The Folklore Project
Peace Be With Y’all
By Ruwa Romman
There is a saying in the South: “God. Family. Country. In that order.” Growing up, my mama made sure we read the Holy Book and said our prayers on a regular basis. She wanted us to know our faith and not grow up ignorant about why we believed what we did. She reminded us to love our neighbors and treat others with respect. When we would complain, especially when we got hungry, she would ask us how those in worse situations than us felt.
Most of our time was spent outside. We were too young to drive or do anything else, and technology was not as prevalent as today. So, we would do what any kids did. The neighbors and I would ride our bikes up the steep hill and then back down as fast as we could. We would share, behind cupped hands, whatever exaggerated stories we could invent. And, no matter how much my mama tried to get me to act more like a lady, there was no way you would catch me with a doll or sitting properly in a skirt. Instead I would be outside jumping on the neighbor’s trampoline or saving a baby bird. My clothes would get muddy, and we would come back inside a mess, but happy.
On the weekends we would attend youth group meetings and then spend the night with family, sipping tea and knowing that since family was there, friends had to wait. Those summer nights with the cool breeze were the best. You know, the one where you could smell the honeysuckle in the air, reminding you just how good things could be. My siblings and I would tease each other, and my parents and uncles would talk about extended family and catch each other up on news.
Eventually, I grew up and we moved, and life changed. Before I knew it I was in college. But true to my mama’s nature, I would bring friends home and she would feed us until we could not move. You think that is an exaggeration, but you should have seen the four of us failing to study because we were all passed out on the couch. She would look at us giggling as she asked us how we ever passed our classes. We would shrug as we reached for another delicious homemade falafel.
Yes, falafel. I’m a Muslim, from Jordan, and raised in the south. My Arab family is no different than yours, except maybe the way we drink our tea. Arabs drink theirs hot and sweet, and southerners drink it cold and sweet. I get the pleasure of having both. There is nothing more enjoyable to me than a long drive down quiet back roads that would lift your soul, especially when that one song would come on. The one you really needed to hear. My playlist is mostly country music. Sometimes though, right when I start to forget I’m an immigrant, some of my Arabic songs that I had saved from my childhood would weave themselves perfectly in tune reminding me that this is what peace felt like and home was right here as I carried my roots with me.
Growing up in the south as a visibly Muslim woman was not easy, though. I was called a terrorist and a sand n****r and my house was pointed out as the bomb lab. By some force I can still never explain, I made it through and did not become bitter. My mama made sure I knew who I was, and I made a family that would become as important as my blood one. From my classmates to my teachers, they helped me and saved me. There was so much love there y’all. They just never let me quit. It was all of them that helped keep my fiery passion to become and stay politically engaged and make things better because after God and Family came country. They reminded me that I belonged.
It seemed that college meant I had gotten away from it, but thanks to social media there was still so much I could keep up with, including my old high school principal. One night, a small uproar made its way onto my screen. He had posted inflammatory writings on his page that were public and his students got wind of it. Some of comments were not friendly to Muslims and other minorities, to say the least. In that moment, I felt my world stop. To an extent, it never got personal because most of the kids that taunted me did not know me. I had held onto the belief that as long as people knew me, they would not hate me because I am Muslim. But this principal knew me. We had crossed paths many times. His student population now had more Muslim students than ever. He loved his school and gave to his community, and he was the epitome of what I saw as a good man. What unfolded in front of me that night just did not make sense.
I reached out to him, and I asked him why he posted what he did. But, I also asked if we can sit and talk. Whatever questions he had I would answer because I knew, where I came from, folks really just did not know better. Two weeks passed and he was reinstated. I lost hope that I would hear from him. That night as I was winding down and sipping on some tea, my phone buzzed. He had responded, enthusiastically accepting my offer to talk. So, I drove up to the high school he had moved to. I realized that was the first time I had ever been called into the principal’s office. There is something about it that just makes you feel a little smaller.
We sat, and we talked. He asked me about my faith and Muslims’ belief systems and why his posts were offensive since he simply viewed them as different politically. Then, he got quiet, and said, “You were the only person to reach out in a way that was not divisive. Not even my own pastor returned my calls.” In that moment, I did not remember the taunts or the hurt. I simply remembered that the best moments in my life happened after the most trying ones. I remembered that if you respond to others with peace, as the Muslim saying “Assalamu Alaykum (Peace Be Upon You),” goes, it might just change the world for the better.
Muslims have been in the South since before the United States declared its independence. They are the most diverse religious group in the United States with almost 38 percent of all Muslims being African- American. Although I am an Arab Muslim, the majority of Arabs in America are actually Christians who came here as early as the 19th century.
There is no denying we are different. But our country’s motto is e pluribus unum. which means “out of many, one.” I have seen the beauty of that in my own life where even though talking about politics and religion was something you just did not do, we were at times forced to because it was there. God made us into nations and tribes so that we may know one another. I am a Muslim. I am a Southerner. I want you to get to know me. So let’s start a conversation. Assalamu alaykum, y’all.