being in her shoes and actually having to grapple with those emotions in real life. But today, in an alarming rash of threats across the country targeting mosques and Jewish centers and schools, MCC was threatened. My heart stopped when I read the news, even though I know it could be much, much worse, and pray it never is. Other mosque communities around America have already been vandalized, burned down, marred with hate speech at an alarming pace over the past year. Perhaps most distressing of all was the unthinkable desecration of Jewish cemeteries that took place over the last week, motivating our communities to unite in solidarity in the effort to rebuild.

How in the world is this happening in 2017? How do we wrap our heads around this outpouring of hatred? And even harder, how do we explain any of it to our kids? It helps to point to the heartwarming reactions of people standing up and choosing love. But it’s been an extremely difficult year for all minorities in America. And it’s a weird feeling to celebrate a book birthday in this climate, when such awful events are unfolding around me.

Despite all this, I’m still hopeful that a book like mine will help to start important conversations when we need them more than ever. I hope reading about Amina, and seeing her as a friend, will help foster compassion and tolerance among children of all backgrounds and faiths. And I hope that stories like hers, will help create a generation of kids that will vaguely remember the events of today in the future and wonder how it was ever possible. Please consider reading Amina's Voice and sharing it with the children in your life. Thank you. 

Giving me shelter

As another Fourth of July holiday and Ramadan wind down, I’m thinking of an unusual invitation I received this month. It was from an old friend, a neighbor, who I grew up with, alongside her children. I’ve spent countless hours in her family home, making dandelion necklaces in her backyard, hula-hooping on her driveway, and it was a treat to see her number on my screen.

“If you ever need it, God forbid, we will shelter you,” she said to me over the phone.

I’m pretty sure I mumbled incoherently as she went on to explain that as a Jewish child in Europe, she often wondered who she would turn to for help if the need ever arose.

“I thought I would go to my father’s secretary,” she shared.

I accepted her offer with thanks, almost as if it was to attend a dinner party, aware that my response felt completely inadequate but unable to say more in that moment. Her husband had independently emailed me only a week earlier with a similar message. He had congratulated me on the success of It’s Ramadan, Curious George, and all the media attention it garnered, and added that, “Heaven forbid that it ever comes to pass, but if it does, please shelter here with your family. We will do all in our power to protect you, a really wonderful family we are so fortunate to know.”

We went on to exchange a few jokes like usual, lament about the current state of the world and the fact that we had come to where we are today, and made promises to get together soon. And then I hung up the phone, filled with emotion, and wept tears of gratitude over the gesture and its significance.

In the wake of the Trump-fueled madness and backlash against American Muslims, interactions like these, along with the faith that things will improve, are what keep me sane. I’ve been asked recently about how I explain Islamophobia to my children, how I “feel” about violent extremism, and how I find the space to write books on Muslim themes in this climate. I haven’t had really good answers for any of those questions. And meanwhile, the news keeps highlighting incomprehensible events more horrific than the last.

What I haven’t been asked is what gives me hope during this time, apart from the wonderful and heartwarming response to the book. And I haven’t been able to say that it’s those who have supported me with thoughtful demonstrations of friendship: a simple email from a fellow author saying “I’m thinking of you.” A note from a friend who made the point to donate a set of my books about Muslims to all of her children’s school libraries. A total stranger, identifying as a Buddhist lesbian, who emailed me to say she wanted me “to know there are others supporting you and your community with love and well wishes.” And the ultimate offer of protection, coming from a place of unconditional love.

Many of the individuals who reached out are other minorities, who know what it is like to face discrimination, oppression, and even holocaust. They feel the fear of watching our country go down this terrible path in a deeply personal way. It’s a terrible club to be a part of. But everyone who has contacted me, minorities or not, are disappointed as Americans who believe in the founding principles of this nation by the current state of affairs, and are watching them be trampled with dread. I thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart. Because of you, I remain hopeful that the collective memory of past mistakes will serve us all, that common sense and fairness will prevail, and that my family never actually has to seek shelter, as much as I appreciate the invite.