The Invisible Muslim

In late February 2020 – just in time to provide reading material for people entering coronavirus quarantine – my newest book, The Invisible Muslim, hit the bookstands. This travelogue-memoir deals principally with the complicated dance that takes place between religious and ethnic identities, particularly for white Muslims.

The idea for the book was first put to me by Samia Rahman, deputy editor of Critical Muslim, a quarterly journal to which I occasionally contribute. Samia suggested I pitch a book about my experiences as a white Muslim to CM’s publisher, Hurst, as they have a particularly international focus and are especially interested in stories from the periphery of the Islamic world.

My initial reaction was to cringe. How would a book like that be: ‘Me & My Whiteness: A Memoir by Cultural Appropriation Barbie’? Or ‘The Tragic Tale of the Little White Muslim Girl Who Didn’t Belong?’ The very idea of adding and centring yet another white person’s narrative to the vast amounts that already exist repelled me…but the idea didn’t go away.

Over a period of about five years, I found I’d think of the project nearly daily. I was realising I had a lot to say on the subject, as it’s one that has brought up many awkward questions throughout my life. How did whiteness shape my experience of being a Muslim? Did other Muslims give me special treatment, or invalidate my Islam as I was too European – or were those both possible reactions, albeit extremes of a very broad range? How to shape an Anglo-American Muslim identity when there were very few who had gone before me? And how did Islam work as a bridge between me and Muslims of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds?

All these might seem like personally specific trivialities, and in many ways they are. But seen in the context of global history, and the struggle against Islamophobia for those of us who live as minorities in majority secular or Christian states, they touch on much broader and more pressing concerns: can Islam overcome the stigma of Otherness and be accepted on these relatively new terrains?

It’s often been stated that Islam is like water: as it enters cultural containers it takes on their shapes and colours. This is why we have different manifestations of Islamic culture from Malaysia to Bangladesh, Iran to Bosnia, Somalia to Morocco, France to the US, and beyond. And yet there’s something that connects us.

We’re living in times of unprecedented globalisation, and diaspora cultures are almost ubiquitous; as children grow up in third cultures, a kind of religious Creole develops: a language that fuses two tongues and enables us to translate ideas across barriers that might formerly have seemed solid.

In the end, I realised that it was only my white fragility – my defensiveness at accusations of racism and resistance to relinquishing privilege – that was preventing me from talking frankly and critically about how whiteness impacts upon my own Muslim identity and experience. So I bit the bullet, partly as a kind of personal catharsis to put some of these questions to rest, and partly because I thought it might help others to talk about these uncomfortable questions themselves.

But I also believe that a piece of writing needs to be an artefact, something that weaves together history and poetry, texture and feeling and thought provocation, so that it becomes a kind of holograph of the writer’s being that you can stand up and walk around in. Thus The Invisible Muslim was born, a multifaceted meditation on longing and belonging, authenticity and spirituality, story and history, and the Veils that can block out the Other, or provide protection and a welcome invisibility.

You can get your copy at Hurst’s website or Blackwell’s (which seem to have free shipping abroad). Tag me (@medinatenour) if you bookstagram about it (I am, after all, an Instagran.)

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Reviews:

‘An important contribution to the conversation about diversity that deserves to be widely read. A rare perspective—peaceful, balanced, lucid and attractive. It might well be a glimpse into the future of a British Islam, confident in its identity, at ease with its setting.’ — Leila Aboulela, author of Bird SummonsMinaret and The Translator

‘A bold and beautifully written memoir of searing honesty and warmth. Whiteman gracefully grapples with the complex layers of identity, whiteness and culture as she maps out the landscape of her life, all the while drawing in history and belief in her uniquely eloquent style.’ — Remona Aly, journalist and broadcaster

‘Medina Tenour Whiteman has approached a unique, complicated branch of Muslim identity with sensitivity and nuance. This book shows that faith is more than adherence to ritual—it is also a means to find oneself.’ — Hussein Kesvani, author of Follow Me, Akhi

More Than A Strike: Women’s Day and the Sweet Spot

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International Women’s Day brings with it a pot pourri of feelings for me. Some pleasant, rose-like, delicate, joyful, and uplifting (I went last night to a local production of The Vagina Monologues and was reminded once more of how wondrous it is to be female), while others are malodourous or sickly, bits of old sock and rancid cabbage that have fallen in with the fragrant twigs. There are so many challenges women face, from physical aggression and violence all the way through unequal pay and sexual harrassment in the workplace to the subtle disdain expressed in daily interactions with people who think less of us because of our gender.

