Bangladeshi-American Muslim storyteller, Arif Choudhury, shares stories about growing up as the only “brown-skinned boy” in the neighborhood and how 9-11 changed how others might perceive him and his family.
What’s the difference between an interrogation and a conversation? How do we be curious about one another but not pressure someone to represent their whole group or feel that they’re being examined and objectified?
Did you ever wonder about your own identity? How did you resolve your questions and confusion?
Has your understanding or behavior towards Muslims changed over the years? In what ways?
History leaves us all with prejudices. For 2000 years, the Jews have been chased from country to country. They’ve always been the “other.”
“Well, my family, they fled Russia about a hundred years ago. The Czar of Russia had encouraged his subjects and his soldiers to kill Jews. One day, the Cossacks, the Czar’s horsemen, were riding into my little village the Zubkova.
My cousin heard the horse’s hooves in the street, and she ran out to get the children inside. But she wasn’t quick enough. There was the Cossack, sword drawn, coming down the street. She threw herself on the baby, and the sharp blade came down, right across her back.
And that night, my grandmother said, “Enough! We’re going to America!”
And so, we came to America, where we could be safe, where we could live with other Jews. But memories like that, they don’t go away. They’re in our culture. They’re inside our genes.
One day, when I was about five years old, I was sitting on the steps. My sister and my cousin were with me. We were playing, when suddenly I saw them. I’d never seen anything like that before, but I, I knew that they were dangerous. I knew it, in my DNA.
They were big, and they were black. And they seemed to be flying down the street, with big white wings that came out of their head. My sister, my cousin, they saw the look on my face. And then they looked, and then we three were all frozen in fear, as the monsters came, closer and closer.
“Where they going to kidnap us? Or maybe even worse?”
They reached us. They started to reach out their hands towards us.
“Good morning, children.”
Aah, aah, aah, aah, aah! And we ran inside. Escaping from the nuns.
How did Arif come to realize that there were “different kinds of white people”?
Why weren’t the students also studying Arif’s religion?
Growing up, what did you learn about Islam? Was Islam presented as one of the world’s major religions or as “an other”?
No god by God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam by Reza Asian
A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
When I was a kid, I saw white people in my neighborhood. I saw white people on TV. I saw white people at my school. And I, basically, thought that all white people were the same. I didn’t know any better.
But then one day in school I learned that there were two ways of being white. There were Christians and there were Jews because that day the teacher stopped the lesson plan to teach us how to play with a small top called a dreidel. And now I had played with tops when I was a kid but g… only boys played with tops with a string around it. And if you pull the string, then the top keeps spinning and spinning and spinning. But this is a little more involved. This top had four sides with strange markings on each side and would fall over and you would find out if you got to play… to win some candy, those wrapped, uh, those gold coins.
And that’s why I got excited because this game was better than a board game Candy Land. You, actually, got to win candy. And then later in music class, I learned the dreidel song, “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel. I made it out of clay, And when it’s dry and ready. Oh, dreidel, I will play.”
Now the funny thing was at that time I didn’t learn that playing with the dreidel and singing the dreidel song was part of Jewish custom. I just thought it was a game for white kids, cause it… something I didn’t do at home. But then I realized my classmate Christopher didn’t know much about dreidel either. And I asked him why he didn’t.
And he said well that’s because he was Christian and not Jewish. And that was the first time I really heard those two words. And so, I started to talk to Christopher about what it meant to be Christian. And then my other friends who were Jewish and I began to learn about their different faith practices and the cultural traditions.
And I kind of felt that my Christian friends had stacked the deck in their favor because they had cooler holidays. They had candy for each and every holiday. They had candy canes and Christmas cookies for Christmas. They had marshmallow peeps and chocolate eggs for Easter. My Jewish friends didn’t have candy for all their holidays. And my Christian friends had cartoon characters and mascots for each holiday. They had Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and elves and the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. My Jewish friends didn’t have any cartoon characters or mascots. Actually, the disparity between my Christian friends’ really kid-friendly holidays and my Jewish friends’ not so friendly holidays was really apparent in the springtime when my Christian friends were coloring eggs and eating marshmallow peeps and my Jewish friends were eating unleavened bread for Passover. Santa Claus. Now during the winter, Santa Claus is everywhere.
