Zoha is a recipent of the Fawaz Kannout Memorial Scholarship Fund. Awarded in conjunction with the MALA Scholarship Program, this Scholarship recognizes compassionate and ambitious individuals who are committed to strengthening and serving their communities through cultural engagement, inclusive discourse, and progressive thought.To learn more about MALA’s Scholarship Opportunities, click here.
As I walked down the uprooted cobblestone streets of Baghdad, I pulled out my hand-me-down camera and began to click away. It was a week after Iraqi rebels had recaptured the city from ISIS and my dad, who had secretly been saving up for this trip, decided that this was our only chance to go visit.
Fourteen-year-old me pleaded with my parents to cancel the trip. With the tumultuous political climate and anti-Muslim rhetoric, I was concerned that going to Iraq would make us look like radicalized Muslims. With any mention of 9/11, I avoided eye contact, hoping that no one noticed how my hijab burned like a scarlet letter. Words like radical, terrorist, and oppression rang constantly in my ear. I loved my religion but I was too conceited to admit that I was ashamed to be a Muslim. And because of that shame, I began to internalize an incorrect identity that so many are being fed by society.
But the streets of the demolished city were not too ashamed to tell me their story. Through the gaping bullet holes in the building walls, the fresh red smears on the pavement, and the numerous bomb-sized craters on the road, Baghdad lamented its narrative to me. All my bodily power transferred to my hands and suddenly it became a dance of apertures and shutters as I captured the aftermath of their daily 9/11s. I took pictures of the people, of the decimated infrastructure, of the orphan girl who gave me a glass of water when I was thirsty, of the young soldier who left his post to help me move my grandma’s wheelchair and of the devoted people who came to the shrine of the holy leader, carrying their hearts in their palms. Click, click, click.
When the lens landed on my family, I found all of them were silently praying. My father prayed for the bills on the kitchen counter to disappear. Click. My mother prayed for my younger brother’s club feet to be cured. Click. Watching them, I realized why my parents wanted to come here; because hope is found in the most hopeless of places.
To this day, I wonder what happened to those people a week later after ISIS had killed many residents to recapture the city. The orphan girl. The young soldier. So many people. In the global scheme of things, they were just collateral damage. A means to an end. But to me, they were the embodiment of everything good in Muslims. Their efforts, love, and continued compassion in such dark times renewed my hope in the endurance of Muslims. Suddenly, the ringing in my ears of the words ‘radical’ and ‘terrorist’ was replaced with sounds of the Adhaan. My hijab stopped burning and began radiating light and confidence. The art of retrospection is profound. Insignificant moments weave together to signal the makings of a renaissance. Looking back, this moment began a renaissance I was oblivious of.
When we returned home, nothing had changed. The bills still sat on the counter, my brother still couldn’t walk, and the world still hated Muslims. But in my heart, I kept the memories of those I saw, and in my veins, I held the responsibility to never forget. And to never let others forget.
I define myself as a Muslim American. The reconciliation of the words “Muslim” and “American” is a struggle that every Muslim has to go through, whether they moved here like my parents or whether they were born and bred here like me. And to be completely honest, the struggle never gets easier. But, personally, I believe if I define myself as a Muslim, if I choose to take upon that title, then I also agree to take on the responsibility that comes with it. A responsibility that I am proud to carry.
When I returned to school after the trip, I snuck my camera out during recess. With renewed confidence in my Muslim identity, I gathered my friends and began narrating my story. The story of the collateral damage. The story of innocent human beings. The story of love. The story of hope. Click.