Kindness erases a city of strangers

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In Chicago: What separates us?, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

This is a story about the afternoon I went to Target. And no, it is not about how I walked in to return a few items and buy some placemats and a pack of nails to hammer into the walls for my latest creative project, and somehow, inexplicably, walked out with $130 worth of purchases. Instead, it is a story about what I was wearing.

It was a rainy afternoon, so this is what I was wearing: a dress, a coat, pants rolled above my ankles (I am short, most of my pants are too-long, and I am constantly, accidentally walking into puddles), and — instead of my usual headwrap — a beanie smushed over my hair, with my bangs brushed to the side. Inside Target, as I picked up the items on my mental shopping-list, got sidetracked by yet more items, and zig-zagged my way across the store, I ran into half-a-dozen different Muslim women wearing headscarves. “Wow, there are a lot of hijabis in this city!” I exclaimed inwardly in surprise. Outwardly, I smiled brightly and exclaimed, “Assalamu alaikum [Peace be upon you]!”

And every single woman, without fail, replied very quietly and with a guarded expression, “Wa alaikum assalam [And upon you be peace].”

What surprised me was not the fact that the women didn’t guess on their own that I am Muslim. That’s understandable, given that we often use visual aids as a way of categorizing people, and so a woman like me, who was not wearing an obvious form of hijab, would not have automatically been recognized as Muslim. Rather, what surprised me was: 1. The confusion on each and every single woman’s face when I said, “Assalamu alaikum” (Why? Do they think only hijabis are “Muslim enough” to say salaam?), and 2. The lack of smiles in response to mine (Am I scary? Do they consider it a personal affront that I wasn’t wearing “proper” hijab that day yet deigned to say salaam? Are people in my city simply unhappy people who hate smiling?).

I gave the first few women the benefit of the doubt: Maybe they were disgruntled about the cold and rainy weather, perhaps they were sick, maybe they were preoccupied with their children, perhaps they’d had a terrible day. Maybe no one wants to see a happy, smiling girl on a crappy day when you want to stab everyone; it just makes you crankier. I tried not to overthink the whole thing too much — I didn’t want to feel defensive, blow things out of proportion, or over-analyze something that was possibly just a trivial, mundane interaction. But by the end of my Target shopping experience, when I’d run into no less than seven different hijab-wearing Muslimahs in various parts of the store, ranging from the makeup aisle to the office supplies to the home decor to the checkout line, I found myself rattled by the lack of smiles in response to my cheery, “Assalamu alaikum!”

Months ago, a Muslim woman I know posted the following facebook status, a beautiful little story that I’ve remembered all this time:

“An elderly lady kept smiling at me at Trader Joe’s. Every time we made eye contact, she grinned from ear to ear. Now I understand why the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] said, ‘Even a smile is charity.’ I feel like someone just gave me a million bucks for free.”

Smiles are a classy and dignified form of acknowledgment. There is a simple power inherent in them. A smile doesn’t have to mean, “I recognize that we are the same.” It could simply mean, “I acknowledge that we share this world, and I notice that we have crossed paths today for this millisecond, even thought we don’t know each other and may never see each other again.”

Each time I briefly interacted with yet another headscarf-wearing Muslimah who didn’t smile back at me, I walked away extra-conscious of my pants rolled above my ankles, my bangs brushing out from under my hat. They should see me on other days, when I wear sweaters with elbow-length sleeves or roll up my pants to my knees at the beach. Sometimes, when taking the garbage out to the chute at the end of the hallway of my apartment building, I even walk down the hall with my hair completely uncovered. The Target interactions made me feel defensive, even when there was no need to feel so.

In a sociopolitical climate in which many Muslims are wary of possible stereotyping and ignorance and hate from those who are Not Like Us, I have surprisingly found that the least understanding actually comes from my own family and other Muslims: “Why do you wear your scarf that way?” pointedly and repeatedly ask my aunts, and my cousins’ wives, and now even my tiny nieces & nephews. “Why is your neck showing!?” ask others.