And one year my grandmother came to live with us from Bangladesh. She’d never left a Muslim majority country and lived in America, which was mostly a Christian majority country. And so, when she saw this image of Santa Claus lit up on lawns and on billboard ads and on television, she kept seeing this robust man with a big flowing white beard and was covered in clothing from head to foot. She thought that Santa Claus was a Muslim imam because many imams on TV when you see them, they could have beards and they’re covered from head to foot. I spoke to my grandmother that, no, Santa Claus is not a Chicago imam. He’s this man who brings presents to all the kids during Christmas. And she looked at me as though I was odd, I was strange, I was confused and I realized my grandmother had never really lived in a Christian country. And she was seeing all of this through her Bengali Muslim filter. And I realized that what I was from my family was an explorer, a cultural anthropologist who would go out into the indigenous population and gather data and interpret it for my family.
Now my family came from Bangladesh, which had been part of India, which was once part of a British colony called British India. And so, they were aware of Christianity and many Christian customs. So, they knew about Easter and that that was the day when Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But when they saw Easter in practice in America and saw the Easter Bunny everywhere, they asked me, “Arif, what’s the Easter Bunny for?”
Well I didn’t know. So, I talked to my friend Christopher and said, “Hey, Christopher, what’s the Easter Bunny for?”
And he said he didn’t know but he would go home and ask his mom.
Why would those within a similar group judge each other as to whether they are Muslim enough, Black enough, Manly enough and so forth?
What are some of the differences within your ethnic or religious group? What is most misunderstood about your group?
All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim by Wajahat Wali and Zahra T Suratwala
Muslim Communities in North America by Yvonne Hadda and Jane Idleman Smith
Family and Childhood
For many years, I was the only Muslim boy in my class. That meant I was the only boy who was studying the holy book, the Koran, after school and fasting every day for the month of Ramadan and learning how to pray five times a day as Muslim kids do. So, naturally, I felt a little different from my classmates who are Jewish and Christian but sometimes I realize, on occasion, I would feel different from other Muslims. Now, when I sat in Sunday school, I learned that there are over 40 countries around the world with a Muslim majority and then all these Muslims were very, very different from each other. The Muslim world was very diverse. There are African Muslims and Arab Muslims and East Asian Muslims and European Muslims, even Muslims Latin America and Muslims from South Asia like the country of Bangladesh where my family was from.
But I didn’t realize all this diversity when I was a young boy. I just thought that all Muslims were like me, short, skinny and brown. So, on Eid… Eid is a very major holiday for Muslims, and there are two Eids and they were very important, high holidays like Christmas and Easter for Christians or Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for Jews. So, on Eid, my father and I would drive in his big Oldsmobile from Northbrook, the suburb of Chicago where I was growing up, all the way to downtown Chicago to McCormick Place, a very large convention center. And we were going there to congregate with other Muslims from around the Chicagoland area to pray together.
But one year, we learned that there was actually a mosque in Northbrook, just two miles away from my house. We no longer had to drive 20 miles to downtown Chicago to pray. And the reason why we didn’t realize that there was a mosque there was because it looked a lot like a municipal building, like a library or the city hall. But when they built the dome and the minaret, that tower where the call to prayer is given, it started to look like a mosque. So, one day when I was in fifth grade, that Friday for our prayer, my father and I went to go pray with the other Muslims. When I entered the building, I looked inside and I saw that everybody in the building was Caucasian. There were white. I said to my father, “I think we’re in the wrong building.”
He said, “Why do you think that?”
“Because everybody here is white.”
My father said, “Don’t be silly! There are Muslims like us. They just happen to be Caucasian because they came from Bosnia, from the former Yugoslavia. They were fleeing Communism and they came to America to study and practice Islam so they could have freedom of worship like the Pilgrims had.”
And I… that was very surprising to me. And I sat down with my father on the floor on our prayer rug and I listened to the sermon. And for a long time, I didn’t understand what was going on because the sermon was in Bosnian and I don’t speak any Bosnian. But later, when the sermon went to English and then to Arabic, I could follow along.
