I could hear the children’s squeals as they jumped wildly on the largest bounce house at the venue. High ceilings and the loud blow machines used to inflate the houses typically overcast most other sounds, yet the girls’ joy easily pierced the low rumble. I excused myself from the conversation I was having to mosey through the large building and spy on the ultra-giddy girls.
As I approached, it was the sight of them tumbling over each other with messy, static hair that made it apparent: this was a friendship in the making. I stepped into action. After asking the girls with whom my daughter played who their mother was, I received a reply that I’ll never forget. The eldest child blurted, mid-tumble, “She’s over there, the one wearing the superhero cape!”
In a flash, the girls went back to their play world, battling and conquering the magical beast they were up against. I turned to find this mysterious mother who, according to her perceptive daughter, wore what most of us only dream. To my surprise, it didn’t take me long to find her.
The first thing I noticed about Iman Azizah was her smile. She stood toward the front doors of the building, where she laughed with friends. Unlike most adults I know, who lose the child-like twinkle in their eye, Iman carried a glow to her that I still can’t quite put my finger on. Also unique to Iman was her dress. She wore a chador, an article of clothing that shows only her face, and was aptly perceived by her daughter as “the superhero cape”.
Admittedly, I was apprehensive to jump into the conversation. Would I be accepted among this group of Muslim-Americans? Would we accidentally offend each other? I didn’t know, but I took the last few steps and joined the conversation.
It’s scary to approach another group of people, a different group, a group of “the other,” of whom humans are instinctively cautious. This much is obvious, not from my studies in anthropology, but from simply looking at groups and cultures around the globe. People of one group tend to band together, solidifying their dynamics among the larger context of “others.”
And what grows within the context of groups? Cultures, languages, customs, beliefs, each as dynamic and representative of humanity as the next. Some cultures originate in America, many of which we are well accustomed to: Hardliners, Hipsters, and Grunge. Many more originate from other places throughout the globe, from places like Syria, where Iman is from.
“I moved from Syria to the United States with my husband, Ahmad, to finish his Internal Medicine residency,” Iman shared. “Being a devoted Muslim in America is very challenging and rewarding. What I wear represents my identity. I understand that people usually have apprehension about unusual things and different people. However, if you don’t try strange things and don’t interact with different people, you would not have a real impression and sound perception.”
There are superheroes all over Fort Smith. According to the Fort Smith Public School’s 2015 Report To The Public, 32.9% of students are Latino, 11.4% of students are African-American, and the total percentage of non-Caucasian students was 58.1%. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20.7% of Fort Smith Households speak a language other than English and 12.9% of residents are foreign born. According to Vincenzo Bove, a professor at the University of Warwick, UK, and expert on immigration, “diversity is a strength that has positive economic effects.”
As I’ve gotten to know Iman, I’ve learned that we are more similar than different. And the superhero cape she wears is just like that of other cultures: the cowboy hat, tight hipster jeans, the veil worn by nuns.
We all feel what it’s like to be judged based on attributes that we were born into. And we also know what it’s like to be the judge, to apply the best of humanity’s characteristics to our own group while assigning the worst to others. My daughter overcame this social instinct easily, as did the two little girls with whom she played; they, with their child-like eyes, only saw friendship and superheroes. That’s an expectation we can all live up to.
Fort Smith is a growing community, full of everything and everyone we need to thrive. It isn’t despite our differences that our community is the best place for all of us, but because of them.
Iman concludes, “Based on my educational background and field in Islamic studies, I can see that most of the American media misrepresents Islam and attributes many traditions and negative aspects to Islam when they have nothing to do with its pure message. I am so grateful that the world still has honest, fair people who are open-minded and embrace differences.”
Iman wears her chador bravely every day of her life. Wear your cape bravely, because together we are stronger. Together we are all heroes for each other.