About halfway through the morning I remembered the housework strike. Yay! I thought – time to put my feet up. Things didn’t pan out as I thought, however. My husband was still working on the house (we’ve been living in a building site for the last six months, and for four months before that he was working harder than he’s ever worked, learning on the job, to turn the ruin we bought into a home) and I had been out a lot over the past few days, so there was a build-up of chores that had come to a head.

So we struck a deal. Yesterday I had a fair bit of housework and even gardening to do, and today I’ve struck. Is it weird to hang my apron out of the window now? People might think I’m just being absent-minded.

To be honest, I have to give thanks that my husband cooks a lot, does a huge amount of childcare, washes up frequently, and when he attacks the kitchen or bathroom he stays up late listening to talks online while he cleans and leaves it like new. On top of that, he supports me working (even though with the kids my hours are limited) and his money is, as he says, my money. So striking isn’t exactly an urgent need for us, even though I like the idea of standing in solidarity for so many women who don’t enjoy those conditions.

On the other hand, a housework strike has the interesting effect of highlighting my own near-robotic cleaning and tidying behaviour (although you wouldn’t know it to see my house). Having to stop myself from “just sorting this out”, every ten minutes or more often, is hard. Am I habituated to the idea that women are designed to clean? Certainly we’ve programmed ourselves to – and for me that was a long, hard process, mostly because I had so much resistance. So many brilliant things I could be doing instead of menial work! Plus I have a very sore nerve that gets easily prodded when I see men leaning on or expecting women to clear up their mess, even women with whom they have no reciprocal support arrangement.

But the bottom line is that housework needs to be done, and if you don’t do it yourself, you end up paying a woman to do it for you. This does keep a good number of women in employment, even though it’s poorly paid and precarious work. Yet if you educate those women to have ‘better’ jobs, you create a vacuum (how appropriate) at the bottom of the work pyramid.

What ends up happening is that immigrants and people from disadvantaged backgrounds fill that gap, creating a kind of tiered system of care and support that further divides women, but this time on an ethnic or class basis. Can an economy handle everyone being highly educated? The reality for so many university graduates in the US and UK who can’t find anything but internships seems to testify that it can’t.

On a personal level, the ego loves to rail against being obliged to do ‘low’ work, especially if it’s for no pay. This is why Women’s Day is complicated for me: I have to strike (pardon the pun) a balance between empathy for female troubles and awareness of my own ego’s eagerness to demand more for itself. What it really comes down to is that a strike of housework isn’t enough – we need to go on strike from our egos, too.

Yes, the world changes when people complain, especially en masse and loudly (there’s a Spanish saying: ‘El que llora mama’ – ‘He who cries gets to breastfeed’). But on a day-to-day basis, surely it’s healthier to find a way to deal with the rage and resentment that being a woman can generate without letting it eat you up inside or destroy your relationships with resentment and blame. For all the advantages that feminism has brought with it (which I enjoy enough to be able to write this, so I ain’t complaining), there needs to be a parallel campaign to find the sweet spot between working for change on the outside AND on the inside.

That’s what I find so admirable about women, and men, when they are under pressure, in asymmetrical, unfair situations, and instead of falling into hatred and self-pity, allowing that anger to fester, feeding off the illusion of “It’s all his/her fault”, they rise above it, forgive even if they don’t forget, stay calm in the face of hurtful words, keep ploughing forward no matter what is thrown at them, and prove they are the better people. The world is not fair, life is not fair. But there are ways to deal with inequality that, while taking intelligent steps towards addressing that inequality wherever possible, do so with grace and wisdom. The inner peace it takes to achieve this spreads all around, like light from a window on a dark night spilling out and showing there is indeed a garden out there.

 

Chromatography

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The lowest arms of the almond tree
hang scrawny, leafless, dark:
a reminder of winter.

I take off my paper sun hat
sweating (why did I wear black?)
sun bleached by a thin cloud veil
pushing the sleeping baby uphill,
4.30pm, July.

He’s poured water over a scarf that
I’ve arranged to shade him
and my red wool bag strap
bleeds pink into the blue.

