By Sara Nasser
I was ten when some punks stole my little brother’s new Nikes, the ones that looked like moon boots on his tawny legs. The thieves approached us as were walking near Green Briar Park, a place full of drum circles in sum- mer evenings, adult softball games, and like much of Chicago, intermittent gang activity. Our neighborhood of West Ridge stood at the edge of Skokie and Evanston—richer, safer suburbs—and a world away from the violence of the South and West Sides. Growing up, the only thing I really worried about was the occasional telephone pole adorned with a sneaker barely hanging by a lace.
The two thieves were part of a larger family, shepherded by an eldest brother who towered over them. I often noticed them out and about as if they didn’t have parents to call them home for dinner or homework. These boys looked younger than me, and it seemed that they approached us more out of boredom than anything resembling material gain.
“Assalamu alaykum,” said the short one.
“You got some nice new shoes brother,” said the taller one.
He disarmed my brother by grabbing his arms from behind as the short one pried the shoes off my brother’s kicking feet. I was head and shoulders above both of them, and yet I just stood there, crying like a girl. My brother didn’t cry. He looked pissed while we walked home silently.
“Why is your face all red?” my mother screamed in Urdu. “Where in Allah’s name are your shoes?”
My brother answered in English, his eyes cast down: “They were stolen.”
“How? And where were you?” she asked me.
“I was there,” I said in Urd-ish. “I didn’t leave him.”
“There were these two black kids from the masjid,” my brother explained. “There was nothing she could have done.”
While the theft of my brother’s sneakers hardly constituted a violent crime, we were actually quite lucky that nothing worse had happened to us over the years. Police cars patrolled Green Briar Park to stop drug deals, while us brown kids played with each other, sometimes befriending some black kids we’d seen at school or at masjid, altogether avoiding the Hasidic kids, who avoided us in turn. We lived near our respective parts of Devon Avenue, with the Orthodox Jewish community to the north and the desis to the south, California Avenue crossing in between. Shorter streets named for Muhammed Ali Jinnah, Mahatma Gandhi, and Golda Meir honored the founding fathers (and mother) of our homelands.
After my brother had his shoes stolen, we weren’t allowed to wear nice shoes anywhere, not even to the mosque. My mother warned that our shoes would be stolen while we prayed, since we placed them near the entrance during prayers sessions held upstairs. My family’s mosque was a derelict building, without a sign or symbol of our faith. We hid our religiosity in plain sight. We traded in our minarets and arches for the square boxes of the Midwest, lines of brick that faded into flat terrain. Here I was surrounded by women from all over the Muslim world—Iraq, Bosnia, India, Pakistan—praying in unison to Allah. I aped the rituals of these women because I liked the pretty rugs I buried my nose in while bowing before Mecca, and the pretty scarves covering the pretty hair of women who exchanged freshly prepared meals, who treated each other’s children as their own, and answered my questions with a pretty smile.
“Why do you cover up?” I would ask.
“Because women are diamonds. Their beauty is rare and it has to be hidden. You don’t want people to steal them,” they would say.
After I failed to defend my little brother, I began to detest this sacred feminine space. I figured that they, like me, wouldn’t have grabbed the taller thief’s neck so that my brother could lunge forward and retrieve his new Nikes, all because these women willingly separated themselves from the male world. Even at parties held in my family’s apartment, men and women segregated themselves. As a young girl I had been privy to the inner workings of both spaces, traveling from the world of diapers and wedding plans to one of politics and current events, of the kind that would now make my Che-clad friends blush. I had preferred this male space. I could hang out with my brother, play with boys our age, and act like the older brother I felt my younger brother had wanted. I also found that I didn’t like pretty things anymore because my brother didn’t, and I wanted to be just like him, like my best friend, who I wasn’t able to defend.
Sneakers were the only thing we splurged on; they made up for our K-mart wardrobes. As public school students, we adhered to a strict dress code of plain white shirts and dark slacks or skirts, but our sneakers could be as colorful as we liked. Unlike our clothes, sneakers spoke to who you were—Chucks if you were “emo” and didn’t care for sports, Adidas if you played soccer, New Balance if you ran track, and if you were like me and played basketball, you wore the shoes of the city’s pride and joy: Jordans.
I had bleach-white ones with an electric blue swoosh marked with “AIR” on the sides. They were Air Force Ones, like the Nelly song blowing up the airwaves at the time, and I loved them. I love them still. I bought the Jordans when I made the basketball team in sixth grade, and I kept them long after my feet had outgrown them, though the hot pavement of Green Briar’s concrete courts had burned through their soles. The gangly brown girl racing up and down the court could be heard from anywhere, for only Jordans could make those magical squeaks. Classmates and teammates and crosstown rivals told me, “Dayum, you have some nice shoes.” My choice of sneaks was my claim to fame.
