At a party last weekend, I was telling someone I just met about how I want to go to Iran. Air Asia used to fly to Tehran but they don’t anymore. Ana told me that I could go to Iran with her and Aitak and Sepi but actually she was just playing a trick on me.
My new friend told me that she had recently discussed going to Afghanistan with some of her friends. At least one of them told her she should just pretend to be Hazara and then she’ll be fine. I thought that was weird, because I thought it was the Hazaras that are getting fucked up over there, but she wants to go to Hazara parts, so pretending to be Hazara might make more sense in that case. In telling me this, she made sure to tell me that she would never pretend to be someone/something else. And she repeated it again to make sure that I understood.
The next day I went to a Malay wedding. While my friends and I were seated, a person with a microphone started to say something that I assumed was some sort of prayer. I assumed this because people throughout the hall stopped what they were doing and held their hands in front of them as Muslims do when they do some prayer thing that probably has a name but I don’t know what it is. It’s what Sonny Bill Williams did before this year’s Grand Final began.
I just sat there, being the awkward kafir. Until my friend sitting next to me got my attention and brought that attention of mine to her hands. She then gave me a look that I’m pretty sure said: “See my hands? Just follow what I do.” So I did.
I was a Muslim, doing the proper Muslim things during the Muslim prayer. But I’m not a Muslim. I was pretending. I sat there, not paying attention to the prayer but to the memory of the conversation I had the night before. I thought about pretending. Pretending allows me a chance to blend in, to be invisible, to be normal. It is a strategy for deflecting unwanted attention, for deflecting the negative gaze of the dominant group. It is a strategy for enhancing my sense of belonging by diverting attention away from my status as the Other.
While studying at the Academy of Islamic Studies (API) at the University of Malaya (UM), I often wished I knew more about the Islamic habitus so that I could blend in there. I wished I had taken the time earlier to study the basics and show up on the first day to give the best Muslim performance that I could. But it was too late for that.
Greetings were the worst. Despite the opinion of some Muslims I’ve met, the dominant view at API seemed to be that saying assalamualaikum and responding with walaikumsalam was for Muslims only. So whenever lecturers and tutors would greet the class with assalamualaikum, or fellow students would greet me in that way, I would always just smile and lower my head. They got the message: “Sorry, but I’m a kafir.”
My exclusion from this simple everyday ritual was made clear to me after class one day when one of my class mates apologised to me for having previously greeted me with “assalamualaikum” (prior to finding out that I am not a Muslim). As nice as it was for him to go out of his way to apologise, it only reinforced my status as the Other in this context. I was not to have peace wished upon me now was I to wish it upon others. A simple “hello” was enough.
Every time I walked through the doors of the API building I wished that I could have gone back to the first day and started again as a “Muslim”.