A Very Islamic Thanksgiving

So much in the news about terrorism and Muslims. If there were a relationship status update for people and religion, I’d have to put: Islam and me: It’s complicated. Now, I’m married to a nominal Muslim, somebody who was raised going to Koranic school and fasted during Ramadan, but who now eschews all things religious. Just like me. Since we live in Virginia, my husband gets lots of questions lobbed at him about his religion. His answer: “I’m Southern Anglican with a smidge of Eastern Baptist.” People stare, dumbfounded. But this is about me and Islam and how Thanksgiving seems to be the most prominent holiday when it comes to me thinking about Islam. 

Back in 1980, during the height of the Iranian hostage crisis, my mother invited my Iranian foster sister’s fiancée and my other Iranian sister’s friends – about ten in all – to our house for Thanksgiving. My father’s best friend since childhood, a politically incorrect guy by today’s terms, looked at the Iranians sitting around our table, enjoying our Thanksgiving feast, and turned to my father, “So I guess back in 1944 your table was full of Japanese” (he used a more pejorative term, one my mother quickly told me to never use). Nevertheless, everybody, including all the Iranians, laughed. 

Fast forward a few years and Maryam, my Iranian sister, is now married. She and her husband have just escaped from Iran after returning to “do good for the country” – think of the movie “Argo” and you have the scene set before you – and are refugees. Having had a nervous breakdown in Iran, seeing her infant daughter almost starving to death and Maryam is angry. Once a devout Muslim, she now hates the religion of her youth. Or rather, she hates what the revolution in Iran has done to it. Cameran, her husband, had to escape on a plane, while revolutionary guards stormed it looking for him. If not for the quick thinking and kindness of a French flight attendant, he would not be sitting at our Thanksgiving table.

Fariba, also Iranian, but Bahai, a religion that is banned in Iran, has lost her brother in law when he was shot in the back, trying to escape Iran with her sister and two young sons. Having grown up in Iran, she hates hard line Islam. But also understand that most Muslims are just regular people, trying to make a life.

Every year my mother invites a family who might be away from home to our Thanksgiving meal. This year she has invited an Egyptian couple. Devout Muslims, the man sports an scraggly, long beard. His wife wears the hijab, her beautiful face surrounded by folds of grey material, hiding her hair.

My brother, Jack (Jack Daniel), is angry because be mother has decided not to have a ham, in deference to the Egyptian Muslims couple.

“But we always had ham with the Iranians,” he complains.

“Yes, but they didn’t mind the ham. This guy does.”

Jack grumbles about the lack of ham at our Thanksgiving table. What is Thanksgiving without ham?

We are sitting down, eating our meal, after the Egyptian man has said a Muslim prayer in Arabic. The Iranians, most of them Muslim themselves, seemed sort of uncomfortable. Why would he say a Muslim prayer at a Christian home?

I’m picking through my green beans and suddenly find some bacon bits. Oops. My mom, with all of her cultural awareness and not serving ham at our table in honor of the Muslim couple, has accidentally put bacon bits in the green beans. I ask my sister, Fariba, if I should say something. No, she says. If the Muslim couple eats them accidentally, that is okay. Why make them upset? Mary and and Fariba’s friend Sima, both Muslims, say yes. Not because they want he and his wife to stop eating the beans, but because they want to see his face full of disgust. They hate the revolution in Iran. They are Muslim but they hate sanctimonious Muslims and are annoyed that the man presented my father with a Quran right before we said grace.

I tell my mother and she thinks it is only right to tell him. He is polite, thanks her for letting him know. He tells his wife to stop eating immediately. It’s a shame. She really seemed to like those green beans with bacon bits.

My brother, Jack, grumbles. After all this, we should have just had the big ham sitting in the middle of the table. 

Sima and Fariba decide it will be funny to put balloons in my sweater. The Egyptian man is disgusted, making my Iranian sisters all the happier. He tells his wife to look away. She does, diverting her face. But her eyes rest on my fifteen year old body, replete with giant balloons stuffed in front of me. And I can see her laughing. Quietly, of course. 

