An Immigrant’s Tale: The Pull of the Homeland

What is it about ‘going back home’ that has a hold over Muslims, one prominent group among the new immigrant religious groups? Young men who have seen little other than Brooklyn and small town Illinois take long, cramped flights to dusty Lahore and crowded Cairo. Young women raised in the comfort of suburban Virginia and the freedom of college campuses take long, hot summer vacations with curious, opinionated relatives in Jeddah and Teheran.

It is from first generation immigrants that the American-born Muslims learn this yearning for the homeland. First generation immigrant Muslims are a whole other story. Here is where I fall into the same category as most of my friends’ elderly parents. Many of them retain a desire to relax and let religious impulses loose again. As if their lives of prosperity and comfort were a form of secular boot camp.

We first-generation immigrants of the 60s, 70s and so on (I must add “so on” because I am immigrant of the 90s), unlike our children, have experienced life as members of predominantly Muslim countries or communities. We have grown up with the cadence of Arabic, spoken poorly or well, in our homes, on our television sets and radios (depending on how old we are). We have grown up learning to be good citizens and good Muslims at school—very unlike holding our children hostage at the borders of identity (Pledge of Allegiance, yes, but prom, no; P.E. only in certain garments; sex education, not on your life—and so on).

On Fridays in the homeland, the men would dress in clean white clothes and you’d see them walking a few blocks to the mosque (walking to prayers is religiously recommended; driving over is a distant second). If you were Malaysian or Indonesian or some other nation where women made a habit of attending mosques, you’d find women at the mosque. As an instructor (of English) at an Islamic University in Lahore, I learned to love attending the Friday prayers at the local large mosque, something my mother had never known. On Fridays, many of us wouldn’t even go to work at all or for very long.

Once we’d prayed Friday prayers, we could spill out into the streets and encounter more reminders to invoke blessings upon the Prophet. Life was not sliced off into religion and not-religion so very clearly and abruptly. We didn’t have to change in the phone booth, as it were, into the non-religious as we transitioned abruptly from ritual to rat race. It was not so very problematic for one to bleed over into the other.

And during Ramadan, we grew up to expect lighter workloads. Migrant workers in certain Gulf countries learned to expect total lack of productivity and sometimes a complete absence of office workers during Ramadan. Here we taught ourselves to decline a colleague’s Valentine’s cookies cautiously – “thank you, I’m trying to lose weight.”

Here, we taught ourselves to secretly make our ablutions locked up in the private handicapped bathroom (so that White colleagues would not catch us splashing ourselves up to the elbow in water). We taught ourselves to hurry over from work for an extended “lunch” to the nearest mosque.

Many of us didn’t even try to commute to the mosque, but marshaled together a quorum from neighboring co-workers, and prayed in an empty conference room. (Please, please, let my cubicle-mate not barge in suddenly, to catch me down on the floor on my knees, alongside a group of men and women, with our faces down on the carpet).

Those of us who were fortunate enough to live in a metropolitan area that had a dense Muslim community found mosques nearby. Of course, some of those mosques might be theologically poles apart from us. Shias and Ahmadis might find themselves praying at the local Saudi Wahhabi mosque (I swear I’ve seen this happen, and have been one of those to depart in tears).

When we depart from the mosque after prayers, we have taught ourselves to keep our remembrances and invocations within the “heart” instead of whispering or chanting them aloud. We taught ourselves to cork up the bottle of intoxication that we could quaff on Fridays, or during and after prayer-times. I learned that on Fridays I did not have the leisure to walk to the mosque and back, and certainly not to walk with my eyes buried in the pages of my small hand-held copy of the Qur’an, absorbing the sun and the radiance at the same time. Praying under the sun or in the verandah ceased to be an option. Praying in public, or on the borders of the private, outside the walls of the home, in the quad became an act of bad taste, or worse, a dangerously bold act. Wearing clothing that served as a kind of mobile hermitage for private remembrance was an option less desirable now; at most, a baseball cap or sunglasses had to suffice.

