In Jerusalem We Were Palestinians. In the U.S. We've Become Muslims

What's my daughter doing going to a mosque all of a sudden? What are we – Muslims? Oh right...

“What do mean, ‘to the mosque’?” I said to my daughter last Sunday morning, making an effort not to shout. “What do we have to do with a mosque?”

“It’s not a mosque, I mean it’s not only a mosque – it’s an Islamic center,” she replied.

“Great, now I feel much better.”

“But it’s all arranged with my girlfriends, and Mom said that ”

“What did Mom say? And why don’t you ask me? Don’t I deserve any respect in this house?” I found myself saying, probably echoing something I’d heard in some movie and figuring this was just the right time to make use of it.

Sayed Kashua looks askance at a girl wearing a hijab and carrying a pizza slice.
Amos Biderman

“What’s your problem?” asked my wife, who’d already okayed the mosque for my daughter.

“Mosque?” I retorted. “Since when are we involved with that?”

“It’s not a mosque,” she said, “I mean it’s also that, but not only, it’s also ”

“Don’t even say it,” I said, shutting my ears, because “Islamic center” sounded even scarier to me than “mosque.”

“Just a week ago, people spray-painted graffiti in a mosque, and burned one, too. So – no,” I asserted. “She’s not going anywhere.”

“Is it because of the religion or your fears?”

“What difference does that make now?” I tried to avoid getting into a therapeutic conversation, because I always lose. “It’s both things, you know? Both things.”

“So because of your fears you want to prevent her ”

“Prevent what? What? And don’t blame me for my fears, like I’m hallucinating about this situation. Hey, wasn’t there shooting? Tell me, wasn’t there shooting?”

“Just because of your fears, you can’t ”

“Of course I can!” I interjected. “Fears are a wonderful thing, I wish everyone was fearful and would lock themselves in their house irrespective of race, creed and gender.”

Five minutes after that exchange, my daughter got into a car with friends and went to the mosque-Islamic center. On the one hand, I really want to believe it’s different here. That it’s all a matter of searching for identity and a feeling of belonging. That religion is very different here from what I was familiar with in Israel, and that in this country, a land of migrants, it has a different, almost liberal meaning.

The fact is that the mosque here is open to everyone, not only Muslims. It’s a cultural center that brings together Sunnis, Shi’ites, Arabs, Indians, Africans and also nice kids from the Midwest, all in the name of religious and social pluralism. On the other hand, it’s a religion: The girls are separated from the boys and have to have their head covered, whether as a requirement, as a means of showing respect for the venue – or to enable one to have an “extreme” experience.

In Jerusalem we were Palestinians, and here we’ve become – the children, at least – Muslims. My older son’s teachers told me that during the lunch break at school, he goes to pray with his friends in the room set aside for that purpose. The teachers, who related this proudly, were stunned when we asked whom he prays with, to which God and according to which religion.

“I apologize,” the polite homeroom teacher said, blanching. “We were certain that you’re Muslims.”

“We are,” I reassured him, “but I wasn’t sure my son knows it.”

My son never raised the subject at home. When I asked him about the praying he said that it didn’t mean anything. That I wouldn’t understand, and that, “Everything is fine, Dad.”

And this week, of all times, my daughter decided to go to the mosque. Somehow, I should have taken pride in her decision, attributed political significance to it, seen her actions as an act of protest. Just so long as she doesn’t get confused and start to believe, to close herself off, to change her way of life in order to fulfill the precepts of sharia. But there’s no chance of that happening. I know my daughter, or at least so I thought, even if I don’t always understand her behavior. For example, last week, when I picked her up one day after school, I was surprised at the number of girls with head coverings who were coming out of the building.

“What’s that all about?” I asked my daughter as she got into the car.

“Hijab Day,” she said. “Forget it, you wouldn’t understand.”

“I want to understand,” I insisted, and she told me reluctantly that, supposedly in order to show solidarity with Muslims, they’d declared Hijab Day, and the female students and teachers wore head coverings, listened to a talk and ate pizza.

“Very nice,” I said, and added accusingly, “but you aren’t wearing a head covering.”

“Yes,” she replied in her usual way, but I demanded an explanation again and got shouted at for not understanding anything, and told that people who reduce Islam to the hijab are idiots, that she doesn’t buy that whole fake idea, that she won’t wear a hijab even on their lousy Hijab Day and that she doesn’t need pity from anyone, got it? You wouldn’t understand. She went back to her earbuds and Drake at full volume – so loud that I could hear his curses – and then cursed a few real Muslim girls in head coverings who shared a pizza during the break.

She’s right, my daughter: I don’t understand and probably never will. I tried to imagine a situation in which, say, Israelis would have staged a day of solidarity with the Palestinians in the Jerusalem high school I attended, and all the guys would have showed up in keffiyehs. But I couldn’t picture anything like that – the only thing that came to mind was Purim, which I always hated.

“Well,” I pounced on my daughter the instant she came back from the mosque-cum-Islamic center. “How was it?”

“Cool,” she said. “Tell me, can I go out this evening with friends to watch the Super Bowl”?

“No, you can’t. You’ve already gone out today.”

“But it’s the Super Bowl and I’ve already made arrangements with friends, and Mom said that ”

“What did Mom say? And why don’t you ask me? Hey, don’t I deserve any respect in this house?”