My favorite story about my mom is not a flattering one, but it is one that I tell most people who don’t know her. It involves her attempting to leapfrog the security counter at JFK airport, to the horror of a Delta Airlines employee.
I was eleven years old and coming home from a summer in Pakistan. Mom met me in New York, and the plan was to fly the rest of the way together. Except the name on my passport and the name on my ticket didn’t match. My first name is Ali, but my passport lists it as Syed though that is more of a family name tracing our lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. The name discrepancy between my passport and ticket was small, but to Delta, I was somebody else. For Karen Haider, this was unacceptable. She could explain. She demanded to see the computer screen. When this didn’t happen, she tried to turn the monitor towards her. When that failed, she began climbing over the desk. Security was called. I was horrified. But somehow, I got on that plane. Somehow my mom got us home.
Her story is a religious one. My mother grew up in west Houston, in a small neighborhood and a big family. A big Christian family. Church every Sunday, fried chicken and biscuit lunches afterward. Meals cooked in bacon fat. The men—her father and brothers—drank cheap beer on the porch and watched Aggie football.
She’s the quiet one of the family. Growing up, she tucked a secret away. Christianity confused her. She didn’t quite get the Trinity or the virgin birth or the crucifixion. She had a lot of questions, and she wasn’t satisfied with the answers. But she felt God’s presence in her life. She knew he was real. She just didn’t know what his story was. So she looked for him.
For my mom, experimenting with religion wasn’t difficult. It was trying, sure. Like trying on pants. You just keep going. She wanted to be positive. She wanted the same conviction for the story that she had in her belief in God.
Living in New York, she dabbled in Judaism for a while. She tried a couple other things. Nothing worked. She was depressed. She wondered why God hid from her.
She met my Dad at the University of Houston. He was a smart, dapper boy from Pakistan. He wasn’t particularly religious, but he told her about Islam. She was fascinated and read everything she could. In the end, she knew more about Islam than he did. When he proposed, he told her that she didn’t have to convert. In fact, he didn’t want her to; he was worried that people would believe he forced her to accept a religion that was often seen in the most negative light.
Generally, converts are more zealous. Mom was all in. Growing up, I never saw beer or wine in the fridge. She was so anti-pig that she banned our family from listening to a radio station because it was called “Power Pig.” I nervously watched episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because one of the villains was a warthog, though I think my mother would have approved of this.
We’re an all-American family: immigrant Pakistani father and American mother with Irish/Swedish roots, who gave birth to three boys who all love basketball and burgers. But any food that has touched pig or been prepared by hands that have touched pig is haram, or forbidden. I operated on Muslim auto-pilot, politely refusing ham and cheese sandwiches and crispy bacon strips at the school cafeteria. My parents repeated over and over that we didn’t want bacon on anything. At the drive-thru, cars lined up behind us as they searched our burgers to see if anyone had left the bacon on. As a kid, only able to give the man or woman at the checkout window a look of apology and understanding, I was embarrassed. One time, just after we had pulled out, the car came to a sudden stop: my father found a stripe of bacon on top of his lettuce. He took everybody’s food, got out of the car, and marched inside.
I ate bacon for the first time when I was eleven years old. My best friend Jorge lived a block from my house, and I practically lived at his house during the summer. Bacon was a fixture at breakfast, sizzling in a pan and drying on paper towels. Before I even knew what it was, I wanted it. Bacon is intoxicating. The sound of bacon cooking in its own grease is seductive. Fat popping in a hot pan. It even looks beautiful. Ribbons of red and yellow, tips charred and crispy. The word “bacon” is plump and satisfying.
Jorge’s mom, doling out servings of bacon, asked me every morning if I wanted some. On one particular morning, I gave in and held out my plate. I wanted to lick the greasy paper towel. That afternoon I went home and ran past my parents, straight to the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth over and over, but the smell was still on my fingers.
I thought I would be found out. It was in my hair, my nails, and sweating through my pores. Surely my parents could smell it on me. And then they would want some. How could they turn it down? I knew that my mother had at least eaten it once in her life. She grew up Catholic, and her family was always eating pork when we were around. She said the smell made her sick. Lies, lies, lies! Had my brothers eaten some at any point? Was I the first in my family to try bacon? I wanted to ask them but it was as if we were in some secret society; I thought it was against the rules to mention our transgressions.
