Tonight was hard for our daughter, Lulani. What was supposed to be a night out breaking our fast with members from our community, turned into a sort of rites of passage for her. It's one that her dad experienced several times as a child who grew up in the south, but one I wouldn't experience until I moved to Oklahoma as an adult.
A few weeks ago, an invitation was sent out via a group text on WhatsApp. It read "Ramadan Mubarak. Salaam everyone, want to invite you for iftaar dinner at.... on Friday June 9th. .."
A few hours later I replied, "As Salamu Alaykum, Ramadan Mubarak everyone. Thanks for the invitation. InshaAllah my family and I will join you all." The venue was later changed and I even sent a message to confirm I had the right date and location. Once I received a text back to confirm the details hubby and I added it to our family calendar.
I don't always reply to invitations like play dates or morning walks that are sent via this particular group on WhatsApp because I am normally at work or just plain tired. But this invitation was different. It's the holy month of Ramadan and spending time with our community is important. Although nervous to attend, I was excited because it would give our family a chance to spend time with members in our community who we don't often spend time with. Never in a million years would I have thought, Lulani would have been treated so rudely.
When we pulled into the parking lot we immediately saw several of my previous students sitting on a bench enjoying themselves by playing video games on their phones. Lulani, screeched and jokingly chastised me for not telling her that students from her school would be at the iftaar. My students were in shock that I was there and began excitingly shouting my name as my family and I walked from our car to the door entrance. Once we got closer, they asked if I had come to eat, and I anxiously replied, "Yes, we were invited!"
When the door to the restaurant swung open all eyes were on us. Upon entering the room, I scanned and mentally noted that we were the only Black family present. This is a habit that I have formed over the years since I have moved from Baltimore. I'm still adjusting to not living in a chocolate city. We live in Oklahoma, so I am starting to get use to being the only black person at events. It was more apparent last night because the restaurant was small and we were all in very close proximity.
The place was packed and there was not one empty table. Men sat on one side of the room and the women and children were seated on the other side. No one greeted us at the door, but it looked like everyone was just helping themselves at what seemed to be a makeshift buffet, so I led my family across the room to it. I tried to ask a lady standing close to the buffet if we should just help ourselves but a language barrier inhibited our conversation. I handed each of my family members a plate and we began to fill them. The Pakistani dishes looked and smelled delicious. I could not wait to sink my teeth into the spicy chicken, sauteed spinach and boiled chickpeas. I don't know the names of the dishes, but I had tasted them before and doubted my taste buds would be disappointed.
As I helped my youngest daughter, Neiyemah, fix her plate I kept thinking about Khadir. He is so short and I didn't want him to burn himself. But as usual, without me saying a word, my husband stepped right in and made sure Khadir was taken care of. That's just another reason why I love him so much.
My next problem was trying to find a place for us to sit. There weren't any tables for us to sit at together so I started to look for friends of the children. My thoughts were to sit them with a friend and then I would find a seat with the women and hubby would find a seat with the men. Khadir's best friends from school were there, so I took his plate to their table. He sat, greeted his friends and started sucking the meat off of his chicken bone. He was happy.
On my way back to assist the girls with finding a seat, Lulani came out of nowhere, obviously upset with no plate in her hand and in vexed voice ask, "Were we invited?"
I was like, "Yeah! Do you think I would bring you to a place where you were not invited? Why would you ask that?"
She responded, "That woman over there told me this was a privately catered event and I couldn't fix a plate or eat the food."
Before I had a chance to process what was going on, a woman walked up to me and asked, "Are you with those two tall guys?" Apparently two guys walked in behind us and they thought we were all together. It didn't make any sense that they thought we were together because those guys were not Black. Either way I reassured the woman that I did not know those guys.
Right at the end of this conversation, the woman that rudely questioned Lulani came to me and apologized. She said that she had not known who I was and thought that my family was with the two uninvited guys. Someone explained to the woman that I was Mrs. Wright and that my family and I were invited. I caught a brief glimpse of the two guys as they walked out of the door.
This situation reminded me of my first trip to West Africa. I studied the history of West Africa for about three years before my initial visit. I read countless articles, novels and textbooks when I minored in African and African American studies as an undergraduate student. I had practically completed my M.A. in African and African American Studies before my first trip to West Africa. Even the history classes I taught as a graduate assistant while working on my M.A., could not prepare me to fully understand West Africa more than the experiences I had on my initial visit.
It wasn't until I stepped off the plane and visited Senegal and The Gambia that I began to truly embody the essence of the complexities in which I had studied. I couldn't understand Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa from just reading the text, I had to experience the underdevelopment. I definitely could not appreciate life in the villages until I stepped foot into a village and spent time with the people. The essence of the literature and depth of conversations were all just theory until my first visit. Each visit thereafter has just deepened my understanding of Africa and its complex history.
