Nergis Khan: The Question

“Nergis, please,” my mom’s voice echoes from the kitchen, up the stairs, and into my bedroom.

“Okay,” I languidly answer back.

It was another one of those endless Ramadan nights in the suffocating New Jersey humidity. My mother wanted me and my younger sister Zainab to make traditional Moroccan pastries, chebakiya, with her. Everyday for the past week my mother reminded me that she had done this years ago with her own mother in Morocco. Clearly, she wanted to inspire lasting memories with her own daughters. This would be a first for me though. I never did anything traditional before and typically stepped away from religious activities, ceremonial or otherwise.

My eyes close.

Fifth grade. First day of school. A twiggy girl in an oversized Islamic school uniform sits, apprehending the arrival of an unknown teacher. Back straight, knees together, hands clasped; she’s ready. The teacher glides in with the remnants of a crisp summer breeze close behind her.

She introduces herself and immediately asks The Question.

“Where are you from?”

Where? Why does everyone always ask that?

One by one, the names of various countries ricochet across the classroom. Syria…Turkey…Egypt…Iraq. The Question charges forth, it’s eyes like a bull’s, aimed at her. Guyana…Jordan…Lebanon…India.

All eyes were fastened on her now. Just say it.

“My name is Nergis Khan and I am from America”

For an eon the room was silent. The teacher steps closer to the girl and, inevitably, asks, “No, I mean where are you really from?”

For the longest time I’ve had the desire to be completely, generically American. As a Muslim American, couldn’t possibly make myself “normal”, therefore, to bridge the cognitive dissonance, I shunned my background throughout grade school. I believed that my parents came here to ensure that their children had their best shot at life. My mom, raised in the countryside of Morocco, came here with little more than $50, while my dad, the son of a ship captain, turned to America to escape the limitations of his homeland, Pakistan. I felt obligated to integrate into the mainstream and give myself my best shot at realizing my dreams and, by extension, fulfilling what I perceived as their purpose in journeying here. That’s the reason why I didn’t want to bake those Moroccan pastries in preparation for Eid ul-Fitr festivities.

There were no distinct sounds in the air, only faint, lively mumbling. Mama and Zainab must be doing something without me. Oh great! Now I have to go.

At the very center of the kitchen island was my Mom. The softness of the light made her green eyes sparkle with serenity. Two wide bowls were in front of her, one with date paste and the other with a doughy mixture. Zainab was sitting across from her handling a uniquely shaped cookie-cutter device, staring at my mother’s hands mixing the dough with the utmost grace. Mama was in her element and I had never seen her look so vivacious. The twinkle in her eyes told me that this was something I was meant to do.

That night, hours were spent kneading, pressing, and shaping chebekiya, during which my reservations about doing “traditional” activities fizzled away. Without notice, a feeling akin to genuine completeness filled me and I didn’t bother to conceal it. Mama smiled knowingly. She had always dreamt of this moment for me and, somehow, paradoxically, I have always wanted this moment for myself. Sooner than I would’ve liked, we were done and close to one hundred little pastries were ready for baking. Thankfully, the night wasn’t over— suhoor was upon us.

The simplicity of the night belies the intensity of its effect on me— it immersed me in a circle of energy, love, history and faith, awakening me to the fact that it was wrong for me to define being American or Muslim so narrowly. Now, my spirit soars at the chance to answer The Question that has been my bane for years. I am proud to say that I am Muslim, my mom is Moroccan, my dad is Pakistani, and I am an American in the entire sense of the word because to be American is to be different.