By Yaseen Eldik
Dec. 23, 2018
If you turn onto Primrose Lane at the tip of the North Shore of Long Island, you’ll find a row of neat, two-story colonial homes decorated with wreaths and reindeers. My parents’ home is undecorated. They are not allies of the Grinch or Mr. Scrooge. They’re Muslims, the only Muslims in the neighbourhood.
I grew up in that home. My parents, Egyptian immigrants, moved from Queens in 1991 to raise my two siblings and me in a safer community. They were drawn to the tidy yards with swimming pools and schools with green lacrosse fields.
My mom’s head scarf, our odd names and our shaded skin led to persistent inquiries. Our classmates often mispronounced our names, which led to taunting — particularly after the tragedy of Sept. 11, when they would amuse themselves by chanting “Bin Laden” at us on the school bus. One day in high school, I walked out to our driveway to find my tires slashed.
My effeminacy made things worse. One Saturday night, when I was in ninth grade, kids were hanging out after a football game and drew a picture of me on our town’s abandoned water tower with the words “Garab (read: gay Arab) Terrorist” painted on it. It might still be there.
We would often wake on weekend mornings to find empty beer cans scattered across our front lawn. I would usually clean them up before my 5 a.m. shift at the local bakery on Saturday. But if it was Sunday, and I was sleeping in, my dad would pick them up. Christmas break was especially stressful because, with school closed, there was more time for vandalism.
Around Christmas 2006, eggs were thrown at our home. I remember climbing onto the roof through a front-facing window in my brother’s bedroom, balancing a bucket of scalding hot water to scrub the yolk off the shingles. It took hours, and I got frostbite. Our neighbours had eggnog; we had egg yolk.
I hated that this happened. But I mostly resented that my family was different, that I was not white and that my name was not John or Michael. On Christmas Eve, during my bakery shift, classmates would sometimes stop by on their way home from church for holiday pastries. Some were friendly. But I was too ashamed to embrace their holiday spirit.
One time, I came home so exhausted I couldn’t even make it up to my room. I slumped at the bottom of the stairs; my mom sat next to me. She didn’t ask what was wrong. Instead, she shared stories of her own experiences. Like when her colleagues looked askance at her when she began wearing her hijab at work. In her customary Egyptian folk wisdom, she said, in Arabic, “Irmee Wara Dahrak,” translated, “Throw it behind your back.” She also pointed out that bullying happens to many people for many reasons.
My mother’s words stayed with me, and over time helped me transform my pain into empathy. Whenever I go home, I run into those kids who used to torment me. We say hello awkwardly at a restaurant or the supermarket and catch up. My mind goes back to those painful school years, and I wonder if they remember, too.
But I know it doesn’t matter. The way they once saw me is no longer part of what I see in the mirror. I understand now that, through all her stories and corny words of encouragement, my mother was trying to teach me that I define myself.
This is the time of year when we all go home — in a car, on a plane or just in memory. These experiences will always be part of who I am. But so are the values my parents instilled in me. Whatever your tradition, returning home for the holidays offers a chance to renew a sense of yourself. By stepping out of our daily routines and re-encountering our past we can decide who we want to be in the future. I will draw strength from my family’s Muslim faith, Egyptian heritage and American experiences, the good ones and the bad ones.
This Christmas, when we gather at my parents’ home, we’ll eat red and green peanut M&Ms while we watch “The Family Stone” or “A Christmas Story” for the hundredth time. We’ll drive into the city to admire the festive windows on Fifth Avenue, and we’ll take a few selfies at Rockefeller Centre. My mom will tell the story of how a mutual friend’s Christmas party brought her and my father together, and she’ll point out, once again, the nearby Netherland Club, where they wed.
When we turn the corner onto Primrose Lane, we’ll stop to admire Santa and his sleigh lit up in midair above a neighbours’ front lawn. We’ll pause in the driveway so that we can finish singing along to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” the peak of our car-ride karaoke. Later, we will catch up on the prayers we missed while hunting down those holiday bargains. The house will fill with the aroma of cumin from my mom’s simple meal of ful medames, a fava bean dish.
Within the walls of our undecorated home, we carry on our own Muslim Christmas tradition.
Yaseen Eldik, a lawyer, is working on a screenplay titled “Primrose.”