Growing up in a quiet, snowy suburb of Toronto, there was a TV show I used to watch after school. It was called Romper Room. It was your run-of-the-mill children’s show, with a sweet, motherly figure named Miss Fran who used to sing songs and play games with a group of kids.
It was fun. It was wholesome. And for a kid like me, who grew up with a weird sounding name, it was a traumatic experience.
You see, at the end of each show, Miss Fran would look into a big make-believe Magic Mirror, stare into the camera lens, and pretend she could see all the kids watching at home. One by one, she’d say their names.
“I can see Billy, and Steven, and Jeannette, and …”
Sometimes, at school the next day, my friends would talk about how Miss Fran saw them. For a shy, nerdy kid in public school, it was the ultimate mark of coolness.
I tuned in every day, hoping she’d see me. I just knew she would. After all, she’d already seen my friends Michael and John. It was only a matter of time before she saw me, right? I didn’t know anything about TV production or scripts or ratings back then. All I knew was that I desperately wanted Miss Fran to see me.
She never did.
Muhammad has been said to be the most common name in the world, but in America, it’s arguably the most difficult to have.
I waited for months. She saw Michael and John a few times, Andrew, Donnie, Sandra and Clinton. She saw Jose, Patricia, Alex, and Phillip. But she never saw Satinder, Gunpreet, or Priya. And there was never –- ever -– a Muhammad.
It broke my little heart. I went to the same school, lived on the same street, wore the same jeans, and played street hockey just like everyone else. So how come she never saw me?
It’s ironic. Muhammad has said to be the most common name in the world, but in America, it’s arguably the most difficult to have. It’s not like an Ali or an Omar. With Muhammad, there’s no ambiguity – and there’s nowhere to hide. You’re forced to wear you religion on your sleeve, or in this case, your name badge. It screams “Hey, this guy is Muslim.”
“He’s one of them.”
I’ve risked my life to show the world the dangers of radicalism, of all shades and religions. I do it because of my firm belief that storytelling has the power to change the world.
We live in a time when Islamophobia is at an all-time high. Muslims have been attacked just for looking “different.” Mosques are vandalized. Hijabs have been pulled off. In Canada, someone recently left a severed pig’s head outside a mosque, with a card attached saying “Bon Appetit.”
Often, the discrimination is even more subtle.
I’ve spent the last several years as a correspondent, reporting from the front lines of some of the world’s biggest conflicts. I’ve been ambushed by the Taliban, held at gunpoint in Ukraine, and surrounded by armed thugs in Egypt. I’ve risked my life to show the world the dangers of radicalism, of all shades and religions. I do it because of my firm belief that storytelling has the power to change the world.
As a kid who grew up eating spaghetti and going tobogganing in Toronto, I know I have a unique vantage point. Some people talk about building bridges. I don’t. That bridge is my life. I live on it every single day. Ironically, if Trump’s ban on Muslims ever gets implemented, it’s people like me that will be affected the most.
I once had a discussion with someone I deeply respect in the TV industry. She asked me about my career and where I wanted to be in five years. I rhymed off a couple cities where I thought I could do meaningful journalism, places where I could cover conflict, race, immigration, poverty, and civil strife.
I thought it made sense. But soon came the bombshell.
“Yeah, but we’d have to find you a place where you have a community.”
Umm, okay. No, wait. What community? Canadians? Dudes with hipster beards? Tobogganers?
Oh, right. That community. I tried awkwardly laughing it off, saying community wasn’t really important to me. Somehow, that led to another question about whether I’d be open to changing my name. I’m not sure if it was meant to be a joke, but I know it was said just serious enough to gauge my reaction. On TV, optics matter.
If you tune into the news (or watch on mobile, as most of us do), you’ll see a ton of content about things like ISIS, terror, the Middle East, and overall security. If the report you’re watching has anything to do with the Islamic World (stretching all the way from Morocco to Indonesia), I guarantee you a guy who looks like me helped put it together. He was either the producer, the cameraman, a fixer, an editor, the driver, an engineer, the translator, or one of the dozens of people behind the scenes who helped make it possible. There’s a good chance one of them was even named Muhammad.
Think of what a bold, progressive statement it would be: That Muhammad is just as much an American name as Donald or Rupert.
So why don’t we see more people like that on-camera in America? This year’s election coverage is a great example. The defining issue has been Islam and the role of Muslims in America. I often wonder why there aren't any correspondents with Muslim backgrounds covering it, on the ground, on American television. You know, the guy on TV reporting live from the latest Trump rally. You’d think there’d be at least one. Someone with a Muslim background – and hey, even a funny sounding name – might add some desperately needed depth, sanity, and who knows, maybe even a bit of charisma to our election coverage. Think of what a bold, progressive statement it would be: That Muhammad is just as much an American name as Donald or Rupert.
Instead, what we have now is Muslims answering questions on television, but never asking them.
One day, I hope to be that correspondent (seriously Mr. Trump, if your people are reading this, let’s do a 1x1 – think of the ratings). Until then, I know I’ll have to work harder, faster, and smarter than everyone else. I’ll have to smile more, be nicer at airports, and laugh it off when people suggest I change my name. I’m okay with that. I enjoy the challenge. I didn’t get to where I am by running away.
The other day, I went online and looked up Miss Fran –- the lovable Romper Room host I used to watch every day. It turns out that a few years ago, she had a life-changing moment and converted to Islam. She now wears hijab, works in communications, and is part of a thriving community in Ontario. She still has that lovable, motherly, teethy wide smile that I remember as a child.
I bet she knows how to say my name, too.