“To annoy you,” I’ve come to retort. (It sounds even ruder in Hindko, which affords me brief moments of spiteful satisfaction.)

I tried to pep-talk myself out of hurt and exasperation. Perhaps all the unhappy Muslimahs in my city had chosen to visit Target that day; there must be other, nicer ones around somewhere. Or maybe I was just taking all this too personally, anyway. The lack of smiles didn’t equate to judgment; it just mean they were confused about how to categorize me. We’re human, we categorize people; it’s what we do.

On my way out of Target, I stopped briefly at the indoor coffeeshop to order a hot chocolate. Standing in line in front of me were two children, a boy and girl aged 5-7, along with their father. The little boy wore a bright-blue hearing aid in each ear. I surreptitiously glanced at him a few times as the line moved progressively forward; finally, as the little boy turned towards me, I smiled at him and said, “I like your hearing aids!”

“Thank you,” he mumbled shyly.

“Mine are red!” I said, and lifted my beanie above one of my ears. He smiled a tiny smile and nodded, his sister glanced at me curiously, and the father, in the midst of ordering their drinks, turned and smiled widely at me. That gesture of sharing my own hearing aids would have been nearly impossible on any other day, with my tightly-pinned headwrap usually covering my ears.

And so, on an evening in which the lack of smiles from my fellow Muslimahs felt like a stinging rebuke, I found that my spontaneous act of sharing something I rarely discuss in public, the acknowledgment of that personal condition and experience, and the family’s smile in return acted as a balm, soothing the bruise of non-acknowledgment from those whom I’d expected to feel most relatable to.

Who cares about headscarves and cranky Muslims? If I can get a smile out of a little boy over the fact that our collective ears all run on Duracell batteries, that’s good enough for me.

Once home, mulling all this over in my head, I realized this was not a story about what I was wearing (then again, perhaps it was, but I choose not to classify it as such). Rather, this was a story about open-heartedness. I remembered something I always try to live by: Other people have a choice in what they wear at home and when they go out into the world — their solemnity, their joy, their judgment, their truth, their sneers, their laughter, their lack of smiles. I can’t force people to smile, if they don’t at all feel inclined to do so (and, let’s face it, I have little patience for coaxing them).

But I, too, have a choice — to bring my heart in full force, wherever I may go.

Even if it’s just to Target, for a pack of nails.

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In Chicago: What connects us?, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

17 thoughts on “Kindness erases a city of strangers

  1. awwww, Yasminayyyy, this story made me want to give you a buncha bone-squeezy hugs! first, i gave you a big mental THUMBS UP for that “to annoy you” line ;) but yes, you are right! we tend to criticize our own, so much. or even that – who is “our own”? we draw so many lines. *shakes head* but smiles and kindness bring us together! love the serendipitousness of the hearing aid sharing on a day when you happened to not be wearing your usual.

    don’t worry about those girls.. maybe they were recently moved from the rude coast ;) remember the smiles.

  2. My favorite part:
    “Who cares about headscarves and cranky Muslims? If I can get a smile out of a little boy over the fact that our collective ears all run on Duracell batteries, that’s good enough for me. “

  3. Anjum,
    thankyou for the bone-squeezy hugs! i can feel the intention and the warmth of them even though 3,000miles away from you =) yes, we draw too many lines. may kindness and compassion blur them, inshaAllah.
    PS: if you use the “To annoy you” line in punjabi, i bet it would sound just as awesome as in hindko. just sayin’ ;)

    Yaser,
    “the key to happiness is to not care what others think” — you are smart, and i wish all desi aunties and uncles thought that way, too! hahaha

    Bean,
    i think that’s MY favorite part, too! =) Loveyou.

    Adnan,
    that would definitely be an interesting experiment. i BET you people would smile more at me! speaking of which, what do YOU think of smiling, Mister “Anti-public displays of kindness”?

    Faiza,
    i love you, too, and your comments/support =) how are you, beautiful, and how goes the life!?

