The Jadeed Voices Initiative is a special project by the Muslim Writers Collective which offers a platform to reflect on our faith and the diversity among us by highlighting the exigency of promoting nuanced, multifaceted perspectives. We will be sharing one narrative a day from July 8-19. For more information about this initiative, please visit our author page, and follow the Muslim Writers Collective on Facebook and Twitter.
As soon as I stepped into the security line at Orlando airport, ready to catch my flight back home to California, I noticed three pairs of eyes staring right at me, and I suddenly became very conscious of myself: a brown Muslim man, with a bulging backpack, and a beard that hadn't been trimmed in weeks. I wished in that moment that I had trimmed my beard, checked my backpack in at the ticket counter instead of carrying it, or that I could somehow appear less Muslim because I knew exactly what was going on. My body was being scrutinized and misinterpreted like a secret code being read by one who had the wrong legend.
A code is defined as a system of words, letters, figures, or other symbols substituted for other words, letters, etc., especially for the purposes of secrecy. I am no stranger to codes myself and remember using a code wheel to decipher hidden meanings in Disney's "Atlantis" as a child. I learned quickly how to decipher people's moods and learned the valuable code of conversational subtext. I learned which faces of my father was code for 'stop goofing around' and which facial expressions allowed me to proceed. I understood how my body could signal others to pass the basketball when I was on the court, and how my parents could tell by looking at me that I was tired after a long day of play. My body language carried unsaid words, and I began to learn how my body itself was a code.
My body is code. My skin is code. My name, my beard, the language with which I speak is code. Although sometimes I control what I convey with the carriers of my identity, I cannot set the tone for how I am seen. This does not negate me from being expected to act a certain way. I have become painfully aware of how my name ABBAS MOHAMED is code for "random extra security checks" every time I try to go through the security line at the airport, as if they can convince me that it was not based on anti-Muslim prejudice by throwing in the word "random." I have learned that my brown skin and bearded face is code for "extra security measures" and is a completely justifiable reason for me to stand shoeless in the airport and watch every item get taken out of my backpack, examined individually, and left on the side for me to put back.
The assumption of Muslims is that they are a violent threat until proven otherwise. My faith puts me in a position where, even if I do not condemn every violent act done in the name of Islam, I run the risk of being seen as complicit; that I have to distance myself from the acts of mass murderers because it is at no fault of the accuser to conclude my involvement from the way I appear to them. I have learned how my identity is perceived in the United States, and the reaction it causes scares me. The most terrifying part of it, though, is realizing that I can't remember a time when my identity was not read as a threat.
I spent a considerable portion of my life growing up in Saudi Arabia. A country that has made it to the headlines many times over for housing a despotic monarchy which systematically abuses human rights and openly disregards minorities. I grew up as a young Shia boy, a member of the most vilified religious minority in the country, in a region ruled by the iron fist of a Salafi regime. My mere existence was considered illegal. I was a renegade for my religion for believing and worshipping the very same God as the rest of the country, but in a manner that was not looked upon favorably by the government.
Praying as I was taught by my parents, with my hands to my side rather than across my chest, was perceived as a marker of subversion. Twice, I accidentally slipped up during prayer: I prayed at school with my hands by my side in the third grade, not realizing it until right after prayers when I noticed one of the teachers staring at me. That night I couldn't sleep. I was afraid my teacher would report me and my family. This is why I had to learn a new code - a new identity, a costume that I could slip into when I was at school or at a friend's house - because the risk of any slip up could give my identity up, and any misstep could result in my father's imprisonment or worse. I rehearsed a new identity, became fluent in both Shia and Sunni prayers, and trained myself to appear a more devout Sunni than even my other Sunni schoolmates. Standing in line at the airport in Orlando, I no longer had the fear of being reported to the Saudi authorities for being a Shia, but I still felt the same eyes identifying me as a threat before even being given the opportunity to defend myself.
This opportunity arises today, as I can embrace the stage, a platform that allows me to speak. But when I am on stage about to perform my spoken poetry, I do a mental double take. Can I perhaps read a poem from my heart, one about chocolate or one reminiscing on a love long lost, or is it imperative that I read yet another poem directed at Islamophobia? Standing in front of a sea of eyes, I become painfully aware of every gaze, every glance, every set of preconceived notions, every expectation of the content that is about to come out of my mouth. The stage has been set, and the poem has been heard before I even utter the first word. The bearded Muslim man on the stage is going to talk about the Middle East again--another Palestine poem, another Islamophobia poem, another refugee poem, another cry out for help for awareness, for recognition.
I am a Muslim man of color living in the United States and to some, I am just that. My poems follow the same themes, my public actions and activism all follow the same patterns, yet it is frustrating to not be seen as the multifaceted human being that I am. If I was not an obvious Muslim, I may have been able to get away with reading a poem about chocolate or about a long lost love, but instead I have to constantly reclaim and redefine my identity until my body feels safe the way it is.
This is why I reclaim my identity as a Muslim through my actions, by showing people my Islam: a religion of acceptance and compassion. This is why I reclaim my language, the utterances of my faith, and my love for the Divine Creator by reciting the beautiful phrase: Allahu Akbar...Allah is the greatest. This is why I redefine my identity as my own through my poetry, with a prayer to Allah that I may one day live knowing that neither I, nor any other Muslim, will have to go through another "random extra security check" again.
Abbas Mohamed started performing poetry in community college, found a voice through spoken word, and explored it throughout college, undergrad, and grad school. He has played a role in organizing many events around poetry and spoken word. Last year, he found himself in Richmond, Virginia as part of the UC Davis team, competing in CUPSI, an (international) annual collegiate poetry slam.