My first real memory of the United States is that of a three-story-tall Christmas tree in the middle of the ice rink of a Houston-area mall. It’s the blasphemous image that I’ll always associate with my family’s move to America from Karachi, Pakistan, in December of 1999. I was eleven years old and the first few days of the move are a blur of spaghetti junctions, what I then thought of as bone-chilling cold, and a fascination with fast food restaurants. But the moment I spotted the tree is crystallized in my mind. It was the most spectacular thing I had ever seen.
The truth is, I wasn’t sure that I actually wanted to live in the land of great opportunity that my parents claimed America would be. Instead, I spent the first few days in a country I’d only ever seen in the movies in a kind of muted awe. Though my parents tried to get me excited about the new Honda Odyssey they bought and the fact that I’d have my own bedroom, I wandered around our house in a daze, confused by the thick carpeting in the U.S. It was the reason I decided, firmly, that I was okay with my family’s immigration.
I did not get a Christmas tree that year. My brief romance with Christian traditions came to a screeching halt a few days later, when the Islamic holy month of Ramadan began. Every day, thirty minutes before sunset, my family would pile into the Odyssey and head to the mosque. I’d walk into the women’s section, go to the part where the other girls my age sat, and quietly unfold my prayer mat. I’d sit there quietly, my stomach grinding itself in hunger after a full day of fasting. The minutes before the call to prayer were agonizing. The girls around me talked rapidly about things I’d never heard of—Spongebob, Pokemon trading cards and Beanie Babies. Most of them had been born in the U.S. and spoke effortlessly with accents that seemed thick and foreign to me.
In Karachi, we had lived three-minutes’ walking distance from the mosque my family belonged to. I’d grown up sitting on prayer mats next to the same girls my entire life. We’d taken the same Koran classes, coordinated our outfits and listened to the same three men bleat out the call to prayer. In Houston, everything was different. These girls seemed more religious than the ones I’d grown up with, competing with each other to recite passages from the Koran. They’d listen attentively to the sermons, taking notes diligently and telling me things about the very religion I’d grown up with that I’d never known before. For starters, the girls told me that I wasn’t allowed to wear anything with an elephant on it—that, they said, was haram, or forbidden under Islam, although I’d never heard anything of the sort before. Then, they told me that wearing deodorant was also forbidden, as most products were alcohol-based and that too was haram.
During that Ramadan, I realized something I’d never understood before: Being Muslim could become a part of your identity, something that you could embrace as part of yourself like it was a talent akin to having masterful violin skills or the ability to do long division without a paper and pencil. In Karachi, everyone I knew was Muslim—my religiosity wasn’t something that I could hold over someone else. In Houston, though, it had become a type of contest—these girls competed to be the best Muslims they could be, embracing parts of my religion that I hadn’t been told were important in the first place.
My family belongs to a sect of Shiite Muslims known as Dawoodi Bohra, one that is so small and marginal that most Muslims haven’t even heard of it. There are about 1.2 million Bohra Muslims in the world, and the majority of the population resides in Mumbai, India, with fewer than 40,000 in Pakistan.
Bohra Muslims, known informally as Bohris, practice a form of Shiite Islam that’s not common to the rest of the Muslim world. Bohris have a centralized leadership, similar to the Vatican, which makes all decisions regarding the community, and they have different rules for taxation, prayers and even dietary restrictions than other Muslims. They also follow a different version of the lunar calendar, so religious holidays are a few days off from the rest of the Muslim world. Members of the sect tend to be close-knit and somewhat isolationist, keeping themselves apart from other religious groups. As a child in Karachi, I grew up in a private housing cooperative specifically for other Dawoodi Bohras. Most of my parents’ friends were also Bohri, and we only ever went to Bohri mosques.
Weirdly, however, I never thought of myself or my sect as being that different from the rest of Islam until I moved to Texas and realized that the girls I met at mosque took such pride of belonging to this specific community. It wasn’t just the kids: The entire Bohri community in Houston stuck together like glue. The Bohris we met during those initial weeks all lived in the same neighborhoods, were concentrated in the same few public schools, and often interacted solely with other Bohris.
In the Karachi we’d left behind, the Pakistani rupee was falling, school was often cancelled because of intermittent violence in the city and Pervez Musharraf had recently overthrown the civilian government in a military coup that took only seventeen hours. Moving to the United States was a way for my family to escape the terrible downhill turn that Karachi had taken. But it wasn’t the only reason. My mother, who grew up in Tanzania, wanted to raise her children in a country where both boys and girls were given equal opportunities. She’d become frustrated with the way I was ignored consistently by members of our extended family while my younger brother, the only grandson, was spoiled rotten. An educator herself, my mother noticed how I struggled to be creative and independent in a school system that she believed valued rote memorization instead of critical thinking. My father, who worked as a director at the family garment factory, had attended college in Houston, and they believed his connections there would make our transition to a new country seamless.
They chose our house in Houston based on its proximity to the Bohri mosque. Because we moved in December, I spent my first month and a half in the United States waiting for the spring semester to start. The daily ritual of going to mosque to break our fast during Ramadan was my entire introduction to the United States. The first set of friends my parents made was all Bohris. The people they met at mosque, who were all first- or second-generation immigrants themselves, explained things like health insurance and the U.S. school system to my parents. It was the Bohris my family met at mosque who connected them with good doctors, lawyers and businessmen.
