When we met, Ben had never texted anyone before in his life. It took effort to text. You couldn’t just type the words on a keyboard and hit send. If you wanted an “S” you would hit the number 7 four times to get the letter. That or use T9 predictive text, which is what Ben had me set up on his phone so he could connect with me on my terms. I’ve never liked talking on the phone. With my neurological divergence, a conversation is much easier to keep track of on paper. So we texted novels, personal essays, shared the deepest secrets over the course of three days–before unlimited texting existed. Ben got to know me in those first three days better than anyone else. I knew him as well. And by the end I had a $500 phone bill. Ben offered to pay it.
I’d connected with Ben at Starbucks the day after he had boldly given me his business card. He was hungover from the night before. He ordered a triple shot espresso, slammed it and made direct eye contact with me.
Ben’s honesty is what initially drew me to him like a magnet. He never hid any aspect of himself or misrepresented his beliefs. He never judged me for mine. He was an open book and I could see myself in his story, see that I was safe as I was for who I was in his story. I assumed he was an apple that hadn’t fallen far from the tree. But when we got engaged and later found out I was pregnant, his father suggested I have an abortion. His parents didn’t want Ben “trapped” in a relationship with me, a non-Christian.
Growing up, my family never fought about or mentioned faith. If something went wrong or I behaved badly it was because of my choices . When my sister and I were young, my parents would take the blame for any mistakes upon themselves. Knowing Ben, this is what I expected to see from his parents.
When it comes to my in-laws, the Bible, Scripture is ever-present in conversation. Conforming to their belief system is key to acceptance in their hearts. Because I am Muslim, when anything goes wrong for or near our family, the blame falls on me. I have been told numerous times, “If you accept Jesus Christ as your Saviour, things will get better.” I once translated a passage from Quran to English and sent it to his family without crediting the quote. I was told it was beautiful, moving, touching, the way to the light. I was told if I was moved by such words I should open my heart, mind, soul to this message, receive it.
I told them the quote was from Quran. Their reaction changed Instantly. It went from “this is a message of hope and love” to “these are the words of the devil.”
When we found out I was pregnant, Ben and I celebrated. He was with me at the doctor within a week getting the best OBGYN we could to ensure my pregnancy, our child, had every chance. I had been told I could not have children. Ben knew this from the start, but we wanted each other and we wanted a family together. He said we should try, go from there. I fainted when I overheard his father suggest we consider an abortion.
Despite my in-laws preference, Ben and I did not abort our child. We wanted our first child together just as we did his brother.
My sons shouldn’t have to face prejudice from their peers based on their religious heritage. They should not be facing from their family either.
While we incorporate culture in our foods, our boys don’t identify with hyphens. We have always taught them that they are American. When asked to identify their ethnicity, they always lead with American. Being seen as Arab scares them because at school a teacher was talking about 9/11. When my oldest raised his hand after a barrage of comments from students that Muslims needed to be “wiped out,” he was finally called to speak. “Not all Muslims are terrorists,” he said. The teacher dismissed him and the class went into an uproar. His peers didn’t speak to him the rest of the day.
That same day he tried to explain further. He said, “You all love my mom. You beg to be in her group on trips. She helps people. She is a Red Cross Volunteer. She is disaster prepared. She gave my brand new clothes to a mom at a McDonald’s once right after we bought them because the mom was traveling and had no spare clothes.” Still, they ignored him.
But last Thanksgiving with my in-laws, conversation turned to Islam. “Wipe them out” was the clear message. My sons’ grandparents used racial slurs that were consciously directed at my religion in front of my children. I may have snapped. No, I did. In what can best be described as religious exclusion for the purposes of rejecting my family for not conforming and to teach us a lesson (and even though it obviously deeply hurt the children), we did not get invited to Easter dinner.
I wish Ben’s parents had turned out to be like their son. When it comes to faith, both my husband and I see eye to eye. Our relationship with God is ours and ours alone. We both believe there is no distinction between Allah or God. There should not be. They are names for the same idea. We never talk about religion. We have taught our kids what the varying faiths have in common. We emphasize that in the end it is who you are, how you treat others and what is in your heart that will count. I realize now that their fear has always been of me. Would I somehow tarnish their son. They love their grandchildren that is very clear. They love their sons that is clear. They tolerate me. We are a work in progress. I don’t want my children to read this thinking they are not loved by their family. I don’t believe that is the case. I share my story because turning away from ignorant remarks got us here. I stayed the course only to be worn down. As a couple we decided that moving forward I would not have to remain silent. My relationship with my in-laws is a work in progress. I am certain that if I can make peace with them they will find a way to make peace with me.
Shareen Mansfield is an American mother of Arab descent whose parents came to the U.S. seeking refuge from the Lebanese Civil War. She publishes On the Verge, an eclectic e-zine for everybody.