It was against the rules of our house and God, but I did whatever I could to eat bacon. I begged my parents to let me sleep over at friends’ houses so I could enjoy more bacon mornings. When I woke up and didn’t smell it, I was disappointed and grumpy the rest of the day. I would off-handedly suggest dinner and lunch at McDonalds or Checkers or Burger King — “Let’s have a fun family night out,” I’d say. I worked on a secret way to signal that I did, in fact, want bacon on my burger. Once or twice, it seemed to actually work. Bacon magically appeared, and I ate it quickly before anybody smelled something funny in the car. A young child is not built to withstand the stresses of a junkie. My stomach ached a lot when I was younger.
Of course I felt guilty. I was preoccupied with the state of my soul and my fate in the Hereafter as well as where could I get my next bacon fix. I worried about what my parents would think of me if they found out. I worried that my prayers were null and void. Even if I got away with it for the rest of my life, I worried that I would arrive in heaven stinking of pig and everybody would know. My idea of the hell to which I would then be banished involved me living in filth and muck, eating my own feces like a pig-man.
Growing up, I switched schools a lot, though my family more or less stayed put. This was my fault for not taking school very seriously. At first, I was traded from school to school. We thought different teachers might help me achieve different results. I went from private school to public school and back to private school. My parents thought a change in culture and environment would be good for me, and I was shipped off to Pakistan to stay with my aunt and uncle; Dad said it would be good for me to learn math, learn how to be a better Muslim.
In 2000, when I was thirteen, I moved to Pakistan, which effectively cut me off from bacon. I tried turkey bacon, but it tasted more like salted rubber tires. I learned to read the Quran in Arabic and even learned how to pray properly (mostly). Instead of mimicking those around me and pretending to move my lips with my eyebrows in tight, I learned to recite a few Surahs. When somebody next to me finished, I stayed seated for a few moments longer because I wanted people to think I was a good Muslim. I thought I was going to be saved. I stopped imagining hellish pigstys and being turned from the gates of heaven. My hair and body no longer smelled of pig.
I came back to the States to start college, and this time there was no threat of my parents finding me gorging on bacon. Some people start drinking, doing drugs, or having sex when they go to college. I embraced the pig. Breakfast was an all-you-can-eat bacon buffet. Sometimes, I thought my parents smelled the bacon through the phone. I imagined scenarios in which distant relatives spotted me at an IHOP shoveling bacon and eggs in my mouth and dragged me out by my hair.
Once I went to the dorm cafeteria with my roommates, two white guys from Wisconsin who looked like they grew up on corn, potatoes, and pork. They saw me load my plate up with bacon. “Isn’t that against your religion? Or is it cows?” one of them, Matt, asked me.
“Hindus don’t eat cows,” I said, “and Muslims don’t eat pork.”
“Are you a Muslim?”
I had a hard time answering this question. I fumbled my answer. “Yes, sort of,” I said, “but not really.” I held up a strip of bacon. “Clearly, there’s something wrong with me.”
They laughed and so did I, but I felt uneasy. After this, I covered whatever bacon I had with eggs or biscuits and ate it quickly. If I ate fast enough and didn’t see it, I was okay. I could eat pork all I wanted.
For the past seven years, I’ve been unable to leave South Texas, and I blame the food. Tex-Mex and Jalisco-style taquerias. Dishes identical in taste and smell to the Pakistani food I grew up eating but have been without for some time. Meat and potatoes served with a side of rice. Carne Guisada Con Papas is Aloo Gosht. Aloo Qeema is Picadillo Mexicano. Sometimes we fold it into roti or naan like a taco. My father unwittingly scrambled our eggs with onions, tomatoes, and Serrano peppers à la Huevos Mexicanos.
As a young Muslim, I knew four things about Islam: Allah is the one God and Muhammad his last prophet, Mecca is turned to during prayer, and pork is not allowed. Of Islam’s basic tenents, I have the most difficulty with the no-pork rule. I can avoid ham and pig’s feet, and chicharones don’t much appeal to me. But flour-dusted tortillas thickened with lard, refried beans sweetened with bacon grease, and spicy chorizo sausages are hard for me to turn away from. Choosing what to eat from a restaurant menu is made simpler for me by options to add bacon. Hamburger with bacon, bacon and eggs, bacon cheddar potato wedges. The desserts: bacon and chocolate-chip cookies, maple bacon ice cream, candied bacon.
It’s no fluke that my move to South Texas coincided with my declaring I was an atheist. I can reel back through my Facebook profile and see that I changed my religious views within a few days of living in Corpus Christi. If I’m completely honest with myself, atheism let me off the hook. It allowed me to ignore whatever dietary laws I wanted. And in Corpus, I discovered new reasons to love pork. I joined Atheist and Free Thinker clubs where I proclaimed loudly—and annoyingly, I’m sure—that I didn’t believe in God, and that religion was organized fear mongering by the powerful. I was obnoxious and insufferable. I scorned Christianity, Judaism, Hindusim, Buddhism, Islam. I laughed at anybody who wore a cross. I mocked my parents for cheap laughs.
