The Only Muslim I Agree With

The only Muslim I agree with 100% (well, more like 90% of the time) is me.  Sometimes I question by dusk religious thoughts that at dawn seemed prophetic. But mostly I agree with myself about God, Mohammed, Jesus, the five pillars of Islam–and yes, the Muslim cliché the hijab, and all other things attributed to Muslims but not really about Muslims, like women driving in Saudi Arabia.

I have a lot of Muslim friends that agree and disagree with me on all of the above.  Most of the Muslims I know have no idea what I think about my religion, although some have tried to tell me what I think (“You don’t drink because you’re trying to be a good Muslim” someone once told me, and I didn’t bother to explain that I wouldn’t drink no matter what my religion was and I don’t actually think Islam categorically forbids alcohol).

Just as few Christians, Jews and others know what I think about my religion, although some of them have also tried to tell me. (“You’re one of those white Muslims, so we know you’re not like the others,” was the comfort I got from a co-worker on 9/11, as apparently I didn’t appear brown enough to be bad.)

No one ever asked me, not even other Muslims, until after 9/11, what I thought about Islam.  I’d venture to say many of my American friends could barely recall I was a Muslim.  For a while after 9/11, I felt it was something that like Mona Eltahawy said in a recent op ed piece for the Guardian ( I had to mention early on in a conversation.  In my case, so no one would say anything bad in front of me and feel like crap later when I then I told them I was a Muslim.

I don’t look like a Muslim not because of the color of my skin but because I don’t wear a hijab.  That’s the giveaway in the post-9/11 US and Europe, but not in much of the Middle East, where many choose not to wear the hijab.  (Actually, more correctly is that many women choose to wear it).

As a non-wearer, I’ve really come to appreciate the hijab because it gives me a chance to always be the undercover Muslim:  In crowded rooms, classrooms, and parties, I get to hear what other people really think about Islam because they don’t think I’m one one of them.  And mostly what I hear shocks me, almost as shocking as the dangerous radicalization of Islam in disenfranchised parts of the Muslim world that led to 9/11.  Horrific as the terrorism is, it comes from ignorance, from people deprived of education and hope.  That’s not something you expect in the West, and yet most of what I hear about Islam is pretty ignorant, mostly boogey man like.

Maybe one day, Muslims will be transformed like the Russians, who under communism could only produce women in our social studies class textbooks were sullen peasant wrapped in fur skin hats, to their general acceptance in all media as hot babes, for better or worse, in a variety of professions.

That’s not necessarily something to aspire to, but until then, here is some Pew polling on American Muslims that might be a little more enlightening.  Muslim seem to be more upbeat about being American than others, not that I disagree or agree with any of  them. (

For further readings on Arab Americans 10 years later, I recommend the following:

Alia Malek in Granta:

Moustafa Bayoumi in the Nation

Carmel Alyaa Delshad


In order to get to my reading in Cairo, my two colleagues and I had to negotiate with a stoned cab driver, whose body for most of the harrowing ride was half

Misr Studio's Sphinx

Misr Studio's Sphinx

out the taxi chatting with a man stuck on the bus next to us, and a donkey who refused to budge off the sidewalk, and when we tried to walk to the right of him, as we couldn’t pass the triple parked cars on his left, he was joined by his friend the goat.  There were several other negotiations as well, including at the bookstore, but that’s Cairo.  Yes, that’s Cairo.  That and incredible history and architecture that have survived several natural disasters and wars, including a troubling war with pollution and overpopulation today.

The night before I left for Cairo, there was coincidently a lecture at NYU Abu Dhabi about downtown Cairo’s architecture.  The lecturer said that even in their damaged states, Cairo’s old buildings and mosques put to shame what he called Disneyland architecture, in which the glory of these buildings is imitated by others, but the result is only façade deep.  He didn’t mention the Luxor in Vegas because that is an imitation with no pretensions other than being fun and camp. Nor did he mention the new American University of Cairo campus, which would fit his definition, but rather took aim at the Gulf’s spurt of new Islamic-themed buildings.

The real Sphinx

The real Sphinx

However, the most bizarre Disneylandification I experienced was in Cairo.  It wasn’t at Misr Studios, Cairo’s impressive film studio, where there is a permanent set that is a very convincing recreation of the Sphinx, and which will probably become a tourist attraction itself.  Rather it was at the restaurant my friends and I went to after my reading at Diwan in the upscale Zamalak neighborhood.  In addition to some colleagues, I had in tow with me some very dear Egyptian friends that I’ve known for years.  One of them, Ashraf, suggested we go to a hip spot set in an old Cairo building.  Any restaurant should have been happy to see such a big group walk in on slow night, but the manager quickly took Ashraf aside and pointed to one of my friends, saying that either she had to leave or we all had to leave.  The friend in question is a very educated woman who has worked in the media for most of career.  She also wears a hijab.  As do at least 75 % of the women in Cairo, as far as I could tell.  But the manager explained that it wasn’t okay in this chic spot, a spot many foreigners come to—I guess he didn’t want to make them, or any of the Egyptians who might have some complex about being there, uncomfortable with reality.  Outraged, we all decided that we would leave, but my friend refused, saying she would leave, as she didn’t know where we could all go as a group otherwise. We all argued with her until I could see that perhaps she was going to cry if we continued on with our protestations, and so we let her go home and stayed.  The next day, she told me not to apologize.  She said that’s Cairo:  Even if most women in Cairo wear the hijab, she has been relegated to radio work, as the national television stations don’t allow women in hijabs to presenters.  Now that’s creating make-believe on TV.  That’s Disneylandification.