And Then There’s Me

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The first thing my seat partner says to me in Spanish I class is, “It smells like curry in here.”

I take a whiff. The room smells of old carpet and hand sanitizer. Ms. Wieland, the Spanish I teacher, has a Glade plug-in sitting on her desk. Occasionally it sends out vanilla-scented puffs that waft in our general direction. 

“Does it?” I say. “I didn’t notice.” 

She looks at me through the fringe of hair that falls across half of her face. Her eyes are heavily lined, the mascara clumping her lashes. She gestures at the sleeve of my kameez, which is grazing the edge of her table. 

“Yeah, it does,” she says. “It makes me want to hurl.”

It takes me years before I realize what my seat partner in Spanish I had meant. It is the same reason that the Korean kids in my lunch block do not bring kimchi from home, or why the Indian kids do not unpack roti and daal while the rest of their friends eat Chick-Fil-A and square-shaped school pizza. We smell. Our clothes smell. Of otherness, of shariah creep, of the changing landscape of this quiet suburban city in Texas. 

 

Until I enroll at Colleyville Heritage High School in the spring of 2008, not one person in the entire student body wore a hijab. The Methodists and Baptists and Catholics and Ismailis and Sunnis dress in T-shirts and jeans in the summer, sweaters and jeans in the fall, and eat the same cafeteria food. There is no halal option. Perhaps the school cannot justify setting up a halal station when only eighty kids claimed to be Muslim, and hardly anyone aside from me cares if their square pizza slices had touched the ground pork in the meat sauce. There is no prayer room. The few Muslim kids who do pray wait until they are home or go to weekend prayers at the mosque and the jamatkhana. If they are invited to a study group or a drive to the mall on a Wednesday they might say, “I can’t, I have church,” and their friends nod and say, “No worries.” 

“Why do you call it church?” I ask Zohra, one of the three Muslims in my class, once. 

She shrugs. “It’s easier for them to understand. They don’t get mosques.”

Zohra dresses like the other girls in our class, although her hemline and shoulder traps are more modest than most. She wears leggings under her dresses and her shirts skim the top of her thighs. Still, she dresses nothing like me. I come to school in a salwar kameez every day, a paisley or floral hijab held in place around my hair with butterfly pins and glittery brooches. I am often asked what I am hiding under my clothes. Once, a boy in my U.S. History class jokes that I have a bomb on me. The police show up to investigate. 

I cut a wide berth in the hallways of Colleyville Heritage. The kids who are assigned to be my table partner regard me with a mix of fascination and mild to extreme befuddlement. The nicer ones compliment me on my pins or my accent. The others make casual jokes about the annihilation of Muslims, and how the heathens like me will have their reckoning soon. 

“Aren’t you worried that you won’t get to heaven?” Sam asks me in astronomy. “Aren’t you afraid that if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior, you will burn in hell forever?”

“That’s not how it works for me,” I tell her. “That’s why I wear the hijab. This is my way to keep from burning in hell.” 

Sam shakes her head. “I just don’t get it,” she says. “But I respect it.” 

The three Sunni girls in my class and I do not get along. They are on the cheerleading team and the debate club. They go over to their friends’ homes  (their shada chamra friends, as my mother likes to call them) for sleepovers. They shop at Abercrombie & Fitch and Old Navy. They only wear saris and kameezes for the annual Boishakhi Mela or Eid. “We don’t want to be weird,” they say, smoothing their Twilight T-shirts over skinny jeans. “We already stand out.”  

My accent and my curry-scented clothes leave me no choice but to stand out. I stand out at school and at Walmart and at the post office and at the café across the street. When I beg my mother to let me shop at Forever 21, she asks me if I am preparing myself to work the streets. “Only whores dress like that,” she says. I sneak twenty dollars out of my father’s wallet and let my friend Nancy drive me to the mall where we buy a black-and-white V-neck dress that we have to smuggle back into my house. One day my mother catches me in the dress and asks if she should buy me a one-way ticket to the Day of Judgment now or wait until the end times. Even as I trade in the salwar kameezes for oversized tops and baggy jeans, even as the hem of my hijab creeps above my bust line and settles near my collarbone, my mother refuses to acknowledge that a religious awakening can also have an abatement. 

 

The town where my parents have chosen to relocate does not often see families like ours, much less sixteen-year-olds dressed like I am. Grapevine has a population of 46,334. It is a seven-minute drive from the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. It is blindingly white, blindingly Christian, and blindingly conservative. Every Sunday, cars line up along the Grapevine Church of Christ on Park Boulevard and the Bethel Baptist Church on Hilltop Drive and Heritage United Methodist Church on Heritage Street. People linger on the steps and shake hands, walk each other back to the parking lot, make plans for Wednesday Bible study and Saturday youth camp. Morning prayer circles are a weekly occurrence around the flagpole outside of the high school’s glass doors. The students sport “Students for Jesus” insignia on bumper stickers and cars and wristbands and T-shirts. On weekends, they attend pro-choice rallies and hold prayer circles for aborted fetuses. 

My parents and I do not attend these events. We are not invited to these kinds of gatherings. The few that we attend are in the homes of other Bengali families. We eat korma and biriyani and jilapi and watch Zee TV and the Bangla news channels. I resent these gatherings, where my mother forces me to wear one of the four bejeweled outfits she packed from Dhaka, the itchy sleeves and beaded collars snagging on furniture and balustrades. At these parties, the American-born children laugh at my accent and call me a FOB. They say that unless I “get” Twilight, I will not be taken seriously by my high school ilk. 

“How long do you plan on dressing like this?” Yamna asks me at a deshi party once. “Don’t you worry that you’ll never make friends?” 

Yamna’s concern does nothing new to remind me of how my body elicits such an adverse reaction, from the deshis and the bideshis alike. Both want to know why the hijab, why the odd combination of clothes (“Did you know that top is actually a dress?”), why the insistence on vegetarian lasagna and cheese pizza instead of pepperoni slices and fried chicken. They want to know what I’m “getting at,” especially when the Muslims at Colleyville Heritage High School do not look like the bearded men and robed women of Homeland and The Siege. The kids dress in T-shirts and jeans. They wear athletic shorts for their afternoon practice. And then there is me. 

 

Shehtaz Huq is a Bangladeshi-born American living in New York with her cat, Doodle. She is a middle school English teacher in the Bronx, New York. When she isn’t watching TikToks, she is sending her friends cat memes on Instagram and reading up on the history of spices and King Henry VIII’s various indiscretions.

 

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