A thick line of cloth squares ran 20 feet down the center of the mosque’s basement recreation room, where the cold tile floor was scattered with rugs. The cloth pieces were all shapes and sizes and colors and textures, from flannel Sox logos to shimmering paisley. On one side of the line were teenage boys, picking out patterns which would fit the stories they had just told each other as they sat in small groups on the rugs and recalled times of standing out. One student described what it was like to be a Jewish guy trying to fit in to a group of Jordanians who he admired but who, he knew, would hate him if they knew of his family’s Zionist heritage. Another student told how it felt to be a 16 year old confronted with the assault of Islamophobic prejudice: “Go back to where you belong!” “Terrorist!” On the other side of the line were the teenage girls, who had been doing the same storytelling, sharing scenes of difference and awakening to the identity that defined them and that they had had no part in creating. All the kids picked out their cloth and went back to their gender-based groups of four to make their quilt pieces and continue talking.
Looking around, I realized that the kids assembling their quilt together were re-assembling parts of myself that had been separated for decades. I have a love of the Arabic language and Muslim culture that was born in my year in Tunisia as an exchange student in high school, but that was complicated by my return to small town high school life and the ignorance and prejudice in my school. One of the most important changes that had occurred within me was that I became bitter and judgmental toward “my people,” the middle-class white folks I had grown up among, and sought out people from other races and cultures. And yet I have remained surrounded by “my people” all my life, always with an edge of rage for our collective acceptance of the racism and injustice endured by people who are made to feel “other” in America.
But that day when I saw 50 students gathered from opposite sides of Chicago, half Muslim and half Jewish or Christian, embrace the opportunity for connection, a split within me healed. The joy these students had in being together, the way they welcomed the opportunity to see themselves reflected more fully in one another, freed me to my own joy. For the space of that day, I was released from a strain that I have lived with since I was 16, without ever realizing it: pulling away from the enormous admiration and pleasure I felt speaking Arabic and being with Tunisian friends and family, because it didn’t fit with my American life. For over a decade I have brought about connections between people who come from widely different environments, but it wasn’t until this moment that I felt how deeply personal the work was, how it came out of my anger and searching and yearning.