And that opened up my mind to how diverse the Muslim world was. But you know, even in my own family, there’s different ways of being Muslim and sometimes I feel a little out of place. Like, for example, I grew up in Chicago as a Muslim in the 70s and 80s. But my cousins from Bangladesh came to America in the 90s and they grew up going to Muslim parochial day school. Now, most of what I learned about my religion as a kid, I learned from books and my mother. But my cousin Nadia goes to a Muslim parochial day school and learned how to read the Koran and study Arabic and Islamic history along with gym and geography. So, you can say that she’s more formally practicing than I am. I think sometimes my behavior shocks her.
For example, at a family function once, she was sitting in the kitchen eating a halal shish kebab. Now, Nadia’s family follows strict Islamic dietary guidelines, which means she only eats halal meat. That’s meat that’s been slaughtered by a Muslim butcher in a prescribed manner. Now, I grew up eating fast food. So, at that function while she ate her shish kebab, I was eating a Whopper Jr. with cheese. And as I placed that Whopper Jr. with cheese into my mouth, I saw my cousin Nadia’s eyes grow wide, as big as saucers. And she looked at me and then the burger and then at me and then the burger and I wondered what she was picturing in her mind. Was she picturing me roasting in hell like her halal shish kebab? To my cousin Nadia, I just wasn’t Muslim enough.
Featuring Storytellers Arif Choudhury, Gerald Fierst and Susan O’Halloran
Through exploring misconceptions and common threads such as immigration and disagreements within their own religions, these three tellers bring alive their distinct histories and our common humanity to illuminate the experience of being an American in a time of religious tension, change and possibility.
What were you taught about other faith traditions? Were you given accurate information or misinformation?
What groups do you identify with? Do you ever feel as though you don’t fit in in your own group?
Why do people condemn, fear or stereotype people from different religions?
Is there a religion you’d like to learn more about? What similarities between the major world religions might surprise you?
Religious Tolerance and World Religions by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
More alike than not. When the three of us started working together, Gerry, Arif and me, Susan, one thing we discovered, over and over again – we are so different. For instance, man, woman, black hair, red hair, less hair, brown skin, white skin, raised Muslim, raised Catholic, raised Jewish, white collar.
My father was a doctor. My father was a doctor too. Now my family, blue collar workers, mostly manual laborers, but we did have one teacher. Big family, small family, medium family. Ah huh, younger. Okay, older. But Gerry and I, we like to exercise every day and we eat healthy. Huh, and I consider potato chips a vegetable. So, you can see, we’re really different.
In fact, sometimes the three of us would look each other and we’d say we’re so different. How could we ever be friends? But then we kept working on our show. We started discovering how similar we were, for instance, how all-American our upbringings really were.
All of our families celebrated the Fourth of July. How more American than that can you be? Yeah. We celebrated Fourth of July and we had a barbecue – tandoori chicken! Ha, ha!
Food seemed to be the common element for all of our holidays. For instance, on Thanksgiving, my grandmother would always make her prized, lime green Jell-O mold with those little miniature marshmallows suspended mid-mold.
Yes. And my family for Thanksgiving, amongst all the other foods, we also had Jell-O mold but we used the recipe from Julia Child with Grand Marnier.
Now see my working class, beer and peanuts family, we would not know what Grand Marnier, I can’t even say it, Grand Marnier liqueur was. Ha, ha, ha! And in my Muslim family, we didn’t even drink alcohol so I don’t even know what a liqueur really is.
And all of our families were baseball fanatics. My teams were the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. And Arif and I, we’re Chicago kids so we are waitin’ for the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series. Go Cubs! Oh, and that’s a real definition of faith!
Yeah, but then we kept talking about our faith traditions. We came to one major similarity – that we all pray to one God. And it’s the same God, the God who spoke to Abraham.
And in all of our religions, at one time or another, the women covered their hair as a sign of respect and dedication, devotion. And in Judaism, the men also wear a skullcap when they pray and when they’re indoors.