His muscular eyebrows furrow
beneath dirty blond curls, the boy who was
dreamt of being welcomed by the arms of his
long-departed grandmother
in a Persian aunt’s sleeping head.

“Let us see your hair,” they had urged me;
“Is it real, the colour? Can we touch it?”

I grinned painfully, was their doll for a while,
let them thread my puny brows,
ruthlessly devoid forehead and top lip
of hairs only Iranian women can see.

We European women have been liberated of
facial hair!
I cried inwardly, eyes watering
with each every rip.

(She did do an excellent job.
My eyebrows, in dye, came alive.)

In the women’ section of the bus in Tehran
girls in school uniform laughed
still too pubescent to be allowed
the monthly ritual of a trip to the salon
their black brows luscious and combed
combined with blood red lips.

We got off a speeding fine
en route to Isfahan
because of the “khariji” guests
in the car: the free pass
that Europe grants
and who would rather pay?

“Pesar-e-khariji-e-man!”
“He’s so cute and blond,
he looks just like you!”

My husband says I’m his amulet,
lucky charm in official places,
a signal that he’s a
Middle Eastern Man Done Good.

But there is a ruefulness to his good fortune:
they glare at him like a shopkeeper at a thief.
He asks me not to wear a headscarf
lest they think he’s forced me.

Greedily, I seek out our son’s Asian features
glowing to think he’s struck out from
pork scratching pink
the pasty British skin on
a nose they’ve chosen to
sever from the face of the continent
forgetting the Viking, Saxon, Norman,
Roman and yet more exotic genes.

“¡Qué blanquito!”
How they praise him
for his pallour
to his caramel father’s ears.

A talisman. Not powerful enough to
stop the waiter snubbing his order
sneering at his polite reminder
or when, at the police commissary,
trying to fix my residency
after six years as an illegal American
always treated as though I belong
the Spanish official barked at him
for his papers – in order since a decade ago –
checked them on the system, tossed
the card back without meeting his eye.

(If they only knew
what a nightmare I am to live with
they would see he is my talisman, his patience
my salvation.)

We need to raise colour blind kids!
I rant silently on insomniac nights.
Those of us at the top of this
pyramid of privilege
didn’t rise here because of the
buoyancy of our merit:
our forebears clawed their way up
trampling millions of black and brown backs
and no-one else can rise until we step down because
we are taking up space!

Wash your feet honey:
they’re black with dirt.

Malaga is easy to fly through, I say.
Not for me, says she – they always make me
show under my skirt, my hijab.
Oh! Really? That’s outrageous!
But, you know, she says, drawing a circle
with one finger around her face,
wry Somali smile.

I don’t wear hijab through airports.
Am I being practical, or cowardly?
Would I beat out every last bandit
every ugly, self-congratulating thought
expose their emptiness as
phantom confidences
if I put myself in the same
rocking, overcrowded boat
with the flimsy life jackets
and the leaking hold?

We reach my parents’ house
forbidding black gates,
cornflower blue door.

Beside is a bougainvillea
bursting alternately with
deep fuchsia and
palest green lanterns.

Inside the summerhouse
the dark wood stain has bled through knots
forming irrevocable pools on the blond wood.

“Make me a new sandwich!”
“I took out the avocado…”
“But there’s still a stain
on the bread!”

My daughter is fuming, tearful;
a veil of reddish clay lies over her face
wiped unthinkingly at craft time earlier
and two tears have dried
leaving pale tracks with brown outlines.

Clean your face, honey,
your tears have run brown.

Every story is edited at bedtime,
the blackness accidental, not evil
the lily white princess made ruddy and tanned
her long golden hair darkened
water babies not just cherubic because they’ve been
washed of all that terrible oafish soot but
pure of heart and soul.

At the Jumu’ah meal she asks,
Are angels white?
With exquisite Senegalese women on all sides
I answer, no, they’re made of pure light:
light is all of the colors put together.

But science won’t stop her from thinking it.

Our heads need cleaning! I declaim silently
All these messages upon messages
that make us look down on others!

Black is beautiful. Brown is gorgeous.
Look at her style.

Sweetie, I can’t explain I why,
walls just look better white.

The kids splash my notebook
and the turqouise ink splits
inexplicably to vivid pink

I write my second draft
in indelible black.