In an Instant
A life consists of countless moments. A character is forged by few defining moments.
I awakened to the familiar timbre of my mother’s smoothing voice.
“Yasmine! Time to wake up. You’re gonna be late!” my mother called from the bottom of the staircase.
I had heard these words a thousand times. After rolling groggily out of bed, I threw on some clothes and made my way downstairs to the kitchen. I stood by the breakfast table, a transparent glass and metal structure as familiar to me as my own skin. I waited, watching Mama as she tipped the box of Frosted Flakes over my bowl. The crinkle of the plastic lining as the flakes fell quickly and “clankity clanked” into my bowl created a music that had been replayed every morning since I could remember. These were the familiar, comforting sounds of my mornings.
As I slurped my cereal, Mama and I planned our day. Pointing at the sticky note adhered to the refrigerator, my mother reminded me of my soccer practice after school.
“What would you like me to cook for dinner tonight?” she asked.
This was a privilege, I felt certain few other kids had. To play a part in the planning of dinner, our most important family meal, made me feel important.
“Your famous spaghetti!” I quickly responded.
Laughing, Mama agreed and encouraged me to finish getting ready for school.
Ready to go, I watched as my mother tied her beautiful, dark tresses into a ponytail that would lie hidden beneath a colorful cloth we call a hijab. It had been 2 years since Mama had decided to wear the hijab in public. When other kids would ask me why she wore a scarf on her head, I never knew how to answer.
In the car, I asked Mama the reason why women in our religion, Islam, wear the hijab. She seemed happy that I had asked that question and said, “Well, Yasmine, it is an act of modesty.” I wanted to understand, but I didn’t know what she meant by an “act of modesty.”
Judging from the look on my face, she understood my confusion. Mama explained the meaning of modesty, and then she questioned me.
“When boys talk to you, do you think they’re talking to you because they like you as a person, or because of how beautiful you are?”
Before I could answer, she affectionately stroked my hair.
I had never really thought about it before. While I thought I understood what she was saying, I still found myself confused. Did boys really only talk to me because they thought I was pretty?
“Remember, always let people see the beauty in your personality, instead of your looks.”
Arriving at school, Mama leaned over and kissed my cheek. “Have a great day!” she said. I smiled, hoisted my heavy book bag over my shoulders and made my way to the leaded glass doors, behind which I had spent so many hours.
My first class was English. I dreaded English class that day because the teacher’s plan was to teach pronouns. Nonetheless, I tried to understand. She explained that “Pronouns take the place of nouns. There are several different types of . . .”
A knock at the door interrupted the teacher’s lesson. She uttered a sarcastic sigh and then dryly said, “Perhaps we can finish this lesson by the end of the week!”
I recall giggling to myself, not only because I was amused by her response but also because I wouldn’t have to listen to 45 minutes of boring pronouns, a subject that seemed as painful to me as sitting on nails.
At the door stood the dean of my school. Normally, a smile spread across her face when she addressed anyone. This time, however, her face seemed ashen, with no trace of a smile.
“Good morning, girls,” she said. “May I see you in the hallway for just a moment?” she said to my teacher.
They both walked into the hallway, shutting the door quietly behind them.
On another occasion, a teacher’s absence from the room would be a free ticket to socialize. This time, the room fell silent. The other children must have also sensed the same solemn mood in the dean’s face.
When the teacher walked into the room, she looked as if she had seen a ghost. She feigned a smile and walked to the front of the class. “Uh . . . ladies, in just a few minutes we will move to the other room. It is important that you all be on your best behavior.”
Something is terribly wrong, I thought. Butterflies fluttered in the pit of my stomach. Those few moments passed like the minutes on a clock whose battery is losing power.
Shortly after, we filed out of the classroom and walked silently to the other room. There we were told to sit down, that what we were about to hear was more important than anything we had been told before. As I looked around the room at my teachers’ anxious faces, the butterflies returned with even more intensity.
In moments like these, the senses are heightened. I never before had been so aware of the brilliant greens and dull oranges that decorated this room. From the carpet on which I sat, I could smell the years of dust and dirt that had accumulated in and penetrated the fibers.
It was in this room that we learned of the tragedy. Our dean, asked us, “How many of you have heard of the Twin Towers in New York City?” I looked around and saw about half of the girls’ hands raised. While I honestly didn’t know what the Twin Towers were, I knew that these buildings held a great importance for our country. She continued, “Well then, today these buildings were hit by planes.” She went on to say, “Many people died in this accident.”
Immediately, there were tears in many of my peers’ eyes.
The room was quiet.
