Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

An End of Ramadan Feast

Location: Arlington, Virginia, across from DC

Mileage: 3,980

Meal: Samosa, kebab, and curried corn

Music: “Stand Up for What you Believe in” by the Mumford Sons

I had successfully kept any skeletons at bay now for over a week, likely due to the shining light of the religious and good-hearted homes I had been visiting.  Past demons have a way of surfacing when you are alone in the dark, with nothing but your own vulnerability to distract you.   I wasn’t quite ready to go back into my past, and collect whatever shards of ugly memories existed.  Therefore, I was grateful to have another well lit home awaiting me in Washington, DC; a friendly house of a different past—my elementary school friend Aaraya.

Aaraya’s family was not just the only Pakistani family in the small rural town I grew up in, but it was also the only non-Caucasian family I remembered.  However, I didn’t notice.  Despite the fact that Aaraya wore long pants when she played on my soccer team, and did prayers facing east on the nights she stayed over at my house, Aaraya was just like me.    I hadn’t seen her since I was 16 years old when my family suddenly packed up and left the east coast. I was eagerly awaiting the reunion.

I heard a strong voice calling across to me in lobby of her Pentagon facing apartment complex. “Heidi?”  The young spirited girl had transformed into a beautiful woman with dark alluring eyes and wavy thick hair that was hidden underneath a delicate headscarf.  We embraced as if no time had passed, and all the trials of life had never happened.  I was once again innocent.

Aaraya introduced me to her family, a husband who is an accountant and surfer, and two small energetic boys, one who led me by the hand to show me his room and fish tank.

“So what you like to eat for dinner…perhaps sushi?” Aaraya asked me.

“Sushi?!” I replied.  “It’s the end of Ramadan—where is my Pakistani Ramadan feast?” I joked.

And with a swirl of her head Aaraya replied, “Oh you want Pakastani food? That can be done—we have leftovers!”  And before I knew it, lamb kebabs, curried corn soup, and samosas were all being heated up on the stove.

The last I had heard of Aaraya before our chance reconnection on Facebook, she was being severely punished by her parents for sneaking out to go to junior prom, a dance her parents strictly forbade her to attend. Her head furrowed as she recalled the event I was referring to. “Oh that….yes.  Now that I am older and have children I can better understand my parent’s position…but at the time I was rebellious.  I basically lied to them and pretended to be at my friend’s house.”  Needless to say, Araya’s parents were not happy.

Aaraya’s parents moved to the US for her father’s medical career and tried to bring up their three daughters with a strong Pakistani heritage while exposing them to the opportunities American culture provided.  Junior Prom wasn’t on the opportunity list.  “You have to understand, “Araya said. ‘They didn’t have those types of dances in Pakistan.“ Plus if I remember correctly, all the vices of high school come out in the post-prom activities.  It was the opposite of a religious event.  If I have a daughter I may not let her go either.

“I was always rebelling, trying to understand how to fit it,” said Araya.  However she never could completely deny the strength of the culture and faith she was brought up with.  In college Aaraya’s faith fluctuated, but she finally found her spiritual path and devoted herself to an Islamic inspired life while pursuing medical school.

I asked her when she started wearing the headscarf.  “Oh that was a few years ago when I was living in New York.”  Before Aaraya was covered she was treated as any beautiful American woman.  However with the scarf she said that things changed. ‘They acted as if I was fresh off the boat! People would complement me on how good my English was! I wanted to yell at them that I was born here!”

As a sports medicine doctor, Aaraya also encounters some prejudice at work.  “I work in small towns…they think anyone in a scarf must be a terrorist.” She sighs.  Imagining peaceful Araya or her accountant husband as a terrorist was comical.

Aaraya decided to wear the scarf as a sign of respect to Islam and also to stay professional with any male interactions.  “Things get sexual between men and women…it starts as a glance, then a flirty joke, then….” Aaraya had a point.  It is often hard not to feel objectified with the intermittent catcalls and roving eyes in our lives. In fact, there was a time in my past consulting career I even debated suing for sexual harassment.  Had I been covered up I wonder if that would have ever happened.  “I remember how some men would at me in medical school….” Aaraya shuddered.  Men, however lovely they are, are still men.  Aaraya felt that the scarf was a way to stay equal to them.  She then laughs. “Although sometimes my son is confused. He looks at me covered and then points to a girl by the pool in a bikini ‘Mommy, why is she naked?” he would ask.”

We talked into the wee hours of the night, her calm wisdom and devotion to life inspiring.  As a doctor, mother, and wife, she gives every hour of her day to others around her.  It angered me that September 11th led to such a backlash on the Muslim community, inciting people with a fear of the differently cloaked, and giving them some twisted reason to lump millions of people together in one box.  I had listened to Obama’s remembrance speech, right before I entered Aaraya’s home.  He called for a holistic view and to not “sacrifice the liberties we cherish or hunker down behind walls of suspicion and mistrust.”  I only hope that his message can get through to many Americans that have not had the amazing experience to be hosted by a family of strong Islamic faith.  Every religion has beauty and every religion desires nothing more than peace.  Sometimes I only wish I had more of it ….to act as a signpost down my obscure path, journaling the hearts of others, transforming myself.

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