As a child, I never thought of myself as brown, Muslim, or foreign. Granted, I never had silky smooth blond hair like my friends. I never attended religion classes because my parents had opted me out. Instead of catechism, I spent my Sundays at our local mosque learning Arabic. I always had different meals at the school canteen. But I was not different. Or was not aware of it. Yet.
I learned I was Muslim on September 11, 2001, and that ‘Muslim’ meant ‘bad’. I had been wearing my hijab for one month and eleven days. Christian, a Filipino guy in my school, called me kamikaze at the park that afternoon. Then Mehdi, Moroccan Muslim (just like me, because apparently that is what I had become!), pulled my scarf the following day as we were waiting for the bell to ring signalling the start of afternoon classes. Not long after that, Eric, a Black boy from Madagascar, cornered me in the school corridor and beat me. I did not cry or shout. I did not report. I found it very strange. Why was I being harassed by people who, like me, looked different? Surely we were meant to be in this together. Years later Mehdi apologised through a Facebook message. “I had to, they would have done the same to me. I was scared and stupid.”
Then Iraq happened. My mum came back from work one evening, and she and my dad were laughing SO hard. Her boss had told her “I am very sorry about what’s happening in Iraq at the moment. You must be very worried for the safety of your family!”. “My family lives in Morocco, sir”. “Yes yes I know of course, so close, you know, all the Muslim lands.” My mum nodded and smiled “I appreciate your concern, sir.”
In secondary school, what I like to refer to as Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno”, I started being casually punched and kicked by actual Italians, and was continuously asked what I thought were very, very dumb questions. Do you shower with the scarf on? Are you bald? Do you stick the pins in your head? That’s so cruel! Why do men not wear it? Did your parents force you? You obviously would not have chosen to wear it had you had a choice! Guys don’t like it. Are you not hot, because I AM SO HOT! How can you not be? How can you fast THE WHOLE DAY?! And not even water? That’s so cruel!
It did not take long to realise that being a Muslim and being brown was synonymous for being an immigrant, and that all immigrants were really bad and thieves and they stank, which was very difficult to wrap my head around. I was born there. Never stole anything (ok, besides Elisa’s beany in kindergarten because it was cool and I did not have one and she had loads anyway). I showered every day.
I started to be ashamed of my mother’s accent. How could she still have that “foreign” accent after twenty years in Italy? Of my father’s extreme friendliness. Why was he always trying to be liked by everyone? Why were we always going back to Morocco every summer? Why were we not going on fancy holidays to Sharm-el-Sheikh or Istanbul or Croatia, or on fancy cruises to Greece? I resented them, resented what I had always thought of as normal, as just me and my family’s way of being.
My mission in high school was “operation-be-like-everyone-else”. And everyone else was wearing hippie clothes, listening to Jimmy Hendrix and Pink Floyd, getting dreadlocks, going to protests. So, predictably, I did just that. I wore hippie clothes, listened to Jimmy Hendrix and Pink Floyd, got a dreadlock (underneath my veil), went to demonstrations and almost got arrested. I was also simultaneously brainwashed by my ultra-nationalist history teacher. I believed I was so patriotic, I loved and cherished Italian history, and wrote my high school thesis on the statues to the fallen soldiers in the World Wars. A brown, Muslim, hippie, self-declared communist, self-declared nationalist, loved Kant and supported the Palestinian cause. Could I have been more confused?
But I decided that I wouldn’t go to university: I would join the navy. I applied, confident in my abilities. The first online stage was anonymous, and I met all the requirements to proceed to the first selection interview. Dad and I drove to Bari, 983 kilometres from home. “You know you will have to remove the headscarf in case you were to be selected, it is not part of the official uniform.”
I think this was the precise moment where it all hit me. The world crumbled beneath my feet and an insidious feeling of hate creeped in my heart and I hated myself for loving a country that hated me.
So I left. London. Multiculturalism. I can be who I want and nobody will care. Sorted. And it was freeing. Nobody looked at me in the street, on buses, at the gym. Or they did, but in a very different way. I was still different, but all of a sudden I was no longer an “asexual-oppressed-voiceless” Muslim. I was exotic. I was fascinating. I was “wow you’re so mysterious and voluptuous”. I had never received as much male attention before. And with male attention comes sexual assault.
But I stopped being so hyper-aware of my skin colour and religion. Besides in airports. Or in fancy shops, when obsessively followed around. And in first class trains, that is definitely not my place. At job interviews, why would they hire me, have you seen me? At tube stations, stay away from the track, someone will push you as the train is approaching. Walking late at night in East London, someone will throw acid at you.
I carry fear in my body, wherever I go. I brought it with me to St Andrews. I had not been verbally assaulted since secondary school. You would assume St Andrews is where smart people are. And so you are at a party, having fun and dancing with your friends. “Basta con l’invasione!”. Stop the invasion. An Italian guy, self-declared supporter of a racist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, sexist, homophobic party shouts at me. “I was joking”. “Ah don’t worry, he’s a prick. You can’t change people like that”. And so I finally gave a face to the expression “the banality of evil”.