Where you from, brother?

It is sometimes supposed that converts to Islam get special treatment in the mosque, but I’m not so sure. Moving in the circles I do, it has become quite apparent over the past few months that the notion of the convert is still alien to many people’s minds.

A Palestinian friend I often walk back into town with after the midday prayer at lunchtime told me that he thought I was Syrian or other-Arab when he first met me. In my own town, England is the last place I could possibly be from when a Muslim shopkeeper interrogates me about my roots. Are you Palestinian, asked one of them? Are you Bosnian, asked another.

On Monday as I made my way to mosque following my new more pleasant route, another old man stopped to offer me a lift. He didn’t say much at first and then he suddenly piped up with the question I’ve become used to from my kind volunteer chauffeurs. ‘Where you from, brother?

Until that day, I had always heard it as, ‘Which town are you from?’ because I know they don’t see me in the evening when I have driven back home. So I offered my usual reply. ‘Chesham,’ I said.

‘No originally?’ he asked.

‘Ah, you’ve noticed my funny accent? Originally I’m from Yorkshire. Well Hull, but I won’t go into that.’

‘No brother, where you from originally?’

Hmm, I thought, that must have been what all the other drivers meant, and they were just too polite to pursue my origins to the end, concluding I was either stupid or obstructive. ‘Well I’m English,’ I said, suddenly realising that the identity I am so comfortable with just doesn’t figure in their minds. ‘But my grandmother’s Irish if that’s any help. How far back do you want to go?’

‘Oh no, brother,’ he said, his laughter causing him to choke, ‘it’s alright.’

Last night my wife’s Qur’an study partner gave us a clue about the misgivings of some in our community. Her children, she explained, believe that all brown people are Muslims and all white people are Christians. They were once much perturbed by the sight of our white faces in the mosque, but we can excuse little children their strange questions.

I was reminded then of that strange conversation on my way back from tarawih prayers in Ramadan one year, when a man of Pakistani lineage ran though a list of all the East European and Caucasian states I could possibly be from, before telling me that he had lived here for forty years. I have no idea why I strung him along with monosylablic replies to each ethnicity he proffered, or if he just could not accept my, ‘I’m from here’ and had to delve deeper. Either way, by the time we parted company, I knew my place as the fresh faced arrival from a modern EU state: there was a pecking order here. It was all quite surreal. I knew about the north-south divide, but this was ridiculous.

I’m sure most people don’t think this way, but all of these experiences have got me thinking. When I moved to this town I never thought to introduce myself formerly, to stand up in the mosque and announce that I was an English Muslim. I just assumed, as people tend to when they’re content in their skin and culture, that my from-here-ness was taken for granted. But now, digesting my Palestinian-Bosnian-Czech-Syrian-Ossetian-Tunisian roots, I am starting to think that maybe I should have said something.

But then, does it really matter? What difference does it make? We’re all strangers, really. I can’t say as I write this that it consumes me inside, making me burn with rage. Instead I sit here smiling as I type it out. I don’t know about anybody else, but I just find it bloody hilarious. Though I do understand my more serious friends don’t quite see it that way. Skin heads and bovver-boots.

14 thoughts on “Where you from, brother?

  1. Salam alikum Brother Tim

    There is a lot of misinformation and lack of understanding on the part of many ‘born’ Muslims. We have lots of ‘issues’ and many of us live our lives without understanding Islam correctly.

    Many people cannot understand individuals who do things differently than the norm of their community. Thus anyone who is different is not something that they can relate to. Personally, I do find it difficult to relate to Muslims who are stuck in their own cultural mindsets.

    I am glad you are not offended because I was offended when I read this post. Not by you but by the lack of understanding of some people.

    We have work to do dear Tim!

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  2. Just as converts get strange questions, so do born Muslims of brown or other skin colours do when they arrive at passport control at Arab airports. More often than not, they will ask you, where are you from and you say British/American and they ask again, then ask again, you have to reply with an indication of your original parental roots (e.g. India), and if you speak in Arabic, they ask you again ‘where are you from?’ (implying that you are an Arab, so tell me your Arab nationality!). At which point you insist that you are British of so and so origin and NOT Arab. Clearly the Muslim look confuses them, for they can’t seem to comprehend that some people can be Muslim, look like them, yet are not of their tribe.

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  3. Assalamu Alaikum,

    I just had this experience (for the millionth time) at the gym last night. I gave my salaams to some Somali sisters and they look at each other, confer in Somali, and then ask me, are you Arab?

