New Muslim On the Block

Sometimes, being Muslim in this country means pretending to be something you’re not

Illustration: Emmen Ahmed

YYesterday I tried to solicit an assassin to come to my house for a hit job. I called an 800 number I found on the internet. I called from inside my home as I stood by the window, trembling. I was put on hold for a long time, which was stressful. What if the masked bandit was on my property, plotting his next murder?

The masked bandit I am referring to here is the fat raccoon that lives in my gutter. The assassin is an employee at Animal Control. I don’t know too much about raccoons, but my scientific understanding is they are ruthless interspecies killers who have rabies. I live in perennial fear that this raccoon will pounce on me while I’m outside, bite me in the face, and then I too will have rabies. I don’t know what exactly happens when you have rabies. I worry about becoming aggressive and threatening my elderly neighbors with physical violence.

I do not want this for many reasons. First among them: I’m the only nonwhite person on my block, maybe in the history of this block, and I don’t need that kind of attention. I don’t want to arouse suspicion in my neighbors. The elderly white couple next door knocked a “To Our Muslim Neighbors, a Blessed Ramadan” sign into the lawn two days ago. They angled it so I can see the sign from almost every room in my house.

People are watching, waiting for you to do something suspicious and Muslim-y, like declare holy war on a vegetable.

When she sees me outside, the wife, an avid yoga enthusiast, will sometimes say “Namaste” while doing prayer hands. Once, she shouted, “Hola!” at me from across the lawn, which I still think about to this day. It’s possible she believes I’m Mexican.

Sometimes, being Muslim in this country means doing Namaste hands back. Sometimes it means saying “Hola!” back, too. These days, it means feeling a little paranoid that people are watching you—and not even watching in a Big Brother surveillance kind of way. I mean regular citizens watching you at work, at school, at the neighborhood co-op down the street; people watching, waiting for you to do something suspicious and Muslim-y, like declare holy war on a vegetable. Neighbors whose Prius bumper stickers demand we COEXIST! watch too. They watch, especially.

TThe woman on the phone at Animal Control asked for more information about the raccoon. Why had I called to report him? “He’s a raccoon, first of all,” I said, but this apparently wasn’t enough of a reason. What was he doing that made him a pest, she wanted to know, so I told her about the eggs. Turkey eggs, cracked, shattered, the baby turkeys pried out, all over the front lawn.

“Eggshells,” I said dramatically. “This raccoon is out here eating babies.”

Animal Control seemed unmoved by this act of genocide. The raccoon was probably a mother, she said, casually. She was probably taking food to her own babies, down in the gutter. It was completely normal behavior for this time of year, she said, so as a last resort, I brought up rabies.

But why did I think the raccoon had rabies? Was the raccoon distressed or walking with a limp? Was it crazed in the eyes? Stumbling around, hissing at everyone?

I don’t think the raccoon is a metaphor for something. I hope to God she isn’t a metaphor.

“Look,” I said.I’m not some sort of raccoon behavioral expert. I can’t describe this raccoon’s mental state in any detail.” It was possible the raccoon had a limp. Animal Control sighed into the receiver. No one would be coming to look at the raccoon.

II am a child of immigrants. My parents are Turkish. We are unaccustomed to living in the wildlife sanctuary that is the American middle-class suburb. I did not grow up roasting confections on an open fire, wearing a North Face parka, trekking along the Appalachian Trail. I do not know how to interact with creatures of the forest. I have never pitched a tent, never (willingly) entered a camping store, never tested my self-reliance in some remote New England lake hut.

But now, as an adult American homeowner, I’ve been forced to embrace the wild. My yard is a rich nexus of animal social life. I share the property with a family of greedy squirrels and several tense chipmunks. Then there’s the homicidal raccoon with the manic look in her eye which comes, no doubt, after snacking on all that raw turkey fetus.

When I hang up with Animal Control, I feel distressed no one is coming to chloroform this baby-killing raccoon and drag it away. I don’t know why I feel so murderous toward this raccoon. I don’t know why I’m telling you this story. I don’t think the raccoon is a metaphor for something. I hope to God she isn’t a metaphor.

Sometimes you’re the first Muslim in your neighborhood, the first “immigrant.” You’re the only person on your street they don’t see at the Lutheran Church on Sundays, at any church at all. Maybe your name is unfamiliar and you are untrained in bonfire s’more-roasting techniques. Maybe you don’t put up a Christmas tree or go caroling or hang a wreath or bake a chicken pot pie from scratch. Maybe you can’t tell the difference between a rabid raccoon and one that’s not. Maybe you have zero horticultural knowledge, have never been on a wilderness adventure, never put on a starched pastel dress and hunted for Easter eggs in a topiary.

Maybe when there’s a block party you bring Tupperware köfte that smells like cumin, and maybe the Namaste neighbor comments on the cumin, which makes you wish you had brought something else instead, something packaged and neutral, something less revealing, something that doesn’t betray you, doesn’t prove to everyone just how much you don’t belong here. Something with an Americanness no one would doubt.

This story is part of “On Ramadan,” a collaboration between Human Parts and Muslim Women Speak.

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