When I moved to Chicago just three weeks after I got married, I really didn’t know what to expect. Having always lived in such predominantly Muslim cities as Dubai and Karachi, I was looking forward to beginning a new chapter in my life but wasn’t quite sure how to start from scratch.
I wasn’t sure about a lot of things at first. I had never filled petrol in a car, never cleaned a bathroom and never made Khatti Daal (lentils). However, I was sure of one thing – I was not going to be just one more ingredient in a melting pot of nationalities that simmered together to become one sauce. I didn’t want to be called Karen, even though that was so much more convenient than having to spell out (sometimes twice) K-I-R-A-N. I was going to be a productive part of American society; however, instead of mixing into a melting pot, I wanted to be a part of a salad bowl of sorts – where each ingredient’s own flavour, colour and texture has its own place.
I was lucky to have arrived in a metropolitan city like Chicago, where there are Masajid and Halal meat stores in practically every town. It is not hard to find good Islamic schools and great chicken Tikkas, too. There are close to 400,000 Muslims in the greater Chicago area alone. Approximately a quarter of them are indigenous African-American Muslims. The next two of the largest ethnic groups include 20% Arab and 20% from South Asia. The remaining is a beautiful blend of Bosnian, Turkish, West African and increasingly white reverts to Islam. The result is that women may wear differently-styled Hijabs, and men may speak different languages, but when the Adhan is called, Allahu Akbar, each person sheds their ethnic differences and stands shoulder to shoulder in front of the One God.
Chicago has made a name for itself in the American Muslim landscape. The architect of the world-famous Sears Tower (now called Willis Tower) was a Muslim. Seven of the five hundred most influential Muslims in the world call Chicago home. The Chicago Muslim community is highly educated, affluent, civically engaged and socially responsible. Loosely translated, there are always at least four community events taking place every weekend. There is an array of volunteer opportunities. Youth paint Masjid classrooms, have Qiyam around a bonfire in Ramadan and pick up trash in the park. Women attend Quran circles, befriend newly-arrived refugees, attend girl scouts meetings and participate in breast cancer awareness marathons. Men volunteer to direct traffic in Masajid parking lots when they are jam-packed for Jumuah, even though they have to rush back to work. Chicago Muslims do not hesitate to let their elected representatives know how they feel about such national issues as the New York Islamic Centre or international ones as the crisis in Gaza.
There are more than two hundred places to pray Jumuah in Chicagoland. From multi-million dollar mega Masajid to small storefront prayer spaces, where people overflow on to the sidewalk due to space constraints, you can perform Salah in a different Masjid every day of the month and still not be done.
I believe I have become a stronger Muslim, since I moved to the United States. I bake cookies for my neighbours on Eid, and I read stories about Ramadan in my children’s classrooms. Like many other Muslim-Americans, I feel I am on an auto-Dawah mode. Every action of mine can be taken as representative of my Ummah. If I am rude to the cab driver, he may feel all women in Hijab are condescending. If the cashier forgets to charge me for milk, I remind her, so that she knows Muslims will not be comfortable to go home with something they haven’t paid for. Yes, it is hard work, but I feel this is one way of dispelling myths about our Deen.
My husband and I became American citizens early this year and while I know some readers may disagree, I am at peace being a Muslim and a Pakistani-American. I don’t think this tri-fold identity is at odds with one other. I can dress how I choose, pray where I please and eat what I like. I can file a lawsuit, if I believe I am discriminated against.
Looking back, I didn’t know Chicago would provide me with so many opportunities to give back to the community. I have definitely learned a lot – and I’m not just referring to the Khatti Daal.
Kiran Ansari is the editor of the “Chicago Crescent” (www.chicagocrescent.com ), a monthly Muslim newspaper.