Published on March 30th, 2017 | by Ramiza Koya


THE NEW WORLD — On Identity, Trump, and Standing Up

My daughter spent a lot of 2016 planning – in the case that Trump was elected –  to leave the country.  She is bold like that.  For a time, she said she would move to Kenya.  When I asked her why Kenya, she explained that there were lots of markets there where she could sell her homemade perfumes. I had to acknowledge that this was a good argument.  She proposed London next, and I countered with Ireland.

“Trump hates Muslims,” she told me.  “He hates immigrants.  That means us, because your dad was an immigrant.” She is eight years old.  Her life spans the exact measure of the Obamas’ reign, years that promised a new America.  And so for her, life under Trump was unthinkable.

She was an ardent Hillary supporter.  The morning of the election, she wore her version of red, white, and blue, and posed for pictures in our living room, making sure that her Clinton campaign buttons were front and center.  “We’re going to have the first woman president!” she kept saying.  She made me believe it.

How can I explain to my child the worldview that was voted into power?  How do we give words to children who are Muslim, immigrants, dreamers, about this new order of things?

The day after the election, she was crushed. She asked if we were moving, but this time she added, “do we have to move?.”  “For now,” I told her, “we are staying, because it is important to fight for the rights of others.”  But there are registries and travel bans on the horizon of our lives, hovering dark clouds that chill thoughts of future travel or jobs or comfort.  We are not alone.  All around me, I know, are people whose minds are also tainted with that thought: what if?  And, if so: what will we do?

The irony is that we aren’t even practicing Muslims.  My main heritage is of hybridity: Fiji-Indian/Scottish/Native American/German and more.  I have an Arabic name but I am not religious.  I have made my attempts: traveling to family homelands in Fiji and India, dressing myself in salwaar kameez and saying prayers with a scarf over my head, learning Arabic and studying Islamic art. I lived for three years in Morocco, but still cultural affinity never led to religious calling.

I have tried to pass on some of India to my daughter, some of Islam.  But we don’t have the precedent, the surrounding context, to give it weight.  I want to be able to use the term Muslim to express culture, not faith.  This is what many Jews do; to say you are Jewish does not necessarily denote whether or not you believe in G-d.  But in an escalating propaganda war between conservative Americans and conservative Muslims, this no longer feels like an option.

On the night Barack Obama was elected president, I was living in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, in a small tourist town that looked like a diorama of Switzerland.  I had mailed in my expat ballot weeks before, but I felt that I had missed the excitement of his candidacy as I was engulfed by the needs of my daughter.  I was too tired to dream, too busy to feel hope for something so far away.

Morocco is several hours ahead of eastern standard time, and when I went to bed, the election results were coming in mixed.  I resigned myself to an inevitable defeat, and slept.  When my daughter woke me with her cries, it was 3 am.  I sat in a worn blue armchair to nurse her, turned on the television, and watched Obama take the stage.

Obama, like me, was never a practicing Muslim.  Like me, his name is a signpost to nowhere.  His father did not pass on more than his skin color, his foreign name.  And yet, to me, the appearance of that name on the screen – of Barack Hussein Obama – was like science fiction.  Never, in my wildest dreams of the future, had I imagined that a person with a name like mine could be president of the United States.

Yet there I was, my baby at my breast, with her dark hair and eyes, her Arabic middle name, and there he was: the victor.  I wept, alone and amazed. My daughter’s life would begin with a black man in the highest place of power. The world was born anew.  We could be Muslim but not Muslim.  We could be whatever we wanted.

But that was before.  Now, post Trump, I try to be clear: along with everything else that we are, that we believe, we will claim Muslim.  There is no equivocation, no hiding, no acceptable form of passing.

I don’t know if the anti-Islam forces are interested in my ancestry or my name, my genes or an actual religious practice.  I don’t know if it’s going to be harder now to be brown, or a woman, or an artist, or a child. So this is what I want to say to my daughter now: call yourself any name that you want, and don’t allow the world to limit how much or how little of any identity you can claim. Together, we will stand for all of it.

In January, we prepared for the women’s march by making signs on old cardboard.  She started by proposing slogans that insulted Trump, but I stopped her.  “This isn’t about him,” I told her.  “This is about standing up for what we believe in.”  We compromised: TRUMP CAN’T TAKE OUR RIGHTS, she wrote.

The morning of the march, along the river that bisects our white city, we waited in cold rain for hours. We stood with thousands upon thousands of neighbors and strangers, more pouring across the bridges to merge with us every minute in costumes and rain ponchos, freewheeling bursts of color in the gray Portland day.  By the time we started marching, the rain had already found its way through our raincoats and fleeces and waterproof boots.  About two-thirds of the way through, as we walked in determined silence, holding up our defiant signs, she said that she was done, looking very much like she was just 8.

“I want to go home,” she kept saying. We were many hours in and soaked to the skin, and so I said yes, we could be done for that day.  There will be so many more.

Come see Ramiza Koya onstage live in Portland at MUTHA’s first PNW event!

MUTHA UP joins the Plonk reading series on Wednesday, April 5th.

Are you a parent or were you ever a kid (trick question)? Contributors from MUTHA Magazine join this regular reading series to tell stories of keeping it real with kids — and dismantling the patriarchy, all on no sleep. This is MUTHA’s first PNW event and we are INTO it — come on in from the rain and find your friends. Bring your own stories of parenting/being parented, we’ll be gathering anecdotes on index cards to read between sets, aka Live Audience Participation.

Tell your mama’s group, your actual mama, and that nice dad-type down the block!

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About the Author

Ramiza Koya has both a BA and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and has taught in Spain, the Czech Republic, and Morocco. She has published both fiction and nonfiction in publications such as Lumina, Washington Square Review, and Catamaran, and has just finished a novel, The Royal Abduls, about the affects of 9/11 on an Indian-American family. She has been a fellow at both MacDowell Colony and Blue Mountain Center. Currently, she is an instructor in composition and creative writing at Portland Community College as well as a program specialist for Literary Arts’ Writers in the Schools program.

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