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 I earth, in search of that elusive greener grass.
Part Two: Brooke Benoit discusses hijrah-hopping across the Middle East with education specialist and EFL instructor, Jayla Muhammad, and her American-born children who have lived in Kuwait, Egypt, UAE, Qatar and now, insha Allah, are readying to move to Oman.
What is your family background?
My uncle was the first to become Muslim in my family. My other
uncle became Muslim next, then my mother and grandmother. After
a while all the cousins who were not born into Islam as well as my
two aunts took their shahadah. At one point in my life I gave myself
a year to make up my mind. I wanted to have a religious life and
I knew that I could not straddle the fence forever. I am grateful to
have been exposed to more than one faith and I think that I have a
deeper understanding and compassion for people from many walks
of life. I have a respect for others’ views and after giving myself that
year of learning and discovery, I chose Islam. So now, we have five
generations of Muslims in our family.
What was the first country you made hijrah to and how did you go
about doing it?
Egypt. I hated it from the first day. I got mistaken for being Sudanese
all the time. This is not a problem for me, but but it seems like the
people I ran into didn’t like people from Sudan. I was called every
name in the book! At first it didn’t bother me because they were
calling me names in Arabic, but after I learned what they were saying
it drove me crazy.
I was hired to teach at a fairly new school in Cairo which needed
teachers from the US to help them get certified. We did all the
interviews over the phone and they never saw me or any other
teacher. All together there were twelve teachers from the US, four
of us were black and all four of us got fired before the ninety day
probation period was over.
What other Muslim-majority places have you lived in?
I have lived in Kuwait, Egypt, UAE and Qatar. I didn’t like Kuwait and
I left because I didn’t feel safe as I had men follow me home from
work and shopping. From there I went to the UAE, which I really
enjoyed. I lived there for three years and made some great friends
and felt as if I could stay there for a long time. My kids all took Arabic
classes, had great friends and there were tons of wonderful parks
for them to play in or just to spend the day flying kites in. They were
happy and that alone made me happy.
We had to leave when I lost my job as I couldn’t find a replacement
job that I liked. I was offered many positions, but all of them required
me to take off my abaya and/or wear coloured scarves. Not that I am
of the opinion that a woman has to wear all black, but I’m not going
to work for a company that makes that choice for me. I knew Allah
I would provide something for me as long as I did what I knew in
my heart was right. I went to Doha and well, it didn’t really work out
for me so I returned home to the US.
You said you didn’t think you would ever go back to the ME after the first
time, what changed?
When I returned home I felt like I was in my own skin for the first
time in a long time, but that feeling didn’t last. After the honeymoon
wore off I started to feel like an outsider. I lived in Texas and there
are not many people in abayas there. I started to just wear hijab
and normal clothes, but I felt naked – I just couldn’t do it. I was also
uncomfortable in the abaya as people stared at me. Once, a lady had
rushed to grab her child away from where I was standing, insinuating
that I was going to do something harmful towards her child. I really
felt so low at that time. I don’t think I ever mentally recovered from
that day, and from there things just went downhill.
I started questioning everything. Why do I feel the way I do and why
am I allowing my children to deal with these issues? I wondered
what my life would really be like, if I would ever have the quality of
life I had before and would my children want to be Muslim as adults
or not? I felt that I was putting too much pressure on my children.
Then my children started asking me when we were going to go back
overseas. Our lifestyle in the US was very different when compared
to the UAE. My daughter was the only one in her school with a hijab.
Although this was not an issue for her, as she is she is very selfconfident, it did make it harder for her to make friends. We lived in an
apartment, we had an old car, we were struggling and it was hard on
them. In the UAE life was just better for me and my children.
Not many people have teens and tweens that want to move
overseas. Alhamduillah, I did. I think I needed that time away to really
appreciate the Gulf. Right now, we’re living in Egypt and while I can’t
see us making this home, I think I do feel better about being here
than I did about being in the US. Insha Allah once I am in Oman I will
be more at peace.
What are your long-term plans?
Well, we have several options. My husband wants us to settle in
Egypt. He has land here and wants to build an apartment for us in
Alexandria, but I am not sold on that idea. There are other countries
with large Muslim populations and I don’t and won’t just settle for a
place because it is convenient.
Once I retire, my kids can always sponsor me and that way I won’t
have to move. Or I can save my money, and once I find a place I
like, that offers a visa, I will retire there insha Allah. I find that saving
money is easier in the Gulf, after the first year it is easy to save up to
a quarter or even half of your salary. The first year I will have to set up
my home and buy a car, and if I work another ten years I can retire
with a nice piece of change. The one thing my children all have in
common is they all say they want to see the world. None of them
can even imagine a life without travelling.
*At the time of printing, Jayla was considering separate job offers in
Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
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 endeavours. 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 SISTERS Magazine (The Magazine for Fabulous Muslim Women) October 2011 issue.