Growing up with an Agnostic English mother and a Muslim Pakistani father has taught me a lot, to say the least. It’s taught me everything is deeper than it seems, always. There is always more to know, more to see, and more to think about. It’s taught me people assume I am white because I look white. For that, I am a child of passing and of privilege.
I was in Morocco a couple of years ago. As I wondered through the maze like markets, smelling the cumin and garlic, fresh naan and mint tea, I realized I grew up with these smells. One would think I’d feel at home in Morocco because it all felt familiar. But I was disconnected. A white girl, with green eyes, golden brown hair, and rosy white skin dotted with freckles. It was that simple. I looked white and therefore I was not part of the connection. You see, there’s a connection between minorities. A simple understanding that you have struggled, or your family has struggled, battled against odds, survived, all because you are not the majority. When you are passing, this connection is disrupted and with it the ability to foster one’s true inner self. At times, I feel in limbo. Lost, as if floating through space and tied to nothing. This is why I travel. To find the missing pieces.
As I walked through the market, I was drawn to an apothecary shop. The owner and I had a conversation on different hangover tonics, acne solutions, and curry blends. His wife offered to do mehndi (henna) for me. I nodded yes, feeling like a little girl again. She took my wrist and asked my name. When I told her, she lowered her head for a few seconds, only pausing the surprise to write “Aisha” in Arabic. The three of us had a chat about where my parents are from and the weight of my name. The owner then gave me his email, phone number, and home address, inviting me to his home whenever, for however long. All because my name is Aisha.
Leaving Morocco meant sitting through customs, watching little boys try and hide themselves underneath our bus. I panicked as I watched guards whisk them away. They were not much older than the children I nanny at home. They should’ve been in school. Where were their parents? Leaving Morocco meant walking through the ferry boat terminal to the waiting area, staring blankly as those who were not granted permission to leave sat on the other side. The weight of my privilege never left my shoulders as I realized the intense gaps between us.
A few women were dressed in traditional Islamic dress, selling “evil eye” necklaces for one euro. They seemed poor and hungry. I asked for three and she tried to persuade me to buy more (this is common in Morocco). I gave them 5 euros for three necklaces. I tried to walk away when one grabbed my arm. She spied the mehndi and immediately began kissing my hands, praying for me, and asking me to pray for her! Then her friend gave me four necklaces. “On the house,” she said, “house of God.”
These women seemed graced by my presence; yet I was deeply uncomfortable, guilty, as if I didn’t deserve their love because I am not the person they think I am. White people take a step back, confused as to what I am. As if somehow, I betrayed them with my skin color and my ‘hidden’ ethnicity, that I should have mentioned it in passing that I am not just white. I experience this on a daily basis at work.
As a server, I am given the opportunity to experience the good, the bad, and the ugly of people’s personalities and curiosities. The other day my host came up to me to let me know he was moving a table from one side of the restaurant into my section. I was confused by this as we don’t normally move people once they’ve been seated. I asked why, if something is wrong, and he said: “They don’t want to sit next to that Indian family. They asked for a white girl, and so I gave them to you.” I laughed. They wanted to sit with me… a white girl.
I greeted my new table with a smile, as I always do. We chatted about the changes we made to decor, bread and the menu-changes almost two years old. Then she asked how to pronounce my name. “I-shuh,” I responded with a giggle. Here came my favorite question: “Where’d you get a name like that, it’s beautiful!” I revealed my father is from Pakistan, my mother is from England; how Aisha is a rather holy name for Muslims and I carry that weight on my shoulders. That I am a child of passing because I look white, yet it is a guise by the universe. Her face changed from curious to put off, unimpressed, almost disgusted that she had almost befriended a mutt.
On the other hand, minorities accept me with open arms once they see through the facade. I am treated differently on both sides of the spectrum, where one group opens their arms while the other closes theirs.
(To be continued.)