Warning: Mild spoilers for Taherah Mafi’s book, “A Very Large Expanse of Sea.”
Although I fangirl after New York Times bestselling author Taherah Mafi, I wasn’t planning on reading “A Very Large Expanse of Sea.”
At first, I took it at face value. I did not approve of the surface-level plot that involved a Muslim girl — a hijabi, no less — dating a non-Muslim. Whaaat? But when I saw the protagonist’s name, Shirin, was the same as mine, albeit a different spelling, I knew I had to read it. The parallels continued: the book began “at the end of August,” and I started reading it on August 30th. I finished the book in one night, because of Mafi’s open, heart-to-heart prose.
I also, at first, scoffed at the book’s 9/11 theme. We don’t need another 9/11 book, tugging at America’s heartstrings and feeding trends.
Reading about the bullying and pain Shirin went though was so cathartic for me because it allowed me to face the racism and prejudice I have been receiving the last few years. tweet
But as I read, I realized the silent and isolated suffering of Shirin mirrored my recent experiences. And although I didn’t suffer the physical and verbal abuse many hijabis did right after 9/11, I am facing it now. Reading about the bullying and pain Shirin went though was so cathartic for me because it allowed me to face the racism and prejudice I have been receiving the last few years. I allowed my vulnerable and sad feelings to surface. I’ve been made to feel I’m less American because of the color of my skin and my hijab.
I live in Southern California, and at the time of 9/11 in 2001, it was still the liberal, diverse place we remember. People stared at me, but mostly treated me normally. I was able to boast that I could do and wear whatever I want in my state. It wasn’t until I went to New York and Chicago that I was extremely ostracized and yelled at. But now, directly coinciding with Trump’s presidency, I am getting racially profiled in my home city of Los Angeles. Finally, when I was pushed by a white male at my local post office, and the police officer said “It’s not a big deal,” I decided I couldn’t risk my safety and sanity with the hijab anymore. After 17 years, I took it off.
It’s been said many times before, but it’s worth saying again: American Muslims felt the pain of 9/11. It hurts me that some of my fellow Americans don’t believe that statement, or don’t care. tweet
I strongly admire Shirin’s bravery for committing to the hijab, and to all hijabis who still wear it, praise God. High school is the hardest time to wear it. I vividly remember contemplating wearing it in high school, but being too afraid of classmates’ judgment or rejection. Admirably, Shirin handles the isolation well, and continues to live her life as she sees fit.
It’s been said many times before, but it’s worth saying again: American Muslims felt the pain of 9/11. It hurts me that some of my fellow Americans don’t believe that statement, or don’t care. A few years ago I went to a therapist. In the middle of the session, she growled and scowled at me, “I used to live in New York, before 9/11.”
I politely and gently replied, “Oh, I used to live there too. My uncle worked at the twin towers when 9/11 happened. He had to walk all the way home to New Jersey with debris on his face.”
She huffed and looked down. On the next session she yelled at me again. I left the office and did not return.
More than what has happened to hijabis in America, I am most saddened by what has happened to America. California used to be an open-minded utopia; a haven I felt safe in, whether I was driving from Southern California up to Northern. Now it reminds me of the Southern red states we used to mock. Now I am hesitant to go to my local park, where I’ve seen a huge MAGA sign emblazoned on a Winnebago. Now, security guards follow me around stores. Now, like Mafi so aptly put it, I can’t tell if people are “being rude or racist.”
On another note, I can’t wait to see the breakdancing on the big screen when this New York Times Bestseller becomes a movie. I thought it was awesome that Shirin breakdanced in the book. I heard Mafi speak live about the book, and I know that she also breakdances. I did think the character cursed a bit too much in the book, but I thought it was hilarious when she flipped people off a couple of times. I hope that makes it to the movie, too.
I do believe that America (or at least California) will eventually return to the open-minded sanctuary it once was. But I believe it will be a long, violent, and emotionally painful journey for us. I’m glad that I have books like “A Very Large Expanse of Sea” to help me cope and process.