Lulani, has read countless books about the Africans experience throughout the diaspora. She knows about our horrific experiences as Africans living in America. She hears the news on a daily basis and is well informed about how racism is perpetuated today. Just like a B.A or M.A could not truly prepare me for my first trip to West Africa. No book or news could prepare her for her first experience of feeling different or out of place. She was hurt and just wanted to leave. She was made to feel out of place and what she learned yesterday, but was reinforced for me, was religion could not protect her from that feeling.
Here I am, trying to share a Ramadan with members of our larger community and she stated that she never wants to attend another Pakistani iftaar, again. I really wanted insight into what she was thinking as a preteen during those uncomfortable moments, so I asked.
She said at that moment, she just wanted to immediately leave the event and walk to the masjid. Her most powerful statement was this, "I wish that woman would have thought before she spoke and maybe asked the host who we were instead of just being so rude to me."
She said she also has had experiences like this at school with her friends but thought as people got older they matured. Ouch! Haven't we all had that same thought.
The woman apologized to her several times but, Lulani is a tough cookie and despite fasting all day she refused to fix herself a plate. I gave her my plate, but she would not eat the food. She was too offended. She loves Pakistan food but would not take one bite instead she just held her plate.
I was only slightly offended and I will tell you why.
The two men that walked in expecting to eat left without eating. I didn't follow how they came to leave because I was caught up in helping my own family, but what I did notice was that those two men left. There were two plates left near the door they exited, and I wondered if those plates belonged to those guys.
I felt like this was more about this woman then it was about us. She spent the entire night apologizing and trying to help Lulani feel better.
It's the month of Ramadan and people are fasting. There are so many good deeds for feeding someone who has fasted. Even if this was a private party wouldn't the host and person who cooked the food want the good deeds of any fasting person that walked through that door?
As I sucked the chicken meat off my own bone, because the chicken was so so good, I updated my husband about what had happened. I explained to him that I saw us as outsiders. Maybe we didn't know why those two tall guys were asked to leave. Maybe they were not invited, because they were pedophiles. No one wants to be around pedophiles.
Then I quickly thought, if they were fasting pedophiles, wouldn't you still want to get the good deeds of feeding them. Maybe they are working on turning their lives around and drawing closer to Allah. I don't know, I just couldn't come up with a good reason as to why guest were being policed and made to feel unwelcome during the month of Ramadan.
Anyway, because it was so packed inside of the venue, we ended up sitting outside on benches to eat. The lady who had offended Lulani, came outside and apologized to me again and asked if she could get Lulani some sweets. I told her she could try, but explained that Lulani was very offended.
Experience is the best teacher. As people, we have a long way to go.
In the end, I told Lulani that Allah allows us to have these types of experiences with people for a reason. There is a lesson in every experience that we have. I asked Lulani what her lesson was, she quickly replied, don't come back to a Pakistani iftaar. Given her experience and age I, at the surface that would seem like the answer, but I told her that is not the lesson.
Although, I know how Lulani feels, I would still have to disagree with her. Isolation, is not the lesson and furthermore this was the reason why I accepted the invitation. We are trying to raise our children to learn to how to engage with people from different cultures. This experience shows that the children are fine, Khadir had a ball. After finishing his meal he and his friends began to chase each around the tables in the restaurant.
It's us as adults that really need to check ourselves.
The lesson is that we all need to think before we speak. We need to get our facts straight, inquire and think some more.
People may have been shocked to see us walk in, but we were invited. I am apart of the WhatsApp group and I got the invitation through the group text. I even confirmed to make sure I had the correct date.
I explained to Lulani, that she and this woman were having this experience for a reason. I believe, Allah wanted her to have this experience so that she could realize the power of words. She needed to not just hear a lecture about it or read about the power of words in a book, but feel just how uncomfortable words can make someone feel. My husband and I encouraged Lulani to forgive this woman quickly. In no way shape or form do I condone how Lulani was treated, but since this was her experience, I hope that she felt so uncomfortable that she will always think before she speaks.
Now, I don't know the lesson for those that invited us. It might be to create another WhatsApp group that only has the people they actually want to come to iftars on it. I hope the woman who insulted and pushed people away from breaking their fast during Ramadan realizes that we are all fasting Muslims striving to get to Jannah, heaven, for the sake of Allah. We need good deeds and lots of sadaqah, if we want a place in heaven. Feeding people invited or not is sadaqah. There was no lack of food and there were plenty of leftovers to share.
It's the month of Ramadan for Allah's sake! Who really wants to make someone feel unwanted and uncomfortable during the month of Ramadan? Let's check ourselves and be more like Khadir and his friends. Let's eat, play and suck the meat off of our chicken bones. Let's be open, share a table, think and watch our words.