A Day in the life of a NYer hijabi

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Guest writer Heba Youssef takes us on a first-hand tour about what it’s like to be a New Yorker and a hijabi in light of current events.

I’m a New Yorker down to my very bones. “Concrete jungle where dreams are made of”— you had me at concrete, Mrs. Keys. A city that literally never sleeps; a city so nice we were named twice. But how can I describe what makes New York so wonderfullyandbeautifullyamazing? Sure we have the most mouth watering pizza known to man; neighborhoods designed so we never have to leave the city to wonder what Italy or China is really like; and cabbies that glitter the borough’s pavements like gold, every hour of every day.

I casually walk across the Brooklyn Bridge every now and then; I stand side by side my fellow MTA brethren on the long haul home during rush hour as we attempt to tune out subway entertainers who obnoxiously strum the notes of an off-key guitar directly into our ears, and surprise us with an accordion player who tips his hat out expecting to be thanked for those two minutes of pure torture.  I have proudly passed in front of the Empire State Building after emerging from the 6 train and gazed upon Lady Liberty during my free ride on the Staten Island Ferry. I’m a NYer enough not to have actually paid to see any of our city’s landmark wonders.

I guess the most epic part of New York, is the tremendous amount of diversity that in essence pumps blood through the veins and heart of our city. This diversity is satiated by religion, ethnicity, fashion sense, food, sexual orientation, language, style, and every other facet imaginable. In New York, you are free to be you, wholly and completely. We acquiesce to the ideas of freedom, individuality, and to ‘live and let live’. How could we not?

I wish I could say that I still believed we were that same city I grew up admiring; having faith that we would be THE example for the rest of the world. Dreams that we could truly live, grow, and prosper together in this sort of melting pot, in a way no other city could. My idealistic dreams however, have been ripped at the seams. Since the controversies surrounding Park51 (formerly known as the Cordoba House) began to flare, I’ve felt those dazzling lights that once defined NYC, begin to dim. I never imagined that being a hijabi in New York would be so tough, why should it be? I’m a NYer, born and bred…

After perusing Park51.org, I discovered the center was open for taraweeh prayers and iftar. My curiosity was piqued as I struggled to understand where the roots of the controversy stemmed from, and so in the last nights of Ramadan I took a trip to what the ignoramuses of our times have coined as the “Victory Mosque,” “The WTC Mosque,” “A Command Center for Terrorists,” and my personal favorite, a place to “Train and Recruit Sharia Law Advocates who become Terrorists.” I did the same thing I do every day before leaving the house—I carefully wrapped my hijab around my head and pinned it in all the right places. I was feeling rather peppy that day, and it was only natural that I wore a golden yellow/white hijab to suit my mood. I began my hour and a half long trek via subway to downtown Manhattan—in city time, that’s nothing. It was the 7 train to Times Square and then the downtown 2/3 to Park Place.

Park, Park, Park…I thought to myself. I had walked about five or six blocks until I realized I was probably going in the wrong direction. I’m a master at getting lost. But I kind of love it, because it makes every day of my life an adventure. This time around, my ill-equipped sense of direction took me right past Ground Zero. As a true New Yorker, a proud American, and a dutiful Muslim, I felt compelled to say a prayer for those lives wrongfully taken on that catastrophic day, but instead, the deviousness of my plan for prayer was hindered. I walked past crowds whose burning stares made it apparent that I was the only visible Muslim in the block’s radius. If they liked my hijab that much, they could have just asked! I got it from the Gap, but it’s the last of its season and I’m pretty sure they don’t have it in stock anymore. But alas, reality set in and I realized no one cared where I got my hijab from. In that moment I felt as though I didn’t belong to this city any more.

In the process of retracing my steps, while hoping to stumble upon Park Ave., I began to think of all the absurd media portrayals and the political demagoguery which ultimately led to that moment of intense discomfort, feeling as though I was silently excommunicated from Ground Zero for no other reason than my faith. But my thoughts trailed as I finally neared Fifty-One Park Avenue. There was nothing outwardly identifiable of where the center was—only metal gates and a rundown building that looked like it was closed. So I stopped next door at the Amish Market to buy water to break my fast with as I contemplated how and where I should enter this infamous not-actually-a-mosque, place. The man at the counter was a bit taken aback as he looked up and saw this hijabi… he was almost scared. Again, it seemed my idealistic dreams of what made our city great kept being shot down. I told him I didn’t need a plastic bag for my water… little did he know I’m trying to save the earth by going green.

I left the market only to be grilled—or rather, unkindly greeted by two police officers standing outside. I smiled and softly exhaled a “hello,” but received no response in return. I thought the pastel yellow of my hijab would say: personable and inclusive—but hey, maybe New York wasn’t ready for my splash of color and friendliness that day.

After finally managing to get inside the building, it was exactly as I imagined. A large, mostly empty carpeted space with free water and dates, ceiling fans and a small shoe rack at the entrance. Gasp! I am in the breeding ground…Repeat, I am in the breeding ground! Okay, maybe not. I looked for any signs of terrorist activity, signs of anti-American propaganda, thoroughly observing every crevice of the room. All I came across was a young girl melodically reciting verses of the Qur’an, and a clear plastic container filled with colorful hijabs for visitors who might need one—like the ‘have a penny, leave a penny, give a penny’ thingamabob you usually find at the counter of convenience stores.

I placed my vintage olive green messenger bag, with brown leather lining, neatly next to my rustic gold sandals (hence NYers and their unique fashion sense). I prayed two rak’ahs and continued the prayer I wasn’t able to finish in front of Ground Zero. It was a prayer for all the victims of 9/11. A prayer that God would protect New York and our community from the extremists who have hijacked the religion of Islam. And a prayer that people would stop watching Fox News (Okay I didn’t really mention Fox in specific, but we all get the point) and educate themselves about the beauty of a religion that attracts so many faithful and peaceful followers.

I finished my prayers, wondering when this mutual respect I prayed for would surface. When would the interfaith relationships that myself and fellow colleagues have been working to build, reap the fruits of our labor? As I exited Park51 and walked up the block, I noticed that someone had chalked over-sized neon colored words upon the sidewalk: “Workers Unite to DEFEND our Fellow Muslim NYers!”

SubhanAllah—to whoever wrote it: Thank You for being awesome, I thought. I made my way back to the subway, not before stopping for some of that fine (insert NYer accent here) ‘Noo Yawk’ pizza I was talking about. The message etched into that city block gave me hope that New York might still be the same city I remember. A city that respects variety in culture and religion; one rooted in understanding diversity enough to genuinely learn about others and never make any individual or community feel unwelcome; and a city that respects all hijabis despite one’s original style and profound love for brightly colored scarves, sandals, and vintage baggage.