Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America

Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America

by Ranya Tabari Idliby

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For many Americans, the words 'American' and 'Muslim' simply do not marry well; for many the combination is an anathema, a contradiction in values, loyalties, and identities. This is the story of one American Muslim family--the story of how, through their lives, their schools, their friends, and their neighbors, they end up living the challenges, myths, fears,

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For many Americans, the words 'American' and 'Muslim' simply do not marry well; for many the combination is an anathema, a contradiction in values, loyalties, and identities. This is the story of one American Muslim family--the story of how, through their lives, their schools, their friends, and their neighbors, they end up living the challenges, myths, fears, hopes, and dreams of all Americans. They are challenged by both Muslims who speak for them and by Americans who reject them. In this moving memoir, Idliby discusses not only coming to terms with what it means to be Muslim today, but how to raise and teach her children about their heritage and religious legacy. She explores life as a Muslim in a world where hostility towards Muslims runs rampant, where there is an entire industry financed and supported by think tanks, authors, film makers, and individual vigilantes whose sole purpose is to vilify and spread fear about all things Muslim. Her story is quintessentially American, a story of the struggles of assimilation and acceptance in a climate of confusion and prejudice--a story for anyone who has experienced being an "outsider" inside your own home country.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this memoir-cum-manifesto, Idliby, a Muslim American of Palestinian and Kuwaiti origin, writes about her experiences raising Muslim children in America and being a moderate Muslim, particularly in New York City, post-September 11. Idliby is an eloquent and informed spokeswoman for her faith, and voices like hers are needed in today’s charged political climate. In this book she counters extremists on both sides, Muslim and non-Muslim, with calls for peace and rational dialogue. In particular she focuses on her children’s experiences growing up Muslim and America, with mixed success; while some anecdotes of the conflicts they face with fitting in and standing out are powerful illustrations of fear and prejudice at work, others wander into simple parental indulgence, such as her recounting of her young toddler’s sleep habits. Other aspects of the book also veer from the main focus, such as a chapter addressed to her young daughter. Readers well-versed in Islam should look elsewhere for depth and nuance, but for others it will be a light and likeable introduction to issues facing American Muslims today. (Jan. 7)
Kirkus Reviews
One woman's personal examination of Muslim and American values. In this follow-up to her comparative study of Muslim, Christian and Jewish identity (The Faith Club, co-authored with Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner, 2006), Idliby hones in on her family's experiences as American Muslims immediately following 9/11. The author and her husband, then longtime Manhattanites and self-described "secular Muslims," suddenly found themselves and their children challenged by "Muslims who speak for us and Americans who reject us." Thus confronted with repeated calls to account for the whole of Islam, and skewed views of a violent Islam at that, Idliby was forced to look within at what Muslim and American values she held dear. The author charts that reflection, as this daughter of a Palestinian father and Kuwaiti mother who had spent her youth shuttling between Virginia and Dubai painfully relates to her own children's post-9/11 sense of being the "other." Hoping for better for her American-born children, Idliby tailors her remarks for a largely Islam-illiterate American audience, debunking a number of widespread misconceptions about Islam. Refusing to have her children's worldviews constricted by "clerics who peddle seventh century absolute orthodoxy as the only true Islam," Idliby strongly advocates for reading the Quran in the cultural context of its time and not as literal doctrine for 21st-century society. For example, the author explains that female head-covering is a social convention and admonishes those donning the niqab (full face covering) for opting to be "buried alive under a black tent" and, thereby, "erased of their identities." In Mecca, Islam's holiest city, Idliby also points out, "face coverings are banned," underscoring one of the memoir's central points--that "Islam is not a nationality, but a faith, as diverse and varied as its many billion adherents." Such diversity of belief, Idliby compellingly argues, aligns well with American individualism and cherished beliefs in equality, diversity and justice. A bold, intimate, welcome examination of reconciling one's faith in America.
author of Zealot and No god but God Reza Aslan

An unflinchingly intimate and honest examination of some of the most difficult issues that have come to define the 'coming of age' experiences of American Muslims. This is essential reading for those who have ever feared or been feared and anyone who has ever asked, 'Where are the moderates?'
Eboo Patel

Burqas, Baseball and Apple Pie is a lovely and lyrical look into the life of one American Muslim woman and her family. It will expand and enrich your view of Islam and America.
author of Mother of the Believers Kamran Pasha

A powerful memoir of being a Muslim woman and mother in post-9/11 America. It touches the soul of the reader and brings home the simple truth that the heart of America and the heart of Islam can indeed beat together as one.
James Zogby

In this thoughtful and courageous memoir, Ranya Tabari Idliby takes on the intolerance of so-called 'patriots' and the fundamentalism of those who consider themselves religious 'purists' and teaches us all important lessons about what it really means to be an American and a Muslim.
Library Journal
This impassioned, accessible book combines memoir with a critical survey of issues facing modern Muslim Americans.

