The following happened to me at a Purim party last month in Houston:
“So, what does Rama mean?”
“It has roots in Arabic.”
“Let me guess. It means kill the Jews, right?”
My mouth fell wide open and I briefly lost my ability to speak. Feeling quite pleased with his tasteless joke, the rotund, balding fellow pulled aside a lady and said, “Guess what Rama means.” Before she could answer, he repeated, “It means kill the Jews!” She scurried off. He gave a self-satisfied chuckle.
“Actually it doesn’t,” I said coolly, looking him straight in the eyes without blinking. An awkward silence fell between us as my dear friend, who had brought me to the party, looked on in clear shock. The Jew Killer Joke Guy turned red and changed the conversation to his progeny, who all now live prosperous lives in Israel.
I’d like to think that am owed a cosmic cookie for the type of restraint and poise which I showed that day. Later that afternoon this tactless man had trouble figuring out his new smartphone and sought my help. I humored him, listening intently, as he spoke at length about his grandchildren.
The Torah says that Jews must welcome the stranger, as they were strangers in Egypt. Based on the countless instances of microaggressions which I have been subjected to, I am apt to believe that some Jews sleep through the reading of the Haggadah on Passover.
In America, the average black convert to Judaism usually comes from a Christian background and is of African American heritage, i.e., a descendant of the enslaved Africans who were brought to America and, in the aftermath of a genocidal experience, created a new identity. African American women such as Ahuvah Gray, author of My Sister, the Jew, have spoken passionately about their journey to Judaism. Rare is the black convert who is Muslim-born, and has an unbroken, cosmopolitan heritage straight out of continental Africa. It’s as if God took every liberty to create the perfect under-represented minority.
I fully embrace my Atlantic Creole identity, which historian Jane Landers defined as a coastal African who is able to “engage in a variety of cultural, political, social, economic, and even religious systems, without an implied loss to their original cultural base.”
I am a product of many cultures, many peoples. Being a Jew with Muslim ancestors is not a zero-sum game. No one has a right to bully me because of it. In fact, my early religious upbringing has been a boon for my conversion. Learning Hebrew was relatively painless as I grew up drawing squiggly characters from another Semitic language. Netilat yadayim, Judaism’s ritual hand washing, wasn’t weird, nor was fasting on Yom Kippur, nor was Jerusalem, where I lived for a year as a Fulbright scholar.
I am proud of my Islamic heritage and here’s why:
Islam means cool tropical evenings on the veranda with my family as we broke the fast of Ramadan with pap, a sweet rice pudding that has hints of lime and nutmeg. Islam means Arabic lessons on Saturday mornings with Mr. Conteh, our private tutor who spun thrilling tales of Prophet Muhammed in the Battle of Badr. Islam means that night when we prayed at the open-air mosque on Wilkinson Road on the Night of Ascension, as I huddled warmly in the women’s section, feeling a sense of shared identity with hundreds of people.
Islam means goofing off with my brother while we performed wudu, the ritual cleansing before prayer. Islam means wearing a modest but stunning djellaba in an exotic print that references West African aesthetics. Islam means giving out scoops of salt and rice on Sundays to people in our neighborhood. Islam means warm blessings for good health and happiness from Alhaji Hamza, my favorite great-uncle. Islam means my childhood in Sierra Leone before it was cut short by the “Blood Diamond” civil war that sent my family fleeing for our lives.
I know there is more to Islam than my personal memories of a faith which I no longer practice. Admittedly, all that I retain of my Islamic education is rote memorization of the Al-Fatiha and a strict adherence to zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam which mandates charity.
It’s not lost on me that there are some Muslims who hate Jews and use extremist religious views to rationalize their terrorism and bigotry. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a scorching-hot button in the Islamic world, West Africa included. My yearly trips to Sierra Leone, which is now politically stable, might as well be diplomatic missions. I now spend those cool tropical evenings defending Israel to family and friends about what is reported on Al-Jazeera. My siblings playfully tease me about my “Jewish thing,” but they’re happy that I’ve found a spiritual identity that makes me happy. Once, my brother even dropped me off at the only Purim party happening in all of Sierra Leone, where I met a Yeminite Israeli, a British Jew, and a Reform American family.
With deep sadness I have eavesdropped on conversations in the Jewish community in which the most disgusting, most hateful language was used to describe the 1.6 billion people who practice diverse forms of the Islamic faith. I am ashamed to admit that I remained silent in these instances, as I feared being verbally ripped to pieces by a crowd operating on group think.
I often look to my ancestral heritage as a form of coping mechanism when dealing with ugly behavior from a people with whom I seek fellowship. My grandmother’s grandfather was an Islamic scholar from the Sahel, and a nobleman from a warrior caste. His inner sense of justice and battle skills came in handy when rapacious British colonialists passed an exploitative tax code that resulted in the Hut Tax War of 1898.
Beginning in the 16th century, the Lançados, crypto-Jewish traders from Portugal from whom I claim negligible descent, lived under the protection of West African chiefs, as agents of the Inquisition operated with impunity in the Atlantic world. As practicing Muslims, these West African rulers welcomed the tossed-out traders as fellow children of Abraham. This is the Islamic heritage that has shaped my life.
One idiot at a Purim party does not get to define me.