From discussions of identity, belonging and race to home and family – SISTERS brings you The Hijrah Dialogues chronicling a diverse body of brave adventures and trials as muhajiras seek out their own spot on the spaciousness of Allah’s earth, in discovery of that elusive greener grass.
Part One: Brooke Benoit catches up with Iman Zaineb 44, an English as a Foreign Language instructor and professor of World Religions with an MA in History of Religions-focus on religions of South Asia, to discuss her journey from the USA to Morocco, and back again.
A Muhajir Mama’s First Flight
When American convert Iman Zaineb was seeking a second husband, her marital forum profile insisted that hijrah be included in the package, “I want to live where I can hear the adhan five times a day, and not from a clock that looks like a mosque!” Her call sent out from Atlanta, Georgia was answered from Casablanca, Morocco.
Iman, a well-seasoned traveller, avoided the typical expat intercultural communication and intestinal discomforts as she, along with her young daughter, quickly settled into a honeymoon period – both as a newlywed and also what expat experts call those first idyllic days of living in a new-to-you country.
“When I first arrived in Morocco, I lived in a very conservative, simple neighbourhood of working families. Because of the architecture of the place, neighbours saw each other frequently, while coming and going, hanging laundry, etc. We spent a lot of time chatting, going back and forth from each other’s houses and watching our children play. This was probably my best time as a Muslimah because there was a beautiful mosque in the area and I would often go with my neighbours to pray. I learned a lot about Islam and about Moroccan culture at this time.”
Iman felt the rawness of being a stranger, an immigrant, and a black one at that.
It all gets real
Then Stage 2 began. As was agreed upon before the purchase of airline tickets and the nikah, Iman returned to work. She found a job at an American school where her daughter enrolled. The family moved closer to her job, which meant higher rent, and in turn Iman had to take on more work during evenings and weekends. This was less than ideal as she was now “always working” and spending few waking hours with her young child. Six months later she began a better paying job teaching English as a Foreign Language full-time at a costly international English language center in an urban district of Casablanca.
New unforeseen challenges arose for her as she was now forced to make choices she hadn’t imagined to be concerns in a Muslim country. “If I wanted the best paying classes in the banks, in the offices, of the CEOs of various industries, wearing my hijab was going to be an issue. It became a choice between looking like a Muslimah, or feeding and educating my daughter.”
Between the commuting, working long hours, de-hijabing for work, and the power plays with Iman being the family’s breadwinner, her marriage began to suffer under the stress. Iman and her husband amicably agreed to separate and she was granted a talaq (divorce).
“I went [to Morocco] to marry a Muslim man, with the desire to complete half of my deen. And within two years, I was back to being a single parent – struggling and outside of my homeland and without my family.”
Iman moved, for the third time, within walking distance of her job and her daughter’s new school. In her new neighbourhood, not only was the masjid and Islam not “at the forefront of the scene at all,” but Iman felt the rawness of being a stranger, an immigrant, and a black one at that, “There were very few Muslims interested in entertaining a friendship with an African American single mother. Issues of race and marital status began to crop up in way that I, inspired by this Qur’anic verse, had not expected:”
“O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes that ye may know one another.” [Sura Al-Hujurat:13]
When applying for her latest apartment, this time by herself, Iman was shocked and frustrated that, “I had to show my passport and have the office manager of the company vouch for my American-ness!” The landlord was upfront about not wanting to rent to sub-Saharan Africans due to stereotypes and biases common in Morocco. Innumerable micro aggressions and overt occurrences of racism became par for the muhajir’s course. In the chic interior of her job’s offices her “blackness” had her occasionally mistaken for a cleaning lady. Outside the offices, her treatment was sometimes worse:
“I was walking close to my home, after having taken my daughter to school when I saw a beautifully dressed older Moroccan woman walking past me. Her jeleba and scarf were amazing, and so I smiled and gave my salaam, since she was looking at me right in the face. She responded, “Shnoo briti, aziya?!” This is one of the strangest responses to ‘As salaamu alaikum’ that I have ever received. It’s Moroccan Darija for, “What do you want, black girl?!” Her response was an indication of the fact that to her, despite my hijab and modest dress, my Islam wasn’t enough. She saw me only as a Black person.”
And away we go
These unexpected treatments were immensely different from Iman’s professional life as a teacher in the United States, at the prestigious all African American Morehouse College for men. She was the first woman, the first Muslim and even the first non-Minister to teach in the Department of Philosophy and Religion. Iman did not experience open discrimination based on her religion or gender, rather she was awarded for her teaching excellence.
EFL teachers in developing nations are notoriously treated as expendable. After five years of teaching, living, loving and learning in Casablanca, Iman’s stay unexpectedly came to an end when her company restructured and she was offered to renew her contract with too little work to support her small family. Not only did she not have the time and resources to quickly find another position elsewhere, but back in Atlanta her family was begging to see her and her daughter. Iman heeded her mama’s call and flew home.
On opposite shores of the Atlantic Ocean Iman has had to consider which side is greener and why? “Sometimes, while in Morocco, I wondered why I had left Atlanta?” She admits it was partially, “a bit of an Orientalist’s desire to live in the magical, mystical world of an Islamic nation, surrounded by fellow Muslims, and to raise my daughter in such an environment.”
For all the struggling of back and forth, Iman notes that her daughter has benefitted the most from their hijrah experience. Not only is the nine year old fluent in three languages, she has learned far more Qur’an than Iman has had the time to do so since her conversion over a decade ago.
Currently Iman is embarking on a new home-based career that she hopes will travel well, either back “to Morocco or some other Islamic nation – with more awareness and more mental preparation – so that my daughter can continue to study Arabic and Qur’an.” Insha Allah!
Brooke Benoit is an American artist who is home-educating her children in Casablanca, Morocco. She hopes, insha Allah, that life in The Mahgrib is the first leg of her own hijrah endeavors. Amongst her many interests and concerns are radical education reform, sustainable living practices, self-expression and discovery through art, and sisterly love.
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of SISTERS Magazine–the magazine for fabuous Muslim women!