From the moment that I first started to learn about Islam, I found myself feeling an unspoken influence to take on cultures that were foreign to me. Within my local community, there are large groups of Arab Muslims and South Asian Muslims. While there are Muslims that are from other areas, these are the two main ethnic groups that I found myself surrounded by. Most of the people that are a part of boards and committees and leading and organizing things within the Muslim community here are headed up by Arab and South Asian Muslims.
This by no means is a bad thing. However, as an American convert, I found myself as a total and complete outsider. In a world where I very easily could blend into the background, suddenly I stood out like a sore thumb. And as a result, there was an unspoken pressure to take on this culture that was foreign to me to better assimilate. In some ways it was a pressure I put on myself, and in other ways it was a pressure others put on me as well. And I found myself feeling conflicted and torn. In many ways, I straddle these two different world. There is the world I was raised in, and the world that my adult life led me to. And these two world couldn't feel any further apart. In fact, "straddle" doesn't seem quite fitting. It was more like doing the splits maintain my life in these two world.
And then I had a conversation helped me stop doing the splits.
About six months after becoming Muslim, I met a woman who is a born Muslim. I don't remember what conversation there was that led up to this, but that night she shared a very important message with me and a few friends. She told those of us who were American Muslim converts to embrace our culture. She encouraged us to not take on these other cultures that were not our own. She understood the fact that they were foreign to us. She encouraged us to take our American culture and help define what it means to be an American Muslim. What does that identity look like?
For many years, the Muslims in America were either immigrants and the children of immigrants. So while there are Muslims born in America, they are still raised in a different culture from my own. However, with people like myself and my fellow American converts, we have this incredible opportunity to create our own culture as American Muslims. And as time as gone on, I've made friends with others that encourage me on with embracing my heritage and weaving it in with my Muslim identity.
When it comes to Ramadan, I feel that this is when it becomes a bit more apparent that I have embraced my culture. For starters, the way that I decorate for Ramadan and Eid goes back to my family. You see, my grandma used to fold these paper stars that we would turn into Christmas ornaments. I was always told that they were German Christmas stars, although I will admit I've heard them referred to by other names. But regardless, I've decorated for the holidays with these stars for my entire life. So while I decorate for different holidays now as an adult, I still decorate my home with these stars. I also like giving them out as little gifts to others.
Another way that my culture shines through is with the meals that I eat during suhoor and iftar. My first couple of Ramadans, I found myself invited over to friends houses and eating dish after dish after dish of maqluba or biryani or samosas, etc. Yes, there were other dishes here and there in between. And yes, I love these dishes. However, while these may be comfort dishes for others, it's not the same for me. When I've been fasting all day long, I may be dreaming about a heaping pile of mashed potatoes. Or a big dish of macaroni and cheese.
Dessert wound up being the same thing. Almost everyone served either baklava, kanafa, or qatayef. Again, I love these desserts. But I find myself dreaming of brownies and pie and cakes and things of that nature. In the beginning, it almost felt like Ramadan was this time of year when I was pushed even harder to take on these other cultures. But again, I have friends that encourage me to embrace my culture and my background.
Last year, my friend Heba and I hosted what we called a "comfort" iftar. We invited converts and their families and had it be a potluck. The dishes that we encouraged people to bring were dishes that they consider to be their comfort food. For me, holidays scream cheesy potatoes. It was something my grandma made for every family holiday get together. How about some green bean casserole? Maybe some lasagna?
The assortment of food that we had was pretty eclectic, but in the very best way possible. Everyone brought something that felt like comfort food for them. It could be something that was passed down through generations in their family, or simply something that they've discovered on their own over time.
With that, we started a new tradition and brought a bit more of our own American culture into our Muslim identities. Since we're all home this year, we unfortunately had to skip doing it this year. But I have no doubt that we'll pick it up again. It was definitely one of my favorite Ramadan memories and I still hear my friends talking about how much fun they had.
For a long time, I really struggled with the feeling that I didn't really fit in. But in time, I've become more comfortable with it. I may not blend in quite the same, but if I did, I wouldn't be my unique self. So I'm happy to stand out and speak up and embrace my American Muslim identity.