Journalist and television creator Zarqa Nawaz grew up as one of the only Muslim kids in her Canadian neighborhood. With her long braids and curried chicken lunches, Nawaz didn’t always have the easiest time relating to her peers.
Nawaz has explored the complexities of Muslim identity in the West in various projects, including her sitcom “Little Mosque on the Prairie” and documentary “Me and the Mosque.” Her new memoir, titled Laughing All the Way to the Mosque: The Misadventures of a Muslim Woman, comes out in May and uses humor to shed light on her experience of difference.
In the excerpt below, Nawaz describes her struggle as a child to fit in with the other kids — and the unlikely person who came to her aid.
“Ummi, could you make me a sandwich, like the other kids?” I asked my mother as she wrapped curried chicken drumsticks in aluminium foil for my lunch.
My mother was the reason I was a social pariah. I would watch the other girls eat their neat little sandwiches while my lunch radiated smells like an onion-infused nuclear bomb. After lunch, all the kids at Fallingdale Elementary School went out for recess. The girls skipped rope while I sulked by the brick wall. My oily chicken legs were keeping me from assimilating. No one came near me because I was probably contagious. I wanted to be like Kathleen, with her long, shiny, blond hair, light, airy summer dresses and lunches that smelled like vanilla. Her hair, her clothes, her sandwich. I envied all three. Perhaps I could have one of them.
My poor mother sighed as she listened to my complaints.
“People look at me strangely when I eat those things,” I said, pointing. “No one wants to play with me because of my lunch.” I was a clumsy carnivore among graceful herbivores.
The next day I walked to school armed with my sandwich – white bread, peanut butter and jelly – which smelled like candy instead of cumin. It was the aroma of triumph. I waited anxiously for lunchtime, and when it came I looked over at Kathleen, sinking her teeth into a chocolate doughnut. This was it. It was about to happen. I would open my brown-paper bag, pull out my waxed-paper-wrapped sandwich and suddenly my world would change. I’d be at Kathleen’s house, and she’d let me comb her long blond hair while we talked about planning her ninth birthday party.
“What made you notice me?” I’d ask.
“The sandwich,” she’d say.
As I opened the aluminium-foil package – could my mother never be trained? – Kathleen turned and looked directly at my sandwich. It was working! Kathleen gave a little wave – to the cutest boy in our class, who was right behind me – before turning back to her shiny-haired friends. There wasn’t enough white bread in the world to make me fit in with white kids.
As I sat dejected and hungry (it turns out that curry drumsticks are much more filling than peanut butter) on the carpeted floor with my grade-three classmates, I contemplated my options. The sandwich didn’t work. The golden hair was out of the question. But maybe, just maybe, I could change my clothes.
I looked different from the other girls. It wasn’t just because I was brown and had long braids. It was the way my mother dressed me. My clothes were odd. I looked over at Kathleen, who was wearing a miniskirt with a halter top. I was wearing brown cords with a matching corduroy shirt. She was the fairy princess and I was the ugly stepsister. But even ugly stepsisters could go shopping. If I could convince my mother to make me a sandwich, how hard could it be to convince her to let me wear a dress? I dragged my beleaguered mother to Kmart and found a white peasant minidress that fell to my knees. It was perfect.
The next morning I ditched the corduroy, put on my beautiful white dress and looked at myself in the mirror. My legs were a little cold, never having been exposed to that much air before, but I looked like a brown princess. My mother had become my fairy godmother, and as I grabbed my sandwich on my way out the door, my metamorphosis was complete.
“You’re not going out dressed like that,” my mother said, staring at my bare legs.
My mother was in traditional Pakistani clothes: the shalwar kameez, a long tunic with baggy trousers. To her, wearing a dress without trousers meant you were half naked, like forgetting to put on your shirt, going to school topless.
I dutifully returned upstairs and put on my cords under my dress. I looked in the mirror again. My fairy godmother was actually a fairy godmonster and had reversed the spell.
When I was five, hanging on to the ears of a giant red rubber ball, happily bouncing down the street in Liverpool, my father had called me over. “We are moving to Canada,” he said.
Now I was eight. I wanted to tell my parents that I didn’t fit in, but I realized they didn’t fit in either. They had left behind their entire lives to make a better one for their children. Being in Canada meant opportunities that a life in rural Pakistan or even in Liverpool couldn’t provide, and for that they were grateful. But I, their only daughter, who’d had no say and had been forced to leave behind, among other things, a giant red bouncy ball, was not grateful at all. I was ugly, and to me that was worse than being a starving child with maimed limbs in Karachi, Pakistan. In Brampton, Ontario, I was the only brown girl in my class.
When I came home for lunch, corduroy pants brushing noisily under my dress, I must have looked extra-sullen.
“Why are you here?” my mother asked. I pulled out the sandwich that had failed to fix everything that was wrong with my life and munched on it sadly. “I’d rather just eat at home.”
“The kids don’t like me. I have no friends.”
“Did someone tell you that?”
“No one says anything to me, Ummi,” I said. “It’s like I’m invisible.”
“You should try harder,” she said.
I did, I thought to myself. But someone made me wear trousers under my dress.
I knew that my mother’s childhood in Pakistan had been a happy time. Her family’s wealth meant she always dressed in the most fashionable clothes and was one of the most popular girls in her class. If anyone had had the power to be a bully, it was my mother. My father used to tell me that she had servants to wash and iron her clothes and get her ready in the morning. My mother would vehemently deny these stories as horrible exaggerations, but I noticed that every wool sweater of mine that she washed wound up a shrunken scrap of felt.
My mother regarded me, her ugly duckling.
“I’m coming to school with you.”
I looked up to where I thought God must live, thinking, Am I not suffering enough?
Surely if God could create an entire universe in seven epochs, erect mountains and fill oceans full of resplendent creatures, he could find a way to let me wear a dress without trousers. But no, in his limitless glory, God’s solution was to have my mother come to school with me. She was the mothership of uncoolness, and I had unwittingly unleashed her. I assumed I was being punished for complaining.
The playground was full of children, mostly girls with spaghetti-strap tops and short skirts that revealed snatches of brightly patterned underwear when they jumped rope. I could see the shock on my mother’s face. This was not going to help me shed the trousers from under my dress. She stopped in the middle of the playground, surveying the lie of the land with the authority of a general assessing the battlefield. She spotted the leader, Kathleen, my Kathleen, who was wielding the skipping rope.
“Excuse me,” said my mother. “Can my daughter play with you?”
Kathleen looked first at my mother and then at me. She was obviously confused by the sight of a sad, petulant child wearing a summer dress with brown corduroy trousers in the radiating heat, sporting braids that had gone out of style a hundred years ago, standing beside a large Pakistani woman in a long shirt and baggy pantaloons ballooning like sails in the wind. My mother looked like a pirate and I her oppressed first-mate. I mouthed a silent prayer: God, please kill me now.
“Sure, she can play,” said Kathleen, and handed me the rope so I could take over. My mother went home. I learned that until a girl tripped, the rope turners weren’t allowed back into the game, and today nobody was falling down. By a bizarre turn of events, Kathleen too had been freed from bondage.
It turns out that skipping rope in the playground was a meritocracy: so as long as my wrists still worked I was allowed into their circle, even if I was dressed for the wrong century. Apparently all I had to do was ask. God clearly works in mysterious ways.
The next week, as my mother packed my sandwich, I looked at her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Do you want tuna instead of peanut butter?”
“Could you put the chicken drumsticks back into my lunch?” I asked. “I kinda miss them.”