We miss, too, the comfort of being able to cry out “Ya Hayyu Ya Qayyum” (O Living, O Self-Sustaining) if the urge grabs you suddenly in the middle of teaching a physics class. The urge is almost biological, and the inability to express rapture, ecstasy, joy, desperation or humility is also almost biological, like a choking of the windpipe. Diversity policy, laws about minority religion, even pluralism, in their current state, do not cover the voluntary choking of such urges.

We taught ourselves to perform complete productivity after our prayers: no one should conclude that we were “wasting time” praying. We learned to prove that we were just as workaholic as the next guy. We learned to establish how prayer was an extremely private activity that “takes up only a few minutes, just a few minutes really” (as Muslims try to explain to Americans shocked at the notion of ritual prayer five times a day). We learned to prove that religion was not an ocean that drowned us, but a cup that we sipped in moderation.

It is also the seamlessness of life in the homeland that religious first-generation immigrant Muslims miss. They miss the ability to pray outdoors, in airports and bazaars: they miss not only the ability to pray under the sky, but the knowledge that the act of praying in public might be shared vicariously by many. Or at least the act of praying would not be construed as something completely Other. The experience of prayer would not be clouded over the knowledge that it meant terror, alienation, and foreignness to onlookers. Nature and human others, known and unknown, could join in a symphony with the soul. Public religiosity would not be a battle, a question—how much is okay? How much is too much? How much could be too risky for your soul? How much can we take out without murdering our spiritual lives? How can we keep our religiosity on life support?

The questions of freedom of religion are not relevant here. “Can” we worship? Of course we can. Can we function as religious minorities? Certainly—better than those in our own countries. Can we speak our languages, raise our children in our faiths, avoid forbidden foods, wear religiously approved clothing? Yes, yes, of course—most of the time. But the question of can we is not a question the seeker asks. Hagar did not ask how fast she could run in search of water for her infant Ishmael. We don’t ask, during the pilgrimage, how many tears we are permitted to shed as we beg forgiveness for our sins. We learn to speak the language of moderation, of limits, of avoidance of anything that could be seen as borderline extreme, anything that would not be translated as normal.

Immigrants learn to self-consciously section life off into the religious and the secular. In the homeland, this is not so much a necessity. Sometimes it is—and the extent to which this happens, of course, depends on your personal tastes, the cliques you belong to, or the kinship circle.—For the homeland is a box of chocolates, as Forrest might put it if he were an immigrant from Khartoum, and the assortment ranges between the wildly irreligious and the devoutly, parochially, intensely religious. Take your pick.

And then there are the inevitable questions—do you let your children carve Halloween pumpkins, attend the school Christmas party, hunt for Easter eggs? Do you attend the wine and cheese reception at work? Do you eat meat that isn’t zabihah? Do you eat TV dinners cooked in burgundy wine—does it all cook off or not? Would you eat tiramisu made with real rum? What about vanilla? What about missing ritual prayers and making them up after work? Would you miss many days of fasting in Ramadan because your workload is burdensome this year?

These are questions about occupying relative degrees of borderland. In the homeland, or the heartland, you can wander comfortably without asking as many questions. Sure, the heartland is often but sparsely dotted with reflexive questions about identity and praxis. The borderlands are characterized by more self-doubt and more humility. But oh, so much less comfort … ! How ironic, we immigrants sigh to ourselves, that we can turn on the tap to clean water at whatever temperature we like, but we can’t put up a poster of the Holy Mosque in our cubicle. We can protect ourselves from heat and cold, day and night, but we can’t take a book of supplications in Arabic to recite on the plane. We can drive our minivans on near-perfect roads to the local public library that is inevitably to be found even if we’re in the middle of nowhere, but we can’t talk about matters of juristic interest related to certain aspects of bodily purification in public. We miss the mundane – stopping at the roadside for quick (meat-based) meals – without asking about the bacon or alcohol content. It is comfort as well as luxury to live in country that is predominantly the same religion as you.

In our new homes, the religious impulse cannot be let loose. The religious impulse is suspect, and many, many times over if it is Muslim. My religiosity can’t be a wild horse, galloping for joy around the island. Religiosity must be domesticated in the city for it to be kept safe, and so it can be performed as safe.

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Read Shabana Mir’s poem, “Immigrant Nostalgia” here.