During lunch with a colleague, I was asked an insensitive question. It started out innocently enough. Our conversation slid into personal territory among sizzling bites of kabob and potatoes.
“When did you convert?”
“2009. My last year of undergrad.”
“Wow, so that’s been like a long time. So, this is something that you actually like, not something you were forced into or just got used to since you’ve been in Saudi?”
Let that sink in for a moment. This is a coworker I actually liked. Someone that I respected enough to take the time out of my busy schedule to enjoy a lunch outside the office. Until that sentence, I couldn’t have imagined his heart harbored a shred of ignorance.
I answered, “Of course” because I was just in such damn shock. I tried to brush off the comment. As an American Muslim living in Saudi, I’m no stranger to insensitive or probing questions. In fact, they’ve become a badge of honor, my cross to bear, and my contribution to humanity at large – I’d resigned myself to being a “dare to be different” poster girl long ago.
Somehow this felt different. Closer. Knowingly or unknowingly, he’d insulted my intelligence, integrity, and decision making capabilities. And he did so in spite of a year’s worth of professional team work – writing/editing, photo shoots, campaign launches, and presentations.
Normally, I give people excuses for their insensitivity. However, since I’d spent the last year in the publication trenches with this person, excuses like “Maybe they’ve never met a Muslim convert” or “They don’t know you. Don’t take it personal” no longer had validity.
I am nearly certain his intentions were pure. His experience with Muslims, hijabis, and particularly white Western converts has probably been quite limited as a recent Canadian/ South African transplant to the Middle East. I’d like to think his comment was merely a cathartic outburst of sorts, a statement of truth he needed to vocalize.
Questions like these evoke raw insecurity. How could someone think I’m feeble-minded enough to change my religion, and consequently my life in its entirety, for something other than core-rooted conviction? I soothe myself with the words of a literary genius, Paulo Coelho.
“Life is too short to be wasted in finding answers. Enjoy the questions.”