    But here I think the American convert experience differs from the British. Once I say no, I’m from Wisconsin, and a convert, I’m greeted like a long lost sister, congratulated and praised that I know assalamu alaikum (not that I haven’t been saying it for 10 years or anything).

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  4. Assalaamo alaikum,

    May God bless you and guide those who you love. Dear bruv’, I too, like you, get this question session regularly. I here describe a touch of my identity. My father is from Trinidad and his grandparents were from India. My mother is Irish. I was born in London. By His benevolence I said Shahaada about 2 decades ago.

    We (you, me and other reverts — hate that tag) are here now, that is, in Islam. It is, as you well know, God who put us here. May He keep us here. I find it really funky that people are so freaked out by our attempt to connect with our Sustainer on a personal level. Hopefully God accepts our feeble efforts. I kinda feel He does, because He doesn’t look at our faces. Rather, He looks inside our hearts and at our actions, knowing our thoughts and feelings, forgiving us when we slip. Wow! What a lovely Creator we have!

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  5. Although you look English, there are a lot of people who look like you but are from distant lands.

    Al-Imam Malik had blue eyes and fair skin while his teacher Nafi was black, his skin very very dark. Both were from Medina.
    In their biographies they will say Malik’s origins are from Yemen and Nafi’s are from Isfahan.

    To know the origins of a person is partly knowing them. I think these people just want to know you.

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    1. I must confess that when I first met my good friend who introduced me to my wife, I was under the impression he was English, although he turned out to be of Pakistani descent.

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  6. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    I’ve been to Chesham many times and I know there are plenty of white Muslims living there. How do these men not know about this, unless they don’t go to the mosque?

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    1. Salam alaikum Yusuf,

      In truth, except for the Jummah prayer, it is very rarely that you see the white faced ones in the mosque. In any case, “How do these men not know about this…” misses the point, which is that they have assumed the white-faced ones are from somewhere else.

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  7. Here is my stereotypical thoughts laced sadly with my own convert-related stigmas:

    1) Most “born Muslims” are ignorant of Islam, while thinking they do know their religion.

    2) Most “born Muslims care more for ethnic identity than Islamic identity. This thought of yours, in my view, exposes such baatil.

    3) Most “born Muslims“, when told you are a convert, think you have a pea brain, and that they should teach you their fiqh which is usually stinkingly a wash with their own pathetic whim, mixed in with their disgusting desire to be other than who they really are; “western” .

    That is just my experience though, and is certainly so over stereotypical that I would not blame anyone for blaming me of “generalizations” etc. Bottom line is, I am sick and tired of most “born Muslims” and their stupid ideas of assimilation and butt-kissing of the “enemy”. Nice piece bro.

    was-Salam,
    Abu Layth

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  8. Salam alaikum,

    Eh. I’m from the same land as Abul Layth and my experience has always been the opposite — if not utterly indifferent, born Muslims are much more likely to put the white convert on a pedestal. If he converted in front of them, they praise the trueness of his faith in contrast to their supposedly under-appreciated inheritance. If he came to them a Muslim, they’ll hold his knowledge above their own and make him give a talk, teach a class, watch their kids, etc.

    The foolish white convert of course assumes the latter to have something to do with the knowledge his nafs tells him he actually possesses. Trust me now, all of the fresh faced young white converts reading this, that is rarely the case. The nature of your liberal arts education and the process of adult conversion may combine to mean you know more of the ahkam than many of them, but the fact that they offer and you agree to become the khatib or the principal of the Sunday school should be the first clue that they most likely know something that you do not.

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  9. Sallam,

    Why not just enjoy the fact someone cares enough to even ask you about yourself? We get it you’re from “here” great. The people asking you are not trying to be funny or mean, no need to find it a sort of comedy or a source of anger. Get over yourself and enjoy the ride!

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  10. Perhaps this “where are you from?” question also has to do with immigrant identity. Fortunately, the muslim community here in Toronto is extremely diverse but the “where are you from” question is still very common (regardless of one’s ethnicity). I have always felt it was more about people trying to find someone to talk about their roots with. To find the commonality within the heartache, intricacies, losses and self-acceptance the immigrant experience brings. In many ways, this question has really enriched my life. Just yesterday at the mosque, I had a beautiful conversation with a Somali sister about her life in Mogadishu. It all started with her asking me where I was from.

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