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Essay: My Muslim-American Thanksgiving

Author Saadia Faruqi and her two children. Courtesy of Saadia Faruqi

"Amma, will we have to eat turkey?"

"Amma, are you sure we can celebrate Thanksgiving even though we're Muslim?"

The questions start even before Thanksgiving break comes around, usually around the time of the fall party at school and the coloring papers with Mr. Turkey who begs to be hidden so that nobody eats him. My first generation Pakistani-American children, now 9 and 6, struggle with much these days, and Thanksgiving is just another worry as they try to live life with dual identities. Imagine how much harder it is for an immigrant like myself.

For a Pakistani American, Thanksgiving is as wholesome and normal a holiday as one can get. It is a time to be grateful, to spend time with family, and to have a little bit of fun. We don't eat turkey, because as a Pakistani I never developed a taste for eating or cooking it. But I am definitely planning a spread—mostly of Pakistani dishes like tandoori chicken, daal (lentils), and naan. God knows that my family needs to feel normal, with all the questions surrounding Muslims just weeks after terrorist attacks in Paris.

I suppose that I feel political and social issues more than most because I am an interfaith activist and author. I know not only what my kids have to listen to at school but also what adults like myself have to face in the aftermath of terrorist acts perpetrated by those who claim to follow the same faith as I do. After Paris, I have received hate mail, have been the recipient of glares and whispers, and of course many Muslims have fared a hundred times worse.

On most days, I try to be part of the solution. My public speaking activities, ranging from church groups to community colleges, and the cultural sensitivity training I gave to law enforcement, led to my book "Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan" because I saw firsthand the extent of stereotyping about Muslims in the media and in the minds of the average American. I organize interfaith events aimed at increasing understanding amongst Muslims and other groups. But this week, back after a trip to Atlanta for a book signing and television interview, I just want to celebrate Thanksgiving in peace and quiet, away from the stress of life as an activist and public speaker.

Saadia Faruqi and her family at the launch of her book, "Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan." Courtesy of Saadia Faruqi

Most of all, I want to make this a family time for my children. Most days, they don't talk about being Muslim. Perhaps in their mind, being Muslim and American aren't two different things. But there are little indications that the dual identity bothers them. The other day my daughter told me not to come to her school any longer because my hijab embarrasses her. I should have been angry but I understood her so completely that I could only hug her and say, "OK sweetheart." The next day she told me I should have lunch with her at school some time, so I know we are really okay, adapting the best that we can in a world full of uncertainties.

And Muslim Americans are good at adapting. Whether we are immigrants like my family, or Americans for five generations like an African-American Muslim I know, we are all celebrating a bittersweet Thanksgiving this year. Extremely grateful for all that America has given us, but also working hard to improve those areas we find lacking, be it stereotyping, or refugee issues or hateful political rhetoric. Muslim Americans like myself are in a unique position to make serious changes and I am thankful of that opportunity.

At my mosque last week, representatives of several religious traditions gathered to give thanks and pray together in an interfaith service. There were remarks about the Paris attack victims, and also a wonderful sense of gratitude that we could set aside our differences and celebrate Thanksgiving together. Some even realized that while the theological differences are minute, the similarities as Americans—as humans—on a faith spectrum are immense. That's what I want people to take away from my book, and that's what I want my children to learn. My Muslim-American Thanksgiving is as real as it gets — with all the hyphenated identities.

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Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani-American interfaith activist and author based in Houston, TX.