Letter to my Children on the Eve of Elections

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

ShadabOne point six miles from the Pacific, the house with the terra cotta fountain and the carob tree, on Crescent Point Road.

You all came home in rear-facing car seats, swaddled in blankets and matching caps, different colors, different years, but from the same hospital, about ten miles away from here. Each of you was less than a week old at circumcision; Babay looked away at that unbearable moment when you were clamped down for the operation while I learned to cradle your head with one hand and dip your pacifier in sugar water with the other; if you rejected the pacifier, I dipped my finger in sugar water and let you suck on it—all the while speaking to you and praying the Qul in your ear. In those few minutes of excruciating pain for us all, I discovered the emboldening surge of what they call the maternal instinct; I discovered my power to protect and soothe, my voice and touch suddenly transformed by some visceral spell—an empowerment like no other.

Since then, I’ve learned that “rahm” or “womb” is the root of “ArRahmaan,” the most exalted of the ninety-nine names of God; Divine compassion is exemplified in the mother’s instinct to protect and nurture. All the years I’ve been raising you, I’ve trusted this love to guide me. I’ve taught you Islamic values, I’ve taught you American values. I’ve taught you that, contrary to the dominant picture, these values are aligned with each other: respect for divergent beliefs, a strong work ethic, a sense of egalitarianism and justice, cultivating independent thought while engaging in meaningful dialogue, stewardship of the planet, are part of both the Islamic and the American ethos. The world you have grown up in has been savage in acute ways, ways that history will eventually dissect and explain, but you, young Muslims, may arguably be the primary target of the war-terrorism binary which has resulted in a chilling polarization. Against this rising and brutal divide, I’ve taught you that your Muslim-American identity is inherently harmonious and that you must develop an immunity to the poisons of ignorance, politically motivated prejudice and manufactured fear of the other. And that there is no better anti-poison than reading; read widely, read deeply— remember the first Quranic word: “Iqra!” or “Read!”

The house on Crescent Point Road is small, with aged trees and a generous yard on three sides; there are fruit trees and flowers to satisfy your immigrant parents’ nostalgia, and a shed that serves as a library-studio where we have read to each other, practiced Urdu calligraphy, recorded music, performed Hilare Beloc’s “Tarantella” and Iqbal’s “Aik Makra aur Makhi.” You’ve raised monarch butterflies, played soccer and scrabble, carved Chinese seals, readily helped Babay tend the “chutney garden,” or “pizza garden,” picking serrano peppers, mint, basil and tomatoes, and reluctantly helped me tidy up the patio or lay the table for dinner. You have painted, skate-boarded, made music with cousins, enjoyed “chai-samosay” in the gazebo on rainy days. Our lives are in the shadow of mortgages and college savings and taxes, just like other Americans, in addition to the extra burden of discrimination, but here in this yard, we work, debate, roast marshmallows, have poetry readings, play our music— Louis Armstrong, Nana Mouskouri, BeeGees, Pink Floyd, U2, Qawwali, Ghazal, Turkish flute, Vampire Weekend— when you were babies I would hold you, two at a time, and dance with you.

You’ve been fortunate enough to travel to a dozen different countries, from East Asia to Europe, spent time with grandparents and attended family weddings in Pakistan, met with remarkable people including the many accomplished women in your own family— women of science on your father’s side, and fine arts on your mother’s side; you know the legacy of your maternal great-grandmother, my mentor who was a college professor at a time when higher education for women was a rarity world-wide. You not only have genuine respect for women but you know to tune in to their wisdom and expertise and learn from them. You’ve benefited from the company of both your grandmothers as well as aunts, teachers, female cousins and friends and the illustrious female writers and thinkers you’ve read, Muslims among them.

When we step out of the house, it’s not unusual to bump into a friend from school or work, a fellow-soccer player or Science Olympiad participant, a fellow-debater or their parent, a fellow-writer, a mentee. Both your parents have volunteered and given of their time and skills over the years. There are few Muslims in our area but we cherish our community when we attend religious or cultural events.

Despite these gifts in our personal lives, this has been a distressing year, as you suffered not only from the news of violence and war around the world, which included the perpetrators and victims who were Muslim, but also the devastating tensions arising from divisive rhetoric and hatred in your birth-country. This anguish isn’t entirely new; it is a heightened form of the anxiety we have felt since you were preschoolers and which you have helped me battle with your life-affirming innocence and creative energy.

During the election season in 2008, “Obama” became part of Yousha’s vocabulary; he would chant “Obama, Obama.” At barely two years old, he thought “Obama” was the word for the American flag; he had paired the popular image of the stars and stripes with the popular word “Obama” and we were afforded a brief, golden moment of hope that our new generation will finally see a change in the oppressive status quo.

The 2016 election season has been nothing short of a vile nightmare, a dystopian mockery of all that we deem civilized; we have witnessed a moral abyss beyond our wildest imagination. In the midst of violent hate crimes and hideous hate speech, I have seen your struggle and your success in keeping your composure and focus; I have seen your compassion. I have benefited from engaging in long discussions with you involving politics, economics, history and its reflections in art, music and literature. I wish we could converse as scholars, without burdens; I wish it were in my power to protect you from the cruelty of guilt by association. I want you to know that you are blossoming, that I am grateful that you and the countless other young Muslims like you are growing up to be assets to their societies and to humanity and that you're strong enough for our burdens and the burdens of others.