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St. Martin's Press
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6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)

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Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie

Being Muslim in America

By Ranya Tabari Idliby

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2014 Ranya Tabari Idliby
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-41348-2


Why Would Anyone Choose to Be a Muslim?

He who chooses to enter Paradise through its best door must please his parents.

Paradise lies at the feet of your mother.

— The Prophet Muhammad

Walking home from a friend's house one day, my ten-year-old son spotted a poster of the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali and told me how disappointed he was to find out that Ali was not a real Muslim, but a convert. "Don't be silly," I said, thinking I had this parenting moment completely under control. "When a person chooses to convert, it may be even more meaningful. It means they have thought about their religion and made it their personal choice, not just an accident of birth." I was not ready for his quick and shocking retort: "Why would anyone choose to be a Muslim?"

Being Muslim in America was not always the challenge it seems to be for my children today. At sixteen, my father, a Palestinian refugee, was given a one-way ticket to the United States by his father. His mission was to get an education. He landed in Chicago and worked his way through college. It took him ten years, but he graduated with a double major in math and engineering from the University of Illinois. He worked on the docks and held down a second job at a cafeteria where he enjoyed flirting with the sorority girls. He often faced the brutal Chicago cold without the luxury of the coat he shared with his older brother and cousin. Whoever was up first in the morning was warm for the day. Nothing in his early, pampered childhood could possibly have prepared my father for his new life. He was the privileged son of a medical doctor whose landed wealth was lost with the loss of Palestine. His father, Dr. Rashid, could not even afford to buy my father a ticket back to Jordan when my father's mother, the renowned beauty of Tiberius, died at the age of thirty-eight. Medically, she died of kidney failure, but family lore insists that she died from the heartache of loss. My father would not learn of her death until he returned home as a graduate at the age of twenty-six.

The decade in Chicago turned my father into the man he remains today. He learned the humility of hunger: when desperate for nutrition, he rummaged through the butcher's discarded scraps in search of shanks for a stew that would accompany his staple food: rice. Chicago's lessons he learned for life: hard work, discipline, self-reliance, and an aversion to waste and the mockery of overpriced luxury goods. A spendthrift he would never become, even as he single-handedly turned his fortunes around. Self-made, he demanded the same work ethic from his children, and promoted the values of discipline and hard work.

At nineteen my fair, green-eyed mother fell in love with the dashingly handsome, exotically Americanized engineer to whom she was introduced by a family friend. By twenty, she had married him, and I was well on the way. If food is love, then my mother was madly in love. As a young mother she spent hours baking and cooking, perfecting recipes from her cherished Betty Crocker cookbook. I can still see her studiously leafing through its pages. Cookbooks were like novels to her, and with their recipes she would knead narratives into her young family's life. Around the table we could travel and share and love. Before we could afford to make our first trip to the States from our then current home in Kuwait, we had already traveled there by way of my mother's prolific kitchen. Apple pies, lemon meringue pies, cheesecakes, homemade doughnuts, and banana splits were shared as a celebration of my father's past American life. For a more traditional narrative, especially on religious holidays, we enjoyed homemade pistachio-filled butter cookies, date cookies, apricot and cream custards, and honeyed-almond and hazelnut cakes.

My father, more secular than my mother, left it up to her to ground us in our faith. We were Muslims living in a Muslim country. If I felt a sense of being "other," it was about being Palestinian and living in Kuwait. Our Islam was full of joy and celebration, like the Eid Feast at the end of the Holy Month of fasting known as Ramadan. Eid was my favorite Muslim holiday. For an entire month my mother would fast from sunrise to sunset. My father did not fast but would give up alcohol in deference to the holiness of the month: a month of reflection, worship, charity, and prayer. I was not allowed to fast because my growing body needed nourishment, but I was encouraged to share in the spirit of the month by giving up an indulgence or helping out a friend. At dusk my brother and I were sent out to the garden, eager scouts listening carefully for the thunder of the canon, set off daily to signal the end of a day's fast. In preparation for the feast to end the Holy Month, my mother would take us out shopping for new clothes. Family and friends would visit, laden with treats, toys, and cash gifts known as Eidiya. My father, a tumbler of whisky on the rocks at hand — his first in a month — would carve the roast lamb.

