A few days ago while the kids and I were at the park, a fellow Muslim woman I did not know approached me and said salam. I returned her salam and invited her to sit down on the bench next to me, and we started chatting and introducing ourselves to one another.
She had a five-year-old boy, who was playing in the sand area with my youngest son, Khalid. Her son’s name was Muhammad, also the name of my eldest son.
She did not speak perfect English, but we communicated just fine Alhamdulillah.
“Where are you from?” she asked me.
“Egypt,” I replied.
“Where is that?” she asked.
“In northern Africa,” I answered. “Where are you from?”
“Tajikistan,” she told me. “I’ve been in America for three years now.”
She was born and raised all her life in her native country of Tajikistan. Though her father died when she was young, she has a mother and two younger sisters. Her entire family is still in Tajikistan, while she and her husband and their young son moved to the United States. She also mentioned to me that she was four months pregnant and that her husband works as a truck driver so he is gone for about a week or two at a time. When he’s gone, she is home alone with her son and her pregnancy.
I sympathized with her, my heart going out to this young mother far from home, along with a young child and a new pregnancy without the benefit of a loving mother, a supportive sister, or helpful neighbors or friends to check in on her while her husband is away working for weeks at a time.
“Do you know any Muslim sisters in this area or have any friends here?” I asked her sympathetically.
She said no. She had lived in New York when she first came to America, then in Alabama, and now in Texas. She didn’t know anyone too deeply because of the frequent moves and had no friends in America. I could only imagine her feelings of loneliness and isolation, and I felt sad.
“Do you like living here in America so far, or do you wish you could live in Tajikistan since all your family members are there?” I asked her.
“Oh, I prefer living here in America,” she answered immediately, surprising me. “In Tajikistan, it’s hard to be Muslim. If you want to wear the hijab, it’s very hard over there. It’s illegal in Tajikistan to wear the hijab at work or at school. You can’t enter any government building wearing your hijab. So my husband and I came here so that I can wear my hijab.”
I was shocked. Tajikistan is a Muslim majority country. Yet hijab is banned!
She read my shock, and said, “Tajikistan is influenced a lot by Russia. And in Russia they hate religion, especially in public. Tajikistan was once part of the USSR.”
“So what do women do in Tajikistan?? Do they all take off their hijab? What do your two sisters do?” I asked, still in disbelief.
“My sisters wear the hijab wherever they can…but they take it off when they go into public buildings to obey the law. One of my sisters is in school and the one one is working. They wear the hijab most of the time, but take it off to go to work and to school.”
The sister continued, saying, “I have had almost no trouble wearing my hijab here in America so far, alhamdulillah. Only one time did I get a rude comment. We were living in Alabama in a small town, and people there don’t know about Islam. I was at a park with my son, and a little blonde girl asked her dad, “Daddy, why is that woman wearing that scarf on her head?” And her dad told her, “Because she’s stupid.” That was mean, but aside from that time, I have not gotten any bad comments in America.”
As we sat there together on the bench and continued to chat, my sons came up to me, speaking in Arabic. The sister asked me what language we were speaking, and I told her.
She nodded. “Yes, I speak to my son in our language too. It’s very close to Russian and Farsi,” she said.
“Farsi!” I was surprised. “My kids speak Farsi too, because my husband speaks to them only in Farsi.”
The kids and the sister began having a conversation entirely in Farsi, which I understood. (I know basic Farsi at this point, from daily exposure!)
Then the sister told me, “I know the letters of the Arabic alphabet, but I don’t know how to read Arabic. I’d love to learn to read Arabic one day maybe.”
“I would love to teach you if you want,” I offered. “The kids and I come to this park pretty often, and if you want, maybe we can have a short Arabic reading session whenever we come here. We can start now!”
At her nod and smile, I grabbed the small notepad and pen I keep in my purse and turned to a fresh page. I wrote down the letters of the Arabic alphabet from Alif to Ya. She read them, practicing twice. No mistakes the second time around. I encourage her and praised her efforts.
I asked her to write her name in her language, and she did. She asked me to write her name in Arabic, and I did. Comparing the two was interesting and fun for both of us.
After a few hours when she got ready to leave the park, she and I exchanged phone numbers. She asked me to text her when I came around to her part of town, and I promised that I would insha’Allah.
For a long time after she and her son left the park, I sat thinking about this sister’s story. She was born in a Muslim country that is harder to practice Islam in than a non-Muslim country. She had to flee her Muslim country, leave behind her family and everything she’s ever known, in order to search for a place to live where she can wear the hijab. She is looked at as weird in the new country, but at least she’s not doing something illegal by wearing the hijab like it would be in her Muslim homeland.
Some Muslims try to escape with their deen to a non-Muslim country. Other Muslims try to escape with their deen to a Muslim country. We are living in a time of intense fitan (فتن) when there are few places left on earth where a Muslim can truly practice Islam unhindered. Allah al-musta`an. الله المستعان
The Prophet’s hadith came to my mind, ﷺ:
عَنْ أَنَسِ بْنِ مَالِكٍ، قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم “ يَأْتِي عَلَى النَّاسِ زَمَانٌ الصَّابِرُ فِيهِمْ عَلَى دِينِهِ كَالْقَابِضِ عَلَى الْجَمْرِ ”
Anas bin Malik narrated that the Messenger of Allah(s.a.w) said:
“There shall come upon the people a time in which the one who is patient upon his religion will be like the one holding onto a burning ember.”