Yeah. Muslim men often cover their hair for prayer as well. And in all our faiths, we learned another language to practice our faith tradition. I had to learn Arabic to read the holy book, the Koran, and I learned Latin and I learned Hebrew. And we all have religious leaders. For Muslims, it’s called the imam.
Now Catholicism, there’s the priest, the bishops, the cardinal and then the pope. The Jews have a rabbi. Similarity though, in our religions most of the top leaders are men. Ha, ha, ha. And then sometimes we discover somp’in’ that really surprises. For instance, Catholics, we believe in the virgin birth of Jesus and so do Muslims. And, see, we didn’t know that.
But all of our religions have times for prayer and for fasting. I remember when I was a little kid, on Yom Kippur, we’d spend the whole day praying and fasting. Uh, All I wanted to do was to go home and eat.
Ha, ha, ha. For me as a Muslim, as a kid fasting, then sleep deprivation, every day for the 29 or 30 days of the holy month of Ramadan, I’d wake up before sunup to eat an entire medium cheese pizza and half of two liters of Diet Coke. So, I go that day from sunup to sundown with no food or drink.
And say the thing about how you sometimes you get stuck out traveling, you still have to pray when you’re on the road. Right. Practicing Muslims pray five times a day no matter where you are. So, a few years back my uncle and I were driving on a rural highway in Illinois heading up toward Chicago. The sun was coming down, was time for Maghrib prayer. So, my uncle pulled the car into the gas station. We took our shoes and socks off, threw our coats on the grass nearby as prayer rugs and we bowed facing east to the holy city of Mecca. Just a few feet away from the gas pumps and the highway.
Now prayer for us meant all 12,000 of us parishioners of St. Thomas Moore Parish going to one of the many Sunday masses. I used to go with my grandma and she’d always bring her crystal rosary. And sometimes the sun would stream into the stained-glass windows, hit that rosary and spray rainbows up and down the pews. I thought my grandmother’s rosary was made of magic diamonds.
As we were learning about all our faith traditions and the different facets and elements of our faith practices, we were showing all these flip charts and all the categories and the yellow sticky notes were posted with different pieces of each of our faiths. And the more that we looked at all those little slips of paper and the more we told the stories behind all those little yellow slips, the more we realized that really, we were more alike than different even though our families came from very different parts of the world.
My family came from New York City. I grew up in Brooklyn, in a little neighborhood called Borough Park. Borough Park could have been called Sholahova, which was the name of the little shtetl town or Jewish town that my family had come from. The avenue of Borough Park was lined with all the old Jewish merchants – the pickle man, the poultryman, the kosher butcher, the shoemaker, the baker – everybody was Jewish. I didn’t even know that the whole world wasn’t Jewish until I went to public school.
I lived in a house with my great-grandmother, my grandfather, my great aunt Tillie, my great-uncle Sam, my aunt Alice, my uncle Sidney, my cousin Jenny, my mother, my father, my sister and me. Next door were my cousins, down the street were more cousins. The doors were always open. Everybody came in and out all day.
My first crib was a dresser drawer. That way whoever was in the house could take me up and down the stairs and whoever was staying there would watch me. Every month, the whole family came to our house for the family meeting and we discussed whatever problems anybody had. Did they need a job? Did they need a loan to start a business? Do they need to get married? Whatever problem you had, the family would help. And that ethic went out into the big world. When we were very little, my great-grandmother, she would give us a dollar bill and she would say, “Go get milk and butter but I don’t want you to go to the big store. I want you to go to the little man. If we don’t help the little man, who will.”
Nowadays, well, the family still gathers. We celebrate holidays and life passages. And if we ever need help, we turn to each other and we know that there will always be help out there because if we don’t help each other, who will.
Now I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. My neighborhood was only 90 percent Irish when my grandparents came from Ireland to Chicago. They moved to an inner-city neighborhood of Chicago in the early 1900s that was just about 100 percent Irish. And coming from another land, they must have felt some comfort in being in a city that had politicians with names like Kennelly and Kelly and Daley. Now many years later in the 1950s, I was born and when I was 10 months old, my parents took us out of that mostly 100 percent Irish type neighborhood and moved us to a new development on the outskirts of the city.
