On moving, 9/11, and reckoning with the names and places that made you who you are
By Sahra Ali
The buildings in Columbus, Ohio seemed short to my city eyes. It was 2002, and we had been on a highway for nine hours in our tan minivan, which my father had bought the year before. The van sat outside our Jersey City apartment for months. Every now and again, I remember dad would take us on a trip to Secaucus or to the Elizabeth mall, and my sister and I would revel in the manicured luxury of white picket fences. On the weekends, we traveled as a family to the suburbs, where there were sidewalks and quiet. Then one day we aimed the van west and kept going until we hit Columbus.
I cannot remember if I ever had a well-developed American accent. My voice shapeshifted with each ESL course I took. By the time we reached Columbus, I was known as Sarah. I can sum up my entire assimilation story with those five letters: Sarah—not Sahra, which is the proper spelling and reading of my Arabic name. Somehow, in the midst of learning three languages and navigating two cultures, worried about sounding Un-American, I had taken on the name. What’s more, my assimilation was so successful that my own family adopted the name, too.
As Sarah, I wore a small hijab that changed colors with each outfit. I was gregarious and a curious student. I stuffed my bra, wrote bad haikus, and drank Pepsi by the liter. I also stuffed my jeans with three pairs of leggings because I was insecure about my weight, or lack thereof. On September 11, 2001, we lived in New Jersey. I watched a plane lodged in one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center from my sixth-grade classroom as teachers frantically tried to close the blinds. After that day, I would need more than an American pronunciation to make strangers overlook my Muslim last name and colorful hijab.
I suppose that is partly why my dad decided to move us away from the New York City area. The sky was darkened by a thick layer of smoke, and by an emergent Islamophobia that clouded our lives. Looking back, it seems that whenever my father did not feel safe or settled, he moved us out of the neighborhood until he had successfully placed us in suburbia.
I recall the timeline of my childhood from the vantage point of how often we moved. In Somalia, where I was born, we had moved a couple of times. The closer to the U.S we got, the more we seemed to move. We moved to Djibouti for a few months after Somalia. In Jersey City, we moved twice. In Ohio, we moved four times. And all this before I turned twenty. I held on to each small detail, each street name and area code.
We went from the East Coast to the East side of Columbus, where I graduated with a high school class of seventy-four students. Our bubble grew smaller as my older sister and I entered college, the first women in our family to do so. I went south to Appalachia, where I studied at Ohio University. My sister stayed in Columbus and attended Ohio State. Out of my four American-born siblings, only one had been born in Ohio. The other three might as well be honorable mentions as they were under five when we arrived in the Midwest.
We were like the Somali Brady Bunch. That was my mother’s favorite show. Dad favored Seinfeld. Moving from one life to another can do this. There’s always some sitcom, some commercial or song that resonates. My guess is that doing this allows us to connect our lives with less dissonance. For immigrants, aspiration has roots in the subliminal. We take from the culture as we see fit, and if the context makes us laugh with the studio audience, that’s even better.
This converging history is the backdrop to my coming of age. One weekend, headed home from college, I found myself listening to a song by Alan Jackson called “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” “Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?” Jackson asked me over and over. “Teachin’ a class full of innocent children or drivin’ down some cold interstate?” The lyrics bounced off my old car and tapped into buried memories. It was the first time since 9/11 that I had cried about the attacks. The tears drenched my shirt and left dry imprints on my cheeks.
In 2008, I was nineteen years old and finally registered to vote. I cried at Barack Obama’s historic win. I voted in the “battleground” state of Ohio. I had no idea what the battle was or how I had come to partake in it, but it felt important. I felt like I was a part of a civic process that needed me.
That was my freshman year of college, and my parents were getting ready to move from the east side of Columbus to the north side. For my older sister and I, who bore the responsibility of looking after four younger siblings, the move did not affect our already non-existent social lives. We worked full time jobs, went to college, and matched our schedules around our babysitting duties. By then, my father’s small businesses—a used car dealership and a pizza shop—were booming.
Somali businesses and shops were growing in numbers. It was not long before Columbus boasted the second-largest Somali population in the nation. (Trailing only Minneapolis.) My father was well-known in the Somali community. He is sharp and charming. New Somalis made it a point to buy their first cars from him. Soon, the market would crash, and dad would have to sell the pizza shop—the only place to get halaal pizza in Columbus. He was able to hold on to the dealership and still operates it to this day—though, true to fashion, it has moved a couple of times.