I whiled away my days at school by wandering through the hallways on my frequent and extended “bathroom breaks.” I couldn’t stand to be in the classroom—looking at the clock, sitting behind the desk, copying definition after definition out of an American history textbook so tattered and marked I had duct-taped its spine and corners. The classroom was a bit of a war zone: your mother insulted, your hair pulled, your homework often stolen from your own desk. Teachers weren’t there to teach history or literature or really anything worth learning; as they put it, they were there to “babysit” and give explanations for current events:
“Why did the terrorists attack us?”
“It’s because they’re jealous. They’re jealous of our freedom.”
“Why did they kill themselves?”
“Well, their religion tells them they would be rewarded in heaven for killing themselves.”
Much of what I knew about my religion, and learning in general, came from my thrice-weekly lessons learning to read the Quran. On days I didn’t have basketball practice, I would sound out the words and read entire stories in Arabic, despite not knowing the meaning. I loved the order and structure set by ustad-be, a teacher from India, who brandished a long and wooden stick that struck fear in my heart. She wouldn’t even spare a quadriplegic when he read so softly that “Allah couldn’t hear him.” I would sound out “Allah’s words” in a language I didn’t understand, and get whacked for my mispronunciations and thus, my disrespect for Allah.
When 9/11 happened and the FBI descended on Devon Avenue, my family and I often heard stories of shops being raided, people being deported, of possible informants who might or might not have been in last Friday’s prayer. My dad, after watching a news special about the internment of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, became wary of our situation. “That could happen to us,” he would say.
Ustad-be never talked about such things. She instead encouraged us to keep learning about everything there was to know about anything. She would often say that a “life spent learning is the closest to God,” and because I believed in Muslims like ustad-be, it pained me when she told me to wear shalwar khameez—modest, sub-continental female garb—to class instead of my Rocawear tracksuit. I obliged, but she scolded me on my choice of shoes: “Wear some nice chappals next time.”
Chappals sucked. They were discreet, thin, and flimsy, shaping my toes into flat, slender points. There was no difference between right and left. They made me walk slow and measured. They were my corset. My beloved Jordans, however, fit the curvature of my feet; they were loud and large, and made me fast and fluid so I could jump. I ended up wearing the chappals out of respect for ustad-be, out of reverence for her.
When I turned twelve I was no longer allowed to wear shorts. I wore track pants instead. They were loud, an annoying swoosh in contrast to the magical squeaks of my Jordans, and they made me stick out because I was the only one wearing them; the only Muslim girl on the court. I found myself explaining why I had to wear the pants and getting into more fights on and off the court.
“I think I’m going to kill myself!” I once said after a frustrating first half.
“Yeah, you would, you people tend to do that. . .” said my opponent behind me.
I shoved her. She tried to slap me, but I grabbed her arms and pushed her to the floor. Her teammate grabbed my hair from behind, and before I knew it, I had started a full-on fight. I was suspended from playing the following two games, and I could not have cared less. I had finally fought back.
On the first day of eighth grade, a kid who had moved from Oklahoma two years earlier chose to sit next to me. At first I felt sorry for him and his drawl, the taunts he incurred for it, his lack of athleticism. He always carried a book around. Leviathan comes to mind, which I wouldn’t touch until I was eighteen, so I doubt he understood it all at thirteen. He was smart and upbeat, though I found his poindexter glasses and questioning of me annoying:
“Why do you look so mad all the time?”
“Why is your hair always in a ponytail?”
“Can I have that picture you just drew?”
The boy from Oklahoma introduced me to the song that’ll “change your life”: “Rebel Girl.” My music tastes up to that point were filled with the braggadocios of hip-hop, but this, this was something different. Kathleen Hanna sang with that guttural angst I wallowed in: “When she taaalks / I hear the revolutions / In her hiiips / There’s revoluuutiooons. . .”
Sometime after introducing me to Bikini Kill, after I swapped my Jordans for Chucks, the boy from Oklahoma gave me my first kiss, and Green Briar Park was no longer a place that made me feel sorry for being a girl—it actually made me glad that I was one. At the time I had felt guilty because had my parents known, they might have disowned me, or worse, threatened to ship me back to India. But the kiss and his constant presence had turned Green Briar into a place of empowerment and defiance. It flew in the face of what was expected of me, that I would confine myself to the female space, never to reach out, feel, and actually touch the other side. It made me a sinner. For the first time in my life, I chose what aspects of Islam would apply to me, and in a funny way, I became a Muslim. That it was impossible to be wholly Muslim, or Indian, or even a girl, would seem to be conventional wisdom, but as a preteen indoctrinated in the absoluteness of all these things, it was a revelation. ■
This essay appears in the Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook, available for pre-order from Belt Publishing.
Sara Nasser is currently a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. She was raised in the West Ridge neighborhood of Chicago and is writing a novel about the city.
Cover image of a street corner in West Ridge by Stuti Sharma for the Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook.
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