They felt like pioneers. There were no streets, no sidewalks. We didn’t get mail delivered. And suddenly, they had new neighbors, some of whom had names such as English names or German names or Italian names. Now to my grandparents, this was a very dangerous situation because mixed neighborhoods could lead to… mixed marriages. And, sure enough, in high school didn’t I go and date a boy named Jim Worpinski. A Polish boy. This was interracial dating back then. Now we may have been many different kinds of white ethnic groups but the thing that held us together is that neighborhood was 99 percent Catholic. If someone asked you were… where you were from, you would say your parish on the southwest side of Chicago. I would say, “St. Thomas Moore.” I didn’t know that the official city name for my neighborhood was Wrightwood ‘til I was about 20 years old. Someone asked me where I’s from, I said Tommy Moore because we’re on a nickname basis with our St. And it did feel like ours. It was our St. Our neighborhood, our city.
When I heard Gerry talking about Borough Park, I realized that he and I have something in common. I also grew up in a Jewish neighborhood except I wasn’t Jewish. And when I hear Gerry and Sue talk about growing up in their ethnic and religious enclaves, I realize how different my story really is because I grew up in a suburb of Chicago as the only Muslim boy… as the only Bangladeshi boy.
My parents came to America from a country called Bangladesh, a small country just between India and Myanmar. My father first came to America because he wanted to study medicine. And then he hoped to go back to Bangladesh when it would be safe for him to have economic and educational opportunities there. But his father, my grandfather, told him to stay in America because there might be civil war brewing. At the time, Bangladesh was called East Pakistan and it might be war between East Pakistan and Pakistan for Bengali freedom. So, my father stayed in America, made money, sent it back home to the family where my mother’s family lived through the war. One of her cousins were… disappeared. The Pakistani army came and took him away. They never saw him again.
But later my father returned to marry my mother and they came and settled in Chicago where my dad, my dad got a job as a neurologist at Veterans Hospitals and we lived in this one high-rise, apartment building, because three other Bangladeshi families lived in that building too. So that was kind of our ethnic enclave. My mom and dad wanted to live there because they could share their language and their customs and their shared history and their shared loss from the war with those other families. But then one day, my dad decided to move away and buy a house in Northbrook. Now when I was living in that high-rise apartment, every morning our fathers would go off to work and our Bangladeshi mothers would gather those kids together and they would spend the day and they would trade each other’s specialty, Bengali recipes like chicken korma or roshgulla, a nice dessert. But they also taught each other new American recipes that they were learning from box tops and the sides of ingredients boxes like spaghetti with meatballs or macaroni with cheese or tuna fish sandwiches. And the other kids and I would watch Sesame Street or Electric Company.
But then we moved to Northbrook and then we were isolated from those families. Those families became my surrogate aunties and cousins and… to us. And now I didn’t see them very often, only on Saturdays at parties. And I lived in this… big house with my younger sister and my mom. And my sister and I played out… indoors quite a bit. I didn’t play outside with the other white kids. They all seemed older and they seemed to know each other. They had all gone to preschool together. I didn’t go to preschool with them so I didn’t play with them and I was afraid of being different. There was always constant reminders in our house about how different we were. There was patriotic Bengali music on the record player and each house had a… each room in the house had these woodcuts of balishi vistas, rural fishermen fishing and farmers farming. When I, later, got older and had white friends and I went to their houses, they didn’t have any of that stuff so I didn’t want to be different. But I was and I came to accept it. My parents had always thought that we would eventually go back to Bangladesh once my father was settled and had more opportunity there but that never materialized. And it was a young country with a lot of political turmoil. And then I was born and my sister was born. And my, my younger brother was born and my parents decided that kids are American. Let’s stay in America.
So, we wanted to share some of our stories with you today from our longer piece as long as everybody keeps in mind that nobody can speak for his or her group. I can’t speak for all Catholics, which certainly means I can’t speak for all Christians and I can’t speak for all Jews. And I can’t speak for all Muslims. These stories are just part of who we are.