Throughout a trip up the coast of California and Oregon last week, I found intimate stories of Muslim immigrants in the least expected place: small towns.
As I drove, I often stopped in towns with a 70-80 percent Caucasian demographic, with some of them only holding a population of a few hundred people. I expected to find farmers, artisans, kombucha makers and retirees. I didn’t expect to wish Eid Mubarak (Happy Holiday) to another Pakistani immigrant working the gas station in Benbow, California — population 2,068 — both of us shrugging our shoulders that this is where we were on one of the most important Muslim holidays of the year
In Ashland, Oregon — named one of the top 10 small towns in America — I met a South Asian family who had made Ashland their home. In the middle of the biggest Shakespearean watering hole of the world (once a year, the town is a mecca to theater actors and literature lovers), this family had set up their Indian restaurant. They brought with them a small piece of home, the only piece of home that is forever a gateway between cultures: food.
Yet, would the people coming through the doors of their restaurant ever meet the wizard behind the curtain, the one who ground the cumin, cardamon and coriander? Would those taking in morsels ever know their stories as they knew their food?
These are the questions that surfaced for me in the hours after these meetings, the bittersweetness of having met someone without really having the chance to know them, to have a chance to pepper these questions in a leisurely conversation.
Still, for 30 minutes that afternoon, we had a community between us as our boys explored the playground together pretending to be an a grand adventure. For the adults in this small town, their adventure was more subtle, and I got to ask one question: How does it feel to be so isolated from the larger South Asian diaspora?
Surprisingly, the family didn’t mind being cut off.
“It’s peaceful here,” confessed the mother, with her own mother nodding along sitting along a stone wall in a sari with a warm matronly smile I recognized as home.
As an immigrant myself throughout my childhood — and eternally in an immigrant mindset even though I became a naturalized citizen — I understood what it’s like to just want to be in some place peaceful.
I know what it’s like to adjust and adapt, to shrug your shoulders at your environment sometimes. It’s a shrug of acceptance. I know what it’s like to be at the heart of your town but not quite fit in — blending well enough but not really feeling like you belong.
While my travels continued up and down the coast, so did the echo of Muslim immigrant stories threading through some of the small towns I passed through.
The local paper in Humboldt, California, featured a Ramadan cover that shared portraits of local immigrants, their journey to America, their dream for their new life and how they worshiped.
The feature, I felt, gave more dignity to Muslims than some of the biggest mainstream Islamic organizations, most of whom wouldn’t have the patience for stories that don’t have a political agenda. Here, sensational headlines didn’t matter; people mattered.
It was inspiring to see that even these remote spaces were sprouting new growth, turning to new people and new stories. Here the conversation was about breaking fast and Moroccan cookies. These were real stories about real people, their lives, their journeys. There was no demonization, no cries of oppression, no performance theater of Islamophobia, no hate and no melodramatic politicization of communities.
It was peaceful.