I’ve always been a little skeptical of Islam. There was a lot that didn’t make sense to me. And to be fair to myself, it wasn’t with only Islam. Most religions don’t make sense to me. In a climate of Islamophobia and jingoism, I became a self-righteous fraud. I took on two personas: the immigrant Pakistani persecuted for my Muslim name, and the skeptical atheist. America was attacking me and my people. A war was being fought against Islam. I thought I was bulletproof, but really I was locked into difficult coexistence. Whenever that realization surfaced, I beat it back.
Reconciling Islam with Western identity is difficult. There are all these opposing forces at play. Muslims are rooted in a society that celebrates Christianity. Every December (and most of November), the entire country goes into Christmas mode. The country’s flag turns red, white, and green. On corners people ring bells, sell wrapping paper, sing Christmas carols. The country is founded on Judeo-Christian values. Being a Muslim feels like being the odd man out. Perhaps this is a result of recent culture branding Islam as extreme, narrow-minded, archaic, barbaric. Out of step with the rest of the world. Mainstream media projects images of terrorists living in caves and wearing rags over their faces and heads. Women dressed in black bedsheets with their eyes barely visible. If only to appear more palatable to Westerners, American Muslims distance themselves from Islam.
Guilty as charged.
Eventually, I relented. I’ve always believed in God or a higher power. I just didn’t like what he was telling me not to do. The image of a patriarchal, finger-wagging deity pushed me further and further from any religion. At first I thought about agnosticism, but that felt like delaying a choice I knew I had to make. I went for vague. I labeled myself “spiritual.” It says, “I’m an accepting kind of guy.” You know those bumper stickers that combine all the major religious symbols into the word Coexist? I contemplated buying one.
I was in grad school, getting my MFA at Texas State, and the work was hard. The classes were demanding, and I was feeling creatively stopped up. I’ve always had a bad case of insomnia, but something was making it worse. I went to bed with the feeling of a massive steel plate pushing on my chest.
I drove up to Houston to see my parents. Over dinner, as we talked, I blurted out, “I’m not a Muslim.”
Before I said it, I thought, “This is what coming out has to feel like, right?” I figured my parents would say that they love me. That it doesn’t matter if I’m not a Muslim, because I’m their son. Well, they didn’t say that. In fact, they told me that if that was true, I couldn’t be part of the family anymore. We yelled; I cried. And I remember seeing hurt in both of their eyes. They weren’t ready for it.
My dad said that being Muslim is not something I can cut off like a limb. I’ll always be a Muslim, he said. I know what he meant, but I’m not sure I agree with him. They told me that if I chose to go down this path and reject Allah and Islam, they would have to cut me out of their will and out of the family.
I was not prepared for this. I left the next day. I was ready to turn my back on my family. I was ready to never talk to my parents again. I was ready to be disowned.
That was three years ago. And I know you probably have some questions.
Do I still talk to my parents?
Am I a Muslim?
I don’t know.
Some days I am. What my dad said sometimes makes sense, and I think, “Yeah. Maybe I am.” But some days I’m so angry, and I think if their Islam means rejecting a son—fuck that. Then I realize that I’m twisting them up with a religion that can be very beautiful in a lot of ways. Any faith has to be large, because it contains so many people within it. It has to be made pliable and stretch, or else it snaps like a rubber band. Islam is the same way.
Where I usually end up is that I love parts of Islam. The parts that don’t let you drink or eat anything coming from or in contact with pork? Nah. I don’t like those parts. I pick, and I choose. And I do that with a lot of things in my life. I love the way Walt Whitman put it: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” That is the most American thing I’ve ever heard.
The stories about my mom that I haven’t told are the most important. They are the stories about how she was there for me, in a multitude of ways that I can never begin to thank her for. She stumbled, and I forgive her for that. If I have to lie to her to continue being her son, so she can continue being my mother, I have no problems with that. She did whatever she could to get me on a plane home. That’s love. That’s my mom.
Syed Ali Haider was born in Pakistan, grew up in Florida, went to college in Minnesota, and finished his degree in Texas. He lives in the Texas Hill Country, where he writes, teaches, and cheers for the Detroit Lions. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, vandal, and Mary: A Journal of New Writing.