This year we held our first-ever Thanksgiving as a Muslim family. My sister and I were waiting for my mother to finish cooking, so I called to see how everyone was doing.
Mom was waiting in the kitchen, surrounded by pots, pans and frying oil and microwaved turkey breast. She was getting ready to make my brother-in-law’s spicy yogurt sauce and chicken with bulgur to serve with plenty of naan bread. This was the gravy we always make (my mom actually made all the sides for the holiday and I add my own butts-n-all to it).
My sister and I joked about how everything was taking forever, but she offered to make up the slow-cooking time for a few extra sandwiches (they saved every last one we took out of the fridge). That was the only time she smiled throughout the cooking process, as if trying to hide her unease.
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It was all totally normal for my parents to celebrate Thanksgiving as a Muslim family: my dad and grandpa would be at the table, laughing as always, and having a good time. But this year, Thanksgiving would be different because we were the first Muslims they had ever seen. They had a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that we, at least, were happy. And naturally, we weren’t.
My mother was the first one to see Islam as a religion. Her mother went to a mosque when she was in elementary school and, when my grandmother got religion, she didn’t know what it was because nobody else was going to talk about it with her. My mother grew up in the UK, where Muslims lived amongst people of different backgrounds. Nobody cared. In fact, it didn’t occur to my mom that non-Muslims would care about how Muslim she was.
We did have a big, lush house in a middle-class community. It was so huge, and my parents lived there until my sister was 2 and I was 3. Looking back, my sister and I probably spent every waking hour there, eating, watching TV, playing with Barbies and ripping out all the neighbors’ decorations and yard work. I remember making brownies on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and they would have been my favorite part of the meal.
The next day I’d thank mom for our dinner, and every time I did I’d ask her, “Why aren’t you turning on the white-out lights yet?” It seemed to me that no one cared about our problems as a family. We laughed together all weekend.
One Thanksgiving, when we drove from my parents’ home in western Massachusetts to Washington DC, we stopped in downtown DC to pick up my sister’s little brother. Our friends piled out of cars and out of their apartments. I could feel the tension in the air.
I called from the car as everyone was hanging up. “They’re here. I can tell that from the reactions of the children.” “Hallelujah!” my mother said, listening on the phone as our little brother jumped out of the car.
“That means that they’re taking it seriously that we exist,” I said.
“Hallelujah,” she said.
My Muslim brother-in-law serves pizza and pasta on Thanksgiving. Photograph: Twitter
That was the first time I thought that our family had taken Islam seriously, but that was just a glimpse of the time we had spent with our friends. We would all be together, celebrating with spaghetti, pizza and green beans for lunch, aunts and uncles and cousins eating next to each other around a table with a proper turkey dinner in the evening.
We were the first Muslims in our families. It was a strange change that my parents have never really talked about with us. Our biggest question is whether to put the importance of Islam in our children’s school math books. They will need to know that there are Muslims in their classrooms. And that they are Muslims even though they don’t have to be a Muslim.
I thought about the Thanksgiving we just spent and how much pride we had in every detail. I think we look back and say this day was the symbol of our family’s moment. We’re not the ones who went through what everyone else experienced when we were children.
You’re not scared to ask questions. You’re not scared to even speak out. And you’re not afraid to tell your friends and family how you feel about that which you think they don’