Neither my mother, nor her mother, nor any female member of my family has ever worn a headscarf, or hijab. This was a point of pride celebrated as proof of our family's long-established, multigenerational, spirited, and progressive female culture. It is hard to believe today, but the headscarf was rare, especially among younger women. Even more rare was the niqab, the full covering of the face. Some Kuwaiti women wore burqas (full-body covering), but that was understood as a Kuwaiti national or cultural choice and not a religious Muslim choice.

Unlike Judaism and Christianity, Islam has no confirmation rituals such as baptisms and bar mitzvahs. Any person who utters the shahada (proclamation of faith), "I bear witness that there is no god but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is a messenger of God," is a Muslim. As a first step in my Muslim education, my mother had me memorize Al Fatihah, the most important Muslim prayer, akin to the Lord's Prayer. When I misbehaved, my mother often used Islam to steer me to the straight path. She would quote scripture or traditional Muslim sayings to remind me that God commanded respect for all mothers and that it was forbidden to be undutiful to one's mother. If I sighed in exasperation, which happened often, she reprimanded me with her favorite verse: "And say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honor. ... My Lord! bestow upon them Your Mercy even as they cherished me in childhood." At woeful times in her life, my mother would seek the comfort of ritualistic daily prayer more regularly, yet she would not think twice about also asking her good Christian friends to light a candle or two for her at church. Her comfort with other faiths harks back to her Palestinian roots and a time when Islam was not so "Wahhabified." Wahhabism is a sect of Islam named after its founder, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who "branded all who disagreed with him as heretics and apostates."

Wahhabism is a fundamentalist, puritanical, and austere religious movement that seeks to purify Islam, rejecting any historical, legal, and theological traditions outside the seventh-century life of the Prophet and his companions. It rejects all esoteric and mystical readings of the Quran, including any idea of saints. In many ways Wahhabism is essentially an aberration from centuries of Muslim theological tradition. However, it has become the most recognizable and dominant modern voice of Islam because it forms the political foundation of the oil-rich Saudi state.

Firm believers in the merits of an education, my parents placed us in the best private school they could find, which in Kuwait at the time happened to be the French lycée, even though neither my brother nor I spoke French. At school I wrote letters to "Cher Papa Noël," or "Dear Father Christmas," and danced the color purple in my school's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Maybe because Muslims believe in Mary, the virgin birth of Jesus, and the Jewish prophets before him, my mother never felt a contradiction in the Christmas stockings she hung on our bedposts, nor in the Advent calendar filled with Santa-shaped chocolates that she hung up in the kitchen. Predictably, she baked the best bûche de Noël, a traditional Christmas cake in the shape of a log decorated with chocolate shavings, as the dessert to accompany her chestnut-stuffed turkey. We drew the line when it came to roast suckling pig. We were too Muslim to stomach that.

As long as I can remember, I have had the "God gene," and I seemed to come by that naturally; many in my family did too. Under the Ottoman Empire my father's ancestors, the Tabari family, served their community as sheiks (religious leaders), Islamic scholars, and judges. My own spiritual quest started when I was eight. Early indications included a macabre preoccupation with death. I remember fighting off sleep for fear that if I gave in to slumber, I would never wake up. In the backseat of the car I would stare out the window at the vast star-spangled sky and wonder about God. Was he watching over us? Could he hear my thoughts, feel my fears, answer my questions? One moment I was blessed, happy, and bewitched by all the good and plenty of life. Other moments I was anxious, worried about my parents, their health, and our ultimate death. Will I know you in heaven? I asked. And why live and love if we all must die? I did not believe that I could handle the pain of the permanent separation of death. My mother would use Islam to soothe my fears and negotiate my anxieties. "In the afterlife those who were not as blessed in life will receive their reward and compensation," she would argue, "and it is as natural as birth." God is benevolent and kind, I was told. God is merciful and no matter how bad you think you have been, the measure of an atom of good would tip the scales and erase all the bad. Temptation is how God tests us, she explained. I spent a good part of my childhood convinced that there was an angel sitting on my right shoulder looking out for me, and the devil on my other shoulder trying to lead me astray. And although a number of religion teachers in middle school would paint a more severe, punitive God, I held on to the loving God my mother helped me understand. A God I prayed to every night, grateful for his generous blessings. A God I have physically felt in the flutter of my heart, soaring with elated happiness and in fleeting moments of unbearable beauty: the warmth of a spring sun after a long winter, the perfect kiss under the perfect cherry blossom tree, and the smell and softness of my babies' feet. A God I have appealed to before a big test, prayed compulsively to in panicked fear, and begged for help and forgiveness when I have made my own bad choices and mistakes.