Around this time, I began to consider what it meant to be part of a “demographic” in America. While my father was social and worked within the community, my mother kept to herself and her young children. She did not entertain or attend Somali weddings often. Somali weddings are an elaborate social affair. I remember going to a few and witnessing beautiful colorful dresses. We called them dirac. The men would have their receptions during the day and the women would have theirs at night. Sometimes there would be mixed receptions, which spoke more to the younger, less traditional demographic. My sister had one of those.
I adored connecting with Somalis and speaking in my native tongue when I could. I just did not have much opportunity. In all my years at Ohio University, I came across two other Somalis. It was a predominantly white school. I took solace in the Appalachian Mountains and my studies. I began dating country boys who wore Carhartts and who thought of me as a “big city” Columbus girl. They called me Sarah even though they knew my ‘h’ was in the middle. I did not mind it. In fact, I allowed it. It gave me a license to test out my foreign-ness in a way that felt American.
Once I moved to campus full-time, I experimented with my clothing style and music and reading list. I wore skorts and combat boots. I tailgated to football games and dressed up for Halloween. I would be lying if I said that I did not have fun. But it was not easy living in this dichotomy. I recall stepping outside of a noisy bar where I was watching a band on a Saturday night to take my grandmother’s call. Sometimes my younger siblings would call me to settle a fight between them. My youngest sister called me when her stomach was upset. I went home almost every weekend to help out in some way.
I was forging an American identity within the parameters of my Somali upbringing. I brewed it each morning, like the Somali tea my parents made. I was a good kid. Never got in trouble. Listened to my parents. Most of all, I tried hard to fit in wherever I could. I was still Sarah. I fall in love for the first time as Sarah. Got my heartbroken as Sarah. I corrected people when they tried to call me something else, something that better resembled my Muslim name. I remember feeling shame around Arabic speakers when I confidently mispronounced my name. I did not know the trauma that I ignored by burying the implications of my Muslim name. It festered inside me.
I moved away from Ohio in late 2016 and became a nomadic writer, hiker, thinker, and everything else in between. I traveled to places in the U.S. where people who looked liked me did not go, from Vermont to Alaska. I went hopping from one mountain town to another. One city to another. One life to another. Mostly, I started correcting myself on my name.
During the 2016 election, I was in New York. The air tasted like 9/11 again. That following January, I remember seeing Somalia on the list of Muslim places from which travel was banned, along with the other six “shithole” countries. I remember hearing about the brutal murder of Nabra Hassanen in D.C. that summer too. She was coming home from prayer during the holy month of Ramadan. I cried for days because she resembled my little sisters. She also resembled me. Seventeen-year-old me, in my hijab, laughing with my friends after coming from the mosque, sporting my American accent. I was heartbroken.
I am in my early thirties now, and the distance from adolescence has settled some of the dust that once perplexed me in my youth. But I keep coming back to the word demographic. In America, immigrants, especially those with Black or Brown skin, are taught to compete with their transcultural identities. We do not have the luxury of playing with nuance. We are not taught to nurture our traditions or speak of them as the backbone of our formative years. Everything gets diluted, often to the point of ignorance or apathy.
The American flag fits perfectly with all things white-adjacent. When I say I am Sarah on the phone, and people do not detect an accent, I become the coveted American. What is a coveted American? I am not sure if I can describe it, but I know it when I see it. Let’s just say it’s the brand of American that sells Confederate flags as souvenirs inside the gas station in the resort town of Vail, Colorado. It’s the brand of American that has a church with a sign that reads “God Says All Lives Matter” outside my New Mexico apartment.
Over the past eighteen years, I have watched Ohio become more conservative and antagonistic toward immigrants. But America—including Ohio—does not belong only to those who fit the mold of that coveted whiteness. America also belongs to Somalis who inhabit Columbus, to the Muslims who populate Easton Town Centre every year after Eid prayer. And it saddens me to think that this world is not welcome in some visions of the country. Because Eid is a day of joy and gratitude, and in all my years of moving around the U.S. I have never been able to share the beauty of Eid with my fellow Americans. One cannot share something that is deemed irrelevant.
I recently bought a car during a cross-country sabbatical in Wyoming. I had to register it in Ohio. It was October of 2020, which coincided with another important election. As I entered Ohio, I passed signs that spelled out an allegiance to that coveted American demographic. I cringed. I am now based in Vermont and will soon be changing my registration back to the Green Mountain state. This will not erase my Ohio roots; it is not my aspiration to do that either. I am done with the business of erasure. The ‘h’ stays in the middle. In Ohio and in Sahra. ■
Sahra Ali is a Somali-American writer and communications professional based in Vermont. Her family still resides in Columbus, Ohio.
Cover image by Doug Tone.
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