WASHINGTON—On Eid, I’ll celebrate the end of Ramadan by eating a hearty lunch just as I have for the past month.
I’ll buy it with a coupon from Mo.
I met Mo this June in an Au Bon Pain with a food-to-customer ratio that made me seriously question its fiscal future. He was the wiry, 20-something-year-old cashier behind the counter, and I the impatient customer in front. My chicken caesar salad and Diet Peach Snapple refused to scan after one, two, three attempts, and Mo immediately set to work appeasing my growling stomach. He pushed back the yellow bandanna resting on his forehead—a half-hearted attempt to tame his frantic, tight black curls; adjusted the name tag reading “HI, I’m Mohammed” that dangled precariously from his apron; and slammed his fingers at the register as if force could fix the faulty barcodes. In between the slamming, he snuck shy glances upwards.
“Mohammed,” I asked after a few minutes had passed, “should I just get something else?”
His response landed hard and fast.
“What your name? Where you from?” The questions, almost incoherent in their breathless delivery, toppled onto and through each other.
I sighed. Mo, unsure of his wrongdoing, peered down at the register.
It’s not so much the olive skin and thick, arched brows that disclose my ethnicity and religion as the scarf—zebra-striped, or sequined, or polka-dotted, depending on the day—wrapped tightly around my head. Ever since I began wearing the hijab, I’d evoked the same kind of reaction, at once eager and curious, from strangers: always accented immigrants, mostly Muslim men.
At first I felt unnerved by their urge to deduce my identity from a piece of cloth. Then, sympathetic: The New York City cab driver with a daughter in Riyadh simply needed—I told myself— a conspicuous reminder of the family for whom he relinquished his engineering job.
“Have nice day,” Mo faintly whispered, interrupting my thoughts. My purchase had finally registered and he was handing me a paper bag.
“My name’s Aisha,” I blurted, envisioning the sister Mo may have left behind. “And my parents are from Pakistan.”
“Me?” he beamed, pointing to his chest. “Mo. Egyptian.” He reached into his pocket and handed me a fistful of crumpled coupons. “Come back soon!”
I did. I bought a meal—$3 cheaper—for a week straight. Each time I’d bring the salad and Snapple to the check-out, Mo would offer another stack of coupons. “No, no,” I insisted. “Not until I’ve run out.”
On the first day of Ramadan—six days since Mo serendipitously began easing my wallet—I used the last coupon. “Ramadan Kareem!” I approached the counter anticipating another tidy bundle of savings. But Mo pursed his lips and studied the salad in silence. He seemed weary, lethargic. After shoving the food into my hands along with some loose change, he looked past my shoulders and beckoned to the man behind me: “Next!”
I was stunned. What had changed? Could Mo have been that offended, felt that betrayed, at my irreverence for fasting?
Later, while I sipped tomato soup alone for dinner in my dorm, I decided I was a gluttonous fraud.
I blamed it on my hijab.
Blamed it, really, on my ambivalent reasons for wearing it in the first place. I didn’t begin covering, as is Islamic custom, after the first crimson drops of womanhood stained my middle school cross-country shorts, but after I felt a youthful impulse to do so.
I was 16 and obsessed with Rosie the Riveter when I considered that the hijab and feminism were not mutually exclusive. I had finished reading about Nadia Yassine, a Moroccan hijabi and staunch women’s rights advocate, and saw in her a bit of myself. Reared by a father skeptical of priests and imams alike and a mother who wears her thick shoulder-length waves in a carefully woven braid, I grew up just religious enough—comfortable both reciting Qur’anic verses and wearing bathing suits. Nadia embodied, I thought, this same kind of tenuous duality between East and West.
Inspired, I decided to take my summer writing assignment—appreciating different perspectives—a step further. I’d wear the hijab for a week and determine for myself if it was really a regressive, oppressive cultural artifact.
One week—filled with tedious explanations to Muslim friends who interpreted my “social experiment” as a spiritual epiphany and non-Muslim friends who interpreted it as an alarming, extremist trend—turned into one month; one month into one year; one year into two; two into three.
Yet, during this time, my behavior—aside from my fashion— didn’t change: I still spoke too loud, too often. I still didn’t fast, didn’t eat halal meat.
I looked a part I didn’t wholly play.
Since I couldn’t sleep that night, I figured I’d wash my hijabs. I didn’t bother to spare one to wear for my trip to the laundry room. And, to be sure, a few kids were collecting their socks from the dryer when I arrived. But, standing there with my bare messy bun, I didn’t feel any more authentic. I still felt hollow, like the low hum of the machines.
I managed to avoid Au Bon Pain for four days until I accepted, with some reluctance, that the café was too convenient a distance from work, and I wanted my salad, goddammit.
Though I braced myself for Mo’s cold shoulder when I returned, I found Sherri, a stout, graying grandmother, in his place. She titled her head when I gave her cash, furrowed her brows, briefly hesitated. “Are—are you Aisha?”
She slid a sleek envelope—“Ayesha” scribbled in the bottom right corner— my way.
When I asked who had left it, she pointed towards the bakery. “Probably someone there.”
I followed her finger. There was Mo, pale and sweaty, slicing bread.
“Well, do you want to use it?” She removed a coupon from the envelope.
“I think I’ll save it,” I said. “For a special occasion.”
Aisha Y. Bhoori '18 is an English concentrator in Pforzheimer House.
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