A few weeks ago I installed the exhibit at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The opening reception was a peace dinner. I spoke about the project and some of the stories I had encountered and then a couple people from the Carthage community spoke about their understanding of peace as well. Manar Mohammad, a student at Carthage was one of them.
One of the great joys of working on this project is all of the interesting and thoughtful people I have met along the way. I had the chance to visit with Manar after the dinner and she agreed to let me share her thoughts here.
Manar Mohammad –
The Oxford dictionary defines peace as “freedom from disturbance; quiet and tranquility”. When I searched Islam and peace into google, I found these frequently asked questions: “Are Muslims peaceful? Is Islam a peaceful religion? Was Muhammad really a man of peace?” The whole time I had one question I was trying to answer: What does peace mean to me?
And I feel like we are in a place where we can be honest to each other, so I can be honest with you all? I really haven’t figured out what peace really is yet.
Growing up my parents told me the same thing over and over again: “Be nice to people around you, even if they are mean to you.”
When I was bullied for being a “nerd”, they told me, “Be nice to the people around you, and if they are mean, ignore them but don’t fight back.”
When I overheard the group of high schools behind me say, “Don’t piss her off, she might blow up the school”, my parents told me “Stay away from the people who aren’t nice to you.”
I’ve realized that my whole life, I’ve been questioning what peace really means. To have peace, don’t you need two sides, and both sides must be peaceful? Is it considered peace if one side fights and the other ignores?
And I mean, let’s be real, peace can be a daily struggle. Like getting up in the morning everyday, that moment when your alarm goes off and your eyes are still closed and you slowly and quietly debate whether or not you should throw something at it or should your peacefully get up and turn it off? But really, we wake up every day and decide whether or not today we will take a step toward peace.
My parents have taught me valuable lessons. I mean, they must’ve done something right or else I wouldn’t be the person standing here talking about peace to you today. But my parents taught me how to stand up every morning and be myself. My parents who grew up in the Middle East, never attended 21st century American high schools, my parents who never experienced what it is like for someone to tell you you’re a terrorist before you’ve even discovered who you truly are, my parents could not have prepared me for my life outside of myself.
My Facebook feed is pretty interesting currently. As a hijab-wearing Muslim Arab Palestinian American female, my newsfeed goes a little like this:
-Palestinian civilians clash with Israeli soldiers in another heated battle in the West Bank
-Check out the sale at H&M before it’s over!
-Mother grieves 13 year old boy shot walking home from school during conflict in Bethlehem
-7 Ways to Wake up feeling more refreshed
-Muslim woman might win the Great Britain Bake Off
-Chapel Hill, home to 50 churches, gets new mosque
-Ben Carson would skip meeting families of Oregon mass shooting but would probably “go to the next one”
-Armed patriots planning anti-Muslim rallies across the country
Then Facebook asks me, “What’s on your mind?”
But our question here isn’t that. Our question is a question of peace and what it means. The truth is I’m trying to figure it out every single day when I wrap my scarf on my head and walk out my door. Some people who know me know that I lived in the Middle East from 6th grade to 10th grade and moved back here as a high school junior. The question of peace is different there versus here. In the Occupied West Bank, peace meant driving to school without having a checkpoint to stop at and make us late to class. Here, peace means getting smiled at even though I look different. And I felt that struggle the minute I stepped back onto American soil on June 4, 2010. Yes, I lived here before but I did not wear a scarf and frankly I was unaware of my mother’s struggles, who wore the hijab long before that. I was the typical Muslim American kid who went to school, loved reading Harry Potter books, and didn’t go to school on the Islamic holiday Eid. But when I came back everything was different. I was supposed to stand for something different. I didn’t choose the duty, but I carried a responsibility. I was the poster child for Islam as the only Muslim girl in my class. And I struggled to say who I was, where I was from, except in the only way I knew: through poetry. I retreated to open mikes and was able to bleed my heart and soul out into the microphone to a room of strangers who now are very close friends because they found out who I really was long before many others did.
Tonight is no different. I could babble forever and struggle to get my point out, or I could tell you the truth, or my version of the truth, in the best way I can. So this poem is called “My Name is Peace”
My name is peace and yet,
I’ve felt as though I have to pick between peace and being me
As if peace isn’t a way a person could be
I get my identity from knowing which identities i am not
Not a towel-head
Not a jihadi
Not a terrorist
I see where my beliefs may be doubted
Where the meaning of Islam is not what is projected
Islam comes from the Arabic word “Salam”,
Salam, or peace that must be within every woman and man.
Now don’t get me wrong
I’ve been in that place where questions about my belief played over and over in my head like a song
Because just cuz I’m told to pray five times a day
Doesn’t mean I’ll get older and still say “sure, okay”
My name is peace and I make my own choices
About when to listen to the commentator’s voices
Maybe I’ll decide to run for president
How would you know that I wouldn’t be excellent?
My name is peace but not all know my story
Of how I used to wake up in an occupied territory
Or that I once watched bombs fall
Over the city as my mother and sister hid in a store, stuck in it all
Could you read on my face my fear of fireworks?
How I need to see them in order to know they’re not gunshots and believe them?
And yet would you believe me if I told you that my story
Relies on that territory
and my cultural duty?
Although it was my decision to wrap my head in a scarf each day
Sometimes it feels like a heavy responsibility till today
I know that at least one person today has questioned
Why to wear this scarf I was destined?
My name is peace
And I learned to love from the people I’ve met everyday on the streets
The man who interrupted my morning thoughts
Made me loosen the wrinkled frown and put me at a loss
when he took the moment to tell me “Salam”
The Islamic greeting to spread peace in beautiful Arabic kalam.
My name is peace
And I believe that peace is a language
For speaking up when you’re trying to prove that you’re not at a disadvantage.
I aim to spread awareness
To spread the truth about the world’s unfairness.
Must a mother tell her young son to fear law enforcement?
And must I tell my sister once she wears the hijab to expect sharpened words and their torment?
I spread love by believing it exists
As long as the peaceful dialogues between my different friends and I persist
Peace to me is not different
Than it is to any person who is open-minded and considerate.
It means being able to stand on two feet
Capable of answering any assumption about what you believe,
where you wear your heart on your sleeve,
Prevent people from starting to misconceive.
Peace is an open chair on a table, where there’s room to achieve
Mutual respect instead of just tolerance of what on the outside we perceive.
If I can influence one person to believe
That my faith and I are more than what the media allows them to receive,
I will leave
Knowing that someone doesn’t try to make me choose between peace and being me.