Islamophobia

Required reading from the founder of MuslimGirl.com—a harrowing and candid memoir about coming of age as a Muslim American in the wake of 9/11, during the never-ending war on terror, and through the Trump era of casual racism.

At nine years old, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh watched from her home in New Jersey as two planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. That same year, she heard her first racial slur. At age eleven, when the United States had begun to invade Iraq and the television was flooded with anti-Muslim commentary, Amani felt overwhelmed with feelings of intense alienation from American society. At thirteen, her family took a trip to her father’s native homeland of Jordan, and Amani experienced firsthand a culture built on pure religion, not Islamic stereotypes.

Inspired by her trip and after years of feeling like her voice as a Muslim woman was marginalized and neglected during a time when all the media could talk about was, ironically, Muslim women, Amani created a website called MuslimGirl. As the editor-in-chief, she put together a team of Muslim women and started a life dedicated to activism.

This is the extraordinary account of Amani’s journey through adolescence as a Muslim girl, from the Islamophobia she’s faced on a daily basis, to the website she launched that became a cultural phenomenon, to the nation’s political climate in the 2016 election cycle with Donald Trump as the Republican nominee. While dispelling the myth that a headscarf makes you a walking target for terrorism, she shares both her own personal accounts and anecdotes from the “sisterhood” of writers that serve as her editorial team at MuslimGirl. Amani’s honest, urgent message is fresh, timely, and a deeply necessary counterpoint to the current rhetoric about the Middle East.

READ AN EXCERPT

“It’s okay, Ms. Brady,” we said to her when she was hunched over at her desk, her eyes red from the tears, her face contorted like she was hanging on by a thread that could break at any moment. “It’s going to be okay!” we cheerfully encouraged her. That only made her cry even more.

Our young fourth-grade minds were not much alarmed by these events, nor did we really think to string them together. How could we? How could we have possibly imagined what was waiting for us?

Our school day finally ended with an unscheduled early dismissal, much to our delight. Somehow, our parents were already informed of this, because when I ran out of school, my mom, who was routinely late to pick me up, was on time and waiting for me. I ran up to the car and Mama leaned over the passenger seat to unlock the door for me from the inside. I opened the door and didn’t even have time to climb into the seat before she said, “Amani, something happened today.”

“What’s up?” I asked, getting in and closing the door beside me.

“You know the Twin Towers?” she asked.

“No—” I responded, confused.

“You know those two really tall buildings that are next to each other in New York? That we were looking at and talking about how huge they were when Dad took us for a drive in the city?”

“Yes,” I said, remembering.

The only time I ever cried during an interview was when I was asked to recall my memory of 9/11. Was it for International ­Business Times? The Guardian? I can hardly remember anymore. But, surprisingly, I had never been asked that question before, and it caught me so off guard that when I started describing the vivid image seared into my memory, the tears began to fall.

On September 11, 2001, Bowne-Munro Elementary School in East Brunswick, New Jersey, planned to hold its annual Yearbook Photo Day. We were all dressed up and excited for an excuse to leave our classrooms, go outside, and spend the day on our grassy soccer field, against whatever backdrop they had for us that year. There was an electric energy of anticipation when we got to school. Everyone was wearing their best clothes; the boys wore new sneakers and the girls had their hair plaited in cute updos, or their smiles beamed from between bouncing curls. My hair was always frustratingly thick and slightly unruly, but at least Mama tried to brush it straight for me that day, my uneven curtain of bangs resting just above my eyes. I always felt my best on Yearbook Day, if only because Mama was eager to get a new set of photos of me to add to her collection. She took pride in displaying what turned out to be a chronological evolution of my awkward haircuts over the years, in pretty frames among porcelain figurines in the heavy cherrywood cabinet that was only accessible in the dining room on special ­occasions.

Mama loved Yearbook Day. She had just bought me a new outfit. I was wearing a stiff pair of jeans and a blue shirt—I hated the color pink when I was a little girl and rebelled against expected “girliness” by always opting for blue and green, which is fascinating considering nearly everything I own is pink now—with a black vest over it. I finished the look by slathering on my favorite Bonne Bell Dr Pepper Lip Smacker. I was probably wearing a pair of dress shoes that I couldn’t wait to show off. And I remember it was really warm and sunny outside.

From the earliest moments of our first period, however, something was weird. Actually, a lot of things were weird. First of all, it was eerily quiet in our school. The TVs in all of the classrooms, which were usually on the district’s cable channel of PowerPoint slide announcements to the background tune of elevator music, were turned off. That morning, the principal didn’t deliver our usual morning announcements over the PA system, either. Then, soon enough, we were told by our teachers, almost inconsequentially, that Yearbook Day was canceled. They told us pesticide was sprayed on the fields that morning so we couldn’t go outside. I remember feeling confused and a little disappointed, but everyone else just accepted that we would take our pictures another day, so I did, too.

Our math teacher cried so much throughout the morning that some of us thought that someone in her family had died. I remember the class trying to make her feel better while faculty passed through the halls or popped in every now and then in a state of disarray.

 

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