She then said, “If you need to call your parents or need someone to talk to, please let us know.”
I looked around the room at a sea of tears. I remember thinking at that moment how easily girls tend to cry. Yes, it was a horrible event, but how many of these girls were crying simply because their friends were?
It would take several days before I realized the magnitude of this tragedy. In the moments following the announcements, I felt alone and confused—yes, people had died, but I had often watched the news, which was filled with disasters. What had made this one so different?
“Girls!” the dean called. My thoughts were interrupted. “Your parents have been instructed to pick you up as soon as possible. We feel it is best for everyone to be with their loved ones at such a time.”
Waiting at the front of the school in the unusually frigid air, I seemed more aware of my surroundings than I had ever been before. Colors, sounds, and textures all seemed to jump out at me. I had seen the copper roof of our building hundreds of times, but the milky patina never looked so pretty. The tires of the cars that passed the curb on which I stood swished and came to a halt several feet from me. Girls climbed into expensive, shiny vehicles.
I was the last one waiting. Curiosity helped to occupy my time. A window nearby caught my attention. Through its dirtied glass, I noticed a TV. On it were two enormous buildings, both of which were the same height and design. Images of planes crashing and exploding into the buildings, emitting massive balls of fire, smoke, and debris, played over and over again. In front of the TV stood our dean, tears rolling down her cheeks. I turned away quickly, not wanting to see the images replayed; a sadness overcame me. I wondered to myself, How many parents, brothers, sisters, aunts or uncles were in those buildings? Did they suffer? Were they killed instantly? How many died? The utterly horrific nature of these events began to register in my mind.
My mother, the last mother to arrive, never looked so beautiful to me. The door made its familiar “squeak” as I opened it, although it resonated with more power than it ever had before. It seemed that every movement took on a new meaning. Before I could fasten my seatbelt, my mother pulled me close to her. She hugged me, as she usually did. This time, however, her embrace lingered. In that hug, my mother seemed to be telling me the depth of her love.
No words were spoken during that 10 minute drive, yet the silence took on a life of its own. In those moments, I believed we both realized the fragile nature of life—in an instant worlds can collide, changing lives forever.
Over the next few days, I learned more and more about this attack on our country, that a radical Muslim group was thought to have been behind these tragic attacks. Watching the news one evening, my mother and I discussed our new-found fears. Several news reports spoke of innocent Muslims being harassed, simply because they wore hijabs or looked a certain way. I worried for my mother who decided not to leave the house out of fear of such harassment. I worried for my father who might also fall prey to the stereotypes assigned to men of the Muslim faith. I worried for my brother who might be hurt by children’s words.
It was in these days following the tragedy that I no longer felt the same as everyone else. I had become the “Muslim girl.” An outsider.
Thrust into a world of prejudice, I finally understood what the words racism, discrimination, and hatred truly meant. Throughout the days and months that followed, I was looked upon with suspicion, simply because of my Middle-eastern descent. Many children approached me with ignorant questions, or even ridiculed my family and me. One of my classmates looked at me with seriousness and asked, “So you knew all about this?” I was in shock. How could I have known about the whole attack before it happened? After all, my Islamic religion had never taught me to hate or to kill any person. A girl in my class went so far as to say, “I heard that the people who did it were from someone’s dad’s home country.” She stared into my eyes, and I soon felt many other eyes on me as well. I replied with the only answer I could think of: “My father is from Egypt.” To this she replied, “Same difference!”
I thought back to Saturday school (the Muslim version of Sunday school) and remembered the teachers quoting a verse from the Quran: “He who kills one person is like killing a whole mankind” (5:32). I simply couldn’t understand how people could equate Islam with terrorism. Throughout history, people have interpreted religious books such as the Bible, the Torah, the Geeta, and the Quran in manners to suit their own selfish needs. None of these books teach believers to kill the “infidels.” Over and over I thought to myself that there are good and bad people in all religions. I realized that it is the individual who chooses evil over good.
Nine years have passed since the terrorist attacks. The attitudes toward me have changed. I am no longer the “Muslim girl.” Time has a way of diminishing prejudice. While I am aware that stereotypes still exist, I fortunately live in a community where youth are taught to embrace diversity. Although I see myself as a typical American teenager, my unusual experiences have changed me as a human being. In my life, it is more important than ever to respect everyone’s differences, be they religious, ethnic, or cultural. After all, we are all one race—the human race.
Yasmine is currently a Junior at the University of Michigan completing a B.A. in Psychology, specializing in Brain, Behavior, and Cognitive Sciences. Contact her by email.