    PS to everyone: I have 3 canadians commenting on this post, so far. this makes me happy! =)))) and Bean and I are already honorary canadians, and Anjum had a reunion with us all in toronto once, so that counts, too. this is perfect! canada makes me smile lots. GREAT SUCCESS.

  4. “i BET you people would smile more at me!”

    well, now you have your working hypothesis. “Data! Data! Data! I cannot make bricks without clay” – Sherlock Holmes.

    i find the nature of dealing with kindness to be somewhat complicated. and a matter of perspective, too. i don’t think it’s as simple as “oh, if only we were kinder to each other everything would be fine and happier.” and such statements strike me as hollow. because each person who reads them interprets kindness in their own way and says “yeah, we all just need to be kind! (my kind of kind.)” even though the person who says it and the person who reads it may have very different ideas of what constitutes kindness.

    “i will be kind to you dammit, and you had better like it!”

    assume for instance that the hijabis at target came in to the store tired and exhausted after a long day at work/school. they just want to pick up some sugar and multi-coloured socks and head home to rest. and in some way they want to be left alone on this particular day. perhaps in this context it is kind to just leave them alone. maybe smiling at them all jolly leaves them confused. certainly some of us have had such days.

    and yet at the same time, someone smiling at them all jolly might help. they smile in turn and everyone is in fact happy. but there’s this prevailing randomness, or perhaps lack of knowledge/information. and we can’t always be sure of how our actions affect others. if only we knew! if only it were so simple.

  5. Sweet Yasmine…I remember your beautiful smile ever since you were a young girl. My mother always said ‘kindness toward others’ and your smile is a breath of fresh air and a heartfelt gesture. Never stop smiling…

  6. That’s an interesting experience, one I can totally relate to. I used to assume it was because they couldn’t SEE me smile since I wear a niqab–but that’s not really true, since non-Muslims see my eyes smiling at them and they smile right back. Also, certain ethnicities of Muslims near-always smile back–they seem to see my smiling eyes just fine. So, I really can’t figure out why the majority of Muslimas who won’t smile back. Is it a cultural thing? Is it their idea of good Islamic behavior, wherein smiling in public might give the wrong idea to strangers? Or perhaps smiling back is just not as instictive to some people–perhaps they just think WE are the weird ones for smiling at THEM, people we don’t know and with whom we will never have a “meaningful” relationship?

    No matter what, keep smiling. Even if it doesn’t help anyone else, it helps yourself; not sure how true numbers 5, 6 and 7 are in this article: http://longevity.about.com/od/lifelongbeauty/tp/smiling.htm, but you know what? I’m kind of digging it.

  7. As always, beautifully written and very thought-provoking! Thanks so much for sharing. And be grateful you were able to connect the dots when it came to the serendipity of sharing hearing aids on a day you just happened to be wearing a beanie!

  8. Yasmin,
    I think we get our fair share of cranky Muslimahs, whether we wear hijab or not. Sometimes, they act meaner to you when you wear a hijab!! I wear hijab and once I was picking up my 2nd grader after school and this hijabi lady in the car behind me unleashed her wrath at me, cursed at me and showed me her finger. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted!!! And I felt she did that to me because I was Muslim! May Allah guide us all and help us through our rough days… keep up your cheery self. It is a gift from God. Love xoxo another fellow Muslimah

  9. I like that you showed your hearing aids to the little boy. Such a sweet moment!:)

    I love your blog! I found it referred on Aisha Iqbal’s website. I have a blog too that I recently started: http://www.reemfaruqi.com.

    I will come back and read your blog…it’s written well and artsy :)

  10. Your such a snobbish git, making a mole hill out of nothing. So what they did’nt smile back. have’nt you learnt anything!! Just grow up and get over yourself Woman!!!!!!!!! & !

  11. Just happened to stumble across your blog today, and am already hooked :)
    I make an effort to smile and say salam to every muslimah I meet after a revert sister of mine told me in tears how just after she took her shahada she was in Tesco and said salam alaikum to several sisters who all ignored her :(
    love your writing style :)
    ps. how do you say “to annoy you” in Hindko?
    xx

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