However, as my family settled in further, we all realized that the Bohri community in Houston was far more devout than the community we’d known in Karachi. All of the women were expected to follow the specific Bohri dress code—women wore a Bohri variation of the traditional burqa, a two-piece, colorful and highly adorned veil called a rida—something I hadn’t experienced in Pakistan. My mother learned quickly that a lot of the other Bohri parents prevented their children from going to the houses of American children. Even the kids who’d been born in the U.S. were discouraged from making friends who weren’t Bohri. My father learned that many people in the mosque relied on the patronage of the community for most of their business ventures and hardly socialized with anyone else. I found out that some of the girls I met at mosque weren’t allowed to eat food that wasn’t halal—they could never enjoy the quarter-pounders with cheese that I’d decided was the world’s best food. In Karachi, my parents hadn’t acted horrified if I threw on a pair of shorts and went for a neighborhood bike ride, but here many of the girls I knew in Houston wore a headscarf to school.
Six months after we arrived in Houston, my parents moved to Cypress, a suburb further away from the city. The new public school my brother and I attended had no other Bohri children. Though both of us were required by our parents to attend Saturday religious classes at the mosque, we were also encouraged to make friends with whomever we wanted.
The neighborhood we moved to was extremely close-knit. Every month there was a block party; the cul-de-sac crowded by lawn chairs and card tables as everyone milled around, snacking and swapping stories about their children’s sports leagues. I was almost thirteen years old, and almost every family convinced me to babysit for them. Though we lived in the Bible Belt, my neighbors never made my family feel as though we weren’t welcome or loved because we were Muslim. Religion was hardly ever discussed in a way that made my parents nervous about their children becoming apostates. The first December we lived in Cypress, my parents bought a real Christmas tree, laying out presents from our neighbors below the branches for us to open on Christmas Day. We continued getting a tree every year after that. We’d all squabble about the type of tree we’d buy, turning the decision between choosing a Douglas fir and a Scotch pine into an all-out screaming match. Later, my father would complain about how strapping the tree to the Odyssey had aggravated his hernia, and for the two weeks the tree lived in our house, my mother complained about how the pine needles shed all over the floor.
I began referring to the girls I knew at my mosque as my “mosque friends,” a term that I used frequently to differentiate these girls from the friends I was making at school. After I told a Bohri girl that I’d gone over to a white girl’s house for a sleepover, for the next four weeks all of the girls in my religious school class pointedly ignored me for having done something so obscene. Other Bohri parents reprimanded my mother for the freedom she’d given my brother and me; they were horrified at the fact that we were allowed to have close American friends.
We’d lived in Cypress for about a year before September 11, 2001. As the news stations reported that this was a terrorist attack carried out by fundamentalist Muslims, my mother watched in horror, never connecting that the vitriol America would soon feel toward Islam would touch our family. In the days after the attack, a neighbor stopped by our house to chat with my mother, asking her if she’d been harassed by anyone who knew that she was Muslim.
While the neighbors we’d become so close to never actively made us feel unwelcome or disliked because of our religion, the months after September 11 changed how the Americans we knew thought about Islam. They pictured the long beards of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban members they saw on TV and began asking my family many, many more questions about a religion they barely understood. But the Wahhabi Islam we saw on television was as foreign to us as it was to the Southern Baptists we knew.
At school, I began clarifying the difference between my sect and Sunni Islam, reading up on a religion I wasn’t familiar with just so I could defend my family. My friends’ parents would grill me about my religion when I went over to their house and I’d carefully chew over my words before answering so that I didn’t give them any reason to believe I practiced the same religion as the terrorists. My brother perfected a three-sentence answer he could give every time someone brought up his religion, designed to ensure they knew we were extremely different from the rest of the Islamic world.
At mosque, my parents heard about how the other Bohris they knew had closed ranks.They’d stopped letting their children ride the school bus and forced them to grow further isolated. They refused to let their children answer questions about Islam and insisted on limiting their time with Americans outside school. I overheard parents at mosque talking about how wonderful it would be if their children never had to interact with the rest of then world just so they could avoid the inevitable questions, laden with misconceptions. Because so many of these families had never forged strong relationships with their non-Bohri neighbors, they were watched over with particular suspicion and anger. A family friend who wore the traditional Bohri veil was yelled at by strangers in a grocery store.
Over the next few years, we watched as the Bohri community in Houston changed from being a small, close-knit society to a sprawling mess of immigrants from all over the world. The leader of the Bohri community had stationed one of his sons in Houston, and as news of the bountiful job opportunities, low property prices and close-knit community spread, Bohris from all over the U.S. and the world chose to move to Houston. Soon we were running out of spots to pray at mosque and people were fighting over places for their prayer mats. As the burgeoning community grew, it became even more isolated than before. One of the new immigrants I met at mosque once proudly claimed that he’d never had to do a school project with a non-Bohri.
The weekend after Thanksgiving in 2004, my family purchased a fake Christmas tree after learning that my mother was horribly allergic to most firs. We had years of ornaments that we’d collected, some bought at novelty stores, others given to us by friends who were tickled by my family’s love for Christmas trees. In December, my brother invited a few Bohri friends over for a sleepover. One of them told his parents about the tree. He was never allowed to come back to our house.
In 2005 we learned that our application for a green card—which we had filed the week before September 11, 2001—had been denied. Believing that the rejection was because of my family’s religion and Pakistani nationality, my parents began the lengthy process of appealing the decision. In 2008, they finally moved back to Pakistan.
Though my family had kept themselves at arms’ length from the Bohri community in Houston, in Karachi they immediately found an apartment in the same Bohri housing development we’d lived in before moving to the United States. They reconnected with the same Bohri friends they’d had before our move.
When I moved back four years after they did—after completing school and working in the States for a few years—I was surprised to learn that my family had brought over all of their Christmas decorations, hardly embarrassed to pull them out the weekend after Thanksgiving to add pockets of Christian festivity all over our apartment.
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Laurel Lynn Leake works in all sorts of mediums to explore how we construct and communicate our identities in an intersectional world. Leake graduated from the Center For Cartoon Studies and lives in Vermont.