Fariba and Sima think I should go tell my mother I’m not a virgin. I am. But they want to see the Muslim man’s face when I say I am an unmarried, teenaged girl who has had sex. I’m sort of a pawn in their games but, even though at this time I don’t understand the background behind it, I can see their disgust with him. In time, I’ll learn that this is their way of getting back at him and possibly at a system of oppression. That in another place and time they would not have the power to make fun of him and his religious views. Here, safe in my parents’ home – Christian and American – they have some power. I’m a pawn. 

Still, I feel badly when I sidle up to my mother, standing between where she and the Egyptian wife are seated and say, just loud enough for the man to hear, “I am not a virgin.”

My mother is still fixated on her terrible mistake of adding bacon bits to the green beans and says, “That is nice, dear.”

My father gives me an angry look. He believes we should be culturally sensitive to our guests. He looks across the table to my Iranian sisters and I can tell he wants to give them a thumbs up too. Like I said, it’s complicated.

Middle Eastern music comes on the record player. 

My parents and Cameran, Maryam’s husband, bury their faces in their hands. 

Oh Dear Allah, Maryam is going to belly dance.

She comes down the staircase, the same one she walked down with my father when she and Cameran got married in their Muslim and Persian wedding and my father gave her away (a tradition they loved from America and were not opposed to mixing it up a bit). She is wearing the belly dancing costume she sewed together, right after they had escaped from Iran and were refugees.

The little coins Maryam sewed on, a painstaking chore she did with love, crash together to make a chink chink chink sound. Her belly rolls, she isolates different parts of it, and she has incredible abdomen muscles. As if they were their own beings, her hips swish side to side. I’ve watched Maryam belly dance, both while we are alone and she is teaching me and during Iranian parties and her wedding, but I don’t know that I have ever seen her so defiant, so enjoying the moment as I do now. Sima and Fariba begin to ululate, and Maryam builds up speed.

She sashays right over to the Egyptian man. Between him and his wife, her entire being covered except for her face, Maryam stops. She begins to beckon the man. Her body moves in ways that are as sensual and old as time. Cameran’s face is still in his hands, hiding. I think this is for the Egyptian man’s benefit? Because, beneath it all, I see him laughing.

I’m fifteen but I know something is happening here. My parents, Westerners who love their Iranian daughters and friends, enjoy this show. But they also know our guests, the more devout Egyptians, may be uncomfortable. Cameran is caught between two worlds, unable to control his out of control wife, but enjoying it immensely. Fariba and Sima, and my other foster sister from Laos (and, having grown up Buddhist has little to no idea of what is going on), are whooping and cheering Maryam’s act of defiance. The Egyptian wife, I can’t help but notice, has sparkly eyes and I seem to know that, if it weren’t for her dour husband and the other men around our Thanksgiving table, she’d get up and dance herself.

I’m fifteen and, during a very American meal in which we all give thanks, I am schooled in religious and international culture and politics. Iran has the United States by the balls, holding our hostages and its students, under the grip of Ayatollah Khomeini, there is a religious fervor that terrifies Americans. The Iranians at our table, Muslims themselves, do not share that fervor. The Egyptian man and his wife are the devout ones. His face registers his disgust of Maryam’s belly dancing antics and even my mother’s accidental addition of bacon bits to the green beans. Yet, he is kind and invites us all to his home a couple days later, where we share a feast at his table. 

And this is what I learn about Islam at the very American holiday of Thanksgiving. It is not a monolithic being. Like Jews and Christians, Muslims follow their religion differently. It is wide and varied, and it is not to be feared. I am the only person who ends up reading our Quran (the English translation side, of course). But I always think back to that very pious Muslim man and his wife wearing the hijab, who sat with us and shared a traditional American meal with my family, which included Iranians, and I realize that it can be done. Even if some bacon bits get in the way.