As I matured, I learned to control my fear of death and embrace living in the here and the now. By the time I was twelve my father bought a second home in Virginia, where I spent summers watching reruns of Bewitched and Gilligan's Island. At sixteen I was already a freshman at Georgetown University, majoring in international politics. A diligent student, I fell in love with our Constitution, the Founding Fathers, and the American dream. At twenty-two, I became a citizen, a proud American: no longer the vulnerable Palestinian whose residency could be revoked on a whim. Growing up, I had felt insecure about my civil rights, as though a loyal citizen of nowhere. I was born in Kuwait, but by age eight had moved to Dubai because of my father's work. I carried the passport of a country I had never visited: Jordan. Rumor had it that the Jordanian passports given to many Palestinian refugees such as my parents were encoded to distinguish them from authentic Jordanians. I remember the pride I felt the day I became an American citizen (and still do every time I travel and stand in the US citizens' airport immigration line). At last I felt secure. I knew that my rights as an individual were preserved and protected, irrefutable and sacred to the Constitution. America's history and its exceptionalism, its guiding light, became my own, my chosen home.

Islam had taken a backseat to more immediate, pressing concerns: graduate degrees, love, marriage, and babies. Sure, I had taken several theology courses at Georgetown. I was religiously literate in a way that allowed me to define the Twelve Shias or elaborate on the story of the disappearing Imams (Islamic leaders). But I had not thought about God and Islam and what they meant to me personally. My life as an American went on, with little thought about my faith.

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, I was caught off guard. Suddenly, Islam was on trial. I was a Muslim in name and upbringing. My husband and I had signed our kitab (marriage contract) in 1994 at the Ninety-Sixth Street Mosque in New York City, but we had never been back. Any praying I did was in the solitude of my home to the same loving God my mother had helped me find. In the aftermath of 9/11, now a mother of my own two young children, I was no longer sure that my mother's God still existed, or what exactly it would mean for my children to be both American and Muslim. But I did understand early on that the Islam I was handing down to my American-born children had become more of a burden than a privilege. Even over a decade on, classmates think it is funny to call my son a "terrorist." As a mother, I owed my children explanations. I did not think it fair or responsible of me to ask them to stay true to the faith of their ancestors out of pure loyalty. I had to learn how to empower and shield them, to answer their questions and wipe away the tears. I had some choices to make. I had to figure out why I choose to be a Muslim.


Accidental Muslims

And revere the wombs that bore you.

— Quran 4:1

Islam was not on our minds when my husband, Sami, and I decided to start a family. Unexplained lower abdominal pains had plagued me all my life, and my OB/GYN was worried that possible endometriosis might complicate my chances of pregnancy. His advice, "Try sooner rather than later," bore unexpected, though successful, results. We worried that our marriage was too young; we had not had a chance to be, to travel, to linger quietly over coffee on lazy Sunday mornings. I did not thrive in pregnancy. My marriage and I suffered from nine months of nausea and heartburn. For a good four months I wiped away excessive saliva, an extreme pregnancy condition that left my inflamed lips raw with blisters and pain. Nausea that woke me up retching in the middle of the night confirmed that it was not "all in my mind." Bags of glucose delivered intravenously for nourishment were often my daily bread.

As my due date approached, the October Jewish holidays were on my mind. I was relieved when early contractions during this time proved to be a false alarm: I wanted my Jewish doctor to be available for this Muslim mom. On the afternoon of November 13, 1995, I held on to Sami in the back of a yellow taxicab, tentative and anxious as we made our way to New York Hospital in Manhattan. I was terrified of the promise of pain, anxious to meet the baby who had kicked and turned all night, and apprehensive about motherhood and its unforgiving demands.

In the birthing room, attached to the monitor, I watched closely, riveted by the fluctuating green jagged line that charted the course of my intensifying contractions. When relief finally arrived in the form of a massive epidural needle, I had no qualms about being numbed. No Christian guilt for me about the pain of labor being a requisite biblical penance for the indiscretions of Eve.


Excerpted from Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie by Ranya Tabari Idliby. Copyright © 2014 Ranya Tabari Idliby. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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